CSCW 2010 examines Wikipedia

I just got back from my first attendance at (half of) CSCW.  It was an enjoyable and enlightening conference.  Overall, my favorite session was the first one I attended—four quite interesting papers studying the use of Wikipedia were presented.

The first, Socialization Tactics in Wikipedia and their Effects, by Choi, Alexander, Kraut and Levine, studied how participants early experiences of Wikipedia—whether they were invited or began editing on their own; whether their work was ignored, admired, or critiqued; what kind of advice they recieved—affected users  later participation in and contributions to Wikipedia.

The second paper, “The work of sustaining order in Wikipedia: The banning of a vandal” by Geiger and Ribes, gave us a look at Wikipedia vandalism from the inside.  We learned about the tools (automated, manual, and organizational) that Wikipedia admin’s use to detect vandalism, correct it, and deal with the vandal.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of automated workflow here—with the press of a button, and admin can revert an edit, update the likely-vandal status of the author, send an appropriately calibrated letter of warning to them, and enact other measures as necessary.  Appealingly, this means that in an inversion of real-world vandalism, the work that must be invested to repair vandalism is much less than the work needed to vandalize.  Perhaps for this reason, Geiger seems comfortable asserting that vandalism is currently under control, though there is no guarantee it will remain so.   Speaking to Geiger after, I found myself curious about something he didn’t discuss—the psychology/motivations of the vandals.  The way Geiger described one vandal—a self-described “reality hacker” who likes to transpose digits in Wikipedia numbers—had shades of Robin Hood and rebellion against authority.  It’s interesting that Wikipedia, which originated as a populist overturning of the authority of the stuffy old closed encyclopedias, is now the authority figure against which to rebel.  If we understood the motivation, could we perhaps direct the subversive energy towards overturning authority-backed falsehoods instead of popularly-derived truths?

Readers are Not Free-Riders: Reading as a Form of Participation on Wikipedia“, by Antin and Cheshire, was a paper devoted to defending the claim of its title.   The paper’s main argument seemed to be that non-editing readers weren’t free riders, but “proto participants” who were cautiously dipping their toes in before becoming more active.  In support of this argument, the authors used a survey that correlated readers’ “operational knowledge” of how wikipedia works (policies about what can be posted, mechanisms for locking pages against edits, the role of talk pages) with degrees of deeper participation such as article editing. Unsurprisingly, it was found that those with more operational knowledge participated more.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t clear what the direction of causation was—whether knowledge led to participation, or vice versa.  Nonetheless, this paper resonated with previous Choi et al paper, emphasizing the relation of novice users’ experiences to their longer-term contributions.

Fourth, Egalitarians at the Gate: One-Sided Gatekeeping Practices in Participatory Social Media, by Keegan and Gergle, was a very interesting study of Wikipedia’s decision-making process as to which breaking news stories are featured on the front page.    They studied whether this decision is made in an egalitarian fashion or whether some individuals have significantly more power.  Most interestingly, they found that certain ‘elite users’ who participate in the discussionto an unusually high degree do have inordinate power to “spike” stories, preventing them from appearing, but do not seem to have power to push stories they like into appearance.   In shades of Washington gridlock, Wikipedia seems to exhibit a bias towards inaction.

In a later session, Kittur and Kraut presented “Beyond Wikipedia: Coordination and Conflict in Online Production Groups”, which attempted to understand which understandings we have been developing around Wikipedia use are specific to Wikipedia, and which generalize more broadly to other peer-production systems.  The studied Wikia, a service hosting over 6000 distinct wikis all running on the same Mediawiki platform as Wikipedia.  The uniformity of implementation meant that it could be ruled out as a source of different behaviors in different wikis.  Instead, the paper could concentrate on social phenomena—the size and type of the community, its implicit and explicit policies, or its rate of growth.  They reported many observations—for example, that substantial use of talk pages always seems to appear as wikis grow large, that large “concentration” in edits (each page being edited by just a few participants) seems to lead to more participation later, and that substantial attention to conflict resolution policies paradoxically appears to increase conflict, perhaps because participants can argue about the policies.

On the strength of the first and last of these, its clear that Robert Kraut‘s group is well worth following if you want to keep up with the latest research on how and why Wiki environments work.

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