Becoming Wikipedian: If They Build it, They Will Come

by memeiotics

Number of citations of Wikipedia in Project Muse and JSTOR articles. Image from Digital Humanities scholar Lisa Spiro’s post, “Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?” Click the image for a link.

The most interesting thing I’ve read lately on collaborative participation and social meaning-making online actually comes out of the Georgia Tech College of Computing, from Susan Bryant, Andrea Forte, and Amy Bruckman: “Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of Participation in a Collaborative Online Encyclopedia” was originally delivered as a talk at an Association for Computing Machinery conference on group work, but it draws on the same psychological tradition as writing studies theorists such as Gunther Kress and Paul Prior.

In “Becoming Wikipedian,” Bryant et al. examine Wikipedia participation from an activity theory perspective. They ask: why and how has Wikipedia become so huge, diverse, and generally accurate? In part, they suggest, it’s because the system is designed to promote surveillance. Watch lists of new edits help experienced and dedicated editors find and fix vandalism, “talk” pages offer space to ask questions and suggest changes without affecting the content of the page, and the site’s purportedly neutral point-of-view gives users a shared tonal goal (2).

I’m skeptical of the idea that any writing can be neutral tonally; Wikipedia absolutely betrays the biases of the primarily Western, young, techy, computery, nerdy, geeky, male crowd that originally made the site. But it does seem like the bigger the site gets, the more challenges there will be to that bias. And there are certainly more challenges to editorial biases on Wikipedia than there are in even a very well-reviewed encyclopedia. Because Wikipedia gets linked so often and has such an enormous amount of unique content, it ranks extremely well in search engines—that is, it is a heavy-hitter in the link economy. This gives it fantastic exposure, which helps recruit experts. We tend to Google our areas of expertise, and Wikipedia articles often come up in those searches. I have some expertise in the area of extended producer responsibility and laws regarding electronics manufacturers taking back products at the end of life, for example. When I Googled the issue last June, I was appalled by the misinformation, poor writing, and broken links on the Wikipedia page. So I added what I knew, and the page today retains most of my edits. It was satisfying to read the page, think, “Ugh, that’s not right at all!” and an hour later have made the Internet a little bit better.

That’s how Wikipedia turns readers into Wikipedians, according to Bryant et al. The site, they say, offers users a low-stakes way to be “peripheral” participants, making small edits and changes as they get to know the site—this is equivalent, the authors say, to Lave and Wenger’s theory of legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice (3). It also keeps users in a kind of Vygotskian zone of proximal development (6): the easiest things to do on the site are also the least consequential. As users get more familiar with the tools, they naturally gain access to creating articles and so on.

In 2005, Bryant et al. interviewed nine Wikipedians, all of whom were active, frequent writers and editors. Most started out making small edits to pages about topics that particularly interested them, then began to take on the goals of the community as they got more involved—the impetus goes from “I’m interested in this thing, let me make this article better” to “let me make Wikipedia better, because I think Wikipedia is important to society.” To novices, they say, Wikipedia looks like a collection of unrelated articles; to experts, it’s a community. Active Wikipedians often fill out their user pages with biographical information, participate on each other’s talk pages, and encourage each other’s work. The tools and site don’t change in the transition from novice to expert, just the user’s familiarity and comfort with those tools. Though the creators imagined Wikipedia as coming out of a traditional encyclopedic publishing model, its success is due largely to the community that has grown up around the site—and a very different model of the expert/novice relationship.

Hence, vast groups of anonymous writers can be corralled into making serious, well-researched, and tonally consistent content, without having to be forced through tiered participation hierarchies. The key, it seems, is giving them small ways to participate meaningfully early on. Seems to me this might be a better model of learning in general. Why do students work so hard for so long on stuff that doesn’t matter to anyone but the one teacher reading?