Category Archives: sociology

Wikimania 2010

Free Knowledge in the City of Freedom. Staying out until dawn was not uncommon.

I am writing wrote this on the plane back from my first Wikimania. Wow! An amazing experience!

First off, I couldn’t have written my ROFLCon blog post if I had been to Wikimania already. What is true of the social dynamic of Wikipedia meetups for (mainly) the English Wikipedia community–that we tend to be on the introverted side, and it takes a while for people to open up–doesn’t translate to the international scope and scale of Wikimania. Wikimedians there were warm and friendly from the get-go. Maybe it takes a critical mass of sociality before introverts start to open up, rather than merely time. So bigger is better.

Organizationally, things were modestly chaotic. For the most part this was fine. The one real fail was that many attendees were unexpectedly kicked out of their dorms early, and I heard that a group of them ended up spending one night in a public park.

It’s really a shame that Wikimania hasn’t been held in North America since Wikimania 2005 in Boston. That was before the real upswing of Wikipedia’s popularity, and the majority of active American and Canadian Wikimedians have never had a chance since they joined to attend a nearby Wikimania.

Filmakers Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill with Jimmy Wales

One of the highlights of the conference was the premiere of Truth in Numbers?, a documentary about Wikipedia that’s been about 5 years in the making. It’ll be released publicly later this year. Reactions from Wikipedians were mixed and complicated, although during the screening itself it felt like a very positive reaction. The film gives a lot of focus to some shallow or misleading lines of criticism, and on an intellectual level, it comes off as largely anti-Wikipedia, contrasting the reasonable-sounding arguments of mature critics with the naive optimism of youthful Wikipedians. (For the most part, the critics’ arguments are easily answered, but the counter-arguments are a little more sophisticated than what can be explained well in a documentary aimed at an audience with little Wikipedia background.) Emotionally, though, I felt that Wikipedia–or rather, the Wikipedians–win in a landslide.

The Truth in Numbers? filmmakers also plan on releasing all the used and unused footage–full interviews with Wikipedians from around the world as well as important critics and supporters–so that others can re-edit and re-purpose it. There are many stories that could have been told in Truth in Numbers? I think the film is emotionally satisfying and it’s strong by the standards of the documentary genre.  Comparing it with other documentaries about weird communities, it’s far better than, say, Revolution OS, but not quite to the level Darkon or Spellbound.  I’m excited to see what else might come of it. A film intended to tell the history of Wikipedia would be quite different, and a film about the politics and values and philosophy of the Wikimedia movement would be different yet again. Hopefully the licensing of the extra footage will be free enough that the Wikimedia community can actually use it.

It was so great meeting many of the people I’ve known only online.  Really, Wikimedians are the awesome-est people in the world.  A whole year is too long until Wikimania 2011 in Haifa, Israel.  Hopefully I’ll be able to make it to Wiki-Conference New York in August to hold me over; last year’s was great, and this year’s should be even better.

Open Space discussion on Strategy

I took a few pictures, which seem to have been well received.  They’re all on Wikimedia Commons, too, along with 1000 others.  As a default, I didn’t add names for anyone but Wikimedia board and staff, since many Wikimedians may not like having named pics publicly available.  But let me know and I’ll add your name to your pic, if you like.

Them and us: ROFLCon folks and Wikipedians

geeks of a different flavor

This weekend, I went up to Cambridge for ROFLCon II (see my pics).  It was a wonderful, happy, fun, smart conference, and I was really struck by the sense of solidarity among participants, who all consider themselves part of “Internet culture”.

Being part of a culture means drawing lines between “us” and “them”, and whenever Wikipedia was discussed I got the distinct impression that for ROFLCon folks, Wikipedia clearly falls into the category of “them”.  I was one of very few Wikipedians there that I know of (Stuart Geiger was there; I found out that Tim Pierce, a panelist who played a big role in Usenet history, is a Wikipedian; and I saw Benjamin Mako Hill briefly).  That’s not to say that ROFLCon folks don’t like Wikipedia; respect–including respectful criticism–was the dominant tone.  But as one of the Know Your Meme folks lamented in the final panel, “Wikipedia doesn’t care about memes”–and, by extension, a lot of other significant aspects of Internet culture that are not being documented by mainstream sources.  In a lot of ways, especially through policy, Wikipedia explicitly distances itself from Internet culture.

It’s also striking how different the ROFLCon social atmosphere was compared to virtually every Wikipedian gathering I’ve been to.  We–Wikipedians–are, on the whole, geeks of a different flavor.  ROFLCon is a conference of extroverts; Wikipedians tend to be more introverted.  At Wiki Conference New York City last year, one outsider suggested after hanging out with us for a while that maybe one reason for the gender imbalance among Wikipedians is that males are more likely to be aspies–and by implication, that Wikipedians, or at least the ones who come together to share their passion for Wikipedia, don’t seem like neurotypicals.  In my own experience Wikipedian gatherings can be wonderful, they just usually take a while for everyone to get comfortable with each other and start to let their personalities out.  ROFLCon (which at least gave me the impression of being closer to gender-balanced, although I didn’t try to calculate) was a conference of fast friendliness–even for people with rivalries and bad blood between them.

Ben Huh hugs moot, after harsh words

Ben Huh hugs moot after harsh words

Wikipedia in theory (experimental economics edition)

(See my earlier posts: Wikipedia in theory, and Wikipedia in theory (Marxist edition).)

Wikipedia works (if imperfectly) in practice, even though some relevant theories say it shouldn’t.  Take game theory.

We can think of Wikipedia as a public goods game: contributing time and effort into improving it doesn’t have a direct benefit, but the result of many people doing that creates a resource for everyone.  There’s little direct incentive to contribute; whatever I might do to make it better is based on what I already know, and my personal improvements only come back to benefit me with a fraction of the value I put into the project.  So despite that the optimal situation for the public as a whole is if everyone who could contribute to Wikipedia did so, for any individual the strictly rational choice is not to contribute–to be a “free rider” or “defector”.

As in the canonical version of the public goods game, the Nash equilibrium for Wikipedia is zero contributions.  In a world of strictly rational, self-interested players of the Wikipedia game, the projects dies a silent theoretical death in 2001–which we know, in practice, is not what happened.  Experimental economics has been focused on just this divergence between theory and practice for several decades now, and there may be a lot of insights in that body of literature for how to make Wikipedia work better.

What factors make a public goods game more successful?

One study looked a “partners condition” versus a “strangers condition”: in repeated plays of a public goods game, players were either matched with the same group from earlier games or a new group of strangers.

  • The result: players consistently contribute more to the public pot when playing with people they have become familiar with.
  • Applied to Wikipedia: Wikipedians who are familiar with each other will contribute more.  We should provide ways to knit Wikipedian identities into the broader social fabric, so that relationships of trust and familiarity created outside of Wikipedia can be ported in.  We hold the right of anonymity dear, but that doesn’t preclude doing more to support and encourage real identities for those who are willing to use them.

Another study focused on “inequality aversion”: what do players do if they know how much (or little) others are contributing and can incrementally increase contributions in response to other players?

  • The result: players raise their contributions if others do the same, but “most players are willing to contribute to the public good at a level at or slightly above the contribution of the lowest contributor in the group”.
  • Applied to Wikipedia: in recruiting potential contributors from specific groups (e.g., academics) we should highlight contributions their peers have made.  We should also do more to (automatically) catalog individuals’ contributions in ways that are easy to understand, share, and compare within peer groups.  “X number of experts in your field have made at least Y number of contributions” could be an effective pitch.

Other studies, including this one, have looked at “endowment heterogeneity” and “endowment origin”: does it matter whether players earned what they might contribute or received it as a windfall, or whether the players have unequal potential for contribution?

  • The result: studies have come up with conflicting answers on whether endowment origin (windfall vs. earned) matters, with some (but not the linked one) finding that people are more generous and more willing to take the risk of contributing heavily to a public pot when spending from a windfall.  The linked study does find, however, that in groups with heterogeneous endowments there is less contribution–likely because of the “inequality aversion” factor discussed above, since those with the most to contribute scale back based on what they expect others to contribute.
  • Applied to Wikipedia: if the windfall effect is real, it might be most effective to target recruitment efforts at people who have received “windfalls” of free time and knowledge as opposed to those who have earned it.  Smart, geeky people, to whom learning comes easy, would seem to fit the bill best: they’ve received windfalls of free time and knowledge both because they learn quickly (leaving more time for other things) and because they often get years of free schooling funded by grants and scholarships.  But the over-educated are already overrepresented on Wikipedia (we think) and the level of contribution from those people may be held back by the endowment heterogeneity effect, with highly educated people holding back because those with less free time and/or knowledge contribute so little.  In that case, the key to getting experts to contribute more would be (as Erik Möller suggested at Wikimania) finding ways light-weight ways to get non-experts and readers (free-riders) more involved first.

Still other studies have explored factors that make players change their behavior: this paper examines punishment mechanisms, and this one looks at history and how group behaviors change after multiple rounds of a public goods game.

  • The results: the ability for contributors to punish free riders (even at a cost to themselves) results in higher levels of cooperation and less free riding (although opportunities for counter-punishment make this less effective).  Conversely, players who begin the public goods game with a high tendency to contribute tend to gradually contribute less in later rounds the more they play with free riders.  But matching high contributors with other high contributors in round after round leads to growing contributions among that group.
  • Applied to Wikipedia: punishment mechanisms for free riders are conceivable (e.g., pop-ups asking for monetary or editing contributions after a certain number of page views by a reader), but probably wouldn’t be compatible with Wikipedia culture and the project’s purpose.  Burnout from active contributors getting dispirited when they do more than everyone else they see probably is a problem, and the solution would be to facilitate and strengthen the social ties between active users.  This already happens naturally on talk pages and user pages,  outside communication channels like email and Skype, and physical meetups, but Wikipedia could make it a lot easier to see and connect with other contributors through software improvements.

This just scratches the surface of experimental research on public goods games; a more systematic survey could turn up a lot more relevant data for how better to structure Wikipedia and other collaborative knowledge projects.