Category Archives: Wikipedia in theory

Wikipedia blog posts I want to write

I have a bunch of ideas for more “Wikipedia in Theory” posts, but I’ve been too busy to write any of them lately.  So maybe if I jot down some of the ideas, I’ll get around to them before I forget about them.

  • “Wikipedia in Theory (postmodernism edition)” – how does the idea of metanarrative, and the postmodern condition of “incredulity toward metanarratives”, apply to Wikipedia, where readers are free to construct their own narratives as they weave from one article to the next (creating their own larger stories from the small ones in each article)?
  • “Wikipedia in Theory (economic governance edition)” – the recent economics Nobel was for work on economic governance of the commons.  How does Wikipedia look in the light the work of Nobel laureates Elinor Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson?
  • “Wikipedia in Theory (philosophy of technology edition)” – this could actually be several posts, but the key thing to explore is how the technology of Wikipedia shapes its social environment and vice-versa.  A related point that Erik Moeller drew my attention to a few years ago is how the wiki is an environment that allows even fairly novice users to extend and modify the technology, broadly interpreted as not just the base MediaWiki code but also the templates, interface, and even policy and process.
  • “Wikipedia in Theory (media studies edition)” – if there’s some truth to the idea that “the medium is the message”, then what messages is Wikipedia’s medium sending?
  • “Wikipedia in Theory (cyborg theory edition)” – Donna Haraway’s powerful-but-challenging Cyborg Manifesto (1991) lays out many themes that resonate strongly with Wikipedia and the cultural effects of the net more broadly: the importance of affinity over identity; the blurring of lines between social organisms and social machines; science fiction-inspired utopianism; the “informatics of domination”, and more.

Other suggestions are welcome.  What theoretical perspectives do you find interesting or provocative or useful when applied to Wikipedia?

Wikipedia in Theory (psychology of fun and games edition)

In my last Wikipedia in Theory post, in which I looked at game theory and experimental economics, David Gerard commented:

People edit Wikipedia because it’s fun. What is the economic motivation to buy music or play WoW? The theory’s out there.

But what, exactly, is that theory?  What makes Wikipedia fun?  Is that the same thing that makes World of Warcraft fun?  The same thing that makes gambling fun?  The same thing that makes all three addictive, sometimes pathologically so?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a single well-established theory of fun and games.  There are some interesting ideas floating around, though.

The best known comes from positive psychology: the concept of flow, which is often considered the essence of what makes games and other activities fun.  Flow is that state of sustained concentration (and associated elation) when all of your efforts are directly toward a difficult and significant task that is nevertheless within your capabilities.  Different kinds of Wikipedia work are available that can test the skills of adolescent and professor alike and Wikipedians are free to choose tasks they think are significant, so it’s easy to make sense of why Wikipedia can be fun in terms of flow.

Another widely quoted formulation of fun comes from A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster:

Fun is just another word for learning.

James Paul Gee expands on this concept in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.  In a short journal article, he summarizes some of the relevant points:

  • Good games give information “on demand” and “just in time,” not out of the contexts of actual use or apart from people’s purposes and goals…
  • Good games operate at the outer and growing edge of a player’s competence, remaining challenging, but do-able…
  • Games allow players to be producers and not just consumers. Along with the designer, the player’s actions co-create the game world.
  • In computer and video games, players engage in “action at a distance,” much like remotely manipulating a robot, but in a far more fine-grained fashion. Cognitive research suggests that such fine-grained action at a distance actually causes humans to feel as if their bodies and minds have stretched into a new space…a highly motivating state.

All of these aspects of games have parallels in Wikipedia editing.  In the last case, Wikipedia offers not just the illusion of affecting the world at a distance, but a way to actually do so; writing on Wikipedia has the potential to affect readers across the world.

Neuropsychology puts flow and fun and learning (and addiction) into chemical terms: it’s all about the dopamine.  All that talk about flow and motivation and fun gets boiled down to the release of neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, motivation, concentration, reinforcement, learning, and addiction.  Sustained released of dopamine (or in the case of some addictive chemicals, dopamine re-uptake inhibition) both creates a sense of pleasure and elation and creates an association between the activity at hand and the dopamine jolt, motivating you to do that activity again (and again).

That’s the core of activist game designer Jonathan Blow‘s critique of mainstream video game design.  To quote from my post on video game addiction:

the best practices of commercial game design, particularly MMOs, are “predicated on…player exploitation” by “plugging into their pleasure centers and giving them scheduled rewards”. He suggests that the gaming industry may be engaged in “the intellectual and emotional equivalent of [Joe Camel]“.

That same principle is at work on Wikipedia, with people compulsively checking their watchlists to see if their work has been built upon or the comments replied to.  But with careful attention to the principles of video game design, Wikipedia could probably be made much more compelling/fun/educational/addicting to a larger number of people.

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.

Wikipedia in theory (Marxist edition)

The zeroeth law of Wikipedia states: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”

That’s largely true of the kinds of theory that are most closely related to the hacker-centric early Wikipedia community: analytical philosophy, epistemology, and other offshoots of positive philosophy–the kinds of theory most closely related to the cultures of math and science.  (See my earlier post on “Wikipedia in theory“.)  But there’s another body of theory in which Wikipedia’s success can make a lot of sense: Marxism and its successors (“critical theory”, or simply “Theory”).

A fantastic post on Greg Allen’s Daddy Types blog, “The Triumph of the Crayolatariat“, reminded me (indirectly) of how powerful Marxist concepts can be for understanding Wikipedia and the free software and free culture movements more broadly.

It’s a core principle of post-industrial political economy that knowledge is not just a product created by economic and cultural activity, but a key part of the means of production (i.e., cultural capital).  Software, patentable ideas, and copyrighted content of all sorts are the basis for a wide variety of production.  Software is used to create more software as well as visual art, fiction, music, scientific knowledge, journalism, etc.  (See “Copyleft vs. Copyright: A Marxist Critique“, Johan Söderberg, First Monday.) And all those things are inputs into the production of new cultural products.  The idea of “remix culture” that Larry Lessig has been promoting recently emphasizes that in the digital realm, there’s no clear distinction between cultural products and means of cultural production; art builds on art.  (Lessig, however, has resisted associations between the Creative Commons cultural agenda and the Marxist tradition, an attitude that has brought attacks from the left, e.g., the Libre Society.)

Modern intellectual property regimes are designed to turn non-material means of production into things that can be owned.  And the free software and free culture movements are about collective ownership of those means of production.

Also implicit in the free culture movement’s celebration of participatory culture and user-generated content (see my post on “LOLcats as Soulcraft“) is the set of arguments advanced by later theorists about the commodification of culture.  A society that consumes the products of a culture industry is very different from one in which produces and consumers of cultural content are the same people–even if the cultural content created was the same (which of course would not be the case).

What can a Marxist viewpoint tell us about where Wikimedia and free culture can or should go from here? One possibility is online “social networking”.  The Wikimedia community, and until recently even the free software movement, hasn’t paid much attention to social networking or offered serious competition to the proprietary sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.  But if current agenda is about providing access to digital cultural capital (i.e., knowledge and other intellectual works), the next logical step is to provide freer, more egalitarian access to social capital as well.    Facebook, MySpace and other services do this to some extent, but they are structured as vehicles for advertising and the furtherance of consumer culture, and in fact are more focused on commoditizing the social capital users bring into the system than helping users generate new social capital.  (Thus, many people have noted that “social networking sites” is a misnomer for most of those services, since they are really about reinforcing existing social networks,  not creating new connections.)

The Wikimedia community, in particular, has taken a dim view of anything that smacks of mere social networking (or worse, MMORPGs), as if cultural capital is important but social capital is not.  But from a Marxist perspective, it’s easier to see how intertwined the two are and how both are necessary to maintain a healthy free culture ecosystem.

Wikimedia and the rest of the free culture community, then, ought to get serious about supporting OpenMicroBlogging (the identi.ca protocol) and other existing alternatives to proprietary social networking and culture sites, and even perhaps starting a competitor to MySpace and Facebook.  (See some of the proposals I’m supporting on Wikimedia Strategic Planning wiki in this vein.)

Wikipedia in theory

For the last few days I’ve been stewing about one of the article in the recent Wikipedia-edition of the epistemology journal Episteme. (See the Wikipedia Signpost for summaries of the articles.) I don’t find any of them particularly enlightening, but one just rubs me wrong: K. Brad Wray’s “The Epistemic Cultures of Science and Wikipedia: A Comparison“, which argues that where science has norms that allow reliable knowledge to be produced, Wikipedia has very different norms that mean Wikipedia can’t produce reliable knowledge.

I guess it’s really just another proof of the zeroeth law of Wikipedia: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”

Part of my problem might be that last year I blogged a comparison between Wikipedia’s epistemological methods and those of the scientific community, but came to the opposite conclusion, that in broad strokes they are actually very similar. But more than that, I think Wray’s analysis badly misrepresents both the way science works and the way Wikipedia works.

A central piece of Wray’s argument is scientists depend on their reputations as producers of reliable knowledge for their livelihoods and careers, and so their self-interest aligns with the broader institutional interests of science. This is in contrast to Wikipedia, where mistakes have little or no consequences for their authors and where a “puckish culture”, prone to jokes and vandalism, prevails. Wray writes that “In science there is no room for jokes” such as the Seigenthaler incident.

The idea that scientists are above putting jokes and pranks into their published work is belied by historical and social studies of science and by many scientific memoirs as well. James D. Watson’s Genes, Girls, and Gamow is the first thing that comes to mind, but there are many examples I could use to make that point. And science worked much the same way, epistemologically, long before it was a paid profession and scientists’ livelihoods depended on their scientific reputations. (I don’t want to over-generalize here, but some of the main features of the social epistemology of science go back to the 17th century, at least. See Steve Shapin’s work, which is pretty much all focused, at least tangentially, on exploring the roots and development the social epistemology of science.)

Likewise, the idea that Wikipedia’s norms and community practices can’t be effective without more serious consequences for mistakes seems to me a wrong-headed way of looking at things. On Wikipedia, as in science, there are people who violoate community norms, and certainly personal consequences for such violations are less on Wikipedia than for working scientists. But for the most part, propagating and enforcing community norms is a social process that works even in the absence of dire consequences. And of course, just as in science, those who consistently violate Wikipedia’s norms are excluded from the community, and their shoddy work expunged.

For a more perceptive academic exploration of why Wikipedia does work, see Ryan McGrady’s “Gaming against the greater good” in the new edition of First Monday.