Them and us: ROFLCon folks and Wikipedians

geeks of a different flavo

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

187 thoughts on “Them and us: ROFLCon folks and Wikipedians”

  1. To be fair, we’re a long shot ahead of a certain other encyclopedia. 😉

    I think the cultural differences are intriguing, though I can’t help but feel that we, the Wikipedians, fall into a particularly tiny niche of people who are a) Internet-savvy enough to engage online, but b) nerdy/geeky/intellectual/obsessed enough to find writing an encyclopedia, or some articles thereof, stimulating.
    I’d imagine that people in both groups form a tiny subset of group (a). Also, I can certainly imagine a much higher concentration of males, aspies, etc. in group (b). My guess is that ROFLCon people will be in group (a) but usually not (b).

    I suppose the obvious point to bring up be one of your own posts: “Wikipedia in Theory (psychology of fun and games edition)“… though that probably misses much more social motivators that seem less likely to be primary to participation in Wikipedia. I can imagine some interesting questions about the ROFLCon demographic… but I won’t ramble too much here.

    P.S. someone ought to modify the Wiktionary script you’re using so that double-clicking on text in the comment box doesn’t activate it; selecting text has never been so annoying. 😛
    P.P.S. ~~~~

    1. ROFLCon attendees will be in group (a) and some from /b/ will build their own encycolpedia dramatica.

  2. I’ve always thought of Wikipedia, and by extension Wikipedians, as the ultimate straight man to the jokesters of ROFLCon.

  3. I think there were more Wikipedians in the audience than you might imagine – including many editors who were more active in years past or before some bad experience. And we’re not ‘them’ yet so much as in limbo — we used to embody the internet and now noone knows what to make of Wikipedia. There are two issues:
    – our policies are explicitly anti-social and a bit isolationist, and
    – we’ve stopped making it easy for anyone to edit.

    1. Our policies are anti-social.

    Wikipedia is in the rare position of being both popular and officially opposed to socializing. en:wp tried to ban people from using userboxes and tied part of its community into a pretzel trying to permanently expunge the existence of Esperanza, its largest social project. and we’re not very good Internet citizens – intentionally breaking links through deletion, discouraging linking back from WP to other projects.

    If we were to embrace being social we would grow quite a bit.

    Where WP embraces rapid change, real-time updates, and the energy of frenetic fans, it is well loved. Those who follow diasters, deaths, and news emergencies tend to love WP. There we are the epitome of the Internet — where you go to cut through the nonsense and excess splutter found elsewhere, discuss, leave a real-time reference or update for the rest of the ‘Net to sort out.

    But on topics that are fun, social, or entertaining, Wikipedia is more awkward. There’s a cultural bias in determining what sources to trust and in deciding what is notable or educational, perhaps from a similar bias in traditional media. And Wikipedia has looked for guiding principles and metrics other than popularity.

    2. We used to embody the Internet. Anyone could edit, and the idea was we would steward useful information forever.

    Now we make it hard to edit, chastise new users more often, and delete information without even providing a way to find old revisions online. When we take ourselves too seriously, we cut off most contributors (who are more laid back, and have less time to spare) and chill consensus. Which is us saying to most Internet users “we’ll let you participate, but only if you jump through a bunch of hoops.”

    Perhaps it’s time to once again create spaces where everyone really can edit, and to offer the aggressively pruned high-notability view of Wikipedia as one popular view into that larger space.

  4. Although I think SJ is closest to explaining what’s happening in Wikipedia, there are a couple of other forces at work in this environment. One is that it is amazingly easy to not socially interact with other editors at all here: just make edits & leaving comments on talk pages or in the Wikipedia name space. Unless one makes problematic edits & refuses to discuss them, no one appears to notice; one can appear to be an “aspie” without even knowing one is doing it.

    Another dynamic is the increased “anti-social” ethic, which grew out of frustration with the early community with certain fringe types. By this, I mean not only the kooks but the incompetent who simply didn’t understand what they were writing about, none of whom took well to gentle suggestions that they might want to approach contributing in another way. (I have a few specific individuals in mind, but out of privacy concerns won’t mention their user names.) This led to the perception of two worlds in conflict, the “clued” (i.e., established Wikipedians) vs. the “clueless” (i.e., all of the other people). Things only got worse when the “clueless” became established inside Wikipedia: Wikipedians began to believe the project was going downhill, & began distrust not only new members but anyone they hadn’t encountered before.

    That said, I believe the closing of the Wikipedia contributor community is simply an inevitable development. Look at the Linux kernel community: at one point, almost anyone who could code could get a patch accepted into the project. Now, due to organizational issues, it takes a lot of effort & political savvy to get a patch accepted by anyone who is not one of “Linus’s lieutenants”. This may take longer to occur in the Wikipedia community because there is no “benevolent dictator” (Jimmy Wales is more of an absentee landlord than a leader, let alone dictator), but it is happening at this moment. The problem is whether closing the metaphorical door will keep out the qualified who Wikipedia needs to continue to improve in quality.


  5. @Geoff, your comparison with the Linux kernel community was not illuminating for me. It seems to me that increasing closedness has not affected the success of the kernel project, if anything it is more successful than ever.
    I am not sure the same will be true with Wikipedia.

    An interesting question I think is, what could be the Wikipedia equivalent of “distros”? It’s hard to contribute to the kernel, but it provides a stable base for dozens of groups to build their own infrastructure on top of that. There is no Wikipedia equivalent for that at the moment.

  6. pfctdayelise: In my comparison between the two, I should have added the catch-phrase, “Linus doesn’t scale”. The Linux kernel community came to be hierarchical because Linus needed assistants to help him sift thru the submissions to find what worked.

    With the Wikipedia community, one of the arguments the deletionist camp uses is that there are too many articles for the current editors to monitor, & the community must therefore be more critical about new submissions; the concern over biographical articles on living people is only one piece of this argument. Or to paraphrase the catch-phrase, the community is not scaling. (Being an encyclopedia-geek *is* an odd hobby, after all.)

    Maybe this oversight is because I’ve compared the two communities in my mind for a long time, probably since I started with Wikipedia.


  7. Nice post, thanks for writing it & taking pictures — I’m glad to hear ROFLII was a success. And all these comments are great *waves to comment section*

    While I agree with SJ (and Steven) and your original premise that a lot of us are damn awkward socially, aren’t we perhaps overthinking it a tad? The cause of the gulf seems pretty obvious to me. After all, ROFLcon is, at the end of the day, all about the ROFLs. Based on last year’s experience, it draws a crowd of people who love jokes, who love doing silly things to be part of a community, who love using the internet as a medium to connect to others through shared fun (or shared mockery). It is notably not a conference about a lot of the other srs uses of the Internet.

    And Wikipedians — God love us — dearly love to think Wikipedia is srs bsns. Things that interfere with srs bsns are traditionally not well taken — and haven’t been for years! — and are also in fact traditionally met with near-horror. I have watched in amazement and bemusement over the years as:
    * every year people argue over whether we should have jokes on the main page for April 1 (“we can’t violate people’s trust in us as an encyclopedia”)
    * BJAODN got, well, deleted (“it’s just not funny”)
    * Esperanza and userboxes, per sj (“we cannot support cliques”)


    What is srs bsns and what we should worry about, as Ilyrich notes, is that it’s awfully easy to edit wikipedia and not interact with anyone — and by extension to edit wikipedia and not have any fun at all. I probably would have dropped out of this project long ago if I hadn’t met some fun-loving Wikipedians along the way in real life — I know and am friends with every person in this thread, and what you all have in common is a great mind for a joke, a shared enjoyment of life & the project. You’re all fun to do stuff with. What can it possibly be like for a new editor who never gets that experience?

    I agree with sj that we could grow in new ways if we did encourage ways of being social that didn’t heavily emphasize aggressive, kind of mean, deeply argumentative ways of interaction. Maybe the rofl’ers can teach us something. It’s kind of sad that we’re the nerds *of the internet*.

  8. SJ says:

    Perhaps it’s time to once again create spaces where everyone really can edit, and to offer the aggressively pruned high-notability view of Wikipedia as one popular view into that larger space.

    That resonates with the criticism of Wikipedia from ROFLCon folks and would probably make a lot of people both within and beyond the Wikimedia community very happy. Is there a place (like on Meta or Strategy) where a proposal along these lines is being organized? If not, perhaps it’s time to start one.

  9. clearly the author is unaware of the frequent orgies, both at meet-ups and via stickam, that occur among wikipedians.

  10. @phoebe: “aren’t we perhaps overthinking it a tad?” um, aren’t we Wikipedians after all! 🙂 Sage, interesting musing as someone who recognizes myself as an introvert of sorts.

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