Jointly but not peacefully

Image representing Wikipedia as depicted in Cr...

As “Star Trek” is not only a spanning decades TV series and movies, but is also a subculture of “trekkies”, Wikipedia is not only a “free online encyclopedia, which can be edited by anyone”, but a subculture.  There are people, who always go beyond an occasional spelling mistake correction, and often spend all their free – and some work – time editing, administrating, reverting vandalism and quarreling with outsiders and each other in Wikipedia. These people are called “wikipedians” and I am one of them.

People love researching other people, this is whole premise of anthropology. Online communities allow to research alien cultures without the inconvenience of travelling into remote locations, eating strange food and being in any danger from unfriendly locals. No wonder that wikipedians proved to be more fascinating object of study than the artifact  created by them. A brief search in PLoS One shows one paper about Wikipedia semantics  and one about   language complexity and 5 about the Wikipedia community.

However, reducing complex systems such as communities to a simple metric is fraught with danger of missing the point. Let us consider the recent study about Wikipedia community interaction: Jointly They Edit: Examining the Impact of Community Identification on Political Interaction in Wikipedia  by J. J.Neff et al.  The authors used the wikipedia user pages to determine political affiliation of the users and then assessed their interactions with each other. They came to some conclusions, which ring true to me both as a wikipedian and a scientist:

*People who declare allegiance to a political party are more active on Wikipedia than an average editor;

*People interact more on their personal pages with people with similar political convictions.

The article  main conclusion, that there is no political preference  in interaction where it matter most, on the articles talk pages, contradict my experience and I spotted a problem with author’s methodology. Firstly, it’s not the quantity, but quality of interaction, which matters. Yes, there may be the same amount of posts directed to the members of the same and adversary party. But in a confrontation you talk more to your opponent than to your supporter. I think further analysis of whether the posts directed to the opponent were positive, neutral or negative would shed more light on the matter.

More importantly, the authors did not analyse partisan interactions where it really matters – in the articles themselves. All changes made to the article are recorded on the “article history page”. An edit is often cancelled – “reverted” and wikipedians are notorious for the “edit wars”, i.e. multiple reverts of each other’s edits. A comparison of history page and talk page would most probably turn up discussions about such wars.

Interestingly, the “talk page” of the article itself is almost as interesting as the article itself. While digital anthropology allows you to study your tribes at home, the tribe people will follow you home.  The talk page is full of another Wikipedia community phenomenon – wikipedians, who fall out with the main community, or “anti-wikipedians”.

One of them, who admit paid editing – an anathema to the Wikipedia volunteers -, says that he created a lot of fake Wikipedia users, so-called sock puppets with different political affiliations, therefore authors classification of political affiliation of the wikipedians using their homepages is invalid. However, the sample the authors used – 1400 – allows a significant margin of error and if some sock puppets were counted as genuine users, this doesn’t matter.

As doesn’t matter anti-wikipedian claims that Wikipedia is some sort of totalitarian state. While the authors’ conclusion that the “wikipedian” identity always takes precedence over their political affiliation may be a bit too optimistic, they are right in principle – Wikipedia is edited by different people of different social, political and gender identities – and therein lies its strength.


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