Common Knowledge: Jemielniak on Wikipeda

An ethnography of Wikipedia shows how it works in practice, if not in theory.

December 11, 2014

I seem to be on an ethnographic kick lately. After reading ethnographies of social media platform development and Anonymous, now I’m reading one about Wikipedia, Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia published by Stanford University Press earlier this year.

Dariusz Jemielniak has participated in and studied both the English and the Polish Wikipedias for many years and he unpacks what it is, how it started, and how it works. Basically, it’s a paradox. It’s a non-expert compendium that relies heavily on the idea of expertise (with its emphasis on citing a secondary source for ever assertion). It’s non-hierarchical but relies heavily on the personal mastery of a vast and expanding corpus of rules. It depends upon rituals of etiquette while squabbling viciously over what seem exquisitely trivial matters.

It’s fascinating to watch a new global organization dedicated to altruistic values and running on a very low-cost model emerge and establish functioning rules. It’s dedicated to transparency (including keeping records of its own arguments) but protects the identity of its contributors. It doesn’t believe in authority, but citations are needed. It allows everyone a chance to edit, but over time the rules have grown so  Byzantine and the power of those who know the rules inside-out so great that newcomers are increasingly discouraged from  participating. And it has well-documented biases and blindspots. 

The rules themselves, and the editors who enforce them, may be making it harder to recruit a new generation of volunteers who will add content, find citations, correct mistakes, patrol for vandalism, and encourage additions to the giant encyclopedia. In order to create a self-sustaining consensus-driven project of this size, a huge bureaucracy has developed along with a system for accruing reputation through making edits that doesn’t necessarily serve the project well.

Still, it’s an amazing accomplishment that has engaged countless people around the world in gathering, documenting, and sharing information and, along the way, spending countless hours and words arguing whether a city in Poland should be called Danzig or Gdansk among other disputes. Jemielniak, a professor of management at Kozminksi University, has a fascinating management puzzle to unpack here, looking at how a supposedly egalitarian and voluntary community negotiates power relationships, how a collaborative community handles frequent disputes, how a seemingly libertarian, semi-anarchist philosophy is held together by the duct-tape of bureaucracy, how a group of anonymous contributors can be so insistent that citations are needed (even to the point of telling a renowned author that he cannot correct his own biography without a attributing a secondary source), and how a more or less leaderless movement can sustain itself when new contributors seem to be increasingly discouraged from participating by status-seeking editors who pounce on mistakes.  

I'm not sure what Wikipedia will be in ten years, or if it will even exist in fifty. But it has been quite an interesting experiment in organizing knowledge. If it falls victim ultimately to edit wars of attrition, I will miss it. Meanwhile, Jemielniak's book offers a management expert's inside view of how it has tried, for better or worse, to arrive at a self-sustaining and novel form of self-management. 


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