Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of Participation in a Collaborative Online Encyclopedia

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Citation: Susan L. Bryant, Andrea Forte, Amy Bruckman (2005) Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of Participation in a Collaborative Online Encyclopedia. Proceedings of the 2005 International ACM SIGGROUP Conference on Supporting Group Work (RSS)

doi: 10.1145/1099203.1099205


Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) Activity Theory (RSS), community (RSS), legitimate peripheral participation (RSS), qualitative (RSS), wikipedia (RSS)


This early qualitative article on Wikipedia applies activity theory and legitimate peripheral participation theory to study how the Wikipedia community changes "as newcomers enter and become established" in the community.

This article was written during the period of intense excitement about Wikipedia. The literature review section Wikipedia summarizes a handful of research projects that compare Wikipedia to traditional encyclopedias and everything 2 and are mainly interested in evaluating the quality of Wikipedia content and getting a handle on how Wikipedia works. Researchers had noticed that cooperation and conflict, vandalism repair, and social norms are all important parts of how the Wikipedia community worked.

Legitimate peripheral participation is a theory that describes "how newcomers become members of communities of practice." The LPP model is essentially that newcomers start out making minor productive tasks and gradually move on to more central tasks. This is commonly observed in settings where people learn trades.

A community of practice a broad category that includes jobs, professions, and organizations but also extends to other social contexts like the home where practices are loosely defined. Wenger identified three characteristics of communities of practice (CoP):

  1. Community members are mutually engaged
  2. They actively negotiate the nature of the enterprise
  3. They have collected a repertoire of shared, negotiable resources

Bryant, Forte, and Bruckman say that Wikipedia clearly meets the criteria to be considered a community of practice. However different types of social organization might constrain how newcomers to the group can learn or participate. Some CoP like Alcoholics Anonymous have highly formalized practices around newcomer participation, and others might restrict the types of information that newcomers have access to that restricts their ability to become full participants. The object of this study is to find out how "social organization in Wikipedia regulate(s) the forms of participation that are available to newcomers.

They use Activity Theory, a framework for thinking about technology use to organize their data and their thinking. Activity theory is essentially a densely connected conceptual network with 6 concepts:

  1. Object (of the activity)
  2. Subject (the people doing the activity)
  3. Community (the social context)
  4. Division of Labor
  5. Tools (including concepts)
  6. Rules (regulation of the system)

Related to activity theory is another idea of Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is the set of activities that a person can perform but only with some support like a form of instruction.

The research method was telephone and email interviews with active Wikipedians recruited by leaving messages on their user talk pages and the interpretation of these interviews through the lens of activity theory.

They found that beginning editors:

  1. Came to Wikipedia to find information
  2. Began editing to fix weaknesses in topics they cared about
  3. Were cautious about shaking things up.

Expert editors on the other hand:

  1. Care about contributing to the greater good of Wikipedia
  2. Some do it for fun
  3. Some feel responsibility for the quality of their contributions and feel ownership
  4. Use watch lists to "become caretakers of large sections of Wikipedia"

The ease with which the "edit this page" button works made it really easy for people to start making small and casual contributions. As new editors become Wikipedians they become acquainted with and use more of the tools Wikipedia offers like page histories, watch lists, and talk pages.

Novices are not really aware of the community. They see Wikipedia as a collection of articles, not as a collection of people. A big part of moving from the periphery is to become aware of the community, the roles, and the rules that are important to the functioning of Wikipedia as an organization. However, engaging in peripheral activities brought newcomers into contact with experienced Wikipedians who would sometimes show them the ropes.

On the other hand Wikipedians often develop userpages where they present their Wikipedian identity which includes links to articles they have worked on or are interested in working on. They also used user talk pages to communicate with one another. They value having articles they worked on recognized and built upon. Recognition happens on user talk pages, when others work on the same article, and through featured article status. Experienced editors assume more advanced roles with special responsibilities like administrator or by serving on the arbitration committee. Others focus on "meta" tasks like monitoring, mediating disputes, and developing policy.

In conclusion they emphasize how Wikipedia seems opaque to outsiders and to new contributors. As new contributors move to the center they learn about the workings of this new form of collaborative activity.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

This early and influential qualitative paper on Wikipedia brought the concept of legitimate peripheral participation to Wikpedia and Open Collaboration research.