The Wikipedia Community

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The name Wikipedia applies to three things (and possibly more):

  • An encyclopedia (the actual body of work created).
  • A project (the effort to make that encyclopedia).
  • A community (the group of people with interest in that project).

This page is for discussing the Wikipedia community and its relationship to the project.

Who is the community?[edit]

It's useful to try to quantify community, while at the same time being a lot like sorting drops in the ocean. The essence of community is encoded in the word itself: come-ye-into-unity. At the essential level, community occurs anytime two or more people come into harmony (not necessarily agreement) around any subject. Community arises as a function of interest and participation. At some point beyond two participants, a community is actually a community of communities.

In a larger sense, the Wikipedia community includes all casual and/or anonymous editors, ideological supporters, current readers and even potential readers of all the language versions of Wikipedia-the-encyclopedia.

This covers a majority of the Earth's human population, but it's probably important to remember every once in a while that very, very many people have a stake in the content of the encyclopedia and the direction of the project.

A narrower definition of the Wikipedia community -- for lack of a better word, let's call it the Wikipedia contributor community -- is that group of contributors who create an identity (either a user account, or a frequently-used anonymous IP), and who communicate with other contributors.

It's debatable whether there are many Wikipedia communities, based on the different languages, or just one. Many of the members of the non-English communities participate in English Wikipedia as well. Technical issues are coordinated between all the Wikipedias, too.

Attempt at a definition[edit]

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and an encyclopedia project, and the project is made up of people. So why don't we, Wikipedians, try to describe ourselves abstractly? Here's an attempt. Inevitably everyone will have a different view of what we are, exactly. But there are perhaps a few attributes on which at least many of us agree.

One thing that should be recognized is that we are not a community in the "real world" sense; we are not bound together by anything more than electronic interactions. While electronic communities mirror much of physical communities, they are different. Some say irreconcilably so. One of 24's contributions was that "there is no such "community", and wikipedia is more of a Commodity market" (see Talk).

In particular, the Wikipedia community is almost exclusively defined by what exists on Wikipedia.org. And the bulk of that is the entries themselves, and that is what is most important; only part is of the related commentary and discussion, the Talk pages, etc. In understanding the Wikipedia community, it helps to understand the two parts: entries and commentary, the Pedia and the Meta, the meat and the sauce.

The Wikipedia community is:

  • diverse. There are all kinds of people here: philosophers, history buffs, scientists, artists, religious people, generalists, specialists. Moreover there is communication between all those kinds of people; there are attempts to understand each other, despite differences in language or culture. Also, there are as many approaches and interests as there are people.
  • knowledgeable. See brilliant prose
  • personal. This may seem strange: after all, the goal is to create entries which are as objective and without personal bias as possible. But the openness of Wikipedia allows total self-expression within those bounds (and even without it in the personal pages); Wikipedians define themselves within the context of the project through their interests and goals. This brings both benefits and complications--Wikipedia takes advantage of personal qualities like trust, insight, imagination, idiosyncracy and empathy which bureaucratic institutions cannot; but it cannot do so without also having some of the downsides, including confusion, bias, mistakes, and hurt feelings. A healthy community doesn't eliminate the problems, but it understands how to deal with them.
  • fragile. The success of the community depends in large part on the presence of good wikipedians. Scare those elements away and the project will lose much of its appeal.
But doesn't the fact that anyone can edit almost everything make Wikipedia sort of "robust"?
  • unique. Are there other communities out there that combine the above attributes? Wikipedia has a unique mission, which shapes the community uniquely: it is a wiki (and hence very open), open content (and hence free), and an encyclopedia project. There is nothing like this in the world.

Community's role[edit]

Community plays an important role in helping Wikipedia-the-project make Wikipedia-the-encyclopedia. Because Wikipedia is a wiki, a lot of communication and collaboration is needed to create the encyclopedia. Many hands make light work, but there must be some coordination between all those hands to make the work happen at all.

It might be fair to say that an individual's role in Wikipedia project involves two tasks:

  • Write text and contribute images and other media
  • Participate in the community
I think it *may* rather involve two tasks. Some choose not only to not participate in the community, but even deny that such a thing as a community exists. Still, they participate in some sense. Second, some hardly contribute to articles or images, but have an important role as well. They are sometimes wrongly perceived by those who write as being perhaps useless.

The community's role, as some kind of nebulous science-fiction super-entity, is to:

  • Organize and edit individual pages
  • Structure navigation between pages
  • Resolve conflict between individual members
  • Re-engineer itself -- creating rules and patterns of behavior
There are other roles :-)

Yes, it's probably a little weird to think of the Wikipedia community as a conscious, self-modifying entity, but it makes for some interesting perspectives.

Individual and community here work in tandem. Without individuals, there would of course be no community -- and no material for the encyclopedia -- but without the community the individual's contributions would be meaningless and without context. Without the community, there would be no encyclopedia.

Another obtuse phenomenon exists at Wikipedia: Those who edit encyclopedia articles, regardless of their degree of education, economic status, level of experience, opinion or any other personalised quality, are strongly compelled to lay it all down when tinkering with the "sum of Human knowledge". This produces a unique situation that almost forces egalitarianism. The "phantom authority" at Wikipedia does not allow lax rules and sloppy practices to go unpunished for very long - at least not on Wikipedia's most treasured content. It's true that a stub can last for months and even years, but if it recieves a POV tag or some other carefully watched stigma, the hounds of hell will be there to devour the last hint of subjectivity. The rules, both written and implied, are strict — imposing themselves upon both the highly-disciplined and the free-spirited and everyone in between. See Learning community

Discussion?[edit]

The "Beers after work" and "Pros and cons of personal relationships" sections below feel more like supportive detail or discussion, and are too specific to support the general topic, "The Wikipedia Community." I propose making a "See Also" link to this, or moving it to discussion.

Gathering After Work[edit]

The Wikipedia community is engaged in a serious task. It's fun, as most hard and meaningful work is, and has its moments of levity, but more or less it's about at the same level of seriousness as a paid job.

Like at a paid job, some people choose to extend the relationships they have within the "workplace" to a context outside the workplace. Metaphorically (and, sometimes, literally!), they stop by the pub with their workmates and have a few beers. They may joke about situations "on the job", they may talk about their personal lives. They may even do back-of-the-napkin brainstorming sessions that fix problems nobody expected.

"Gathering After Work" happens on talk pages, User talk pages, on the mailing lists, in edit summaries, in person-to-person meetups, in private email, in IRC or Jabber chatrooms... the list goes on and on. Whenever Wikipedians drop their businesslike demeanor and address each other as human beings, with warmth and personality, there's the smell of beer somewhere in the digital air.

Admittedly, though, not everyone in the Wikipedia community who has warmth and personality drinks beer. That was just a culture-dependent figure of speech.

Pros and cons of personal relationships[edit]

From a purely Machiavellian high-level perspective, this kind of interaction is good for the project. It strengthens the internal bonds of the community, makes it more cohesive, and allows the community to work harder and more effectively.

But it's important to remember that these stronger bonds come as a trade-off. Just as, in a workplace, there can be differential treatment between people who go for beers and those who don't, so in Wikipedia there can be differential treatment between those who have personal relationships and those who don't. This will cause resentment, discord -- possibly falling off of members. If strengthening some bonds means weakening others, the net effect on the community can be bad instead of good.

An idealized example: consider a community of 100 people, putting in work on the Wikipedia. Consider that a cluster of 10 of those people develop personal relationships and personal bonds. Let's say that those people, because of their heightened involvement, smoother interaction, etc., have twice the productivity that they would have had otherwise. This is good. But if the other 90 people feel alienated, ignored, unappreciated -- like outsiders -- they might work at, say, half their potential. So instead of having a workforce of 100 people, we have an effective 10 * 2 + 90 * 1/2 = 65 people. It may be more satisfying for those core 10 people, but it's not actually an improvement in getting towards the project's goals.

It's probably impossible to eliminate this downside altogether. But with some conscious effort, we can probably have a net gain. Some ways to do this might be:

  • Increase the number of people who have "beers". Be inclusive, and be personal with a larger cross-section of the community.
  • Dramatically increase the strength of bonds between people who already have bonds. (This is the cult option -- screw the "outsiders" and have the beer-drinkers work 20 or 30 times as hard. Probably not tenable in the long run, and has other disadvantages, such as diversity of knowledge and opinion.)
  • Reduce the weakening effect on (uh...) non-beer-drinkers. Consciously avoid treating people with whom we don't have a personal relationship as "outsiders". Don't make decisions or support ideas based on personal relationships.
(Can we get a different metaphor? I resent the depiction of teetotallers as non-team-players! Perhaps Wine Drinkers?)

Limiting this to Beers after Work is only including a small subset of people. I would use 'Gathering After Work' instead. This is much more inclusive.

See also[edit]

Wikipedian personal essays on the nature of Wikipedia and its community:

Wikipedian community studies and projects:

Definitely see, and help edit the article w:Community at your local Wikipedia.

External Links[edit]