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Research:WMF Strategy document: Research about contributors

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To make decisions about where the Wikimedia Foundation should head in the future, we need to understand more about our users. This group was tasked with finding out more about Wikimedia content contributors. See also What we have and What we don't know.

Article editing dynamics[edit]

A history flow visualization[1] of en:Treaty of Trianon is presented.

Some studies have explored the dynamics of editing and how certain patterns of contribution are more likely to lead to high quality articles than others. Beyond the obvious predictors (# of contributors and content contributed) diversity seems to be important -- both in terms of amount of contribution to the article per editor and in the amount of experience each editor brings to the article. To state it simply, it is important that some editors are highly experienced while others are more green. It's important that few editors contribute a lot to an article while most others contribute only a little.

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  • Powerlaws are everywhere in user-generated content. [2]
  • According to Jimmy Wales, "a few hundred volunteers" write most of Wikipedia's content. He adds, "I know all of them and they all know each other."[3]
  • Swartz raises the argument that new content originates from many minor contributors and is refined by few prolific editors [4]
  • According to a study by Preidhorsky et al. 0.1% of editors added ~50% of the actualized value in Wikipedia[5]. They operationalize actualized value as the viewing of words. However, they have temporal issues -- users who contributed to Wikipedia when it was small have more opportunity to be credited with actualized value.
  • [6] showed that talk pages serve a key role in negotiating article content.
  • [1] developed a visualization technique to show the development of article content over time. This visualization makes certain types of editor behavior -- e.g. en:edit warring -- highly visible.
  • [7] found that articles with a small group of highly active editors and a large group of less active editors were more likely to increase in quality than articles whose editors contributed more evenly. They argued that this is due to the lower coordination cost when few people are primarily engaged in the construction of an article.
  • [8] challenged the conclusions of [7] by showing a strong correlation between diversity of experience (global inequality) between editors who are active and positive changes in article quality.
  • [9] todo
  • The powerlaw of participation (few contribute most, many contribute a little) seems to be good for article quality. [10]
  • Asynchronous editing of text documents appears to be more effective than synchronous (hypothesis: ownership issues are better managed during document hand-offs)[11]
  • Reverts are an effective training and normalizing tool. Newcomers who stick around will improve their contribution quality in response to being reverted. They will also contribute less boldly for a period after being reverted.[12]
  • Editors exhibit an ownership bias -- removing an active editor's contributions is a sure way to get reverted regardless of experience/quality/etc.[13]
  • Visibility (think LINUS' law -- many eyes) seems to be critical to the development of articles[14]
  • Content disputes in Wikipedia are generally settled by citation. This works for easily cite-able material, but for material that is difficult to cite, it introduces a categorical bias.[15]

Process and norms[edit]

Growth of rules in enwiki. The growth rates of policies, guidelines and essays is plotted over time for English Wikipedia.

In order to coordinate asynchronously and in the absence of centralized organizational structures, Wikipedians have developed formalized processes and norms. These processes represent a sort of social machinery whose movements result in desirable outcomes. The development and formalization of these norms has historically been distributed and by those most affected by them (this is highly desirable[16]).

To newcomers -- who couldn't have been around during the formation of processes and norms -- the rules are complex and often non-intuitive. This causes difficulty and often leads to frustration for good-faith newcomers. It also results in power disparities where experienced editors are more empowered by their "process literacy" to "win" disputes.

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  • [17] discuss the "background knowledge" that is critical to operating within Wikipedia and describe several asymmetries that adversely affect the power of newcomers. They call for designers to make references to norms (traces) explicit to enable newcomers to gain "literacy" quickly.
  • [18] showed a trickle-down effect of policy citation (assumed usage/literacy) from admins --> experienced Wikipedians --> newcomers.
  • [19] describe the process of socialization (becoming Wikipedian) before the norms and process became unmanageable.
  • [20] describes how the distributed strategy of norm formation and formalization allows Wikipedians to govern effectively at scale.
  • [21] describes how Wikipedia norm formation system has calcified against changes -- especially those by newcomers. It also shows how interest in developing norms has not waned -- and has instead been redirected towards essays -- informal and unenforceable meta norms.
  • Rules seem to be best suited to those who are present to contest them[22] and newcomers are rarely involved in rule making and are increasingly ineffective when they do show up.[21]

Integration of technology and social practice[edit]

The development of technologies to support Wikipedian process has been essential to reducing the workload of humans (so that they can focus on article editing), and in some cases, for making the work tractable at scale. Robots are the most commonly cited example of bespoke code, but the JavaScript gadget system and even clever re-applications of MediaWiki's functionality have also become tightly woven within the social practice of Wikipedia editing. The technologies developed by Wikipedians perpetuate the ideological view of their developers, and this has lead to power dynamics and organizational breakdowns when the technologies used by editors operating in one role allow them to overpower editors operating in another. How social practice and technology come together to make Wikipedia "work" in a distributed way is still unknown.

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  • [22] discusses the origin, development and social roles that robots take in Wikipedia.
  • [23] discusses the "distributed cognition" system that formed through the integration of counter-vandalism tools and social practices around quality control.
  • [21] implicates the efficiency of counter-vandalism and the lacking of social affordances of automated tools in a sudden switch in the way that newcomers are treated in Wikipedia.
  • [24] argues that ideological foundations can be propagated by the developers of technologies and makes a case for how this happened in Wikipedia. Halfaker also argues that such ideologies can be challenged and the breakdowns highlighted through the development of technologies that propagate competing ideologies.
  • [25] argues the role that ad-hoc/bespoke algorithms (bots, gadgets and external services) have in shaping the underlying platform of a community.
  • [26] the practice of maintaining wiki artifacts (infoboxes and cleanup templates) makes power struggles around how news is covered apparent because of the central role these artifacts play in the process of constructing encyclopedia articles.
  • [27] summarizes the literature on the practice of detecting damage from a threat model/security point of view and devises a system for human-computation to support Wikipedia's current practices of quality control.
  • [28] argues that the integration of technical practice and social phenomena is so tightly coupled that not only can one perform proper ethnography by examining documentation (trace) practice in an online community -- but if one were to study only real-life interaction alone, a critical component of social interaction would be missed. TL;DR: The online space is real and observing the artifacts that people create and share is critical for understanding.
  • [29] showed that the structure of work practice in Wikipedia is visible in which entries are most likely to be fleshed out first. Wikipedians tend to organize worklists alphabetically and humans naturally start work at the top of such lists, so articles that appear earlier alphabetically are predictably more complete.

Community dynamics[edit]

Enwiki monthly active editors broken down
Itwiki monthly active editors broken down

Historically, we have used the number of monthly active editors as a measurement of community size and health. All large Wikipedias appear to demonstrate a similar pattern of exponential rise starting in 2004 and slowing in 2007. While most wikis' active editor counts held relatively constant since 2006, the English Wikipedia -- both the largest and oldest community -- has experienced a substantial and sustained decline. At the root of this decline in English Wikipedia's active editors appears to be a sudden decline in the retention of good-faith newcomers due to the negative environment caused by counter-vandalism tools that "view newcomers through a lens of suspiciousness". Recent work has developed new social spaces and technologies for identifying and supporting newcomers in need of help. We have yet to see evidence that these strategies are effective in a controlled setting.

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Socialization & training
  • New editors work on what interests them before moving on to more core functions in the community[30]
  • With increasing norm complexity, it seems that this open socialization pattern stops working so well.[17][21]
  • Attempts at formalizing mentor/mentee relationships have been unsuccessful -- largely due to the small scale at which the project operated and due to the difficulty of entrance for mentees.[31]
  • Experiments in introducing new means of socialization support have shown promise qualitatively, but improvements on newcomer retention have not been experimentally demonstrated.[32][24]

Gender of editors[edit]

In a January 2011 New York Times article, Noam Cohen described a wide gender gap among Wikipedia’s editors: just 13% of Wikipedia’s contributors are female, according to a 2009 UNU-MERIT survey. Since then, a series of studies have been performed to confirm the truth the the gap and to examine it's effect. Using different method for controlling for the rate at which editors respond to surveys, researchers agree that the proportion of female editors was at ~%16 as of 2009. More recently, a 2014 survey of Global South participants across all Wikimedia projects found 25% of contributors in the Global South were female, but it is unclear whether this reflects any change over time, Global South-specific trends, or is simply a result of different sampling methods. Regardless of the exact percentage, the effect of this gap is evident in content quality; articles about women, or of interest primarily to women, are under-represented on Wikipedia (as is likely for some other underrepresented groups). Researchers have drawn from the literature on male-dominated work places to describe the status and resiliency of the gap. These theories explain how current male editors can cultivate an environment that is distasteful to women. Researchers have also indicated that female-identifying newbies are reverted more than males, and that gender-based hostility negatively impacts some female English Wikipedian's stress levels and ability to contribute consistently. Edit-a-thons, education programs and online safe spaces for newbies (see en:WP:Teahouse) have been among the solutions attempted to date. The large-scale effect that any of these initiatives have had so far is unknown due to lack of regular and consistent measures of the gap.

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  • [33] found that 16.1% of editors who started editing Wikipedia during 2009 and who specified their gender were female and showed that female-interest articles were categorically lower quality (after controlling for popularity).
  • [34] used a propensity estimating strategy to approximate the gap estimated that the proportion of female U.S. adult editors was 22.7% and female editors overall at 16.1%.
  • The 2014 Global South survey found 25% of global south contributors are female. Bangladesh and India had the lowest % female (11% and 14% respectively), and Philippines was highest (33%), followed by Argentina, Brazil and Vietnam (28%-26%).
  • A 2011 study of new editors on English Wikipedia[35] found that while genders were fairly balanced among low-volume editors, women were a minority among higher volume editors. Categorizing wiki edits by type, they also found that "women made significantly larger revisions involved creative production, synthesis, and reorganization of text."
  • [36] found that female Wikipedia users are less likely to contribute to Wikipedia due to the high level of conflict involved in the editing process.
  • [33] shows:
    • female-identifying newbies are reverted more than males;
    • female-identifying editors are more likely to be indefinitely blocked;
    • measurable gender-associated imbalances in the English Wikipedia’s content coverage quality.
  • Qualitative interviews with 20 women who had been editing English Wikipedia for at least 18 months found that editing takes an emotional toll, and can be considered "w:emotion work" or "w:emotional labor":[37]
    • half had taken a Wikibreak due to Wikistress
    • nearly 1/3 had a Wikibreak due to Wikistress caused by gender-based hostility
    • nearly 1/3 had contacted the police, local authorities, and/or WMF due to threats received on-Wiki
  • Openness doesn't naturally support gender diversity (in WP & most FOSS communities). Free culture's "geek identity" (i.e., having an intense and narrow interest and argumentative style), ability of a small number of difficult members to disproportionately affect interaction tone/dynamics, dismissing concerns as “censorship” and rationalizing low female participation as "women’s choice" has negative impact on gender diversity. [38]

Volunteer motivation[edit]

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  • People are motivated by both personal and social factors. Group identity and perceived value of contribution to the group is critical beating social loafing.[39][40]
  • Fun, Learning and Social-seeking reasons seem to dominate high contribution editors. Ideological alignment seems to be less predictive of high contribution rates[41]
  • Feelings of self-efficacy and positive feedback are critical to sustained contribution[42]
    • "According to the concept of self-efficacy, when individuals determine that behaviors meet their internal standards and then receive positive feedback from performing the behavior, they feel confident in their competencies."
  • The motivation of new editors is strongly negatively affected by negative feedback and the rate of negative feedback for good-faith newcomers has been rising.[21]

Editor roles[edit]

File:Wikipedia editor roles.png
Wikipedian editor roles. A diagram showing the flow rate and scale of transitions between editor roles is presented for English Wikipedia.

The work of contributing to a knowledge artifact like Wikipedia is complex, so contributors will tend to specialize in the roles that they fill. These roles range from content-focused (actual writing of content), support (templates, building tools/bots, worklists, etc.), administrative (sysops and bureaucrats), social/political work (e.g. mediating disputes) and quality control(vandal fighting & new page patrol). There's general agreement that newcomers tend to enter via content-creation roles and move to social and technical roles as they gain experience. Roles have distinct classes of technologies that support their work practices (e.g. suggestbot for content contribution, AIVHelperBot for sysops and Huggle for quality control).

Notably, the community of sysops on English Wikipedia has received intense scrutiny by the research community. "RfA" elections tend to proceed like real-life political elections. An editor's history of work and interactions with others are brought under intense scrutiny. Editors who deflect personal attacks and reflect on their work (over their personal characteristics) tend to be more likely to be appointed. Over the last 6-7 years, the requirements imposed on new sysops has become substantially more strict and this case cause a decline in the success rate of RfA's and a decline in the number of administrators on the English Wikipedia.

While this role behavior is is heavily studied in English Wikipedia, it's not clear how these roles fill an ecosystem and whether the decline in sysops should be concerning. Outside of English Wikipedia, the roles that editors take is mostly unstudied.

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Wikipedian roles
  • [43] discuss a simple model of joining a community where newcomer start in the periphery and move towards more central roles.
  • [30] uses an ethnographic approach to understand how highly active/integrated editors first approached Wikipedia. They describe a pattern of increasing involvement that starts with copy edits and continues to social/political roles. [44] challenge the notion of "increasing involvement" by showing that the days following account registration tend to be the *most* active time for an editor.
  • Welser et al. examined four roles (substantive experts, technical editors, vandal fighters, and social networkers) that they identified by reading online conversations about WikiWork. They then examined editors who they deemed to be occupying these roles using simple stats and network analysis ("structural signatures"). They raise the argument that open communities like Wikipedia are sustained by newcomers finding their way to productive roles. They conclude "Are key role holders being replenished? Quite likely. It seems that potential role players are arriving and developing at a rate that is more than sufficient to supplement and grow the current population." [45]
  • Arazy et al. examine transitions between roles by taking advantage of the user groups on Wikipedia. They use logs to observe promotions and demotions between different levels of centrality. [46]
    • The introduction of quality control and vandal-fighting roles corresponds to the massive scale growth of Wikipedia
    • The path from plain-ol registered editors to administrator is much wider than the path through border patrol (vandal-fighting).
    • As users become more central, their tools become more "advanced". (e.g. bots and AutoWikiBrowser)
    • Participation in WikiProjects seems to be unrelated to centrality or role.
      An understanding of the paths contributors take could help to develop diverse “career paths” within the community, such that contributors with different skill sets and interests could find suitable avenues for channeling their energy.
Admins and promotion
  • However work exploring the rate at which Wikipedians become administrators (sysop) is decreasing in a concerning pattern. Research performed by User:NoSeptember shows that administrators are not being promoted at a sufficient rate to make the pool sustainable[47] and several have raised arguments that this is due to a broken promotion process (e.g. en:User:WereSpielChequers/RfA_is_broken).
  • Related work studying the criteria for promotion decisions [48] found that when non-admins involve themselves in admin work (AIV, etc.) before promotion this is a negative predictor of promotion.
    Extensive and diverse experience in Wikipedia, as well as article-level coordination on talk pages and edit summaries are good predictors of promotion, in line with criteria on the Guide to RfA. but editors who do help with chores are not more likely to be promoted
    • successful candidates tend to deflect personal attacks, reflect on their own behavior and that of others, use Wikipedia jargon, and cite relevant policies and evidence.
  • Butler et al. argue that the permission structure wrapped up in user rights inherently creates a hierarchy[49], but still calls attention to how bureaucrats in Wikipedia are expected to use their "powers" on behalf of others. Butler et al. argue that Wikipedia was/is successful because of how the wiki enables efficient power structures to emerge -- not how it negates power structures. They advocate that we see policies/guidelines in Wikipedia as sidewalks built on top of en:desire paths. This conceptualization corresponds closely to the notion that "policies are descriptive" (en:Wikipedia:The_difference_between_policies,_guidelines_and_essays)

The Global South[edit]

Global South User Survey 2014 - Full Analysis Report

Until recently, very little research has focused specifically on Global South contributors. In 2014, however, WMF conducted a survey that focused on understanding the key stats and needs of our users (both readers, and editors) in the regions listed in the WMF's New Global South Strategy. Wiktionary, followed by Wikiquote and Wikibooks, was reported to be the most-contributed to project, after Wikipedia.

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  • 20% of edits original from the Global South.[50]
  • 81.6% of the world's population lives in the Global South. [51]
  • The number of active contributors from the Global South has been slowly increasing year over year.[52]
  • The 2014 Global South survey found that most contributors still said that internet connectivity/speed/cost was their biggest barrier to contributing.[53] 34% wished for a better interface, 32% asked for coaching/help on how to edit. [54]
  • Most of the respondents said that they contributed to Wikipedia. Wiktionary was the second most reported project, at 22%.[55]
  • Scholarships to attend Wikipedia-related events were the most-requested form of movement resource support from active contributors in the Global South.[56]


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