Research:WikiHistories fellowship/Summary of findings
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Language has been a central factor in both the success and stalling of Wikipedia projects. For languages with non-Roman alphabets, like Armenian and Hindi, the technological barrier has been a significant one.
But while technical issues can easily be solved with some investment of time and resources, social and cultural issues are harder to tackle. Language revival and preservation is a strong motivator for many people to contribute to projects like the Armenian, Tagalog, and Hindi Wikipedias, but focusing on linguistic purity can alienate both readers and other contributors who want to write an encyclopedia in the language they speak – whether that language is simply a more colloquial version of their national language, or Russian, Filipino, Marathi, or English. Wikipedians the world over care very deeply about quality and accuracy, but in small Wikipedias that are struggling to attract more contributors, the focus on quality of language has created high barriers for entry that are detrimental to the growth of the projects.
Access to Internet is still a major determining factor in the success and shape of a Wikipedia. The creation and growth of projects like Armenian has largely followed the introduction of fast, cheap Internet. Languages that are represented on Wikipedia tend to be the ones present in urban areas, where the Internet is available in schools, libraries, and homes. Rural languages and dialects, while often having just as many if not more native speakers, are underrepresented.
But with the increasing importance and decreasing cost of mobile technology, technology is threatening to become even more of a barrier to the development of the Wikimedia movement. Many mobile devices do not support non-Roman alphabets, and editing is difficult, if not impossible. This is a problem not only in places like India, where people predominately access the Internet through mobile devices, but in Eastern Europe, as well.
Different Wikipedia projects can differ significantly in terms of how closely connected the editing community is. Communities like Tagalog and Armenian benefit from having many of their major contributors in one or two cities, where they can host in-person meetups and coordinated editing sessions in schools and cafes. Spanish Wikipedians, on the other hand, are scattered all over the world and do not necessarily share the same political or cultural background, so it is more difficult to find the "center" of their editing community. But a centralized base of speakers of a language does not necessarily guarantee a highly interconnected, social community: Hindi Wikipedians, for example, do not have as active of a community as Tagalog or Armenian, though they are also largely localized in a handful of cities.
Diaspora editing communities are also extremely important. Many Wikipedians living abroad contribute to their home language Wikipedia as a method of staying connected to their language and culture.
The first Wikipedia project, English Wikipedia, began with relatively few rules and, over time, evolved a complex set of policies and guidelines addressing both encyclopedic content and behavior in the community. For the projects that have followed, developing an equally complex set of policies has been almost as central as developing encyclopedic content, since policy is perceived by many editors as a mark of maturity for a Wikipedia.
For example, "quality over quantity" is currently stressed as a guiding principle by all five of the communities studied during this fellowship – despite the fact that this idea began to take shape on English Wikipedia only in 2006, five years after that project began. In terms of policy, this has resulted in strict standards for new articles on all five Wikipedias: stubs, bot uploads, and machine translated articles tend to get either deleted or ignored, rather than improved. Some editors also feel that they would rather have a smaller community of Wikipedians who know what they are doing, rather than attract newcomers, who would inevitably make mistakes that would have to be corrected. This may explain the dwindling number of new editors in these communities, in spite of active efforts by many other community members to draw in new contributors.
Most small Wikipedia communities do not report problems with ongoing large-scale conflicts, but conflicts between editors do occur. Project forks happen quite frequently as a result of editors being dissatisfied with some of the core policies of Wikipedia, as well as disagreements over local policy and between individual contributors.