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Wikipedians' sense of community, motivations, and knowledge building: a cross-cultural study[edit]

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Wikipedians' sense of community, motivations, and knowledge building

Sheizaf Rafaeli, Tsahi Hayat, Yaron Ariel


This paper presents a cross-cultural study of Wikipedia, exploring Wikipedians’ conceptions of Wikipedia knowledge, sense of community and motivations for participating in Wikipedia. Previous studies concerning Wikipedia investigated its functions as an on-line volunteer-contributed encyclopedia [1], as a community [2], the value of its content [3] and its co-authoring [4]. We offer the constructivist approach to knowledge [5] as a theoretical framework to understand the co-building knowledge in Wikipedia. This process can be examined according to the organizational knowledge creation model as proposed by Nonaka & Takeuchi [6]. For the adaptation of this model to Wikipedia we emphasize the importance of the context, using the “Ba” concept [7]. We suggest that key factors of the knowledge building are the users' sense of community and the processes of interactivity [8] that is enabled by Wikipedia. A central tenet of wiki community is users' motivation to contribute. Sangwan [9] suggests the 'Uses & Gratifications' framework to study users' motivations in online community as a mean to understand its success. Uses & Gratifications research investigates how people use the media to gratify their needs. Sangwan identifies three key motivators for virtual community use: Functional, Emotive and Contextual. Stafford et al. [10] found that a number of cognitive gratifications are used as motivators for virtual community usage. We studied Wikipedians’ motivations using these perspectives, thus highlighting the user's cognitive and integrative gratifications. In order to focus on highly involved Wikipedians in Wikipedia community, we conducted an online web questionnaire in the 'Community Portal' of a specific language group. We then repeated this procedure in several language-based Wikipedia to search for cultural biased differences. Nonaka & Takeuchi’s model is revisited in relation to Wikipedia community. Some preliminary cross-cultural survey data will be presented.


"Wikipedians are the people who write and edit articles for Wikipedia. Some might argue that Wikipedist would be a more appropriate name, just as encyclopedist means someone who contributes to an encyclopedia. The ending of Wikipedian, on the other hand, suggests someone who is part of a group or community" (Wikipedia, Online)

This paper presents preliminary results from a cross-cultural study of Wikipedia. Using an online survey targeting the population of highly involved Wikipedians, we try to shed a light on three aspects regarding Wikipedians: What are the personal motivations for participation in Wikipedia? What are the aspects of community characteristics that Wikipedians demonstrate in Wikipedia? And how do Wikipedians' perceive the knowledge creation process in Wikipedia?

Wikipedians motivations

When first encountering Wikipedia one cannot overlook vast number of Wikipedians taking the time and effort to voluntarily contribute to its content. An interesting question to ask will be one that concerns Wikipedians' motivation for contributing Wikipedia content.

To examine Wikipedians' motivations we will use a theoretical framework of a user-centered approach named 'Uses and Gratifications'. This approach originally established in the mid 20 Century (Herzog, 1944), while its more 'formal' definitions were expressed later by Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch (1973). In recent years, many researchers continue to make use of this approach in new media studies (e.g. Parker & Plank, 2000; Kim & Weaver, 2002; Cho et al., 2003; Stafford, Stafford & Schkade, 2004; Sangwan, 2005). 'Uses and Gratifications' literature focuses on the ways people use media to gratify their needs, based on the assumption that people are active and goal oriented in their interactions with the media.

Traditional studies of Uses and Gratifications tend to emphasize five generic clusters of needs the media could fulfill (Rubin, 1986): (1) Cognitive (2) Affective (3) Integrative (personal) (4) Integrative (social) and (5) Diversion. Cognitive needs represent the intrinsic desire for information acquisition for knowledge and understanding. Affective needs are related to emotional experiences, and intrinsic desire for pleasure, entertainment and aesthetics. Personal integrative needs derive from individual’s desire to appear credible, be perceived as confident, and have high self-esteem. Social integrative needs are affiliation needs where the individual wants to be part of a group to and have a sense of belonging. Diversion needs, relate to the need for escape and diversion from problems and routines.

Most New Media studies tend to follow the traditional clusters of needs (Ruggiero, 2000). In this study, we will try to identify the cognitive and social-integrative needs that serve as motivators for wikipedians participation in Wikipedia. As a technology that promotes conversation, Wikis should be most effective in gratifying users' 'Knowledge Needs' for ad-hoc problems with decentralized knowledge sources. Sangwan (2005) studies users' motivations to become members in a fee-based knowledge community as a mean to understand the virtual community success. Satisfaction or gratification according to Sangwan is an ex-post evaluation of member experience with the community. Sangwan identifies three key motivators for virtual community use: Functional, Emotive and Contextual. These motivators represent various mixtures of needs, but that are essentially related to information acquisition and more for surfing for information for pleasure. Other example can be found in the study of Stafford, Stafford & Schkade (2004) that indicates cognitive gratifications' need for information acquisition as one of the principal motivators for virtual community usage.

We begun by saying that Wikipedians voluntarily contribute their time and efforts to build Wikipedia content, in light of the user centered approach presented above we would attempt to explore what are the personal motivations for participation in Wikipedia.

Wikipedians sense of community

The Wikipedia project describes itself as community. Wikipedians are invited to participate in the 'Community portal' ("Wikipedia wants you! Together we are building an encyclopedia and a wiki community") and communities issues are discussed at a place called the 'Village pump'.

Wikipedia community can be described as a Community of Practice (CP). The CP model is based on the concept that knowledge cannot be separated from practice (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). The model assumes that activity and mutual engagement brings members together into social entity with shared repertoire of communal resources (Wagner, 2000). The process of knowledge building (discussed later) taking place in Wikipedia enables us to identify it as Community of Practice.

One potential explanation for Wikipedians' sense of community might be Wikipedia enabled interactivity. Most of the empirical findings regarding interactivity speak for positive effects. Interactivity was found to effect increased citizens' participation in political process, positive effects on perceived users' satisfaction, effectiveness, efficiency and overall attitude towards a Web site (Stromer-Galley, 2000; Teo, Oh, Liu & Wei, 2003). Rafaeli (1988) identified interactivity as “an expression of the extent that in a given series of communication exchanges, any third (or later) transmission (or message) is related to the degree to which previous exchanges referred to even earlier transmissions” (p.111). Rafaeli, Raban & Ravid, (2005) found users' interactions as a relevant parameter of their incentives for participation. Wikipedia allows its users to interact directly through conversations about every article. However, we might consider the whole process of knowledge building in Wikipedia as interactive and not mere conversations.

Wikepdia as Knowledge Building community

Wikipedia is a 'knowledge building community'. Any process of knowledge building starts with individual knowledge. For articulating individual knowledge, the “Knowledge Creation Metaphor of Learning” (Paavola, lipponen & Hakkarainen, 2002) might be helpful. This metaphor regards learning process as analogous to process of inquiry, especially when knowledge is substantially enriched or significantly been transformed. Wikipedia environment is one that offers its participants much stimulation for these processes. The context of Wikipedia as community is most relevant to this matter, since it enables individuals' processes means to build up collaboratively.

To examine Wikipedia as a knowledge building community let us highlight the collective level. This aspect will be examined according to 'Theory of organizational knowledge creation' (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995) and its extension through the concept of 'ba' (Nonaka & Konno 1998). The process of knowledge creation, according to this theory, involves social interaction and the transition between tacit and explicit knowledge. This theory proposes four modes of knowledge conversion: Socialization individuals share tacit knowledge through joint activities. Externalization individuals link tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. Combination individuals combine different explicit ideas into more complex sets of explicit knowledge. Internalization individuals extract knowledge from newly created tacit and explicit knowledge.

Four modes of knowledge conversion (Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995:61)

When adapting this theory to the examination of Wikipedia, the knowledge building community process could be made more lucid using the concept of “ba”. Nonaka et al. (2000) suggests four types of “ba”: Originating “ba” is defined by individual and face-to-face interactions, which offers the context of socialization, Dialoguing “ba” is defined by individual and face-to-face interactions, which offers the context of externalization. Systemizing “ba” is defined by collective and virtual interactions, which offers the context of combination. Exercising “ba” is defined by individual and virtual interactions, which offers the context of internalization. The last three 'ba': Dialoguing, Systemizing and Exercising speaks of interactive process which serves, each in its own context, as facilitators to a knowledge building community process



The data for this study were collected using an online web questionnaire, which was posted in the 'Community Portal' of the English and the Hebrew Wikipedias (http://en.wikipedia.org and http://he.wikipedia.org). The target population of this questionnaire were involved Wikipedians, Wikipedians who actively participate in Wikipedia at least several times a month. The sample included 120 Wikipedians, 85 from The English Wikipedia and 35 from the Hebrew Wikipedia. The questionnaire included a set of questions and assertions regarding respondent perceptions of Wikipedia and Wikipedians. The questionnaire also included questions concerning the respondent demographical background and Wikipedia uses patterns.

Preliminary Results

Wikipedians motivations were measured based on 8 items; each one of those items was a possible motivator for participating in Wikipedia. The respondents stated how much they think each of the possible motivators influence them using a 5-point scale measure, ranging from (1) Strongly Disagree to (5) Strongly Agree.

Figure 1:

  • Standard Deviation ranged between 0.7-1.3

The data presented in Figure 1 reveals that the strongest Wikipedians motivators are Cognitive ("Learning new things" and "Intellectual challenge") Affective ("Pleasure") and Integrative ("Sharing my knowledge" and "Contributing to other people").

Communal characteristics were measured based on five assertions regarding Wikipedia communal aspects. To each of those assertions respondents were suppose to state how much they agree or disagree using a 6 – point scale ranging from Strongly disagree (1) to Strongly agree (6).

The data presented in table 1, indicates Wikipedians' perceived Wikipedia as a community (“I fell I belong to a group of Wikipedians”, “I have contacted Wikipedians within Wikipedia”). Furthermore, Wikipedians refers to the work taking place within Wikipedia bounders as a “team work” (“It is important to me that other Wikipedians will refer to things I’m writing”, and “Writing in Wikipedia is a team work”). Wikipedians responses to assertions regarding the four modes of knowledge building process in Wikipedia are presented below. For each of those assertions the respondents marked an answers ranging from Strongly disagree (1) to Strongly agree (6).

Table 2: Knowledge building

    • E=English; H=Hebrew

Looking at table 2, we see that respondents’ answers regarding the Socialization mode are compatible with the definition of Wikipedia as an open encyclopedia, to which anyone can contribute. Furthermore Wikipedia is perceived as an egalitarian space. Nevertheless, we can also learn that some Wikipedians call for monitoring of both Wikipedias’ content and of the Wikipedians.

When we discussed the theoretical aspects of the externalization mode, we mentioned that an example of this process could be seen in a collective creation of definitions, which involves collective reflection. As the data regarding the externalization mode reveals, the Wikipedians find it important that other Wikipedians will refer to their writing. This finding might imply a process of collective reflection.

The Combination process describes the combination of new explicit knowledge into complex and systematic sets of (existing) explicit knowledge. Wikipedias’ content is rapid growth implies that the combination mode is actually taking place in Wikipedia. Wikipedians perceive this process as one that leads to wide consensus.

The mode of Internalization deals with individuals that share explicit knowledge. The assertions regarding this mode were meant to assess how likely the Wikipedians are to internalize Wikipedias’ knowledge. The data presented here reveals that Wikipedians perceive Wikipedias content as better than other web sources. Furthermore, they perceive Wikipedia as contributing to the knowledge of its’ active users. Those perceptions may facilitate the Internalization mode.


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URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue8_12/ciffolilli/index.html

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(Preliminary report)

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