How the Wikipedia community works: some reflections.

Writing a page on Wikipedia (see the previous post) was an interesting experiment in order to discover something more about its community and observe how users might react to articles written by newcomers.

In order to deepen these aspects, it is useful to understand how Wikipedia works and which rules and principles govern its community.

There are five main principles on which Wikipedia is based (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars). First of all, each article has to be notable enough to be put in an encyclopedia (it should not, for instance, be made for marketing purposes), and it has to be written according to a neutral point of view; furthermore, any content on Wikipedia could be reuse and distribute by anyone. It is then stated that “editors should treat each other with respect and civility”, applying a specific Wikipedia etiquette (the so-called “Wikiquette”), avoiding conflicts and, in case, trying to foster a constructive discussion on a certain article (in a page specific for this purpose) or to solve them following precise dispute resolution procedures that are stated.

We observed these behaviors, and also the fact that interaction among users follows a certain style, in the way some of the articles that me and my colleagues published have been welcomed. In particular, we realized that feedback on a specific page follows standard ways: usually, other users give encouragements to the author and any comments should help discussing the issue. Indeed, in the “Wikiquette” it is stated to “be open and welcoming to newcomers“, as “newcomers are both necessary for and valuable to the community. By empowering newcomers, we can improve the diversity of knowledge, perspectives, and ideas on Wikipedia, thereby preserving its neutrality and integrity as a resource and ultimately increasing its value.”. Indeed they “are responsible for adding the majority of lasting content to Wikipedia” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Please_do_not_bite_the_newcomers).

In the website, policies and guidelines are established: they are developed by the community itself to “describe best practices, clarify principles, resolve conflicts, and otherwise further our goal of creating a free, reliable encyclopedia”. As described in the website, “policies are standards that all users should normally follow, while guidelines are meant to be best practices for following those standards in specific contexts. Policies and guidelines should always be applied using reason and common sense.”. I believe that having a specific set of rules is necessary in order to let the community self-manage and organize. They are also useful in order to improve the encyclopedia itself, even if it is affirmed that “it is not a formal requirement to be familiar with them before contributing” and that these rules and their interpretation can evolve over time. However, we verified that users that edited our articles were very aware of these rules and strict in presenting them to us, the newcomers. For instance, in the case of pages immediately deleted for the suspicious of being not encyclopedic.

Users have a strong sense of community and call themselves “Wikipedians”. For instance, it exists a gazette for the Italian community, that is called “Il Wikipediano”: there users have a collection of news about what happens inside the community (technical communications, news about pages and the users that have a role in the community’s administration, next community’s meetings, and even birthdays of users). It is interesting to notice how people that interact often, but without even knowing each other in person or being physically close, could become a very strong community. Another proof of that, are the many meetings of Wikipedians all around the world, that provide for a place outside the Internet, where the community could be nurtured and strengthened.

The Wikipedia community is therefore largely self-organising, and users can decide to have additional administrative responsibility, but the obtaining of the role is subject to peer approval. The system of self-governance seems to be indeed rather effective. It is interesting to notice that, all through the website, the openness of the platform is often highlighted  (“People of all ages, cultures and backgrounds can add or edit article prose, references, images and other media here. What is contributed is more important than the expertise or qualifications of the contributor.”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About). This is surely true, but we experienced the fact that, as in any other community, there is a natural distinction between very active members and more passive ones.

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