Who edits Wikipedia? With 22,352,194 registered users and counting on English Wikipedia alone, it seems too prodigious, too given to rapid change, to afford anthropologists any time for note-taking. But with his book Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia, Dariusz Jemielniak takes on this task. It's the first anthropological study of an internet hive mind now entering its adolescence.
The book pulls off a near-impossible double act, serving as both primer and detailed study on the habits of Wikipedians. It presents Wikipedia as a ‘parahierarchy’ thriving on its own conflicts, where even the dense catalogue of house rules is subject to reinterpretation.
Jemielniak is himself a long-term editor and admin on English and Polish Wikipedia, as well as a professor of management at Kozminski University in Warsaw.
The picture on Dariusz Jemielniak's own Wikipedia page. Image: Wikimedia/Ragesoss
He's the kind of professor you wish you were taught by: He actively encourages his students to cite Wikipedia, as long as they follow up on the citations. "Wikipedia should be used in academia much more,”" he told me. "But there's a lot of bias against it. People blame it for plagiarism when in reality you can plagiarize any source … Professors are insecure because they're not the only ones producing knowledge anymore."
His advocacy efforts aren't helped by how hermetic Wikipedia can seem. For every misconception, there are actual contradictions and prohibitions that scare away newbies. "For starters, the edit button isn't even very visible," Jemielniak pointed out. "I get emails all the time from people in good faith asking why we don’t change something, and I have to explain to them that they can edit it themselves."
Similarly, Wikipedia's collection of rules is so vast (four times the size of Jemielniak's book in volume) that it would scare away any novice editor. Rules are forgotten or overwritten with new contradictory ones, which in turn develop into pedantry and "wikilawyering." Jemielniak admitted, "I don't think anyone actually reads all the rules starting out—which is fortunate because they'd be immediately deterred."
It'd be nice to say that ultimately reason will prevail and Wikipedia will be ethical.
Common Knowledge criticises the reliance on quantity over quality, and I asked Jemielniak if it might soon be time for bot editors, to which he replied that he's doing quantitative research on the suggestion right now. "Bots are increasingly popular; Swedish Wikipedia especially is full of them," he said. "But on English Wikipedia there's at least 50,000 bot edits too. At some point someone created a bot to just add villages from China—just a name, the geographical location, and that's it." To Jemielniak, the prevalence of bots isn't harmful; it's simply a boost to page numbers.
Wikipedia's humanity can also come into question when its rules are applied to ethical quandaries. One chapter in the book explores historical conflicts over names of places, such as the "Gdansk vs Danzig" conflict around whether to call the city by its Polish or German name. It brought to mind a panel I saw at the 2014 Wikimania conference on LGBTQ and Wikipedia. If the living subject of a page changes their name or their gender, shouldn't Wikipedia instantly follow suit?
"I'm not very hopeful about that," Jemielniak said. “It'd be nice to say that ultimately reason will prevail and Wikipedia will be ethical, with clear rules. But even now, there's this huge debate around the 'Ganga vs Ganges' river. Native speakers call it the Ganga: it's this colonial slap in the face. But there are more sources written in English, and more editors come from the US and Europe, so there's not much one can do."
Consensus doesn't have to mean that everyone agrees.
He noted that the smaller, non-English speaking networks are more social and trusting. "It's not as anonymous. On English Wikipedia there are so many admins that you'll always not know most of them," he said. Some hardcore Wikipedians I've met view Wikipedia as a social network as well as an educational resource. In the book, however, Jemielniak admits that "conflict is possibly the most common form of interaction that people take part in or observe on Wikipedia."
Why contribute time to it, in the face of such negativity? "So many social networks have the purpose of connecting people, but what makes Wikipedia stand out is that everyone has a common purpose. It gives you a shared project and a reason to interact."
Common Knowledge presents a vision of a community both sprawling and ruthlessly particular, inclusive but fitfully vicious. There’s a certain Lord of the Flies element to it: a system starting from scratch, and founded on a common distaste for authority, but which must evolve political hierarchies in order to survive. Jemielniak sees evolving bureaucracies within Wikipedia as necessary and inevitable. "I think it's quite natural when people start out with no structure, with an ideology against hierarchy … There are hundreds of Wikipedias, but most of them tend to create the same basic set of rules," he told me.
As an ethnography, the book can't shy away from addressing Wikipedia’s infamous gender gap, though Jemielniak added that studies aren't always conclusive, citing divergent figures for female editors ranging from 12 to 20 percent.
Wikimania 2014 attendees. Image: Wikimedia/Ralf Roletschek
The stereotype of a white, male, highly educated Wikipedian aged between 25 and 30 holds true, and can steer Wikipedia decisions. Should the majority always win, just because there are more of them in accord? Jemielniak shares a very Wikipedia definition of consensus: "Consensus doesn't have to mean that everyone agrees. It's just a small minority who strongly oppose, and some people who don't care. It doesn't mean that everyone is happy, it means that not enough people are willing to fight tooth and nail to change it."
That said, he readily challenges Wikipedia in its current iteration and has argued for "expert opinion" sections. Adding these "layers of knowledge" would enhance Wikipedia’s role as an aggregator, but would also radically disrupt Wikipedia's impression of objectivity.
He also envisions using enhanced reality to give a better visual treatment of landmarks around the world, and additional reading levels beyond English and Simple English to accommodate different readers.
As much a technological challenge as well as an idealistic one, Jemielniak's vision for Wikipedia’s future might not be immediately feasible, but his depiction of its present and past shows how much the free encyclopaedia has already developed to become a worldwide movement.