Bryant et al., SIGGROUP 2005

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Bryant, S.L., Forte, A., & Bruckman, A. Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of a Participation in a Collaborative Online Encyclopedia, Proceedings of the 2005 international ACM SIGGROUP conference on Supporting group work, November 6–9, 2005, Sanibel Island, Florida, USA.


Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of a Participation in a Collaborative Online Encyclopedia

This paper discusses the study of of two perspectives on social activity and aims at understanding the experiences of active collaborators in Wikipedia which is a cooperatively authored encyclopedia. The authors use Legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) to understand participation in a community as an adaptable process that evolves over time and also uses activity theory (AT) to describe their results.


Wikipedia is an open-content encyclopedia which is built on wiki technology. It was established in 2001 and has become a huge collaborative authoring project whose content is publicly editable. Anyone can edit the content at any time without much hassles or pain. Because of this content editing idea of an encyclopedia, Wikipedia gets perpetually incomplete and flux since the article tend to be touched by a variety of people having variety of writing styles and thoughts. But in fact, this has made Wikipedia a resource that many individuals regard as well-written and factually accurate. The editrial policy called Neutral point of view is considered to be an important factor in Wikipedia's success and the authors seem to uphold and adhere to this policy. Studies show that Wikipedia articles are statistically indistinguishable from the traditional print sources [ Emigh and Herring ]. Wikipedia attributes it to the fact that multiple authors and revision cycles are common on wikipedia. [ Lih ] claims that both rigor and diversity improve following the appearance of Wikipedia article in popular media. Wikipedia's interface is designed to encourage surveillance of others' contributions. Watch lists help members to find and repair vandalism. The discussion space help reaching a consensus on a space that is separate from article space.The emphasis on neutral point of view helps dispute resolution. Researchers have observed that character of wikipedia content is influenced as much by social norms within wikipedia community as by technology norms on which the communities are build.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP)

LPP is a theoretical description of how newcomers become members of community of practice[ Lave et al. ]. It says that newcomers become members of community in the beginning by participating in the peripheral tasks which are also productive and contribute to the overall goal of community. These peripheral activities are simple and are of low risk to the community. LPP hints that membership in a community of practice is mediated by the possible forms of participation to which newcomers have access. If newcomers have direct access to practices of experts, they understand the broader context in which their practices fit. Isolating newcomers can even have negative effects. Social organization also plays an important role in determining what forms of participation are available to newcomers in a community.

Organizing the Data: Activity Theory (AT)

Figure 1. Model of an activity system (Engeström, 1999)
Figure 1. Model of an activity system (Engeström, 1999)

The activity Theory (AT) describes a structure for thinking through technology use and emergent social norms on Wikipedia and how they influence transformation of members' participation over time. It is often used to describe socio-technical system as a set of six interdependent elements.

  • Object: the objective of the activity system as a whole
  • Subject: a person or group engaged in the activities
  • Community: social context; all people involved
  • Division: the balance of activities among different people and artifacts in the system
  • Tools: the artifacts (or concepts) used by subjects to accomplish tasks
  • Rules: the code and guidelines for activities and behaviors in the system

AT helps in explaining how artifacts and social organization mediates action. In this paper, the authors use AT framework to provide a common language and structure for thinking about LPP and transformation of participation.


Figure 2. Study participant demographics (Bryant et al., 2005)
Figure 2. Study participant demographics (Bryant et al., 2005)

The authors sampled the active community members by using the communication channel called talk page in Wikipedia. They interviewed 9 active Wikipedians (5 through telephone and 4 by email). Each telephone interview duration was about 1 hour and provided qualitative data about why participants contributed to Wikipedia, how they got started, how did they perceive their role and how their perception of Wikipedia changed and participation changed over time. Figure 2 gives some statistic for each participant. On average, participants have been active for about 14 months at the time of interviews and the duration of participants' activities ranged from 2 months to two-and-half years. All interviewees had daily or nearly daily activity on Wikipedia.


Transformation of Subject: Goals and Identity

Novice users: At the periphery of Wikipedia, novice users contribute by reading articles and correcting mistakes, if any. For a novice user, the main goal is information gathering. They identify problems and mistakes and rectify them. The initial contributions are in domains of personal interests and hobbies. Novice users tend to make only minor changes to articles and are usually reluctant for making drastic changes. The interviewees identified themselves as consumers of information provided on wikipedia. Consumers play important role in supporting the object of system (wikipedia). As these novice users move towards more participation, they adopted a caretaker role for some collection of articles. Gradually they identify themselves with the community as a whole and play role in building large information resources and identify themselves as managers or creators.

Experts: The experts wikipedians looks at whole wikipedia more important than any single article or set of articles. They continue to improve the quality of their wikipedia articles as well as they are concerned about the quality of wikipedia itself. They also involve themselves in improving the community. Many wikipedians perceive their work as contributing to the good for community. They seem to contribute because they believe in the product that community produces. On wikipedia, receiving credit as an individual author is nearly impossible because of radical nature of collaboration but still a sense of individual efficacy and ownership prevails.

Transformation of Tools Use

Novice users: Apart from the goal of locating and fixing mistakes, novice users make extensive use of search box which allows them to locate articles by keyword. It enables them to find subjects that interest them.It also appears in Google search results and many study participants had a first encounter with wikipedia through Google search. Also, the ease of editing a wikipedia page played an important role in allowing novice users to make initial transition from reader to editor. This effectively played a role of removing barriers to participation of new users into editing and writing activities and allowing them to contribute their own knowledge. These users felt they had something to offer and interface offered and easy way to do this.

Experts: Although same set of tools are available to both the novice users as well as experts, experts have more sophisticated understanding of site that makes more tools visible and relevant for them. The zone of proximal development (ZPD) was first described by [ Vygotsky ]. It is useful tool for understanding why tool use changes even when access to tools remain more or less same over time. To accomplish an activity in her ZPD, a person needs some form of support which can be in form of more knowledgeable person or of instructional mediating artifacts.One can imagine that an individual's ZPD extends to encompass new potential activities become meaningful features of his environment. Discussion pages allow community members to confer about certain aspects of articles. These aspects could be an issue about including certain information, working towards neutral point of view, asking for clarification or requesting someone with more knowledge about a particular aspect of subject to be added. Watchlist is the most prominent tool that wikipedians use.It formalizes the surveillance of other's contributions. Wikipedians are alerted on changes made to the page and vandalism can be reverted.

Transformed Perceptions of Community,Rules, and Division of Labor

Novice Users: For the novice participants, Wikipedia is more like a collection of articles with random people adding information here and there than like a collection of people talking about, editing, and protecting their efforts to author good work. They don’t have an initially strong sense that a community exists on Wikipedia so novice users are likewise not aware of the roles associated with division of labor. The possible roles they could play are still largely hidden although most have already begun to move toward more central participation by shifting from the role of reader to editor. In Wikipedia, a part of moving from the periphery toward fuller participation is becoming aware of the community that you are joining. Full community members recognize that there are a host of rules and guidelines for Wikipedia use. On the periphery, the most important rules are articulated on the edit page where novice users are likely to encounter them. The edit page contains brief instructions that explain the instantaneous nature of Wikipedia edits and reminds editors to respect copyrighted material. After users begin to contribute more regularly, they begin to learn of other rules and guidelines. New users who are making minor edits are usually not aware of these policies because they don’t need to know them for the changes they are making. As the scope of their edits increases, they learn about formatting conventions. In true LPP form, some users simply learn formatting syntax through observation by exploring the site or the help pages.

Experts: Expert wikipedians view their participation on the site as membership in a community. An important aspect of a community is the identity that individuals both establish within it and derive from it. The way that an individual presents himself is tied to his affiliations with particular communities, and, furthermore, with the roles he plays in them. In Wikipedia, one of the main ways that individuals can establish an identity within the community is through the userpage. At some point, novices decide to create an account on Wikipedia, which allows them to create a watchlist, track their own contributions, and maintain a consistent identity on the site. When a user registers for a username, a userpage is automatically created. Wikipedians often use the userpage itself to provide some biographical information about themselves. Of the nine participants in the study, eight included biographical information on their user pages. Many also included links to articles they have worked on, to do lists, or lists of their interests. In addition, the discussion page that is associated with each userpage is called a “talk page,” and serves as a main channel of communication among Wikipedians. The ninth user, who did not include biographical information on his userpage, used his talk page extensively. Some of the rules that govern activity in Wikipedia remain constant whether one is participating on the periphery of the community or as an established member. These include maintaining a neutral point of view in the articles, following proper procedures for editing and adding pages, and syntax and formatting. The expanded activities and responsibilities of full community members require additional rules, mainly connected to treatment of other community members. Whereas all users are subject to community punishment (from chastisement to banning) if they act inappropriately, Wikipedians are expected to give new users some leeway.

Another convention that is understood by Wikipedians but not by novices is that anonymous contributions are inherently suspect, so new users are encouraged to register and get usernames and to always sign their contributions to discussions. Also, Wikipedians recognize exemplary work through featured article. Wikipedians nominate candidates for featured articles, the article is posted on a list of nominations where community members review the candidates and vote on whether or not to feature each article. If a Wikipedian objects to an article, he has to provide specific, fixable criteria to explain his objection. Although anyone can edit the article, the person who nominated the article then makes the requested corrections, resolving the objections, and the article is promoted to a featured article in case of in-favor consensus. A label appears at the top of the article identifying it as a featured article and a link to it appears on the Wikipedia main page. Featured articles usually remain on the main page for a day, but they retain featured article status indefinitely.


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