Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Jerome Hergueux, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center, has made public the preliminary results of a new study that looks at why people contribute to Wikipedia.

The Berkman Center is a research center at Harvard University focused on the impact of technology on society. A "public good" is something in which individuals cannot be excluded from its use and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others. Air, for example, is a public good: Anyone can breathe it, and my use of the air does not reduce your ability to use the air. Free markets cannot put a value on public goods, and hence a "market failure" exists in the provision of public goods (the free market fails to provide them).

Why people make public goods has long been of interest. Altruisim -- "out of the goodness of your heart" -- has long been the answer. But so few people are truly altruistic that this has proven to be a problematic answer.

Wikipedia is a public good, in that my use of it does not diminish your use of it, and my use does not exclude you from using it. Hergeueux look at three possible explanations for why people contribut to Wikipedia: Altruism, reciprocity, and social image.

Hergueux broke down Wikipedia contributors into three classes: Beginner, experienced editor, and administrator.

Hergueux was able to rule out altruism in predicting participation by all three classes.

However, reciprocity and social image were both important factors in getting new users to contribute to the encyclopedia. New users expected others to help out in creating and editing articles, and expected others to provide help to them in learning how to use Wikipedia. New users also expected praise from their online and real-world peers for editing as well. However, transitioning from new user to experienced editor was predicted solely by social image.

Verrrrrrrrrrry interestingly, Hergueux discovered that while social image was important to administrators, it did not explain most of their involvement. Surprisingly, a fourth factor emerged: The less trust administrators had in strangers, the more likely they were to be active.

THIS FINDING HAS SIGNIFICANT IMPLICATIONS FOR WIKIPEDIA. Wikipedia has seen significant drops in the number of experienced editors and new users. I believe that the answer is quite clear: When your administrators are nasty, distrustful people disinterested in encouragement, praise, and helping out, no wonder that the new users and experienced users leave in droves.

Wikipedia has long been loathe to blame its administrators -- a group of about 2,000 to 5,000 people worldwide (nearly all of them in the United States, and nearly all of them male) -- for being nasty and brutish. The project has long tried to justify the loss of new users and experienced editors by blaming burnout, lack of reciprocity among users, and a patriarchal atmosphere that drives off women and non-whites. Increasingly, the evidence points to outrageously rude and arrogant behavior by administrators.

Well, here's more of it.

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