Common Knowledge?

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Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia
Common Knowledge An Ethnography of Wikipedia.jpg
AuthorDariusz Jemielniak
CountryUnited States
PublisherStanford University Press
Publication date

Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia is a 2014 book about Wikipedia's community of contributors. The author is Dariusz Jemielniak, who is a Wikipedia contributor himself.


The book has eight chapters, each of which discusses a different aspect of Wikipedia.


The author begins by describing that he was in a dispute on Wikipedia from September 2008 - February 2009.[1] He and the other involved parties went through the dispute resolution process, which ended in admonishments for all involved, including a 1-day block for the author.[1] The author reflected on his own behavior, recognizing some poor actions and wondering how all of these things came to happen.[1] In response to the experience the author looked more deeply at how Wikipedia works socially.[1] The anecdote establishes that the author is experienced as a Wikimedia community member and knows how to observe any community deliberative process.[1]


There are contemporary negative attitudes to Wikipedia among academics.[2] Michael Gorman, a prominent librarian, disparages Wikipedia as harmful.[2] The author, in contrast, states that he is an academic, and that he recommends Wikipedia for academic and other uses.[2]

Wikipedia is an open collaboration community.[2] Such communities are a new paradigm in research and discourse.[2] Among open collaboration communities, Wikipedia is highly successful for producing information of great breadth and quality and for engaging so many people to share good information.[2] An explanation of the outline of the book is presented with summaries of chapters to explain why the author chose these topics.[3]

Wikipedia in Short[edit]

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and a wiki.[4] When those two concepts were brought together in Wikipedia it was an instant success, attracting a large international community of contributors who created encyclopedia articles on any topic in any language.[5]

Different language Wikipedias have different communities of editors who have developed different rule sets.[6] Some popular rules are common in almost all languages of Wikipedia communities, even if they might be interpreted differently in different languages.[6] For example, one quality standard in Wikipedia is "notability", which is the term for describing whether a concept merits an article in Wikipedia.[6] All Wikipedias have some standard for notability, but the standards for notability in one language may differ from others.[6]

The "Wikimedia community" oversee the development of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects.[7] Researchers have attempted to describe the Wikipedia community with various statistics, including counting its participants, quantifying their activities, reporting demographic surveys, and categorizing the content they submit to the encyclopedia.[7] The Wikimedia community asserts its own rules.[8] One rule is "no personal attacks", which is a civility standard. Consensus decision-making is the norm for establishing agreement while straw polls and other conversation tools advance the discussion.[8] Other rules include treating conflict of interest with particular care and respecting copyright.[9]

In September 2012 author Philip Roth complained publicly in the media about Wikipedia's presentation of his book The Human Stain.[10] The episode highlighted that people and works who are the subject of Wikipedia articles cannot overrule Wikipedia's own rules for management of those articles.[10]

Wikimedia community members often sort themselves into interest groups called WikiProjects.[11] Individual members often adopt a user name rather than use their offline name.[11] Users present themselves with profiles describing their interests and what they do in the encyclopedia.[11]

Formal Roles and Hierarchy[edit]

The author notes that Andrew Keen's 2007 work The Cult of the Amateur criticized Wikipedia as having a community without culture who produced information which was unreliable and chaotic.[12] A range of academic descriptions of Wikipedia's community are summarized.[12]

Wikipedia's own hierarchy of formal roles is named and ordered: steward, checkuser, oversighter, bureaucrat, administrator, rollbacker, registered user, newly registered user, unregistered user, blocked user.[13] Stewards are elected positions who can perform any technical function and are only limited by social norms. To be elected stewards must be highly experienced, have great trust from the community, and typically, be fluent in a non-English language.[13] The author reveals that they have served as steward.[13] For the other roles the community entrusts certain sensitive technical rights to certain trusted users who have a demonstrated need to use them.[13]

Counting the number of edits which a user makes to Wikipedia is not an indication of the respect that the Wikimedia community has for that person. However, users who have made large numbers of quality content contributions to Wikimedia projects tend to get more respect.[14] Experienced users are conscious of the edit counts of other users.[14] A user's edit count is the single best available metric which correlates with Wikipedia experience and productivity.[15] There are other factors which experienced editors use to evaluate the contributors of other editors.[16] One prominent system of evaluation is the "request for adminship" process, in which users who pass a peer evaluation may receive administrator rights.[16] Since 2006 many users have described the system both as flawed and the best idea which the community has for this process.[16]

Academic models of power sharing are summarized.[17]

Conflict Resolution on Wikipedia[edit]

Conflict resolution is the most common social interaction in Wikimedia projects.[18] In addition to being collaborative, the Wikimedia community celebrates dissent.[18] The satisfaction of seeking consensus is a major motivation in why Wikimedia community members engage.[18]

The author profiles the exceptionally large dispute around the name for the city Gdańsk and how between 2003 and 2005 the matter resolved.[19] The case was a matter of fairly representing cultures including Polish and German perspectives.[19] Wikipedia provided a forum to position various community representatives with strong opinions to face each other and create a definitive and sufficiently neutral compromise.[19] Academic models for conflict resolution are summarized.[20]

Bureaucracy and Control[edit]

Editing Wikimedia projects is like a Panopticon in the sense that there is a permanent, public log of all activity.[21] The nature of Wikipedia permits a level of regulation which surpasses many traditional concepts of bureaucratic control.[21] Relationships among Wikimedia community members are less about social bonds between individuals and more about the ties between individuals and the community.[21] When users wish to request any of the services which Wikipedia offers, that request goes into a specialized queue which solicits an appropriate user to respond, rather than relying on interpersonal relationships to sort requests.[21] Community members who routinely perform specialized activities do gain a reputation and might become regular collaborators with other users with whom that work overlaps.[21] While the Wikimedia Foundation does have authority for some tasks, the community manages almost all on-wiki activity.[21]

A primary mechanism of control in Wikipedia is version control.[22] Whatever action anyone takes, other people can track the changes.[22][22] When there is a dispute about content Wikipedia offers mediation.[22] Typical mediators have a record of experience and usefulness in Wikipedia.[22] In discussions on Wikipedia there are published technical and social guidelines.[23] Experienced users are expected to follow the procedures.[23] However, inexperienced users or anyone who slips in the procedure will not have their submission discredited on that basis.[23] The Wikipedia community designates some guidelines on Wikipedia has informal and others as formal policies.[23] As of November 2013, the word count for the official policies is 150,000, which is the equivalent to a 450-page book.[23] Estimating the size of the unofficial guidelines is challenging with the technical tools available, but it must be millions of words.[23]

Academic theories and models of bureaucracy are summarized.[24] There is a learning curve for newcomers in Wikipedia and various internal mentorship programs available to help anyone to become oriented.[24] The Wikimedia community uses the rules as a way to prevent the use of reliance on any particular leaders to engage with the project.[24]

Trust in People and Trust in Procedures[edit]

Wikipedia's system of pseudonymity means that most users establish an on-wiki identity which may be different from their offline identity.[25] The community rejects the idea of checking credentials so any offline reputation typically will not result in on-wiki respect or deference.[25] There is no routine check on who is adding content to Wikipedia.[25] One reason for these systems is to encourage non-experts to contribute content.[25]

Academic descriptions of trust in online communities are summarized.[26] The 2006 Essjay controversy is presented in which a Wikipedia contributor presented himself as an academic expert in theology and cited his authority as justification for editorial decisions.[27] After accepting certain honors, the user revealed that he had no credentials and that his online identity was a hoax.[27] The case was significant for solidifying community opinion that Wikipedia relies on citing quality published sources rather than any claims citing authority or otherwise made without citing sources.[27] Academic descriptions of how users can check credentials in online community are summarized.[28] The Wikipedia community trusts that when people follow the established procedures then their actions will meet the needs of typical contributors.[29] There are many ways in which a non-expert or amateur can develop Wikipedia content in collaboration with everyone else, including experts.[29]

Between Anarchy and Bureaucracy[edit]

Some aspects of Wikimedia projects, particularly those which require action offline and outside the website, require governance and leadership outside of the web platform's control.[30] There are heated discussions about Wikimedia organization governance.[30] Just as anyone may contribute to any Wikipedia editorial conversation, anyone can join conversations about the Wikimedia Foundation as steward of the Wikimedia projects, its budget, the activities of the Wikimedia chapters of volunteers who organize for their own projects, or any individual project.[30]

Leadership Transformed[edit]

As founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales has a unique relationship with the Wikipedia community.[31] The Wikimedia community has recognized him as a classical authority figure.[31] His primary role is as a spokesperson for the movement.[31]

The Knowledge Revolution at the Gates[edit]

The author describes his role in the Wikimedia movement, asserting 6 years of ethnographic research while also being a community member.[32] Academic criticisms of Wikipedia's overall model are summarized.[32]


A reviewer for Vice called the book "both primer and detailed study on the habits of Wikipedians".[33]

A writer for Inside Higher Ed said that the "book offers a management expert's inside view of how it has tried, for better or worse, to arrive at a self-sustaining and novel form of self-management".[34]

In Pacific Standard, the reviewer said the book was "a detailed ethnographic study of a paradoxical culture that is at once egalitarian and hierarchical, rule bound and consensus driven, collaborative and conflict driven".[35]

In Forbes the reviewer gave summaries of concepts covered, including Wikipedia's rule sets, tension between experienced and inexperienced contributors, conflicts between subject matter experts and fact checkers, and the implications of Wikipedia having a large audience.[36]

An academic reviewer for European Management Review stated their recognition that the book's author had a unique insight into the working of the Wikimedia community.[37] They commented that the book had a bias for English and Polish language Wikipedia communities due to the author's participation in those communities.[37] They recommended the book as a way to understand Wikipedia, for insights into online communities, or even for learning about aspects of online communities by reading particular chapters without reading the entire book.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Jemielniak 2014, p. prologue.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Jemielniak 2014, p. 1-3.
  3. ^ Jemielniak 2014, p. 6.
  4. ^ Jemielniak 2014, p. 10.
  5. ^ Jemielniak 2014, p. 11.
  6. ^ a b c d Jemielniak 2014, p. 13.
  7. ^ a b Jemielniak 2014, p. 14-16.
  8. ^ a b Jemielniak 2014, p. 17-20.
  9. ^ Jemielniak 2014, p. 19-22.
  10. ^ a b Jemielniak 2014, p. 21.
  11. ^ a b c Jemielniak 2014, p. 22-28.
  12. ^ a b Jemielniak 2014, p. 29-32.
  13. ^ a b c d Jemielniak 2014, p. 33-39.
  14. ^ a b Jemielniak 2014, p. 39.
  15. ^ Jemielniak 2014, p. 38-39.
  16. ^ a b c Jemielniak 2014, p. 39-55.
  17. ^ Jemielniak 2014, p. 55-58.
  18. ^ a b c Jemielniak 2014, p. 59.
  19. ^ a b c Jemielniak 2014, p. 65-79.
  20. ^ Jemielniak 2014, p. 79-84.
  21. ^ a b c d e f Jemielniak 2014, p. 85-87.
  22. ^ a b c d e Jemielniak 2014, p. 87-96.
  23. ^ a b c d e f Jemielniak 2014, p. 92-99.
  24. ^ a b c Jemielniak 2014, p. 99-104.
  25. ^ a b c d Jemielniak 2014, p. 105-106.
  26. ^ Jemielniak 2014, p. 106-109.
  27. ^ a b c Jemielniak 2014, p. 109-117.
  28. ^ Jemielniak 2014, p. 117-120.
  29. ^ a b Jemielniak 2014, p. 120-124.
  30. ^ a b c Jemielniak 2014, p. 125-131.
  31. ^ a b c Jemielniak 2014, p. 153-155.
  32. ^ a b Jemielniak 2014, p. 180-182.
  33. ^ Kiberd, Roisin (2 September 2014). "An Ethnographic Study of the Wikipedia Hive Mind". Vice. Retrieved 8 February 2015.
  34. ^ Fister, Barbara (11 December 2014). "Common Knowledge: Jemielniak on Wikipeda". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 8 February 2015.
  35. ^ Postrel, Virginia (17 November 2014). "Who Killed Wikipedia?". Pacific Standard. Retrieved 8 February 2015.
  36. ^ Anders, George (30 June 2014). "How Wikipedia Really Works: An Insider's Wry, Brave Account". Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  37. ^ a b c Bourne, Dorota Joanna (March 2016). "All That We Know Dariusz Jemielniak Common knowledge? An ethnography of Wikipedia". European Management Review. 13 (1): 69–72. doi:10.1111/emre.12067.

External links[edit]