Common Knowledge: An Ethnography of Wikipedia
Dariusz Jemielniak's Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia is the newest book about Wikipedia, published in Poland in 2013 and with an English edition forthcoming in 2014. The title of the Polish edition, Życie Wirtualnych Dzikich (lit. Life of the Virtual Savages), comes from one of the seminal works of ethnographical research, The Sexual Life of Savages by Bronisław Malinowski, and as the title implies, is a work of virtual ethnography. It is also a work in sociology of organizations, as this is the author's professional area of expertise, and as such, an extensive treatment of topics such as Wikipedia's governance and culture.
Jemielniak starts his work dispelling some myths about the collective intelligence, with an insightful critique of works such as Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur. It is here that we first see the author's dedication to the project; he is an experienced Wikipedian (User:Pundit), with quite a few hats, including the administrator and bureaucrat flags on the Polish Wikipedia. This is one of the main factors distinguishing this work from most of the existing treatments of Wikipedia. While most of the small group of authors who published books about Wikipedia are also Wikipedians, and some of them (such as John Broughton of Wikipedia – The Missing Manual or Andrew Dalby of The World and Wikipedia fame) sport a longer career with a higher edit count, Jemielniak is both the first administrator in that group, and the first writer to focus on more than just the English Wikipedia (a major theme of his work is a comparative analysis of the English and Polish Wikipedia). As such, this work offers a number of unique insights, and is a valuable companion to the existing literature on Wikipedia.
Following the brief introduction, the book covers Wikipedia history, culture, governance and policies, a chapter that is required for the general public, but will contain few revelations for readers of the Signpost or the Wikimedia Research Newsletter, who are likely quite familiar with issues such as the gender gap in Wikipedia, or incidents such as Roth's letter to Wikipedia, to name just two of the items in history of Wikipedia covered in this chapter. That said, a number of incidents related to Polish Wikipedia may be of interest, as Jemielniak's discussion of them may likely be the first time they are mentioned in an English language publication. In particular, an incident in which Jemielniak himself influenced the Polish Wikipedia's Manual of Style, by arranging to have an expert issue a language opinion, which was then used as a reliable source, is quite interesting. Sadly, although Jemielniak is usually very good with providing links to various pages, this particular incident, discussed on pages 43 and 44 of the Polish edition, is not supported by any source within the book.
Jemielniak, while clearly an invested member of the Wikipedia community supportive of the project's mission, is not beyond criticizing a number of Wikipedia's elements. His constructive if critical remarks begin in force with the book's second chapter, dedicated to hierarchy and roles. Early on, he points to the question of editors' equality, noting that Wikipedians are hardly equal, with the poor treatment of IP editors being most visible. The inequality does not end there, with the number of edits, awards, and electable roles determining the position and status of more advanced editors. In a dedicated subchapter he points to the inefficiency of the request for adminship procedure, which he discusses in the context of hierarchy and power: Wikipedia may have relatively low hierarchy of power, but editors are not equal, and the fissure between regular editors and nearly-irremovable, effectively elected-for-life admins is quite significant. He recalls a number of RfAs which were clearly a "free for all", noting that they become circuses where policies like civility or no personal attacks seem to be put on hold, as the discussion became a social ritual of "humiliate the candidate", becoming the last moment when the "regular editors" can express their dissatisfaction with the admin caste, otherwise seen as immune to their concerns or criticism. Recalling his own experience with the imperfect administrator recall procedure, he notes that "adminship is no big deal – up to the point one risks it being taken away" (p. 82), observing that despite the myth to the contrary, adminship is perceived in the community as a very, very big deal indeed. Declaring the notion of an administrative cabal laughable on the surface, he points out that there is a grain of truth to it – admins talk to one another, including privately, "secretly" and off wiki, and they act, more or less consciously, as a part of a group that holds power over regular editors. Jemielniak argues that the notion of editor equality is a subconscious, invisible and unrealistic pillar of Wikipedia, one that when confronted with the reality of editors not being equal leads to problems and growing divisions within the community. Thus the inequality between editors, which in the "ideal Wikipedia" would not exist, subconsciously annoys editors, and is significantly responsible for the problems with retention of editors, electing new administrators, and cohesion of the community, of whom a significant portion entertains some notions of the existence of a "real cabal". In this, his research fits into the wider paradigm of scholarly literature concerned with social inequality, and with its common conclusion that inequality is the major cause of the vast majority of problems in human society.
In a subsequent chapter, discussing the conflict resolution, Jemielniak notes that conflicts are at least as common as collaboration, and offers an insightful analysis of the "Gdanzig vote". Outside a number of observations about this particular, peculiar moment in Wikipedia history, he offers a number of broader observations, such as that despite Wikipedia:Consensus claim to the contrary, established consensus is nearly impossible to change. Organizations (and people in general) are inimical to change, and on Wikipedia experienced Wikipedians who have already discussed a topic once are rarely fond of returning to it, thus they are likely to torpedo any attempt to reignite a discussion. This in effect disfranchises new editors of the right to change the existing status quo, and ensures that Wikipedia's bureaucratic environment continues to fossilize in the current state. Another interesting critique of the Wikipedia dispute resolution mechanism is that reaching consensus through constructive discussions, influencing others and mediating a middle ground, is often a myth: conflicts are too often won not by the most eloquent editor with the best sources, but by the most stubborn users, who outlast any opposition; he terms this a "domination model of conflict resolution" (pp. 122, 123) (in which this reviewer is reminded of this interesting wiki essay); he also describes a "stalemate model", in which a simmering conflict continues for a long time, sapping editors' energy and producing nothing but mostly useless archives of talk page rants, going in circles. Jemielniak does not deny that friendly and constructive collaboration does occur, but he draws attention to the "hidden truth" of Wikipedia – that this ideal way is not the only way that disputes are solved around here.
Following that, Jemielniak makes an interesting observation of particular interest to researchers: that the entire topic of social control on Wikipedia is significantly under-researched. To address this, in a dedicated chapter Jemielniak discusses the topics of control on Wikipedia, comparing Wikipedia's transparency to a Panopticon, enhanced with the "end of forgetting" paradigm: a society where everyone can observe everyone else, one in which information almost never disappears, is easily findable again, and thus where mud sticks forever. This influences Wikipedians' behaviour in numerous ways, for example leading experienced editors to use a new form of speech, one which has to account for the fact that anything they say may one day be used against them in some wiki court of wikilaw. Other social norms concern topics such as when and where to reply to other editors, norms that interestingly have evolved differently on the Polish and English Wikipedias (although those particular standards may merge back over time with the spread of the new echo extension).
Later Jemielniak discusses the topics of privacy and the "anti-expert" attitude on Wikipedia, starting with a case study of the wiki-classic Essjay controversy. He notes that this attitude is required for Wikipedia to function as an open project; if editors arguments were given weight based on their real life achievements, this would alienate a vast majority who are not officially recognized as experts. An interesting point being made in this chapter is that editors trust not so much other editors as they trust the Wikipedia system and procedures (which through its Panopticon social control and other mechanisms is designed to keep the troublemakers at bay), and that the byproduct of the trust in the system is how we can assume good faith. In a more general context, Jemielniak makes a valuable observation that through Wikipedia, we are seeing a very interesting redefinition of the very essence of what it means to be an expert, and the related mode of knowledge production, at least in the open-source community.
The second to last chapter discusses the ever-favorite topic of Jimbo Wales, often called the benevolent dictator of Wikipedia. Jemielniak sees him as once having a potential to become a real dictator of the project, but who has forsaken this path, both through conscious decisions and through mistakes in exercising his power at the wrong time and fashion. Interestingly, Jemielniak notes that Wikipedia, despite officially claiming that it is not a democracy, has numerous democratic elements, often supported by Wales, and this vision of Wikipedia governance, incompatible with leadership of a dictator, constitutional monarch, or such, significantly contributed to the marginalization of Jimbo's official influence (not to deny his extensive charismatic authority).
The last chapter focuses on the interesting dynamics between the Wikimedia Foundation, local chapters and the community. Here, in discussing the extensive bureaucracy of this project in the final chapter, Jemielniak's work is yet another in a long chain of works which clearly points out the ridiculousness of Wikipedia's claim that it is "not a bureaucracy". Of course, as he admits, Wikipedia is far more than just a simple bureaucracy, as it has elements of anarchy, adhocracy and several other models; he himself calls it a heterarchy, which he defines as a "meritocratic adhocracy with a dispersed power structure" (p. 259). Besides the discussion of bureaucracy, this is perhaps the most innovative part of the book, and also one of most interest to a casual Wikipedian reader, as here Jemielniak touches upon a number of issues that have never before been discussed in detail, let alone in an academic, analytic fashion. Some of the most interesting observations concern the often problematic relations between the Foundation and the chapters, the professionalization of the Foundation and the chapters, the Foundation organizational and managing strategy, lasting communication problems between the Foundation and the community, and the rather negative perception of the Foundation, vocally expressed by at least some dissatisfied members of the community. In his concluding remarks for this chapter, Jemielniak also concludes that the most active members of the Wikipedia community can be seen as social movement activists, whose ideals are related both to those of the FLOSS and free culture movements, as well as Wikipedia itself.
The book closes with a more theoretical discussion of whether the Wikipedia model of organization is that of freedom and liberty, or social control, and a more developed analysis of how Wikipedia is transforming our governance and knowledge creation, with an interesting analysis of why certain traditional groups (such as experts) can feel endangered by the project, and perceive it as a threat to their continued existence.
In the end, this is an excellent ethnographical and organizational analysis of the Wikipedia project, and a valuable addition to the (still tiny) library of core texts on Wikipedia.