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Posted by: on Jan 5, 2016 | No Comments
Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia
By Dariusz Jemielniak

How does Wikipedia work? I don't mean the software, which seems simple enough, but the social system that produces a seemingly inexhaustible body of knowledge. I've poked around the back end and seen the revision history and chats; I've read some scholarship on dispute resolution and collaboration; but I haven't really looked into the emergent social system that makes the whole thing tick.

Dariusz Jemielniak has. He's a professor of management, an ethnographer, and an active Wikipedian. Drawing on that background, he combines first-person narrative and careful study (including an appendix on his methodology) to provide an inside look at Wikipedia as a social system. In this social system, Wikipedians nominally work within an egalitarian, meritocratic system enforced by rules embedded in software; yet Wikipedia has evolved mechanisms of social control and status that create tensions with this overarching goal (Ch.2). Jemielniak carefully chronicles these mechanisms, noting how Wikipedia's consensus-driven process sometimes leads to intractable conflicts and at least four kinds of conflict trajectories (Ch.3).

Wikipedia's social controls Jemielniak argues in Ch.5, include liquid surveillance: all actions on Wikipedia are recorded and can be used in later disputes, and thus "although Wikipedia is a free and egalitarian community, its members are closely controlled, in some aspects to an unprecedented extent" (p.86). "Wikipedia resembles a Panopticon (Foucault, 1977) or an open-space office: everybody is watched by everybody else, and all actions remain on the record, forever" (p.91). He adds that "Common sense outweighs procedures, and users are expected to do what they believe is good for Wikipedia, using their best judgment, rather than following the letter of the law" (p.96)—but that freedom entails permanent ambiguity, which itself can be a coercive element.

Since Wikipedia rejects credential checking in favor of merit based on Wikipedia activity, Jemielniak argues in Ch.5, trust is instead invested in procedures. Those procedures are instantiated in an "astonishing" set of formalized rules: "Apparently, trust or credential control is substituted with precise behavioral scripts and formalization of discussion rules" (p.120). As Jemielniak argues in Ch.6, "Wikimedia communities are chaotic and rely on adhocratic principles," and "Adhocracy in this case is not incompatible with bureaucracy" (p.127).

All in all, Jemielniak provides a meticulous and thought-provoking overview of Wikipedia as a social system. For those of my readers who study rhetoric, he overviews the rules of argumentation and the conditions of persuasion in this system, drawing on contemporary scholarship in digital ethnography as well as management theory. For those not in rhetoric, Jemielniak's insights extend into the social system and provoke thought on how a nominally egalitarian system works in practice. Take a look.