June 22, 2017

Pipers right, penguins left: 

Editing wars and collaborative construction of facts on Wikipedia

What insights can STS bring into understanding the way Wikipedia is organized? What mechanisms govern knowledge creation on Wikipedia and how are conflicts regulated within it?

Lyrical Introduction

Back in 1751 Denis Diderot, the editor and thought leader of Encyclopédistes had an idea to incorporate the entire world’s knowledge into a universal dictionary. The idea was to separate knowledge from the influence of church, to build an alternative authority in order “to change the way people think” (Hunt, 2007). The influence of this intellectual project was so strong that according to some historical evaluations it has directly affected the course of French revolution, literally caused the destruction of old values and the creation of new ones (Kafker, 1196 ). Just like Encyclopédistes in 17 century, today Wikipedians continue the collaborative effort of forming knowledge pool on a scale never possible before.

Picture of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, retrieved from http://vm1.culture.ru/muzey_istorii_religii/catalog/small/0002500340/

WikiWiki is the Hawaiian word that stands for “quick” (Merriam- Webster). Indeed, Wikipedia is a worthy carrier of its name - it provides user an immediate access to world’s knowledge treasury. As for the quality of material published, numerous independent studies have declared it comparable to Britannica, encyclopedia that is world-wide recognized and highly ranked (Giles, 2005). It is curios how rapidly Wikipedian knowledge has evolved. According to the director of Russian Wikimedia, in the year of 2001 when the resource appeared in Russian language, the article about Russia contained two sentences “Russia - a country. A Birthplace of Elephants” (The Village, 2014). Back then it was a hangout for geeks and jokers. However, right in front of our eyes, within a decade it has developed and moved into streams of cultural, social, academic, and enterprise work activity. It is another fascinating historical example of how collective intelligence emerges from mass collaboration engaged with the latest technology.

Walk in STS’s shoes, see Wikipedia as a “live” knowledge

Wikipedia is “an Internet-based, user contributed encyclopedia that is collaboratively edited and crowd-sourced” (Lih, 2004). Behind these words the whole philosophy standing: the concept of wiki is the idea that any user on Internet can change any web-page within the web-site, even anonymously. Seemingly a paradox (how could such an “anarchical” method force the development of a resource so highly regarded?), in reality it is a materialization of a brilliant assumption that knowledge can never be truly fixed, because even what is considered “facts” is always a matter of construction. Attempts to accommodate “live” knowledge flow the way it is presented in Wikipedia via traditional modes of publishing and peer-review will inevitably lead to failure. Not many users of Wikipedia are aware that Wikipedia that we know and eagerly use now is a drastic reincarnation of its precursor, Nupedia. Nupedia was meant to be an encyclopedia that introduced free reviewing and editing rights…to field experts. Editing was strictly controlled; the working structure was fairly complex, including formal roles for writers, editors, peer-reviewers, copyeditors and translators. Participants were obliged to possess a PhD degree in order to able to edit. The outcome was unpromising – the project ran out of money and resources, conventional peer-review process has “slowed the rate of production to a crawl” (Swarts, 2009) that ended up with leaving only a few hundred articles behind (Lih, 2004).

Black Box Half Opened 

Today any article on Wikipedia is a black box half-opened. Entries on Wikipedia are bundles of people, sources, references, links, facts, technologies and interfaces. Knowledge that appears out of it is punctualized (Latour, 2005), it is a product that has emerged, was negotiated, translated, stabilized and black – boxed by various actors (Swarts, 2009). However, when using Wikipedia one rarely reflects on the components that make it function the way it does, it is rather perceived as a unified object, an integral information source. At the same time with a smallest effort one can open up that black box and take a look inside. Whether it is done out of ideological considerations or out of pure curiosity, actors can always be easily revealed. Possibility to break that black boxes is out there not merely as an opportunity, but even more so as a call, once you are registered as a member. From being an observer one can, and is most welcomed to turn into a network-member.

ANT in general appears plausible in grasping Wikipedia’s organization. Entities that strive to become stable are “series of non-necessary, temporary and reversible connections between…human and non-human actors”, in which the notion of collaborator is expanded and networks are “enacted by many simple mediating relationships that collectively give rise to a unified outcome” (Swarts, 2009) 
How stories (should not) turn into wars 
Eventually, Wikipedian, as well as any other knowledge, is a story that is being told, a story that represents a collision of different standpoints, experiences and interests. As any story, with a course of time, it will inevitably be supplied with newer twists and turns. On the one hand, the more people participate in telling a story, the more detailed and therefore more accountable it becomes. On the other hand, re-telling a story for the sake of having the last word in the argument or out of other personal motives can bring most absurd outcomes and destroy its plausibility. In all this regards, Wikipedia is the best stage to observe the dynamics of conflicts in writing new knowledge, as well as strategies that can regulate it. How about taking a closer look at the rules that guide the creation of entities on Wikipedia and resolve conflicts appearing along the way, e.g. its most radical form – “editor wars”. But first, an anecdote.

In December 2016 the following photo has appeared by an article about the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902. It shows the piper Gilbert Kerr, who was part of the expedition, playing the bagpipes while standing beside a penguin.

An unknown visitor of Wikipedia decided to correct the signature under the photograph, indicating that the bagpiper (seemingly obvious) is on the right. This was noticed by the user of Twitter under the nickname Alanferrier, who published two variants of the description in the social network to the photo. "Who would have believed that the ideal signature under this snapshot could be made even better?" - he remarked.

Screen shot of Twitter entry, Alan Ferrier: https://twitter.com/alanferrier/status/808764211648200706

After been published, the post of Alanferrier gained viral popularity, getting an enormous amount of likes and retweets. Inspired by the tweet, Wikipedia users began to change the caption to the photo. On December 14th only the description was edited more than 30 times. Basically, users jokingly swaped the penguin and the bagpiper. Some began to argue that the photos do not need such a detailed and accurate description, because, it is obvious where the person is, and where the bird is. Others made jokes on the “indifference of the penguin not being supported by the references”. 

Despite the fact that the original description was returned in the end, on the Internet one may still find a separate page with the photo: "Herbert Kerr (piper, right) with the penguin (left) during the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition”, as well as follow the whole history of edits of the entry.
Normally, editors of Wikipedia should contribute to the content, adding value to entries, and work towards higher plausibility while doing their best to maintain a neutral point of view. Finding consensus is the main mantra of Wikipedia, a message to be found in all its regulative documents. Such setup is considered ideal, most natural, and by far the most common, way for Wikipedian entries to be developed (Wilkinson, 2007). According to the recent research editors of English Wikipedia indeed constructively collaborate on editing: they correct minor errors and mistakes until a consensual article emerges (Yasseri et al., 2012). In English Wikipedia close to 99% of the articles result from this such a smooth, cooperative process (Schneider et al., 2010). Nevertheless, some of the topics provoke hot debates among editors who represent opposing opinions. These conflicts have received the title of “edit wars”. Formally, the story of piper Kerr and a penguin could be attributed to “war”, a war of sense of humors. No doubt , a huge amount of such wars are simply a fight against vandalism and overdoing reverts. Schneider et al. (2010) estimate such discussion of being about 12%.

Naturally, Wikipedia administration has elaborated a system of restrains that regulate conflict situations and do not allow edit wars to unfold. First and foremost locking articles from unregistered users, banning malicious vandals and trolls, tagging controversial articles, and of course, 3 RR . Three-revert rule presumes that “an editor must not perform more than three reverts on a single page—whether involving the same or different material—within a 24-hour period” (Wikipedia). Violation of this rule will lead to banning of 24 hours as minimum. Editing policy gives fine-grained clarification on what is an entry, what is a revert, what are the exemptions and how can one avoid banning once violating rules by mistake. Those who care can get the detailed information by following the link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Edit_warring . Wikipedian folklore cultivated this subject in a joky form in an article on Lamest edit wars: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Lamest_edit_wars

"An unidentified clerk (center) tries to bring an end to a great edit war involving dozens of respected editors. At her feet, three bewildered newcomers are seen caught in the middle of the dispute".

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Lamest_edit_wars#/media/File:The_Intervention_of_the_Sabine_Women.jpg

Wikipedia is amazing, because it maintains an enormous amount of principles of open science simultaneously: it is accessible, inclusive, it is collaborative, it is financially transparent. It is democratic, I would say, although in STS the word is “mauvais ton”. After all, it always gives user the right to decide and to carry that responsibility. Wikipedia is huge field to explore for a social scientist, and will produce more food for research with each day. It is contradictory as any huge movement within social and scientific reality, and the questions of accuracy, plausibility, quality etc. will inevitably pop up, as well as the conflicts will arise in different levels of Wikipedian activity. This cannot be avoided, because controversy is not inherent in relicts, it always resides in what is alive. Wikipedia is alive, and that’s why I like it.


Giles, J. 2005. Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature 438: 900. Retrieved from http://inspercom.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/GILES_Internet-encyclopaedias-go-head-to-head2005Cit.496_Junho-de-2015.pdf Access date 08.06.2017

Hunt, L. 2007. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History: Volume II: Since 1340, Second Edition, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Kafker, F.A. 1996. The Encyclopedists as a Group: A Collective Biography of the Authors of the “Encyclopédie.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, volume 345. Edited by, Anthony Strugnell. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation. Pp. xxvii+222.

Latour,B. 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press.

Lyh, A. 2004. Wikipedia as Participatory Journalism: Reliable Sources? Metrics for evaluating collaborative media as a news resource. Paper for the 5th International Symposium on Online Journalism, University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved from: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f5d4/720f9b5ed36efb629409240c1f194e733316.pdf Access date 12.05.2017

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wikiwiki

Schneider, J., Passant, A. & Breslin, J. .2010. A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis of How Wikipedia Talk Pages Are Used. Retrieved from https://www.bibsonomy.org/bibtex/242e04860dd9c08036fcaf72a431857a9/davids Access date 16.06.2017
Swarts, J. 2009. The collaborative construction of ‘fact’ on Wikipedia. In Proceedings of the 27th ACM International Conference on Design of Communication (SIGDOC, Bloomington, IN, USA). Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1622051 Access date 20.06.2017

Wilkinson, D., Huberman B. 2007. Assessing the value of cooperation in wikipedia. First Monday 12. Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/article/view/1763/1643 Access date 14.05.2017

Yasseri, T., Sumi, R., Rung, A., Kornai, A., Kertész, J. 2012. Dynamics of Conflicts in Wikipedia. PLOS ONE 7(6): e38869. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0038869 Access date 03.05.2017

1 comment:

  1. Hi! I really like the topic that you chose, however i have to admit the structure of the post does not help following your rationale or the answering of the initial questions. Furthermore, you hint to some facts or methods, such as ANT, without explanation and the reader does not always get the idea (of your mental leap). I would also like to point out to you that there is a body of STS related literature dealing with Wikipedia, the most prominent one about the politics of openness is by NATHANIEL TKACZ from 2015 http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/W/bo19085555.html
    It is a very good read if you would like to work more on the topic.