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Wikipedia isn’t as democratic as you might think

New research examines just who is adding to and editing the pages on the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Sorin Adam Matei, a professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, and Brian Britt, an assistant professor in the journalism and mass communication department at South Dakota State University, sought to define just who is providing the massive amount of content. They had access to every edit made to every article from Wikipedia’s first 10 years, 2001-2010.

The top 1% of writers/editors on Wikipedia create about 80% of the content.

“What we saw is that a clear leadership has emerged,” Matei says, “but it’s a leadership that cycles. We have a group of individuals who shape the content by working the hardest and clocking the most hours. The agenda is shaped by these people, and they’re driven by a sense of mission, much like political or religious movements.”

Matei says the top one percent of writers/editors on Wikipedia create about 80 percent of the content. That ratio, Matei says, was shown in their study to be consistent. The writers/editors are not; the main creators change over time.

“It’s like the Tour de France,” he says. “At any particular time, there is a group that leads. Then, they fall back and another pack emerges.”

So, what is in it for these creators?

“This idea that they are shaping what the world knows gives them a sense of individual accomplishment,” says Matei. “That is a thing.”

Matei and Britt have cowritten a new book on their work. The book, Structural Differentiation in Social Media: Adhocracy, Entropy and the ‘1% Effect’ (Springer, 2017), reinterprets the idea that Wikipedia is a commons-based peer production site.

“It is built by peers, but some peers are more equal than others, at least in terms of effort,” says Matei.

The researchers also found that Wikipedia is not unlike any other human organization, following a clear evolutionary path, from a simple entrepreneurial, to a bureaucratic, and finally to an “adhocractic” formula. Some key contributor attributes, such as propensity to work with others or not, moderate the evolution of the organization.

Tool tells Wikipedia editors which articles to translate

“In this volume, we use these attributes to recognize revolutionary changes as well as the gradual, evolutionary drifts that often occur in organizations,” Britt says.

“The book presents some interesting findings about the way in which a new elite has emerged in the world of communication and about the way in which social media groups evolve,” Matei says.

“Adhocracy—the idea that crowdsourcing projects like Wikipedia aren’t these decentralized and spontaneous ventures—is orchestrated by an organizational system that combines a stable power hierarchy with individual mobility,” he says.

Source: Purdue University

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