In his Uberworked and Underpaid, Trebor Scholz draws out an important parallel between the platform capitalism of YouTube and the near universally praised Wikipedia:

Unsurprisingly, YouTube hires countless consultants to better understand how to trigger the participation of the crowd. They wonder how they can get unpaid producers to create value. But equally, on the not-for-profit site, Wikipedia is asking how they can draw in more female editors, for instance.

Both involve an orientation to their users which sees them as objects of management, even if we might see the ends to which they are being managed in very different terms. This makes a lie of what Nick Couldry describes as the ‘myth of us’: the imaginary of platform capitalism which sees it as facilitating the free expression of natural sociability which older socio-technical systems had constrained

From Digital Methods, by Richard Rogers, loc 769:

research has found that there is only a tiny ratio of editors to users in Web 2.0 platforms, including Wikipedia, illustrating what is known as the myth of user-generated content. Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales has often remarked that the dedicated community is indeed relatively small, at just over 500 members. Thus the small cadre of Wikipedia editors could be considered a new elite; one research exercise thus consists in relativizing the alleged differences between amateurs and experts, such as through a study of the demographics of Wikipedians.

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EduWiki Conference 2013 – Call for proposals
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Wikimedia UK’s second annual EduWiki conference will take place in Cardiff on 1 and 2 November 2013.

A recent white paper from TurnItIn, the online plagiarism-prevention service used widely across higher education in the UK, claims that “Wikipedia has an outsized presence as a content source for student writing”. [1] This study is based on an analysis of over 112 million content matches from 28 million student papers submitted to TurnItIn between July 2011 and June 2012. 11% of these content matches are from Wikipedia.  However, the same report is quick to explain that Wikipedia has academic merit in terms of educational value. TurnItIn’s recommendation is to “educate students that the true value of Wikipedia is to provide a curated summary on a topic, and that they should follow the sources and citations at the bottom of Wikipedia entries to verify the accuracy of the information and to uncover primary source material” [2].

Wikmedia UK is now inviting proposals for papers, presentation, provocations and/or posters, especially ones addressing the Wikipedia problem highlighted by the TurnItIn white paper. Proposal for panels and roundtable discussions from groups of three or four participants are also welcome.

Indicative topics include, but are not limited to:

* Wikipedia belongs in Education, including Higher Education

* Wikipedia’s academic merit and educational value

* Examples of using Wikipedia in the high school, college or university classroom

* Ways to deter university students from plagiarizing Wikipedia

* Going beyond Wikipedia by engaging with any of the other major Wikimedia projects: Wikibooks, Wikispecies, Wikiquote, Wikinews, Wikisource, Wikiversity, Wikidata, and Wikimedia Commons, among others.

Email your proposal (including an abstract of up to 200 words) toeducation@wikimedia.org.uk by Monday 26 August 2013. All proposals should also include a brief bio (around 50 words).

Queries about the conference or any other aspect of Wikimedia UK’s Education activities can be sent directly to WMUK’s Education Organiser toni.sant@wikimedia.org.uk

Notes:
——
[1] TurnItIn White Paper. ‘The Sources in Student Writing – Higher Education’, p.10
[2] ibid. p.11

Friday 16th November, 14:00-15:00, British Library Conference Centre, Eliot Room

This 1 hour bite-size talk will provide an introduction to Wikipedia and its community. Andrew will introduce ways Wikipedia can be used by researchers, as well as discussing research done using Wikipedia as a subject.

Friday 23rd November, 14:00-16:00, British Library Conference Centre, Eliot Room

This 2 hour workshop will involve a short general introduction to the Wikipedia projects and a discussion of how they are created and developed, followed by a more in-depth practical session involving learning the basics of editing and engaging with other contributors.
Please bring a laptop; there is wireless internet access, but computers are not provided.

Places are free but limited, so please book your place soon to avoid disappointment by emailing claire.packham@bl.uk, specifying which of the sessions you wish to attend.

A project like Wikipedia thrives because of it’s ability to harness the efforts of occasional contributors. As Clay Shirky suggests in his excellent  Here Comes Everybody, the numbers willing to make a small contribution (e.g. proof reading an article and correcting typos) vastly outstrip the numbers willing (or able!) to sit and write an entire article from scratch. This dynamic allows collaborative production to spiral into an endless series of feedback loops, as a few who contribute a lot provide raw material which a far greater number who contribute a little subsequently ‘mop up’ (i.e. rephrase, extend, correct), in turn expanding the scope of the site and increasing both its actualtraffic andpotential appeal, bringing ever more co-producers to Wikipedia. It’s an incredibly powerful iterative process, as can be seen in the statistics describing the site’s growth:

In fact the sophistication which characterises the discussion at the above link (how best to model Wikipedia’s growth) is testament to the intellectual power of iterative co-production. So the obvious question is: how can this dynamic be harnessed by social science 2.0?

One of the obvious problems which Wikipedia raises, particularly within academia, is that of expertise. How can the intellectual outputs of an anonymous and collaborative endeavour be trusted? After all, academic life is predicated on systems of accreditation which have been evolving for centuries. The simple answer is that it’s not warranted to uncriticallytrust any particular article on Wikipedia because mistakes and inaccuracies pervade the system. Expertise is an emergent characteristic of the overarching site but not one (at least not a taken-for-granted on) of any one article.

If this was a commercial encyclopedia then this inadequacy would be something of a deal-breaker. People wouldn’t pay money for a series of books that they couldn’t trust and, conversely, the manufacturer wouldn’t produce a series of books which people would be unlikely to pay for. However what makes Wikipedia unique is a generic property of the web (massively reduced production costs) and a specific property of the site itself (open-ended self-correction). These add up to one very special property: minimal cost of failure. The point at which aggregative failure threatens the integrity & utility of the overarching system is far lower than any comparable pre-internet endeavour.

As a system Wikipedia can survive a great deal of failure and, in turn, this facilitates iterative self-correction. Because there’s no central agency which has invested money in the project in the hope of making a profit, there’s no incentive to cut their losses because the project ceases to be commercially viable. This lack of a cut off point means that iterative co-production can continue and, through doing so, actually correct the failures which might otherwise have led to its demise. In the process new failures will occur but these too can be corrected.

I find Wikipedia absolutely fascinating when seen in cybernetic terms. There are three properties I’ve discussed which need to be considered when articulating a concept of Social Science 2.0:

  1. Harnessing small contributions effectively
  2. Maintaining function in spite of recurrent failure
  3. Rendering accreditation and expertise unproblematic