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Communities in the Wiki World

The final session at WikiSym 2007 today is on wiki communities, and starts with a paper by Joseph Reagle, whose research focusses on open content communities in general (probably close to what I would describe as the communities of produsage), and is interested in particular at the role of leaders in such communities. He notes seven features of what he calls authorial leadership: leadership is emergent, and is conferred based on merit and exercised through 'speaking softly'; there is mixed governance, combining meritocracy, autocracy, anarchy, and democracy at various times; leadership is an informal status, and a role as 'benevolent dictator' remains limited and temporary; leaders' key role is to channel momentum towards the development of a community culture; leadership operates through persuasion, arbitration, and defence against disruption, and accrues 'idiosyncrasy credits' (the more respected a leader, the more are they able to act idiosyncratically, autocratically, dictatorially, in the interests of the community as a last resort); there is a danger of overreaching if leaders exercise their power too enthusiastically or are positioned as uncontradictable authorities; but there is also a humour and good faith culture which militates against a glorification of the benevolent dictator. Ultimately, then, the title of benevolent dictator is a kind of tin crown, Joseph suggests; such leaders still need to tread very carefully and need to participate constructively in the community, and they cannot rest on their laurels.

Next up is Felipe Ortega, whose interest is in the quantitative analysis of the Wikipedia user community in order to better understand who really are the authors of Wikipedia. Data dumps of Wikipedia editorship information are readily available, and from this, authors' activity patterns can be discovered; this may enable the identification of a core of very active contributors in much the same way this has been done for other collaborative online projects. Additionally, it is also interesting to examine differences or common patterns across the different language editions of Wikipedia, and to measure the patterns of contribution over different time periods. In previous work by Kittur et al., five categories of authors were distinguished according to the volume of their contributions (in addition to the special group of Wikipedia admins).

In that study, the number of users with less than 100 edits has been steadily rising - not very surprising, perhaps, but this can be described as a rise of the bourgeoisie in Wikipedia. At the same time, the numbers of users at higher levels appears to be entering a period of stagnation. Interestingly, too, in the English-language Wikipedia, the percent of total contributions per month made by admins has been decreasing steadily over recent months, and in total terms, their number of contributions per months is levelling off. This may indicate a gradual topic saturation at least in the English Wikipedia. The wisdom of the crowd is beginning to overwhelm the power of the few.

At the same time, admins may not necessarily be very active contributors at any rate, and such findings may not apply to other language editions. So, the present study conducted some further research. In the first place, it found that the majority of admins are drawn from contributors with 1000 to 5000 contributions to Wikipedia - a medium-level group of contributors. Similarly, in other language editions (such as in the Swedish wiki), the percentage of contributions made by admins appears to be relatively static - this may be because admins in this version are re-elected each year on a basis of their contributions to the community, and are therefore perhaps forced to keep up their participation.

For the English Wikipedia, the study examined the number of contributions made by the top 5% most active authors, which in the most recent time contributed some 10,000,000 edits per month, and in the most part have been active in Wikipedia for a long time. For the top 10%, this is no longer the case: they still contribute some 1,000,000 edits per months in the most recent months, but many of these authors have been active only for a relatively shorter time. For Wikipedias in other languages, the image is different yet again. Overall, then, there is further need to study participation patterns in greater detail; contributions from admins strongly appear to depend on election protocols; and it is possible to discover significant generational changes in the core of most active authors.

The final paper is by Reid Priedhorsky, whose focus is on personalised geowikis for information sharing especially in the bicycling community. A geowiki is a geographically contextualised wiki, ideally also making the map structure itself editable - it should have a graphical Web-map interface with WYSIWYG features, allow for robust linking to geodata (linking to abstracted map features, not simply to explicit map coordinates), and offer comprehensive data monitoring (for example, RSS subscriptions to changes in specific regions) - but such fully-featured geowikis do not yet exist.

The connection to bicycling is that people usually bike where they live, so it is geographic and local, the planning task is hard due to changing conditions, and individuals differ in interests, attitudes and abilities, so it is also intensely personal. Bicycling is also commercial less interested than other forms of transport, leading to the formation of many user-led communities of information sharing. Such resources address three key problems: there is no comprehensive and up-to-date resource (with bicycling information, geographical details, and information about landmarks, resources, and obstacles); there is no automated route finding that is directed specifically at cyclist use; and there are no personalised bikeability ratings which also take into account different ability levels and go beyond selected cycling maps.

The system designed for this project has four core features: a wiki map turning all map aspects into interactive, changeable assets (different from the image-based, non-editable - but annotatable - Google Maps); a facility for annotations and comments; the ability to add personalised bikeability ratings for individual roads; and a route finder allowing users to select specific priorities. The success of such a system depends on users' trust in the system, their propensity to share their own information, their propensity to monitor specific regions and provide information updates from these regions, and their satisfaction with privacy provisions.

There's more testing to be done for the project, but it is likely to be launched in Spring 2008, and its development will be further researched, possibly also with a view especially towards mobile applications, privacy concerns, and further development of routefinding tools.

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