Wikipedia: a Social Playground

On: September 22, 2009
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About Charlotte Hendriks
Now a Bachelor of Arts, Charlotte has mainly focused on new media throughout her academic career. At the University of Amsterdam she started the Media & Culture BA in 2006 and earned the degree mid 2009. Apart from studying New Media, she also focused on Art History, Philosophy and Science and Technology Studies. This year she is aiming to earn my Master Degree in New Media, also at the University of Amsterdam.

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http://charrahcblog.wordpress.com    

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is an interesting product of the Web 2.0. Wikipedia asks its users to actively participate, add and change the content of the website, in order to create a knowledge database which is more up to date and holds more information then any other encyclopedia in the world. Basically, Wikipedia employs a power to the people model, in which everyone is the same, theoretically. However, in practice, this is not the case. Certain users have more credibility then others, and the community will be less critical of their input based on previous work.

It is exactly this community that fascinates me. Wikipedia is not a standard social networking site, which gives its users the possibility to interact with other users in order to translate their social lives onto the computer screen. The website does not deal in friendship, it deals in knowledge. Still, in my opinion, much of the appeal of Wikipedia is based on the belonging to the community. Let me clarify this by presenting the example of my own Wikipedia experience.

Before the assignment to start a Wikipedia page, I had no experience whatsoever in editing the online encyclopedia. For starters, I found it quite difficult to even find a topic that had not yet been covered. However, when I did find that topic I encountered the real discouraging part. Wikipedia pages have a certain make up language, within which the user has to function. Once the user has cracked this system, he or she can indeed edit and add articles. It took me about an hour to write two sentences that were Wikipedia worthy, and my enthusiasm for the whole Wikipedia experience had cooled considerably. However, when I returned to ‘my’ page an hour later, it had already been edited by another user; he had added a photo, provided a link to the English Wikipedia article on the subject and placed the article in categories.

The page I wrote was on the Formula 1 Crashgate, and gave the basic facts on the latest scandal in this high profile sport. The sport is dear to my heart, so to make a Wikipedia page on a rather significant subject like the Crashgate was an honor. To find then that there were people out there who also felt the need to add to the article (it progressed even more in the following week) made me realize this Wikipedia experience was a form of “fandom”: people directly jumping in to show their knowledge on the subject or their capability to find useful knowledge makes the community behind Wikipedia as interesting as the information itself.

As silly as it sounds, the fact that people added to my posting made me immensely happy; apparently, the article I added was worthy not only to read, but to edit too. My Wikipedia existence wasn’t in vain, since there were other users agreeing on the usefulness of the article. It was exactly this feeling that made me come back to my entry several times and edit it in order to get the information and lay out completely right. This also made me check facts on other pages and even edit some of those (in complete astonishment I found the current Formula 1 World Championship standings had not entirely been updated, three days after the last race).

However, may of my classmates experienced the exact opposite, with moderators either questioning the usefulness of their articles, or deleting them altogether. Wikipedia then has a threshold, which is strongly guarded by the site’s moderators. When one is over that threshold though, editing the free encyclopedia becomes a pleasant experience that keeps the user engage with his or her placed information.

The moderators obviously are a big part in the process of valuing new posts, however, when the new Wikipedia member has sufficient background info on a topic and manages to write within the Wikipedia guidelines, posts are welcomed. It would however be interesting to see how much of the active participation of Wikipedia actually happens because of social decisions. Seeing someone add to a post one has participated in, makes him or her presumably more eager to add information again and again. Wikipedia is an interesting tool which shows us more than mainly collective intelligence; it’s a social playground.

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