Writing Wikipedia: An online-offline ethnography about Wikipedians

Jörn Schulz
Telekom Innovation Laboratories, TU Berlin, Germany


Without looking it up, you know where the first Google or Bing search result for various terms like "Social Media" or "Maya calendar" or "Amsterdam" lead you to. Right – to Wikipedia, the biggest (online) encyclopedia the world has ever seen. By the time of writing this paper, the English Wikipedia featured more than four million articles and the German Wikipedia, the second largest language version, over 1.3 million entries. Across all 285 language versions of Wikipedia, a total of over 22 million articles have been written by August 2012 (Wikimedia, 2012). Thus, Wikipedia has an enormous impact on how information and knowledge on the Internet is being codified, presented, and consumed today. This immense popularity and the radical new approach to the preservation of knowledge – that means, every Internet user can write and edit articles without any proof of identity or education/qualification in a specific field of knowledge – has called not just the media into action, but also scientists from various areas of study. As a result, there are a growing number of scientific publications about Wikipedia research, a field that is tellingly called Wikipedia Studies. For example, in his study the sociologist Christian Stegbauer undertakes the attempt to solve the 'puzzle of the cooperation' with the help of a network analysis. His theory explains how the position of certain actors within the system of Wikipedia determines their individual motivation and commitment (Stegbauer, 2009). The educationist Meike Jaschniok examines in her thesis the general educational value of Wikipedia and its articles (Jaschniok, 2007). The economist Oded Nov surveyed the motivation of Wikipedia authors (Wikipedians) with the help of a rating scale (Nov, 2007). And the psychologist Joachim Schroer and his team search for collective motives for the contribution to Wikipedia (Schroer, 2008). Most of these scientists approach their topics with quantitative methods like questionnaires or the analysis of click data available within the Wikipedia system itself.