Wikimedia Strategy: Ideas for Strengthening Online Communities


(Harvard Business Review) – 09/02/10

For those of you who have been following Wikimedia’s open strategy initiative on this blog, you’ll know that one of the goals of the work has been to strengthen the health of the Wikipedia community of contributors who create and use its online encyclopedias. In a healthy community, contributors feel a sense of affiliation and social bonding, they come from diverse backgrounds and expertise areas required to accomplish the project’s expansive work, remain open to differences of perspective and able to resolve disputes respectfully. “Community health” is a hot topic among participants engaged in developing the Wikimedia strategy, both within the broader Wikimedia community and outside it.

Our hunting and gathering of ideas for improving community health got a booster shot last month when Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner, deputy director Erik Moeller and I had the opportunity to spend the day with Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales as well as with Clay Shirky, adjunct professor in NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program and author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. The subject of the day was the state of the Wikipedia community, and its objective was to generate ideas. Our discussion drew on the work of two Wikimedia strategy task forces and generated valuable insights for both Wikimedia and for others thinking about creating social networks that grow steadily, deepen participation and build purposeful community. Here are some tenets we surfaced:

1. The noisy and destructive few can make an entire community feel hostile and unfriendly; healthy communities need to create rules and norms to support positive behavior and address destructive conduct. Lack of rules or presence of anarchy constitutes a set of rules in itself that, as Mitchell Kapor says, rewards a “functioning old boy’s network” that thrives on opaque power structures. Jimmy’s experience of Wikipedia is as a community of “nice, quiet people who are friendly and collaborative.” The challenge comes when the community grows and it attracts “jerks, who are difficult to manage in an informal, collaborative fashion.” At some point, rules are needed to protect the community from destructive forces. As Clay shared, “when you grow, then the 1% of activity that is a problem becomes big enough to matter.” In his work, he shared that any community needs rules as it grows and ages. “The question to answer is not whether to have rules, but what are the rules going to be? What is the process for forming, revising and revoking rules?” For Wikimedia, there has been and continues to be a lot of work to do to develop the rules that serve and protect the needs of a healthy, vibrant community.

2. Any community establishes norms in the form of customs, language and habits that make it easier for the community to function effectively. Often these norms are a modification of those brought to the community by some core members. In the case of Wikipedia, norms brought forward and reinforced have constituted, in Jimmy’s words, “geek culture.” At some point, if the community wants to open up and increase diversity, it needs to make it easier for newcomers who aren’t from the founding culture to learn the ropes and contribute. The existing community needs to find ways to acculturate newcomers and tackle its own biases that inhibit openness. For instance, Jimmy stated that “Star Trek and the American Girl doll series receive different treatment within Wikipedia, simply because the culture loves science fiction and sees similar pop culture stuff as ‘foreign’ and ‘wrong’. This needs to improve.”

3. As communities grow, the informal approaches to “knowing” other community members that help build trust, support collaboration and enable group affiliation can fall apart. There is a tendency to create “reputation systems” that use certain metrics to assign people reputations (e.g., eBay’s seller rating, Amazon’s reviewer profiles). These systems have their benefits, but figuring out how to measure reputation in a way that reinforces positive behaviors and can’t be “gamed” is really hard in a collaborative social network. After all, one wants to know the interests, motivations, biases and underlying agendas of one’s counterparts — which are not easily synthesized into a rating. Clay warned against overreaching: “once reward systems take on importance in a community…they become worth fighting over…Wikipedia does really well in providing intrinsic rewards (self-fulfillment). Reward/reputation systems carry risks, so tread lightly. When you must act, do so with careful deliberation and a lot of low risk experimentation.”

4. A keen insight from Clay and Jimmy regarding effective communities centered on the power of harnessing markets to solve problems. They articulated a view that a command-and-control management approach risks both alienating the community and arriving at the wrong solution. They espoused an approach that enables users to experiment by building apps and leveraging data for problem solving that enrich their experience and the community. By making apps and data tools sharable within the community, the best solutions would gain wide usage and through the community marketplace would emerge as a new normal. The Foundation in its role as a support to new users could assemble default packages of apps and tools for new users that would support their orientation, but contributors could readily opt out or change their experience at will. This is a thoughtful approach that taps into the wisdom of the community and the volunteer energy that is a hallmark of Wikipedia.

What do you think about the tenets gleaned from the discussion? What implications might these have for the online or offline communities that you are engaged with? What problems do you foresee in these approaches for Wikimedia and others?

Barry Newstead is a partner at The Bridgespan Group currently supporting Wikimedia’s open strategy process.

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