New book: The Digital Potlatch

The Wikipedia Editor Survey 2011, published last April, emphasized the importance of explicit acknowledgement and recognition of effort among Wikipedia editors as an instrumental factor to sustaing and grow its community over the next years (page 4):

Positive Reinforcement: Acknowledging the effort of editors is important to reverse the editor decline. It is a commonly held view that editors just want to see their articles improve and read by lots of people and they don’t care about the opinion of their peers. This is false. The survey finds that acknowledgement of peers via a nice note or a barnstar (or kitten) is valued even more highly than achieving featured article status. To sustain and grow our community, we need to provide each other with positive feedback, and we should create tools to make it easy to do so.

In fact, this is the central argument of “El Potlatch Digital: Wikipedia y el Triunfo del Procomún y el Conocimiento Compartido” [“The Digital Potlatch: Wikipedia and the Triumph of Commons and Shared Knowledge”], a new book that I have written along with Joaquín Rodríguez, vice-dean of EOI. The book has been published in Spanish by Ediciones Cátedra, and now it should be available in your favourite book shop.

Klallam people at Port Townsend

Photo by James Gilchrist Swan Public Domain Mark

Participation in Internet communities has been a fascinating topic for researchers, practitioners and members of these communities. A previous study by Michlmayr, Robles and González-Barahona showed evidence of lasting volunteer participation in Debian. In this work, they defined the half-life of contributors as the “the time required for a certain population of maintainers to fall to half of its initial size”. Their estimation for the half-life in Debian was 7.5 years. In other words, after 7.5 years of project evolution we can still find 50% of the initial Debian maintainers participating in the project. Enough said about the commitment shown by Debian developers.

In the case of larger online communities like Wikipedia we need to account for the effects of casual contributors versus more active and experienced editors. In any case, our study on the inequality of contributions to Wikipedia, published in 2008, shows that the balance between casual and very active contributors has remained stable since many years ago (2004). Even more interesting is the fact that this balance did not experimented any variation from 2007 onwards, despite the well-known “plateau effect” in the monthly number of edits to the largest Wikipedias starting that year.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to infer possible causes behind this behavioral patterns from observational studies like these ones. What does it make participants to stay in online communities? What factors motivate them to contribute? Why do they stop participating? This book is an attempt to shed some light on this, mixing empirical results with qualitative investigation (interviews to editors in the Spanish Wikipedia).

Our conclusion is clear: meritocracy and effort recognition has a central role in the motivation of contributors in collaborative habitats like Wikipedia. This resembles the Potlatch, an example that let us understand how in certain contexts we need to give away our capital (material or intangible) so that the community can give it back to us as acknowledgment, recognition and renown. As a result, in these collaborative habitats the working capital does not have a monteray but a symbolic nature, under the form of reputation and popularity, and the logic of its accumulation demands unselfishness to create antoher form of social value. We don’t claim that this example is valid for all kind of Internet communities, but some of the best-known cases (such as Wikipedia) exemplify the triumph of shared knowledge and Commons over other individualistic strategies.

  • PS: We believed that it was a great opportunity to publish this book in Spanish, specially with a reputated publisher such as Alianza, given the lack of books about Wikipedia in our native language. However, we would be very happy to have this book also available in English. So if you can help please let us know!*