Coordinating the Commons: Diversity & Dynamics in Open Collaborations

Dissertation by Jonathan T. Morgan: “The success of Wikipedia demonstrates that open collaboration can be an effective model for organizing geographically-distributed volunteers to perform complex, sustained work at a massive scale. However, Wikipedia’s history also demonstrates some of the challenges that large, long-term open collaborations face: the core community of Wikipedia editors—the volunteers who contribute most of the encyclopedia’s content and ensure that articles are correct and consistent — has been gradually shrinking since 2007, in part because Wikipedia’s social climate has become increasingly inhospitable for newcomers, female editors, and editors from other underrepresented demographics. Previous research studies of change over time within other work contexts, such as corporations, suggests that incremental processes such as bureaucratic formalization can make organizations more rule-bound and less adaptable — in effect, less open— as they grow and age. There has been little research on how open collaborations like Wikipedia change over time, and on the impact of those changes on the social dynamics of the collaborating community and the way community members prioritize and perform work. Learning from Wikipedia’s successes and failures can help researchers and designers understand how to support open collaborations in other domains — such as Free/Libre Open Source Software, Citizen Science, and Citizen Journalism.

In this dissertation, I examine the role of openness, and the potential antecedents and consequences of formalization, within Wikipedia through an analysis of three distinct but interrelated social structures: community-created rules within the Wikipedia policy environment, coordination work and group dynamics within self-organized open teams called WikiProjects, and the socialization mechanisms that Wikipedia editors use to teach new community members how to participate.To inquire further, I have designed a new editor peer support space, the Wikipedia Teahouse, based on the findings from my empirical studies. The Teahouse is a volunteer-driven project that provides a welcoming and engaging environment in which new editors can learn how to be productive members of the Wikipedia community, with the goal of increasing the number and diversity of newcomers who go on to make substantial contributions to Wikipedia …”