How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It

How Wikipedia Works
How Wikipedia Works

Kevin Kelly has written:

The Wikipedia is impossible, but here it is. It is one of those things impossible in theory, but possible in practice.

I couldn’t agree more: the scope of Wikipedia’s success is stupefying to me. The project can teach us many things about how we can utilise small inputs from many to create something grand.

Ayers, Matthews and Yates have written How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It and made it a free cultural work by licensing it under the GNU Free Documentation License. The complete book is freely available online at

They have managed to truly deliver on both meanings of the title. The book gives an in-depth explanation of how Wikipedia literally works (i.e. the syntax, the software, categories, templates and more) and how it can work as a community based collaborative effort (through philosophies, guidelines, processes and policies).

After reading it, I now have a much better understanding of the project as a whole, including the other Wikimedia projects, while also understanding that there is much more to learn about the five pillars of Wikipedia which summarise Wikipedia as a website, a mission and a community:

The book is very valuable for educators. One of the best chapters outlines how to evaluate the quality of an article. By using different techniques, including looking at the history of a page, checking the backlinks to an article, taking account of the warning messages and verifying the sources, you can quickly judge the value of the information (for more on this see Researching with Wikipedia). Teaching students how to do this could push the discussion about allowing students to use Wikipedia as a source for research to another level. Even more interesting is make working on Wikipedia an assignment for your students. If I was teaching in tertiary education right now, I would be sure to do this. It will teach students more valuable skills than an essay only written for the professor’s eyes could ever do. There is group of Wikipedians happy to help and set up these kind of projects.

In short: read this book!

Finally two random (but Wikipedia related) links that I enjoyed and want to share with you:

  • Pediapress. A print on demand service for selections of Wikipedia articles. Create your own books by picking the articles you like to have in it and have it shipped to you for a very reasonable price. Selections by others are available through their catalogue. Try Educational Technology for example.
  • An interesting essay, found through the book, about avoiding instructional creep:

    The fundamental fallacy of instruction creep is thinking that people read extremely long, detailed instructions. What’s more, many bureaucracies also arise with the deliberate intent to be alternatives to regulations; this is almost always noticed by the other side, and tends to antagonize.

    Something to always stay aware of!

6.6 Degrees of separation on average

Stanley Milgram was a very innovative social experimenter. I will keep his experiments on authority for another blog post and instead will focus on his Small world experiment, which I have always found fascinating.

In 1969 he tried to figure out whether the world was becoming a “small world” network by sending out packages to random people in the US and asking them to try and get the package in as little steps as possible to a contact in Boston. His research showed that people in the US seemed to be connected through three friendship links on average.

Some students later invented the “six degrees of kevin bacon” game (connecting each film actor to Bacon in 6 film cast lists or fewer) which popularised the term “six degrees of separation”.

Milgram’s research methodology had some problems and later attempts to redo the experiment using e-mail were never very successful (I personally tried to do a version of the experiment with my highschool students which failed miserably).

According to the Guardian Microsoft has now finally proved the theory using raw data from their messaging logs. The average degrees of separation globally (by people that use MSN at least) seems to be 6.6:

Researchers at Microsoft studied records of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people in various countries, according to the Washington Post. This was ‘the first time a planetary-scale social network has been available,’ they observed. The database covered all the Microsoft Messenger instant-messaging network in June 2006, equivalent to roughly half the world’s instant-messaging traffic at that time.

This is an example of a new way of doing research. The amount of data that is being collected by some technology companies is so massive that you don’t need a theory anymore, you can just look at the patterns instead (see Wired’s The End of Theory).

What could this mean for learning? Imagine the amount of things we could find out about how people learn if we would have an equivalent of MSN or Facebook in the learning space! What would all Moodle logs combined tell us about how learning technology is used?

Which organisation will be the first to leverage our small world and use it for learning?

Gang Leader for a Day

A couple of years ago I read Stephen Levitt’s fascinating book Freakonomics. One of the most interesting themes covered was the economics of a drug selling gang in Chicago. Levitt had access to a couple of years of ledger books detailing the income and expenses for one particular chapter of the Black Knights gang. The person who gave him these ledger book was Sudhir Venkatesh who spent a couple of years doing research in the Robert Taylor Homes.

Venkatesh has now written a book about his time in the “projects”: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. This book is very interesting on many different levels. In the beginning of the book he accidentally gets into contact with a gang leader, J.T., who is strangely willing to have Venkatesh tag along and lets him in on the secrets of gang life. He visits the neighbourhood over a period of years, gradually expanding the number of people who trust him and are willing to share their story with him.

Throughout the book he struggles with his research methodology. He is convinced that doing traditional quantitative research using objective surveys does not lead to any deep insights into why it is so hard for many people to get out of poverty and how it is that people do manage to struggle along. On the other hand his participatory research is also troublesome. What is he to do when he witnesses the gang planning or doing illegal activities? How does he earn people’s trust? He notices that by observing all kind of hustlers and trying to get to know as much about them as possible, he himself is also slowly turning into a hustler: a hustler for information.

I was surprised to find out how much of the drug trade is run as a normal business. Most of J.T.’s problems and dilemma’s are managerial. His actions and behaviour on the street are all in the interest of selling more drugs and keeping their customers happy.

There are a couple of parallels between the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago and the “Bijlmer” area (Amsterdam South-East) where I have been working as a teacher for several years. The sense of community where people know each other and look out for each other is very recognisable. They also share the failure of the urban renewal programs in the 60’s and 70’s. From the book:

From the outset urban renewal held the seeds of its own failure. White political leaders blocked the construction of housing for blacks in the more desirable white neighborhoods. And even though blighted low-rise buildings in the ghetto were replaced with highrises like the Robert Taylor Homes, the quality of the housing stock wasn’t much better. Things might have been different if housing authorities around the country were given the necessary funds to keep up maintenance on these new buildings. But the buildings that had once been the hope of urban renewal were already, a short forty years later, ready for demolition again.

This is exactly what happened in the Bijlmer. Looking back, it is hard to understand how the nearly ideological architectural ideas behind the highrises that were built with expansive empty spaces between them weren’t seen as the complete failures that they turned out to be. I’ll revisit this theme in a post in the future.