Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia

Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia

Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia

Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia


With an emphasis on peer- produced content and collaboration, Wikipedia exemplifies a departure from traditional management and organizational models. This iconic "project" has been variously characterized as a hive mind and an information revolution, attracting millions of new users even as it has been denigrated as anarchic and plagued by misinformation. Has Wikipedia's structure and inner workings promoted its astonishing growth and enduring public relevance?

In Common Knowledge?, Dariusz Jemielniak draws on his academic expertise and years of active participation within the Wikipedia community to take readers inside the site, illuminating how it functions and deconstructing its distinctive organization. Against a backdrop of misconceptions about its governance, authenticity, and accessibility, Jemielniak delivers the first ethnography of Wikipedia, revealing that it is not entirely at the mercy of the public: instead, it balances open access and power with a unique bureaucracy that takes a page from traditional organizational forms. Along the way, Jemielniak incorporates fascinating cases that highlight the tug of war among the participants as they forge ahead in this pioneering environment.


I woke up, drank my coffee, and scanned e-mails. I nibbled at a sandwich. As I did every day, still in my pajamas, I launched my browser and started casually perusing the news. I also opened Wikipedia to check recent changes in the articles I followed. Bam! There it was. I could not log in. It took me a minute or so to realize that it was not a mistake of the server and that I was really, genuinely blocked. I was shocked and furious. “How dare they!” I thought. “I should do something about this!” I then recalled the events that led to my being blocked.

In September 2008 a request to become an administrator (request for adminship; RfA) was made on behalf of Lorry, a Wikipedia user, or editor, with the support of another administrator, or admin. Lorry was a promising editor (she later became a highly trusted member of the Polish Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee and the author of twenty-five featured articles) with a decent and diverse edit count, so her candidacy was no surprise to anyone in the community.

Yet the RfA took an unexpected turn. One of the first votes came from Prot, an experienced editor (now with a five-digit edit count), notorious for his right-wing beliefs and for polarizing the community (which led to him being blocked quite a number of times), and respected for his intelligence and excellent understanding of Wikipedia rules. He wrote,

How many users would vote for a candidate, who, just one day before the RfA,
on their own userpage would declare “This user loves Adolf Hitler”? and this
candidate had a declaration that she “loved Lev Trotsky.” Anybody who daz
zles readers with admiration to one of the biggest murderers and criminals
in the world history is not, in my view, a good candidate for an admin. She
also had other userboxes, expressing her political engagement, and this shows
that the candidate has a strong need to show political declarations, and thus I
doubt that she would be able to be neutral in related dispute resolutions.

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