What does it mean to be a participant observer in a place like Wikipedia?

This post first appeared on Ethnography Matters on May 1.

The vision of an ethnographer physically going to a place, establishing themselves in the activities of that place, talking to people and developing deeper understandings seems so much simpler than the same activities in multifaceted spaces like Wikipedia. Researching how Wikipedians manage and verify information in rapidly evolving news articles in my latest ethnographic assignment, I sometimes wish I could simply to go the article as I would to a place, sit down and have a chat to the people around me.

Wikipedia conversations are asynchronous (sometimes with whole weeks or months between replies among editors) and it has proven extremely complicated to work out who said what when, let alone contact and to have live conversations with the editors. I’m beginning to realise how much physical presence is a part of the trust building exercise. If I want to connect with a particular Wikipedia editor, I can only email them or write a message on their talk page, and I often don’t have a lot to go on when I’m doing these things. I often don’t know where they’re from or where they live or who they really are beyond the clues they give me on their profile pages.

Another issue unique to the online platform is that the identity of the researcher online is often critical to their getting access to people. I’m guessing that when I contact someone for an interview, the first thing they would do would be to look me up (first on Wikipedia user profile and then perhaps via a Google search) to see whether they want to reply or not. For my 2011 Egyptian Revolution article work, I’m expecting that people are going to be careful about who they talk to. They need to be able to trust that I’m going to hear their story and do it justice.

It seems that, in the often-polarized world of Wikipedia, positioning is the most critical aspect of my identity. People want to know whether I’m a Wikimedia Foundation groupie or an independent activist or an academic researcher or a journalist/blogger. The global Wikimedia community is a highly politicized space, where power is being continually negotiated with (or wrested from) one another and so people want to know where I stand on important issues.

The complication (which I think is also beneficial for my research) is that I have been all of those things in the past six or seven years. I’ve been a Wikimedia Foundation advisory board member, I’ve offered public critique (and praise) of the foundation, and I’ve written about Wikipedia in academic publications and the press. That means that my role and perspectives can seem complicated or obscure.

Another key question regarding the participant observation issues is around how much editing do I need to do in order to get a true understanding of what is happening on the platform? And should I be editing the pages that I’m studying? For the moment, I’m realizing that more editing is actually helpful – not only because it enables me to understand the process of editing as a newbie but also because it shows I’m committed to getting an insider’s perspective, something I think Wikipedians really value. Wikipedia editing is so complex and time-consuming that I think many researchers don’t do the hard work and so are missing some of the insider lingo and information about relationships that forms a critical part of being a participant observer.

I’ve come up with three principles that I’m following in this research.

1. Transparency. It is really essential that researchers make participants aware of their role and identity in the space. On Wikipedia, I’ve done this by indicating my research intentions on my Wikipedia profile page, but I’ve also had to communicate my position and role in other Wikimedia spaces such as internal mailing lists. I’ve done this by articulating this as a story about my own evolution. I recently wrote in response to a question about my position: “I’ve moved in recent years towards a career as a researcher, specifically an ethnographic researcher because I felt like the free and open movement needed some critical thinking as we evolve globally. That means that I don’t always (publicly) agree with what organisations like the WMF do or say, but it also means that I’m committed to being a part of how this movement evolves, particularly with regard to the place of Africa and other developing regions in that future. I just believe that the best way for me to do that is to come from a really informed place rather than as a pure advocate, believing that informed critique is often one of the most helpful things for growth.”

2. Empathy. If you do the hard work and become a true participant observer, you can’t fake this. I was recently struck by how empathetic Tanya Luhrman sounded in an interview about the personal relationships evangelicals develop with God (‘When God Talks Back’). Even when she was talking about how some Christians put an extra cup of coffee out for God as they had a conversation (or went on a date) with God, she displayed none of the mockery or derision that usually accompanies these kinds of statements. I’ve also noticed in myself how much more empathetic I have become for editors after my initial opinions after I did a deep dive into the dynamics of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution article. Empathy is really critical because it doesn’t require you to take sides and enables greater trust between participants and researchers.

3. Collaboration. Ever since I read the Anderson et al piece that talks about data as conversation and an opportunity for research participants to talk back to the data, I’ve been thinking more about the opportunities for participants to feed back into the research process. For now, this has meant that I send early drafts of my papers to those I’ve interviewed for them to feel happy about the way in which they have been represented. I’ve had some wonderful, illuminating conversations as a result of this practice and it means that I have also developed trust among participants, even if they don’t always like what I have written.

This is definitely still a work in progress, so I’d love to hear from others about challenges they’ve encountered working online and any principles they’re developing to become trusted researchers in their chosen spaces.

Featured pic by jacsonquerubin on Fickr. CC BY NC SA 2.0

3 thoughts on “What does it mean to be a participant observer in a place like Wikipedia?

  1. Pingback: Wikipedia’s Tahrir Square | Saha Amma

  2. Great post! One question: have you been able to verify any of these insights with the people you are studying? For example, you write that you expect that people will respond to your requests for interviews by first looking you up on Wikipedia, Google, etc. Have you ever followed up on that with people to see what their investigations of you are like? Or are you extrapolating from your own behavior?

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