Developing Knowledge in Wikis, or Stratified Stagnation?

In 2009, Rik Hunter produced Erasing “Property Lines”: A collaborative Notion of Authorship and Textual Ownership on a Fan Wiki. Hunter examined the World of Warcraft Wiki, a monstrously comprehensive encyclopedia of the still-biggest MMO on the planet, World of Warcraft (WoW). Admittedly (and somewhat oddly), I have never played a single minute of World of Warcraft, so any nuances of the actual in-game behavior and communities will be lost to me. However, Hunter’s study of the WoW Wiki seems to be a fairly universal analysis of a fan community establishing a wiki, so my ignorance here will hopefully not leave me blindsided or with glaring flaws.

Hunter’s analysis of the WoW Wiki community was, for the most part, rather positive. He manages to paint a lovely picture of a community of contributors, in which a wide variety of users come together to produce a communal good through a collection of agreed-upon standards and ethics. As a red-blooded American, I was naturally very suspicious of this communistic front. I decided to investigate, and the results weren’t nearly as pretty as Hunter’s little world.

Indeed, the structure that I discovered within the WoW Wiki was more reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s perception of the world. Hunter centers the focus of his discussion on over half a dozen members of the wiki, each representing a supposed stage of wiki conversational discourse. However, when I actually went through to examine the users, only one member, Kirkburn was still active in any way on the site. Kirkburn is not a typical contributor. Kirkburn is an openly-avowed employee of Wikia, and is actually paid to contribute to the site and other wikis. Following Kirkburn was a user who had not contributed in over a year, Baggins. With nearly 50,000 contributions to the WoW wiki, he was the most prolific commenter among those listed, by far. Despite this, he still abandoned the site in favor of a number of other video game wikis, where he was not only a “power user”, but often the founder or administrator of the wiki. Both of these users were identified as matured members of wiki discourse community by Hunter. In addition, there was Ragestorm, who was identified by Hunter as an administrator/mature contributor, but Ragestorm no longer occupies the administrator position, and has not frequented the wiki in over three years.

Among the other users, who compromise the majority of the listed users, their involvement is small enough to almost be considered nonexistent. The Ultimate is the only one of the group to hit triple digit numbers, and Tulon, G0urra, Zalmeeth’s contributions are contained almost entirely in the examples listed in the essay. All of these users were identified by Hunter as developing/maturing members of the Wiki discourse community.

Despite the ideological framework established by Hunter, it is immediately apparent that intellectual development is not occurring among the WoW Wiki users in general, and that the system seems to be run by a handful of elites. Individuals enter the system at a certain level of competence, and they tend to stay exactly there, never advancing or shifting beyond their status, beyond when they “fall off”. I believe this is evidence that educational development among these spheres is not organic, and that discourse will not evolve naturally between users over time. Instead, it appears that if we want all sorts of people to contribute to wikis, we need to either coerce and educate them to do so, or accept that the power and discourse will inevitably fall into the hands of the elite minority.

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