Legitimate Peripheral Participation and becoming a Wikipedia Editor

Wikipedia can be edited by everyone. But after the honeymoon phase until 2006, Wikipedia saw had a slow decline of people joining and staying. Why is it so hard to retain editors?

One way to explain the problem of retention could be the idea of Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP)1. This is a big term, so I try to explain the concept while also telling how it relates to newcomer retention.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation explains how people becoming members in communities of practice. A community of practice are people who have

  • common values (“Free knowledge!” "Facts!")
  • common goals (“Write articles”, “avoid bad articles”)
  • common artifacts (“Discussion pages”, “Wikitext”, “Watchlist”, “Kurier”).

To continue to exist, these communities of practice need new members because some members leave communities over time.

New members are tricky. They are not (yet) good at what a Community of Practice values: E.g. They do not know how one “does” “Free knowledge” 2, they do not know how to use Wikitext or what sources make ”good” sources to cite in an article.

This “Not Knowing” can’t be solved by sending novices to read rules or giving them a class to learn the right behavior: They can't know or learn from the rules itself how and where these rules apply 4. Rules might actually contradict each other and thus novices would need to know how to prioritize them. Rule application also varies with the content: When I add an assertion (e.g. “The element Molybdenum can be used as fertilizer for some plants”), I might want to give a reference to it. But what assertions need to be referenced and how one should do this, is somewhat dependent on a discipline’s culture (e.g. Chemistry) and its subculture on Wikipedia (e.g. contributing to chemistry articles on Wikipedia).

This is not to say that classes don't do anything. But their value for novices is limited. Classes teach participation in a classroom-community-of-practice, not in the wikipedia-community-of-practice.

In Legitimate Peripheral Participation, new members learn by direct participation in the community. This is the participation aspect of Legitimate Peripheral Participation.

Does this mean that novices just come and do everything when they participate? No. The tasks in the beginning are not the most difficult, most admired or otherwise “central” tasks. Instead, novices do peripheral tasks: The tasks are part of the practice (not some exercises) but not super difficult and risky. Such tasks could just have a large time frame (so a difficult task can be done slowly under guidance), beginners could do mundane tasks like taking measurements (e.g. taking blood pressure and pulse as an apprentice nurse in a hospital), fill out forms that are needed (e.g. for the blood pressure, names of new arrivals...) or support more senior members in tasks (as simple as handing and fetching tools)11

To learn, novices need to participate. They do it on a trajectory of moving from being a peripheral member doing peripheral (but relevant, embedded-in-practice) tasks to being a core member doing more core tasks.

But even if novices start with peripheral tasks, there is a wicked problem: New members will not be skilled in the tasks which are valued by other members of the community of practice. This problem exists also for peripheral tasks. New members will inevitably do things “wrong”. To get in new people into a community of practice, new members need to be accepted despite these shortcomings and thus, a community needs to legitimize new people. The legitimization can’t be the practice itself, since new people are by definition bad at it 12. Since new members need to be taught, legitimizing new people has a cost and if people take that cost (e.g. take a trainee), taking the cost needs to be legit itself to the community (otherwise the people who take trainees loose status, making the training activity less meaningful to take on).

New members could be legitimized in many ways: (following examples are NOT for a Wikipedia context)

  • There is some sort of recognized indicator for "potential", be it
    • a PhD in a topic (potential boss or professor...), or
    • hearing voices, which are interpreted as prophecies (potential priest or oracle)
  • Birthright:
    • All female children of Midwives (can) become midwives themselves,
    • all children of knights are noble and thus (can) become knights themselves.
  • People with power get them in (the son of a friend of the boss...)
  • A compensation for training and the additional work, either directly or via some indirect system (taxes etc.)
  • A community has a formalized way of admitting people into a mentored training, e.g. by taking a test, which, if passed, is taken as legitimizing “potential” to be a good member later
  • Community members have a pledge or rule like: “All legit master woodworkers train one apprentice”, thus legitimizing training and new members.
  • ...

Legitimization, for me, is the most wicked problem in getting new people into Wikipedia. The participation and peripheral tasks are plausible, but come without obvious investments and cultural changes. But the lens of legitimization shows that new members need investment that can’t be solutioned away by some new feature in the software or a workshop 14.

How are novices legitimized on Wikipedia? Most likely not by “Writing a good article” , because a novice needs to be part of the community to learn what a good article makes. The same goes for smaller tasks which one could do. They carry less risk (are thus more peripheral) but carry the same problem: people will make mistakes and these new people need to be still legitimate members.

“Legitimization by participation” seems to be an important mechanism in Wikipedia culture. Part of that is the “edit count“, the number of changes or “edits” someone did. Community members value a high edit count; in contrast, having no or few edits clearly indicates a non-member. I saw this used in situations of conflict to erode an argument that it comes not “from within the community”, but from an outsider. One could frame the edit count as a fair indicator of legitimacy: People do not become members by some out-of-practice mechanism (Titles, tests) but the practice itself serves as indicator of legitimacy and power, a model described as “Meritocracy”. However, it creates a rough start for beginners. Also, since there are relatively low explicit access barriers to editing Wikipedia, a person without edits might actually be up to no good, and core community members easily see new accounts this as a sign for trouble and need for assertiveness rather than support for good reasons (Nevertheless, many people still try to do their best to support newcomers)

The Mentorenprogramm (mentorship program) is a legitimizing mechanism in (German) Wikipedia: A more experienced person helps a novice to become an editor. It would be interesting to see if the mentors get status from it or actually lose status in parts of the community (Since they can’t edit when they mentor, thus not do a clearly legit task).

Wikipedias content itself used to indicate legitimate tasks: Red links indicated a lack of an article (showing it is legit to write a just-OK-article there) and spelling mistakes were more frequent and a correction (which is a skill taken from general literacy) was easily made. But red links have been reduced vastly and many small, mundane tasks like fixing common spelling mistakes have become work done by computer programs which edit Wikipedia, so-called bots (They thus increase the legitimacy of people with bot-building-skills, not of newcomers) [Thanks to M. for this perspective]

The legitimization aspect is hard, but so is peripherality:

What are peripheral tasks in Wikipedia? Few, I argue, at least few which can be done by newcomers. With spelling-mistake-fixing automated away and red links being avoided, it is hard to find good tasks. Supplementing sources to claims is often pointed out as a possible task, but sourcing work is tricky. In cases I successfully did it, I probably violated sourcing policies. E.g. One should avoid primary sources, but you can’t write about Actor-network-Theory this way, where there are but one or two “secondary”, textbook-like works at all)

For the sake of clarity, I separated legitimacy and peripherality here, but as you saw in the examples, the legitimate and peripheral tasks are the same. The combination of the two with participation is what makes learning possible. The separation also served to emphasize the need for legitimization which can't emerge from the work done, the “merit” alone, but needs a cultural mechanism to happen.

From the perspective of Legitimate Peripheral Participation, the shrinkage in editors is explainable and potentially even solvable. However, the the current practices are there for reasons: If editors value technical skill and despise spelling mistakes, they write bots for good reasons. If red links and the article creation following them are perceived as generating much work with trolls and advertisements, they are avoided etc.

To stop the decline of community members, Wikipedia and its community would need to create (new) mechanisms of legitimization and allocation of peripheral tasks. This is a big challenge, since the idea of legitimizing a member by ones own good work is an important part of the “Meritocratic” Wikipedia culture, however, it makes becoming a member hard, since inevitably, newcomers won't be “good” in the tasks the community values and they will have a hard time finding tasks which are peripheral and legitimate.

  1. Lave, Jean, and Étienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 

  2. “Knowledge” is, in Wikipedia context, practically exclusively western, explicit knowledge about things and concepts-seen-as-valuable. The term “free knowledge” does not make this obvious. 

  3. There is no quick solution to onboarding newcomers, no technological fix, since, by definition, the process of becoming a member needs time and care. This is in contrast to the assumption in "Californian ideology"13 that any problem can be solved by a friction-less innovation. 

  4. Ford, Heather, and R. Stuart Geiger. 2012. “‘Writing Up Rather Than Writing Down’: Becoming Wikipedia Literate.” In Proceedings of the Eighth Annual International Symposium on Wikis and Open Collaboration, 16:1–16:4. WikiSym ’12. New York, NY, USA: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/2462932.2462954. 

  5. Halfaker, Aaron, Os Keyes, and Dario Taraborelli. 2013. “Making Peripheral Participation Legitimate: Reader Engagement Experiments in Wikipedia.” In Proceedings of the 2013 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 849–860. CSCW ’13. New York, NY, USA: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/2441776.2441872. 

  6. Work results serving as indicator to organize creation of more work results is a “stigmergic” system. Stigmergy in general is described by Heylighten 8, its use in open source projects is described by Bolici 7. I read about the idea first in Rijshouwer 9 

  7. Bolici, Francesco, James Howison, and Kevin Crowston. 2016. “Stigmergic Coordination in FLOSS Development Teams: Integrating Explicit and Implicit Mechanisms.” Cognitive Systems Research, Special Issue of Cognitive Systems Research – Human-Human Stigmergy, 38 (June): 14–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogsys.2015.12.003. 

  8. Heylighen, Francis. 2015. “Stigmergy as a Universal Coordination Mechanism: Components, Varieties and Applications.” Human Stigmergy: Theoretical Developments and New Applications; Springer: New York, NY, USA. 

  9. Rijshouwer, Emiel. 2019. Organizing Democracy : Power Concentration and Self-Organization in the Evolution of Wikipedia. https://repub.eur.nl/pub/113937. 

  10. Wenger, Etienne. 1999. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, And Identity. 1 edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

  11. see page 100 in Wenger’s Communities of Practice10

  12. see page 101 in Wenger’s Communities of Practice10

  13. http://www.imaginaryfutures.net/2007/04/17/the-californian-ideology-2/ 

  14. An interesting concept related to legitimization is “Negotiation of Membership” in the model of the Communicative Constitution of Organizations.
    See: McPhee, Robert D., and Pamela Zaug. "The Communicative Constitution of Organizations." Building Theories of Organization: The Constitutive Role of Communication 10, no. 1--2 (2009): 21.