Academic Papers

  • Bots, bespoke code, and the materiality of software platforms

    Published in Information, Communication, and Society (2014): This article introduces and discusses the role of bespoke code in Wikipedia, which is code that runs alongside a platform or system, rather than being integrated into server-side codebases by individuals with privileged access to the server. Bespoke code complicates the common metaphors of platforms and sovereignty that we typically use to discuss the governance and regulation of software systems through code. Specifically, the work of automated software agents (bots) in the operation and administration of Wikipedia is examined, with a focus on the materiality of code. As bots extend and modify the functionality of sites like Wikipedia, but must be continuously operated on computers that are independent from the servers hosting the site, they involve alternative relations of power and code. Instead of taking for granted the pre-existing stability of Wikipedia as a platform, bots and other bespoke code require that we examine not only the software code itself, but also the concrete, historically contingent material conditions under which this code is run. To this end, this article weaves a series of autobiographical vignettes about the author’s experiences as a bot developer alongside more traditional academic discourse.

  • The Next Generation of Scientists: Examining the Experiences of Graduate Students in Network-Level Social-Ecological Science

    Published in Ecology and Society 18(3) (2013) with Michele Romolini, Sydne Record, Rebecca Garvoille, and Yevgeniy Marusenko: In the pursuit to confront pressing environmental issues such as climate change, many scientists, practitioners, policy makers, and institutions are promoting large-scale ‘network-level’ scientific research that integrates the social and ecological sciences. To understand how this scientific trend is unfolding among rising scientists, we examined how graduate students experienced one such emergent social-ecological research initiative within the large-scale, geographically distributed Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. Through workshops, surveys, and interviews, we found that graduate students faced challenges in how they conceptualized and practiced social-ecological research within the LTER Network. We present these conceptual challenges at three scales: the individual/project level, the LTER site level, and the LTER Network level. We found student engagement with and knowledge of the LTER Network to be varied, and found students faced different institutional, cultural, and logistic barriers to practicing social-ecological research.

  • When the Levee Breaks: Without Bots, What Happens to Wikipedia’s Quality Control Processes?

    Published in Proceedings of WikiSym 2013 (2013) with Aaron Halfaker: In the first half of 2011, ClueBot NG – one of the most prolific counter-vandalism bots in the English-language Wikipedia – went down for four distinct periods, each period of downtime lasting from days to weeks. In this paper, we use these periods of breakdown as naturalistic experiments to study Wikipedia’s heterogeneous quality control network. Our analysis showed that the overall time-to-revert edits was almost doubled when this software agent was down. Yet while a significantly fewer proportion of edits made during the bot’s downtime were reverted, we found that those edits were later eventually reverted. This suggests that other agents in Wikipedia took over this quality control work, but performed it at a far slower rate.

  • Using Edit Sessions to Measure Participation in Wikipedia

    Published in Proceedings of CSCW 2013 (2013) with Aaron Halfaker: Many quantitative, log-based studies of participation and contribution in CSCW and CMC systems measure the activity of users in terms of output, based on metrics like posts to forums, edits to Wikipedia articles, or commits to code repositories. In this paper, we estimate the amount of time users have spent contributing. Through an analysis of Wikipedia log data, we identify a pattern of punctuated bursts in editors’ activity that we refer to as edit sessions. Based on these edit sessions, we build a metric that approximates the labor hours of editors in the encyclopedia. Using this metric, we first compare labor-based analyses with output-based analyses, finding that the activity of many editors can appear quite differently based on the kind of metric used.

  • Artifacts that Organize: Delegation in the Distributed Organization

    Published in Information and Organization (2013) with David Ribes, Steve Jackson, Matt Burton, and Tom Finholt: Increasingly, organizations are deploying automated modes of technology-supported coordination that seek to replace rather than enhance human communication.  To study this phenomenon, we extend Bruno Latour’s concept of delegation  and apply it to thorny questions around the work of sustaining organization over space and time. As we show with two cases from the Open Science Grid, delegation is complex, fragile, and central to the nature of contemporary organizing. Specifically, we argue that delegation: 1) reconfigures the organization of work; 2) transforms how outcomes are accomplished; 3) redistributes responsibility for organizational decision-making; and 4) shifts the visibility and invisibility of both actors and their work.

  • The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration Community: How Wikipedia’s reaction to sudden popularity is causing its decline

    Published in American Behavioral Scientist (2013) with Aaron Halfaker, Jonathan Morgan, and John Riedl: This paper presents evidence that several changes that the Wikipedia community made to manage quality and consistency in the face of a massive growth in participation have lead to a more restrictive environment for newcomers. Specifically, the restrictiveness of the encyclopedia’s primary quality control mechanism and the algorithmic tools used to reject contributions is implicated as a cause of decreased newcomer retention. Also, the community’s formal mechanisms for norm articulation is shown to have calcified against changes — especially for newcomers.

Defense Mechanism or Socialization Tactic? Improving Wikipedia’s Notifications to Rejected Contributors

Published in Proceedings of ICWSM (2012): In this paper, we first illustrate and describe the various defense mechanisms at work in Wikipedia, which we hypothesize are inhibiting newcomer retention. Next, we present results from an experiment aimed at increasing both the quantity and quality of editors by altering various elements of these defense mechanisms, specifically pre scripted warnings and notifications that are sent to new editors upon reverting or rejecting contributions. Using regression models of new user activity, we show which tactics work best for different populations of users based on their motivations when joining Wikipedia. In particular, we found that personalized messages in which Wikipedians identified themselves in active voice and took direct responsibility for rejecting an editor’s contributions were much more successful across a variety of outcome metrics than the current messages, which typically use an institutional and passive voice

  • “Writing up rather than writing down”: Becoming Wikipedia Literate

    Published in Proceedings of WikiSym 2012 with Heather Ford: We introduce and advocate a multi-faceted theory of literacy to investigate the knowledges and organizational forms are required to improve participation in Wikipedia’s communities. We outline what Richard Darville refers to as the “background knowledges” required to be an empowered, literate member and apply this to the Wikipedia community. Using a series of examples drawn from interviews with new editors and qualitative studies of controversies in Wikipedia, we identify and outline several different literacy asymmetries.

  • Black-boxing the user: internet protocol over xylophone players (IPoXP)

    Published in Proceedings of alt.CHI 2012 with Yoon Jung Jeong and Emily Manders: We introduce IP over Xylophone Players (IPoXP), a novel Internet protocol between two computers using xylophone-based Arduino interfaces. In our implementation, human operators are situated within the lowest layer of the network, transmitting data between computers by striking designated keys. We discuss how IPoXP inverts the traditional mode of human-computer interaction, with a computer using the human as an interface to communicate with another computer.

  • Participation in Wikipedia’s Article Deletion Processes

    Published in Proceedings of WikiSym 2011 with Heather Ford: We find that Wikipedia’s deletion process is heavily frequented by a relatively small number of longstanding users. The vast majority of such deleted articles are not spam, vandalism, or “patent nonsense,” but rather articles which could be considered encyclopedic, but do not fit the project‟s standards.

  • The Lives of Bots

    Published in Wikipedia: A Critical Point of View (2011): I describe the complex social and technical environment in which bots exist in Wikipedia, emphasizing not only how bots produce order and enforce rules, but also how humans produce bots and negotiate rules around their operation.