Bots, bespoke code, and the materiality of software platforms

This is a new article published in Information, Communication, and Society as part of their annual special issue for the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) conference. This year’s special issue was edited by Lee Humphreys and Tarleton Gillespie, who did a great job throughout the whole process.

Abstract: 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.

Official version at Information, Communication, and Society

Author’s post-print, free download [PDF, 382kb]



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

I’ve written a number of papers about the role that automated software agents (or bots) play in Wikipedia, claiming that they are critical to the continued operation of Wikipedia. This paper tests this hypothesis and introduces a metric visualizing the speed at which fully-automated bots, tool-assisted cyborgs, and unassisted humans review edits in Wikipedia. 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. Aaron Halfaker and I use these periods of breakdown as naturalistic experiments to study Wikipedia’s quality control network. Our analysis showed that the overall time-to-revert damaging 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 human agents in Wikipedia took over this quality control work, but performed it at a far slower rate.


Bots and Cyborgs: Wikipedia’s Immune System

My frequent collaborator Aaron Halfaker has written up a fantastic article with John Riedl in Computer reviewing a lot of the work we’ve done on algorithmic agents in Wikipedia, casting them as Wikipedia’s immune system. Choice quote:  “These bots and cyborgs are more than tools to better manage content quality on Wikipedia—through their interaction with humans, they’re fundamentally changing its culture.”

Trace Ethnography: Following Coordination through Documentary Practices

This is a paper I co-authored with David Ribes and recently presented at HICSS, the Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences.  It’s a qualitative methodology based on analyzing logging data that we developed through my research on Wikipedia, but has some pretty broad applications for studying highly-distributed groups.  It’s an inversion of the previous paper we presented at CSCW, showing in detail how we traced how Wikipedian vandal fighters as they collectively work to identify and ban malicious contributors.

Abstract: We detail the methodology of ‘trace ethnography’, which combines the richness of participant-observation with the wealth of data in logs so as to reconstruct patterns and practices of users in distributed sociotechnical systems.  Trace ethnography is a flexible, powerful technique that is able to capture many distributed phenomena that are otherwise difficult to study.  Our approach integrates and extends a number of longstanding techniques across the social and computational sciences, and can be combined with other methods to provide rich descriptions of collaboration and organization.

Trace Ethnography: Following Coordination through Documentary Practices (PDF, 361KB)

Citation: Geiger, R.S., & Ribes, D. (2011). Trace Ethnography: Following Coordination Through Documentary Practices. In Proceedings of the 44th Annual Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences.  Retrieved from

WikiConference New York: An Open Unconference

Jimmy Wales speaking at the conference keynote, by Laurence Perry, CC BY-SA 3.0

Jimmy Wales speaking at the conference keynote, by GreenReaper, CC BY-SA 3.0

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of presenting at the first (hopefully annual) WikiConference New York, sponsored by the Wikimedia New York City chapter with assistance from Free Culture @ NYU and the Information Law Institute at NYU’s law school. I know that I am atrociously late in writing this post, but I’m not really writing it for the Wikipedians out there. Rather, the WikiConference was an interesting experiment that seemed to apply Wikipedia’s philosophy towards editing to a conference, resulting in what the organizers called a “modified unconference.”

Wikimania 2008: New Paradigms for New Tomorrows with Ismail Serageldin

Director of the Library of Alexandria, Dr. Ismail Serageldin gave a keynote speech on the first day of Wikimania 2008 titled, New Paradigms for New Tomorrows.  It was quite thoughtful and inspiring – the man is one of the most amazing individuals I have heard.  He is learned in so many different areas of academic and cultural knowledge, as well as incredibly wise.  I would recommend watching the video of his speech, but if you are pressed for time you can read my notes.


Wikimania 2008: Wikipedia as Real Utopia with Edo Navot

Wikipedia as Real Utopia: Governance, knowledge production, and the institutional structure of Wikipedia – Edo Navot, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Sociology. Here follows my rough transcription of his speech, followed by my comments.  The fact that his is the only presentation I have so far commented on should be taken as a sign of respect, not of disparagement.  I rather enjoyed his presentation, pledge to read his paper in depth as soon as possible (I have skimmed it), and admire him for being one of the few academics out there studying social and political thought on Wikipedia.