The Internet is a wonderland for sociologists, and one of the richest areas of study is Wikipedia, with its years of open collaboration and communication archived for posterity. But with collaboration comes conflict, and the "edit wars" that embroil hot Wikipedia topics are dissected in detail in a new paper by researchers in Budapest.
Though the study does not make for exciting reading, there are some interesting revelations about the way such conflicts run their course, and the people who make it all happen.
After they establish criteria for a "controversial" article (rather than articles that are edited frequently merely because the topic requires it), the researchers unearth a few commonalities right away:
- Whether an article gets a dozen or a thousand edits in a month, they tend to be "bursty" — that is, many edits tend to cluster together as editors add, revise, correct and, if necessary, remove new information. Both "homosexuality" and "Lady Gaga" follow this trend (below), though due to the huge amounts of updates the performer has every month, it's a bit harder to tell. Edits don't happen like drips of water from a cave ceiling, gradually forming a stalagmite. Rather, they come on like flash floods and leave new landscapes in their wake.
- Edit wars are frequently conducted between a few extremely vociferous individuals. While dozens of editors may contribute to an article over any given period of time, it is often a much smaller number of highly opinionated editors who contribute the bulk of the edits, often redoing or removing each other's work. Below, you can see many lines representing interactions between editors in a discussion section; thicker lines represent more interactions, and red indicates negative opinions. Clearly the individuals at 11 and 3 o' clock have contributed more than their fair share to the discussion, and appear to be mostly yammering at each other.
- In theory, many articles initially considered to be controversial would level out in terms of edit rate, and over time crystallize - but only if no new events spark further interest. Below, you can see a graph of the total number of edits to Michael Jackson's entry, with salient points marked such as his acquittal (A) and death (D). Other highly edited entries showed similar signs of flattening out, but often would surge into action again following key events. The pace of news, not to mention the frequent arrival of opinionated editors, renders peace a forlorn hope.
If you're interested in the methodology and math behind these interesting points, you can read the entire paper online at PLoS One, but you'll need a solid foundation of statistics to understand it. On the other hand, you can investigate the topic yourself by going to any Wikipedia page and clicking the "Talk" or "View history" buttons at the top. The discussion of the entry can at times be as worthwhile to read as the entry itself.
It's well-known that information on Wikipedia is essentially peer-reviewed opinion, and this study shows just how lively those peers — and that review process — can be. But while the details are constantly under heated debate, the result is often a compromise that cleaves very closely to fact, despite being the middle ground between several ideas of the truth.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website is coldewey.cc.