« Banished | Main | Sivilized »

The sour Wikipedian

June 27, 2009

Forget altruism. Misanthropy and egotism are the fuel of online social production. That's the conclusion suggested by a new study of the character traits of the contributors to Wikipedia. A team of Israeli research psychologists gave personality tests to 69 Wikipedians and 70 non-Wikipedians. They discovered that, as New Scientist puts it, Wikipedians are generally "grumpy," "disagreeable," and "closed to new ideas."

In their report on the results of the study, the scholars paint a picture of Wikipedians as social maladapts who "feel more comfortable expressing themselves on the net than they do off-line" and who score poorly on measures of "agreeableness and openness." Noting that the findings seem in conflict with public perceptions, the researchers suggest that "the prosocial behavior apparent in Wikipedia is primarily connected to egocentric motives ... which are not associated with high levels of agreeableness."

The researchers also looked at gender differences among Wikipedians. They found that the women who contribute to the online encyclopedia exhibit unusually high levels of introversion. Women in particular, they suggest, "seem to use the Internet as a compensative tool" that allows them to "express themselves" in a way "they find difficult in the offline world."

The study is consistent with other research into the motivations underlying online social production. Last year, researchers at HP Labs undertook an extensive study of why people upload videos to YouTube. They found that contributors are primarily driven by a craving for attention. If the videos they upload aren't clicked on, they tend to quickly exit the "community." YouTubers view their contributions not as pieces of "a digital commons" but as "private goods" that are "paid for by attention."

Scott Caplan, a communications professor at the University of Delaware, tells New Scientist that studies of social networks generally indicate that "people who prefer online social behaviour tend to have higher levels of social anxiety and lower social skills."

None of this is particularly surprising. But the findings do lend a darker tint to the rose-colored rhetoric that surrounds online communities. A wag might suggest that "social production" would be more accurately termed "antisocial production."


"...not associated with high levels of agreeableness."

But how did they score on 'niceness' and 'bring-home-to-Motherability'?

Posted by: Shaun [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 27, 2009 12:46 PM

I tend to be suspicious of studies that center on the individual elements of an emergent phenomenon. It's that type of mentality that leads to narrow minded and misguided efforts like nutritionism.

Posted by: Michael Turro [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 27, 2009 01:11 PM

thank you, I am relieved. not surprised at all though, but a bit suspicious.

Relieved because -
a. this seems pretty close to the profile of the stereotypical academic.
b. "a desire to share the light of knowledge with humanity" doesn't qualify as rationale incentive for action, this sounds more plausible.

suspicious, because the survey focused on Israeli wikipidians. It may well be that other cultural groups have different characteristics.

I wonder how they compare to the typitcal britanica editor.

Posted by: yish [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 27, 2009 01:29 PM

"I don't hate the Internet, it's just that it's the same f*ck*ng assholes who were f*ck*ng illiterates before, it's just now they have COMPUTERS."
-- Harlan Ellison from Gutenberg in a Flying Saucer

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 27, 2009 10:09 PM

Let me second what yish said about "this seems pretty close to the profile of the stereotypical academic". Remember "Essjay",
and his role-playing of a Professor.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 27, 2009 10:40 PM

I don't know anything about Wikipeadians, but maybe you could point those Israeli researchers over here.


Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 28, 2009 12:02 AM


I think it's more accurate to say these findings lend a darker tint to the rose-colored rhetoric that surrounds the Wikipedia community...which any Wikipedia contributor knows is not so rose-colored at all.

In my experience, many crowd-sourced communities outside of Wikipedia tend to be highly social including places like wikinvest.com, valuewiki.com, ittoolbox.com and wikibon.org.

Posted by: Dave [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 28, 2009 10:08 AM

A few years ago Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications published a study comparing studies of known key cultural attributes to their own study of edits done on the different language based wikis(.de,.fr,.sp and etc):Cultural Differences in Collaborative Authoring of Wikipedia.They claim that national cultural traits map directly into wiki behavior. So, maybe Israelis are just grumpy, unhappy and bitter.

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 28, 2009 02:40 PM

So, maybe Israelis are just grumpy, unhappy and bitter.

Except that the study compared Israeli Wikipedians with Israeli non-Wikipedians, and the latter didn't demonstrate grumpiness.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 28, 2009 04:38 PM

Just a thought - but would agreeable open minded individuals survive the agressive nature of internet forums?
You need a thick skin to participate in this stuff.

Posted by: Rcomian [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 29, 2009 03:48 AM

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

carrshot5.jpg Subscribe to Rough Type

Now in paperback:
shallowspbk2.jpg Pulitzer Prize Finalist

"Riveting" -San Francisco Chronicle

"Rewarding" -Financial Times

"Revelatory" -Booklist

Order from Amazon

Visit The Shallows site

The Cloud, demystified: bigswitchcover2thumb.jpg "Future Shock for the web-apps era" -Fast Company

"Ominously prescient" -Kirkus Reviews

"Riveting stuff" -New York Post

Order from Amazon

Visit Big Switch site

Greatest hits

The amorality of Web 2.0

Twitter dot dash

The engine of serendipity

The editor and the crowd

Avatars consume as much electricity as Brazilians

The great unread

The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock's avatar

Flight of the wingless coffin fly

Sharecropping the long tail

The social graft

Steve's devices

MySpace's vacancy

The dingo stole my avatar

Excuse me while I blog

Other writing

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The ignorance of crowds

The recorded life

The end of corporate computing

IT doesn't matter

The parasitic blogger

The sixth force



The limits of computers: Order from Amazon

Visit book site

Rough Type is:

Written and published by
Nicholas Carr

Designed by

JavaScript must be enabled to display this email address.