The sour Wikipedian

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.”

10 thoughts on “The sour Wikipedian

  1. Shaun

    “…not associated with high levels of agreeableness.”

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

  2. Michael Turro

    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.

  3. yish

    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.

  4. Dave


    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,, and

  5. Nick Carr

    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.

  6. Rcomian

    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.

Comments are closed.