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18 October 2007

Pondering anonymous wiki usage

We note with great interest the research findings of the Dartmouth team that examined the role of anonymous contributions to Wikipedia. This work confirms what many have long suspected – the role of many individual experts contributing in a small area can be as vital as the long term “gardening” and other high commitment roles of high frequency wiki users.

This tracks interestingly with an alternative analysis first provided by Aaron Schwartz on the true distribution of authorship in Wikipedia. His work challenges conventional wisdom that only a few hundred individuals have been responsible for the majority of the production, showing that the contributions of these otherwise limited participants that actually provide the bulk of new content. The high participation individuals provided most of the structure, formatting, and debate.

None of this is terribly surprising when one considers the dynamics of expertise and contribution in other endeavors. But it has profound implications for those seeking to use the dynamics of participatory production models to create things of enduring value within the intelligence community. There is an inherent distrust of anonymity in the IC, and in a professional environment one’s reputation is not just at stake for a hobby but for the weight of one’s “real” work. How much has the intelligence community denied itself potential contributions of value (and reliability) through some of the choices made regarding anonymity in its wikis (or blogs)?

We come down strongly on the side of appropriate veils for the online environment, of course. Not that we wish to be the man behind the curtain (although professionally, some of us not in the more active side of the house are always more comfortable on the dark side of the one way glass), but rather so that ideas stand alone and can be discussed independently of the agencies and cultures which produce them. We have been accused of ill will on more than one occasion for our anonymity and group voice, but it is simply a desire to extend the debate on professionalization free of the conflicts of personality and organization. (It is also a function of the unique terms under which we are able to continue this venture, but in this it is a happy convergence with our intended outcomes for the blog.)

The parallels of Wikipedia assume however that the IC intends to create an encyclopedic work of its own. It is far from clear that this is what Intellipedia will be, let alone any of the other smaller and more focused wiki production environments. There are several other distinct roles evolving for wikis as the technology is bent to new situated uses within small groups – from watchstanding to warning, from dynamic production processes to shelfware reference replacement. The experimentation is really only just beginning – and for this reason, further real research is needed from the intelligence studies academia on both the open and dark side versions of these tools.

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