The ‘behind–the–scenes’ discussion and edit pages of Wikipedia reveal a complex layering of debates and discussion between editors. Focusing on how Wikipedia ‘service awards’ can identify and distinguish editors, this paper explores the disclosure of knowledge as it is intimately bound up with identity work. Examining contributions/edits to Wikipedia as disclosures highlights processes of identity management and work.
Wikipedia and online profiles
Wikipedia and identity work
Wikipedia service awards and knowledge disclosure
Wikipedia as the context and practical means
Some (ignorable) qualifications
The cultural politics of knowledge disclosure
Moving into the discussion and edit pages ‘behind–the–scenes’ of Wikipedia reveals a complex layering of debates and discussion between editors. These editors can be identified through various ‘Wikipedia awards’. Focusing on the Wikipedia ‘service awards’, this paper explores the disclosure of knowledge as it is intimately bound up with identity work.
Disclosure as a concept helps to signal how knowledge is contributed to Wikipedia in ways that are bound up with identity work. Given that service awards are ‘intended to be given to oneself’ rather than be awarded by others, they point to the investment and work individuals put into their Wikipedia profile and identity. The Wikipedia awards and practices of knowledge disclosure provide instructive means for exploring the management of identity and context specific identity work.
Founded in 2001, Wikipedia, as the ‘About’ entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About) states, “is written collaboratively by an international (and mostly anonymous) group of volunteers.” The entry goes on to state that, “Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference Web sites,” and that “there are more than 75,000 active contributors working on more than 13,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages.” The following considers how these active contributors and volunteers are positioned and identified within Wikipedia.
The opportunity to edit a Wikipedia entry is presented with each page and can be taken up anonymously without logging in. This kind of technologically mediated form of anonymity resonates with debates that emerged in the 1990s around online identities (see Turkle, 1995). In their discussion of virtual identities in wikis and social networking sites, Kerry Mallan and Natasha Giardina (2009) suggest that, “while the ‘identity’ of an individual contributor may be disguised, unknown, or revealed, there is nevertheless a ‘wikidentity’ that comes with participation,” and that this ‘wikidentity’ is “located at the interface of diverse bodies of information and communication.” In terms of Wikipedia, the contribution or disclosure of material may be be seen as a part of the wikidentity construction process.
The term ‘disclosure’ appears to fit easily in discussing online identity and different degrees of anonymity and disguise. This reading could see that certain identifying characteristics are not disclosed and a form of anonymity is employed. In turn though, making a contribution or editing an existing article is a different form of disclosure — a knowledge disclosure. As the ‘wikidentity’ concept highlights, questions of identity in online contexts can be traced beyond questions of anonymity and we can examine specific ‘interfaces’. Closely focusing attention on the process of contributing offers a means to connect the contributor with the article. In this respect, Wikipedia provides a context and interface for ‘identity work’.
Tony Watson  usefully notes that the phrase ‘identity work’, has been used as an alternative to terms including ‘identity construction’, ‘identity management’, ‘identity achievement’, ‘identity manufacture’ and ‘identity project’, “as a way of dealing with ‘agency’ aspects of identity shaping.” In developing his own formulation that works between the personal and the social, Watson  suggests that a significant way to strengthen research on identity shaping would be by, “attending to what might be seen as a link between the ‘self’ aspects of identity and the discourses to which they relate.” With Wikipedia we can see this with the community discussion and talk pages, and with the personal, and sometimes esoteric, nature of contributions.
Practices of contributing are bound up with all manner of personal traits, experiences and motivations. Jaron Lanier (2006) is cautious of conformist collectivism and offers the following perspective: “reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the Bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure.” Any given Wikipedia entry could be the continual work and investment of a range of contributors. Wikipedia is marked by ongoing input; from the contributor who starts prolifically and then whose contributions peter out, to the most recent newcomer who seeks to revise years of contributions. For example, the first entry for ‘Web 2.0’ is recorded on 28 February 2005 at 20.17. Since then, as the ‘revision statistics history’ indicates, there have been thousands of edits both from registered users and those unnamed users distinguished only by IP (Internet Protocol) addresses.
Contributing and editing articles to Wikipedia takes place in dialogue and negotiation with other users. On one hand, contributions may be anonymous and/or ephemeral. On the other hand, these contributions can be targeted and part of a wider process of contribution and participation. Along these lines, Mallan and Giardina (2009) suggest that, “claiming individual ownership of parts of a wiki runs counter to the way wikis operate.”
The award system that has emerged within Wikipedia highlights that forms of recognition are entwined with editorial activities and that these can be both part of and distinct from the wider social environment. This interpretation connects with Tony Watson’s focus on the ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ aspects of identity work. Working between wider discourses, such as other Wikipedia contributors, and the ‘self’ is an important step in exploring the disclosure of knowledge and claiming of awards as a form of identity work.
In the following, different award systems will be introduced in relation to social and private forms of identity work and management. Before doing so, some important methodological points are needed. Whilst materiality has been stressed in connecting the contributor with actual postings and edits, this article does not draw on empirical research with any of these contributors/editors. Equally, more detailed accounts of practices and frequencies of awarding oneself service awards have not been gathered. Rather, my aim here is to draw out what the concept of disclosure helps unpack for examining online identity work.
In exploring the contributions made to Wikipedia and the claiming, giving and display of the awards for a Wikipedia online profile, the notion of disclosure helps signal that these editorial activities are a strategy of identity work alongside the production of knowledge.
Knowledge is disclosed as part of a wider system of activity and meaning bound up with identity work. The language of contributing and adding indicates that knowledge is brought to Wikipedia. The language of disclosure helps to signal that the contributions are processed. Wikipedia is the context and site within which information may be added and revealed.
The processing work of disclosure can be identified in terms setting up an account, selecting and monitoring topics and entries, developing materials using the ‘sandbox’, and then posting. Noting these stages, the language and process of disclosure becomes more apt. Further to this, identity work takes place in the management of the online profile and the claiming and display of services awards. The claiming of certain awards represents knowledge management bound up with the shaping of aspects of identity.
There are a number of award categories within Wikipedia that can be awarded by others and claimed by individuals for themselves. Some awards are for topics areas, such as ‘The Music Award’ or ‘The Star Trek Award’. Other awards are given for general contributions, such as ‘The Mouldy Sandwich’ that is awarded for those continually working on and bettering Wikipedia. Further to these, there are the ‘Personal User awards’, “given to honor specific actions or events — or to spread good cheer!” Out of the range of awards, some are more clearly focused on awarding activities and roles performed.
The ‘barnstar’ award was introduced to Wikipedia in December 2003 and “since then, the concept has become ingrained in the Wikipedia culture […] It is the custom to reward Wikipedia contributors for hard work and due diligence by awarding them a barnstar” (Awards, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Awards). Significant to these given awards is that the orginator of the award and those that give the awards are also recorded. The barnstar award then is explicitly enmeshed with the Wikipedia community (notwithstanding the possibility of an editor establishing a profile to give awards to another of their profiles).
In contrast to the ‘barnstar’, the service awards on Wikipedia, as made clear in the guidance, are “unlike other awards given through a process or from one editor to another in a show of appreciation, [… and are] intended to be given to yourself” (awards). Service awards are organised in terms of a hierarchy from ‘novice editor’ to ‘master editor’. However, as the entry for the awards makes clear, they are a “way of acknowledging an editor’s level of contribution based on specific benchmarks, including the number of contributions the editor made to Wikipedia, and the length of time they have been registered” and the award is “achieved strictly by a mechanical count of time registered and number of edits.” In this respect, the service awards are a means in which a contributor to Wikipedia can distinguish their profile through their own quantifiable activities removed from other users. It is a part of their online profile that can be managed and developed.
As Lee Salter (2006) emphasizes in his discussion of participatory media, the “Internet and its users are materially embodied entities that exist in politically and economically regulated space.” Highlighting the materiality of Wikipedia contributions and edits alongside the claiming of service awards emphasizes the range of investments and forms of identity work.
In their research with young people on social networking sites Mallan and Giardina (2009) suggest that, “young people are not simply adapting their identity work to fit these technological applications. Rather, they are engaging creatively with the principles of Web 2.0 and manipulating identity presentation applications to suit their needs.” I would echo this approach to technologically mediated identity work with regard to Wikipedia contributors/editors who develop their profile. Sensitivity may be identified to the mechanics and context of Wikipedia, and that their knowledge disclosures connect with their identity work. In their discussion of wikidentities, Mallan and Giardina (2009) suggest, “when an individual or group constructs an online profile, the resultant ‘identity’ gives a particular interpretation or representation.”
In the claiming and displaying of service awards, we could say that individuals are constructing and managing their online Wikipedia profile. As Paul du Gay’s (2007) perspectives on the cultural–material making up of persons helps raise, this is not to say that knowledge disclosure be reduced to identity building. What does emerge though is Wikipedia as the context and practical means through which knowledge disclosure can be connect with identity work.
Du Gay’s approach to the cultural–material making up of persons, draws attention to “both the contexts within which and the practical means through which individuals are equipped with the capacities to conduct themselves as particular sorts of persons” . Adopting this, Wikipedia provides the context and practical means for identity work that is explicitly, but not exclusively, bound up with knowledge disclosure. This perspective helps situate the claiming of service awards in relation to the knowledge disclosures needed to achieve the awards.
Importantly, du Gay (2007) goes on to stress that a particular form of personhood, for example the Wikipedia contributor, is just one way in which individuals may come to understand and relate to themselves. The claiming and displaying of the service award may be seen as a means through which the ‘Wikipedia contributor identity’ is constructed. Each contribution or article edit is a disclosure that can be measured and claimed as a service award and wedded to the formation and development of a Wikipedia profile.
This focus on knowledge work and identity work that the notion of disclosure helps bring to the fore, poses some relevant questions for thinking through questions of identity and online profiles. For instance, Mallan and Giardina’s (2009) statement that, “the narratives of identity and agency that have traditionally been available to young people are being replaced by new ones that are the direct outcome of the larger technologically mediated world we all now inhabit”, can be rearticulated in relation to the mediation of knowledge. The reference to ‘young people’ is particular to their study, but the ‘narratives of identity and agency’ they refer to can be considered through the lens of knowledge and identity work on Wikipedia. Narratives of identity may be technologically mediated, but practices of knowledge production are also technologically mediated.
When we explore the connection between narratives of identity and knowledge production, a much fuller understanding of identity work is possible. This sees identity work as it is closely connected with the other things we do and the contexts for these, for example editing Wikipedia. The concept of disclosure gets at these multiple processes and how they work together — the revealing of knowledge and building and revealing of identity.
Wikipedia co–founder Lawrence Sanger (2009) suggests that, “despite the sort of anti–expert bias on Wikipedia, it remains the case that a person who appears to write authoritatively, who has the facts at his command as an expert typically does, and who can marshall them effectively in a dispute, has a decided advantage on Wikipedia.” Beyond discussing expertise, Sanger’s (2009) comments help highlight the process of knowledge disclosure (writing style, research) and that this has material impacts on the interpretations and representations of that contributor that can form. Service awards act as indicators both for others and those that display them. These service awards illustrate a form of identity work that comes with contributing, or disclosing, to Wikipedia.
In March 2007, it was revealed that the contributor with the username ‘Essjay’ was not a professor of religion at a private university as claimed, but a college student (BBC News, 2007). This ‘Wikipedia Storm’ highlights a number of things in terms of the disclosure of knowledge and identity.
Firstly, related to Lawrence Sanger’s earlier comments on expertise, adopting the status of a professor for this college student clearly indicates the purchase of certain identifiers such as title.
Secondly, in terms of fakery, we cannot assume the merit or standing of particular knowledge disclosures. Whilst this student college adopted a fabricated identity, they still endeavored, with the help of the For Dummies series, to provide accurate statements. In turn, there have been numerous postings to Wikipedia in which content fakery has been the goal — (un)knowledge disclosures.
The article ‘Can you spot the real Wikipedia fake’ offers a number of purported ‘false and made up statements’ posted by ‘mischievous Internet users’. These include the entry for ‘Pole Dancing’ as, “Pole dancing is a form of dancing/gymnastics that takes muscular endurance and coordination as well as a person from Poland” (Supanet, n.d.). This highlights that contributors to Wikipedia may not seek to claim ‘service awards’ and/or participate in the rewards process, and also that contributors/editors may post statements in ways that do not “augment the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia” in anticipated and encouraged ways.
Uncyclopedia, “an encyclopedia full of misinformation and utter lies”, goes further in highlighting and celebrating misinformation on the Internet and the posting of humorous and satirical takes on topics, such as the ‘Jennifer Anniston nude pictures’ that are natal scans. As the ‘Beginner’s Guide’ states, “we are not Wikipedia, but that should already have been plainly obvious. Fact is discouraged, comedy is paramount” (Uncyclopedia, 2006). Uncyclopedia tellingly plays on the conventions of Wikipedia in the way it is organised and presented, and the through the distinctive Uncyclopedia approach to article policy: “a standard that everyone should follow, unless they don’t want to, in which case they are free to ignore it”.
This policy ‘guidance’ neatly captures the community ethos played off against the free reign that editors are encouraged to take with the veracity of their postings. There are significant aspects of dialogue and collaboration such as the ‘Pee review’ system, but unlike Wikipedia there are no services awards. This distinction between Uncyclopedia and Wikipedia provides an instructive final point for considering the cultural politics of knowledge disclosure and identity work.
With Uncyclopedia we can identify an interest and enthusiasm for parody. In common with Wikipedia, the collaborative and community elements are key and Uncyclopedia stresses the importance of constructive entries rather than the degenerative editing of others. Uncyclopedia facilitates the recognition of articles and has a nominating and voting process to highlight articles. Also, similar to Wikipedia, credit is given in the form of awards for those that clean up and make Uncyclopedia tidy with regard to its editorial policy (and comically for those that give ‘generic contributions’, take doses of humiliation and come back, and who disregard editing conventions). The key distinction between these sites though are the service awards.
This distinction emphasizes the specificity of the context and that the forms of identity work possible within Wikipedia are bound up with disclosures that can garner measurable kudos for an online profile in the ‘serious’ business of editing online encyclopedias.
Online communities present diverse ways for users to undertake identity work. The Wikipedia service awards with the self–claim element highlight that identity work is rooted in the structures and processes of the context. In the case of Wikipedia, we can identify structures and processes of knowledge disclosure. Identity work connects with technological specificity, and personal and social impulses.
By examining Wikipedia contributions/edits as disclosures rather than additions, attention may be drawn to processes of management and identity work. Here, disclosure is understood as a process of revealing in dialogue with context. This article has suggested with Wikipedia the disclosure of knowledge is entwined with the building and revealing of identity.
About the author
Dr. Daniel Ashton is senior lecturer in media and cultural studies in the School of Humanities and Cultural Industries, Bath Spa University
E–mail: d [dot] ashton [at] bathspa [dot] ac [dot] uk
1. Watson, 2008, p.126.
2. Watson, 2008, p.127.
3. Du Gay, 2007, p. 22.
BBC News, 2007. “Fake professor in Wikipedia storm” (6 March), at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6423659.stm, accessed 10 October 2009.
Paul du Gay, 2007. Organizing identity: Persons and organizations ‘after theory’. London: Sage.
Jaron Lanier, 2006. “Digital Maoism: The hazards of new online collectivism,” Edge (30 May), accessed at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier06/lanier06_index.html, accessed 10 October 2009.
Kerry Mallan and Natasha Giardina, 2009. “Wikidentities: Young people collaborating on virtual identities in social network sites,” First Monday, volume 14, number 6, at http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2445/2213, accessed 10 October 2009.
Lee Salter, 2006. “Democracy & online news: Indymedia and the limits of participatory media,” Scan, volume 3, number 1, at http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/display.php?journal_id=70, accessed 10 October 2009.
Lawrence M. Sanger, 2009. “The fate of expertise after Wikipedia,” Episteme, volume 6, number 1, at http://www.euppublishing.com/doi/abs/10.3366/E1742360008000543, accessed 10 October 2009.
Supanet, n.d. “Can you spot the real Wikipedia fake?” at http://www.supanet.com/computing/can-you-spot-the-real-wikipedia-fake-23734p1.html, accessed 10 October 2009.
Sherry Turkle, 1995. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Uncyclopedia, 2006. “A beginner’s guide — Purpose,” at http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Beginner's_Guide/Purpose, accessed 10 October 2009.
Tony, J. Watson, 2008. “Managing identity: Identity work, personal predicaments and structural circumstances,” Organization, volume 15, number 1, pp. 121–143.
Received 26 January 2010; revised 20 November 2010; accepted 2 December 2010.
“Awarding the self in Wikipedia: Identity work and the disclosure of knowledge by Dr. Daniel Ashton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Awarding the self in Wikipedia: Identity work and the disclosure of knowledge
by Daniel Ashton.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 1 - 3 January 2011
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2013.