Individualist Motivators and Community Functional Constraints in Social Media: The Case of Wikis and Wikipedia

Individualist Motivators and Community Functional Constraints in Social Media: The Case of Wikis and Wikipedia

Sorin Adam Matei (Purdue University, USA) and Robert J. Bruno (Missouri Southern State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-338-6.ch001


This chapter discusses the emergence of social media, especially wiki environments, as collaborative knowledge tools that function within a given set of individualistic and community-oriented cultural and functional constraints. The chapter provides the reader with an understanding of wiki social functions and technical capabilities and of the main value and cultural promises associated with them. It also examines the social and knowledge challenges they create and their likely impact on knowledge production in an individual and community setting. One main conclusion of the chapter is that wiki technologies need to be understood not as an overcoming of the tension between individualism and community, but as a product of their conflict, which they epitomize.
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Heralded by what some view as a paradigm shift, labeled by others as Web 2.0 (O'Reilly, 2005), a whole class of Internet-based applications has made its way into the world, with a profound impact on the manner in which we think about knowledge production, selection and dissemination (Shirky, 2008, 2010; Tapscott & Williams, 2006a; Williams & Tapscott, 2010). Emphasizing the direct involvement of ordinary consumers of knowledge in the process of production, social media such as wikis, blogs, social networking, or collective filtering of information (Digg, Slashdot), have transformed our information and social habits (Reynolds, 2006; Weinberger, 2007). The most tangible signs of this transformation are the emergence and success, despite its prominent flaws, of Wikipedia as a universal reference tool, the rise of blogging as a public agenda-setting actor, the influence exercised by social bookmarking and filtering systems such as Digg and Slashdot in shaping PR campaigns, the role played by Facebook and My Space in structuring social interactions of the young and not-so-young, and the explosion of social publishing and networking sites such as Hi5,, YouTube and Flickr (Boyd & Ellison, 2007).

Less visible in the public consciousness, but increasingly influential, are marketing and for-profit publishing systems that harness the power of the multitudes to create and disseminate new products, such as CreateSpace, Lulu, Cafe Press or Amazon's Astore program, which collectively illustrate the idea of ”peer production” in the field of e-commerce (Benkler, 2002, 2007; Raymond, 2001). Last but not least, software development has changed in a significant way under the influence of the collaborative, open source paradigm represented by projects such as Linux and Apache (Benkler, 2002; Fox, 2007).

Collaborative technologies enabled by Web 2.0 encompass myriad communication processes and interactions, including knowledge production, self-expression, collaborative learning, business-related projects, social-communicative acts/social networking, and community building. Also of interest with the coming of Web 2.0 are the cognitive impacts of these new media, their effects on organizational structures and decision making, and how traditional media institutional structures themselves have been transformed.

These electronic interaction platforms support both synchronous and asynchronous communication through a variety of devices and channels, allowing for textual, visual and aural elements. At the elementary level, emerging collaborative technologies can be conceived of as “Read-Write-Edit” systems, forums in which anyone, anywhere can contribute to and alter the discussion and/or other ongoing processes (Gillmor, 2006). These mechanisms, most recognizably embodied by tools such as wikis, are uncluttered in design and extremely easy-to-use. Nearly all are free, easy to sign up for, and simple to utilize. Furthermore, all interactions and communicative acts taking place within them are recorded and archived for further reference or use at a later point, offering an extra knowledge dimension to our information-rich world (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001).

At the same time, the Web 2.0 revolution brings with it not only promises, but also challenges. The most important is that of understanding the very nature of the basic social mechanisms, including those by which norms are created, roles enforced, and rewards assigned in online social media/collaborative environments. Equally important and still underdeveloped is the empirical literature that discusses the likely socio-psychological mechanisms responsible for the extraordinary growth of some Web 2.0 projects and the high failure rate of many others.

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