Tag Archives: participant observation

Trace ethnography: a retrospective

Stuart GeigerStuart Geiger @staeiou continues our edition of ‘The Person in the (Big) Data‘ with a reflection on his practice of ‘trace ethnography’ that focuses on the trace-making techniques that render users’ activities and intentions legible to each other. Importantly, Stuart argues, we as researchers need to see these traces in the context of our active socialization within the community in question, rather than passively reading traces through lurking. 

When I was an M.A. student back in 2009, I was trying to explain various things about how Wikipedia worked to my then-advisor David Ribes. I had been ethnographically studying the cultures of collaboration in the encyclopedia project, and I had gotten to the point where I could look through the metadata documenting changes to Wikipedia and know quite a bit about the context of whatever activity was taking place. I was able to do this because Wikipedians do this: they leave publicly accessible trace data in particular ways, in order to make their actions and intentions visible to other Wikipedians. However, this was practically illegible to David, who had not done this kind of participant-observation in Wikipedia and had therefore not gained this kind of socio-technical competency. 

For example, if I added “{{db-a7}}” to the top an article, a big red notice would be automatically added to the page, saying that the page has been nominated for “speedy deletion.” Tagging the article in this way would also put it into various information flows where Wikipedia administrators would review it. If any of Wikipedia’s administrators agreed that the article met speedy deletion criteria A7, then they would be empowered to unilaterally delete it without further discussion. If I was not the article’s creator, I could remove the {{db-a7}} trace from the article to take it out of the speedy deletion process, which means the person who nominated it for deletion would have to go through the standard deletion process. However, if I was the article’s creator, it would not be proper for me to remove that tag — and if I did, others would find out and put it back. If someone added the “{{db-a7}}” trace to an article I created, I could add “{{hangon}}” below it in order to inhibit this process a bit — although a hangon is a just a request, it does not prevent an administrator from deleting the article.

File:Wiki Women's Edit-a-thon-1.jpg

Wikipedians at an in-person edit-a-thon (the Women’s History Month edit-a-thon in 2012). However, most of the time, Wikipedians don’t get to do their work sitting right next to each other, which is why they rely extensively on trace data to coordinate render their activities accountable to each other. Photo by Matthew Roth, CC-BY-SA 3.0

I knew all of this both because Wikipedians told me and because this was something I experienced again and again as a participant observer. Wikipedians had documented this documentary practice in many different places on Wikipedia’s meta pages. I had first-hand experience with these trace data, first on the receiving end with one of my own articles. Then later, I became someone who nominated others’ articles for deletion. When I was learning how to participate in the project as a Wikipedian (which I now consider myself to be), I started to use these kinds of trace data practices and conventions to signify my own actions and intentions to others. This made things far easier for me as a Wikipedian, in the same way that learning my university’s arcane budgeting and human resource codes helps me navigate that bureaucracy far easier.Read More… Trace ethnography: a retrospective

What does it mean to be a participant observer in a place like Wikipedia?

The vision of an ethnographer physically going to a place, establishing themselves in the activities of that place, talking to people and developing deeper understandings seems so much simpler than the same activities in multifaceted spaces like Wikipedia. Researching how Wikipedians manage and verify information in rapidly evolving news articles in my latest ethnographic assignment, I sometimes wish I could simply go to the article as I would to a place, sit down and have a chat to the people around me.

Wikipedia conversations are asynchronous (sometimes with whole weeks or months between replies among editors) and it has proven extremely complicated to work out who said what when, let alone contact and to have live conversations with the editors. I’m beginning to realise how much physical presence is a part of the trust building exercise. If I want to connect with a particular Wikipedia editor, I can only email them or write a message on their talk page, and I often don’t have a lot to go on when I’m doing these things. I often don’t know where they’re from or where they live or who they really are beyond the clues they give me on their profile pages.Read More… What does it mean to be a participant observer in a place like Wikipedia?