"The Wisdom of Bots:" An ethnographic study of the delegation of governance work to information infrastructures in Wikipedia

2016 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Study of Science


September 2, 2016
10:00am to 10:20am
Barcelona, Spain

Abstract: Wikipedians rely on software agents to govern the ‘anyone can edit’ encyclopedia project, in the absence of more formal and traditional organizational structures. Lessons from Wikipedia’s bots speak to debates about how algorithms are being delegated governance work in sites of cultural production.I present findings from a multi-year ethnographic study of automated software agents in Wikipedia. "Bots" and bot developers are a core part of the volunteer community that curates one of the world's largest and most popular information resources. The Wikipedian community relies on hundreds of independently run bots to monitor and regulate almost all aspects of the site. Bots are delegated a wide variety of organizational and administrative work, including: patrolling for spam, 'vandalism', and 'edit wars'; standardizing grammar, layout, citations, and units; updating articles using public datasets; and identifying more complicated work and distributing those tasks to humans. In my infrastructural inversion (Bowker & Star 1999), I argue Wikipedia can only appear to be governed by an economistic "wisdom of crowds" if the work delegated to bots remains invisible. These bots have long been a core way in which Wikipedians govern the 'anyone can edit' project in the absence of more formal organizational structures. Wikipedians also work out fundamental disagreements about what the encyclopedia and the community ought to look like by, in part, debating about how bots ought to be delegated governance work. For example, one of the more consistently raised (and rejected) proposals on the English Wikipedia is a bot that would make all articles conform to a single national variety of English. Lessons from Wikipedia's bots speak to many debates about how algorithmic agents are being incorporated into sites of cultural production, drawing our focus to the governance work that is delegated to automated information infrastructures.

2016 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Study of Science
Science & technology by other means: Exploring collectives, spaces and futures
Meeting Program

The joint 2016 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona is an opportunity to share reflections, ideas, findings and projects on a variety of aspects characterizing these alternative ways to do science and technology: (a) such as the fact that all of these transformations usually take place in blurred everyday spaces and not in those enclosed established spaces for science and technology development, such as laboratories or industrial R&D departments; (b) or, in a similar way, the fact that research and innovation processes are increasingly organised in networked, horizontal assemblages where the traditional hierarchies in science are put into question and where science and technology are being co‐produced by different actors in different, sometimes antagonistic, ways; (c) and, finally, the fact that traditional boundaries between the public and the private are no longer confined to state and for‐profit actors, care practices taking a preeminent presence in most of these everyday situations.


R. Stuart Geiger

BIDS Alum – Ethnographer

Former BIDS Ethnographer Stuart Geiger is now a faculty member at the University of California, San Diego, jointly appointed in the Department of Communication and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute. At BIDS, as an ethnographer of science and technology, he studied the infrastructures and institutions that support the production of knowledge. He launched the Best Practices in Data Science discussion group in 2019, having been one of the original members of the MSDSE Data Science Studies Working Group. Previously, his work on Wikipedia focused on the community of volunteer editors who produce and maintain an open encyclopedia. He also studied distributed scientific research networks and projects, including the Long-Term Ecological Research Network and the Open Science Grid. In Wikipedia and scientific research, he studied topics including newcomer socialization, community governance, specialization and professionalization, quality control and verification, cooperation and conflict, the roles of support staff and technicians, and diversity and inclusion. And, as these communities are made possible through software systems, he studied how the design of software tools and systems intersect with all of these issues.  He received an undergraduate degree at UT Austin, and an MA in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University, where he began empirically studying communities using qualitative and ethnographic methods.  As part of receiving his PhD from the UC Berkeley School of Information, he worked with anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, organizational and management scholars, designers, and computer scientists.