Participatory web and social translation

In a recent article in Slate Magazine, Chris Wilson writes about “the myth of Web 2.0 democracy”, citing a number of research projects that have studied user-generated collaborative knowledge systems such as Wikipedia, and Digg. As Wilson argues, these sites, which seem on the surface to be excellent examples of participatory democracies, where users collectively contribute to and maintain the content, are actually oligarchies run by a small number of users. Between 2003 and 2004 on the Wikipedia site, for instance, 50% of the edits were made by administrators, who make up a small percentage of Wikipedia users. Some graphs analyzing Wikipedia trends can be found here.

This finding doesn’t surprise me, as my own research revealed that translation networks function in much the same way: only seven percent of TranslatorsCafe members had ever posted a message in the discussion forum between January 2003, when the site was founded, and March 2007, when I wrote an article for Meta about how interactions occur in translation networks. Likewise, just under five percent of members had ever posted a question, answer or comment to the terminology forum between April 2006, when the forum was introduced, and February 2007.

What I did find more interesting, however, were the results of a conference presentation from the 2007 Computer Human Interaction conference in San Jose, which studied whether Wikipedia is maintained by an elite group of users or by “the wisdom of the crowds,” that is, whether a small group of people is creating and maintaining most of the entries, or whether a larger number of people are making a small number of edits to many entries.

The researchers found that while the elite group of users was initially responsible for the highest number of edits, this trend has since shifted:

In the beginning, elite users contributed the majority of the work in Wikipedia. However, beginning in 2004 there was a dramatic shift in the distribution of work to the common users, with a corresponding decline in the influence of the elite (Chi et al 2007: 8).

They found a similar trend on the website, leading them to conclude that the shift in work distribution from the elite to novice users may be a typical phenomenon for online collaborative knowledge systems. They explained this trend in the following way:

For such systems to spread, early participants must generate sufficient utility in the system for the larger masses to find value in low cost participation. Like the first pioneers or the founders of a startup company, the elite few who drove the early growth of Wikipedia generated enough utility for it to take off as a more commons-oriented production model; without them, it is unlikely that Wikipedia would have succeeded. Just as the first pioneers built infrastructure which diminished future migration costs, the early elite users of Wikipedia built up enough content, procedures, and guidelines to make Wikipedia into a useful tool that promoted and rewarded participation by new users (Chi et al. 2007: 8).

What might this mean for collaborative translation projects like those I’ve been discussing for the past few months? First, it points to the need to study exactly how participation in social translation projects change over time. Global Voices, for instance, published a survey of its volunteer translators in October 2009, noting that of the 108 people who had provided a translation in September and responded to the survey, a little under half had started working on translations for the site in 2009, while 38 others had been volunteering since 2008 and another 15 had been involved since 2007. Further research into how participation rates have changed over time would help show whether participants in social translation projects are actively involved for long periods of time, whether an elite group remains involved for a short period and is then replaced by novice users, etc.

Second, these results indicate that in large social translation projects, only a small number of volunteers may, in fact, be participating at any given time. Do motivations vary among the elite/very active and novice/less active users? Both of these questions also need to be answered.

Chi, Ed, Aniket Kittur, Bryan A. Pendleton, Bongwon Suh & Todd Mytkowicz. (2007). Power of the Few vs. Wisdom of the Crowd: Wikipedia and the Rise of the Bourgeoisie. alt.chi 2007. [Online:].

McDonough, Julie. (2007). How Do Language Professionals Organize Themselves? An Overview of Translation Networks. Meta, 52(4), 793-815. [abstract] [Full text (html)] [Full text (PDF)].

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