Two Quick Observations Regarding Online Community

I’m buried in work and research but I have two thoughts dancing on my mind and they’re both related to online community:

  • I hate when websites or tools list reader comments in reverse chronological order i.e. newest messages first. I finally figured out why I hate that: It makes it very difficult to view the messages as a coherent discussion within a pre-existing social context. Because new participants are not immersed in the context of the ongoing discussion they can easily view the opportunity to comment merely as a way to shout messages without any responsibility to engage with or form a community. Mediated communication is difficult enough without us actively encouraging antisocial behaviors and views.
  • Our obsession with tools and technologies leads us to underestimate or ignore the social effects and communities that build up around them. I see this happen all of the time in Wikipedia when new editors leap into articles without having any understanding of the cultural norms of the immense community of users that have used Wikipedia for years. It’s sadly naive to believe that such an immense collection of resources doesn’t have a correspondingly large and complex community with cultural and social norms and expectations.

Coverage and Prominence of U.S. College and University Wikipedia Articles

A colleague and I are presenting a paper at ASHE in a few months discussing the content of Wikipedia college and university articles.  The most common comment the reviewers made of our paper proposal was that we did not quite answer the “So what?” question.  In other words, we didn’t quite convince them that our topic is important and interesting.  Part of the answer lies in convincing you that U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles are (a) very common and (b) very popular.

First, let’s see how common U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles are.  To do this, I need to figure out how many institutions have a Wikipedia article.  I randomly selected 10% (732 units) of the 2008 IPEDS universe, a listing of every Title-IV-participating institution (e.g. virtually every accredited institution in the United States and its territories).  I then checked to see if these units have Wikipedia articles.  Broken down by sector and control and ignoring the handful of system offices and unclassified institutions pulled into the sample, here is what I found:

Table 1: Coverage of Wikipedia Articles
Less than 2-year 2-year 4-year All
Public 20.69% 87.16% 100.00% 82.04%
Private not-for-profit 9.09% 31.25% 91.28% 81.91%
Private for-profit 13.75% 40.21% 85.96% 35.03%
All 14.50% 62.61% 92.26% 61.47%

Considering that most people in the U.S. think of 4-year institutions when they think of “college” or “university,” Table 1 shows us that it’s fair to say that college and university Wikipedia articles are very common.  Not only are they ubiquitous for public 4-year institutions, they’re very common for private 4-year institutions and community colleges.  The primary types of institutions for which they are uncommon are private 2-year institutions and all types of less than 2-year institutions, institutions typically associated with specialized technical training and usually omitted when talking about colleges and universities.

Next, we need to figure out the popularity of U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles.  In this context, I am defining “popular” by examining where the top three search engines – Google, Yahoo!, and Bing – place U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles.  To do this, I selected a random sample of these Wikipedia articles; the sample is also stratified, including 12 articles from each major quality classification assigned by the Wikiproject Universities (Featured, Good/A, B, C, Start, and Stub).

Table 2: Search Engine Placement
Google Yahoo! Bing
Average placement 6.9 2.3 2.3
Percentage first unofficial link 79% 96% 96%

As shown in Table 2, when you search for these institutions in each of the three leading search engines, Wikipedia articles are not only among the very first results but they’re usually the first result that isn’t controlled by the institution.  Google seemed to struggle with providing accurate results for the institutions who do not have unique names (i.e. Southwestern College, Sierra College), listing several other similarly-named institutions above the Wikipedia article.  Yahoo! and Bing did not have this problem, almost always listing the Wikipedia article immediately after the institution’s official website or immediately after the institution’s official website and the official athletics website (of course, Yahoo! and Bing provided the same results since they use the same search technology).

Based on a random sample of the accredited colleges and universities in the United States, Wikipedia has articles for the majority of institutions.  This is particularly true when considering 2- and 4-year institutions, especially public ones.  Further, those Wikipedia articles are placed very highly in search results, usually immediately proceeding the institution’s official website.  Not only are U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles very common, they’re extremely popular.

(The data are available here:

A few of the spreadsheets are rather large for Google spreadsheets so they’re a bit sluggish.  Sorry!)

Wikipedia As A Lens Into Public Perception of American Higher Education

A few weeks ago, a colleague (Chris Medrano) and I submitted a paper to the 2010 ASHE conference. The paper is a content analysis of Wikipedia articles covering American colleges and universities.  Chris and I believe that we – higher education scholars, administrators, and policy makers – can learn a lot about what the general public believes is important and interesting in higher education by analyzing Wikipedia articles about individual colleges and universities.

I hope this paper is accepted (otherwise I wouldn’t have submitted it!) but I know it’s a bit “out there.”  Despite my apprehension, I firmly believe that we must be mindful of how the public perceives higher education and the explosion of information available on the Internet provides an incredibly rich source of information if we can figure out how to harness it (In this vein, I am extraordinarily happy and grateful to have had the opportunity to study web content analysis and computer-mediated discourse analysis, giving me some of the necessary background and tools to study these data!).  And given that (almost?) every significant college and university in the United States has a Wikipedia article that (theoretically) lies largely outside the control of the institutions, these articles are a rich source of public opinion.

I know what some of you are thinking: Wikipedia editors don’t represent the general public!  I’m not entirely convinced that is true – especially without data – but I’ll concede the point anyway.  Even if those editing the articles are not representative of the general public, surely we can agree that the information placed in these articles clearly indicates what the general public is learning about these institutions from Wikipedia.  So it’s still important to know what’s going on in these articles.

Since we submitted our paper, Wikipedia articles have gotten another boost in visibility and importance: Facebook is making heavy use of Wikipedia articles in Community pages.  This has already raised a discussion within Wikipedia (full disclosure: I’m one of the participants in the discussion) about the role (or lack thereof) Wikipedia should play given that articles are being displayed in Facebook.  More specifically, at least one institution has objected to the graphic that is being displayed in Facebook.  The topmost graphic in nearly all of these Wikipedia articles is the official seal or crest of the institution.  But most institutions have graphic identity standards that mandate the use of another set of graphics (their “wordmark”) and limit the use of the official seal or crest.  Of course, Wikipedia is not required to honor those standards and it’s pretty clear that fair use allows Wikipedia to use official seals and crests without the permission of the institutions.  This is the kind of interesting complexity about which higher education administrators and scholars should know and in which they should appropriately participate.

Love it or hate it, Wikipedia is an immense force in today’s information societies.  We don’t yet know exactly what role it plays in the college choice process but we can be certain that many people are learning about our institutions via Wikipedia.  We can not and should not control the information in Wikipedia but we should be aware of it and the communities that create, edit, and even vandalize that information.  And we should be eager to use that information to develop a better understanding of how the public views higher education and our institutions.

[August update: The proposal has been accepted.  I look forward to sharing the final paper here and at ASHE this fall.]