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When a TV show or radio program becomes a hit, the producer usually makes more money and everyone benefits. But when an online community becomes hugely popular, complications arise with the influx of a mainstream audience and trouble-makers who have no history with the site. That’s because TV and radio are broadcast or one-to-many outlets, while user-generated content sites rely on interactivity and many-to-many communication.

Two high-profile examples of booming online communities are MySpace, the popular hangout and social networking site, and Wikipedia, the community-generated online encyclopedia. The former has tens of millions of registered users, and has been hammered by press accounts that sexual predators are preying on unsuspecting teens (the latest story is about sex offenders putting up profiles). The latter has grown to more than 1 million English-language articles, causing difficulties in the community in deciding what’s notable to keep and what should be thrown out as unimportant.

Social networking scientist danah boyd (pictured here), who lowercaps her name, has done a lot of thinking recently about both of these online communities. boyd works at Yahoo Research in Berkeley, Calif., and is in a PhD program at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. She has done a lot of research on social interactions and online identity, including a master’s thesis at MIT Media Lab titled Faceted Id/entity: Managing representation in a digital world.

“I grew up online — I was the first generation of teens who had this sort of technology,” boyd told me via email. “I’ve always been fascinated by social communities online and off. I got involved with social networks after recognizing that there were interesting things to be found in Usenet [early online communities] and email data back in 2001. I think it is important to understand why people do what they do, online and offline, and how the two intersect and make sense in people’s lives.”

boyd became a more well known offline personality as she became an expert on social networks for Fox News, NPR and other mainstream outlets during the MySpace boom and panic. One of boyd’s friends posted an entry about her on Wikipedia, and then she had the strange experience of witnessing Wikipedians (as people in that community are called) arguing over whether her entry was notable enough to keep. Worse than that, she felt helpless when seeing her entry riddled with errors.

Last Saturday, she wrote in her blog, apophenia, that her Wikipedia entry had her name misspelled and improperly capitalized, her birth year was wrong, and various other niggling mistakes came from erroneous mainstream media accounts of her life. But because she felt like it was improper to edit her own entry on Wikipedia, she only noted the errors on her blog — and the magic of Wikipedia is that the fixes have been made by now.

“Now, I love Wikipedia,” boyd wrote. “But I think that there’s something broken here. Personally, I would rather my entry been deleted than have this very inaccurate…entry written. (Deletion would’ve been far more entertaining.) I think that this approach to notability [where people argue over what’s notable] makes Wikipedia look downright foolish. Personally, I’m embarrassed by this public representation full of mistakes. There has to be a better way to handle living people. The ‘no original research’ approach is really not working here.”

Of course, Wikipedians also corrected boyd in her comments and noted that she can very well edit her own entry as an expert on her life. The problems with subjects editing their own entries were due to people trying to delete embarrassing facts or puff themselves up. Recently, Congressional staffers tried to turn their bosses’ entries into promotional bios. (Read the Wikipedia forum about edits on the entry for Rep. Marty Meehan [D-Mass.], for example.)

Fellow academic blogger Adam Megacz explained to boyd that the question about what to delete from the collaborative encyclopedia has been a burning question of late.

“It’s probably not much consolation, but all of Wikipedia has been having this problem lately,” Megacz wrote. “There appears to be a ‘deletion gestapo’ going around and nuking anything that can’t be validated using the first four hits from a one-word search on Google. Kinda sad. I stopped contributing regularly a while ago because keeping up with deletions/alterations by the librarian types got to be too much effort. These people cause real problems for any sort of material that isn’t taught in high school.”

The ‘Moral Panic’ Over MySpace

While Wikipedians struggle with the booming popularity of the encyclopedia and its legions of editors and contributors, the people who live at MySpace have had to deal with a massive mainstream influx of immigrants — kind of a “there goes the neighborhood” moment without the racist overtones.

When I was pondering whether MySpace was just a passing fad — as Friendster was before it — I got in touch with boyd to get her expert opinion. Not only did she answer my simple queries, but she wrote an in-depth, utterly fascinating essay on the subject.

In the essay, boyd lays out a concise history of Friendster and MySpace, and explains how one faltered while the other soared. She says Friendster was a victim of its own success, because when mainstream folks started pouring in, and the site’s servers slowed considerably, the hip early-adopter crowd vacated. Plus, Friendster frowned upon people not following their top-down rules, while MySpace has let freedom (and chaos) reign. According to boyd, the “benevolent dictators” who run the two services have very different styles, with Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams being cold and corporate and MySpace founder Tom Anderson coming off as your friendly buddy.

“People were hanging out on Friendster before they hung out on MySpace,” boyd wrote. “But hanging out on Friendster is like hanging out in a super clean police state where you can’t chew gum let alone goof around and you’re told exactly how to speak to others. Hanging out on MySpace is more like hanging out in a graffiti park with fellow goofballs while your favorite band is playing. That said, there are plenty of folks who don’t want to be hanging out in a graffiti park and they are not sticking around on MySpace as a result.”

The problem with predators at MySpace has been recounted many times in the media, an echo of all the other Internet scare stories that have grabbed the media’s attention in the past. boyd told me in an email that the public panic over MySpace is overblown.

“There are only a small number of cases where something bad has actually happened,” she said via email. “Remember: Most of what you are hearing in the press turns out to not be associated with MySpace at all. Just because teens do something stupid/bad and they have a MySpace account does not mean that they did it because of MySpace. Teens are more likely to be abducted at school than on MySpace. Teens are more likely to die in their parents’ cars than be killed because of MySpace. Teens are more likely to be raped at school or at home than because of MySpace.”

In her essay, boyd argues that if lawmakers restrict the freedom of teens online due to the moral panic over MySpace, all of social networking will suffer and online communities will lose their free speech and anonymity. But she thinks that if/when MySpace loses its currency with teens, it will be because of the normal cycle of fads and generational desires and coolness factors. Her conclusion:

The primary value [of MySpace] right now has to do with identity production and sharing [young people creating a public face], practices that are more critical to certain populations at certain times in their lives and it is possible that “growing up” will be marked by leaving MySpace (both for the teens and the 20-somethings). It is also possible that getting on MySpace will be marked as ‘uncool’ by the next generation (in the same way that fashion changes across generations).

Feeling spammed and invaded by advertisers (or musicians) who seek friendship might turn off users and an increase in this could cripple usage. It is possible that the site will stop evolving with its users. It is possible that people will find new, more interesting ways to do identity production and sharing. It is also possible that the next blinky shiny object will attract users away in clumps, particularly if they better support users’ desires in an innovative way. But none of these are right around the corner.

Though she didn’t mention Wikipedia (and it’s obviously a different animal), I wonder whether the online encyclopedia is suffering a similar fate right now as it becomes better known and flooded with all kinds of miscreants. The burgeoning popularity of Wikipedia and MySpace are perfect case studies in what happens to online communities when they outgrow their cult status and are exposed to the unwashed masses. How they both evolve in the coming years and deal with that influx will be critical to their survival as useful tools for knowledge or social expression.

What do you think about the way online communities grow? Have you left any online communities because of the way they have changed over the years? Do you think Wikipedia and MySpace will evolve and thrive for years to come?

[Photo credit of danah boyd: Paula le Dieu]

UPDATE: Here are the other Wikipedia Week stories on MediaShift:

Email Debate: Wales Discusses Political Bias on Wikipedia

Believers, Negativists Debate Wikipedia’s Trustworthiness

Is There a Neutral View on George W. Bush?

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