Whether its adding content to an encyclopedia article on Wikipedia.org or marking up images from the Kepler space telescope in search of new planets on PlanetHunters.org, open digital participatory platforms like Wikipedia and Planet Hunters rely on volunteer contributors with any background and minimal to no training to stop by and help out.
This wide open invitation for anyone to contribute is tempered by a need for quality control, making sure that what a volunteer contributes actually adheres to and advances the goals of the project. Therefore open digital participatory platforms must operate by navigating a tension between what scholars Chris Kelty and Seth Erickson describe as the rhetoric of openness, encouraging anyone to participate, and the structural realities of openness, creating the terms and conditions around what participation looks like. As Tarleton Gillespie points out, open digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube have edges, meaning that while they welcome and encourage a wide range of participation, they have distinct terms of participation that constrain what we can and cannot do.
Through my research I have explored the conditions of participation on two digital platforms, Wikipedia and Planet Hunters, focusing on the different ways constraints around participation are created in order to both encourage volunteers to contribute while also ensuring that their work adheres to project goals. As I describe in a forthcoming publication, my findings point to constraints that have varying degrees of strength and that these constraints on participation can vary from feature to feature on platforms. For example, some features on a platform may impose heavy constraints on what you can and cannot do while other features may afford greater flexibility.
I describe these distinct conditions or spaces of participation and their varying constraints on the agency of the volunteer as the center and margin of participation, where the center constrains possibilities such that the contributions for volunteers are more likely to adhere to ideologies and objectives of the platform, while the margin offers greater flexibility around participation, allowing for contributions that may deviate from and even challenge objectives.
Two cases of center and margin on digital participatory platforms
To unpack this idea of center and margin, I offer cases from two distinct digital participatory platforms: The peer-produced Wikipedia and the crowdsourced Planet Hunters. The two cases contrast with each other in their approach to volunteer engagement. On one end of the spectrum you have Wikipedia that in theory, as a peer produced phenomenon, offers a high degree of self-determination around how volunteers govern the process and do the work of creating and editing encyclopedic content. At the other end of the spectrum are crowdsourced projects like Planet Hunters, which asks volunteers to analyze light brightness readings of stars measured by the Kepler space telescope, where variations in the light readings may reveal the presence of a planet. In this case, Planet Hunters contrasts with Wikipedia because only a small group of scientists determine the goals of the project and how work will be done, leaving volunteers with little to no agency to impact such decisions.
Given their typological differences, each case offers distinct opportunities for participation from the outset. However, as I show in the cases described below, both Wikipedia and Planet Hunters feature similar strategies that offer spaces with varying degrees of constraints on a volunteers agency. To illustrate these constraints on agency, I offer two vignettes about the volunteer experience on the respective platforms.
Evading authority on Wikipedia
Brianne, a newcomer to Wikipedia, has taken it upon herself to address the gap on Wikipedia for articles about women in science from the 19th and early 20th century. Like many newcomers I interviewed, she creates her article through the articles for creation (or AfC) process, a space on Wikipedia where users can submit their new articles to be reviewed by other wikipedians. What she learns is that AfC is heavily biased towards articles meeting standards of notability which are based on a minimum number of quality citations in an article. Because many women in science from the late 19th and early 20th century were unable to publish work like their male counterparts, Brianne is not armed with enough citations to meet the requirements of AfC and therefore has her work repeatedly rejected.
Armed with a tip from another editor that AfC is not the only pathway for creating an article, Brianne works on her article outside of AfC by first writing it offline in a word processor, and then transferring it to her sandbox on Wikipedia, a place for editors to work on articles before they go live and is understood as being off limits to other editors. After completing the article in the sandbox, Brianne transfers it to the live article space.
By first creating this buffer between herself and AfC, she avoids the authority of other editors and blaze her own trail, writing the articles the way she wants to, and challenging the standards of practice of Wikipedia by testing the definition of notability as it relates to the context of women in science.
Alignment and creativity on Planet Hunters
Turning now to Planet Hunters, we meet Maria who, despite having classified over 12,000 images on Planet Hunters does not consider herself to be all that knowledgeable about astronomy. Instead, she sees herself as a fan of citizen science who has an understanding of how the technical infrastructure works.
“ I know how the process of classification works, where the scientists get a consensus for decisions on a particular image. People who are new to the Planet Hunters are always very afraid, thinking they made a mistake and wanting to correct it. When people say things like this I step in and tell them that it’s not that big of a deal because lots of other people will see it. So, I have to explain how the process of classifying works.
Maria’s approach and attitude about contributing to Planet Hunters reflects a theme that describes participation as a matter of satisfying a particular relationship to the scientists in the project and the technical mechanisms that process the contributions by volunteers. In creating this consensus model, the scientists of Planet Hunters automatically align volunteer activity with the needs of the project, with contributions that impact the project not being a result of volunteers having an intimate knowledge of the science of identifying planets, but instead being a result of knowing how to use the classification interface.
Where the classification interface draws a clear connection between the goals of the project and the constraints around volunteer work, the Talk page (see figure below) on Planet Hunters does not have a clearly defined role in supporting project goals. The Talk page is a feature where volunteers can leave comments about the data they have just classified. As one member of the science team describes it, the talk interface is where you “get to do the science you didn’t plan for in the [classification] interface.” Science team members and other project leaders also acknowledge that the volume of activity in these spaces outweighs the science team and moderators’ ability to police and inform the activity that happens there.
What has emerged in this generally unmoderated space are new forms of data analysis, where more experienced volunteers draw on external data sets and generate new tools for more detailed analysis of the data objects that are made available to them in the classification interface.
Center and margin of participation: Topologies of authoritative strength
What these two cases reveal are unique topologies of authoritative strength on participatory platforms, where some spaces act as margins, intentionally creating a weak relationship with the authority of platform objectives, allowing for deviation from such objectives, while other spaces act as the center, creating a strong relationship between participants and platform objectives, constraining the possible impact a volunteer can have.
At the center, we see how both Wikipedia and Planet Hunters have features that frame the activity of volunteer work in such a way that contributions will either be aligned with project objectives or they will not be included. Such features as Wikipedia’s (AfC) and Planet Hunters classification interface are situated in the experience of volunteers such that there is a high likelihood of encountering them, capturing the attention of volunteers as a way to coordinate their activity around project objectives. This capturing of attention and coordination of activities works to promote stability and homogeneity of practice by accepting or rejecting contributions from volunteers or computationally processing contributions such that the value of their work is assured.
In the margin the conditions of participation are not defined by strong and persistent relationships between volunteers and the authority of experts and leaders, but are instead defined by the direction that a volunteer wishes to take with their work. The margin, unlike the center, is an “uncontrolled” territory of a project, where the standards of project practice are not easily enforced, allowing for new directions and practices to emerge.
In Planet Hunters, the margin is more explicit, appearing in the volunteer experience as an invitation to participate on the Talk page where science team members provide few constraints on how people engage in their work. It is important to note that this strategy has paid off for project organizers as experienced users have created approaches to analyzing data that have played an integral role in supporting the discovery of new planets. For Wikipedia, the margin is implied, emerging as a tactical response to negotiate authoritative constraints, where volunteers situate themselves in spaces where feedback and demands for adherence to standards of practice are not easily enforced.
Preserving the margin as design practice for participatory platforms
Paying attention to the topologies of authoritative strength reveals that, while encouraging consistency and quality through varying constraints on volunteer agency is important, such constraints may impose limitations that perpetuate systemic bias or crowd out emergent and unforeseen modes of participation. Therefore, creating spaces and opportunities for participation that have weaker constraints may be a necessary counter-balance to features that support stability, encouraging deviant or creative practices that ensure diversity and inclusion of ideas that may not have been accounted for at the inception of a platform.
As the two cases demonstrate, participatory conditions that promote stability and predictability or permit deviation from platform objectives can exist as either explicit spaces of participation (e.g. the Talk page or classification interface on Planet Hunters), or they can be cobbled together through a tactical approach by a volunteer working to avoid the authoritative gaze of experts (e.g. avoiding Articles for Creation on Wikipedia). Whether presented as explicit options or implied possibilities, the margins as an intentional design strategy reveals how challenges to power or the revealing of existing dynamics depend on a safe haven, a place where movements against existing models, for example, can emerge and have refuge as they build their case to change existing approaches.
Such spaces for flexibility are becoming increasingly important as we move into a world governed by artificial intelligence processes that are endowed with the biases of their engineers. For example, in the context of Wikipedia, such safe havens may be a valuable consideration in the existing conversation about the potential challenges of algorithmic regimes of editing on Wikipedia where, because algorithmically assisted editing tools are so effective at detecting edits that do not align with platform policy, the margins may be difficult to preserve. While researchers and designers have created new tools that encourage the nuance of human judgement in the use of algorithmically assisted editing tools, the idea and urgency of preserving the margins could offer a new set of values focused on the need to support possibilities of resistance to systemic bias in the design and deployment of such features.