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Wikipedia: Moving Between the Whole and its Traces

Sat, June 11, 11:00 to 12:15, Fukuoka Hilton, Navis C


In this paper, I outline my experiences as an ethnographer working with data scientists to explore various questions surrounding the dynamics of Wikipedia sources and citations. In particular, I focus on the moments at which we were able to bring the small and the large into conversation with one another, and moments when we looked, wide-eyed at one another, unable to articulate what had gone wrong. Inspired by Latour’s (2010) reading of Gabriel Tarde, I argue that a useful analogy for conducting mixed methods for studies about which large datasets and holistic tools are available is the process of life drawing – a process of moving up close to the easel and standing back (or to the side) as the artist looks at both their subject and the canvas in a continual motion.

Wikipedia’s citation traces can be analysed in their aggregate – piled up, one on top of the other to indicate the emergence of new patterns, new vocabulary, new authorities of knowledge in the digital information environment. But citation traces take a particular shape and form, and without an understanding of the behaviour that lies behind such traces, the tendency is to count what is available to us, rather than to think more critically about the larger questions that Wikipedia citations help to answer.

I outline a successful conversation which happened when we took a large snapshot of 67 million source postings from about 3.5 million Wikipedia articles and attempted to begin classifying the citations according to existing frameworks (Ford 2014). In response, I conducted a series of interviews with editors by visualising their citation traces and asking them questions about the decision-making and social interaction that lay behind such performances (Dubois and Ford 2015). I also reflect on a less successful moment when we attempted to discover patterns in the dataset on the basis of findings from my ethnographic research into the political behaviour of editors. Like the artist who had gotten their proportions wrong when scaling up the image on the canvas, we needed to re-orient ourselves and remember what we were trying to ultimately discover.


Dubois, E., & H. Ford. 2015. “Qualitative Political Communication: Trace Interviews: An Actor-Centered Approach.” International Journal of Communication 9 (0): 25.

Ford, H. 2014. “Big Data and Small: Collaborations between Ethnographers and Data Scientists.” Big Data & Society 1 (2): 2053951714544337. doi:10.1177/2053951714544337.

Latour, B. “Tarde’s idea of quantification.” In The Social After Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments, edited by Matei Candea, 145-162. Routledge, 2010.