"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it."

When we want to understand how communities cooperate, we are compelled to look at examples in the animal kingdom. How do teams of organisms hunt, build, feed, and survive together as a clan? Behavioral scientists work for years, homing in on the minutiae of group dynamics in animals, looking for clues as to how they cooperate, especially because they don’t have the benefit of spoken language.

What kind of systems in nature help describe Wikipedia’s dynamics?

Many have likened what happens in Wikipedia to a giant ant farm, with worker ants, drones, and a master queen. Different ants identify themselves for the tasks at hand and interact without instructions "from the top." There are no ant middle managers directing the others.

In his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson provides a compelling spectrum of scientific examples to describe how individual parts of an aggregated whole interact to form a collective "intelligence." He shows that ants (despite our erroneously ascribing a mode of "royal command" to the queen) in fact operate in a distributed and decentralized way. There is no hierarchical command structure for ants, and the intelligent survival of the colony is in fact "emergent behavior" made up of small, simple, individual decisions and signals communicated on an ant-by-ant basis and by a trail of pheromone markers left behind as they move about their living space.

The term "stigmergy" has been proposed as a biological term to describe this behavior, derived from the Greek words stigma ("sign") and ergon ("action"). Academic researcher Joseph Reagle, a doctoral student who wrote his Ph.D. thesis about Wikipedia collaboration, describes the phenomenon:

Stigmergy is a term coined by Pierre-Paul Grasse to describe how wasps and termites collectively build complex structures; as Istvan Karsai writes, it "describes the situation in which the product of previous work, rather than direct communication among builders, induces [and directs how] the wasps perform additional labor."

This implicit communication by modifying one’s environment, within the "virtual ant colony" becomes a rather useful model to describe Wikipedia. Individual users are informed about environmental changes through the Recent Changes page, article edit histories, and watchlists. The states of these continually change, and relay valuable signals used to understand the activities of others in the community. It’s what has allowed a largely anonymous cluster of volunteers to build an encyclopedia with millions of entries without any type of top-down command structure.

A functional community emerges from simple directives agreed upon by those who choose to participate: maintain a neutral point of view, assume good faith, and don’t bite the newbies. Forceful enough to give clear direction, but loose enough to be flexible and evolve.

Basic sets of guidelines, acted upon by individuals at a micro level, wind up feeding into a larger phenomenon of emergent behavior, such as creating decent encyclopedia articles. Like the pheromones left by ants for their workmates, Wikipedia depends on signaling of actions from one user to others and encourages vigorous action by being bold.

If we look to the behavior of fish, we also find a useful metaphor for describing Wikipedia’s operation, at least that’s how the Francophones see it. "In French Wikipedia they came up with a fantastic phrase, they call it the piranha effect," says Jimmy Wales. "You start with a little tiny article and it’s not quite good enough so people are picking at it and sort of a feeding frenzy and articles grow."

The piranha is a small, rather innocuous-looking individual fish. A single animal might give you a nasty bite, but collectively a group is able to make short work of a cow on an unfortunate stroll in the river. The carnivorous fish swarm and work as a team, each one attracted by the activity of another. They are predators, attacking what comes their way, yet they are also scavengers, roaming and devouring what they find scattered about.

Wikipedia took off in 2001 with this piranha effect almost overnight. But it depended on a rich existing online Net culture accustomed to collaboration and group behavior.

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