Argumentation and Conflict Management in Online Epistemic Communities: A Narrative Approach to Wikipedia Debates
With the rise of Internet-based technologies, new web-based communities of practice have emerged, that we term online epistemic communities, or “OECs”, whose raison d’être is the co-creation of knowledge objects such as open-source programming languages or encyclopædias (for example, Wikipedia). In this chapter we focus on the case of Wikipedia, where general public participation has recently grown very quickly, in part due to egalitarian principles that encourage free participation by everyone. However, widespread participation, coupled with the principle of neutrality of viewpoint, has led to “editing wars” (repeated text deletions and “reverts”, now largely controlled by “(ro)bots”). The nature of participation has tended to change over time, with a migration of conflicts to discussion pages, especially in the case of articles on contentious issues (e.g. “The Turin Shroud”). Our aim is to describe the characteristics of such OEC debates, in relation to their contexts and potential for effective knowledge elaboration. We describe an approach to studying argumentation practices in OECs based on articulating third-person (researcher) analyses, based on a pragma-dialectic model extended to include dimensions of knowledge elaboration and interpersonal relations, with a first-person (participant) perspective, where key contributors to controversial articles produced narratives on their ‘life cycles’. On the basis of two case-study discussions we show that although debates are mostly epistemic, concerning article content and structure, the possibilities of anonymity and completely open participation also lead to disputes on an interpersonal (ad hominem) level, concerning expertise. We conclude with prospects for rendering OEC debates more constructive and productive.
This research was financed by the CARNOT programme of the Institute Mines-Telecom. We thank Dominique Fréard, who, as a post-doc researcher, collected the data analysed here.
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