Testing Our Theories About “Eternal September”

Graph of subscribers and moderators over time in /r/NoSleep. The image is taken from our 2016 CHI paper.

Last year at CHI 2016, my research group published a qualitative study examining the effects of a large influx of newcomers to the /r/nosleep online community in Reddit. Our study began with the observation that most research on sustained waves of newcomers focuses on the destructive effect of newcomers and frequently invokes Usenet’s infamous “Eternal September.” Our qualitative study argued that the /r/nosleep community managed its surge of newcomers gracefully through strategic preparation by moderators, technological systems to reign in on norm violations, and a shared sense of protecting the community’s immersive environment among participants.

We are thrilled that, less a year after the publication of our study, Zhiyuan “Jerry” Lin and a group of researchers at Stanford have published a quantitative test of our study’s findings! Lin analyzed 45 million comments and upvote patterns from 10 Reddit communities that a massive inundation of newcomers like the one we studied on /r/nosleep. Lin’s group found that these communities retained their quality despite a slight dip in its initial growth period.

Our team discussed doing a quantitative study like Lin’s at some length and our paper ends with a lament that our findings merely reflected, “propositions for testing in future work.” Lin’s study provides exactly such a test! Lin et al.’s results suggest that our qualitative findings generalize and that sustained influx of newcomers need not doom a community to a descent into an “Eternal September.” Through strong moderation and the use of a voting system, the subreddits analyzed by Lin appear to retain their identities despite the surge of new users.

There are always limits to research projects work—quantitative and qualitative. We think the Lin’s paper compliments ours beautifully, we are excited that Lin built on our work, and we’re thrilled that our propositions seem to have held up!

This blog post was written with Charlie Kiene. Our paper about /r/nosleep, written with Charlie Kiene and Andrés Monroy-Hernández, was published in the Proceedings of CHI 2016 and is released as open access. Lin’s paper was published in the Proceedings of ICWSM 2017 and is also available online.

Learning to Code in One’s Own Language

I recently published a paper with Sayamindu Dasgupta that provides evidence in support of the idea that kids can learn to code more quickly when they are programming in their own language.

Millions of young people from around the world are learning to code. Often, during their learning experiences, these youth are using visual block-based programming languages like Scratch, App Inventor, and Code.org Studio. In block-based programming languages, coders manipulate visual, snap-together blocks that represent code constructs instead of textual symbols and commands that are found in more traditional programming languages.

The textual symbols used in nearly all non-block-based programming languages are drawn from English—consider “if” statements and “for” loops for common examples. Keywords in block-based languages, on the other hand, are often translated into different human languages. For example, depending on the language preference of the user, an identical set of computing instructions in Scratch can be represented in many different human languages:

Examples of a short piece of Scratch code shown in four different human languages: English, Italian, Norwegian Bokmål, and German.

Although my research with Sayamindu Dasgupta focuses on learning, both Sayamindu and I worked on local language technologies before coming back to academia. As a result, we were both interested in how the increasing translation of programming languages might be making it easier for non-English speaking kids to learn to code.

After all, a large body of education research has shown that early-stage education is more effective when instruction is in the language that the learner speaks at home. Based on this research, we hypothesized that children learning to code with block-based programming languages translated to their mother-tongues will have better learning outcomes than children using the blocks in English.

We sought to test this hypothesis in Scratch, an informal learning community built around a block-based programming language. We were helped by the fact that Scratch is translated into many languages and has a large number of learners from around the world.

To measure learning, we built on some of our our own previous work and looked at learners’ cumulative block repertoires—similar to a code vocabulary. By observing a learner’s cumulative block repertoire over time, we can measure how quickly their code vocabulary is growing.

Using this data, we compared the rate of growth of cumulative block repertoire between learners from non-English speaking countries using Scratch in English to learners from the same countries using Scratch in their local language. To identify non-English speakers, we considered Scratch users who reported themselves as coming from five primarily non-English speaking countries: Portugal, Italy, Brazil, Germany, and Norway. We chose these five countries because they each have one very widely spoken language that is not English and because Scratch is almost fully translated into that language.

Even after controlling for a number of factors like social engagement on the Scratch website, user productivity, and time spent on projects, we found that learners from these countries who use Scratch in their local language have a higher rate of cumulative block repertoire growth than their counterparts using Scratch in English. This faster growth was despite having a lower initial block repertoire. The graph below visualizes our results for two “prototypical” learners who start with the same initial block repertoire: one learner who uses the English interface, and a second learner who uses their native language.

Summary of the results of our model for two prototypical individuals.

Our results are in line with what theories of education have to say about learning in one’s own language. Our findings also represent good news for designers of block-based programming languages who have spent considerable amounts of effort in making their programming languages translatable. It’s also good news for the volunteers who have spent many hours translating blocks and user interfaces.

Although we find support for our hypothesis, we should stress that our findings are both limited and incomplete. For example, because we focus on estimating the differences between Scratch learners, our comparisons are between kids who all managed to successfully use Scratch. Before Scratch was translated, kids with little working knowledge of English or the Latin script might not have been able to use Scratch at all. Because of translation, many of these children are now able to learn to code.


This blog post and the work that it describes is a collaborative project with Sayamindu Dasgupta. Sayamindu also published a very similar version of the blog post in several places. Our paper is open access and you can read it here. The paper was published in the proceedings of the ACM Learning @ Scale Conference. We also recently gave a talk about this work at the International Communication Association’s annual conference. We received support and feedback from members of the Scratch team at MIT (especially Mitch Resnick and Natalie Rusk), as well as from Nathan TeBlunthuis at the University of Washington. Financial support came from the US National Science Foundation.

The Community Data Science Collective Dataverse

I’m pleased to announce the Community Data Science Collective Dataverse. Our dataverse is an archival repository for datasets created by the Community Data Science Collective. The dataverse won’t replace work that collective members have been doing for years to document and distribute data from our research. What we hope it will do is get our data — like our published manuscripts — into the hands of folks in the “forever” business.

Over the past few years, the Community Data Science Collective has published several papers where an important part of the contribution is a dataset. These include:

Recently, we’ve also begun producing replication datasets to go alongside our empirical papers. So far, this includes:

In the case of each of the first groups of papers where the dataset was a part of the contribution, we uploaded code and data to a website we’ve created. Of course, even if we do a wonderful job of keeping these websites maintained over time, eventually, our research group will cease to exist. When that happens, the data will eventually disappear as well.

The text of our papers will be maintained long after we’re gone in the journal or conference proceedings’ publisher’s archival storage and in our universities’ institutional archives. But what about the data? Since the data is a core part — perhaps the core part — of the contribution of these papers, the data should be archived permanently as well.

Toward that end, our group has created a dataverse. Our dataverse is a repository within the Harvard Dataverse where we have been uploading archival copies of datasets over the last six months. All five of the papers described above are uploaded already. The Scratch dataset, due to access control restrictions, isn’t listed on the main page but it’s online on the site. Moving forward, we’ll be populating this new datasets we create as well as replication datasets for our future empirical papers. We’re currently preparing several more.

The primary point of the CDSC Dataverse is not to provide you with way to get our data although you’re certainly welcome to use it that way and it might help make some of it more discoverable. The websites we’ve created (like for the ones for redirects and for page protection) will continue to exist and be maintained. The Dataverse is insurance for if, and when, those websites go down to ensure that our data will still be accessible.


This post was also published on the Community Data Science Collective blog.

The Wikipedia Adventure

I recently finished a paper that presents a novel social computing system called the Wikipedia Adventure. The system was a gamified tutorial for new Wikipedia editors. Working with the tutorial creators, we conducted both a survey of its users and a randomized field experiment testing its effectiveness in encouraging subsequent contributions. We found that although users loved it, it did not affect subsequent participation rates.

Start screen for the Wikipedia Adventure.

A major concern that many online communities face is how to attract and retain new contributors. Despite it’s success, Wikipedia is no different. In fact, researchers have shown that after experiencing a massive initial surge in activity, the number of active editors on Wikipedia has been in slow decline since 2007.

The number of active, registered editors (≥5 edits per month) to Wikipedia over time. From Halfaker, Geiger, and Morgan 2012.

Research has attributed a large part of this decline to the hostile environment that newcomers experience when begin contributing. New editors often attempt to make contributions which are subsequently reverted by more experienced editors for not following Wikipedia’s increasingly long list of rules and guidelines for effective participation.

This problem has led many researchers and Wikipedians to wonder how to more effectively onboard newcomers to the community. How do you ensure that new editors Wikipedia quickly gain the knowledge they need in order to make contributions that are in line with community norms?

To this end, Jake Orlowitz and Jonathan Morgan from the Wikimedia Foundation worked with a team of Wikipedians to create a structured, interactive tutorial called The Wikipedia Adventure. The idea behind this system was that new editors would be invited to use it shortly after creating a new account on Wikipedia, and it would provide a step-by-step overview of the basics of editing.

The Wikipedia Adventure was designed to address issues that new editors frequently encountered while learning how to contribute to Wikipedia. It is structured into different ‘missions’ that guide users through various aspects of participation on Wikipedia, including how to communicate with other editors, how to cite sources, and how to ensure that edits present a neutral point of view. The sequence of the missions gives newbies an overview of what they need to know instead of having to figure everything out themselves. Additionally, the theme and tone of the tutorial sought to engage new users, rather than just redirecting them to the troves of policy pages.

Those who play the tutorial receive automated badges on their user page for every mission they complete. This signals to veteran editors that the user is acting in good-faith by attempting to learn the norms of Wikipedia.

An example of a badge that a user receives after demonstrating the skills to communicate with other users on Wikipedia.

Once the system was built, we were interested in knowing whether people enjoyed using it and found it helpful. So we conducted a survey asking editors who played the Wikipedia Adventure a number of questions about its design and educational effectiveness. Overall, we found that users had a very favorable opinion of the system and found it useful.

Survey responses about how users felt about TWA.
Survey responses about what users learned through TWA.

We were heartened by these results. We’d sought to build an orientation system that was engaging and educational, and our survey responses suggested that we succeeded on that front. This led us to ask the question – could an intervention like the Wikipedia Adventure help reverse the trend of a declining editor base on Wikipedia? In particular, would exposing new editors to the Wikipedia Adventure lead them to make more contributions to the community?

To find out, we conducted a field experiment on a population of new editors on Wikipedia. We identified 1,967 newly created accounts that passed a basic test of making good-faith edits. We then randomly invited 1,751 of these users via their talk page to play the Wikipedia Adventure. The rest were sent no invitation. Out of those who were invited, 386 completed at least some portion of the tutorial.

We were interested in knowing whether those we invited to play the tutorial (our treatment group) and those we didn’t (our control group) contributed differently in the first six months after they created accounts on Wikipedia. Specifically, we wanted to know whether there was a difference in the total number of edits they made to Wikipedia, the number of edits they made to talk pages, and the average quality of their edits as measured by content persistence.

We conducted two kinds of analyses on our dataset. First, we estimated the effect of inviting users to play the Wikipedia Adventure on our three outcomes of interest. Second, we estimated the effect of playing the Wikipedia Adventure, conditional on having been invited to do so, on those same outcomes.

To our surprise, we found that in both cases there were no significant effects on any of the outcomes of interest. Being invited to play the Wikipedia Adventure therefore had no effect on new users’ volume of participation either on Wikipedia in general, or on talk pages specifically, nor did it have any effect on the average quality of edits made by the users in our study. Despite the very positive feedback that the system received in the survey evaluation stage, it did not produce a significant change in newcomer contribution behavior. We concluded that the system by itself could not reverse the trend of newcomer attrition on Wikipedia.

Why would a system that was received so positively ultimately produce no aggregate effect on newcomer participation? We’ve identified a few possible reasons. One is that perhaps a tutorial by itself would not be sufficient to counter hostile behavior that newcomers might experience from experienced editors. Indeed, the friendly, welcoming tone of the Wikipedia Adventure might contrast with strongly worded messages that new editors receive from veteran editors or bots. Another explanation might be that users enjoyed playing the Wikipedia Adventure, but did not enjoy editing Wikipedia. After all, the two activities draw on different kinds of motivations. Finally, the system required new users to choose to play the tutorial. Maybe people who chose to play would have gone on to edit in similar ways without the tutorial.

Ultimately, this work shows us the importance of testing systems outside of lab studies. The Wikipedia Adventure was built by community members to address known gaps in the onboarding process, and our survey showed that users responded well to its design.

While it would have been easy to declare victory at that stage, the field deployment study painted a different picture. Systems like the Wikipedia Adventure may inform the design of future orientation systems. That said, more profound changes to the interface or modes of interaction between editors might also be needed to increase contributions from newcomers.

This blog post, and the open access paper that it describes, is a collaborative project with Sneha Narayan, Jake OrlowitzJonathan Morgan, and Aaron Shaw. Financial support came from the US National Science Foundation (grants IIS-1617129 and IIS-1617468), Northwestern University, and the University of Washington. We also published all the data and code necessary to reproduce our analysis in a repository in the Harvard Dataverse. Sneha posted the material in this blog post over on the Community Data Science Collective Blog.

Children’s Perspectives on Critical Data Literacies

Last week, we presented a new paper that describes how children are thinking through some of the implications of new forms of data collection and analysis. The presentation was given at the ACM CHI conference in Denver last week and the paper is open access and online.

Over the last couple years, we’ve worked on a large project to support children in doing — and not just learning about — data science. We built a system, Scratch Community Blocks, that allows the 18 million users of the Scratch online community to write their own computer programs — in Scratch of course — to analyze data about their own learning and social interactions. An example of one of those programs to find how many of one’s follower in Scratch are not from the United States is shown below.

Last year, we deployed Scratch Community Blocks to 2,500 active Scratch users who, over a period of several months, used the system to create more than 1,600 projects.

As children used the system, Samantha Hautea, a student in UW’s Communication Leadership program, led a group of us in an online ethnography. We visited the projects children were creating and sharing. We followed the forums where users discussed the blocks. We read comment threads left on projects. We combined Samantha’s detailed field notes with the text of comments and forum posts, with ethnographic interviews of several users, and with notes from two in-person workshops. We used a technique called grounded theory to analyze these data.

What we found surprised us. We expected children to reflect on being challenged by — and hopefully overcoming — the technical parts of doing data science. Although we certainly saw this happen, what emerged much more strongly from our analysis was detailed discussion among children about the social implications of data collection and analysis.

In our analysis, we grouped children’s comments into five major themes that represented what we called “critical data literacies.” These literacies reflect things that children felt were important implications of social media data collection and analysis.

First, children reflected on the way that programmatic access to data — even data that was technically public — introduced privacy concerns. One user described the ability to analyze data as, “creepy”, but at the same time, “very cool.” Children expressed concern that programmatic access to data could lead to “stalking“ and suggested that the system should ask for permission.

Second, children recognized that data analysis requires skepticism and interpretation. For example, Scratch Community Blocks introduced a bug where the block that returned data about followers included users with disabled accounts. One user, in an interview described to us how he managed to figure out the inconsistency:

At one point the follower blocks, it said I have slightly more followers than I do. And, that was kind of confusing when I was trying to make the project. […] I pulled up a second [browser] tab and compared the [data from Scratch Community Blocks and the data in my profile].

Third, children discussed the hidden assumptions and decisions that drive the construction of metrics. For example, the number of views received for each project in Scratch is counted using an algorithm that tries to minimize the impact of gaming the system (similar to, for example, Youtube). As children started to build programs with data, they started to uncover and speculate about the decisions behind metrics. For example, they guessed that the view count might only include “unique” views and that view counts may include users who do not have accounts on the website.

Fourth, children building projects with Scratch Community Blocks realized that an algorithm driven by social data may cause certain users to be excluded. For example, a 13-year-old expressed concern that the system could be used to exclude users with few social connections saying:

I love these new Scratch Blocks! However I did notice that they could be used to exclude new Scratchers or Scratchers with not a lot of followers by using a code: like this:
when flag clicked
if then user’s followers < 300
stop all.
I do not think this a big problem as it would be easy to remove this code but I did just want to bring this to your attention in case this not what you would want the blocks to be used for.

Fifth, children were concerned about the possibility that measurement might distort the Scratch community’s values. While giving feedback on the new system, a user expressed concern that by making it easier to measure and compare followers, the system could elevate popularity over creativity, collaboration, and respect as a marker of success in Scratch.

I think this was a great idea! I am just a bit worried that people will make these projects and take it the wrong way, saying that followers are the most important thing in on Scratch.

Kids’ conversations around Scratch Community Blocks are good news for educators who are starting to think about how to engage young learners in thinking critically about the implications of data. Although no kid using Scratch Community Blocks discussed each of the five literacies described above, the themes reflect starting points for educators designing ways to engage kids in thinking critically about data.

Our work shows that if children are given opportunities to actively engage and build with social and behavioral data, they might not only learn how to do data analysis, but also reflect on its implications.

This blog-post and the work that it describes is a collaborative project by Samantha Hautea, Sayamindu Dasgupta, and Benjamin Mako Hill. We have also received support and feedback from members of the Scratch team at MIT (especially Mitch Resnick and Natalie Rusk), as well as from Hal Abelson from MIT CSAIL. Financial support came from the US National Science Foundation.

Surviving an “Eternal September:” How an Online Community Managed a Surge of Newcomers

Attracting newcomers is among the most widely studied problems in online community research. However, with all the attention paid to challenge of getting new users, much less research has studied the flip side of that coin: large influxes of newcomers can pose major problems as well!

The most widely known example of problems caused by an influx of newcomers into an online community occurred in Usenet. Every September, new university students connecting to the Internet for the first time would wreak havoc in the Usenet discussion forums. When AOL connected its users to the Usenet in 1994, it disrupted the community for so long that it became widely known as “The September that never ended”.

Our study considered a similar influx in NoSleep—an online community within Reddit where writers share original horror stories and readers comment and vote on them. With strict rules requiring that all members of the community suspend disbelief, NoSleep thrives off the fact that readers experience an immersive storytelling environment. Breaking the rules is as easy as questioning the truth of someone’s story. Socializing newcomers represents a major challenge for NoSleep.

Number of subscribers and moderators on /r/NoSleep over time.

On May 7th, 2014, NoSleep became a “default subreddit”—i.e., every new user to Reddit automatically joined NoSleep. After gradually accumulating roughly 240,000 members from 2010 to 2014, the NoSleep community grew to over 2 million subscribers in a year. That said, NoSleep appeared to largely hold things together. This reflects the major question that motivated our study: How did NoSleep withstand such a massive influx of newcomers without enduring their own Eternal September?

To answer this question, we interviewed a number of NoSleep participants, writers, moderators, and admins. After transcribing, coding, and analyzing the results, we proposed that NoSleep survived because of three inter-connected systems that helped protect the community’s norms and overall immersive environment.

First, there was a strong and organized team of moderators who enforced the rules no matter what. They recruited new moderators knowing the community’s population was going to surge. They utilized a private subreddit for NoSleep’s staff. They were able to socialize and educate new moderators effectively. Although issuing sanctions against community members was often difficult, our interviewees explained that NoSleep’s moderators were deeply committed and largely uncompromising.

That commitment resonates within the second system that protected NoSleep: regulation by normal community members. From our interviews, we found that the participants felt a shared sense of community that motivated them both to socialize newcomers themselves as well as to report inappropriate comments and downvote people who violate the community’s norms.

Finally, we found that the technological systems protected the community as well. For instance, post-throttling was instituted to limit the frequency at which a writer could post their stories. Additionally, Reddit’s “Automoderator”, a programmable AI bot, was used to issue sanctions against obvious norm violators while running in the background. Participants also pointed to the tools available to them—the report feature and voting system in particular—to explain how easy it was for them to report and regulate the community’s disruptors.

This blog post was written with Charlie Kiene. The paper and work this post describes is collaborative work with Charlie Kiene and Andrés Monroy-Hernández. The paper was published in the Proceedings of CHI 2016 and is released as open access so anyone can read the entire paper here. A version of this post was published on the Community Data Science Collective blog.

New Dataset: Five Years of Longitudinal Data from Scratch

Scratch is a block-based programming language created by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group (LLK) at the MIT Media Lab. Scratch gives kids the power to use programming to create their own interactive animations and computer games. Since 2007, the online community that allows Scratch programmers to share, remix, and socialize around their projects has drawn more than 16 million users who have shared nearly 20 million projects and more than 100 million comments. It is one of the most popular ways for kids to learn programming and among the larger online communities for kids in general.

Front page of the Scratch online community (https://scratch.mit.edu) during the period covered by the dataset.

Since 2010, I have published a series of papers using quantitative data collected from the database behind the Scratch online community. As the source of data for many of my first quantitative and data scientific papers, it’s not a major exaggeration to say that I have built my academic career on the dataset.

I was able to do this work because I happened to be doing my masters in a research group that shared a physical space (“The Cube”) with LLK and because I was friends with Andrés Monroy-Hernández, who started in my masters cohort at the Media Lab. A year or so after we met, Andrés conceived of the Scratch online community and created the first version for his masters thesis project. Because I was at MIT and because I knew the right people, I was able to get added to the IRB protocols and jump through the hoops necessary to get access to the database.

Over the years, Andrés and I have heard over and over, in conversation and in reviews of our papers, that we were privileged to have access to such a rich dataset. More than three years ago, Andrés and I began trying to figure out how we might broaden this access. Andrés had the idea of taking advantage of the launch of Scratch 2.0 in 2013 to focus on trying to release the first five years of Scratch 1.x online community data (March 2007 through March 2012) — most of the period that the codebase he had written ran the site.

After more work than I have put into any single research paper or project, Andrés and I have published a data descriptor in Nature’s new journal Scientific Data. This means that the data is now accessible to other researchers. The data includes five years of detailed longitudinal data organized in 32 tables with information drawn from more than 1 million Scratch users, nearly 2 million Scratch projects, more than 10 million comments, more than 30 million visits to Scratch projects, and much more. The dataset includes metadata on user behavior as well the full source code for every project. Alongside the data is the source code for all of the software that ran the website and that users used to create the projects as well as the code used to produce the dataset we’ve released.

Releasing the dataset was a complicated process. First, we had navigate important ethical concerns about the the impact that a release of any data might have on Scratch’s users. Toward that end, we worked closely with the Scratch team and the the ethics board at MIT to design a protocol for the release that balanced these risks with the benefit of a release. The most important features of our approach in this regard is that the dataset we’re releasing is limited to only public data. Although the data is public, we understand that computational access to data is different in important ways to access via a browser or API. As a result, we’re requiring anybody interested in the data to tell us who they are and agree to a detailed usage agreement. The Scratch team will vet these applicants. Although we’re worried that this creates a barrier to access, we think this approach strikes a reasonable balance.

Beyond the the social and ethical issues, creating the dataset was an enormous task. Andrés and I spent Sunday afternoons over much of the last three years going column-by-column through the MySQL database that ran Scratch. We looked through the source code and the version control system to figure out how the data was created. We spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out which columns and rows were public. Most of our work went into creating detailed codebooks and documentation that we hope makes the process of using this data much easier for others (the data descriptor is just a brief overview of what’s available). Serializing some of the larger tables took days of computer time.

In this process, we had a huge amount of help from many others including an enormous amount of time and support from Mitch Resnick, Natalie Rusk, Sayamindu Dasgupta, and Benjamin Berg at MIT as well as from many other on the Scratch Team. We also had an enormous amount of feedback from a group of a couple dozen researchers who tested the release as well as others who helped us work through through the technical, social, and ethical challenges. The National Science Foundation funded both my work on the project and the creation of Scratch itself.

Because access to data has been limited, there has been less research on Scratch than the importance of the system warrants. We hope our work will change this. We can imagine studies using the dataset by scholars in communication, computer science, education, sociology, network science, and beyond. We’re hoping that by opening up this dataset to others, scholars with different interests, different questions, and in different fields can benefit in the way that Andrés and I have. I suspect that there are other careers waiting to be made with this dataset and I’m excited by the prospect of watching those careers develop.

You can find out more about the dataset, and how to apply for access, by reading the data descriptor on Nature’s website.

Consider the Redirect

In wikis, redirects are special pages that silently take readers from the page they are visiting to another page. Although their presence is noted in tiny gray text (see the image below) most people use them all the time and never know they exist. Redirects exist to make linking between pages easier, they populate Wikipedia’s search autocomplete list, and are generally helpful in organizing information. In the English Wikipedia, redirects make up more than half of all article pages.

seattle_redirectOver the years, I’ve spent some time contributing to to Redirects for Discussion (RfD). I think of RfD as like an ultra-low stakes version of Articles for Deletion where Wikipedians decide whether to delete or keep articles. If a redirect is deleted, viewers are taken to a search results page and almost nobody notices. That said, because redirects are almost never viewed directly, almost nobody notices if a redirect is kept either!

I’ve told people that if they want to understand the soul of a Wikipedian, they should spend time participating in RfD. When you understand why arguing about and working hard to come to consensus solutions for how Wikipedia should handle individual redirects is an enjoyable way to spend your spare time — where any outcome is invisible — you understand what it means to be a Wikipedian.

That said, wiki researchers rarely take redirects into account. For years, I’ve suspected that accounting for redirects was important for Wikipedia research and that several classes of findings were noisy or misleading because most people haven’t done so. As a result, I worked with my colleague Aaron Shaw at Northwestern earlier this year to build a longitudinal dataset of redirects that can capture the dynamic nature of redirects. Our work was published as a short paper at OpenSym several months ago.

It turns out, taking redirects into account correctly (especially if you are looking at activity over time) is tricky because redirects are stored as normal pages by MediaWiki except that they happen to start with special redirect text. Like other pages, redirects can be updated and changed over time are frequently are. As a result, taking redirects into account for any study that looks at activity over time requires looking at the text of every revision of every page.

Using our dataset, Aaron and I showed that the distribution of edits across pages in English Wikipedia (a relationships that is used in many research projects) looks pretty close to log normal when we remove redirects and very different when you don’t. After all, half of articles are really just redirects and, and because they are just redirects, these “articles” are almost never edited.

edits_over_pagesAnother puzzling finding that’s been reported in a few places — and that I repeated myself several times — is that edits and views are surprisingly uncorrelated. I’ll write more about this later but the short version is that we found that a big chunk of this can, in fact, be explained by considering redirects.

We’ve published our code and data and the article itself is online because we paid the ACM’s open access fee to ransom the article.

Another Round of Community Data Science Workshops in Seattle

Pictures from the CDSW sessions in Spring 2014
Pictures from the CDSW sessions in Spring 2014

I am helping coordinate three and a half day-long workshops in November for anyone interested in learning how to use programming and data science tools to ask and answer questions about online communities like Wikipedia, free and open source software, Twitter, civic media, etc. This will be a new and improved version of the workshops run successfully earlier this year.

The workshops are for people with no previous programming experience and will be free of charge and open to anyone.

Our goal is that, after the three workshops, participants will be able to use data to produce numbers, hypothesis tests, tables, and graphical visualizations to answer questions like:

  • Are new contributors to an article in Wikipedia sticking around longer or contributing more than people who joined last year?
  • Who are the most active or influential users of a particular Twitter hashtag?
  • Are people who participated in a Wikipedia outreach event staying involved? How do they compare to people that joined the project outside of the event?

If you are interested in participating, fill out our registration form here before October 30th. We were heavily oversubscribed last time so registering may help.

If you already know how to program in Python, it would be really awesome if you would volunteer as a mentor! Being a mentor will involve working with participants and talking them through the challenges they encounter in programming. No special preparation is required. If you’re interested, send me an email.

Community Data Science Workshops Post-Mortem

Earlier this year, I helped plan and run the Community Data Science Workshops: a series of three (and a half) day-long workshops designed to help people learn basic programming and tools for data science tools in order to ask and answer questions about online communities like Wikipedia and Twitter. You can read our initial announcement for more about the vision.

The workshops were organized by myself, Jonathan Morgan from the Wikimedia Foundation, long-time Software Carpentry teacher Tommy Guy, and a group of 15 volunteer “mentors” who taught project-based afternoon sessions and worked one-on-one with more than 50 participants. With overwhelming interest, we were ultimately constrained by the number of mentors who volunteered. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to turn away most of the people who applied. Although it was not emphasized in recruiting or used as a selection criteria, a majority of the participants were women.

The workshops were all free of charge and sponsored by the UW Department of Communication, who provided space, and the eScience Institute, who provided food.

cdsw_combo_images-1The curriculum for all four session session is online:

The workshops were designed for people with no previous programming experience. Although most our participants were from the University of Washington, we had non-UW participants from as far away as Vancouver, BC.

Feedback we collected suggests that the sessions were a huge success, that participants learned enormously, and that the workshops filled a real need in the Seattle community. Between workshops, participants organized meet-ups to practice their programming skills.

Most excitingly, just as we based our curriculum for the first session on the Boston Python Workshop’s, others have been building off our curriculum. Elana Hashman, who was a mentor at the CDSW, is coordinating a set of Python Workshops for Beginners with a group at the University of Waterloo and with sponsorship from the Python Software Foundation using curriculum based on ours. I also know of two university classes that are tentatively being planned around the curriculum.

Because a growing number of groups have been contacting us about running their own events based on the CDSW — and because we are currently making plans to run another round of workshops in Seattle late this fall — I coordinated with a number of other mentors to go over participant feedback and to put together a long write-up of our reflections in the form of a post-mortem. Although our emphasis is on things we might do differently, we provide a broad range of information that might be useful to people running a CDSW (e.g., our budget). Please let me know if you are planning to run an event so we can coordinate going forward.

Community Data Science Workshops in Seattle

Photo from the Boston Python Workshop – a similar workshop run in Boston that has inspired and provided a template for the CDSW.
Photo from the Boston Python Workshop – a similar workshop run in Boston that has inspired and provided a template for the CDSW.

On three Saturdays in April and May, I will be helping run three day-long project-based workshops at the University of Washington in Seattle. The workshops are for anyone interested in learning how to use programming and data science tools to ask and answer questions about online communities like Wikipedia, Twitter, free  and open source software, and civic media.

The workshops are for people with no previous programming experience and the goal is to bring together researchers as well as participants and leaders in online communities.  The workshops will all be free of charge and open to the public given availability of space.

Our goal is that, after the three workshops, participants will be able to use data to produce numbers, hypothesis tests, tables, and graphical visualizations to answer questions like:

  • Are new contributors to an article in Wikipedia sticking around longer or contributing more than people who joined last year?
  • Who are the most active or influential users of a particular Twitter hashtag?
  • Are people who participated in a Wikipedia outreach event staying involved? How do they compare to people that joined the project outside of the event?

If you are interested in participating, fill out our registration form here. The deadline to register is Wednesday March 26th.  We will let participants know if we have room for them by Saturday March 29th. Space is limited and will depend on how many mentors we can recruit for the sessions.

If you already have experience with Python, please consider helping out at the sessions as a mentor. Being a mentor will involve working with participants and talking them through the challenges they encounter in programming. No special preparation is required.  If you’re interested,  send me an email.

Doctor of Philosophy

On Wednesday, I successfully defended my PhD dissertation in front of a ridiculously packed house at the MIT Media Lab. I am humbled by the support shown by the MIT Sloan, Media Lab, and Harvard communities. Earlier today, I finished up paperwork and submitted my archival copies. I’m done.

Although I’ve often heard PhDs described as emotional roller coasters, I feel enormously blessed in that I honestly can’t relate. My eight years at MIT and Harvard have been almost universally positive and I have learned and grown indescribably. As excited as I am about my next chapter at the University of Washington, I’m going to miss my life here. Deeply.

My dissertation was three essays on volunteer mobilization in peer production. Once I have a chance to catch up and recover, I’ll be posting the previously unpublished pieces. The Remixing Dilemma was included in the dissertation and is already online. The Media Lab AV team shot professional video of the talk. When I get a copy of the video, I’ll post that too.

But because I think it’s important, I’ve formatted and published the acknowledgments section of the dissertation today. Although there are too many folks to thank, I’ve highlighted the contributions of my co-authors, and friends, Aaron Shaw and Andrés Monroy Hernández and my almost unbelievably incredible group of advisors: Eric von Hippel, Yochai Benkler, Mitch Resnick, and Tom Malone.

The Wikipedia Gender Gap Revisited

In a new paper, recently published in the open access journal PLOSONE, Aaron Shaw and I build on new research in survey methodology to describe a method for estimating bias in opt-in surveys of contributors to online communities. We use the technique to reevaluate the most widely cited estimate of the gender gap in Wikipedia.

A series of studies have shown that Wikipedia’s editor-base is overwhelmingly male. This extreme gender imbalance threatens to undermine Wikipedia’s capacity to produce high quality information from a full range of perspectives. For example, many articles on topics of particular interest to women tend to be under-produced or of poor quality.

Given the open and often anonymous nature of online communities, measuring contributor demographics is a challenge. Most demographic data on Wikipedia editors come from “opt-in” surveys where people respond to open, public invitations. Unfortunately, very few people answer these invitations. Results from opt-in surveys are unreliable because respondents are rarely representative of the community as a whole. The most widely-cited estimate from a large 2008 survey by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) and UN University in Maastrict (UNU-MERIT) suggested that only 13% of contributors were female. However, the very same survey suggested that less than 40% of Wikipedia’s readers were female. We know, from several reliable sources, that Wikipedia’s readership is evenly split by gender — a sign of bias in the WMF/UNU-MERIT survey.

In our paper, we combine data from a nationally representative survey of the US by the Pew Internet and American Life Project with the opt-in data from the 2008 WMF/UNU-MERIT survey to come up with revised estimates of the Wikipedia gender gap. The details of the estimation technique are in the paper, but the core steps are:

  1. We use the Pew dataset to provide baseline information about Wikipedia readers.
  2. We apply a statistical technique called “propensity scoring” to estimate the likelihood that a US adult Wikipedia reader would have volunteered to participate in the WMF/UNU-MERIT survey.
  3. We follow a process originally developed by Valliant and Dever to weight the WMF/UNU-MERIT survey to “correct” for estimated bias.
  4. We extend this weighting technique to Wikipedia editors in the WMF/UNU data to produce adjusted estimates of the demographics of their sample.

Using this method, we estimate that the proportion of female US adult editors was 27.5% higher than the original study reported (22.7%, versus 17.8%), and that the total proportion of female editors was 26.8% higher (16.1%, versus 12.7%). These findings are consistent with other work showing that opt-in surveys tend to undercount women.

Overall, these results reinforce the basic substantive finding that women are vastly under-represented among Wikipedia editors.

Beyond Wikipedia, our paper describes a method online communities can adopt to estimate contributor demographics using opt-in surveys, but that is more credible than relying entirely on opt-in data. Advertising-intelligence firms like ComScore and Quantcast provide demographic data on the readership of an enormous proportion of websites. With these sources, almost any community can use our method (and source code) to replicate a similar analysis by: (1) surveying a community’s readers (or a random subset) with the same instrument used to survey contributors; (2) combining results for readers with reliable demographic data about the readership population from a credible source; (3) reweighting survey results using the method we describe.

Although our new estimates will not help us us close the gender gap in Wikipedia or address its troubling implications, they give us a better picture of the problem. Additionally, our method offers an improved tool to build a clearer demographic picture of other online communities in general.

Job Market Materials

Last year, I applied for academic, tenure track, jobs at several communication departments, information schools, and in HCI-focused computer science programs with a tradition of hiring social scientists.

Being “on the market” — as it is called — is both scary and time consuming. Like me, many candidates have never been on the market before. Candidates are asked to produce documents in genres — e.g., cover letters, research statements, teaching statements, diversity statements — that most candidates have never written, read, or even heard of.

Candidates often rely on their supervisors for advice. I did so and my advisors were extremely helpful. The reality, however, is that although candidates’ advisors may sit on hiring committees, most have not been on candidates’ side of job market themselves for years or even decades.

The Internet is full of websites, like the academic jobs wiki, Academia StackExchange, and the Chronicle of Higher Education forums for people on the market. Confused and insecure candidates ask questions of the form, “Does blank matter?” and the answer is usually, “Doing/having blank may help/hurt, but it is only one factor of many.” The result is that candidates worry about everything. Then they worry about what they should be worrying about, but are not.

The most helpful thing, for me, was to read and synthesize the material submitted by recent successful job market candidates. For example, Michael Bernstein — a friend from MIT, now at Stanford — published his research and teaching statements on his website and I found both useful as I prepared mine. That said, I was surprised by how little material like this I could find on the web. For example, I could not find any examples of recent job market cover letters from successful candidates in fields close to mine.

So to help fill this gap, I am publishing all of my job market material. I’ve posted both the PDFs of the material I submitted as well as the LaTeX templates I used to generate the documents in my packet. My packet included:

  • Research Statement (TeX) — A description of my research to date and my current trajectory. Following a convention I have seen others follow, I “cited” my own work (but only my work) to form a a curated bibliography of my own publications and working papers.
  • Teaching Statement (TeX) — A two-page description of my approach to teaching, a list of my teaching experience, and a description of sample courses.
  • Diversity Statement (TeX) — A description of how I think about diversity and how I have, and will, engage with it in my teaching and research.
  • Cover Letter (TeX) — Each application I sent had a customized cover letter. I wrote mine on MIT letter head. Since each letter is different, I have published the letter I sent to the department that I took the job in (UW Communication). Because my new department did not request research and teaching statements, the cover letter includes material taken from both. For departments that requested separate statements, I limited myself to a shorter (1.5 pages) version of the letter with a similar structure.
  • Writing Samples — I included three or four of my papers to every job I applied to. The selection of articles changed a bit depending on the department but I included at least one single-authored paper in each packet.
  • Letters of Recommendation — Because I didn’t write these and haven’t seen them, I can’t share them. I requested letters from my four committee members: Eric von Hippel, Yochai Benkler, Mitch Resnick, and Tom Malone.
  • Curriculum Vitae (TeX) — I have tried to keep my CV up-to-date during graduate school. I keep my CV in git and have a little CGI script automatically rebuild the published version whenever an update is committed.

I hope people going “on the market” will find these materials useful. Obviously, you should not copy or reuse the text of any of my material. It is your application, after all. That said, please do help yourself to the formatting and structure.

Finally, I would encourage anyone who builds on my material to republish their own material to help other candidates. If you do, I’d appreciate a link back or comment on this blog post so that my readers can find your improvements.

London and Michigan

I’ll be spending the week after next (June 17-23) in London for the annual meeting of the International Communication Association where I’ll be presenting a paper. This will be my first ICA and I’m looking forward to connecting with many new colleagues in the discipline. If you’re one of them, reading this, and would like to meet up in London, please let me know!

Starting June 24th, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan for four weeks of the ICPSR summer program in applied statistics at the Institute for Social Research. I have been wanting to sign up for some of their advanced methods classes for years and am planning to take the opportunity this summer before I start at UW. I’ll be living with my friends and fellow Berkman Cooperation Group members Aaron Shaw and Dennis Tennen.

I would love to make connections and meet people in both places so, if you would like to meet up, please get in contact.