The other night I went to see Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson talk. At some point they started talking about Wikipedia and Jenkins said something that sparked a thought so obvious I can’t believe I’ve never had it.
There are a bunch of Wikipedians just going around cleaning up messes, Jenkins explained. He specifically told the story of Stephen Colbert telling his television audience to change the Wikipedia entry on elephants to say that the number in Africa had tripled over the last few years. The thing is, when the huge audience came onto the site looking to make some trouble, the Wikipedians were there, waiting to change it back. Jenkins explained that there are lots of people who just go to Wikipedia in their free time, check the latest changes and make sure that none of them are vandalism. They are keeping their community clean.
That’s when it struck me.
Why are we trying so hard to figure out what motivates people to keep their communities clean?
No one ever asks why you don’t leave old spaghetti in the middle of your floor. Have you ever heard someone wonder what your motivation was for throwing away empty cups sitting on the lunch tables at your office? No and no. These are just things we do because we care about the community. Of course we don’t want to live in a place with spaghetti on the floor and trash on the tables.
So maybe we’ve all been going about this all wrong. Maybe it’s not about fame, attention, money, power or any of the other things we’ve been talking about. Maybe it’s just about community and hygiene.
This is my personal site. I keep it tidy in the same way I try to keep my own body clean. I can’t imagine it any other way.
A lot of people devalue online communities, saying they’re not real. That is wrong. They are real. Obviously people can’t live without physical contact, but to say that the relationships I’ve formed through this site are somehow less real than the relationships that have started in the physical world is a silly argument. Anyone who lives part of their lives in online communities knows the truth.
And they know sometimes they just do things to keep their community a clean and happy place to be.