PhD dissertation on Collective Memories in Wikipedia

March 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Graduation ceremony at CIMeC 7 December 2012

Finally, on December 7 I defended my PhD dissertation on Collective Memories in Wikipedia… Of course I was thrilled: my time as a PhD student at CIMeC had come to an end and I had to wrap up all the work made in these three years in front of the evaluating committee. In summary, I showed that:

  • Wikipedia can be the right playground for quantitative and longitudinal studies on collective memory practices, because it encompasses the most important functions of collective memory building;
  • Articles about different types of traumatic events, such as natural and human-made disasters, are characterized by specific patterns of emotional language, and more specifically by a higher presence of words related to sadness for the former and higher percentages of words associated to anger and anxiety for the latter; moreover, traumatic events with human causes are also characterized by an increased presence of language related to cognitive activity and to social processes, showing that the need for a comprehensive explanation may be more pressing for human accidents and validating pevious research about the consequences of traumatic events.
  • Different linguistic patterns related to affective, cognitive and social processes can be tracked in the Wikipedia talk pages about two specific traumatic events  – the London bombings of 2005 and the Egyptian revolution of 2011 – and show an interesting temporal co-evolution. In particular, while affective language and words related to social processes (like words referring to friends and human beings, or suggesting increased communicative interactions) were significantly higher in the immediate aftermath of the London bombings and during on of the most heated days of the Egyptian revolution, the Battle of the Camel. On the contrary, the results regarding to the temporal evolution of the language associated to cognitive activity were quite unexpected but consistent across the two studies: instead of a parallel evolution of words related to cognitive and emotional processes (as in Cohn, Mehl, & Pennebaker, 2004) results showed that the language related to cognitive processes was higher when the emotional language was lower and viceversa. A possible explanation of this specular temporal evolution could be the social context of Wikipedia talk pages, which unlike the individual environments studied by Cohn and colleagues (online personal diaries), is purposefully designed to foster social interactions and communication, influencing the co-evolution of affective and cognitive processes.

After the defence, we had a CIMeC lunch with graduating students, professors and advisors, and in the afternoon there was the graduation and commencement ceremony with Christiane D. Fellbaum as the keynote speaker.

My presentation is on slideshare:

WikiSym 2012

August 28, 2012 § 2 Comments

WIkiSym 2012

WIkiSym 2012

It’s been a while since my last post but things have been a little busy with the work for the thesis, paper writing, etc… but here we are again, one year later at WikiSym 2012 in Linz, Austria. And here’s the presentation I gave yesterday on the Psychological processes underlying Wikipedia representations of natural and manmade disasters: we used the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count by Pennebaker and colleagues to assess the percentages of words related to different psychological categories in the English Wikipedia’s articles about traumatic/non traumatic events, old/recent events, and natural/human-made disasters. It turns out that Wikipedia’s articles talking about human-made disasters contain a higher presence of language related to anger and anxiety, while those about natural disasters contain a significantly higher percentage of words related to sadness. Which is consistent with what past research in the real world has found about man-made disasters triggering more focused anger and having more widespread consequences on people’s physical and psychological health. This could also be related to the “perception of control” introduced by Baum (1986): loosing control when there are expectation for it (as in the case of human-made disasters, which are usually perceived as a loss of control over technology or other social situations) is associated to stress arousal, while when something happens but you don’t expect to have any sort of control over it (as it happens with natural disasters, which are usually perceived as uncontrollable events) is related to helplessness and passive behavior.

The presentation is also here on slideshare:

Paolo’s presentation at WikiSym 2011

November 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

At the beginning of October Paolo flew to California to present our paper on Collective memory building of North African uprisings in Wikipedia at WikiSym 2011. In his presentation, he showed that collective memory building processes happen in Wikipedia, providing evidence of the large participation to the editing of articles and talk pages about the 2011 Egyptian revolution in different language versions of Wikipedia. Through the analysis of millions of edits, it is now possible to study history (also starting from current events), which is written in Wikipedia in a decentralized way by thousands of users.

Paolo proposed possible research directions to study these processes, also from a quantitative perspective, which could fruitfully integrate the qualitative evaluation of articles’ content and discussions in the talk pages. Below you can find he’s presentation:

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WikiRevolutions: Wikipedia as a Lens for Studying the Real-Time Formation of Collective Memories of Revolutions

September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 08:  Anti-government p...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Recently, Paolo Massa and I wrote an article proposing to study Wikipedia as a place were people actively build the collective memory of revolutions, discussing highly different perspectives and points of view. Focusing mainly on the Egyptian revolution, we reported statistics showing the richness of data available on the many language versions of Wikipedia, and pieces of discussions among editors.

The article was published on an interesting special issue dedicated to the Arab Spring, on the International Journal of Communication (edited by Manuel Castells and Larry Gross).

Paolo will also present our research directions at WikiSym 2011 (7th International Conference on Wikis and Open Collaboration, October 3-5, 2011 | Mountain View, California), in the session about “Wikipedia as a Global Phenomenon” (see the full schedule).

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From WikiLeaks to Wiki-Revolutions: Internet and the Culture of Freedom

June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Manuel Castells at the Northwestern university

Communication is the primary human activity, and anything that can transform communication, can also transform social change and social organization.
This is fundamental in the context of power relationships: power throughout history has always been based on the control of informationcommunication.

In the last years we have seen deep transformations regarding the processes of communication, as a consequence of the transformation of technologies, communication, culture.
According to Castells, the key of this transformation is the shift from mass communication (traditional mass media, in the form “one message, one-to-many”, with little interactivity) to mass “self-communication” (Internet, in the form “many messages, from many-to-many”, with high interactivity, multimodal communication, hypertexts, where senders and receivers are the same).
Technology is not decided only by engineers, it is material culture. Internet was designed this way because it was on purpose a technology of freedom (a free network of communication).

In recent years there have been some major challenges in terms of social worlds, based on this technology of free communication.
But this is partly based on the waves of culture (see also his book “The Internet Galaxy” for this):
1. Techno-meritocratic culture
2. Hacker culture (culture of freedom)
3. The virtual communitarian culture (try to use Internet as a foundation for a community)
3. Enterpreneurial culture (the people who bet on these technology of freedom, e.g. Google)
4. Mobile communication youth culture (which transformed the use of the Internet – permanent connectivity is the most important feature of mobile phones: we are always connected)
5. Organizational change & networking (networking became a demand not only for society, but mainly for business – the demand came from society)
6. Culture (it’s all about the interaction between technology – the Internet -, organization – networking – and culture: culture of freedom, emerged by the social movements of the 60s and 70s.)

Many people see the culture of autonomy as a key component of the Internet culture and the productive interaction between the culture and technology, but at the present there are not convincing empirical studies on this. Castells did a study in 2000-2007 in Catalonia on the use of the Internet with 55 thousands interviews, comparing Internet users and non-users. Indexes of autonomy measured individual autonomy of the body (es. how much people followed prescription, how much they called the doctor, …, in medical practice). He applied a factor analysis, which showed the presence of 6 independent factors indicating autonomy:
1. Autonomy of professional development
2. Communicative autonomy
3. Business enterpreunership autonomy
4. Body autonomy
5. Autonomy of socio-political participation
6. Personal autonomy (as affirmation of individual personality)

High levels of autonomous people in a population are always a minority, but usually these are the peple capable of moving societies.
They measured frequency, intensity of use and knowledge of the Internet in two different moments in time.
Results showed that the more people were autonomous, the more they scored high in the use of the Internet; and the more they used the Internet, the more autonomous the became.

Based on this, Castells has been working lately on two different types of use of the Internet in the relation between social actors and the State:
1. Wikileaks
2. Wiki-revolutions


The important thig is not Wikileaks per se, but the reactions it provokes. Wikileaks provides a safe way to disclose the information people think is depictable. Wikileaks members didn’t solicit information, but just opened the doors, providing very good technology to protect their dropbox and protecting communication. This technology allowed people to safely provide information. Once they had this information, Wikileaks volunteers checked it through an editorial committee and lawyers. They tried to reach out the entire world, making an agreement with the most important newspapers in the world. Note that this is not a Wiki (in the sense of Wikipedia): the editorial committee made decisions on the publication of the information.
Wikileaks diffused research (6 hundred research reports) funded by the US government on Afganistan and Iraq, that were kept hidden by the US government.
Asange stated: “To radically shift regime behaviour we must think clearly and boldly, for if we have learned anything it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.” Now there is the technology to force the regimes change, and there are instruments to promote transparency.

[Entropy: the more you try to protect your system from the world, the less tansparent you become, the more conspiratory you become, and the less efficient because you have to break down the networks of communications inside your system.]

There is now a diffusion of other kind of organizations similar to Wikileaks: we assist to a “mass insurrection” against everything is secret (even if it is diplomatic gossip, which shouldn’t be secret anyway). This is extraordinary because it attacks the heart of the power, which is the control of information.


There are three key elements which describe WikiRevolutions:
1. The first is a constant pattern in revolutions: they start always with a moment of outrage, emotional outburst provoked by some dramatic event. E.g. in Tunisia, this event was the suicide, in Sidi Bouzid, of Mohammed Bouazizi, who was a street vendor, constantly humiliated by police. His desperate act was a reaction against humiliation of his personal dignity.
2. The demonstration was immediately organized on FB and on the Internet.
3. No political oppposition parties joined at the beginning.

This is similar to what happened in May ’68: a few thousand people started like that (no organization, no connections), and the whole country started to change. Just later on the unions and the organizations came. The notion was to change the values and people’s minds (while political movements try to change power in the state, social movements try to change values in people’s minds). It had started spontaneously, through personal networks.
Now, Internet networks are instant, fast, and broad. And they are transparent: everything is open, everybody can check, and for this reason there is trust. These network do their work by getting together and creating the physical pressure that attract the media, which report on their self-organization and on the barricates of history: these barricates were created in the virtual space. And it is fundamental this connection between the virtual space and the physical space.

Contagion, diffusion from Tunisia to Egypt

Egyptian revolution started on April 6 2008, in a city at the north of Cairo, with a workers strike (see on Wikipedia; on  Al Jazeera). This generated the April 6 Youth Movement (see on Wikipedia), which started the demonstrations on Facebook in January 2011.
The critical thing is the connection from the social networks to the public space. For the first time in history the government tried to shut down all the Internet in the country, but they couldn’t. A global movement of support started globally, with the goal to defend freedom of people and of the Internet.

Also Google and Twitter took part in the Egyptian revolution. The problem was that Egyptian users of Twitter were “only” around 14000. How to build a network then? A Swedish based hacker global organization, Telecomics, designed a program to find automatically through Google all the fax machines numbers in Egypt: in this way, all the messages coming in through Twitter were sent to fax machines everywhere in Egypt. The Internet allowed to start the network, building the core of global-local communication, organizing a set of multimodal networks. After 5 days Mubarak decided to stop trying to shut off the Internet.

In general, the most important things of the revolutions are:
1. Overcoming fear, which is the basic emotion that drives our life. If you overcome fear (of being tortured and killed, for example), then you can do anything, everything is possible.
2. Togetherness, support, networking, protection by the fact that you’re not alone, that there is support in the whole world. If people in the rest of the country do not care about your protests, then you’ll be killed. But if there is a protection system, then the costs of killing rise.

These revolutions could not have happened without Tweets. Surely, they were not sufficient, but necessary.
So, these Revolutions are WikiRevolutions because they are co-generated, co-managed, co-directed just like wikis, in the sense that they have the capacity, through free networking, to express the culture of autonomy in the sociopolitical change.

Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

hand writing on 4am

Image by Ces't June via Flickr

The quantitative analysis of the number of edits in time to Wikipedia pages related to traumatic events can reveal interesting patterns that could be associated to collective memory processes. Indeed, it seems that people tend to contribute more to these articles and talk pages during anniversaries, suggesting the presence of commemorative activities.

But if you want to study the formation of collective memory about traumatic events on Wikipedia you can’t choose not to consider the actual content of articles and talk pages. It is possible to perform content analysis going through the edits to few pages, but if you want to analyze, let’s say, 100 articles related to traumatic events – with their talk pages -, you may consider some automated tool that helps you to perform computerized text analysis.

One of these tools is the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count(LIWC; Pennebaker, Francis, & Booth, 2001), which searches for words across more than 70 categories (for instance,  linguistic categories, such as pronouns, articles, tenses; or psychological categories, such as social, affective, cognitive processes).

LIWC allows to explore the patterns of language used in a text, helping to identify the psychological processes of the text’s author. For instance, Cohn and colleagues (2004) used LIWC to analyze blog posts for two months prior to and after the 11 September 2001 attacks. They found signs of pronounced psychological changes in the language used by bloggers, mainly related to an increase of words associated to negative emotions, cognitive processing, social engagement and psychological distancing during the first days following the attacks.

Our aim is to adapt this methodology and extend it to the larger sample of Wikipedia pages about traumatic events, whose collective memory is built over time by thousands of editors. To this end we have developed PyWC, a software tool similar to LIWC, and released it as open source. We are currently analyzing if there are statistically significant differences in the use of language associated to various psychological categories, such as words related to positive and negative emotions, between pages about traumatic events and other Wikipedia pages. We are also interested in the evolution over time of these indexes in pages related to traumatic events, our hypothesis being that this is another way to detect the gradual transformation from communicative to cultural memory.

3rd Digital memories conference

March 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

Prague night (dscn1626_mod)

In March I’ve been at the 3rd Digital Memories Conference in Prague (14-16 March 2011), where I presented a paper on “Studying Collective Memories in Wikipedia” (got to the abstract on the conference webpage, or to the article in .pdf).

The paper presented some theoretical thoughts about the study of collective memory processes in Wikipedia, the ways memory building practices have changed in the new digital era, and the results of a research on the commemoration of major traumatic events in Wikipedia’s articles and talk pages.

North African protests

March 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tahrir Square - February 8, 2011

On 17 December 2010 Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor in the central town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire in front of a local municipal office. On 25 January 2011 Cairo was shocked by a series of protests against the government. In the following days, the protests quickly spread across the countries and finally led to the departure of the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from the country on 14 January 2011, and to the resignation of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011. These happenings since their very beginning received an extensive mediatic attention. However, in addition to this they also triggered an intense activity on the related articles on the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia (see for example the articles “2011 Egyptian revolution” and “Tunisian revolution“).

Traumatic events like these are inherently shocking for the involved comunities and involve different layers of the social and cultural tissue. For these reasons they are deeply connected to the formation of the emergent collective memory and collective identity of these communities. The widespread diffusion of Web 2.0 services and technologies and the massive participation to social networking websites provide researchers with new opportunities to study the progressive formation of collective memories about these events since their very beginning.

In fact, since Wikipedia records every edit made to every pages by every user (registered or anonimous), it is now possible to study these memory building processes as they unfold an on a large scale, without going through laboratoy-based experiments and self-reports (which may be biased, especially when it comes to deeply traumatizing events like these).

Commemoration in Wikipedia

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

If we consider Wikipedia’s articles and talk pages about traumatic events, we can find signs of commemoration during anniversaries, not only in the comments posted by users, but also in their edit activity.
These graphs show the number of edits in time to the articles about September 11 attacks, 7 July 2005 London bombings, and Chernobyl disaster. We can see that the edit activity visibly increased during some anniversaries of these traumatic events.
Edit activity to the September 11 attacks article on Wikipedia

Number of edits per month over time to the article on September 11 attacks

Edit activity to the 7 July London Bombings article on Wikipedia

Number of edits per month over time to the article on 7 July 2005 London bombings.

Edit activity to the Chernobyl disaster article on Wikipedia

Number of edits per month over time to the articles on Chernobyl disaster.

Grief and mourning comments during anniversaries

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

In Memory of a Victim of September 11, 2001 te...

Image by Beverly & Pack via Flickr

If we consider Wikipedia as a place where memory is shaped (Pentzold, 2009), we can search for signs of commemoration in the articles and talk pages about traumatic events. For instance, these are some of the messages posted on 11 September 2006 (the fifth anniversary of the attacks) to the “September 11 attacks” talk page:

“Let us pray for the souls of the deceased instead of insulting their memory by not terming those who so cruelly killed thousands of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, as terrorists.” (11:08, 11 September 2006)

“Tonight in Australia is the 5 Year anniversary of the Sep 11 attacks. I lost my mum a few months before Sep 11 to cancer, and I know what grief is like. My prayers are with those who are related/friends with the dead of Sept 11.” (13:34, 11 September 2006)

“[…] my sympathy and prayers to those who mourn this day.” (14:08, 11 September 2006)

“Spare a thought for those whose lives were torn apart that day.” (14:39, 11 September 2006)

These comments represent grief and mourning, and they are meaningful pieces of collective memory building processes related to commemoration. It is also important to note that Wikipedia guidelines explicitly state that talk pages should be used to discuss improvements to the related article pages. However, when articles are about traumatic events that shock a community’s identity, we can find many signs of commemoration occurring around the anniversaries.

This video shows some pieces of comments posted during the fifth anniversary of September 11 attacks and during the first anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre (occurred on 16 April 2007) on the related talk pages.