The impact of many social computing systems and peer production communities depends on their openness and the inclusion of many contributors. However, extreme participation gaps emerge on every platform and, in many cases, follow familiar patterns of social inequality, with less privileged individuals less likely to participate. These digital inequalities have huge negative impacts, so how should social computing designers and researchers respond? I argue that we have to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms of and barriers to participation. Data from recent survey research analyzing participation gaps on Wikipedia illustrates what this can look like. The gender gap among active Wikipedia editors has attracted widespread attention and inspired thoughtful initiatives to change the culture of the community and mobilize female contributors. However, it turns out that a number of factors including education, Internet use skills, as well as gender help explain who even engages in the behaviors or possesses the knowledge necessary to edit in the first place. Analyzing digital inequality as the product of a pipeline of participation reveals design opportunities and challenges with the potential for especially high impact.
Aaron Shaw is an Assistant Professor in the Communication Studies Department at Northwestern University, a Faculty Associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a co-founder of the Community Data Science Collective. At Northwestern, he is Director of the Media, Technology and Society Program as well as an affiliate of the Institute for Policy Research, the Buffett Institute, and the SONIC research group. Aaron studies the organization of collective action and collaboration online, with a focus on understanding peer production communities. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and Microsoft Research has received awards or honorable mentions from professional associations including the International Communication Association, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Sociological Association, and the American Political Science Association.