Wikipedia: Collaborative Culture and the Fulfillment of a Vision

Wikipedia: Collaborative Culture and the Fulfillment of a Vision

Review and short summary of Joseph Reagle‘s dissertation “In Good Faith: Wikipedia Collaboration and the Pursuit of the Universal Encyclopedia”. ( New York (NY), 2008).

By Juliana Brunello

Reagle’s introduction is somewhat unclear about the central quest of his dissertation. After reading his essay and re-reading the introduction and conclusion, I believe that the central thesis of his dissertation is that Wikipedia is the fulfillment of a “long held aspiration for a universal encyclopedia…” (Reagle 2008: 3) He believes that this was possible due to the collaborative “good faith” practice, encyclopedic impulse, the vision of a universal encyclopedia itself and technological aspiration. In order to present his ideas, Reagle chose a historical and ethnographical approach. Throughout his work, he points out the differences and similarities between the past trials and the present Wikipedia, showing what makes it different and why it has (relatively) succeeded.

History: Reagle starts his dissertation by presenting some antecedents of Wikipedia. He explains that the vision of a universal encyclopedia is not a new one, but it has been around for a long time. Next, he describes some important historical facts that facilitated the making of an encyclopedia such as Dewey’s decimal code system (DDC) and Paul Otlet’s improvement of it (the UDC). He also mentions HG Wells and his “World Brain”, which contains ideas that are similar to those of the current Wikipedia). Furthermore, he presents Vannevar Bush, who became famous not for his “memex” but for his prediction that “wholly new forms of encyclopedias” (Bush 1945: §8 In: Reagle 2008: 25) would appear, in which associative trails would be used, much like in modern Wikipedia. This part is very interesting and knowledgeable. It became clear to me, that Wikipedia is the consequence of much work done by predecessors, and not a completely new idea.

Collaboration, technology, universal: Reagle continues his historical approach by presenting the Project Gutenberg, Interpedia and Nupedia. He calls our attention to the fact that all these visions have in common the aspects of collaborative goodwill, technological inspiration and universal access. Nevertheless, the idea that revolutionized the earlier forms and enabled the long awaited dream of a universal encyclopedia became true in Wiki: Web pages could be edited easily, as Wiki places “… a simple editor within a Web page form and the functionality of formatting and linking on the wiki server”. (ib.: 39) However, the main goal of an encyclopedia with a “…authoritative expert-driven reference work” (ib.: 41) has not been achieved yet. The problem of expert versus amateur continues. I therefore, question: can Wikipedia be considered the achievement of a universal encyclopedia, once it is done by amateurs?

Encyclopedic Impulse: Reagle presents Daniel Pink’s model of the three periods in which he divides the encyclopedic production: the “One Smart Guy”, the “One Best Way” and the “One for All” model. The first is done by one man alone, the second by some experts, the third by thousands of “fairly smart guys and gals”, generating a kind of decentralized encyclopedia, “fluid, fast, fixable and free” (ib.:45) Reagle challenges this periodization, pointing out characteristics of the “One Smart Guy”, comparing the personalities of several contributors of early encyclopedias with the ones of Wikipedia, the former as being compulsive or eccentric. However, not only the personality of the contributors is relevant, but the quality of the work as well.

He speaks of “encyclopedic impulse” or “taxonomy urge” (McArthur). He also demonstrates the social component involved in producing such a reference work. Although reference works are not of a personal nature, they arise from “the inter-subjectivities of many to make claims about an objectivity which all are presumed to share”. (ib.: 52) This feature might prop up discussions about biases, for instance. Reagle also speaks of stigmergy as a way of contribution. (Mark Eliot 2006: 4 In: Reagle 2008: 53) A further argument that complicates the “One Smart Guy” type is that reference works, even when an individual pursuit, are works based on the work of others. It is a cumulative process. Reagle used this argumentation to show us that Wikipedia shares some characteristics with previous reference works. However, once I’ve reached this point of the text, his objectives became very unclear to me due to the amount of information. One may easily forget what the central quest of this research is.

Continuing his reasoning, Reagle draws attention to the changes in human relationship towards knowledge and commercial opportunities. He mentions the introduction of copyright laws, and concepts like plagiarism and intellectual fraud. While some people think knowledge should be free, others want to protect their work, even when they themselves borrowed it from someone else. This is a good insight of great sociological value. He has a good point, but does not develop it enough.

Continuing his historical review, the author states that during the development of reference works, difficulties began to appear as the amount of books grew tremendously. Suggestions were made, which are in use today: the use of alphabetical order and sets of texts recommended by experts. He mentions that this did not impede the production of mediocre content though. This historical development does not help me to understand the point of his dissertation.

Community: On the social aspect, subscribers to a corporate production of reference work developed sense of involvement and identity, being able to offer feedback to contributors. Such subscription enhances one’s prestige, as do contributions to articles and editing. One could say that reputation motivates contributions. However, there are also anonymous contributions, not only in case of Wikipedia. One reason is the fear that some disagreement could affect one personally. On the other hand, common motivations from contributors of Wikipedia “…relate to personal satisfaction, identification… sense of fulfillment and the development of knowledge and skills”. (Rafaeli et. al 2005; Johnson 2007 In: Reagle 2008: 68) Reagle emphasizes that a collaborative culture has become central to Wikipedia’s production.

Open: What does it mean to be an open content community? The author presents five basic characteristics: Open products, transparency, integrity, non-discrimination and non-interference. He first argues that the concept of “open” should not be understood as “everything goes”. There is always a structure to be observed by communities. Open, in the contemporary understanding, derives from the FLOSS movement. Historically, it started with open products of software and open license, which were mostly of ideological character. Later, the open source initiative changed the character of the movement to a more pragmatic style. The concept also changed in terms of what was being offered. Now products go beyond software. According to Reagle “Wikipedia is probably the best known ‘open product’ of the wider free culture movement today” (ib.: 79).

Transparency and integrity go hand in hand. A fair process builds not only trust, but also commitment, essential elements to the functioning of such a community. The policy of non-discrimination is also present in Wikipedia, though participants still discuss about it. Cases of arbitrary discrimination are not to be tolerated and can be found on the “Statement of Principles” written by Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. Non-interference is exemplified by cases of forking, which is a social implication of free content.

Reagle exemplifies Wikipedia’s claims of openness presenting three challenging cases: blocking vandals or requiring registration; the WP: Office action, and WikiChix. Nevertheless, similar enclaves continue to exist, allowing minorities to discuss issues on their own on what can be crucial to democracy. This is a very good point that is no further discussed. I believe that the objective here is to show how the community works and how it differs from earlier ones.

Collaborative good faith and culture: The author reveals the differences in production between Wikipedia and other reference works. He does so by first determining the meaning of “collaborative culture”. Next, he defines how culture and collaboration should be understood: as “meaning making’ through which a community understands and acts…” (ib: 104) and the co-work towards a common goal. Another difference is understood by taking a look at the two basic stances of “Neutral Point of View” and “good faith”, which are the core stances that enable Wikipedia to work. This includes the willingness to apologize, a dispassionate open-mindedness about knowledge, fair representation of points of view, assuming the best, acting with patience, and civility and maintaining a sense of humor in this way mitigating escalations. Reagle concludes that NPOV and good faith make it possible for contributors to work together, joining what seem to be incompatible pieces of a puzzle in a productive and enjoyable manner.

Leadership in Wikipedia? He points out that even though such communities are of egalitarian type, they do develop some kind of leadership, which can be understood “as the performance of consistent and substantive contribution within the community…” (ib.: 139) The leader emerges mostly “at the same time as the community and its culture”. (ib.) In this case, the founder obtains an important position due to his merits and actions, as well as the success of his projects. This unfolds into a sort of charismatic authority represented by a single prominent leader in the community. One can, in a community such as Wikipedia, observe the paradox of an autocratic status of the leader and the egalitarian basis of the community. A common term used among participants is “benevolent dictator”. However, the leadership is not only of autocratic kind, but a mix of several models: it is also consultative and delegating. Considering the attributes of open content communities, in case of dissatisfaction with the current leadership, there is always the possibility to fork.

In case of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, as co-founder, possesses the highest level of authority. There are also additional levels: bureaucrats, stewards, developers, administrators, etc. who are supposed to entail only responsibilities rather than rights. They do, however, have a symbolic status in the community. Moreover, there are seven directors in the Board of Trustees, who have the power to “direct the activities of the foundation” and can mediate/arbitrate editorial disputes, and even issue a binding decision. Wales can also penalize or remove abusive users. Wales defines his role as a “constitutional monarch” rather than a “benevolent dictator”. Community leaders like Wales have authority, that should be employed no more “than absolutely necessary”.

Furthermore, Reagle speaks of an authorial leadership. The term authorial derives from the Latin word auctoritas and means author and authority. “It is not a coercive order but a recommendation with a normative force based on the prestige and charisma of a leader.” (ib.: 162) Additionally, he developed and explained the term “authorial leadership” in six features:

  • “Leaders often found a project in which a community develops….”
  • they “operate within a mix of governance models…”
  • they “convince by persuasion and example though they retain charismatic authority…”
  • they “operate with a soft touch”, using humor and politeness;
  • they may risk their status by the use of autocratic actions;
  • “leadership is rarely granted formal status…” (ib.: 161)

Although Wales is not a significant author, he is a founder and has established a type of collaborative culture. Therefore, Reagle considers him to be “an author in this leadership sense…” (ib.: 163) In my words, leadership is also a way of how Wikipedia functions as a community and therefore, another piece of the puzzle finds its place.

“Reference works serve as a flashpoint for larger social anxieties”. (ib.: 166) The author’s main task is to see how reference works were/are perceived and what it means in a larger social context.

Reference works are not necessarily progressive, as history shows. They are, however, at the center of larger controversies. It seems that they are caught between a battle of conservatives and progressives. Nevertheless, the field should not be split into two extreme poles. One must also keep in mind that they are products of their time and that their interpretation is “often coloured by our own present”. (ib.: 174) Encyclopedia Britannica was accused of being a “pestiferous work” (George Gleig as cited in Kogan 1958: 26 In: Reagle 2008: 170) and together with other encyclopedias suffered confiscation. Their authors were imprisoned or even executed. Today criticism hovers over Wikipedia, as being anarchic and biased. However, the accusation of bias in reference works is not new. Cases of catholic biased articles were found in many of the earlier works.

Reagle discusses further that reference works are involved in a larger social tension, prompting or embodying it. Just like the Webster’s third, Wikipedia is criticized by many. Some critics believe that it is a form of hive-mind, misunderstanding the collaborative culture present in the community. It is more a “product of many minds” than a “product of a collective mind”. (ib.: 192) Another critic point concerns authority. This, too, is not historically new. Wikipedia is accused of favoring mediocrity over expertise. However, if users get the status of mere consumers, cowed by authority, then it would be the case of “digital Maoism”. The encyclopedic impulse is also a source of criticism. Wikipedians have been described as irrational, showing “characteristics of a cult” or even belonging to “an online fetish site for foolish collectivism”. (ib.: 198) Furthermore, technological changes are an inspiration just for the ones who are suited by it. This way, technology can also displease those who do not desire the effects of such a change. Critics consider its “unprinted” state for unreliable, facilitating misinformation and appalling writings.

In his conclusion Reagle draws attention to his view that “neutral” should not be understood as a description… but as an inspiration and intentional stance of its contributors…” as “universalism, openness and good faith” (210) should be appreciated similarly. Moreover, he mentions that the success of Wikipedia is not only due to technology, but mostly due to its collaborative culture. He concludes that “of those, throughout history, pursuing the vision of a universal encyclopedia, Wikipedians have come closest to its realization”. (214)

In short, one could say that Reagle is an optimist concerning Wikipedia. He reveals evidence of its good-faith/collaborative culture throughout his work. The negative/critical points presented in chapter seven are shortly explained and argued to Wikipedia’s advantage. I believe that the great insight is that the new technology has been changing cultural norms and products, as well as the authority of institutions. His work, though very instructional about the way Wikipedia functions as a community and historical background, seems to lack methodological consistency (here I must say that I am a social scientist, what strongly influences my judgment). In reading his dissertation I often felt confused about what he was actually trying to prove. There is too much information and the real theme often gets blurred. I also don’t see why he chose a historical approach, as it is unnecessary to prove his central point, if I understood it correctly. For a PhD thesis I was expecting more accuracy and objectivity. The way I see it, he could have made his theses/hypothesis and why he comes to the conclusion he comes clearer and more to the point.

Apart from all my criticism, I believe reading it is totally worthwhile.