Recap: Open Your World webcast with Joseph Reagle, author of Good Faith Collaboration


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What differentiates Wikipedia from other reference books where you have no idea of the process that went into them is that the Wikipedia encyclopedia is an artifact of an active community. A large one, in fact, with about 41,000 contributors editing five or more times a month and 1,000 active administrators. The "Wiki" part has its origins with Ward Cunningham, who saw it on the "Wiki Wiki Shuttle Bus" at the Honolulu airport. The portmanteau of wiki + enkyklios + paidei means a "quick circle of learning." It's this circle that Reagle examines in his book and this talk.

How Wikipedians do their work

There are three things--a "holy trinity" Reagle calls it--that help Wikipedians work the way they do.

- Neutral point of view. They are not concerned with true or false, right or wrong. They're interested in a factual representation of what people have said about the world. Which dovetails into...
- Verifiability. If you make a claim, you should be able to support that claim. It should have already been published by a reliable source. You may notice that the bracketed reference numbers follow nearly every sentence on Wikipedia entries now.
- No original research. This is a "no kooks": policy. You might have come up with the new Grand Unified Theory, but until it's published in a journal, it's not worthy of Wikipedia.

Is Wikipedia a wholly novel phenomenon?

Reagle thinks of himself as an interested historian--not a historian by career, but by fascination. He's found that this idea of creating a universal encyclopedia is one deeply rooted in history.

In H. G. Wells "The Brain Organization of the Modern World" lecture from 1937, he describes his vision for a world where "any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica."

Reagle uses Wells and Belgian documentalist Paul Otlet as examples of historic visionaries for a universal encyclopedia.

Beyond Wells and Otlet, Reagle examines many projects from the networked age: Project Gutenberg, Project Xanadu, GNUpedia, and others, including, of course, Wikipedia. (He describes these in more detail in his book than in the presentation.)

Technical features

Wikipedia enables incremental, asynchronous, and cumulative contribution. But while many believed that its power was in decentralization, it is in fact centralized, which is useful for many reasons, from community and revisions to what Reagle focuses on--culture.

"Good faith" collaborative culture"

The unifying principle of Wikipedia is captured by WikiLove: "A general spirit of collegiality and mutual understanding." Eric Möller believes this is the most important norm--for Wikipedians to share respect and goodwill.

Neutral Point of View may seem like an impossible goal, but in fact it recognized the variety of viewpoints and gives a way that they call all be recognized as instances of human knowledge, whether right or wrong. Wikipedia captures this as "Writing for the Enemy." (Since the creation of Reagle's slides, this has been renamed Writing for the opponent. You can also read the discussion regarding this change, which is an excellent example of Wikipedians at work.)

Writing for the opponent is the process of explaining another person's point of view as clearly and fairly as you can, similar to devil's advocate. The intent is to satisfy the adherents and advocates of that perspective that you understand their claims and arguments.

Reagle's analysis yielded four virtues at the heart of good faith collaborative culture: assuming the best of others, civility, patience, and humor. He expounds on each of these in his talk.

Reagle's theory

Wikis are asynchronous, potentially anonymous, and cumulative. Those are important to Wikipedia's success, but do they alone explain its success? Simply put, no. Wikipedia's culture is important, too.

Reagle offers "Ben's Revolting Realization": Everyone who comes across Raul's laws eventually adds one of their own. (See #177 under "Laws by others.") Reagle offers one as well: Wikipedia's collaborative culture asks its participants to assume two postures: a stance of neutral point of view on matters of knowledge and a stance of good faith toward one's fellow contributors. Good faith makes it possible to fit together different worldviews, bringing us to a world closer to what Wells spoke of more than 70 years ago.

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4 Comments

Barry Kort's picture

@Ruth: Reagle offers "Ben's Revolting Realization": Everyone who comes across Raul's laws eventually adds one of their own.

I attended Reagle's talk last week at the Berkman Center.

While I support the vision of good faith collaboration, my own experience with WikiCulture fell disappointingly short of that utopian vision. What WikiCulture lacks is a functional social contract that would orient the community in the direction that Reagle envisions. The bewildering hodge-podge of mutually inconsistent rules are mainly used as weapons by which an editor with one point of view can kibosh an editor with a rival point of view. In this regard, the cultural dynamic of Wikipedia is more like Mafia Wars (on Facebook) than what either Reagle or I had in mind as an exemplar of good faith collaboration to craft articles meeting high editorial standards of accuracy, quality, and ethics.

A project of the magnitude and scope of Wikipedia needs to adhere to a code of ethical best practices. And yet Jimbo Wales, the influential co-founder of the project, declared that a scholarly review of ethical best practices was "beyond the scope of the project" and personally dismantled a good faith effort to craft such a code.

Reagle spun his talk around a set of insights known as Raul's Laws, one of which is Ben's Revolting Realization: "Everyone who comes across Raul's laws eventually adds one of their own."

Indeed, I did add one of my own:

Moulton's Nth Law of Bureaucracy: "Once a bureaucracy makes a mistake, it can't be fixed."

WikiCulture is, in many ways, a dysfunctional bureaucracy that makes a lot of mistakes, the most important of which never get fixed.

There is a Corollary to Moulton's Nth Law of Bureaucracy: "Once a corrupt bureaucracy makes a mistake, not only can it not be fixed, it can't even be mentioned."

Immediately after I added that to the collection of Raul's Laws, it was summarily deleted.

Is WikiCulture a hopelessly corrupt bureaucracy? Draw your own conclusion.

Gregory Kohs's picture

What I found most telling is that on his blog, Reagle removed criticisms that were coherent and pointed -- made by experts on Wikipedia -- because they were unflattering to his work.

Everything begins to look "good faith", when the obstacles are dragged off and smothered.

Barry Kort's picture

Which brings us around to Kohs Law: You are what you balete.

Barry Kort's picture

In "Good Faith Collaboration" the emphasis has been more on the issue of Good Faith / Bad Faith rather than on the issue of Collaboration.

In a collaborative enterprise, one consults with their collaborators to ensure that everyone is on the same page and that there is agreement on what is being said or done.

Acting without such consultation and consensus invariably leads to discord and discontent. It's remarkably easy for minor disagreements to blossom into major conflicts and antagonisms. Sometimes these antagonisms evolve into long-running and long-festering dramas.

Once trust has been broken and once the antagonists have concluded that their counterparts are acting in bad faith, the rivalrous drama takes on a disturbing life of its own.

It's not uncommon for the rivals to feel compelled to ban and delete the "trollish rantings" of their most annoying critics.

Which inexorably leads us to Kohs Law: You are what you balete.