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.)
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.
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.
- Download the Reagle's slides
- Get the audio of the webcast