Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, by Joseph Reagle
What Wikipedia Is (Not)
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. Wikipedia is also a community. For most people – and especially for readers of the Signpost – these two banal facts hardly seem worth noting. The current trend in Wikipedia commentary is to show how it is more than an encyclopedia: how it is, at its core, paradigmatic of a radically new way of thinking, learning, knowing, organizing, and collaborating in our brave new digital age. We are constantly told that the success of Wikipedia has significant lessons for business, government, journalism, academia, the Internet, and practically every other institution in contemporary society. Amongst all of these attempts to package up and export some kind of universal “wiki way,” Joseph Reagle’s book Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia is a refreshing look at what Wikipedia means to Wikipedians.
This focus stems from the fact that Good Faith Collaboration is an ethnography, an anthropological style in which the researcher attempts to capture the spirit of a people in writing. Whether one travels to Papua New Guinea or an online community, the goal of any ethnography is to relate their ethos to the rest of the world. It is to give people who have never set foot on an island in the South Pacific or edited a single Wikipedia article an idea of how those people live, where they came from, what they care about, and why they do what they do. And like Margaret Mead or Bronisław Malinowski, Joseph Reagle spent years with this odd tribe of Wikipedians, becoming an editor (User:Reagle), attending meetups, and trawling through mountains of archived talk pages and mailing lists. It is perhaps because of this extended participant-observation that Good Faith Collaboration goes well beyond most accounts written about Wikipedia, insisting on studying Wikipedians both on and in their own terms.
Some of these terms are the obvious ones, like the various strings of acronyms in policies or the odd way in which 'consensus' can mean anything between 51% approval and total unanimity. However, they also include more subtle ways of analyzing what Wikipedians care about and how the community comes to define itself. For example, some readers may be amused to see various well-known 'laws' of Wikipedian behavior at the beginning of each chapter, from "Show me an admin who has never been called a Nazi and I'll show you an admin who is not doing their job" to "Problematic users will drive good users away from Wikipedia far more often than good users will drive away problematic ones." As an ethnographer, Reagle does not take these laws to be true or false social science facts and is not that interested in proving or disproving them. They are instead windows into the world of Wikipedian culture, "a salient example of the community trying to understand itself and its circumstances."
Good faith, bad faith
It is his emphasis on studying Wikipedians for their own sake that leads him to focus on the encyclopedic nature of Wikipedia, an aspect that is often passed over by social scientists who describe generalizable community dynamics or organizational principles. As such, the first chapter after the introduction is not about barnstars and Requests for Adminship, but encyclopedic communities from the 18th century Encyclopedie to Project Gutenberg and Nupedia. True to anthropological form, Reagle does not make the move of a historian and argue for himself that Wikipedia is the intellectual successor of these works. Instead, he shows how Wikipedians see their project much in the same way as Denis Diderot and Paul Otlet saw their reference works. In particular, he shows how a certain Enlightenment-era ideal of free knowledge is one of the community's driving concerns – and has also been the source of its most prominent forks.
At the core of these concerns, Reagle argues, is how to put into practice the lofty ideals of collaboration, which are best summarized in the demand for Wikipedians to assume good faith of each other. Yet the encyclopedic mission of Wikipedia makes the community of a different kind than those based around discussing politics or authoring fan fiction. Many communities have norms such as assume good faith, but Reagle sees this as an essential aspect of the Wikipedian community, as it integrates with other standards of knowledge and authorship. In chapter three, he shows how social policies and encyclopedic standards are linked: while it is easy to see Neutral Point of View as a purely encyclopedic standard, Reagle shows how it functions with the good faith mindset. As he argues, "NPOV renders the subject matter of a collaborative encyclopedia compatible, good faith makes it possible to work together."
Subsequent chapters on openness, collaboration, and leadership continue with this theme, showing how each aspect of the community's norms relies on assuming a kind of good faith through discussions, policies, and case studies. However, readers wishing to learn whether Wikipedians "actually" assume good faith with each other or whether Wikipedia "really" is an open community may be disappointed by his anthropological perspective. When Reagle discusses Wikipedia as an open community, he is not speaking of participation metrics or exclusion rates. He locates the community's openness in a set of values that Wikipedians hold about themselves and each other – values that sometimes come into contention or contradiction with each other. Similarly, Reagle's analysis of the notorious “anyone can edit” slogan goes beyond the "can anybody really edit" discussions and shows how controversies over this definition reveal a complicated set of priorities that the community works to balance.
The seventh chapter, "Encyclopedic anxiety", examines Wikipedia's relationship with the rest of the world, looking at critics and supporters and the issues they debate in the public sphere. Like with Wikipedia's internal controversies, Reagle does not take much of a stance on who is right and who is wrong, instead analyzing what these kinds of discussions reveal about us as a society. In an interesting historical section, he gives a number of cases arguing that public controversies over reference works are often reflective of a broader cultural concern.
From dictionaries that began including the colloquial words of common folk and encyclopedias with "family-unfriendly" articles, reference works have been the subject of great debate for centuries. And as Reagle argues in the case of a dictionary that was published in the 1960s, "critics were alarmed at the social change occurring around them and attacked Webster's Third as an exemplar and proxy" (p. 140). He concludes by arguing that, in much the same way, many of the controversies directed towards Wikipedia are emblematic of larger social changes, some created by Wikipedia, and others merely associated with it.
In all, Reagle's ethnographic perspective is both the book's greatest strength and greatest limitation. He tends to focus on the mainstream elements of Wikipedian culture, offering a general description of what a good portion of the community believes about who they are and how they ought to act. It is precisely because of this that most Signpost-reading Wikipedians will find nothing too controversial or radically new. Most will probably agree with SJ's review: it is well-written, well-sourced, and neutral; something I'd recommend for my mother. For an ethnographer, this is the highest praise one can give, as it means that the book captures the spirit of the people so well that most parts seem obvious, even boring at times.
However, Good Faith Collaboration isn't just about Wikipedia's culture – it is quickly becoming part of Wikipedia's culture. The book has won accolades from a who's who of people in and around Wikipedia, including Lawrence Lessig, Clay Shirky, and Jonathan Zittrain, and will likely have profound influence on how academics, cultural critics, and journalists imagine Wikipedia. That alone makes the book worth reading, but I also suspect that Good Faith Collaboration will have a powerful impact on how the community sees itself. Wikipedians are highly reflective, as Reagle notes, and I have no doubt his analysis will be endlessly debated and interpreted in discussions at all levels of the community.
This has already begun with Sue Gardner's praise for the book, and in particular Reagle's analysis of how conflict resolution in Wikipedia is similar to that in Quaker communities. As she describes in multiple blog posts, Gardner was so inspired by this that she read about a dozen works on the Quakers and then went to visit a Quaker community to learn about how they resolve conflict. Because of her enthusiasm, I expect the Quakers to become a familiar example, even among Wikipedians who don't read Reagle's book, and would not be surprised to see the analogy invoked on both sides of a debate in the near future. I only wonder what other sentiments are hidden in the book.