Dissertation Topic Bullets

Joseph M. Reagle <email address>

  1. One of the major topics of concern to scholars of communities is how a culture emerges within the context of the media environment, particularly discursive norms (Froomkin 2003).
  2. In recent years, a growing body of literature has examined the phenomenon of, typically, voluntary and open communities (Reagle 2004) using Internet-based communication to produce cultural content -- most famously open/free software, but also including prose, audio, and visual works.
  3. Some researchers have taken an economic lens and asked what motivates such pro-social behavior absent immediate monetary rewards, or they have posited new models of organization (e.g., Benkler's "commons-based peer-production" (2002)).
  4. Others are adapting sociological and psychological models of group dynamics, cognition, trust, and decision making to the life of these communities (Surowiecki 2004).
  5. And within the field of Computer Mediated Communications (CMC) authors are addressing how people's sense of self and their relations to other and the media evolve (Turkle 1995, Reinghold 2000 2003).
  6. Yet, from my own experience in collaborating in the open source and standards communities, each of these approaches is relevant but incomplete. As yet, the "meaning," the communal inter-subjectivity, of agreement, disagreement and the nuanced states in between remains largely unexplored. How do people make sense of the way in which they collaborate? In "Beyond Majority Rules" Michael Sheeran (1996) traces the historical development of consensus-based decision making of the Quakers to present-day practice; most interestingly, he also explores the members' perceptions of their interactions. For example, is a successful meeting a case of skilled facilitation, or the discernment of the will of God?
  7. I propose a similar project on the Wikipedia community that is producing a free on-line encyclopedia -- already containing over a million articles! I plan to use and analyze the archives and contemporary discourse to answer the following question.
  8. What is it about Wikipedia culture that permits it to produce such surprisingly valuable content in the face of questions about authority, different points of view, anonymity, decentralization, and antisocial behavior? Historically, how did this culture evolve, and what do members make of their participation in productive, though sometimes contentious, interaction?

Cited Works

Benkler, Y. (2002). Coase's penguin, or, Linux and the nature of the firm. The Yale Law Jounal, 112(3):369-446.

Froomkin, M. (2003). Habermas@discourse.net: toward a critical theory of cyberspace. Harvard Law Review, 116(3).

Reagle, J. (2004). Open Content Communities. M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, 7.

Rheingold, H. (2000). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Rheingold, H. (2003). Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA.

Sheeran, M. (1996). Beyond majority rule: voteless decisions in the Religious Society of Friends. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting,, Philadelphia, PA.

Surowieki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds. Doubleday, USA.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen. Touchstone, New York, NY.