Chapter 1
Nazis and Norms

Show me an admin who has never been called a nazi and I'll show you an admin who is not doing their job.-J.S.'s Second Law

Wikipedia is not merely an online encyclopedia; although the Web site is useful, popular, and permits nearly anyone to contribute, the site is only the most visible artifact of an active community. Unlike previous reference works which stand on library shelves distanced from the institutions, people, and discussions from which they arose, Wikipedia is a community and the encyclopedia is a snapshot of its continuing conversation. This conversation is frequently exasperating, often humorous, and occasionally profound. Most importantly, it sometimes reveals what I call a "good faith" culture. I believe Wikipedia and its collaborative culture is a realization-even if flawed-of the historic pursuit of a universal encyclopedia: a technology inspired vision seeking to wed increased access to information with greater human accord. Elements of this good faith culture can be seen in the following conversation about a possible "neo-Nazi attack" upon Wikipedia.

In early 2005 members of Stormfront, a "white pride" online forum, focused their sights on Wikipedia. In February, they sought to marshal votes against the deletion of the article "Jewish Ethnocentrism," an article favored by some "white nationalists" and which made use of controversial theories of a Jewish people in competition with and subjugating other ethnic groups. Their "alert," forwarded by Wikipedian AndyL, was surprisingly sensitive to the culture of Wikipedia by warning "you must give your reason as to why you voted to keep the article - needless to say you should do so in a cordial manner, those wishing to delete the article will latch onto anything they can as an excuse to be hostile towards anybody criticising Jewish culture." 1 Six months later AndyL again noticed that participants of Stormfront, perhaps dissatisfied with their earlier efforts, were considering using the software that runs Wikipedia, or even some of its content, to create their own ("forked") version more to their liking. 2

The charge of "Nazism" has a long and odd history in the realm of online community. One of the most famous aphorisms from earlier Internet discussion groups is Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." 3 Godwin's Law speaks to a tendency of online participants to think the worst of each other. So much so, that the epigraph at the start this chapter, J. S.'s Second Law, implies that if you haven't been called a Nazi, you simply haven't been active enough on Wikipedia. 4 Yet, throughout the immense Wikipedia discussion threads prompted by a potential "neo-Nazi attack" no one compared anyone else to Hitler. Granted, some Stormfront members are self-identified Nazis for whom the term would not be an insult, but there was also serious disagreement between Wikipedians-and even the white racialists reminded themselves they need be cordial on Wikipedia.

In August of the same year Wikipedia user Amelkite, the owner/operator of the white supremacist Vanguard-News-Network, had his Wikipedia account blocked. MattCrypto, a Wikipedia administrator, thinking it unfair to block someone because of their affiliation rather than Wikipedia actions unblocked him. This prompted another administrator, SlimVirgin, to reblock pointing out Amelkite had posted a list of prominent Wikipedians thought to be Jews, or their conspirators, as well as information on how to counter Wikipedia controls of disruption. The conversation between Wikipedia administrators remained civil:

MattCrypto: Hi SlimVirgin, I don't like getting into conflict, particularly with things like block wars and protect wars, so I'm unhappy about this….

SlimVirgin: I take your point, Matt, but I feel you ought to have discussed this with the blocking admin, rather than undoing the block…

This interaction prompted Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales, Wikipedia cofounder and leader, to write: "SlimVirgin, MattCrypto: this is why I love Wikipedians so much. I love this kind of discussion. Assume good faith, careful reasoning, a discussion which doesn't involve personal attacks of any kind, a disagreement with a positive exploration of the deeper issues." 5 Whereas Godwin's Law recognizes the tendency to think the worst of others, Wikipedia culture encourages contributors to treat and think of others well. For example, participants are supposed to abide by the norm of "Wikiquette," which includes the guidelines of "Assume Good Faith" (AGF) and "Please Do Not Bite the Newcomers." 6 Such Wikipedia norms and their relationship to the technology, discourse, and vision of a universal encyclopedia prompt me to ask: How should we understand this community's collaborative-"good faith"-culture? In the following chapters I offer my understanding on this question, but, first, an introduction.


When one speaks of Wikipedia, one is not only referring to a textual artifact, "the free encyclopedia," but also a community and culture creating the "encyclopedia anyone can edit." Furthermore, within both of these popular mottos of Wikipedia, there is a particular vision of access and openness. Each of these elements is briefly discussed below.

The Vision

The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization under which Wikipedia and its related projects operate, asks the reader to "Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That's our commitment." 7 However, I do not believe this commitment is unique to the new millennium. Indeed, I believe Wikipedia's heritage can be traced back to the beginning of the twentieth century. In particular, to the works of an early "documentalist" and of a famous author: Paul Otlet's Universal Repertory and H. G. Wells' World Brain . These projects were conceived as furthering increased access to information; facilitated by the (relatively novel) technologies of the index card, loose-leaf binder, and microfilm. However, this vision exceeds the production of information. Wells proposed that reference work compilers would be joined by world scholars and international technocrats to produce a resource that every student might easily access, in a personal, inexpensive, and portable format. Furthermore, this collection of global intellect was envisioned to yield a greater sense of mutual accord throughout the world. Wells hoped that a world encyclopedia could solve the "jig-saw puzzle" of global discord by bringing all the "mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding"; this would be more than an educational resource, but an institution of global mediation. 8 Wikipedia shares this concern for "the sum of all knowledge" with those early visionaries. And while no one argues that Wikipedia will bring world peace, I do argue goodwill is necessary to its production, and an occasional consequence of participation.

However, while most early Wikipedians were probably unaware of these predecessors from a century ago there was a more immediate inspiration: Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). One of the earliest news articles about Nupedia, Wikipedia's non-wiki progenitor, notes: "The philosophy of the open-source movement is spreading within the industry. Now, a maker of a Web-based encyclopedia wants to apply its principles to share knowledge in general." 9 Nupedia described itself as "the open content encyclopedia" and was available under the GNU Free Documentation License. (GNU is a seminal Free Software project.) FOSS is licensed to enable users to read and improve upon the source of the software they use. This has proven to be a much noted alternative to proprietary software in which one's usage can be restricted (e.g., to backup, install multiple copies, repair, or improve). When I asked Jimmy Wales more explicitly about the influence of FOSS on his thinking he replied:

In general what I can say is that Nupedia was absolutely inspired by the free software movement. I spent a lot of time thinking about online communities and collaboration, and one of the things that I noticed is that in the humanities, a lot of people were collaboration in _discussions_, while in programming, something different was going on. People weren't just talking about programming, they were working together to build things of value. 10

Consequently, the inspiration for a free and open source encyclopedia-in terms of access, cost, and collaboration-might be thought of as the most recent stage of a long-running pursuit.

The Encyclopedia

Wikipedia is the wiki-based successor to Nupedia and its name is a portmanteau of "wiki," an online collaborative editing tool, and "encyclopedia," itself a contraction of the Greek "enkyklios" and "paidei," referring to the "circle of learning" of the classical liberal arts. This name is evidence of a geeky sort of linguistic humor and also prompts the question of if a relatively open-to-all wiki can also be a high-quality reference work. In the following pages I return to these points but for now let's consider the wiki and encyclopedic aspects of the thing we call Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is an online "wiki" based encyclopedia. "Wiki wiki" means "super fast" in the Hawaiian language, and Ward Cunningham chose the name for his collaborative Web software in 1995 to indicate the ease with which one could edit pages. (He learned of the word during his first visit to Hawaii when he was initially confused by the direction to take the "Wiki Wiki Bus," the Honolulu airport shuttle. 11 ) In a sense, wiki captures the original conception of the World Wide Web as both a browsing and editing medium; the latter capability was largely forgotten when the Web began its precipitous growth and the most popular clients did not provide the ability for users to edit Web pages.

The wiki changed this asymmetry by placing the editing functionality on the server. Consequently, if a page can be read, it can be edited in any browser. With a wiki, the user enters a simplified markup into a form on a Web page. Using the Wikipedia syntax one simply types "# this provides a link to [[Ward Cunningham]]" to add a numbered list item with a link to the "Ward Cunningham" article. The server-side Wikipedia software translates this into the appropriate HTML and hypertext links. To create a new page, one simply creates a link to it, which remains red until someone actually adds content to its target destination. These capabilities are central to and representative of the wiki.

Wikipedia now has a number of features that not all wikis share. (Though Wikipedia's open source MediaWiki platform is used by many other projects.) Each wiki page includes links through which one can log in (if desired), bookmark (and "watch") the pages one cares about, view a log of recent changes to the page (including the author and time), or discuss how the page is being edited on its "Talk" or "Discussion" page-and this too is wiki. Two widely used features of Wikipedia are categories and templates. Users have the ability to label pages with categories, which are then used to automatically generate indexes. For example, the "1122 births" category page lists six biographical articles for those born in 1122. 12 A wiki template is "a page which can be inserted into another page via a process called transclusion." These small template "pages" (usually no more than a few lines of text) "are used to add recurring messages to pages in a consistent way, to add boilerplate messages, to create navigational boxes and to provide cross-language portability of texts." 13 Templates are included on a page by including the template name within a pair of curly parentheses. So, with the inclusion of the " {{ pp-vandalism }} " markup a Wikipedia page will include a warning box that "this page is currently protected from editing to deal with vandalism." Many templates, such as the vandalism one, also add a category, creating an index of all pages presently using that template. 14

The application of the wiki platform with a few encyclopedic features enables surprisingly sophisticated content creation. 15 And, as we will see throughout this work, wikis are often thought of as potent collaborative tools because they permit asynchronous, incremental, and transparent contributions from many.

Yet, as is often the case, the consequence of this quick and informal approach of editing the Web was not foreseen-or, rather, was pleasantly surprising. Wikipedia is the populist offshoot of Nupedia, started in March of 2000 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Nupedia's mission was to create a free encyclopedia via rigorous expert review under a free documentation license. Unfortunately, this process moved rather slowly and having recently been introduced to wikis, Sanger persuaded Wales to set up a scratchpad for potential Nupedia content where anyone could contribute. However, "There was considerable resistance on the part of Nupedia's editors and reviewers to the idea of associating Nupedia with a wiki-style website. Sanger suggested giving the new project its own name, Wikipedia, and Wikipedia was soon launched on its own domain,, on 15 January 2001." 16

Wikipedia proved to be so successful that when the server hosting Nupedia crashed in September of 2003 it was never restored. As of June 2008 there are over "8,700,000 articles in more than 250 languages;" 17 the original English version exceeds 2,000,000 articles, having long ago subsumed most of the original Nupedia content. The Wikimedia Foundation, incorporated in 2003, is now the steward of Wikipedia as well as a wiki based dictionary, compendium of quotations, collaborative textbooks, a repository of free source texts, and a collection of images that can be used by other Wikimedia projects.

Of course, from an encyclopedic point of view, those two million articles on English Wikipedia-the focus of this book-are not of equal quality. A summary from a proposal to achieve "100,000 Feature-Quality Articles," Wikipedia's highest quality level, reports that as of January 2008, less than half of the English articles have been assessed for quality, and of those roughly 10,000 were considered to be of "Featured" (outstanding and thorough), "A" (very useful and fairly complete), or "Good" articles (useful to most readers with no obvious problems). 18 Clearly, there is much work to be done. On the other hand, the breadth of so many articles means that Wikipedia has extraordinary and up-to-date coverage of even the narrowest interests. While it has yet to be assessed, and would fall short of featured article status no doubt, the article on my neighborhood, adjacent to the Gowanus Canal, is quite handy. 19

The Community

It can be very difficult to get a sense of, or even speak of, the Wikipedia community because of its massive size and diversity. The "Editing Frequency" page indicates that 41,393 registered (logged in) users made 5 or more edits in September 2008. Yet, this doesn't represent the hundreds of thousands of contributors who may have previously contributed, those who edit without a consistent identity, and the "Wiki gnomes" that may fall under this threshold-such as myself-but continue to quietly enact small tasks (e.g., fixing a typo) as opportunity presents itself and time permits. 20

For those involved in administrative functions (e.g., protecting pages from vandalism), "There are 1,615 (as of 5 November, 2008) users with sysop rights (active and otherwise), 956 of them active (as of 2008-11-05)." 21 In November 2008, I counted over 200 names on the #wikipedia chat channel and there are more than 700 subscribers to the community Wikizine bulletin. 22 On the relatively high traffic wikiEN-l list I counted approximately 250 unique posters from March to November 2008, though I am confident this is only a fraction of those subscribed. More topically, "Wikipedia Projects" are wiki pages in which contributors interested in a particular topic can plan and discuss their efforts, of which there are at least 1,500 on the English Wikipedia. 23

Furthermore, through Wikipedia "meetups" I've attended in New York and the annual Wikimania conferences I've met a couple dozen people. Many of these people I've spoken to more than once, and it's quite easy to speak to a newly met Wikipedian about issues of concern to the community. In addition to the e-mail lists and Wikizine there are other community forums such as the popular Wikipedia Signpost , 24 various wiki blogs and their aggregators, 25 and Wikipedia related podcasts. 26 Plus, there are dozens of different language encyclopedias with their own communities. Therefore, I believe within the larger community of tens of thousands of active contributors who are familiar with the basic practices and norms of Wikipedia, there are also smaller communities on the scales of hundreds or dozens of members within language, geographical, functional, and topical boundaries.

The Culture

The focus of my attention is Wikipedia's collaborative culture. While I explain what I mean by this in a later chapter, I want to first briefly introduce my approach and Wikipedia's core collaborative principles.

In addition to millions of encyclopedic articles, Wikipedia is suffused with a coexisting web of discussion and policy pages, the latter of which populate the Wikipedia "project namespace" and "Meta-Wiki" of Wikimedia projects. 27 As in any other community, there is a history of events, set of norms, constellation of values, and common lingo at Wikipedia. Also, not surprisingly, there is a particular sensibility, including a love of knowledge and geeky sense of humor. Unlike many other communities, most all of this is captured online. Even beyond the inherent textual verbosity of other online communities, Wikipedia is extraordinarily self-reflective. Most everything is put on a wiki, versioned, linked to, referenced, and discussed. And in the tradition of Godwin's Law, four initial observations by Wikipedian Raul654 in 2004 has become a collection of over two hundred laws and corollaries by Wikipedians describing their own interactions. Not surprisingly, this proliferation is itself the subject of "Norbert's Law": "Once the number of laws in a list exceeds a critical mass (about six), the probability of new laws being tortured, unfunny and bland rises rapidly to unity." 28 Furthermore, the "WikiSpeak" essay is an ironic glossary of terms that gives insight into both Wikipedia's substance and faults. For example, collaboration is defined as "One editor taking credit for someone else's work." 29 ("Raul's Laws of Wikipedia" and "WikiSpeak" definitions also make appearances as epigraphs in the following chapters.)

This wealth of material is a treasure given my interest in understanding how people make sense of their experiences of working together. And while I was influenced by varied scholars in conceiving of and executing this work, I was fortunate, again, to come across a scholar who coined a name and specified a theory towards this end. Sociologist Harold Garfinkel's "ethnomethodology" focuses on "practical activities, practical circumstances, and practical sociological reasoning." 30 The important point to note here is that by "practical sociological reasoning" Garfinkel is referring to the discourse and reasoning of the actual participants themselves. How a community makes sense of its experience is what Garfinkel refers to as "accounting processes." As Alain Coulon writes in his introduction of ethnomethodology, it is "the study of the methods that members use in their daily lives that enable them to live together and to govern their social relationships, whether conflictual or harmonious," that is, how "the actor undertakes to understand his action as well as that of others." 31 The two hundred plus laws posited by Wikipedians are a salient example of the community trying to understand itself and its circumstances.

Therefore, most of this work is an exploration of the norms guiding Wikipedia collaboration and their related "accounting processes," but there are three core policies central to understanding Wikipedia and are therefore worthwhile addressing at the outset: "Neutral Point Of View" (NPOV), "No Original Research" (NOR), and "Verifiability" (V).

While NPOV at first seems like an impossible, or even naïve, reach towards an objectively neutral knowledge, it is quite the opposite. The NPOV policy instead recognizes the multitude of viewpoints and provides an epistemic stance in which they all can be recognized as instances of human knowledge-right or wrong. The NPOV policy seeks to achieve the "fair" presentation of all sides of the dispute. 32 Hence, the clear goal of providing an encyclopedia of all human knowledge explicitly avoids many entanglements. Yet, when disagreements do occur they often involve alleged violations of NPOV. Accusations of and discussions about bias are common within the community and any "POV pushing"-as Wikipedians say-is seen as compromising the quality of the articles and the ability for disparate people to work together. However, violations of NPOV are not necessarily purposeful, but can result from the ignorance of a new participant or the heat of an argument. In some circumstances, the debate legitimately raises substantive questions about NPOV. In any case, while some perceive NPOV as a source of conflict, it may act instead as a conduit: reducing conflict and otherwise channeling arguments in the productive context of developing an encyclopedia.

The other two policies of "No Original Research" and "Verifiability" are both about attribution, meaning, "All material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source." 33 Such a principle is obviously important for an encyclopedia that "anyone can edit." 34 Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the notion of "No Original Research" (NOR) permits the community to avoid arguments about pet theories and vanity links (i.e., a person links from Wikipedia to a site they wish to promote). If you have "a great idea that you think should become part of the corpus of knowledge that is Wikipedia, the best approach is to publish your results in a good peer-reviewed journal, and then document your work in an appropriately non-partisan manner." 35 Since Wikipedia does not publish original research, "Verifiability" then implies that "any reader must be able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source." 36 A Wikipedia article can be no better than its sources.

These three policies of "Neutral Point of View," "No Original Research," and "Verifiability" have been characterized as the "holy trinity" of Wikipedia, 37 without one being preeminent over any other, according to Wales:

I consider all three of these to be different aspects of the same thing, ultimately. And at the moment, when I think about any examples of apparent tensions between the three, I think the right answer is to follow all three of them or else just leave it out of Wikipedia. We know, with some certainty, that all three of these will mean that Wikipedia will have less content than otherwise, and in some cases will prevent the addition of true statements. For example, a brilliant scientist conceives of a new theory which happens to be true, but so far unpublished. We will not cover it, we will not let this scientist publish it in Wikipedia. A loss, to be sure. But a much much bigger gain on average, since we are not qualified to evaluate such things, and we would otherwise be overwhelmed with abject nonsense from POV pushing lunatics. There is no simple a priori answer to every case, but good editorial judgment and the negotiation of reasonable people committed to quality is the best that humans have figured out so far. :) -Jimbo Wales 15:33, 15 August 2006 (UTC) 38

This Book, in Short

A hazard in thinking about new phenomena-such as the Web, wiki, or Wikipedia-is to aggrandize novelty at the expense of the past. To minimize this inclination I remind myself of the proverb "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Therefore, I begin in chapter 2 with an argument that Wikipedia is an heir to a twentieth century vision of universal access and goodwill; an idea advocated by H. G. Wells and Paul Otlet almost a century ago. This vision is inspired by technological innovation-microfilm and index cards then, digital networks today-and driven by the encyclopedic impulse to capture and index everything known. In some ways my argument is an extension to that made by Boyd Rayward who notes similarities between Paul Otlet's information "Repertory" and Project Xanadu, an early hypertext system. 39 My effort entails not only showing similarities in the aspirations and technical features of these older visions and Wikipedia, but also the recovery and placement of a number of Wikipedia's predecessors (e.g., Project Gutenberg, Interpedia, Nupedia) within this history.

In chapter 3, I turn to what I think is an essential feature linking Wikipedia to the pursuit of the universal vision and to Wikipedia's success: its good faith collaborative culture . While the relevance of "prosocial" norms has been noted by other scholars (along with notions of trust, empathy, and reciprocity), Wikipedia provides an excellent opportunity, because of its reflective documentation and discourse, to see how such norms emerge and how they are enacted and understood. I focus on the norms of "Neutral Point of View" and "Assume Good Faith" to argue that an open perspective on both knowledge claims and other contributors , respectively, makes for extraordinary collaborative potential. However, unlike the incompletely realized potential of earlier visions, Wikipedia is very real and very messy. How the community wrestles with issues of openness, decision making, and leadership can offer insight into how this particular phenomenon evolved-and perhaps into other communities.

A facet of the universal encyclopedic vision has been an increase in the accessibility of knowledge. Wikipedia takes this further, by increasing access to information and its production. In chapter 4 I evaluate the Wikipedia community against the criteria of what I call an open content community . This notion is inspired by FOSS and the subsequent popularization of "openness" but focuses on community rather than copyright licenses. I then consider three cases that challenge Wikipedia's openness as "the free encyclopedia anyone can edit." In the first case I ask if Wikipedia is really something "anyone can edit"? That is, when Wikipedia implemented new technical features to help limit vandalization of the site, did it make Wikipedia more or less open? In the second case I describe the way in which a maturing open content community's requirement to interact with the sometimes "closed" world of law affects its openness. In this case, I review Wikipedia's "office action" in which agents of Wikipedia act privately so as to mitigate potential legal problems though this is contrary to the community values of deliberation and transparency. Finally, I explore a case in which a closed (female only) group is set up outside of, and perhaps because of, the "openness" of the larger Wikipedia community. In the end, I believe we can think of the Wikipedia community as open, with some qualifications about Wikipedia's circumstances and the very idea of openness itself.

Beyond the more abstract question of openness, the fact that the community has a porous boundary and a continuous churn of pseudonymous and anonymous users means there are significant challenges in working together and making decisions. H. G. Wells thought his "World Encyclopedia" should be more than an information repository, it should also be a "clearinghouse of misunderstandings." 40 By reviewing a specific "misunderstanding" about the naming of television show articles, I explore the benefits, challenges, and meaning of consensus at Wikipedia. Specifically, by contextualizing Wikipedia practice relative to other communities (e.g., Quakers and Internet standards organizations) I show how consensus is understood and practiced despite difficulties arising from the relative lack of resources other consensus communities have from the start, such as formal facilitators and polling mechanisms.

And just as the complexities inherent in the understanding and practice of good faith, openness, and consensus reveal the character of Wikipedia-and hopefully prompt theoretical insights-the question of leadership in this type of community is potentially generative. In open content communities, like Wikipedia, there is often a seemingly paradoxical use of the title "Benevolent Dictator" for leaders. In chapter 6, I explore discourse around the use of this moniker so as to address how leadership works in open content communities and why Wikipedia collaboration looks the way it does today. To do this, I make use of the notion of "authorial" leadership: leaders must parlay merit resulting from authoring something significant into a form of authority that can also be used in an autocratic fashion, to arbitrate between those of good faith or defend against those of bad faith, with a soft touch and humor when-and only when-necessary.

Finally, in chapter 7 I focus on the cultural reception and interpretation of Wikipedia. The way in which Wikipedia is collaboratively produced has caught the attention of the world. Discourse about the efficacy and legitimacy of such work abound, from the news pages of The New York Times to the satire of The Onion . Building on the literature around controversies surrounding other reference works, such as Harvey Einbinder's The Myth of the Britannica and Herbert Morton's The Story of Webster's Third , 41 I make a broader argument that reference works can serve as a flashpoint for larger social anxieties about technological and social change. With this understanding in hand, I try to make sense of the social unease embodied in and prompted by Wikipedia by way of four themes: collaborative practice, universal vision, encyclopedic impulse, and technological inspiration.

I conclude with a reflection upon H. G. Wells' complaint of the puzzle of wasted knowledge and global discord. Seventy years later, Wikipedia's logo is that of a not yet complete global jigsaw puzzle. I think this coincidence is representative of a shared dream across the decades. I also think the metaphor of the puzzle is useful in understanding Wikipedia collaboration: "Neutral Point of View" ensures that the scattered pieces of what we think we know can be joined and good faith facilitates the actual practice of fitting them together.


Chapter 1 1

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