Wikipedia and modes of encyclopedic production

I’m happy to note that a pre-print of Jeff Loveland’s and my article on encyclopedic production is now available. Originally it was toll restricted and I planned to post a pre-submission author’s draft, but happily the “full text” is now freely accessible.

Jeff Loveland and Joseph Reagle (2013). Wikipedia and encyclopedic production. New Media & Society, (online preprint).

Wikipedia is often presented within a foreshortened or idealized history of encyclopedia-making. Here we challenge this viewpoint by contextualizing Wikipedia and its modes of production on a broad temporal scale. Drawing on examples from Roman antiquity onward, but focusing on the years since 1700, we identify three forms of encyclopedic production: compulsive collection, stigmergic accumulation, and corporate production. While each could be characterized as a discrete period, we point out the existence of significant overlaps in time as well as with the production of Wikipedia today. Our analysis explores the relation of editors, their collaborators, and their modes of composition with respect to changing notions of authorship and originality. Ultimately, we hope our contribution will help scholars avoid ahistorical claims about Wikipedia, identify historical cases germane to the social scientist’s concerns, and show that contemporary questions about Wikipedia have a lifespan exceeding the past decade.

Also, Rebecca Rosen has blogged about the article over at the Atlantic: What If the Great Wikipedia ‘Revolution’ Was Actually a Reversion?


It can sometimes take a long time and circuitous route for one’s work to see the light of day. As evidence, I began thinking about Wikipedia in a historical context in 2005 within Jonathan Zimmerman’s excellent Historical Research class and in a reading seminar with my fellow student Michael Zimmer and advisor Helen Nissenbaum. This work appeared as two chapters in my 2008 dissertation(now public). Chapter 2, on Wikipedia’s antecedants made, it into Good Faith Collaboration (GFC). While I had converted chapter 3, on comparative modes of encyclopedic production, into a draft article, it fell by the wayside. However, in 2011 I was pleased that Jeff Loveland, a real encyclopedia historian, was kind enough to review GFC. Doubly so, since I had just read his excellent monograph An Alternative Encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal History (1745). After some discussion, we decided to take on the question of encyclopedic production together. The collaboration, all over email, was a delight. However, the journey is not yet finished; it could take another year for the article to actually be printed and bound, and receive its final pagination.

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