In the Good faith: the collaborative culture of the Wikipedia

Joseph M. Reagle Jr.


1 The Research Objective

1.1 Introduction

The Wikipedia is not merely an online encyclopedia; while the Web site is useful, popular, and permits 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, the Wikipedia is a community and the encyclopedia is a snapshot of its continuing conversation.

How does this community develop and maintain its collaborative — even “friendly” — culture?In recent years, scholars have turned their attention to the phenomenon of voluntary and open communities (Reagle 2004) using Internet-based communication to produce cultural content — most famously open/free software, but also prose, audio, and visual works. Some researchers are applying an economic lens and ask what motivates pro-social behavior absent immediate monetary rewards, or they have posited new models of organization (e.g., the "commons-based peer-production" (Benkler 2002) or the "private-collective innovation model” (von Hippel and Krogh 2003)). Others are adapting sociological and psychological models of group dynamics, cognition, trust, and decision making to these communities (Surowiecki 2004). And within the field of Computer Mediated Communications (CMC) authors are addressing how people's sense of self, relations, and media evolve (Turkle 1995; Reinghold 1993, 2002). Finally, scholars such as Froomkin (2003) and Yates and Orlikowski (2002) are applying social theories, such as those of Habermas (1984) or Giddens (1984) respectively, to the discussions of standards organization, Weblogs, Wikis, and collaborative filtering tools.

Yet, from my own experience in collaborating in the open source and standards communities, each of these approaches is relevant but incomplete. First, most of these approaches tend to be ahistorical – this is not surprising given the phenomena are so recent, but this also presents an opportunity. One could apply to the Wikipedia the historical approach found in Morton's (1994) The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics. For example, in what ways does the objection to the inclusion of the word "ain't" in the Third resemble contemporary criticisms of Wikipedia authority and legitimacy? Second, 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 and of what they have produced? In Beyond Majority Rules Michael Sheeran (1996) traces the historical development of the consensus-based decision making culture of Quakers to present-day practice; he also explores the members' perceptions of their interactions. For example, historically, how did the Quakers response to 17th-century persecution affect community decision-making? Or, presently, do contemporary members believe a successful meeting is a case of skilled facilitation, or the discernment of the will of God? Likewise, why is the present-day Wikipedia so "anarchistic" and how do people conceive of their collaboration?

I propose a project, similar to Morton's and Sheeran’s, on the Wikipedia community. I intend to use Schein's (2004) theories of organizational culture to frame the development of Wikipedia's collaborative culture. I expect such notions as dialogue (Bohm 1996), communicative action (Habermas 1991), empathy (Preece 1998, 2004), and perspective taking (Boland and Tenkasi 1995) will help me understand how the community speaks about the sociable spirit and intersubjective meaning of Wikipedia interaction. I plan to use the archives (encyclopedic articles, their discussion pages, and mailing lists), commentary (blog and press reactions and discussion) and discussions with participants to answer the questions below.

1.2 Statement of research objectives

How did the Wikipedia culture of collaboration develop; particularly, how is the community's highly reflective discourse about itself shaped by and, in turn, shape that culture?For example, how does the Wikipedia community approach questions about authority, leadership, neutrality, interaction, and quality? Or, how are norms of friendliness and civil interaction encouraged, and how are they perceived to effect the production of articles? I hope to provide a nuanced description of this community from two perspectives:

1.3 Specific Research Questions

The primary research objective above will be answered by progressively addressing each of the questions below:

  1. What is the collaborative culture, the norms and practices of interaction, within this community and how did it develop?
  2. How is the understanding of Wikipedia similar and/or different from its historical antecedents and contemporary competitors?
  3. What do contributors, readers, and commentators make of this phenomenon? How do they understand their own experiences, good, bad, and in between?
  4. What implication does the historical trajectory of this encyclopedia and the meaning invested in and arising from it have for the Wikipedia and collaborative cultures in general?

1.4 Definitions

Ward Cunningham (2004) named his project WikiWikiWeb or Wiki– borrowed from the Hawaiian expression "Wiki Wiki" for super fast – to indicate the ease with which one could edit web pages. With a Wiki, the user enters a simplified markup into a form on a Web page. 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! Furthermore, each page often includes links through which one can sign in (if desired), view a log of recent changes to the page (including the author, change, and time), or participate in a discussion about how the page is being edited – and this too is a Wiki page. Another on-line publishing tool is the Web log, or blog, an online journal of a single or small number of authors, with postings appearing in reverse chronological order. While there is commentary and linking between blogs, they are different from Wiki’s in that the text is not collaboratively edited.

Sproull, Conley, and Moon (2004) borrow the term prosocial (from Eisenberg and Miller) to characterize online “Net” communities that exhibit behavior that is intentional, voluntary, and benefits others. A community is a group of interdependent people who "participate together in discussion and decision making and who share certain practices that both define the community and are restored by it" (Bellah et al. 1996:333). A culture is the “way of life of a people” (Blackburn 1996), the value-laden system of "meaning making" through which a community understands and acts, including its own maintenance and reproduction: "culture acts as a set of basic assumptions that defines for us what to pay attention to, what things mean, how to react emotionally to what is going on, and what actions to take in various kinds of situations" (Schein 1992:22). Open content communities (Reagle 2004) are prosocial communities that operate with the intention of producing content, such as an operating system or an encyclopedia, that is publicly available. The culture of such communities is characterized by voluntary participation, and processes that are largely transparent and non-discriminatory beyond merit. Because the products of such communities are governed by copyright licenses which permit others to make derivations, such communities face a possibility of a fork: others taken a copy of the product and continuing to work on it elsewhere.

Since my concern is with collaboration, and many claims the Wikipedia discourse for about what is factual or neutral, three brief definitions of the epistemological terms are also merited. Objectivity is the physical, "real," world. Simply, we might think of it as that which prompts our experiences. Subjectivity pertains “to the subject and his or her particular perspective, feelings, beliefs, and desires” (Solomon 1995). Simply, it as that which is in a person's head. Intersubjectivity is a shared perspective between two or more people that is a foundation for interaction (Narveson 1995). Intersubjectivity precedes and exceeds simple agreement, as it also speaks to the personal experience of "walking in another's shoes," and the intention towards and experience of interaction. Simply, it is that which is shared between interacting people. The implication is that there may be a transsubjectivity: “if subjective processes can be brought into agreement, then perhaps that is as good as the (unattainable?) status of being 'objective' completely independent of subjectivity” (Narveson 1995). Simply, transsubjectivity is that which is shared between people with objectivity as its subject and aspiration. (Intersubjectivities that do not concern themselves with objective reality might be the shared experiences of personal love, spiritual communion, or collaborative rapport.)

1.5 Delimitations

As stated previously, this study will investigate the intersubjective creation and understanding of a particular culture. Two key aspects of the Wikipedia ("Wiki" + "pedia") are the technology of the Wiki (the material cause – if you will) and the resulting encyclopedia (the final cause). While each of these is necessary to understanding my research objective, I will avoid conflating them.

Many projects on new media treat the technology as an almost autonomous force that serves as the independent variable of their study. For theoretical (Giddens 1984, Desanctis and Poole 1994, Orlikowski 1992, 2000) and substantive reasons, I abstain from this approach. Simply, technology has always affected human interaction, and vice-versa. For example, the printing press increased the number of books and the general literacy which contributed to the demand for reference works centuries ago (McArthur 1986). Substantively, while technology is a necessary component, it is not the primary focus of the study.

Similarly, while the form (an encyclopedia) of the product will be essential to understanding the culture of Wikipedia, the goal is not to simply place Wikipedia within a comprehensive timeline of reference works. Like technology, the character of an encyclopedia influences the Wikipedia culture of collaboration, and understanding how this is so is part of this study, but a complete history of reference works abstracted from this question is not. Instead, I plan to identify strong themes in the development of reference works throughout history that might be relevant to the Wikipedia, and then turn to the specific historical development of digital antecedents (e.g., Project Gutenberg, Interpedia, Nupedia) and the Wikipedia itself.

The topics of “technology” and “reference” works are the boundaries within which the culture has evolved; understanding the character of these boundaries is essential but should not be mistaken for the phenomenon itself.

Also, while I will be considering personal accounts and interactions of Wikipedia participation, I will not be exhaustively profiling participants. I will be open to demographic or other characteristics of Wikipedia participants with respect to collaboration, I will not be creating a complete profile of a general, or even exceptional, Wikipedia user.

Furthermore, this study is a cultural analysis of the historical development of collaborative practices and associated meaning making within a community. While I will be introducing notions of collaboration, friendliness, neutrality, and authority so as to understand how this community understands and acts relative to these concepts, these are not the primary research objective. So, for example, I will not directly compare articles from the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia in order to discern quantifiable or qualitative differences, but I would provide the necessary background, including citations of such work, in order to address how the larger community understands and speaks of possible differences.

Finally, a common question of the Ph.D. dissertation is “so what?” The discipline promoted by such a question is useful in that focuses attention upon novel characteristics of the phenomenon and the possible contributions of the dissertation. The question is often addressed by means of scholarly references or claims of material utility. Economical ends are often accepted as final while those which are not easily reduced to figures seemingly require more justification. However, as Sheeran (1977:140) notes: “the rationalist starting point that actors always maximize personal utilities is helpful for understanding many actions. But it is just not enough.” For example, I believe that at the heart of the Wikipedia project is a notion of the "The Good" – even if fuzzy or contested. I will explore community discourse about what the good may be, such as personal satisfaction or communal solidarity, and how it structures and emerges from the work (Friedman and Kahn 2003). Yet, such notions are not necessarily instrumental, though they may have such benefits, and do not rest solely upon utility curves. Instead, I will be approaching Aristotle’s notion of a “final good” – of which Kant thought "goodwill" to be the sole member and relevant to my concern with prosocial cultures. I do not raise this issue in order to delve in to different philosophical conceptions of the good (Nagel 1979), just the opposite. I expect to encounter examples of values (e.g., good faith) in the Wikipedia culture, explore them in the context of Wikipedia practice and discourse but not submit them to an exhaustive philosophical interrogation (Phillips 1994:70).

So, to answer the question of "so what?", I will present evidence that the Wikipedia project is extensive (many articles on many topics exist), pervasive (significant usage), influential (becoming a common reference of choice), and novel (given the community and its use of technology). But, remember, that these are attributes of the encyclopedia itself and my primary concern is with the development of the culture that generates it. It is the culture that can create a product with those characteristics, and also exhibit the virtues of friendliness, politeness, and goodwill that I want to concern myself even though such notions are rather “final.” While social, evolutionary, game, and psychological theories speak to how these characteristics arise and influence interaction, from the subjective stance, they don't capture the depth of subjective and intersubjective meaning I hope to portray.


1.5.1 Proposed Outline


1.6 Cited Works

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