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"In Good Faith": Wikipedia Collaboration and the Pursuit of the Universal Encyclopedia

Joseph Reagle

February 2009

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The “Zeroeth Law”

There are many Wikipedia “laws,” but this is perhaps its most famous:

While Wikipedia may very well work in practice, it can never work in theory. ( Wikipedia2008urr )

My theory is that Wikipedia’s collaborative culture contributes to it working in practice.


My background often influences my selection of topics, my way of thinking about social systems, and a (naive?) hope that things can be improved upon.

But my concern is with collaboration, particularly related cultural norms (i.e., patterns and antipatterns in agile/wiki-speak).

My historical sensibility is influenced by the maxim: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” So I’m skeptical of exaggerated claims of novelty.

My ethnographic approach is one of a “reflective practitioner” concerned with a community’s “accounting processes”. So, I am preoccupied with its discourse and norms.

But I will begin with a “law” that precedes Wikipedia’s 200+ laws by over ten years.

Godwin’s Law

Why shouldn’t Wikipedia work “in theory”?

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one” — Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies

Godwin’s Law was specified in the context of Usenet, but has remained germane to online community. I think it is central to understanding Wikipedia because I argue its culture seeks to counter this tendency to see the worst in each other.

Consider an example of a (coincidental) argument about Nazis.

A Nazi Attack

In 2005 Wikipedians (civilly) “wheel warred” over the blocking of a supposed white-supremacist.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia cofounder wrote of the Admins’ conversation:

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. ( Wales2005nnw )

This statement is indicative of features of Wikipedia community.

The Nazi Antidote

This comment is evidence of Wales’ continued call for a “culture of co-operation” unlike the “culture of conflict embodied in Usenet.” ( Wales2001cco )

We can see elements of:

But first, a little background on Wikipedia’s vision, the encyclopedia, community, and culture.

Background: The Vision

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment. ( Foundation2007von )

Wikipedia was conceived by Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales, inspired by the Free and Open Source movement, and launched by Larry Sanger, a philosophy PhD concerned with epistemology and neutrality.

Background: The Encyclopedia

Portmanteau: wiki + (enkyklios + paidei) = quick circle of learning

Ward Cunningham made the Web writable again with his “wiki” — a word inspired by the “Wiki Wiki Shuttle Bus” at the Honolulu airport.

Initially, a scratchpad for the ailing Nupedia project of Wales and Sanger.

Wikipedia took off, and when Nupedia’s servers failed, it was not restored.

The English Wikipedia has over 2 million articles, roughly 10,000 are considered to be “Good” (without obvious problems) or better. ( Wikipedia200810f )

Background: The Community

Dozens of language Wikipedia’s, and other projects (dictionary, quotations, images, etc.). My focus is on the English encyclopedic project.

About 41,393 contributors (editing 5+/month). ( Wikipedia2008ef )

About 1,000 active administrators — those with access to additional features that protect against disruption. ( Wikipedia2008la )

At least 1,500 WikiProjects on the English Wikipedia. ( Wikipedia2008lsp )

Also, there is much activity around blogs, aggregators, podcasts, meet-ups, and conferences.

Background: The Culture

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.

There are dozens of norms in the form of policy, guidelines, and essays.

Background: The Holy Trinity

Neutral Point of View (NPOV) : an “article should fairly represent all significant viewpoints that have been published by a reliable source, and should do so in proportion to the prominence of each.” ( Wikipedia2008npv )

Verifiability (V) : “any reader must be able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source.” ( Wikipedia2006vty )

No Original Research (NOR) : avoids arguments about pet theories and vanity links by requiring claims to be substantiated externally. ( Wikipedia2006nor )

So with the background out of the way: is Wikipedia a wholly novel phenomenon?

The More Things Change …

A hazard in thinking about new phenomena — such as the Web, wiki, or Wikipedia — is to emphasize novelty at the expense of the past. The vision of a universal encyclopedia is a long-held one:

The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in exact replica. (Wells1938wb)

My dream is that someday this encyclopedia will be available for just the cost of printing to schoolhouses across the world , including ‘3rd world’ countries that won’t be able to afford widespread internet access for years. How many African villages can afford a set of Britannicas? I suppose not many… ( Wales2000h )

What is the “universal encyclopedic vision”?

The Universal Encyclopedic Vision

A technology inspired vision seeking to wed increased access to information with greater human accord.

Perhaps one could trace this back to Pliny the Elder, but I start my discussion with two turn of the century visionaries:

Each was inspired by democracy, internationalism, and the index card, loose-leaf binder, and microfilm.

Paul Otlet: Universal Repertory

Historian Boyd Rayward seminally noted similarities between Paul Otlet’s information “Repertory” and Project Xanadu, an early hypertext system.


Otlet wrote of “inventions to be discovered” including the reading and annotation of remote documents and computer speech. His Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) was a bibliographic query language ahead of its time.

I find his “Monographic Principle,” that the information in the pages of a book can be decomposed and recombined, to be most salient to Wikipedia and the criticism it faces.

H.G. Wells: Solving the Jigsaw


But beside technology, there is also a remarkable similarity in aspiration:

We live in a world of unused and misapplied knowledge and skill I want to suggest that something — a new social organ, a new institution — which for a time I shall call World Encyclopaedia , is the means whereby we can solve the problem of that jig-saw puzzle and bring all the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding . (Wells1936iwe)

Our mission is to give freely the sum of the world’s knowledge to every single person on the planet in the language of their choice, under a free license, so that they can modify, adapt, reuse, or redistribute it, at will The only way we can coordinate our efforts in an efficient manner to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves, is to love our work and to love each other, even when we disagree. Mutual respect and a reasonable approach to disagreement are essential … on this incredible ridiculous crazy fun project to change the world. ( Wales2004fls )

The Pursuit of the Universal Encyclopedia

Otlet and Wells were seminal in vision — as was Vannevar Bush — and in the networked age many attempts were made:

How has Wikipedia managed to realize this long pursued vision — even if imperfectly?

It has some nice technical features.

Technical features

It enables: incremental, asynchronous, and cumulative contribution.

It is: centralized, which is useful for features, community, and culture:

But I believe there is more to it: culture .

“Good Faith” Collaborative Culture

This collaborative culture is rooted in an open perspective about knowledge claims (epistemic) and other contributors (intersubjective).

This unifying principle is perhaps best captured by WikiLove: “a general spirit of collegiality and mutual understanding.” ( Wikipedia2005wve )

In addition to Wales’ claim that collaboration is possible when we “love our work and love each other”, Erik Moeller wrote:

And the single most important principle I can think of here is not “anyone can edit”. It’s not even NPOV or any other policy. It’s “WikiLove” — of which our commitment to openness is only an expression. We share a love of knowledge, and we treat everyone who shares the same love with respect and goodwill. (That’s the idea, at least.) ( Moeller2006ga )

So let’s turn to Neutral Point of View: an open perspective on knowledge.

Neutral Point of View (NPOV)

While NPOV at first seems like an impossible, or even naive, reach for 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. ( Wikipedia2008npv )

In any event, we intend to represent all points of view , including those held by any significant minority of experts in a field, as fairly as possible In other words, the point isn’t merely to mention other views not favored by an article’s author; it is to write in such a way that one cannot tell what view is favored by the article’s author. ( Sanger2000nq )

This is now seen in an NPOV corollary.

Writing for the Enemy

The notion of not being able to tell the predilection of a contributor, a sort of ideological anonymity, is more fully developed in a corollary of NPOV, “Writing for the Enemy”:

Writing for the enemy is the process of explaining another person’s point of view as clearly and fairly as you can. The intent is to satisfy the adherents and advocates of that POV that you understand their claims and arguments Writing for the enemy contributes to the NPOV of Wikipedia. Wikipedians often must learn to sacrifice their own viewpoints to the greater good. ( Wikipedia2006we )

This open perspective reminds me of literature on “perspective taking” and is complemented by communal virtues.

Some Virtues From The Literature

Scholars have noted the importance of virtues in knowledge creation.

Von Krogh identifies five dimensions of “care in knowledge creation”: mutual trust, active empathy, access to help, lenience in judgment, and courage. (vonKrogh1998ckc)

Cramton found that in successful email groups people typically give others the benefit of the doubt and make situational rather than categorical attributions about their behavior. ( Cramton2001mkp )

Benkler and Nissenbaum argue that “commons-based peer-production” entails virtues that are both “self-regarding” (e.g., autonomy, independence, creativity) and “other-regarding” (e.g., generosity, altruism, camaraderie, cooperation, civic virtue.) ( BenklerNissenbaum2006cbp )

My Good Faith Virtues

My analysis yielded the categories of:

  1. assuming the best of others,
  2. civility,
  3. patience, and
  4. humor.

Virtue: Assuming the Best of Others

Godwin’s Law is evidence of a cognitive bias of negative dispositional (or character) attributions towards others (i.e., fundamental attribution error). Assume Good Faith counters this:

Well-meaning people make mistakes , and you should correct them when they do. You should not act like their mistake was deliberate. Correct, but don’t scold . There will be people on Wikipedia with whom you disagree. Even if they’re wrong, that doesn’t mean they’re trying to wreck the project. There will be some people with whom you find it hard to work. That doesn’t mean they’re trying to wreck the project either; it means they annoy you . ( Wikipedia2006agf )

Virtue: Patience

The technology of wiki furthers patience as a change can always be reversed without fear of permanent damage; as software developer and author Karl Fogel notes with respect to producing free software: “version control means you can relax.” ( Fogel2005pos )

Patience is implicated by “Assume Good Faith” since frustrating behavior can result from ignorance, rather than malice, and is remedied in time. “Please Don’t Bite the Newcomers” guideline cautions:

New contributors are prospective “members” and are therefore our most valuable resource . We must treat newcomers with kindness and patience —nothing scares potentially valuable contributors away faster than hostility or elitism. While many newcomers hit the ground running, some lack knowledge about the way we do things. ( Wikipedia2006pdn )

Patience also helps prevent conflict escalation.

Virtue: Patience and De-escalation

People may call each other a Nazi because of “process losses” or “social attenuation” (from CMC literature); they also often lose track of the original issue and “escalate to principle.”

For example, one might admit “Yes, my joke was in bad taste, but you are trying to censor me like Hitler.” And others will response: “But you are obviously racist/sexist/… like the Nazis.”


“Do Not Disrupt Wikipedia to Make a Point” also limits “absurdity” arguments and dampens escalation to principle. For example “If you think that this list of examples has become excessively long and boring” don’t “add 42 more cases” but instead “suggest that half of them may be deleted without loss for the understanding.” ( Wikipedia2009dnd )

Virtue: Civility

Civility acts as a last line of defense.

Despite expectations to act in good faith, “Assume Good Faith,” to walk in another’s shoes, see another’s humanity, to love, and to respect one another, failing all of this, Wikipedians should still treat each other with civility.

Being rude, insensitive or petty makes people upset and prevents Wikipedia from working properly. ( Wikipedia2006cty )

Do not make personal attacks anywhere in Wikipedia. Comment on content, not on the contributor. ( Wikipedia2007npa )

“Don’t Be A Dick”. There is no definition but if you find a lot of people suggesting “that you are being a dick, the odds are good that you are not entirely in the right.” Give it some thought, be prepared to apologize — it won’t make you any weaker — and know that invoking this norm is “something of a dick-move in itself, so don’t bandy the criticism about lightly.” ( Wikimedia2006dbd1 )

Virtue: Humor

Humor serves as an instrument of anxiety-releasing self-reflection.

In Shared Minds: the New Technologies of Collaboration Schrage alludes to the importance of humor when he writes:

Designing for collaboration requires an architect with a sense of humor . After all, collaborative relationships have to cope with the misunderstandings as well as the epiphanies, and the tool should be able to support them all with grace. Creating an environment that stimulates the relaxed intensity that marks effective collaboration is a craft, not a science. It requires both an aesthetic sense and a grasp of functionality. (Schrage1990smn)

Humor: External

“Hard to Tell if Wikipedia Entry on Dada Has Been Vandalized or Not.” ( Onion2007htw )

“Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence.” ( Onion2006wc7 )

Editing He-Man

A Penny Arcade strip entitled “I Have The Power,” showing the evil cartoon character Skeletor changing He-man’s description from “the most powerful man on earth” to “actually a tremendous jackass and not really that powerful” ( Wikipedia2007ipa )

Wikipedians enjoy these.

Humor: Internal

Wikispeak definitions, for example: “Consensus: Any group in agreement about something whose opinion is the same as yours; antonym of cabal [i.e., those who disagree with you].”

The “In Bad Faith” essay collects examples of bad faith, such as “If I compromise, they’ll know it’s a sign of weakness,” and “That policy page is wrong, because it doesn’t describe what I do. I’ll fix it.” ( Wikipedia2007abf )

The “Neutral Point of View” policy notes that when you are writing for the enemy “the other side might very well find your attempts to characterize their views substandard, but it’s the thought that counts.” ( Wikipedia2004npv )

The “Don’t Be Dense” essay asks the reader to remember that “Assume Good Faith” is a nicer restatement of “Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.” But “try not to be stupid either.” ( Wikimedia2006dbd )

Wiki Pixie Dust?

Wikis are online, asynchronous, possibly anonymous, incremental, and cumulative. Do these features alone explain the success of Wikipedia?

Not quite. Each of these attributes also has possible demerits. Flame ridden, scattered, unaccountable, half-baked piles of bunk is a possible future for any wiki.

So I offer my own theory in response to the “Zeroeth Law”: Wikipedia’s culture is important too.

Conclusion: Solving the Jigsaw

Everyone who comes across Raul’s laws eventually adds one of their own. — Ben’s Revolting Realization

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. — Norbert’s Law

Wikipedia’s collaborative culture asks its participants to assume two postures: a stance of “Neutral Point of View” on matters of knowledge, and a stance of good faith towards one’s fellow contributors.

NPOV renders the subject matter of a collaborative encyclopedia compatible; good faith makes it possible to work together. It is as if NPOV permits collaborators to bring together the “scattered and ineffective mental wealth” of H. G. Wells’ jigsaw and Good Faith makes the processes productive and enjoyable.

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Related Work

More extensive history of Wikipedia’s heritage and the pursuit of a universal encyclopedia.

Wikipedia production relative to its reference work predecessors, including plagiarism .

The meaning and challenges of consensus decision-making at Wikipedia.

The character of openness : is Wikipedia really something “anyone can edit”?

The influence and irony of leadership (i.e., “benevolent dictatorship”).

Wikipedia as proxy across four themes (collaborative practice, universal vision, encyclopedic impulse, and technological inspiration) in larger "culture wars."


… or questions?