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Good Faith Collaboration and the Pursuit of the Universal Encyclopedia

Joseph Reagle

October 19 2010

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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

There are many “laws” of Wikipedia, sometimes referred to as “Raul’s laws”.

They are part of an online tradition, and capture what Wikipedians tend to think about their work and interactions.

This law, J.S.’s Second, perhaps unknowingly, speaks to the granddaddy of all Internet laws: Godwin’s law.

Godwin’s law

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

Godwin’s law was posed in the 1990s to capture the seemingly inevitable inflammation of discourse on the USENET, a precursor to the Web.

I argue that Wikipedia must counter this tendency to see the worst of each other, both via technological tools and a collaborative culture.


wiki: A model for the creation of enormous, diverse and constantly-updated online libraries of human behaviour, for the benefit of sociologists and social historians . — Wikispeak

I’ve given lots of talks about specific theories and arguments I make about Wikipedia, but today I’m going to try to give a sense of the whole book, and you will see many instances of the laws of Wikipedia.

You will also see some definitions from the ironic Wikispeak glossary. For example, the definition of wiki above.

But first, barnstars

Barn star

Nevertheless, before I begin in earnest, I want to thank you for coming.

I thank Amar Ashar for arranging the logistics,

And Larry Lessig for the foreword, Jonathan Zittrain and Clay Shirky for their endorsements, and lots of other good people of you can find in the acknowledgments.

The pursuit of the universal encyclopedia

In truth, the aim of an encyclopedia is to collect all the knowledge that now lies scattered over the face of the earth, to make known its general structure to men among whom we live, and to transmit it to those who will come after us, in order that the labors of past ages may be useful to the ages to come, that our grandsons, as they become better educated, may at the same time become more virtuous and more happy , and that we may not die without having deserved well of the human race. (Diderot2001e)

Wikipedia is part of a long tradition.

Such as Denis Diderot writing in 1755 about the Encyclopédie.

Sum of all knowledge

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. ( Wales2004fls )

And when we come to today, and look at Wikipedia’s mission, we see it as part of the much larger legacy.

The universal encyclopedia is a notion inspired by the belief that technology would enable transportable and divisible knowledge which would bridge distances and lessen global strife.

Solving the Jigsaw

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 . — H.G. Wells, 1936

Indeed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, people like Paul Otlet and H. G. Wells were internationalists and documentalists. Two aspirations firmly wedded and mutually supportive: sharing information to further global accord.

While the technology became more capable of enabling global access to information, the idea of technology facilitating world peace lessened.

Even so, I argue at the heart of Wikipedia is a good faith collaborative culture: Wikipedia is dependent upon, and encourages positive social interactions.

Good Faith

This is a work that cannot be completed except by a society of men of letters and skilled workmen, each working separately on his own part, but all bound together solely by their zeal for the best interests of the human race and a feeling of mutual good will . (Diderot2001e)

The best way to get people to assume good faith is to show it. — Reyk’s Second Law

So how does Wikipedia resist the gravitational pull of Godwin’s law to see the worst in one another?

In a good-faith collaborative culture contributors attempt to keep an open perspective about knowledge claims and other contributors.

Epistemic stance

NPOV —n. The point of view achieved in a tug-of-war between groups of screaming, froth-mouthed extremists on opposite sides of any particular issue. — WikiSpeak

With respect to knowledge, contributors are asked to take an epistemic stance of a neutral point of view.

NPOV is frequently misunderstood as a claim about Wikipedia’s encyclopedic content. But it is more appropriate to think of it as a guide to user behavior.

NPOV asks contributors to attempt to fairly and proportionally document verifiable claims about the world. Note, those claims need not be true, but you should be able to find a reputable source that such a claim was made, for example, that the earth is only 4000 years old. And if it is a contentious topic, describe the argument rather than partaking of it.

Intersubjective stance

The more a given user invokes assume good faith as a defense, the lower the probability that said user was acting in good faith. (see also: WP:AAGF) — Carbonite’s law

With respect to other contributors, Wikipedians are asked to take the intersubjective stance of good faith.

By this I mean four things: assume the best of others, act with patience, civility, and good humor.

However, unlike the incompletely realized potential of earlier utopian visions, Wikipedia is both real and very messy.


Problematic users will drive good users away from Wikipedia far more often than good users will drive away problematic ones. — Extreme Unction’s Third Law

Trolls are the driving force of Wikipedia. The worst trolls often spur the best editors into creating a brilliant article with watertight references where without the trollish escapades we would only have a brief stub. — Bachmann’s Law

Indeed, one of the things that Wikipedia is most famous for, its openness, is a tricky issue both theoretically and in practice.

For example, is Wikipedia really “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit?” Right now they are experimenting with creating a class of users who would review (pending) changes made by anonymous contributors before they are published to the public.

And, in what circumstances can openness be a bad thing? Wikipedia, if open to all vandals, would practically be closed to those who want to make use of it as a decent encyclopedia.


It might act not merely as an assembly of fact and statement, but as an organ of adjustment and adjudication, a clearing house of misunderstandings; it would be deliberately a synthesis, and so act as a flux and a filter for a very great quantity of human misapprehension. It would compel men to come to terms with one another. (Wells1936iwe)

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

And, the fact that this community has a porous boundary and a continuous churn of pseudonymous contributors makes questions of community decision-making all the harder.

Perhaps because Wikipedians have few alternatives, they attempt to follow a consensus model.

But unlike other famous communities that I discuss, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, World Wide Web Consortium, and the Society of Friends, Wikipedia is seemingly lacking in some important things that those other institutions have such as scale, stable communities, and experienced facilitators.


Consensus: One of the three states that can be reached at the end of a discussion after all parties have become thoroughly fed up with it; the alternatives are no consensus or for pity’s sake, I wish I’d never gotten involved in this. Consensus is calculated by counting the votes on either side of the debate, remembering that each vote cast by an editor with whom you are on good terms should be counted at least twice. — Wikispeak

Hence, in the book, I spent some time examining an Arbitration Committee case — kind of like the Supreme Court of Wikipedia — about a trivial though no less bellicose controversy: how to name television show articles, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes.

Without getting into the particulars of that case, the interesting thing was that there was no consensus about what consensus means, such as majority, super-majority, unanimity. And Wikipedia seemingly lacked the ability to come to that decision in a reasoned and discursive way.

Not surprisingly, though consensus is often viewed in a positive light, it does have its demerits: it is slow, conservative, and subject to abuse like any other system. So it seems you need a tie-breaker.


When a building is on fire, a leader will not survey everyone to see what the consensus is about a response. It is time for action. — Bhadani’s Second Law

As we see in this law, when it is impossible to get consensus among those contributors of good faith, or when one needs to defend against attacks from those of bad faith — such as a feared neo-Nazi attack often discussed by Wikipedians — something must be done.

Consequently, I argue that even in communities with an ethos of openness and goodwill, they can be well served by a trustworthy leader. In popular discourse about free and open source software you might’ve heard the term benevolent dictator.

I specify a related notion of authorial leadership: leaders must parlay merit resulting from offering something significant into a form of authority that can also be used autocratically, 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. Otherwise, the community may collapse, fork, or adopt a new governance model.


The Accuracy and NPOV of a page is directly proportional to the distance between the subject and a computer. Thus, since there are no (really) Amish editors on Wikipedia, there is no Conflict of Interest, and therefore, the Amish page is the most accurate and NPOV page on Wikipedia. — Principle of Amish accuracy

So by this point in the book, I’ve made a historical argument that Wikipedia is the latest example the long pursued vision for a universal encyclopedia. I have proposed models of an open content community, good faith culture, authorial leadership, and discussed many challenges facing the community.

However, all of this is widely discussed — and even controversial — beyond the community itself.


Over time, the average quality of Wikipedia articles rises, but Wikipedians’ standards rise more quickly. — OpenToppedBus’s First Law

The higher the standards that Wikipedia aims for, the more that Wikipedia will appear sub-standard to the outside world. — OpenToppedBus’s Corollary

In the two laws above, you can see something that I described as a form of technological vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock achieved this in film by zooming in on the subject while pulling the camera back at the same time. It gives us a sense of remaining still while also feeling displaced.

I think no one would dispute the fact that Wikipedia quality has improved over time. Nonetheless, it still feels insufficient to many, particularly to those in the outside world.

Indeed, Wikipedians’ enthusiasm for the technology, the way they work together, and the encyclopedia they produce are all subject to severe criticism.


…[Wikipedians] continue to add to, and the intellectually lazy to use, the fundamentally flawed resource, much to the chagrin of many professors and schoolteachers. Many professors have forbidden its use in papers. A professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything. — Michael Gorman, former head of the American Library Association

And I argue that this is a type of encyclopedic anxiety, which Wikipedia is not alone in prompting.

Reference works, such as the Encyclopédie and Webster’s Third , often act as a proxy for larger culture wars. Whether it be about a European revolution, the diction of hippies, or the consequences of a hive mind, reference works can prompt surprisingly heated arguments.

In the case of Wikipedia, I believe criticism related to it — and Web 2.0 more broadly — relate to the themes of universal vision (utopian/dystopian), collaborative practice (hive-mind), encyclopedic impulse (cult), and technological inspiration (hype).


The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work. — Zeroeth Law

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

Wikipedia Logo

In conclusion, when we look at the two laws above, this book is intended to be a response to how Wikipedia can work in theory. Indeed, it is as if I am adding my own law of Wikipedia: the good faith collaboration law.

NPOV ensures that we can join the scattered pieces of what we think we know and good faith facilitates the actual practice of fitting them together.

And this book is a historically informed ethnography of the community undertaking this effort. Indeed when you consider H. G. Wells’ lament of a jigsaw puzzle a century ago, and the logo of Wikipedia today, it is a remarkable tale.