Wikipedia and Cooperation

Joseph Reagle


What can the Net teach us?

“Not only should real world governments tread lightly upon the Net, but they might learn something from it”

Today, I am a little more cautious, but…

Why does Wikipedia work?

The “Zeroeth Law”

While Wikipedia may very well work in practice, it can never work in theory. (Wikipedia2009urr)


To posit a theory that Wikipedia’s collaborative culture contributes to its working in practice.

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

Why Godwin’s Law?


  • asynchronous
  • anonymous
  • lack of social cues
  • transient


  • deindividuation
  • depersonalization
  • parochialism
  • cognitive biases (FAE, RD)


  • flamers
  • haters
  • griefers
  • trolls
  • the disordered
  • and us on bad days

An attack

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

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)

The Antidote

Wales’ called for a “culture of co-operation” unlike the “culture of conflict embodied in Usenet.” (Wales2001cco)

We can see some positive virtues, which I will discuss.

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


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.

However, their first project, Nupedia, was not wiki based, and did not do so well. Perhaps if the Web were more collaborative…?

The Encyclopedia

  • Ward Cunningham made the Web writable again with his “wiki” – a word inspired by the “Wiki Wiki Shuttle Bus” at the Honolulu airport.
  • Initially, Wikipedia was 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 4 million articles, roughly 17,000 are considered to be “Good” (without obvious problems) or better. (Wikipedia2013)

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 five times or more than a month). (Wikipedia2008ef)
  • About 700 active administrators – those with access to additional features that protect against disruption. (Wikipedia2013)
  • There are hundreds of WikiProjects on the English Wikipedia. (ClockworkSoul2009iap)
  • Also, there is much activity around blogs, aggregators, podcasts, meet-ups, and conferences.

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.

The Holy Trinity

  1. 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)
  2. Verifiability (V): “any reader must be able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source.” (Wikipedia2006vty)
  3. 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 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)

The Universal Encyclopedic Vision

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

Early Visionaries

  • Paul Otlet, Belgian Documentalist
  • H.G. Wells, British author

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

Paul Otlet: Universal Repertory/UDC

A technology will be created acting at a distance and combining radio, X-rays, cinema and microscopic photography. Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts.” (Otlet1935)

HG Wells: World Brain

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. (Wells1936)

The Pursuit of the UE

  • Project Gutenberg: peer production and EB11.
  • Project Xanadu: “save mankind from … doom”.
  • Interpedia: would it be the Net?
  • Distributed Encyclopedia: single authored Web pages, soon disappeared.
  • GNUPedia: distributed, free, and a fumble.
  • “ building the finest encyclopedia in the history of humankind.”
  • “Wikipedia: the encyclopedia anyone can edit.”

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

It has some nice technical features.

Technical features

It enables:



and cumulative contribution

It is centralized



talk pages

and user pages

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)


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 first to the 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)

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)

Good Faith Virtues

My analysis yielded the categories of:

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

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 these biases.

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)


Version control means you can relax. (Fogel2005pos)

Please Don’t Bite the Newcomers (Wikipedia2009pdn)


Conflict arises because of “process losses” or “social attenuation”; 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/…”


Do Not Disrupt Wikipedia to Make a Point


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

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)


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

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” (HolkinsKrahulik2007sew)

Wikipedians enjoy these.

Humor: Internal

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.

A “Zeroeth Law” Response

Wikipedia’s culture is important too.

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. (Wells1936)

Wikipedia Logo


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

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