Good Faith Collaboration: How Wikipedia works

Joseph Reagle Jr's Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia is exactly what a popular, scholarly work should be: serious but not slow, intelligent but not dull, and esoteric but not obscure. It's practically a textbook example on how to adapt a dissertation as a trade book -- dropping the literature review, moderating the stuff that's meant to prove you've done your homework, and diving straight into the argument.

Reagle, an avid wikipedian himself, nevertheless takes up an objective distance and tries to suss out how it is that Wikipedia works as well as it does (I'm always amazed by critics who characterize Wikipedia as a hopeless quagmire of argument -- there's certainly a lot of argument there, but hopeless? If it's so hopeless, how did those millions of articles get written and edited?). His thesis: Wikipedia works because it has a distinctive culture of assumed good faith; that is, there is a powerful (though not universal) norm of assuming that the person on the other side of the argument is every bit as committed as you are to getting high quality, accurate encyclopedic entries written and maintained.

Reagle makes an excellent case that this assumption of good faith is particularly powerful when it comes to dealing with those who lack good faith -- it creates positive outcomes for arguments with everyone from neo-Nazis to political hacks who're whitewashing their boss's entries. It's also the force counteracts the natural contentiousness of assembling an encyclopedia (let alone one that the public may edit!) and keeps the project from flying apart into millions of angry pieces.

Reagle offers fascinating evidence for this hypothesis starting with the founding of Wikipedia as an offshoot of the defunct Nupedia project, on through the many challenges and growing pains suffered by the site, and uses it to carefully counter Wikipedia's detractors who, by turns, accuse it of being too elitist, too populist, unserious, too serious, collectivist and marred by individualism.

Ultimately, Reagle offers a compelling case that Wikipedia's most fascinating and unprecedented aspect isn't the encyclopedia itself -- rather, it's the collaborative culture that underpins it: brawling, self-reflexive, funny, serious, and full-tilt committed to the project, even if it means setting aside personal differences. Reagle's position as a scholar and a member of the community makes him uniquely situated to describe this culture.

Reagle is a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, whose fellows have produced such notable Internet books as Lessig's Code, Zittrain's The Future of the Internet, Benkler's Wealth of Networks and David Weinberger's Small Pieces, Loosely Joined -- Reagle's book is a worthy addition to that canon. Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (Amazon)

Official book site