Category Archives: techno-utopianism

review of Good Faith Collaboration

Joseph Reagle‘s Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia is a major step forward for understanding “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” and the community that has been building it for the past decade. Based on Reagle’s dissertation, the book takes a broadly humanistic approach to exploring what makes the Wikipedia community tick, combining elements of anthropology, sociology, history, and science & technology studies.

The book opens with an example of how Wikipedia works that turns the famous “Godwin’s law” on its head: unlike the typical Internet discussion where heated argument gives way to accusations of Nazism, Wikipedians are shown rationally and respectfully discussing actual neo-Nazis who have taken an unhealthy interest in Wikipedia. This theme of “laws” carries throughout the book, which treats the official and unofficial norms of Wikipedia while turning repeatedly to the humorous and often ironic “laws of Wikipedia” that contributors have compiled as they tried to come to an understanding of their own community.

Reagle’s first task is to put Wikipedia into historical context. It is only the most recent in a long line of attempts to create a universal encyclopedia. And what Reagle shows, much better than prior, more elementary pre-histories of Wikipedia, is just how much Wikipedia has in common–in terms of aspiration and ideology–with earlier efforts. The “encyclopedic impulse” has run strong in eccentrics dating back centuries. But the real forerunners of Wikipedia come from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Paul Otlet’s “Universal Bibliographic Repertory” and H.G. Wells’ “World Brain”. Both projects aspired to revolutionize how knowledge was organized and transmitted, with implications far beyond mere education. Just as the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission statement implies–“Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge…”–Otlet and Wells saw Utopian potential in their projects. Those efforts were based on new technologies–index cards and microfilm–and each new wave of information technology since then has inspired another attempt at a universal knowledge resource: Project Xanadu, Project Gutenburg, Interpedia, Distributed Encyclopedia, Nupedia, GNUpedia. Wikipedia, Reagle argues, is the inheritor of that tradition.

Next, Reagle sets out to capture the social norms that the Wikipedia community uses as the basis for its communication and collaboration practices. These will be very familiar to Wikipedians, but Reagle does a nice job of explaining the concepts of “neutral point of view” and the call to “assume good faith” when working with other editors, and how these two norms (and related ones) underlay Wikipedia’s collaborative culture. Of course, Reagle readily recognizes that these norms have limits, and one doesn’t have to go far into Wikipedia’s discussion pages to find examples where they break down. But understanding the aspirations of the community in terms of these norms is the first step to an overall picture of how and why Wikipedia works (and, at times, doesn’t work).

Reagle then turns to consider the “openness” of Wikipedia, which is an example of what he calls an “open content community”. Wikipedia’s effort to be the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit” means that inclusiveness creates a continual set of tensions–between productive and unproductive contributors, between autonomy and bureaucracy, between transparency and tendency of minorities to form protected enclaves.

Decisionmaking and leadership on Wikipedia are even bigger challenges than openness. In successive chapters, Reagle examines the concept of “consensus” as practiced by the Wikipedia community and the role that founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger played in setting the early course of the project.

The ideal of consensus was inherited from earlier open technical communities like the Internet Engineering Task Force, whose credo declares “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.” But that ideal doesn’t map precisely onto Wikipedia, in part because the “running code” of Wikipedia content isn’t as easy to evaluate as a computer program. Reagle also draws in intriguing comparison between Wikipedia’s still-unsettled notions of consensus and the practices of a more mature consensus-based community: the Quakers. Wikipedia lacks some of the roles and traditions that support decision-making in Quaker groups, and one implication of Reagle’s discussion is that Wikipedians might be able to learn a lot about effective consensus-based governance from the Quakers.

The lasting imprint of Wikipedia’s founders, the “good cop” Wales and the “bad cop” Sanger, has been treated a number of times before. But Reagle’s is the clearest account yet of how the tension between their different ideas for how to structure a voluntary encyclopedia project played out. Especially in the early years of Wikipedia, Wales’ role was primarily focused on maintaining a healthy community and balancing the perspectives of community members, highlighting good ideas and attempting to build consensus rather than promoting his own specific ideas. Even from early on, though, Wales’ role as “benevolent dictator” (or “God-King”, in the negative formulation) was a source of tension. Reagle notes that this tension is a recurring feature in open content communities; even the half-joking titles given to Wales are part of a broader tradition that traces to early online communities.

From my perspective as a Wikipedian–already familiar with norms and much of the short history of Wikipedia–the most powerful part of the book is the discussion of “encyclopedic anxiety”. Reagle argues that reference works have long provoked reactions from broader society that say more about general social unease than the specific virtues and faults of the reference work at hand. Wikipedia is a synecdoche for the changes taking place in information technology and the media landscape, and has served as a reference point for a wide gamut of social critics exploring the faults and virtues of 21st century online culture. That is not to say criticism of Wikipedia is always, or even usually, off-base. But what critics latch onto, and what they don’t, involves the interplay of the reality of Wikipedia and its role as a simultaneous exemplar for many social currents and trends.

Good Faith Collaboration is an enjoyable read, erudite but well-written and straightforward. It will be required reading for anyone serious about understanding Wikipedia.

*disclaimer: I consider Joseph Reagle a friend, and he thanks me in the preface. I read and commented on early versions of parts of the book. At the time of writing this review (October 2010) I also work for the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia. But neither of those factors would stop me from being harsh if I thought the book deserved it. The review represents my personal opinion.

Demand Media vs. Wikimedia: the battle for the soul of the Internet

There’s one company I’ve been talking about more than any other lately: (the demonic) Demand Media and

Jay Rosen on Twitter, 27 November 2009

When journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen discusses Demand Media and its business model, he always includes the parenthetical adjective demonic.  Demand Media is the answer to the question, what would Internet content look like if it was entirely and solely driven by advertising revenue?  Content is commissioned based on an algorithm that calculates the lifetime value of the ads that could be run against it.

Demand Media takes the routinization of knowledge work to its logical extreme.  (For those with a Marxist bent, is there any clearer example of the knowledge worker alienated from the products of his labor than Christian Muñoz-Donoso, from Rosen’s first link?)  And Demand Media expects to be producing “the equivalent of four English-language Wikipedias a year” by next summer.

Wikipedia and other free culture projects, sometimes pejoratively described as “crowdsourcing” projects, have been criticized for undermining the economic viability of traditional, professionally produced media.   But what if the real choice for the future is not between the Wikimedia model and the traditional media model, but between the Wikimedia model and the Demand Media model?  Media driven by love versus media driven by money.  Editor-driven media where everyone is an editor versus demand-driven media where no one is an editor.  Media built from soul versus media with no soul.

Science and the Long Tail

In his new book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson takes a broad but unsystematic look at the myriad manifestations of “the long tail” in the modern world. One of the more striking anecdotes moves beyond economics into the realm of science: amateur astronomers, equipped by the thousands with high-tech telescopes, provide skywatching breadth to complement the depth of professionals. Amateurs often observe or confirm unexpected events that no one knew to watch for (such as the appearance of novae), and the astronomy community has accepted a two-tiered system in which amateurs often play an important part.

Anderson provides a useful scheme for analyzing how long tail systems emerge, which apply just as easily to science as to movies and music. The three critical elements are:

  1. Democratizing the tools of production – making it so one doesn’t have to be in Hollywood (or a well-endowed university) to produce a successful movie (or do good science)
  2. Democratizing distribution – bypassing the necessity of a marketing campaign (or publication in a high-impact journal) for one’s work to matter
  3. Connecting supply and demand – providing a system so that a potential consumer (or fellow scientist) can quickly and easily find what will interest them within the sea of uninteresting/irrelevant cultural products (or scientific publications)

Science has made some strides toward the long tail in recent years, but in for the most part the often very undemocratic world of science is slow on the uptake when in comes to sociocultural change. The most obvious barrier in exploiting the potential long tail of scientific production and “consumption” is the continued dominance of big-name journals.

Journals, in their current form, are barriers to elements 2 (distribution/accessibility) and 3 (custumized search/filters) of the long tail. Especially the most-prestigious in individual fields, they serve an important purpose in tracking the overall important development in a field. But modern scientific disciplines are so highly specialized that every high-impact journal, almost by definition, publishes a smattering of (at best) tenuously related topics.

Publishing in the best possible journals is a necessity for scientific success, but the proprietary nature of nearly all scientific jouranls means that content is restricted to those who pay for access. While there are some efforts to change this, for the most part published scientific content is not nearly as freely accessible, cross-linkable, and modifiable as it should be.

Oddly, unlike in contexts like the entertainment industry, centralized control and restriction are actually quite at odds with the ethos of scientific culture. In their early manifestations, scientific publications were, de facto, freely modifiable and unrestricted; the main restrictions on what could be done with other people’s content were primarily social rather than legal. Journals gradually become economic entities as well as socio-scientific institutions, and are becoming more and more of an impediment to scientific efficiency. Most of the important channels for distributing scientific information created in recent years (such as the Protein Data Bank and newer online-only scientific journals and pre-print archives) break from the proprietary journal mold, but the journals are too much a part of the social systems of science to be easily supplanted. Efforts to add long tail services onto the existing system (the Chemical Abstract Service‘s SciFinder, for example) are useful, but suffer from the same problem of restricted access.

Element 1 (democratizing the tools of production) is a more complex problem in science. In part, earlier scientific publications are tools of production themselves, so again, journals are a bottleneck. Small universtities much choose carefully which journals and electronic services to subscribe to. But equipment and training (not to mention funding) are also crucial tools of scientific production. There are no obvious long tail fixes for these factors. But, as in video, the growth of a scientific long tail would probably involve shifting focus from traditional capital-intensive forms toward smaller units of scientific production that could be accomplished with less equipment and without training (and intellectual patronage) by best-of-the-best scientists.

Obviously, the potential for squeezing good science from the long tail would vary by discipline. High-energy physics is probably as long-tail as it can ever be, given the material requirements of the field (though regarding journals and division of labor, it is probably much more long tail than most other disciplines). A revival of natural history (assisted by modern digital video equipment and mass-produced all-purpose measuring devices) might be one powerful possibility. But overall, it’s hard to say how the scientific landscape might change if one valued aspect of science was how easy it was to do (i.e., how much could be done for how little).

If I were inclined to jump on board with Chris Anderson’s techno-utopianism, I might predict long tail science to usher in an era of social responsibility and a Renaissance in public interest in and understanding of science. As with the rest of Anderson’s rosy predictions for the long tail, that’s probably too much to hope for. But science certainly has plenty of room for improvement.