Sunday, April 3, 2011

What does Wikipedia have to do with civic engagement?

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Reagle, Joseph Michael, Jr.  Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.  Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London:  The MIT Press, 2010.  173 pages text; 244 pages with endnotes, index.

Joseph Reagle's ethnographic study of Wikipedia examines the inner workings of Wikipedia, and in particular, Reagle focuses on Wikipedians, the people who create the articles, and the rules and policies that have evolved over time (not much time, since Wikipedia celebrated its tenth anniversary only in 2011).  Since Wikipedia claims to be "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," then I suppose we are all Wikipedians in waiting if we aren't already editing articles.

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I suspect that Good Faith Collaboration is Reagle's dissertation revised for public consumption.   His research approach - ethnomethodology - provides him with an insider's view of Wikipedia.  I suppose for some readers, it is a bit like watching sausage being made: unappetizing but informative.The title in part comes from one of Wikipedia's policies, which is to "assume good faith."  To assume good faith cajoles Wikipedians to encounter one another favorably or at least benignly.  It speaks volumes to the early vision of Wikipedia established and reshaped by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia's co-creators.  They wanted to co-create with others a body of knowledge that was open to revision.  It's hard to believe that an Ayn Rand objectivist - Wales - would create a tool that embraces a social construction of knowledge, but there it is.

To answer the question posed in the title of the post, Wikipedia is a "place" where individuals interested in a topic can "gather" to build something: in this case, an encyclopedia article.  While doing this, they learn the rules of the discourse community, rules that help them "play nice" with others, even if they adamantly disagree with one another.  When it works, Wikipedia is this great social experiment where people with a vested interest in an article (actually, their interest is not the article itself, but what the article (re)presents) can exchange ideas, debate, deliberate, and create.  How many civic institutions exist today that can promise the same?  In an era where the left goes to left-wing media and the right goes to right-wing media, it is becoming harder and harder to find or create environments where individuals can wrestle with one another in meaningful ways to build something of value to both sides (and other sides) of an issue.

If you like to read ethnography - described by many as "thick-description" - then you might enjoy Good Faith Collaboration.  I realize that is a very small audience.  Or if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of Wikipedia (which, by the way, are available for viewing by everyone who visits a Wikipedia article: all one needs to do is click an article's edit history or talk/discussion tab to see what is lurking beneath the surface of any given article), then you might be interested in the book.  If you want to consider Wikipedia within a historical context of other encyclopedias, then this is a great source.  If you want a quick overview of criticism targeting Wikipedia, the chapter titled "Encyclopedic Anxiety" will meet your needs.  I read the book because I teach a course that focuses on Wikipedia, and I am particularly interested in how Wikipedia challenges our usual notions of audience.

There are many interesting quotes in Good Faith Collaboration, but my favorite is something called "Zeroeth Law":
The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice.  In theory, it can never work. (169)
I'll write more about this practice in future posting.

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