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The Longest Now

Reagle on the Culture of Wikipedia
Thursday September 23rd 2010, 2:33 pm
Filed under: international,metrics,poetic justice,popular demand,wikipedia

Joseph Reagle is a Wikipedian and a researcher of social collaboration.  He was an early fellow at the Berkman Center before I got involved there, worked on some interesting W3C projects, and joined NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication where he studied collaboration and Wikipedia.  He turned some of his PhD work into a book on Wikipedia culture, which was just published this month.

Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia” is an excellent read, suited for both my mother and for the armchair sociology buff.  Having seen some of the detailed research that went into it, I was pleased to find it organizes that into clear narrative facets, each illuminating part of the whole, without creating artificial story arcs.

The book is careful with its use of language and terminology, self-conscious of when it is sharing a widely understood phrase and when it is creating one that it needs for clarity.  It includes a comprehensive look at Wikipedian writings and coming-of-age debates during the heady period from 2004 to 2006, when much of the texture of current community structures was being formed.  The writing is poetic at times, and I particularly appreciate its comparisons to similar projects across two millennia (we have indeed been collating and collaborating for a long time)

This is also the first extended research into Wikipedian culture to strike what I feel is a carefully-sourced (60 pages of endnotes!) and neutral perspective, giving it a certain… idempotence.  In the tradition of early philosophical wikis, Wikipedia has long hosted a great deal of its own commentary on and analysis of itself and its community, and these existing analyses are given apprporiate historical prominence.  Good Faith Collaboration builds on these on-wiki conversations to offer a balanced look at decision-making within the community, describing the varied and sometimes conflicting views held by groups within the community.

Kudos to Joseph for this work, which I suspect will become a launching point for future community analyses.

There is much more that could be accomplished with the open ten-year history of Wikipedia across its many languages, subprojects, and variants!   One natural expansion (both for Wikipedia and for other long-lived transparent communities) would be to repeat a certain community analysis at regular intervals along a timeline.  We can observe and classify cultural change with a precision and a visualization of propagating memes that would be impossible in more opaque communities (dominated by invisible communication).  This was more true a few years ago than it is today — in the past year many significant documents or ideas were drafted in private, and perhaps not versioned at all, and many conversations left unarchived.  If we are to continue to make this sort of learning and analysis available for future generations, we may need to refocus our energies on public and transparent communication channels.

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