In Rancorous Times, Can Wikipedia Show Us How to All Get Along?

Collective problem solving is a tough business. Just ask Congress. Or your partner. Now, extend your team to thousands of anonymous individuals and define your task as distilling knowledge about the world. That's Wikipedia.

For all its warts, Wikipedia is a testament to the power of decentralized collaboration. Almost uniquely among online spaces, the volunteer-edited encyclopedia has been able to retain a culture that is generally productive and civil.

The Berkman Center is a leading institution for important research into the uses and impacts of digital technologies. We'll be previewing their regular brownbag lunches here on The Atlantic Technology Channel.

Joseph Reagle wrote his PhD dissertation on the history and culture of Wikipedia. What emerged from his research were a few simple rules that he calls Good Faith Collaboration, which is also the title of his new book.

The Wikipedia community has a certain attitude toward knowledge, Reagle found. They actively work to maintain neutrality, even if that's sometimes nearly impossible. "Wikipedia is not the place to argue about what's right and what's wrong, what's true and what's false," Reagle said. "Wikipedia is just trying to say what's out there."

And the community also has a specific approach to people, which Reagle contrasts with Godwin's Law, which (humorously? tragically?) states, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." Wikipedians, instead, promote basic civility and consensus decisionmaking. The number one rule? Assume good faith. The rest of the site's rules are largely extensions of kindergarten etiquette, but the idea that to find consensus, you must see your opponents as people like yourself is important.

"Something has to resist the tendency of our online conversations to the lowest common denominator, and the tendency to see each other as Hitler," he said. "I taught conflict management and a lot of this stuff is relevant and germane to conflict management."

Reagle, who will present on his work at the Berkman Center today, argues that the way Wikipedia users think about their project has its roots in the utopian visions of H.G. Wells and Paul Otlet, who thought that if only knowledge was accessible and organized, the world would be transformed.

"They were quite inspired by index cards, microfilm and loose-leaf binders. They thought that if you could pull information out of the boundaries of the book and -- in our terms -- mash it up, and make it available to the world, it would bring about global accord," Reagle said. "If we really knew and understood each other, there'd be no more war."

Obviously, Wikipedia has a slightly smaller mission than world peace, but perhaps some of the lessons about good faith the site teaches us can be applied to other realms. That's my hope, at least.

But it's going to be tough.

"If we look at politics, everyone can say, 'I'm not going to take any low shots,' but there is a huge reward for doing so," Reagle said. "I think there is less of a reward in Wikipedia."

The features of the software helps, too. It's easier to be relaxed about newcomers' editing or changes being made when you can hit the revert button and restore what came before.

But Reagle thinks the dominant factor in shaping what Wikipedia has become was the conscious choice of the founders to actively create a place where people could work together. "I think the founders were quite cognizant of the way things worked on USENET and Jimmy Wales said, 'We need something different,' and they set out to develop those norms."

Like Wikipedia itself, which seems to tap our natural urge to correct things that we think are wrong, maybe our politics will self-correct. Maybe this period of extra nasty divisiveness in politics will push us out of the USENET phase and into a productive period of Wikipedian civility.