Is Wikipedia Democratic?

An interview with Joseph Reagle.

Joseph Reagle is an expert on digital technology/culture. He’s written extensively on Wikipedia, online comments, geek feminism, and life hacking.

Reagle has a masterful knowledge of the internet, which is an extraordinarily valuable expertise in our internet-centric world.

I was honored/thrilled to be able to interview Reagle. See below my interview with him. I edited the interview for flow, and added some hyperlinks to those that he had already included.

1) What are the most exciting projects that you’re currently working on?

I’m following my last book—Hacking Life (2019)—with a project about advice forums. Like much of my work does, I’d like to take a deep dive into contemporary online culture while giving it a historical frame. But before I start that in earnest, I want to investigate the ethical issues of citing folks online, such as those on the subreddit r/Advice. In the past, I’ve always cited online sources as authors, but given this content is often sensitive, I’m investigating two things. First, what do other researchers do to disguise online sources and does it work? (Or, with the right Google-fu, can their sources be located?) Second, many of those asking for advice on Reddit use pseudonymous one-time “throw-away” accounts, yet after analyzing many Reddit messages, it looks like many users delete their posts. I want to understand why.

So I continue to be interested in high-tech self-help, but I’m digressing a bit on research ethics.

2) What are the main ideas in your 2019 book Hacking Life?

Life hacking is a self-help for the twenty-first century, a moment of far-flung interactions, ubiquitous devices, and much uncertainty; a moment in which we can work remotely, outsource chores, and track and experiment with every indicator of life (from heart rate to emails sent). Even if you don’t consider yourself a life hacker, the life hacker’s ethos of systematization is well-suited for this moment and for shaping the ones to come.

Life hacking sits at the intersection of technology, culture, and larger concerns about work, wealth, health, relationships, and meaning. As with computer hacking, there are useful, useless, and harmful life hacks, with nebulous boundaries between them. By exploring these boundaries, we can better understand the challenges of the new millennium. For example, in an economy that prizes immediacy and flexibility, how do we manage time? Or, in a period of increasing uncertainty but ubiquitous monitoring, how do we know what works?

We can best appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to life as two sides of the same coin…and then explore the edge of that coin. 

In Buddhist philosophy, a virtue, like compassion, has an obvious opposite or enemy, like animosity. It also has near enemies: pity can be confused with compassion, and indifference with equanimity. 

Life hacking reveals the near enemies of contemporary virtues. Being efficient is not the same as being effective. Being precious about minimalism is not the same thing as living a life unfettered. No one likes being sick, but compulsively checking your vitals is its own sort of illness. We all want to be loved, but continuous connectivity and sexual conquest will not save us from alienation. There is no greater virtue than wisdom’s insight, but Wisdom 2.0’s vision is blinkered.

By exploring life hacking and its near enemies, Hacking Life sheds light on the question facing us all, including those of us who never thought to use belly-button lint to start a fire or to use a potato to unscrew a broken lightbulb: What does it mean to live a good life in the new millennium?

3) What are the best things to come out of the life-hacking movement?

For hacker-types, it gives us some useful techniques for approaching life’s challenges, by treating everything as a system.

4) What are the worst things that have come out of the life-hacking movement?

Treating everything as a system has obvious problems. For example, one hack for effectiveness is to delegate drudgery to others, like having someone else schedule your romantic dates or remind you to floss. But in appropriating corporate outsourcing, life hackers also inherit that system’s ethical shortcomings. When life hackers use, bend, and—sometimes—break the rules of our collective systems for personal advantage, little thought is given to those people who do not choose to do so.

5) What are the main ideas in your 2015 book Reading the Comments?

Today’s world is permeated by comment, including ratings and reviews. Granted, as long as humans have spoken, we’ve been commenting about the world, especially about other people. Yet the extent of our engagement with comment (from online reviews to teens asking “Am I ugly?”) is an underappreciated aspect of our lives. The Twitter account “Don’t Read the Comments” claims that there’s a “reason that comments are typically put on the bottom half of the Internet.” There is a lot of dreck down there. But in sifting through comments, we can learn much about human nature and social behavior—and about how both of these things can be exploited by others. Hence this book is an expedition to the bottom half of the Internet, an exploration of comment (and of likers, haters, and manipulators) in the age of the Web.

Comment can be understood as its own genre of communication. Comments are short, asynchronous messages that respond to something. These messages can inform, improve, and shape us (for better), and alienate, manipulate, and shape us (for worse). They also confuse and amuse. In this book these interactions are revealed through visits to various communities: Amazon reviewers, fanfiction authors, online learners, scammers, free thinkers, and mean kids. Varied questions are encountered along the way. What’s behind the boom-and-bust cycle of comment platforms like blogging and social networks? Can we trust online reviews? Why are comments often so hostile, sexist, and racist? How can we make sense of the product review: “saved my son’s life: 4/5 stars”?

Online comment does have a tarnished reputation, much as did the Wild West during the Gold Rush. The bottom half of the Web can be lively and lawless, and it’s certainly where many are attempting to make a fortune. Hence, as the Michelin Guide describes a three-star destination, it is at least “worth the trip.”

6) What would you add/change in a new version of the 2015 book?

I would have to address politics and misinformation relative to the 2016 US election, and since. 

I alluded to this, and even predicted that governments would increase their use of “troll armies” for propaganda. But I didn’t want to address political communication, and that ended up being the story of the subsequent year.

7) Do you have any comment on the phenomenon of people typing into livestream-chatrooms where the “waterfall” of comments moves so fast that it seems strange/pointless/meaningless to type into that abyss?

This strikes me as similar to the “First!” phenomenon discussed in Reading the Comments. Also, a lot of it is spam or even a DoS attack.

8) What are the main ideas in the 2020 book Wikipedia @ 20 that you co-edited?

As Wikipedia’s twentieth year approached, many of its early peers had fallen by the wayside; those that had survived had been overrun with ads and misinformation. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia founded on radical collaboration and reliable sourcing, persists. What was once a scrappy experiment has become the world’s most popular reference work—now portrayed as the grownup of the Web.

Yet the online encyclopedia was not always looked to as the grownup. Within its first ten years some labeled the project a fad bound to fail, while others claimed it as a harbinger of the Web’s future. Wikipedia did not fail, nor has the open collaboration it exemplifies become the template for most online platforms.

Wikipedia’s legacy was an opportunity to reflect on this project and on online communities more generally. This accessible collection includes essays from scholars, educators, librarians, volunteers, and activists. They share their insights on Wikipedia in three parts: hindsight, connection, and vision.

The first set of essays includes retrospective mini-histories on how Wikipedia has been produced and discussed relative to internal/external tensions. English-language Wikipedians might argue internally over whether to use British or American spelling, while external conflicts like the 2014 Gaza War might prompt attempts to manipulate Wikipedia and might lead to disagreements among Wikipedians.

The second set of essays demonstrates the richness of connections across disciplines and borders, across languages and data, across the professional and personal. 

The final set of essays speaks to Wikipedia’s founding vision—“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge”—and plots a path toward a world that no longer need only be “imagined.”

9) To what extent is it accurate to say that Wikipedia is the most important information-source in the world?

I think that’s fair, though I’d ask what you mean by “important.” One could argue medical records are more consequential to people, but the Wikipedia project with its dozens of language-editions and related projects is the only truly global information source. It’s massive; free; multi-modal (e.g., WikiCommons and WikiData); essential for individuals looking for information; and consequential to society at large, since Wikipedia continues to be used by other information-services (such as Google using it in its search results, or social media companies referring to it as a fact-checking resource).

10) How would you respond to concerns about Wikipedia as a flawed democracy and one easily manipulated? See this 2020 piece that discusses potential issues with Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is often misunderstood, be it as a “democracy” or as a “hive mind.” As I argued in my 2010 book, Wikipedia is a community, one that generally makes decisions based on consensus decision-making and on principles such as “neutral point of view,” “no original research,” and “verifiable sources.” It’s also a community in which a dedicated group of contributors tends to dominate. While this structure has permitted Wikipedia to thrive, it also has demerits.

An obvious concern is that Wikipedia contributors tend to be homogeneous. Working to get more diverse participation is something I’m an advocate for, and something I do on a small scale by way of using Wikipedia in college courses.

Another challenge is what I sometimes refer to as “exhaust-ocracy.” Those who prevail tend to have the motivation and inclination for bureaucratic perseverance. This opens Wikipedia up to undue influence from marketers and ideologues. Wikipedia’s success depends on the extent to which it can resist these efforts. There are notable examples of it failing to do so, and Wikipedia’s success, paradoxically, makes it that much more of a target. This attention can make even good-faith Wikipedians all the more brittle in dealing with newcomers and those they disagree with. The Wikipedia community has wrestled with this tension for over a decade now.

I don’t know enough about the specifics of the Grayzone to have an informed opinion. Looking at the discussion of whether the Grayzone should be considered a reliable source, I’m sympathetic to some of those who argue it should not be. But the devil is in the details in such cases, and my initial impression could easily be wrong. 

And looking at the Grayzone’s consequent critique of Wikipedia, I think many of the Grayzone’s concerns are merited—and shared by many Wikipedians. The question, though, is do I believe the community has gone off the rails? When I talk to Wikipedians I’ve known for years, what are they saying about this case or others? This can be a difficult point to appreciate for those who are not members of the community, those who don’t have a history of positive contribution and personal relationships and friendships within it. People expect Wikipedia to be a clockwork system, running on Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s not. It’s a community of people who have relationships.

In any case, I’m not concerned about “democracy” on Wikipedia, because that’s the wrong model. I’m concerned about the health of the community and about impartial, reputable, and transparent sourcing, discussion, and decision-making.

11) There may well be issues with (e.g.) The Grayzone. But how many mainstream sources that Wikipedia considers “reliable” are actually considered by critics to be establishment-propaganda?

In this regard, Wikipedia is inherently conservative.

As I often say, Wikipedia is not the place to argue about what is right or wrong, true or false.

Wikipedia aspires to accurately represent the mainstream authoritative consensus, which can easily be wrong.