Just a few years ago, Wikipedia was seen as a barbarian in the ivory tower, challenging the world of academia. Today, although it is increasingly accepted as one of the main features of the Internet, we are still a long way from understanding how an attempt to create an online encyclopedia not only succeeded beyond the wildest expectations but also became, in the words of its surprised founder, Jimbo Wales, a “grand social experiment.” Over the past few years, hundreds of academic a rticles have been written in an attempt to understand how this project came to be, but Wikipedia's scholarship was in much need of a work that would focus on the “big picture” rather than intricate details of article's categorization or theoretical models of determining article's quality. Reagle's book, the largest ethnographic study of this unique online community up to date, approaching it from the cultural sociology perspective, is a major milestone in this process.
Reagle has immersed himself in the Wikipedia's open content community, becoming a complete member of it as early as 2004, and the book contains his observations and analysis up to the events of 2010. Thus, he is personally familiar with more than half of project's history, and the book is rich with examples drawn from various stages of Wikipedia's development.
Reagle begins with an attempt to trace the history of the project. He refuses to be drawn to the alluring and common comparison of Wikipedia to the Great Library of Alexandria, and instead situates it in the more recent 20th-century ideas such as those of Wells' World's Brain and Otlet's Universal Bibliographic Repository. At the same time, he makes connections between them and older ideas dating to the Enlightenment, illustrating the inherent blurriness of the boundaries in the history of science and philosophy. Through such attempt to trace the history of an idea can never be perfect, his is certainly an interesting argument, if undoubtedly open to further debate.
Where the book's major strengths lie is in Reagle's ethnographic description of Wikipedia's collaborative culture, and its major elements, from the wider concepts of open content and free culture, to Wikipedia-specific notions of neutral point of view, consensus and the titular good faith. In touching upon the ongoing discussions of the community, such as the benevolent dictatorship and the concept of leadership among equals, the split over “office actions,” the threat of oligarchization and bureaucratization or the biased gender structure of the project, Reagle shines light on issues that are key in understanding the Wikipedia's culture and community. Often enough, those are the issues and incidents that have never before been mentioned and analyzed from a scholarly perspective.
Of course, Reagle's understanding of Wikipedia's culture is open to further debate, elaboration and criticism. The principle of assuming good faith, or AGF, where editors are told to assume that others are as committed to the project's goal as they are, is certainly important, but is it really the key that holds Wikipedia together? As Reagle himself notes, it – and related policies, such as civility – have proven consistently hard to define and enforce. It is an old principle, but not the oldest in the project, and some large, non-English Wikipedias, such as the Polish-language edition of Wikipedia, functioned quite well without a corresponding principle (the AGF principle was translated into Polish only in 2010). Wikipedia boasts, as of May 2011, 281 language editions, but less than 50 have translated and thus incorporated the AGF principle into themselves. One of Reagle's chapters is devoted to openness, but while the principle of open culture is again a major feature of Wikipedia, there is no “Wikipedia:Openness” policy, an interesting black spot on the map of Wikipedia's guidelines and policies that Reagle does not seem to pick at. The 244 pages could have been expanded with discussion of some other key issues, from censorship – only mentioned in the book twice, in passing – and related “copyright paranoia” to the discussion of site's scalability, reasons for editor growth stabilizing or criticism of culture and governance as heard from the “Wikipedia Review,” a discussion forum that could, perhaps, be best described as a “bar for disgruntled Wikipedians.”
Reagle ends with an insightful discussion in which he addresses some of the most common criticism of Wikipedia. It is certainly a good parry to many detractors of the Wikipedia project, and Reagle's argument that “Wikipedia has triggered some social anxieties about change,” just like many previous projects (the comparison with Diderot's Encyclopédie comes to mind), is quite thought provoking.
In the end, the book invites a culinary comparison with an excellent and somewhat exotic dish, which one only wishes was more filling. While I would like to see a few more aspects of Wikipedia's culture addressed, it was certainly a satisfying and a thought-provoking treatment of the subject – Wikipedia's culture – that was, up till now, in a desperate need of one. Even if one were to disagree with the individual points, or deride the limited or missing discussion of one's favorite aspect of Wikipedia's culture, Reagle undeniably shows that Wikipedia is much more than just an encyclopedia, and that the project thrives on its volunteer-generated and constantly evolving culture. I am quite certain that Reagle's book has earned itself a place of a classic in the studies of Wikipedia, and, likely, in the bookshelves dedicated to the open content communities and online ethnography.