Should You Believe Wikipedia? Online Communities and the Construction of Knowledge
By Amy S. Bruckman
Print publication year: 2022
Every Internet era has had its new-thing obsession. For a time in the mid-1990s, it was “community”. Every business, some industry thinkers insisted, would need to build a community of customers, suppliers, and partners. Many tried, and the next decade saw the proliferation of blogs, web boards, and, soon, multi-player online games. We learned that every such venture of any size attracts abuse that requires human moderators to solve. We learned that community does not scale. Then came Facebook and other modern social media, fueled by mobile phones, and the business model became data collection to support advertising.
Back at the beginning, Amy S. Bruckman, now a professor at Georgia Tech but then a student at MIT, set up the education-oriented MOO Crossing, in which children could collaborate on building objects as a way of learning to code. For 20 years, she has taught a course on designing communities. In Should You Believe Wikipedia?, Bruckman distills the lessons she’s learned over all that time, combining years of practical online experience with readable theoretical analysis based on sociology, psychology, and epistemology. Whether or not to trust Wikipedia is just one chapter in her study of online communities and the issues they pose.
Like pubs, cafes, and town squares, online communities are third spaces – that is, neutral ground where people can meet on equal terms. Clearly not neutral: many popular blogs, which tend to be personal or promotional, or the X formerly known as Twitter. Third places also need to be enclosed but inviting, visible from surrounding areas, and offering affordances for activity. In that sense, two of the most successful online communities are Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap, both of which pursue a common enterprise that contributors can feel is of global value. Facebook is home to probably hundreds of thousands of communities – families, activists, support groups, and so on – but itself is too big, too diffuse, and too lacking in shared purpose to be a community. Bruckman also cites as examples of productive communities open source software projects and citizen science.
Bruckman’s book has arrived at a moment that we may someday see as a watershed. Numerous factors – Elon Musk’s takeover and remaking of Twitter, debates about regulation and antitrust, increased privacy awareness – are making many people reevaluate what they want from online social spaces. It is a moment when new experiments might thrive.
Something like that is needed, Bruckman concludes: people are not being well served by the free market’s profit motives and current business models. She would like to see more of the Internet populated by non-profits, but elides the key hard question: what are the sustainable models for supporting such endeavors? Mozilla, one of the open source software-building communities she praises, is sustained by payments from Google, making it still vulnerable to the dictates of shareholders, albeit at one remove. It remains an open question if the Fediverse, currently chiefly represented by Mastodon, can grow and prosper in the long term under its present structure of volunteer administrators running their own servers and relying on users’ donations to pay expenses. Other established commercial community hosts, such as Reddit, where Bruckman is a moderator, have long failed to find financial sustainability.
Bruckman never quite answers the question in the title. It reflects the skepticism at Wikipedia’s founding that an encyclopedia edited by anyone who wanted to participate could be any good. As she explains, however, the fact that every page has its Talk page that details disputes and exposes prior versions provides transparency the search engines don’t offer. It may not be clear if we *should* believe Wikipedia, whose quality varies depending on the subject, but she does make clear why we *can* when we do.