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Trusting Everybody to Work Together

In an increasingly factious world, Forsyth argues Wikipedia's approach to collaboration and trust-building point to a brighter future.
Trusting Everybody to Work Together
Contributors (1)
Jun 08, 2019

The early 2000s were defined, for me and so many others, by the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and by the responses they engendered. Suddenly, the possibility of a very bleak future seemed very real. Buildings could be destroyed in mere minutes, taking thousands of human lives. Laws impacting our civil liberties could be passed without review by our representatives in Congress. False information could be spread to persuade the public to endorse acts of war.

Above all, I found myself worrying a lot about access to accurate information and trustworthy narratives, and hoping we could do a better job, globally, of lining up our basic values and beliefs, and of learning to tolerate differences when we can’t. A complex web of trust, among a variety of parties, seemed deeply interconnected. Could I trust fellow Americans with different political beliefs to observe a baseline of honest discourse? Could I trust foreigners with complaints about U.S. policy, whether legitimate or not, to express those complaints peacefully? If I wanted that to change, what actions were within my power? I wasn't so sure…but I was pretty sure these were important things to figure out.

If we couldn't do those things, could the social advances of several millennia be sustained? Again, I wasn't so sure.

At the time, I was working in technology, managing the computer systems of a startup newspaper. I took pride in supporting journalists and entrepreneurs, by building and refining systems that helped them do their best work. I was reading the tech news site Slashdot every day, and I volunteered for a newly-launched computer recycling non-profit called Free Geek. I learned about free and open source software (FOSS), a movement founded in the 1970s not on any technical principle, but on basic beliefs about empowering software developers and users. Later, I learned to use the wiki software that enabled Free Geek volunteers and staff to rapidly document everything from technical processes to meeting minutes to jokes and cartoons.

While I found few opportunities to bring FOSS or wikis into my day job, I developed a conviction that in the long run, these technology initiatives rooted in social principles might offer us all the ability to help build a better society. Even as I developed doubts about whether democratic values could survive in our government institutions, I found myself heartened to see similar values taking root in the tech world.

But I wasn't really at home in the tech world. I was realizing that my interests and skills were better suited to a career more rooted in human interaction and written communication, and that merely supporting others doing that work wasn’t going to do it for me.

Wikipedia spoke directly to the concerns and hopes dominating my thoughts in the early 2000s. It drew heavily on values I knew and respected, from familiar traditions like journalism, academia, and various theories of self-governance. But Wikipedia lacked the rigidity of more established institutions; its spirit of "do-ocracy," in which getting stuff done was valued over formal titles, hierarchy, or perfect adherence to rules, was appealing. We were building the rules as we built the site, and we mostly understood the limited value of specific rules that hadn’t yet been put to the test. In Wikipedia’s early days, I embraced the challenge of building an encyclopedia alongside unknown colleagues from far away, intent not only on building something, but also on learning something in the process. In 2008, I attended the RecentChangesCamp conference in Palo Alto. Ehud Lamm, an academic from Tel Aviv, convened a discussion about whether wiki and its principles could help resolve conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And so, there it was: confirmation that I wasn’t alone in finding parallels and connections between the world of wiki, and the most pressing problems in the rest of the world.

Within a few years, I decided Wikipedia should have a central role in my career, and that I should find ways to share that learning experience with other people and organizations. I launched a business, Wiki Strategies, with John Wallin, a friend I had met through shared interests on Wikipedia; over the years, it has been a vehicle to work with a variety of inspiring people and organizations. I enjoy the freedom to continue self-directed volunteer work, as well. As Wikipedia approaches its 20th anniversary, my sense of wonder at the accomplishments it has enabled, and my enthusiasm for its potential, remain high.

What, then, have we learned from two decades of Wikipedia? What can the processes that have produced Wikipedia teach us about collaboration and knowledge dissemination? As traditional journalism, and other institutions, struggle to keep up with shifts in culture and technology, is Wikipedia, or something like it, equipped to fill important gaps? How can Wikipedia’s lessons be applied outside the pages of a wiki? Can they address the hopes and concerns I brought to begin with?

I think the answer to that last question is yes; but as Wikipedia has become ever more complex, I have new concerns: that the best lessons could get lost in a sea of ever-shifting details, or that the temptation to focus on Wikipedia’s flaws and shortcomings will obscure more important lessons to be drawn from its successes.

The origins of trust

(Source for much of this section: James Melvin Lee, History of American Journalism, 1917, ch. 19; also Sunset)

At the turn of the 20th century, the American public’s trust in its news outlets bottomed out. Newspapers had held an increasingly important role in society, but forces other than the public interest—and often contrary to it—drove editorial decisions. Henry Watterson, veteran editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, wrote in 1900:

Journalism is without any code of ethics or system of self-restraint and self-respect. It has no sure standards of either work or duty. Its intellectual landscapes are anonymous, its moral destination confused. The country doctor, the village lawyer, knows his place and keeps it, having the consciousness of superiority. The journalist has few, if any, mental perspectives to fix his horizon; neither chart of precedent nor map of discovery upon which his sailing lines and travel lines have been marked.

In the ensuing two decades, entities both within and outside the journalism field deliberated and took action to establish basic standards. Pressure came from various quarters. In 1912, the U.S. Congress required that paid editorial content be clearly labeled as advertising, drawing dramatic criticism from publications like the New York Evening Post. President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration sued several news publications, citing libel and national security. Though the suits failed, the prospect of such high profile lawsuits surely contributed to the growing sense that some kinds of standards were needed. Barratt O’Hara, Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, proposed (also without success) that his state should require newspaper owners to be licensed. Civic societies took an interest in the news. The Citizens’ Protective League of Denver, Colorado, for instance, pursued goals including that newspapers eschew "fake stories" and de-emphasize salacious stories of divorce, murder, suicide, and the like.

Publishers joined forces to host regional conferences to address common problems, and journals were established to cover the industry. The need to earn the public’s trust, alongside more mundane issues like addressing the rising cost of newsprint, was a central concern.

Through this period of churn, codes of ethics emerged. Although they weren’t codified by one central authority, they came to be well understood by the educated public, and by journalism and its adjacent industries. Events in recent years have undermined public confidence in the reliability of "the news;" but it is no small accomplishment that, for about a century, we did have a general shared concept of what we could and should expect from news outlets. That shared concept resulted from a fair amount of philosophical and political deliberation, which had to be retrofitted onto an existing practice of journalism. And despite some erosion, it remains a valuable asset in navigating the present storm around the role of media.

Wikipedia’s evolution differed from that of journalism. Its creators paid careful attention to principles from the earliest days. A perusal of Wikipedia’s early email list discussions reveals numerous philosophical discussions. Founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, along with a number of early contributors and enthusiasts, anticipated many of the issues Wikipedia would indeed come to face. The early articulation of, and debate around, core principles and values established a firm foundation for the project.

For instance, Sanger observed potential distractions from Wikipedia’s core purpose of becoming an encyclopedia. Under the subject line "Controversial thoughts," Wales suggested that the primary goal of Wikipedia might be "fun for the contributors. If something cool emerges out of our playing with knowledge, all the better. But if it isn’t fun for the contributors, it will die." He went on to suggest that some workable middle ground between anarchy and total control by a core group might be the best way to evolve as vandalism inevitably became a concern. When Wikipedia shot to the front page of Slashdot in August 2001, the linked article by Sanger extolled the virtues of Wikipedia’s open content model. As with journalists’ concerns about the cost of newsprint, many more ephemeral, technical points were raised on the list, alongside these more philosophical issues.

These earliest philosophical debates were of a different sort than those around journalism in the early 20th century, but they were similarly important to establishing a basis for trust. It wasn’t long before more familiar discussions emerged. Shortly after the Slashdot article, Krzysztof P. Jasiutowicz proposed, under the subject line "The future of Wikipedia," that a "Wikipedia community" had taken shape, and urged discussion of the site’s reliability and editorial model, among other topics.

Wikipedia’s model for establishing trust also has fundamental differences from that of journalism. A journalism publication works to establish a reputation where its readers will believe something simply because its writers and editors say so. Wikipedia, though, advises its readers not to take its contents at face value, but to consult its source material before forming strong opinions. Wikipedia aims for, and achieves, new kinds of success, largely due to its abandonment of more traditional standards for what must be verified prior to publication.

Understandably, given Wikipedia’s novel approach, the site’s early contributors’ perception of its needs was imperfect. Certain major tensions continue to impact Wikipedia’s trustworthiness. For instance, the prevalence of anonymity among its editors does not fit naturally with concerns around editor conflict of interest, and the unplanned nature of the site’s contributor base has yielded disturbing trends in its demographics. But careful deliberation, beginning in the earliest email discussions and continued over the years in increasingly varied venues, formats, and levels of formality, bodes well for the project, and creates space for creative solutions to such issues to emerge.

Wikipedia’s lack of consistent rules is often discussed, but in comparison to the field of journalism, after only 20 years, Wikipedia is, in some respects, centuries ahead. Journalism is but one of the giants on whose shoulders Wikipedia began. Many of the lessons those giants had learned, often through lengthy and painful processes, were well documented, and informed the efforts of early Wikipedians to plot the course of the online encyclopedia.

Conditions that support collaboration

It is possible for a diverse collection of humans to self-organize and collaborate to produce something of value, and on a massive scale, in just a few years. That, in my view, is the main lesson 20 years of Wikipedia imparts. The size, quality, and impact of the encyclopedia also merit consideration, but the most unique and important aspects of Wikipedia lie in its production process.

If Wikipedia has been so effective at fostering generative collaboration, does it offer lessons about what conditions can support effective collaboration? Might it be possible to discern design principles that could help other projects replicate aspects of Wikipedia’s success? Could small adjustments to Wikipedia’s processes help it improve its support of collaborative efforts?

The first wiki-based website, Ward Cunningham’s WikiWikiWeb, was created with the purpose of supporting collaboration, by helping programmers exchange ideas more freely. But with its focus on building a specific kind of product—an encyclopedia—Wikipedia had the potential to stray from that ethos. Wales’ early emphasis on the importance of fun may have helped keep some focus on the best conditions for collaboration.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, several points stand out to me. MediaWiki is the software built early on to support Wikipedia’s collaborative practices, as well as presenting its contents to the public. I observe four significant kinds of information that the basic MediaWiki enables its users to access. Wikipedia editors (among other users of this software) can readily perceive:

  • that some content has changed

  • exactly what was changed (including access to the original version)

  • who made the change

  • when they made it

  • why they made it

For those familiar with the software, think watchlists, recent changes, diffs, edit summaries, user contribution history, and talk pages.

Armed with this information, a Wikipedia user has several ready avenues for action. MediaWiki software makes it easy to:

  • address the person who made a change

  • undo the changes of others

  • create changes of one’s own

A serious Wikipedia user might find these software features so familiar as to pay them little mind. But it’s no mere happy accident that they all exist in the software. When I first broached this topic with Cunningham, he agreed that Wikipedia’s early decision to create talk pages was a momentous one. He had previously felt it was appropriate to mix content and discussion together freely; and pages on the WikiWikiWeb, and other early wikis, reveal the benefits of that approach. But with Wikipedia’s added focus on final product, a separate venue for discussion was quickly identified as an important software refinement. Just a couple months after Wikipedia launched, Sanger asserted: “I think the ‘talk’ page for every page should be automatic, one of the default links in the header/footer.” 1

Cunningham also didn’t bother to keep old versions of pages in the original wiki software, preferring to trust in the good intentions of its user community, and that their contributions would tend to be more generative than destructive. Most of the capabilities listed above were not present in the original wiki software. But as Cunningham is quick to acknowledge, the ambition to build an encyclopedia introduced new needs, and some innovations introduced in its software were important. His perspective as a software designer is no different from that of a seasoned wiki editor: when others graft changes onto the core he built, he is quick to observe advantages. In a recent conversation with me, he noted that the ability to browse a user’s edit history has become an important way of getting to know who that user is, and that the ability to observe patterns in a user’s work makes it possible to get to know them.

In 2016, I explained to Cunningham how I believed Wikipedia’s software supported collaboration. He drew a parallel between my idea and a decades-old design concept, the "observe-orient-decide-act" (OODA) loop, which originated in military strategic theory.

In the Internet’s first few decades, many projects aiming to generate self-sustaining collaborative activity have come and gone. In some, the absence of one or more of the conditions above seems to have played a role. For instance, for a few years I dabbled with the Open Directory Project (ODP), a predecessor of Wikipedia that built a web directory through broad-based peer production. Accustomed to wikis, I was frequently frustrated by the challenges of determining exactly what had changed and when, who had done it and why, and how I could effectively engage them in discussion if I disagreed. In my view, the challenges inherent in contributing to the ODP did not bode well for its long-term survival, especially once sites like Wikipedia made it easier to build things online.

The ability of Wikipedia users to meet such basic needs for themselves supports a largely coherent system of collaborative activity, as described by the OODA loop concept. By default, users have a great deal of autonomy; in most situations, they don’t need to rely on others to help them make observations, orient themselves, make decisions, or take action.

The central importance of a coherent production process is that users have fewer obstacles in creating high quality content. The quality of content, of course, is a core element of trust; all the higher-level considerations about trust, whether in the world of journalism, Wikipedia, or elsewhere, have to do with ensuring the quality, in various respects, of the content. Even as we take an interest in the influence of conflicts of interest, editorial autonomy, contributor access to the production process, advertising, and the like, we should remember that the basic quality of the content in question has primary importance.

Trust in the context of broad collaboration

In recent centuries and in recent years, the topic of trust in traditional media has received much attention. The kind of trust under discussion, however, is narrow: it’s the trust between publisher and audience. In order to collaborate and produce high quality content, every publication involving more than one person requires another kind of trust, too: trust among content producers. Working relationships among reporters, editors, sources quoted in stories, proofreaders, etc. are all essential to producing quality content, and they all require some measure of trust.

One of Wikipedia’s core traits is that it blurs the traditional lines between producer and consumer. So with Wikipedia, the kind of trust needed within the community of producers inevitably overlaps with the audience’s trust in Wikipedia. Fortunately, the kind of trust needed to build a working relationship is one of the things supported by Wikipedia’s software, and its attention to the OODA loop.

But those same software features also support audience trust. In order to fully evaluate a Wikipedia article, a discerning reader must review article history and edit summaries, and skim through discussions, drawing conclusions about the intentions and biases of the authors.

In one sense, Wikipedia makes things more complicated and messier by blending production and publication. But in so doing, it forces us to address the issues of trust inherent in both, simultaneously, and using the same set of tools. In that sense, Wikipedia might just point the way toward a more coherent way to address issues of trust. In the articles and talk pages of Wikipedia, I have seen editors firmly committed to opposing views resolve seemingly intractable disputes; and the resulting articles are the better for it, serving readers well by helping them understand competing views. These dynamics bring my thoughts back to that 2008 discussion with Ehud Lamm, and the kind of trust that will be needed if we are to overcome violence on a global scale.

Furthermore, as is often said, trust is a two-way street. Treating someone with respect, empowering them, and showing trust in them, can often engender reciprocal trust. When Wikipedia takes steps that help its readers and contributors trust its content, it also expresses trust in them.

Our society is currently wrestling with basic epistemic questions like discerning real news from fake, and how to regard the results of scientific studies. Individual judgment is a key asset in charting a path forward. A reader literate in the scientific method is better equipped to evaluate a scientific study than one who has to rely on external authorities; a television viewer well-versed in the techniques of video manipulation or rhetorical trickery will be less susceptible to deception.

Wikipedia’s structure invites individuals and institutions to build literacy skills and develop trust. To the degree that we can put Wikipedia’s tools to appropriate use, we may just have the ability to build trust throughout society, and generally make the world work better. Wikipedia doesn’t promise any of this to us; but if it gives us a nudge in the right direction, that makes it a valuable resource, and one worth protecting and exploring.

As some of the world’s largest technology platforms field tough questions about what value they ultimately provide, Wikipedia stands apart. Its idealistic roots in traditions like wiki and free and open source software, and its ability to build on the lessons of longer-standing social institutions, have served it well. Wikipedia empowers its editors and its readers, and its software encourages everyone involved to find ways to trust one another.

Wikipedia is just a web site. It will not solve the world’s most pressing problems. But the tools it offers, if put to careful and appropriate use, enable its users to do incredible things.

As we reflect on 20 years of Wikipedia and consider what we might accomplish with it in the next 20 years, let’s be sure to keep the big goals in mind.


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