Monday, September 28, 2009

Bi-weekly Interview: Professor Joseph Reagle, Wikipedia Expert

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Professor Joseph Reagle is an adjunct professor in Steinhardt’s department of Media, Culture and Communication. Professor Reagle is an expert on Wikipedia and collaborative communities. He has been quoted multiple times in The New York Times as an expert in this field and has a book coming out on the topic by MIT Press next year. Comm Club VP Natan Edelsburg sat down with Professor Reagle and discussed Wikipedia in the news, how collaborative communities have evolved, and how important collaboration tools and Wikipedia are for education. (This interview has been edited and condensed).


For this week's interview we have included a (poorly edited) clip from the time we spent with Professor Reagle. Enjoy!



Natan Edelsburg: We saw you in The New York Times this summer and were very curious about collaborative communities. How did you start studying them?

Professor Joseph Reagle: I started out as a computer science student at the beginning of the 90s. Then I got interested in technology policy so I went to MIT’s Technology Policy program. I got interested in blogs, wikis and RSS, so I came to NYU [in 2003] and studied the way people were collaborating to produce content on Wikipedia.

NE: Why were you turned off by blogs?

JR: I ended up thinking the blogosphere was a bit too narcissistic; people were only concerned with A-list bloggers. On Wikipedia, people still argue, but they argue about a greater good and things that are bigger than their own ego.

NE: How have wikis changed since you started studying them in 2003?

JR: They certainly have more capabilities. People are into micro-blogging now. But the genre hasn’t changed. Wikipedia was only 2 years old when I began in 2003. Now the English Wikipedia has 3 million articles. They have actually reached a threshold with creative growth, article creation and active users. These things are stabilizing and even dropping now.

NE: What did your dissertation focus on specifically?

JR: The title was, “In Good Faith, Wikipedia, Collaboration and the Pursuit of the Universal Encyclopedia.” To unpack that a bit, I was interested in Wikipedia collaborations and the cultural norms that facilitate collaboration. I wanted to frame it in an historical context. I argued that trying to come up with a thing like Wikipedia has been a long pursued vision for 100 years.

NE: Where was this idea 100 years ago?

JR: H.G. Wells had a vision for a world encyclopedia. He was quite concerned with the changes that were happening around the world, the potential for global war. He thought that with the advanced technology of his time (microfilm, loose-leaf binders and index cards) somehow society would be able to create an encyclopedia. Not only would it be for every student with microfilm, it would help bring world peace. He thought that if we just knew each other better we would like each other. My work looks into why it took so long to achieve something like Wikipedia.

NE: Have you ever thought about teaching a class on Wikipedia and collaborative communities?

JR: I think it would be a fun class and of great interest to students. Clay Shirky at ITP (Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program) has taught a similar class looking more broadly at crowd sourcing and social media that includes a good section on Wikipedia. He wrote a book with these themes titled, “Here Comes Everybody.”

NE: Do you use ‘collaborative communities’ mechanisms in your classes?

JR: Typically not. It’s certainly ironic. I like the face-to-face interactions that I have with students. I use some old fashioned email technology. They go through a filter and go on a web page when I ask questions.

I too have been frustrated with some of the IT capabilities they have here. NYU did experiment with a wiki platform. They did it for around 6 classes in 2007. We’re often forced to use Blackboard. I loathe Blackboard. I don’t know about the Google system, which brings up the issue of giving out your educational intellect to a private company. But there are certainly other platforms too.

NE: You are often quoted in The New York Times as a Wikipedia expert. Can you speak about the topics that were newsworthy?

JR: A lot of the interest in Wikipedia has been asking to what extent it is really open. It is the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” People want to know, “is that really true?” Wikipedia has certain benefits and demerits. Benefits are that anyone can edit them. Demerits are that anyone can be disruptive and be boneheads.

Is Wikipedia open? That has been one of the subjects of my research and interest. One example is the Afghan story. It was believed by The New York Times that journalists had been kidnapped. They thought that reporting on this could cause the journalists more danger and asked publications not to publish anything about it. The New York Times even asked Al Jazeera not to cover the story. They also asked Wikipedia to not put that info on there. However, someone was trying to add it. This person wasn’t identifiable, so they couldn’t ask him to keep this on the DL. They were, however, able to delete his contribution because he didn’t have a good enough source (which is a Wikipedia policy). Then they locked the page.

Because of this people said, “Oh my god, Wikipedia isn’t really open.” But, Wikipedia decided it was the right thing to do morally in this particular case.

NE: Would you ever let a student of yours use Wikipedia as a source?

The former president of the America Library Association, Michael Gorman, said “professors who use or allow students to use Wikipedia is like feeding them a diet of Big Macs.” Nonetheless, sometimes in my bibliography or resources I’ll have dated versions of Wikipedia articles that I knew were appropriate. We all use Wikipedia; there is no way of denying it. You can cite Wikipedia but it’s not authoritative. I counsel students to cite Wikipedia but then cite one of the sources from the page as well. This happens with other scholarship as well. You can read a footnote, but sometimes that’s not what the source actually ends up saying. That said, Wikipedia becomes a teaching moment in itself.

It’s a teaching moment particularly for a department like ours which is about media and media literacy. This allows us to understand the socially constructed character of knowledge and gives us an opportunity to engage with what we’re skeptical about in the media. The professors who don’t follow the policy that I do might have very good reasons for it. They might have seen plagiarism in their class or maybe they just don’t understand it. Hopefully with my work and the other good work out there they will understand the appropriate and inappropriate ways to use it.

NE: What’s your advice to students who want to pursue research like you did? Research track versus professional?

JR: Go to graduate school, which is what I had to do – twice. First to get my masters and then my PhD. I have had students in Steinhardt talk to me about their theses. It’s a great opportunity to work with a professor to engage in a precise issue and write something specific about it.

(Edited by: Sara Saldi)

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