For many col­lege pro­fes­sors, there are few sources less reli­able than Wikipedia.

That’s not exactly true for Joseph Reagle, a new assis­tant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies at North­eastern, who may be the first person to write a Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion on the col­lab­o­ra­tive online ency­clo­pedia, which in the past decade has become a top source of infor­ma­tion on the web.

I’m not going to pre­tend that stu­dents never use Wikipedia. That would be foolish—they use it; I use it,” said Reagle, him­self a “Wikipedian,” or a reg­ular editor of the crowd-​​sourced encyclopedia.

And it’s some­what dis­honest to say you can use it, but you can never cite it,” Reagle said. “So, in my classes, I say stu­dents can use a Wikipedia article if it’s vetted and in the syl­labus. Oth­er­wise, they can use a Wikipedia article if that’s where they start and it leads them to another, more author­i­ta­tive article.”

Reagle is the author of “Good Faith Col­lab­o­ra­tion: The Cul­ture of Wikipedia,” a well-​​received 2010 book based on his Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion. His research looks at the “free cul­ture” move­ment and ana­lyzes how people with common inter­ests or goals form com­mu­ni­ties online.

I was inter­ested in things like blogs and wikis, but I was begin­ning to think blogs were too nar­cis­sistic and snarky, a common crit­i­cism of social media today,” said Reagle. “The people on Wikipedia cer­tainly have their argu­ments, too, but there seemed to be this idea that what they were doing was impor­tant and that it was some­thing people could ben­efit from.”

Com­pared to their real-​​world coun­ter­parts, online com­mu­ni­ties have a unique set of problems.

One of the chal­lenges of com­puter media and com­mu­ni­ca­tion is that you don’t know who is on the other side,” Reagle said. “Very often, if someone edits a page you’ve been working on, you might think they don’t know what they’re doing and they’re here to wreck the project. The norm of ‘assume good faith’ means it’s best not to assume from the start that they mean harm—they might prove to be a vandal or to be doing some­thing mali­cious, but it’s best to assume the best.”

Before joining the North­eastern fac­ulty, Reagle was a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He began his aca­d­emic career as a com­puter sci­en­tist, and now at North­eastern will have the oppor­tu­nity to pursue research that is not tied to a single dis­ci­pline, but takes a wide-​​angle look at how the Internet and online com­mu­ni­ties fit into cul­ture and the study of communications.

This semester, Reagle is teaching two ses­sions of a “New Media Cul­tures” course, which exam­ines recent evo­lu­tions of media and communications.

I will cer­tainly touch on new media, but I want to touch on the cul­tural aspect even more,” Reagle said. “There are all these cul­tures online. I want to see what we can deter­mine about them: what assump­tions can we draw, what idioms do they use in their dis­course, what values do they pos­sess, and—most important—what norms do they have?”