More heat than light

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Crystal wordprocessing.png This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.

On the Wikipedia power structure

The chain of events on a number of disputes has led me to question the present Wikipedia power structure.

Reality of the Present Structure[edit]

Final decisions on policy, and on the acceptability of behavior of users, are made by Jimmy Wales. In practice, however, Wales rarely changes the status quo on policy matters, and takes action against users only when they make a breach of civility.

Or sometimes if they breach NPOV - see en:user:H.J., for example.
I wasn't here then, but a review of that page shows that Wales cited a "refusal to work cooperatively with others" as the major reason for the ban. Kat
H.J. was always very civil, AFAICT - it was hir approach to NPOV that caused problems. Maybe I'm misreading. -- 193.etc
NPOV is not always an issue. Nor is overt breach of every rule in the book to advance a political agenda. See Zionist Occupation Government of Wikipedia for the most blatant example. Certain people with certain causes can do what they want, apparently, without regard for any precedent or etiquette held up for others. en:User:RK was even nominated as a sysop in the midst of all this. But see en:User_talk:RK/ban for the intense objections that had already surfaced about him. -- 142.177.etc
Are you implying that H.J. := RK ? Or just making a point with regard to the POV-advancing motives present in much of the article set covering Isreal? Kat

Decisions on software implementation are made by a group of volunteer developers.

Slightly over-simplistic, but yes - developers decide what to spend their time developing. However, anyone can become a developer. -- 193.etc
Er, anyone with a sufficient skill set to gain acceptance by the existing devlopers. I doubt if they would give out write access to the CVS archive to someone who's only software experience was writing a macro or two for Microsoft word. The skill set requires a combination of aptitude, training, and experience that rules out at least 95% of the populartion. - Kat
Sure, but those 95% of the people are the folks who should not be making decisions on software implementation, because they don't have the aptitude, training, and experience. To be blunt, hairdressers shouldn't be making design decisions on the Wikipedia software. -- 193.etc
Not necessarily. So far, there haven't been any obvious gaffes, which is great and speaks to the level of commitment, restraint, and capability of the developers presently involved. However, there are implicit policy decisions that have been made. And certain features that are wholly unrelated to software development, such as the ability to add and remove administrators and ban IPs, have ended up in the hands of developers for reasons of expediency and history. Kat
Also, developpers hold some powers than others do not. I think that even if developpers were willing, there would be a pb if someone little trusted would request a developper status

Editorial decisions are made using two systems:

  1. The consensus editing model of the Wiki
  2. A dispute resolution model, used as a backup when consensus cannot be reached
No need to seperate the two: it's all one model

The editorial dispute resolution model uses a four-step escalation process.

  1. Tenacity
  2. Scope of conflict
  3. The sucker punch.
  4. Status quo

Tenacity[edit]

Most editorial disputes are resolved based on tenacity. That is, the dispute is resolved in favor of the user that is most motivated, and most willing to carry the discussion forward after others have lost interest. This can be positive, and to a degree is part of the Wiki consensus editing model.

Scope of Conflict[edit]

Where two users are equally tenacious, the dispute becomes more a matter of scope of conflict. In many disputes it is clear to both parties which side of the dispute will be taken by most Wikipedians. Possessing this knowledge, the parties to the dispute try to minimize or maximize the level of community involvement, as benefits their case.

No, I don't think this is true. Broadly, trolls try to maximise the level of community involvement, so they can get fed. Organisers try to reduce or avoid duplicate content (MeatballWiki calls such proliferation a MeatBall:ForestFire), which tends as a side effect to reduce external involvement - some people can't be bothered to follow a link before responding.
Often the decision to get wider involvement is made jointly: Temp5 vote, for example, or the AKFD undelete discussion. Another consideration is that some people naturally prefer wide discussions, or narrow one-on-one discussions, for various reasons. Also, sometimes wider involvement can be counter-productive: it can disturb careful compromises, rather than solving the issue at hand. I think most people have these kinds of things in mind when they discuss whether to get a wider range of opinions.

At this juncture, an edit war is under way, and the Wiki consensus editing model is no longer functional.

Edit wars occur seperately to disputes, really. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't - it largely depends on whether there's a temporary compromise in place, such as an NPOV dispute header, and how edit-war-like the various parties are.

Sucker Punch[edit]

For those issues that are not resolved at the Scope of Conflict level, discussion continues with attempts to perform a Sucker Punch. Once the dispute reaches this point, consensus is unlikely to be achieved and all parties involved find the discussion aggravating.

The sucker punch itself is an attempt to incite the opposing party to lose their cool and commit a breach of civility.

The breach of civility is likely to result in censure by Jimbo Wales, settling the editorial dispute by default. Since one or both parties are frustrated by the process at this point, and may even be contemplating departure from Wikipedia, it is likely that a breach of civility will eventually occur.

Jimbo's not stupid - he can tell when someone is being deliberately aggravating. It is true that a breakdown in civility often occurs in disputes, but that's more by incompetence than malice. Nor does censure by Jimbo Wales automatically resolve a dispute.
The real point here that Wales doesn't intervene in article disputes on the basis of the merits of the differing versions of the article. He has taken actions against users over civility issues, not article content per se.
Jimbo also lets his own cultural, religious and political feelings badly transpirate sometimes in a way with very little dignity with his current position. It is very likely he will less and less be welcome to resolve dispute as his position can be offensive to some. I think he knows it, and involves himself less and less in resolving the dispute.
Jimbo, like everyone, has a point-of-view. A point of regret, but what can you do? He'll do for now.

Status quo[edit]

If the dispute continues for some time without a breach of civility, the status quo will ultimately prevail. For articles that predate the dispute, this means that the article will be more or less restored to its appearance prior to the dispute, with only those changes on which there is a consensus.

Yep - Wikis are inherently conservative beasts. This is probably a good thing - we're already a lot less conservative than our competitors, so a counterbalance to that tendency need not be a bad thing.

For disputes over the validity of newly created articles, this means that the article will be permitted to remain.

"If in doubt, don't delete", says our current deletion policy, and has for a while - but maybe it should be changed?
in all honesty, I think the current applied policy is often "in doubt, delete". Another case of gap between what is written and what is done. Frequent. Bureaucracy is slowly eating free and available energy.
Such gaps are inevitable - people don't read the manual, or don't agree with it, or the manual gets out of date. Which is true of any online community -- and probably less true of Wikipedia than its competitors.

Compromise[edit]

At any point, someone may propose a compromise or an alternative approach that both parties find acceptable, resolving the issue, or rendering it irrelevant.

Outcomes of the Present Structure[edit]

  1. Once an edit war starts, the outcome of the dispute is wholly unrelated to the merits of the alternative texts.
  2. One or both participants in the dispute will find the process frustrating and opaque.
  3. Disputes have caused some of Wikipedia's best contributors to leave.
  4. Disputes are a drain on community resources.
  5. Disputes produce more heat than light.
1. Not true: for example, "tenacity" is very much related to merits, because people don't tenaciously support stuff unless they think it is right. Similarly, people normally vote based on merits.
You presume pure motives and a lack of bias. Often, the compromise reached is not a good one. When arguing with a fool over an article, compromise damages the article. Having a structure that encourages compromise only works when there are shared goals. Indeed, that is one of the major failings of consensus-based systems: they fall apart when individual goals are more compelling than shared goals.
I MeatBall:AssumeGoodFaith, to some extent, but everyone has bias, and nobody has pure motives. So the outcome of a dispute may not be the objectively best outcome (if such a thing even exists), but it's not wholly unrelated either.
Fools improve articles: specifically, they help ensure that Wikipedia is comprehensible by fools. This is an advantage over traditional encyclopedias, which are written for people who already know stuff. :)
Consensus-based (and tenacity-based) systems are super-efficient when there are lots of shared goals, but they do fall apart in some cases. Frankly, the important thing is to make them fail "cleanly" - in ways that damage only individual articles, and are clearly visible. Hence NPOV dispute headers, for example.
I assume good faith as well and use MeatBall:SoftSecurity here as well as in other parts of my life. Is it worth the mistrust and extra attention to lock my car to discourage its theft? I think not, and I choose an inexpensive car and leave it unlocked. No one steals it, and I don't have to worry about locking my keys in the car. Kat
My concern here is different, however. With the passage of time, with gains in prominence of the project, and with a growing sense that the content matters as it is used as input for other endeavours, people will arrive who have an agenda. They will come not to write articles, not to write an encyclopedia, but rather in furtherance of their world view. They will be uninterested in the conventions and social mores that have developed over the course of years, just as the first usenet spammers didn't give a tinker's damn about nettiquite. And they will seek to redefine the vocabulary and allow the tentacles and filaments of their cause to permeate the content, just as the tendrils of a fungus meander through rotting fruit, consuming all they contact. Boyer is an example of this, spreading his unique vocabulary and fringe views about surrealism thoughout. And yes, I know, then fix it, Henry, Henry..., but it's a fight, with searching out the contributions made anonymously, and with reversions and edit wars and votes and other detritous, and the game isn't worth the candle with the heavy process we have now for that. No sense burning out on unimportant issues, as EofT says, and he's right. Now, imagine a hundred such kooks, promogulating views with all the colors of the rainbow, and none of them caring a jot about articles or the encylopedia except inasmuch as it provides them a billboard upon which to advance their ideology. Kat
They will come not to write articles, not to write an encyclopedia, but rather in furtherance of their world view. Every single user has and agenda and a "world view" --it just that you notice the "world view" more when it is different from your own. 96.232.51.36 13:39, 15 December 2008 (UTC)
But you're right: disputes are painful. Part of me feels that this is good - it encourages people to seek for consensus and compromise rather than taking a hard line attitude. It also ties up argumentative folks in endless debates with each other, leaving more sane people to actually build up an encyclopedia.
I think the effect is more negative than you realize. Not everyone has your thick skin, and the more sensitive leave when the vitriol builds.
Sometimes, a dispute set strong ties between two people. Stronger than it was before as they come to know each other and may discover light together.
Hence MeatBall:DissuadeReputation and such - you are tied to the people you flame, just as strongly as you are tied to the people you bless.
Yes, when the dispute is over something shared. A dispute between someone who wants evenhanded treatment of a wide range of topics, and someone who is only interested in including skateboarding on the 1970s page and a hundred other places, builds nothing. Kat

Existing Methods without Teeth[edit]

Votes are not used for dispute resolution. While occasionally taken, the results are ignored except in cases where the results are unanimous or nearly so.

The Temp5 opinion poll formed the basis of the decision not to introduce that layout, and that was a mere 40-60 majority against. The years in titles opinion poll produced an almost tie - only one vote between the top two options, and this formed the basis of the current compromise (first option preferred, second option also ok, other options disliked).


Administrators do not play a role in dispute resolution, or at least, not one that is different from other users. Administrators may advocate and enforce cooling-off periods in an effort to prevent the dispute from escalating.


Only upon request from the parties involved. Which is good - we aim for admins to be normal users - not super-users who wield their godlike powers over the masses.

An Alternative[edit]

  • An editorial review board of five individuals who agree to hear disputes on articles.
  • Members, and alternates, are Wikipedians, and are elected by a vote of participants in the project, and serve a limited term.
  • A formal review of a dispute may be requested by any major participant in a dispute. Reviews are conducted on the Wiki or via e-mail.
  • The board may refuse to hear a dispute if it believes that insightful discussion is still taking place.
  • Decisions of the board are by majority vote, and are binding; further edits to the page in question are expected to be consistent with such decisions.
  • The editorial review board serves no other function; matters such as software, financial matters, or banning of users are outside its purview.
Have to raise issues of MeatBall:VotingIsEvil and MeatBall:StuffingTheBallotBox here. In particular, we want to avoid a en:two party system that could increase disputes, rather than resolve them.
Wikipedia is now of a size and diversity, IMO, that puts it in a class of its own, and some of the MeatBall material doesn't apply any more.
I am not an expert on the design of voting systems, though I am aware that there are pitfalls. Nothing should be done without thorough discussion. I would suggest a paper system, not an online one, available to contributors who meet straightforward objective criteria. Snail mail out the ballots, have people vote, sign, mail them back. A group of Wikipedians opens them together and tallies the results.
why do you think paper system would be better ? I am curious of that opinion ? which are the benefits ?
I suggest it as providing greater opportunity for transparency and secrecy and less chance for fraud. The number of active contributors is small enough that it would be more work to design a secure, on-line system than it would to count the votes by hand. And I think there was an earlier policy dictum that we do not wish to draw cryptonauts, though I'm not sure I agree with it. Kat
Straightforward objective criteria - such as...? -- 81.131.232.219

Benefits of the Alternative[edit]

  1. Lower overall level of conflict.
  2. Quality of articles on contentious subjects improves.
  3. Greater consistency of editorial policy.
  4. Talented, knowledgeable contributors more likely to stay with the project.

Discussion[edit]

Why not set something like this up, but as an arbitration service, rather than a judgement service?

I suppose that would be a start, though I suspect it is likely that it would be marginalized if it had no real authority. Kat

Besides the above sentiment which I whole heartedly endorse, 5 is too many, gives scope for personality plays. Have 3 arbitrators, to whom parties can bring grievances with the proviso that they accept the decicion of the arbiters as being binding.

I don't believe that the number matters. The two important things are: 1) that the board or group or whatever has the respect of contributors, as a rule, so that decisions are respected without additional conflict, and 2) that the process be less heavy than what we have now. Kat

See also

Incivility, sources of conflict