Wikizine/2006-06/Special report

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A de-sysop story

By RonaldB, 4 Februari 2006


De-sysop procedure on nl:wikipedia

Recently a long active sysop on the Dutch Wikipedia has forcefully been released from his function. This was the result of a process according a procedure that was in existence for a long period of time within the nl:wikipedia community. But until now this procedure has never been applied in full, nor reached a result as mentioned.

Background

Probably similar to some other wikipedia's, the Dutch version is dealing increasingly with trolls and there is no unanimity within the community on how to combat these.
Although there is common agreement that these type of users are undesirable, the definition of a troll suffers some ambiguity, caused by the natural friction between freedom of speech and the wikiquette as assumed normal by others in the community. The threshold where an user develops from a normal user, still in the "getting acquainted" phase, to a real troll is not the same for everybody.

The about 65 sysops, active on nl:wikipedia obviously represent all flavours of opinions on how to deal with this issue, varying from very relaxed to very tough.

A sysop on nl:wikipedia is elected by the community (after he/she has nominated him/herself), via a rather strict voting procedure, lasting for a week. To be appointed requires a 75% majority vote (excluding blanks and abstentions). There is no quorum for the number of votes. The entrance requirements for a nominee are moderate. The same holds true for users eligible to vote. Usually somewhere between 30 and 50 votes are issued in such a procedure.
The sysop function is temporarily and needs a formal prolongation annually.
The main rationale for this procedure is to ensure that a sysop enjoys the confidence of the community.

The same criteria (ratio of votes, etc.) apply in case of a de-sysop procedure. Again there are requirements to initiate such a procedure, but the threshold is pretty low.

WikipediaNL

What happened before

One of the sysops, at several occasions, expressed his strong wish to take a less tolerant attitude with regard to trolls and other vandals.
To make his intentions clear, he initiated some provocative actions, a.o.

  • A massive unblocking of IP's (which action obviously was reverted immediately)
  • The issue of a series of formal warnings to a number of users, who had expressed certain opinions he could not agree with.

The latter protest action turned out to be a bridge too far. A de-sysop procedure was started by three users, with the objective to get clarity in the then very fuzzy situation. But this made a machine rolling which could not be stopped anymore.


The de-sysop voting process

Once the voting process started, the volume and sharpness of comments and opinions exploded. An unprecedented number of votes were already issued the first day.
A remarkable phase during the voting period, started more or less halfway. Some users, apparently influenced by the events and comments, started changing their opinion and hence their vote.

Even Jimmy Wales got aware of the turmoil in nl and issued a symbolic vote. But this worked out totally contra-productive. A mini edit-war about the validity of Jimbo's vote was the result.

The procedure finally closed with 85 votes in favour of keeping the sysop and 35 against it. The sysop concerned, released himself from his function.


The side effects

The whole affair had quite some side effects:

  • A human being has been publicly humiliated for some of his actions, regardless whether these actions were right or wrong.
  • Because of the pending procedures, the de-sysop could be forced by a minority of the users.
  • The community is now divided. Maybe definitely, but at least for quite a while. The totally open voting process also made clear on which side each voter is standing. Active users that remained neutral, i.e. did not vote, are relatively scarce.


Press

Nl:wikipedia is critically followed by one of the Dutch internet news sites. This site was the first to report publicly on the affair. This triggered some articles in newspapers, amongst which "NRC-Handelsblad", probably the most reputed newspaper in The Netherlands and "Metro", a widely distributed free newspaper in Belgium.


The morning after

Business as usual, but that appears more or less fake. Quite some active users take a wiki-break with implicit or explicit comments on their user page. The atmosphere in the Dutch equivalent of the Village Pump feels explosive. Time to heal the wounds seems the best remedy for the time being.

But looking a bit more forward, it becomes gradually clear: this is the (beginning of the) bankruptcy of the "Voel u vrij en ga uw gang" (Feel free and go ahead) principle. Wikipedia is in a transition from childhood to maturity. As with real life: adolescence is the most difficult, but also the most critical phase in somebody's course of life.