Arbitration committee/EnglishArbComInterviews

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The Arbitration Committee (ArbCom) on the English Wikipedia is a group of editors that rules on disputes between editors related to user conduct as a matter of last resort, and when those disagreements cannot be resolved otherwise. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales created the ArbCom in December 2003, when the number of disputes that he was asked to handle grew too cumbersome. Various researchers and academics have analyzed the committee as a conflict resolution body, and it has been covered in mainstream news outlets, most notably the New York Times and The Colbert Report. In total, the English Wikipedia ArbCom has decided 371 cases since it was founded, serving to provide action and guidance on some of the more intractable issues within the Wikimedia community.

We wanted to give members of the committee the opportunity to reflect on their experiences since joining and to share their perspective about the future of Wikipedia. Four Arbitrators participated in an email interview. Their service terms run the gamut on experience with the Committee.

Newyorkbrad has edited English Wikipedia regularly since 2006 and is one of the longest serving members of the ArbCom, starting in January 2008 (and clerking with the committee in 2007). Outside of Wikipedia, he is a practicing attorney and has contributed content on the English Wikipedia, primarily on subjects related to law.

Worm That Turned is among the newest members of ArbCom, elected at the end of 2012 and seated in January 2013. He created his account on English Wikipedia in 2008 and has been one of the most active contributors to the English Wikipedia's "adoption" program, whereby experienced editors mentor newcomers and help them acclimate. Outside of Wikipedia, he works in the Information Technology field.

Risker has edited English Wikipedia since 2005 and first ran for ArbCom in 2008. She was later appointed to the committee in January 2009 and is now serving through her second two-year term. Risker is a list administrator for all ArbCom-related lists, is usually involved in appointment processes for committees and has managed orientation of new arbitrators for several years. Outside of arbitration work, Risker enjoys copy-editing and has worked on a wide variety of articles.

Carcharoth has edited English Wikipedia since January 2005 (over eight years) and was appointed to the ArbCom for the first time following the December 2008 ArbCom elections. He was an arbitrator for two years (2009 and 2010), but didn't stand for re-election at the end of that two-year term. After spending two years focused more on editing, he again stood in the December 2012 election and was elected to another two-year term.

You can read the edited interview on the Wikimedia Blog here or read the complete interview transcripts below.

Philippe Beaudette

Director, Community Advocacy, Wikimedia Foundation


Full Transcripts[edit]

Worm That Turned[edit]

How long have you edited Wikipedia?

About 4 and a half years

When did you join the ArbCom?

This year, a few weeks ago (Jan 2013)

Why did you want to be on the ArbCom? What were you hoping to accomplish?

I felt I could make a difference on the committee, one of my strongest skill sets is the ability to talk to people and explain opposite points of view - I play a great devil's advocate. I was hoping to change the committee from something that was at odds with the community to something the community felt was there for their benefit - the way I see it.

What are your responsibilities as an ArbCom member? Do different members have different responsibilities?

All members have the same responsibilities, but different ones take on different roles. For example, we all work on cases, though some will take a step forward in drafting those cases and others will have a go at the Audit Subcommittee or ban appeals. So far, I've just been trying different roles, I might join one of the subcommittees in the summer.

How much email do you get and how much can you actually process? What are the various kinds of email that come in?

I can't give you an accurate number because of the way I file everything, but I've had 0.3Gb of email in the past 11 weeks. This is split down across everything, my counter says that I've had ~1500 threads to follow that I consider important, with each thread having up to 100 emails. On top of that, I regularly check the mailing list moderation, Fuctionaries, Checkuser & Appeals. Emails vary, primarily discussing issues which have been sent to us, the largest portion seems to be the ban appeals. There's more than a few prodding emails, as things can often stall whilst waiting for other arbitrators to comment.

What’s the most interesting case you’ve been a part of?

I've not really been part of that many cases yet. I was very pleased to see how smoothely the Richard Arthur Norton case went, so that was probably the most interesting in that it was almost pleasant.

What’s the most interesting issue you’ve never worked on, or you wish you had worked on?

I'm not sure how to answer that. If I find something interesting, I make sure I get stuck in and work on it.

In the cases that you’ve seen - knowing what you know now - are there any where you think you should have voted differently, or acted in a different manner?

No, I try to make my thoughts known, to allow my opinion to be changed if alternate arguments or new evidence are presented. As such, even when I get wrong, I'm happy that I made the right decision at the time.

You’re in one of the more high-profile positions on Wikipedia - how does that influence your perception of the project? How are you handling your celebrity?

Celebrity? Ha. There's been a few things I've found a little odd, at a recent Wikimedia meetup I did feel attitudes were different. Also, I'm not keen on the veneration of arbitrators - I often see comments that an arbitrator commenting on a discussion somehow adds validation to it. Arbs are just normal members of the project, with just a little more trust. We're nothing special really.

There are those who say that the Arbcom is misnamed, and doesn’t arbitrate anything, truly. Do you agree with this? Is the Arbcom an arbiter of disputes or does the ArbCom serve another function?

I think the primary role of Arbcom is arbitration, making final decisions on cases of user conduct, so in that way it is correctly named. Over the years however, Arbcom has taken on many other roles, such as appointing functionaries, handling privacy based matters and so on, so it could probably do with a different name

Could you explain your impression of your role, as it pertains to determining governance policies on Wikipedia? What is the Arbcom’s role in governance?

I don't think our role has much to do with the governance of the encyclopedia at all, that's better left to the community.

Do you think the ArbCom should get involved in resolving more content disputes (as opposed to user conduct disputes)? If so, how do you reconcile this with the historical precedent against it? If your answer is “no”, to whom do you believe those content disputes “belong”? Who is the party that should resolve them?

No. The crowd-sourcing aspect of a wiki should encourage subject matter experts to a topic, who's understanding of the topic should allow them to put forward strong arguments that lead to consensus. In this way the community should own any content disputes, and arbcom should only step in when users are behaving in a manner that stops consensus being formed. There are very few arbitrators, and they just can't be expected to know everything about the content - instead they should facilitate the content being produced.

Will there still be an ArbCom in 5 years? Please explain why or why not - what does the future of the committee look like?

I couldn't tell you for certain. The community is getting much better at resolving its own disputes and needs the committee less and less for arbitration, however we're still needed for the other jobs that we've taken on. Perhaps a new committee would be a good idea. Having said that, the chances of it happening on the encyclopedia are low - we don't embrace change, let alone big change. So, in all probability, there will still be a committee, though there may not be a need for one.

What changes do you think will happen to the ArbCom over the next 5 years or longer? What changes should happen?

I'm hoping for a bit more transparency, and perhaps a bit of a break up of powers. Just hoping though.

What one message would you like to convey to Wikipedians about the ArbCom? If you could sit them all down and make them believe one statement from you, what would that statement be?

The committee are a group of independent individuals and generally they have different opinions. There's no conspiracy, there's no evil intentions, every one of us is doing our best for the encyclopedia.

Carcharoth[edit]

How long have you edited Wikipedia?

Since January 2005 (over eight years).

When did you join the ArbCom?

I was appointed for the first time following the December 2008 ArbCom elections and was an arbitrator for two years (2009 and 2010). I didn't stand for re-election at the end of that two-year term. I spent the following two years mostly concentrating on editing, though still observing and commenting on some matters relating to arbitration. I then stood again in the December 2012 election and was elected to another two-year term.

Why did you want to be on the ArbCom? What were you hoping to accomplish?

The aim was to firstly put myself forward to do a role that traditionally is seen as thankless but that needs to be done. Secondly, the aim is to do that role to the best of my ability, not getting everything right all the time, but being prepared to discuss matters with those involved in the disputes and other arbitrators, and try and resolve things so that people can move forward or be prevented from causing disruption. The frustrating thing at times is that this is not always possible, despite our best efforts. One of the things that is seldom realised is how difficult it is to act as a deliberative committee, rather than individuals. It can slow things down immensely to the point of seeming paralysis at times.

What are your responsibilities as an ArbCom member? Do different members have different responsibilities?

Different members do have different responsibilities, and some have none at all. In general, it is not that formal. We do all have a core responsibility to assess evidence in cases and vote on and propose decisions in cases, and vote in motions on arbitration pages. Aside from that, there are other roles detailed on one of the arbitration committee sub-pages, such as e-mail management and AUSC and BASC (two subcommittees). Also, drafting a case is a major commitment that can take up large amounts of time.

How much email do you get and how much can you actually process? What are the various kinds of email that come in?

Lots. I don't have the numbers to hand, but hopefully one of my colleagues will have some statistics. I can look some up if no-one else has. It is certainly tens of e-mails per day. Hundreds if you come back after a break of a few weeks. Some of that is from other arbitrators discussing something, some will be external e-mails from others to ArbCom.

What’s the most interesting case you’ve been a part of?

The one I remember most is one I drafted on a dispute between two editors in the topic area of socionics, though I wouldn't call it interesting. Much arbitration work is not really that interesting. It often involves poring through reams of evidence that others can't be bothered to look at, or where things have been assessed perfunctorily and incorrectly by others, and you need to ensure that the crux of a matter is looked at and discussed and voted on. It can be rewarding when things come together and work out, though some cases generate huge amount of argument for seemingly very little purpose.

What’s the most interesting issue you’ve never worked on, or you wish you had worked on?

<question skipped - no answer>

In the cases that you’ve seen - knowing what you know now - are there anywhere you think you should have voted differently, or acted in a different manner?

At times yes, but unless those cases come up on appeal, there is little point rehashing old cases. In my case, some of those cases are many years old now, and the committee simply doesn't have the time or resources to re-examine old cases. In general, though, I think the main thrust of decisions have been correct. The key is not to get hung up on detail, but to try and see the larger picture.

You’re in one of the more high-profile positions on Wikipedia - how does that influence your perception of the project? How are you handling your celebrity?

It feels more like notoriety than celebrity! But having been an arbitrator before, it feels pretty much like last time. Which probably isn't that good in some ways, as a small part of me had hoped that some of the more debilitating aspects of being an arbitrator had been improved, but it seems at times that not much has changed in two years.

There are those who say that the Arbcom is misnamed, and doesn’t arbitrate anything, truly. Do you agree with this? Is the Arbcom an arbiter of disputes or does the ArbCom serve another function?

ArbCom can arbitrate (and help resolve) disputes, usually when we accept a case at the right moment in the dispute resolution process. Too early and arbitration can make things unnecessarily complex. Too late and things will already be highly acrimonious and usually all we can do is try and separate the parties to some extent and adjudicate rather than arbitrate. We also have to hope to some extent that competent editors remain at the end of the process who are willing to repair or improve any content that may have been argued over. That is not always the case, and the lack of more involved 'aftercare' for a topic area after a case is one of the biggest failings of the process, in my view.

ArbCom also ends up dealing with things that no-one else can (including privacy-related matters), and this is not ideal as it increases our workload and distracts from our core function of dealing with cases.

Could you explain your impression of your role, as it pertains to determining governance policies on Wikipedia? What is the Arbcom’s role in governance?

It should be zero, but by default and in some cases by mandate, we have ended up dealing with matters like overseeing the oversight and checkuser teams, and sometimes people do look to ArbCom for leadership, when, in my opinion, such leadership should come from within the community. There are many experienced editors out there who could take the lead on many things, but nothing has really emerged to fill that vacuum. Maybe that is as it should be, and that is how a wiki should function, but for something as large as the English Wikipedia it can be unnerving to realise that no-one is really at the helm.

Do you think the ArbCom should get involved in resolving more content disputes (as opposed to user conduct disputes)? If so, how do you reconcile this with the historical precedent against it? If your answer is “no”, to whom do you believe those content disputes “belong”? Who is the party that should resolve them?

I firmly stand behind the principle that it is the community of editors in and around a topic area that should determine the content and how content disputes are handled. The role of administrators, and in severe cases ArbCom, should be to remove the editors causing disruption. The most ArbCom, and those trying to keep a contentious area calm, should do, is to set up structures and systems to help resolve disputes. This is sometimes done in, for example, intractable naming disputes. Discretionary sanctions is another way to try and improve the editing environment, or at least keep it tolerable rather than let it become unbearable. But there will always be some tension in an environment that 'anyone can edit'.

Will there still be an ArbCom in 5 years? Please explain why or why not - what does the future of the committee look like?

I suspect there will still be a body fulfilling at least some of the roles currently carried out by ArbCom. There are a number of ideas (some of which have been put forward by my colleagues in userspace essays) on what the future of ArbCom should be. It would help greatly with the workload if some of the functions were split up, or handled more efficiently, but to get there from here may not be that easy. It will involve a lot of community discussion, and that can sometimes end up going in circles if not given some direction.

What changes do you think will happen to the ArbCom over the next 5 years or longer? What changes should happen?

<this has mostly been covered in the previous answer>

What one message would you like to convey to Wikipedians about the ArbCom? If you could sit them all down and make them believe one statement from you, what would that statement be?

Tell them to not sit down and listen, but to stand up and take an active part in arbitration (or indeed any part of the dispute resolution process - it all helps). To not just listen to or respond to us or others, but to take the time to see what we do and to participate in a few cases. To not just add comments but to be constructive with criticism and actively help out. Add support where you see things done well, and be clear on how you would do things differently if you disagree with something.

Risker[edit]

How long have you edited Wikipedia?

My first official edits were in December 2005, although I edited as an IP before that.

When did you join the ArbCom?

My first candidacy was in 2008, and I was appointed effective January 2009. I was re-elected to a second term for 2012-13.

Why did you want to be on the ArbCom? What were you hoping to accomplish?

I believed I could bring a different perspective to the Committee in its dispute resolution functions, and wanted to redesign much of the “behind the scenes” infrastructure so that the community could be an active participant in more of the Committee’s responsibilities. I know I still bring a “different perspective” based on the number of times I am outvoted on a position, or disagree with my colleagues on various points. I’ve been a key participant in the development of the Audit Subcommittee (AUSC), in seeking out community members to act as Checkusers and Oversighters, and in ensuring community participation in the appointment of Checkusers, Oversighters and AUSC members. My objective, before my current term ends, is to make significant changes in the way that Arbcom handles its various mailing lists.

What are your responsibilities as an ArbCom member? Do different members have different responsibilities?

Each arbitrator has his or her own areas of interest or special talent, and some areas where they have minimal interest. We have some who do a lot of work on block/ban appeals, and others who focus on drafting cases.

I do a fair bit of mailing list administration (I am a list administrator for all Arbcom-related lists, as well as the global Checkuser mailing list), am usually involved in CU/OS/AUSC appointment processes, and have managed the orientation of new arbitrators for the last several years. As I expect this will be the last time I handle these things, I have developed checklists for future arbitrators to follow as they carry out these tasks. I rarely draft proposed decisions, but will often add or refine proposals. I rarely participate in routine block/ban appeals, except for those applied as an Arbcom or arbitration enforcement decision.

How much email do you get and how much can you actually process? What are the various kinds of email that come in?

Because I am a mailing list administrator, I get probably 3-5 times the volume of emails as the average arbitrator; all those lists generate a lot of moderation request emails, which I sort out using filters so my inbox isn’t completely unmanageable. A typical day will see anywhere from 60-125 emails, not counting “public” mailing lists like Wikimedia-L, Wikitech-L, Wiki-en-L and Gendergap. If it’s a heavy day, I’ll focus my attention on Arbcom mailing list threads (which are usually the bulk of incoming messages) and emails directed to me personally, with the next level of attention being email threads from the Functionaries mailing lists, the AUSC, arbcom clerks list, the global Checkuser mailing list. Public lists get read if and when I have time, as well as interest in the particular subject. I’m usually pretty good at keeping up with the Arbcom stuff, but less efficient at general questions directed to me personally.

What’s the most interesting case you’ve been a part of?

Probably the ones that I remember most vividly are two from early 2011, Longevity and Shakespeare authorship question - an interesting way to start a new term. The latter, as I recall, became the subject of one or more academic studies. I always find cases that relate to BLP to be particularly interesting: I learned more about search engine optimization from one of those cases than I did from an SEO expert.

What’s the most interesting issue you’ve never worked on, or you wish you had worked on?

There have been several times when I have urged editors to bring a case to the Committee, rather than expressing concern on my talk page or by email. In many of those cases, the situation they were discussing was quite clearly a problem that was affecting the project; however, I can understand that it’s a significant challenge for editors to bring something forward because of the time commitment and the occasional possibility of a boomerang effect. Several of these situations were ultimately dealt with by the community, but only after several more months of problematic behaviour.

I think one of the biggest concerns I see is trying to find a way to help users and administrators who clearly need a bit of a break to walk away for a while, *before* they wind up at Arbcom. I’ve succeeded on a few occasions on an individual basis, but often those overtures are rebuffed.

In the cases that you’ve seen - knowing what you know now - are there any where you think you should have voted differently, or acted in a different manner?

There are few situations where I would have changed my votes, although there are times when I think the committee (or one or more of its members) has acted precipitously.

You’re in one of the more high-profile positions on Wikipedia - how does that influence your perception of the project? How are you handling your celebrity?

Well, for starters, I do my best not to let this supposed celebrity go to my head; my “ordinary” admin actions are no less vulnerable than any other administrator’s, and my editorial actions are not irreversible. I always keep in mind that the names that keep showing up in relation to the Arbitration Committee (whether in cases or as commenters) constitute less than 5% of the active editorship, and that the vast majority of the editorial community wouldn’t know me from Adam.

I do find myself consciously choosing not to participate in certain areas of the project that are either particularly stress-filled or where an extended commitment is expected. In the latter case, I feel it is unfair to other contributors who may be relying on me to work with them, while my attention necessarily needs to return to Arbcom matters.

There are those who say that the Arbcom is misnamed and it doesn’t arbitrate anything, truly. Do you agree with this? Is the Arbcom an arbiter of disputes or does the ArbCom serve another function?

The Wikipedia community is rather notorious for using non-standard definitions for terms that, in some cases, defy anything that might be found in an English language dictionary. “Arbitration” is just one of them. We certainly don’t arbitrate in any classic sense of the word, because we do not accept either side’s positions, but instead place our own interpretation on the evidence we are provided or that we identify. Our remedies (or resolutions) are normally quite different from that requested by any parties, whereas most classical “arbitration” situations require the arbitrator to select from one position or the other. So yes, we’re misnamed.

One point that I often make is that our “clients” are not the parties to the case. Our “client” is Wikipedia, the encyclopedia. Our decisions need to accommodate the best interests of the project, not the interests of any party.

Could you explain your impression of your role, as it pertains to determining governance policies on Wikipedia? What is the Arbcom’s role in governance?

Arbcom’s role is to interpret the policies developed collaboratively by the community; it is not to create policies out of whole cloth. It is my firm belief that Arbcom is not a governance body, but instead handles the problems that the community hasn’t figured out how to (or doesn’t want to) handle on its own. I believe our role is very limited when it comes to governance; with respect to policy, we should confine ourselves as a committee to managing the arbitration policy (and related processes), and ensuring that the checkuser and oversight policies and practices fall within the scope of the global policies.

Having said that, I continue to believe that the community would benefit from some more formal groups that can work together to rationalize our policies (which conflict a fair deal, one of the reasons Arbcom has so much interpretation to do), and that the community should generally respect that group’s work.

Do you think the ArbCom should get involved in resolving more content disputes (as opposed to user conduct disputes)? If so, how do you reconcile this with the historical precedent against it? If your answer is “no”, to whom do you believe those content disputes “belong”? Who is the party that should resolve them?

I don’t think that Arbcom is the place to resolve disputes that are purely content-related; however, these aren’t as common as one might think, as many times we find where there is a dispute about content, there is a strong behavioural element also involved. Is point-of-view pushing a behavioural or content issue, or is it intertwined?

There is the start of something that seems to be working reasonably well at the Dispute Resolution Noticeboard, which does address “small” content disputes. I can foresee over time that this could evolve to a place for binding content dispute resolution.

Will there still be an ArbCom in 5 years? Please explain why or why not - what does the future of the committee look like?

I’m not certain there will even be a Wikipedia community five years down the road; I’m fairly certain it will not be an easily editable encyclopedia with thousands of volunteer editors including those who never register an account - but then I spend perhaps too much time in the darker corners of the project to be entirely optimistic.

I think as long as there is a large and diverse community, there will always be the need for some sort of final dispute resolution body. I’d like to think that we might find ways to help the community take over some of our current core activities, such as developing a “final review of blocks/bans” committee, but given our diminishing volunteer base I am becoming less hopeful that this will happen. Back in 2009-10, we worked pretty hard to move toward devolving the responsibility for selecting checkusers and oversighters to the community, only to hit a roadblock when we had an election process that failed to fill much-needed slots.

What changes do you think will happen to the ArbCom over the next 5 years or longer? What changes should happen?

I think the committee continuously looks at what it is supposed to be doing and whether or not it is sustainable. There will be a focus on narrowing the interpretation of what is and is not within the committee’s remit, and more moves toward delegation of matters that the committee has handled in the past. The Arbcom of 2006-2008 did most of the checkusering and oversighting, with only a few community members participating; now this is completely reversed.

What one message would you like to convey to Wikipedians about the ArbCom? If you could sit them all down and make them believe one statement from you, what would that statement be?

Be respectful of each other and spurn the language of abuse. Greet newcomers with good faith and help them learn the ropes, even if they do appear to be focused on one issue; almost everyone here today came to edit one particular topic. The most likely cause of Wikipedia’s downfall isn’t what Wikipedians normally argue about, it is entropy.

NewYorkBrad[edit]

How long have you edited Wikipedia?

I registered and started editing regularly in 2006. I had a handful of IP edits before that.

When did you join the ArbCom?

January 1, 2008. ( Previously, I was a clerk for the Committee during 2007.)

Why did you want to be on the ArbCom? What were you hoping to accomplish?

I sought to contribute to the fair and effective resolution of disputes on the English Wikipedia, which are the types of disputes that come before the Arbitration Committee to resolve. Although like most editors I came to Wikipedia to work on article drafting and editing, soon after I started editing regularly, I became aware of the backstage governance and dispute-resolution apparatus of which ArbCom is a part. I began to contribute to discussions on the arbitration pages, including in a couple of cases by writing up proposals on the wokshop. A few kind members of the community suggested that my wiki contributions as well as my real-world background (I'm a litigation attorney) would make me qualified arbitrator, so I ran in the 2007 election and was selected.

What are your responsibilities as an ArbCom member? Do different members have different responsibilities?

The primary responsbility of the arbitrators is to address arbitration cases. These include deciding whether or not to accept given cases for arbitration (the Committee votes on whether to accept or decline each case request; in general, we will only accept a case if other community-based methods of dispute resolution have not succeededin resolving the dispute, and if we believe that an arbitration decision could help resolve it); analyzing the evidence and voting on the proposed decision in each accepted case; and after cases are resolved, commenting on requests for clarifications, amendments, or termination of sanctions. In addition, the Arbitration Committee is the forum of last resort for users who have been banned or blocked indefinitely by the community, or who have been blocked based in part on non-public information that other administrators aren't able to review. By Wikimedia Foundation policy, the Arbitration Committee is responsible for appointing checkusers and oversighters on our project and, as a follow-on to that responsibility, also has the authority to decide that such userrights should be withdrawn. Finally, over the years the Arbitration Committee has taken on a small handful of miscellaneous responsibilities that no one else on the project is in a position to perform.

Each arbitrator has identical rights and responsibilities for analyzing and voting on cases. However, in each case, one or two arbitrators will be designated as the drafting arbitrator(s) who will take the lead on doing the initial analysis and preparing a proposed decision for consideration. A few arbitrators have also taken on special responsibilities within the Committee, either by agreement of their colleagues or simply by stepping up and doing the work. For example, at present, Roger Davies serves as Coordinating Arbitrator; I serve as Liaison to the Wikimedia Foundation Office (a position that the Office suggested we create); Risker serves as de facto coordinator of checkuser and oversighter selection; and so on. We also have two subcommittees, the Ban Appeals Subcommittee, which is composed of three arbitrators and which takes the lead in evaluating many of the appeals from banned or indefblocked users; and the Audit Subcommittee, which is composed of three arbitrators and three non-arbitrator community members (and hence isn't really a subcommittee of ArbCom at all), which reviews complaints concerning alleged misuse of checkuser and oversighter rights on English Wikipedia. Arbitrators serve on these two subcommittees on a rotating basis.

How much email do you get and how much can you actually process? What are the various kinds of email that come in?

There are probably a hundred or so e-mails a week. The e-mails relate to every aspect of the Committee's work that I've mentioned above, as well as some that are simply informational, or which are misdirected and which we try to re-route to the right place (e.g. we get some inquiries from BLP subjects which we forward to the OTRS team). I try to read every e-mail, but in practice, some get more of my attention than others, depending on my time availability that day or week and whether other arbitrators have gotten to a particular e-mail first. For some time, we have been discussing internally and with the Office the possibility of migrating the Committee to a more robust e-mail program, which would enable us to better manage the workflow in this area.

What’s the most interesting case you’ve been a part of?

It is hard to pick just one. Of the cases I've drafted, I'll always remember "John Buscema" and "Jim62sch" because they were the first decisions I drafted; "Mantanmoreland" because it was the most controversial at the time; "Scientology" because of the press coverage ranging from The New York Times to The Colbert Report; my cases involving BLP principles because of the importance I ascribe to those principles; "Noleander" because of some interesting wikiphilosphical discussion I enjoyed on the workshop; and "Seeyou" because in it I proposed to ban an editor, despite the widespread misperception that I never vote to ban anyone.

What’s the most interesting issue you’ve never worked on, or you wish you had worked on?

I think we've seen a good cross-section of wiki-disputes in the five-plus years I've been on the Committee; I can't think of a type of dispute that I haven't had a chance to weigh in on on some level or other. Sometimes I'll be reading through a day's worth of noticeboard postings and I'll think to myself "I'd better not comment on that because I'd like to write on that issue as an arbitrator if the dispute comes to us," and then sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't.

In the cases that you’ve seen - knowing what you know now - are there any where you think you should have voted differently, or acted in a different manner?

The "Mantanmoreland" case is one where I initially drafted a decision that was different from the one that I wound up posting on-wiki, based on input from other arbitrators and former arbitrators. (The ex-arbs were subscribed to the ArbCom mailing list at that time, a practice that was later changed.) I tried to craft a decision that wound up satisfying all of the arbitrators, but which dissatisfied the members of the community who had identified the deception that led up to the case. However, within the decision, I included a provision intended to assist in catching the offending party if he misbehaved again, which a couple of months later, was exactly what happened; and at that point I think that some of those who were upset saw that there was method to the madness after all. (Interestingly, two of the editors who were most upset with that decision later became excellent arbitrators themselves.) Thinking about that case always reminds me of the tension that a drafter must feel between drafting the decision that expresses his or her own personal view of how the case should be decided, versus trying to craft a decision that will gain a consensus or at least the votes of the majority. One can analogize this problem that arbitrators face to various sorts of real-world scenarios.

There is one other case in which I proposed on the workshop to ban a user who had made good contributions over the years but also had a long history of causing issues. That user's editing colleagues were genuinely pained by the ban proposal and begged for the user to be given another chance, and in the proposed decision I acquiesced and proposed a complicated mentoring plan in lieu of a ban. This turned out to be wildly unsuccessful and in retrospect I would have saved a lot of good editors' time if I stuck with my guns on the ban proposal -- but the way things turned out at least had the advantage that the other editors were able to see we'd tried everything short of a ban. Although many readers will recognize what case I am referring to, I'd prefer not to mention the name here.

You’re in one of the more high-profile positions on Wikipedia - how does that influence your perception of the project? How are you handling your celebrity?

The Arbitration Committee is a high-profile position on the project partly because we do have important roles and responsibilities, but also because there aren't other editors selected to high-profile positions in the same way we are, in an election progress that takes up a full month of a lot of people's wiki-time.

My perception of the project is undoubtedly colored by the fact that as an arbitrator (and apart from that, as an administrator who tries to keep an eye on the noticeboards), I am focused on a large number of disputes, including the most bitter and protracted disputes we have, and all sorts of rotten wiki-behavior. The arbitrators, in their arbitrator capacity, don't focus on the articles that are well-written and aren't the subject of controversy, or the thousands of editors who don't misbehave, don't happen to get into conflicts with others who misbehave, and just focus on their productive editing and additions to the project. It's important that arbitrators do more on the project than just arbitrate, or their experiences can become very jaded. I try to keep myself active in mainspace (I keep telling myself that I'm going to write an FA this year, althoug if another month or two goes by I'm going to stop believing it), and I mean to keep posting to my wiki-blog of observations.

"Celebrity" isn't really an issue. Occasionally someone will come to me and ask if I will close a particularly contentious discussion or RfC, or ask my opinion on a controversial subject, and if I have an opinion I'm glad to provide it. And there are times I have to be careful in weighing in on something, because people have occasionally assumed I was speaking for the Arbitration Committee or at least "as an arbitrator" in saying something, when in reality I was just speaking for me.

There are those who say that the Arbcom is misnamed, and doesn’t arbitrate anything, truly. Do you agree with this? Is the Arbcom an arbiter of disputes or does the ArbCom serve another function?

In off-wiki legal and business usage (at least in the United States), the term "arbitration" refers to binding dispute resolution outside the court system. It is opposed to "mediation," which refers to non-binding dispute resolution. In 2003-2004, the project established both a Mediation Committee and an Arbitration Committee -- the former to try to bring users together and bring about consensus on resolving disputes, and the latter to impose binding remedies for disputes that couldn't be resolved any other way. Although we hear fewer cases today than the Committee did in year past, we still impose binding solutions when we have to, up to and including banning editors from the project or from their areas of interest where necessary. So the term "Arbitration Committee" is correct for our main responsiblity, although as I said earlier the Committee has also taken on some other areas of responsibility.

A separate question is what types of disputes we decide. The Arbitration Committee's decisions generally focus on areas of user conduct. The Committee is not supposed to arbitrate content disputes, and certainly will not hand down a decision saying "we've reviewed this version of the article and that one, and this is the one that wins." Not only are we not selected to decide content issues, but given the enormous variety of topics that can become the subject of content disagreements on an all-subjects, worldwide encyclopedia project, we can't possibly have the expertise to resolve such disputes. On the other hand, as I've written into the principles in a number of decisions, at some point the insistance on including problematic content, such as citing sources out of context or refusal to bow to consensus about the content of a given article, can cross the line from a content to a conduct issue that the Committee will deal with.

Similarly, the Arbitration Committee is not supposed to make policy, and despite allegations that we sometimes cross that line, we do our very best not to do so in almost all cases. That being said, arbitration decisions do outline principles that editors should bear in mind, and they also define policy in a bottom-line, operational sense (e.g. "if an administrator does X he or she is likely to be desysopped"). And the Committee sometimes has had to say something about a given policy issue because, for better or worse, the project does not have a Governance Committee or a Policy Committee would help the place run itself when the ordinary community discussion practices that work most of the time can't resolve a given issue. The portion of the community that edits policy pages could do worse than to review the principles we adopt in arbitration cases; many of them are carefully crafted and could usefully be incorporated into the relevant policy or guideline pages as summaries of good practice for editors and administrators.

Could you explain your impression of your role, as it pertains to determining governance policies on Wikipedia? What is the Arbcom’s role in governance?

I typed the last answer before I read this question, so I think I've covered most of it. Basically, ArbCom's intended role in governance is limited, and we try to respect those limitations, but very occasionally we will step into a given area because no one else is in any position to do it. BLP is the obvious example from a few years ago, and I think the ArbCom has helped mold that policy in a positive way, although there are always difficult and borderline situations, as I've written about frequently elsewhere.

Do you think the ArbCom should get involved in resolving more content disputes (as opposed to user conduct disputes)? If so, how do you reconcile this with the historical precedent against it? If your answer is “no”, to whom do you believe those content disputes “belong”? Who is the party that should resolve them?

I've covered some of this with the prior questions. In general, ArbCom doesn't and really can't resolve "pure" content disputes, partly because the community doesn't want us to, partly because we aren't selected with content expertise in mind, partly because it's not clear how we would make ArbCom designated article text "stick," and partly because we don't have the content expertise necessary to make these decisions on the awesome range of knowledge and topics spanned within Wikipedia.

Although the Committee will not directly decide a content dispute, we have on rare occasions -- mostly to do with intractible disputes over article names, because the outcomes are binary and easily measured -- created or endorsed special ad hoc mechanisms for resolving a given dispute.

As I noted above, the does come a point when a "content dispute" becomes something more. If ten editors think an article should say X and an eleventh repeatedly changes it to Y, at some point Y is behaving badly by disregarding consensus, but it is not always clear at what point that line is to be drawn (especially if time has passed since the consensus emerged). If one editor says X and another says Y, but all the reliable sources say X (and there are no extraordinary circumstances that might justify overriding them), then an editor who keeps pushing Y is violating policy. If an editor says X and sources it to a book, but when you look up the book it doesn't say X, then that's not a content dispute, that's misrepresentation of sources, which if intentional or repeated, is a serious conduct problem.

The editing model for Wikipedia is based on the assumption that over time, article content will converge on high quality based on crowdsourcing, the accretion of knowledge and content, and the attainment of consensus in areas of dispute. This probably isn't the place to discuss, either philosophically or empirically, whether after twelve years of Wikipedia this assumption is well-validated or not. Suffice it to say that this editing model works better in some topic-areas than in others.

Lots of great wiki-minds have been asking for years whether we need another mechanism for addressing content disputes. The relatively new dispute resolution noticeboard (DRN) is a creative approach to assisting editors with such disagreements, and I'm sorry that I haven't had time to take as much of a look at how well it is working out as I might have liked.

Will there still be an ArbCom in 5 years? Please explain why or why not - what does the future of the committee look like?

I think there will still be an ArbCom, but I think the overall trend may continue under which the Arbitration Committee decides a smaller proportion of the project's disputes today and in the foreseeable future than it did in past years. (For some statistics, see the first article in my wikiblog.) It may be that the community creates one or more other governance bodies to share some governance responsibilities, which would take away some of the Committee's work at the margins, but the community has not looked kindly on a prior Committee effort to create even an advisory governance body, so I think whatever evolves in that area will do so independent of us.

What changes do you think will happen to the ArbCom over the next 5 years or longer? What changes should happen?

I think I've already addressed this; can't think of anything to add.

What one message would you like to convey to Wikipedians about the ArbCom? If you could sit them all down and make them believe one statement from you, what would that statement be?

We are a committee of volunteers, drawn from the editing community of which all of you are a part, selected by yourselves after the most comprehensive vetting and selection process the community has been able to devise, and doing our best to address serious problems that the project has no other way to solve. Input from the community we serve is always helpful to us as we strive to fulfill our role on the project.