Grants:IdeaLab/Build a Properly Constituted Community
What is the problem you're trying to solve?
Nota Bene: I worked mostly on English Wikipedia; that’s what I’m familiar with, and I will talk about the problem in those terms. But the problem cannot easily be solved from within Wikipedia (or one of the other projects) for reasons that I think will be clear.
A complete absence of community structure.
When Wikipedia was formed, little thought went into structuring the community. The original people adopted the familiar internet-forum-style discussion format, and trusted that the tight focus of the project - the creation of an online encyclopedia - would be sufficient to foster proper work and behavioral standards. From what I understand (that was before my time in the project) that worked reasonably well for a while. The original people were idealists, and got along together because of a common worldview.
Unfortunately, adopting that standard internet-forum-style discussion format, and then opening the project to the world at large, also (unintentionally) imported the typical community structure of the internet at large: a pure demagogy, in which power and authority come from being strident, aggressive, overly emotive, carefully offensive, and determinedly dogmatic. The internet, as someone once said, always privileges pit-bulls. Worse, the very intention of the encyclopedia - to provide knowledge to everyone for free, through community collaboration - made the project extremely attractive to individuals and groups that follow the ‘knowledge is power’ rubric and want to spin and control information. The result was that the project became a battleground between warring factions, at least in any article or topic area that is contentious in the real world, with different editors and groups try to mold (color, shade, manipulate; whatever word you like) article text to present particular favored narratives of the given topic.
Project harassment all stems, in one way or another, from these problematic factional urges to control how information is presented to the world. But these urges would not be problematic if the project had ever constructed proper systems for resolving disputes, establishing and evaluating writing and content standards, and judging and disciplining participants. Administrators have taken over most of the tasks that ought to be handled by such community structure, but administrators are little more elevated editors: most handle community judgement tasks unwillingly, many do it inconsistently or from their own factional leanings, and none of them have much in the way of community oversight or guiding structures.
In other words, project harassment exists because there is an immense power vacuum in those topics and article where real-world power becomes an issue. Those power vacuums are filled - first and foremost - by aggressive partisans who bully to get their way, with the occasional, haphazard and irrevocably authoritarian dictums of passing or summoned administrators. There are plenty of places where no power struggles arise - articles that no one cares enough about to squabble over; disputes between reasonable, properly focused editors that resolve quickly and easily. But where power issues do arise, there are no proper community structures to deal with them.
In such conditions all bets are off with respect to human decency, and all we can count on for certain is a nearly endless stream of hostile behavior and aggressive harassment.
What is your solution?
The solution is the same solution that the US (via Madison et al) adopted back in the 18th century. Constitutionalize the community. Create a system of meta-rules that set boundaries on what people can do; create formal systems that break up the power of factions so that they cannot dominate through noxious means; place checks and balances on everyone who wields power in the community so that no one can act with unilateral impunity or callous indifference.
What I suggest is that we hold an equivalent of a constitutional convention in Wikimedia: delegate a group to sit down and write a set of community meta-rules, setting up explicit power structures, fundamental rights and privileges and protections for all participants, standards for behavior and for quality-of-work, and in general structure a political community. I can write up the initial rules for choosing delegates and running the convention (which is a trickier task than most people would imagine), and then the convention itself would create the basic constitution, and Wikimedia would impose that constitution on its various projects. Each project would then have the task of revising its principles and guidelines to conform to this general Wikimedia constitution, as needed to fit their own conditions, and Wikimedia would take on the responsibility of enforcing project conformity. The trick (as with any constitution) is to create something general enough to be flexible and adaptable, but specific enough to be enforceable and place actual limits on groups, individuals, and the projects themselves.
Project harassment will continue so long as project clings to the social anarchy typical of internet forums. Human nature will always fill that power vacuum with the most unpleasant forms of power, because unpleasant forms of power are often the most effective forms. The only way to solve the harassment problem generally is to create a rational political community that restricts and inhibits these more noxious applications of power. Then everyone can get on with the business of writing an encyclopedia without all the freeform political nonsense of factional infighting.
About the idea creator
I was an established editor a few years back, and ran into exactly these kinds of harassment problems. In my case I was labeled and attacked as a ‘pseudoscience’ editor (for fairly ridiculous reasons). After that, I got interested in the harassment issue in its own right - I’m trained as a political scientist and social theorist - and tried to figure out ways to address it, but found myself stalked offline and baited into a series of blocks and an unpleasant arbcom experience. So I left the project to give my thoughts (and the project itself) a chance to mature a bit.
Now I’m back, ready for a new effort at creating a sane community. :-)
Expand your idea
Would a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation help make your idea happen? You can expand this idea into a grant proposal.