What Talk pages are not for

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Monday, September 10, 2001, 12:38 PM -- One of my hopes for Wikipedia is that it never devolves into Everything2. Everything2 might be amusing for some, but we're after something much grander. People from outside the Everything2 community will hardly ever go to Everything2 to do any research or to learn anything of significance. Wikipedia is different. College professors have been sending their colleagues and students to some Wikipedia pages. C|net includes (or included) Wikipedia results among an encyclopedia meta-search feature. An article about Wikipedia in MIT's Technology Review provoked a vague response from Britannica. Moreover, we're growing by something like 2,000 articles a month and more smart people are arriving each day.

If we want this project to succeed and flourish in a way I am confident it can, I think it's important for us to avoid partisan bickering on talk pages. Now, please don't misunderstand my point. I think there are many appropriate uses for talk pages. I myself started and encouraged the convention of using talk pages, and I don't at all regret doing so. (For one thing, it keeps the inevitable non-encyclopedic discussion off the article pages.)

Suppose reporters from some prominent newspapers, library journals, and other influential periodicals were to glance over the RecentChanges page from a given day and write for a worldwide audience:

Wikipedia is an interesting concept, but it seems to be failing. Most of its participants, rather than writing articles, are engaged in partisan political debates that have little obvious connection to improving articles. So, what looked promising for many months has become primarily a debate forum. Too bad.

None of us would like that, and we're far from being in such a desperate state--but I think there is some small danger of just such a comment becoming appropriate. Again, not yet--I think most of us do spend most of our time actually working on articles.

It's understandable that people have ended up in verbal fisticuffs here. We are editing each others' work, and when working on political and other incendiary topics, inevitably, a lot of the edits reflect our personal biases. Very often, political disagreements are interpreted as personal insults, or attacks on our intelligence, dignity, or honesty. Male egos in particular can get wounded and concomitant attacks and defensiveness are all too natural. So, the talk pages are there--and are used to duke it out verbally.

But we can avoid many of these situations. We have to bear a few things in mind:

  • The basic purpose of the talk pages is to help improve the article to which the talk page is attached.
  • Wikipedia is not a debate forum--that's not what it's for.
  • The fact that someone disagrees with you does not mean that (1) the person hates you, (2) the person thinks you're stupid, (3) the person is stupid, (4) the person is evil, etc. There are many things you can falsely infer from the fact that someone disagrees with you. It is best not to infer anything at all along those lines, and let that person live with his or her own opinion in peace.
  • Before adding a comment to a talk page, ask yourself:
    • Is this really necessary? Why can't I simply edit the article with a summary and leave it at that? Won't it be obvious what I've done and why?
    • Will I actually succeed in changing any minds? If not, what point does the discussion have, given that the purpose of Wikipedia is to create encyclopedia articles?
    • Am I adding this comment simply because I want to defend my ego and advance my own cause?
    • If I really want to continue this debate, is it of general interest, or would it be better to take it to e-mail?
  • Efficiency often requires silence.

So let's please, please conscientiously avoid trying to use Wikipedia as a place where partisan controversies can be settled.

I know I have sometimes fanned the flames myself. I promise to lead the way on this issue, and, when using talk pages if I must, I'll try my best to focus exclusively on issues that directly concern the articles themselves. I'll also more often be deleting others' comments that look like flamebait with zero relevance to improving the article, and I'd encourage others to do the same.

That's my basic point. Now some objections and replies.

What look to you like partisan controversies are usually very useful discussions that result in an improved article.

That is sometimes the case--but often it isn't. Debates on such pages as abortion/Talk, cultural imperialism/Talk, and sports utility vehicle/Talk have very often strayed into discussions that have nothing to do with improving the article. That, at the very least, is the sort of thing I'm talking about.

The controversy might look irrelevant, but eventually the topic will come back around to something having to do with the article.

Sometimes that does happen, and so much the better. But why not get right to the relevant topic and skip the intervening wrangling? Moreover, of course, very often in my experience the discussion doesn't come back around to anything having to do with the article--it results, instead, in hardened positions. (As though defending hardened positions had anything to do with writing an encyclopedia!)

Well, the talk page controversies get people excited about Wikipedia. Would you rather that they not be excited? A controversy-less wiki would be boring. Maybe the controversy actually brings more people to Wikipedia.

The controversies do bring some people back to Wikipedia, perhaps--but it's equally reasonable to say that they also turn off a lot of other people, the sort of people who don't ever engage in such controversies. (Such as most women.) You should also bear in mind that Wikipedia is extremely exciting quite apart from the controversies--exciting enough all by itself to keep us coming back.

But I'm free to do whatever I please here. This is a wiki, right? So who are you to tell me what to do, Sanger?

Well, you're free, yes. But we do have some community habits and standards, without which the community doesn't work. Think of it in terms of a human being. In a sense, you're perfectly free to dance naked on the interstate. You just have to be willing to live with the consequences. The consequences are bad enough that we can say that's a bad habit to get into. Similarly, we are each free to do as we wish as part of the Wikipedia community--but many of us scrupulously avoid certain behaviors because we don't want to live with the consequences, such as opprobrium and contributing to the ruin of the project.
I know all too well that I can't tell you what to do. I couldn't control what everyone does here, and I sure as heck wouldn't want to. Not only would it be exhausting, it would promptly close the whole operation down: Wikipedia thrives precisely because it is so free and open to everyone. Hence, I am very cognizant that my best chance of instilling a general community habit, or standard, is by persuading a lot of people to adopt good habits. That's why I'm writing this column.

A little partisan controversy never hurt anybody. We all know we're ultimately engaged in building an encyclopedia. Why try to stop people from doing what comes naturally? A little controversy won't spoil anything--I don't see what you're concerned about.

Good point, maybe I am blowing things out of proportion. Even if Wikipedia would continue to grow and thrive with the controversy, I think it would be better off without it. After months of trying to moderate disputes, I can't help but think that we have wasted hundreds of hours, altogether, engaged in pointless debates that we could have avoided with tact, maturity, and attention to the task at hand. We could have been rather further along than we are now, perhaps with more participants, as well. If we can start a good anti-partisan-bickering habit now, then, years in the future, I think Wikipedians will thank us for it.

--Larry_Sanger


Hear, hear! Arguing as a means of improving an article is a pale shadow of an equal amount of time engaged in _REASEARCH_. Yes it may attract people to the project, but it seems logical that these would be people interested in arguing, which, as this essay correctly points out, leads down a dark path we ought not tred.

I think one habit that would be good for folks to get into is to actively seek to summarize discussions, especially those which have elaborated all views on the subject. This doesn't (necessarily) mean replacing the entire discussion with what *you* think, merely trying to recast the entire discussion as, e.g., a set of bullet points, removing any points that have been taken back or proven incorrect. If you can restrain yourself to do this in an unbiased fashion (which admittedly is hard), it can result in text which is almost good enough for the main article.

Here are some suggestions for "/Talk Etiquette":

  • Try to say something positive for each complaint you make. A few compliments can proactively smooth feathers and make the author less likely to simply take offense at the criticism. A safe approach is to "sandwich" the complaint between compliments, with something positive at the beginning and end of your commentary. Remember what your mom taught you: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." :-)
  • Once you are fairly certain the person you're critiquing has seen your complaint (e.g., they've responded to it), be honorable about removing or summarizing it. Sometimes the author will feel reluctant to remove criticism out of fear it will make them appear afraid of criticism. You can go even a step further and thank them for addressing (or at least considering) your issue.
  • Do not assume that by not complaining, the author "ought to know their work is ok". If you like what you read, tell them so. Typically, people only bother to use /Talk pages when they have an "issue" with the article, thus automatically giving a negative connotation to them, and making it inevitable for arguments to arise on the pages. Remember that when training an animal (and humans *are* animals), positive reinforcement is vital. If 9 out of 10 monkeys do what you want, in the long term rewarding the nine can do more than punishing the one. Isn't there a fable or saying or something about "the carrot is more powerful than the stick"?
  • Try posing comments as questions, especially if you're not totally sure. Instead of saying, "Everyone knows abortion is murder of the innocents," you could say, "Isn't abortion just murder of the innocents?" and it comes across as less like pure flamebait, as though you're willing to allow for other points of view.
  • Limit your statement. Blanket statements or statements asserting the truth of opinions can inflame the reader, and sometimes if you identify it as your own personal point of view, it can help make it seem less insulting to those who disagree. For example, instead of saying, "Isn't abortion just murder of the innocents?" it could be better to say, "Certainly I am not the only person who believes abortion is just murder of the innocents?" In this way, you can still emphasize your strong feelings on the topic, and communicate exactly the same opinion, but do so in a less inflamatory way.
  • Acknowledge that you understand the other point of view, by showing yourself able to restate it fairly. "I understand that you feel a woman's freedom of choice in the matter of abortion is important, but certainly I am not the only one who disagrees with this and thinks that abortion is just murder of the innocents."
  • Help in moderating other people's disagreements, when you come across them. Same concept as pulling two people engaged in a fist fight apart. Sometimes just pointing out that the discussion has gotten too heated and that they need to chill out can help a great deal to tone things down and to emphasize that in this community, public verbal sparring is _unacceptable_. "Hey guys, you're going around and around on this abortion debate; it seems illogical that we could solve this issue here on wikipedia when it's been faught over for years. Both of you seem to have strong opinions on this matter -- perhaps we should remove this debate and make room for someone with less bias."
  • Finally, avoid writing on topics you are overly passionate about. The rule here is to write articles neutrally. It's hard to be unbiased when you're biased. ;-)

Most of the above suggestions can be summarized very succinctly: Be Polite. It's more important (and useful) than you may think.

-- BryceHarrington


You have hit the nail on the head, Bryce. I think that list should be moved somewhere to a policy page. --LMS


Point taken Larry. I needed to read that. I have definately been guilty of this and it has probably been not too beneficial. Anyway, a suggestion for the Wikipedia Perl gurus: how about altering the codebase so that /Talk pages are dropped off RecentChanges by default (with an option in preferences to put them back in)? that way journalists etc. would have to go looking for the partisan debate, rather than being confronted with it. Just an idea... -- Asa


I had similar thoughts regarding dropping /Talk pages, but this might be seen as overreactionary... -- BryceHarrington


That actually might have a good effect--don't know. --Larry