Wikimedia Ethics/Introduction

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Ethical Management of the English Language Wikipedia/Overview2


Why Wikipedia is important[edit]

Wikipedia is important because many people, especially young people, get reference material from it; sometimes all their reference material. They consider it authoritative, even if their teachers do not. There has always been a willingness to believe the written word, and it would be good if scholars who care about reliability and trustworthiness would work together to improve Wikipedia.

  • There are been cases in which people have been detained by immigration officials, in which people have lost employment or reputation, in which criminal courts have cited articles which underline the fact that WP is regularly used as a reference even by official organizations.

Who edits?[edit]

It is not easy to determine who edits Wikipedia; some say it is teenagers and the chronically unemployed; i.e., those with copious time on their hands. Others say it's people with a high capacity or appetite for drama.[1]

Is Pseudo-anonymity important?[edit]

Pseudo-nonymity makes participation much easier: you don't have to worry much that your employer will be annoyed if you contribute when you're supposed to be working-unless someone checkusers you and publishes your IP address. And the fact that most pages don't even require sign-up also makes it easy to get started. (But see "Problems" below.)

Does pseudo-anonymity represent a social contract?[edit]

Pseudo-anonymity both entails and nullifies the social contract. Users promise to put true information, free from bias in articles. With the accountability of a consistent handle (such as the the same IP in a few cases, or an easily remembered pseudonym like "Dragon's Flight"), users develop an online reputation. You can evaluate their contributions, since the wiki keeps an exhaustively complete track record of all changes. (But again, see "Problems" below.)

The concept of a promise from an anonymous person makes little sense.
The concept of a promise from a pseudonymous person potentially makes sense if the pseudonym is durably attached to the individual in question. If a person can swap pseudonyms at will, then we're back to anonymity again.
See ID/Entity. —Moulton 22:15, 20 July 2008 (UTC)
But since people join the community under the assumption that their pseudonymity will be protected, does the community violate its side of the deal if it reveals their identity without permission? --SB_Johnny | talk 09:25, 21 July 2008 (UTC)
Assumptions are a popular way to arrive at a state of disappointment or even feelings of betrayal when one's expectations are not met. As far as I know, the only reliable way to ensure that such expectations will be honored is to include them in an express social contract that every participate affirmatively and voluntarily subscribes to. People are more likely to adhere to express promises that they have freely made in the understanding that everyone in the community has subscribed to the same set of mutually reciprocal promises. There can still be breaches of expectations, even with a social contract, because there can be lapses or breaches of promise. But the recovery process tends to be smoother under the social contract model than under the rules and punishments model. Moulton 08:43, 22 July 2008 (UTC)

The ethics of Wikipedia[edit]

Early days[edit]

(why "anyone can edit", how the original admins were appointed, what were the first policies?) -- there's an interesting conversation about life before RFA on w:WT:RFA now.

  1. "Anyone can edit". This is a rebellion against elitism. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in chemistry or astronomy to compile facts about elements or planets. And with enough other people checking their work, amateurs can do much better than many people would expect. Wikipedia is comparable to Britannica; i.e., at least one study was done comparing the two, and WP didn't come off too badly. See also: Reliability of Wikipedia.
  2. Original admins were appointed by consensus on the mailing list, and a developer would make an entry in the database. This was when there were only a couple hundred regular contributors. Everyone knew everyone else.
  3. The first policies were simple and unbureaucratic. NPOV was the gold standard, supported by "work together" and "be civil". It was only in 2004-2005 when the project become a top 100 website and started attracting a lot of attention that the user population became enormous. An attempt was made to codify guidelines and policies (see below, "Policies").

What does "consensus" mean?[edit]

Does it have a special meaning within the WikiMedia communities?

  • Consensus means an agreement by enough people to do things a certain way. After a while consensus can become a guideline or an official policy. (See "Is consensus effective" below)
  • In practice on En:Wp, consensus means "the majority of the people who express an idea and/or the person who makes the strongest case". One only has to follow the Articles for Deletion page to see that, in the majority of cases, it requires less than ten voices to either delete or save an article. Given the number of people who use En:Wp, can this be called "consensus"? Clearly, there is not exactly that.
  • In the projects that I found most successful, consensus meant no one seriously objected. If there was an objection, the terms of the agreement were tweaked until everyone was nearly equally in favor and no one expressed strong reservations.

Current policies[edit]

(are the policies standing in for the ethics? are the policies working?)

  • The current policies are a codification of ethics and they sound great on paper. However, in certain significant cases they fail completely. I will explain this below with examples.

Problems[edit]

Has Wikipedia's role as a community space interfered with the encyclopedia?[edit]

Being a community space is an attraction. For those who thrive on interaction, it can be a great delight not only to see one's work in print but to get feedback from one's peers. It can interfere when mob elements in the community work to subvert the project. (See below, and please be patient. ;-)

  • Wikipedia's main problem as an encyclopedia is that, because of the Section 230 of US communications decency act, the WMF cannot be involved in disputes regarding content, only user conduct. So, discussions regarding content cannot emanate from management without risk of forfeiting the protection given to "service providers" under this act. Without this protection, WMF could theoretically be seen as the "publisher" of Wikipedia, which would radically change their legal status.
  • With the emphasis on discussing "user conduct", it is only natural that the core processes reflect this type of "community space" model, which are (at times) in contradiction with the core mission of creating an encyclopedia.

Has pseudo-anonymity become a problem?[edit]

  • Anonymity, if considered at the level of the core processes in Wikipedia, has to be seen as a positive force. Anonymity is a means of "leveling the field", allowing those who have no credentials to contribute along side those that do on an equal basis - regardless of degrees held, experience or...of Wikipedia experience. Theoretically, the problems caused by pseudo-anonymity should be handled by the core polices of "No original research", and "reliable sources", since contributors are not supposed to use their own ideas, even to the point of combining sources in "original and novel ways". Contributors are expected to locate "reliable sources" and then add the contents in these sources to articles. If these policies are followed to the letter, even editors with clear conflicts of interest should be able to add content to articles, since all content must come from reliable sources and maybe not be the "original research" of the editor.
  • However, in practice, this model breaks down : Anonymity has allowed contributors to hide their lack of academic credentials. EssJay's claim to be a professor lent extra weight to his words. The custom of anonymity dissuades credentialed academics from participating under their own names, especially since these editors are almost certain to have a conflict of interest.
  • The problems caused by pseudo-anonymous editing because the focus is not on content, but on personal interaction between editors: editors are encouraged to become "established users" and these "established users" are given the special power to "ignore all rules". While these "established users" are allowed to remain anonymous and violate the core principals of NOR, NPOV, NPA and RS, those editors who are not in the category of "established users" who make the same sorts of edits are treated to the practices of "check-user", ie violation of pseudo-anonymity through tracing of IP addresses, discussion at the Administrators notice board and on the Administrators IRC channel, in an attempt to identify them. However, "established users" see their own examinations through check-user as being "invasions of privacy". So, clearly there is a multi-tiered defacto structure at En:Wp which suggests that some editors should be have their pseudo-anonymity respected and others shouldn't.
  • Clearly, "on wikipedia experience" is being shown as having some sort of equivalence to "academic experience" elsewhere. Is this convention valid? This one of the core questions.
  • However, the core policies at En:WP state that these policies should apply equally to all editors. If these policies were applied equally, regardless of the editor's "Wikipedia experience", then these problems might be resolved.

Are there too many editors now?[edit]

Are the policies good?[edit]

  • The core policies at En:Wp should theoretically solve all of the disputes on the En:Wp. However, when one understands exactly what they mean, the core ideas might become less attractive than what one had expected.
  • Many people view editing on Wikipedia as a "creative activity", but according to the core policies creativity is the last thing one should be doing on Wikipedia. The act of editing Wikipedia involves identifying reliable sources which contain information which is sufficiently notable to interest a general audience. The editor is expected to add this information to articles without quoting the text exactly (so as not to violate any copyright) but also not to add any of his or her own ideas about the subject. Creativity is the last thing one should consider when editing a Wikipedia article, since the goal is towards building an encyclopedia. The actual process (identifying sources, adding the material without interjecting any personal viewpoints, correcting formating and style) is actually more mechanical than anything else.

Since all "editors are equal", the result should be equal position for all. but since "some editors are more equal than others", the actual practice is that there are personalities who feel that Wikipedia is their own creation, and as such, they deserve "special treatment". Thus, the core policies are not at fault: the main problem is a "cult of the personality" which allows "established users" to manipulate these core policies in unfair ways.

  • The policies are good and have always been good. But they are enforced erratically, as the loosely defined term "consensus" is the new standard. If enough people join a discussion and choose to ignore a policy (or worse, to say they are upholding it while actually flouting it), they almost always win. Enforcement is by whoever shows up, or by committee also elected by whoever shows up.

What is the relationship between management and the administrators?[edit]

  • Because of US Law (especially Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act), the management of the WMF is prohibited from acting directly in "content disputes", since the position of the WMF is that they are not "publishing" the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, but are "Service Providers" who cannot be involved in removing or discussing content on their service, other than content which is prohibited by US law. Therefore, the WMF cannot be directly involved in disputes involving content, only disputes involving "user conduct". This is perhaps the main reason why the "arbitration process" in En:WP is centered around User conduct, rather than content, even though most problems are created by content disputes.

Are only admins part of the management? Was it always like that? Should it be like that?

Discussions[edit]

Can ethical systems emerge organically from large online communities, or do they need to be imposed?[edit]

It's a little of both. Ideally, the community would agree to follow ethical principles. In practice, unlimited openness, i.e., allowing anyone at all to join, has had the result that people who do not actually care about the ethics of the community have flooded it. "The inmates are running the asylum."

Ethics requires leadership. A community needs ethical leaders who have vision and who establish and articulate a community value system that everyone can readily subscribe to.

Is consensus effective in Wikimedia? Is there a better way?[edit]

    • It's not effective in the enforcement of NPOV or civility. Enforcement of civility is seen, paradoxically, is inherently uncivil itself. "How dare you tell me to stop being uncivil?! Who do you think you are?" The consensus (expressed by User:Carcharoth) is to expect that any effort to squelch hurtful words directed at one's peers is likely to provoke more such words directed at the enforcing admin. The current arbcom case involving William Connolley is an example.
    • NPOV is determined not by principle but by votes. If enough people decide that a biased article is neutral, the POV-pushers carry the day. All pay lip service to neutrality, but in practice the flagship articles on crucial controversial issues are all biased to favor the liberal left. Censorship of opposing POV is routine and hardly even clandestine, particularly in topics related to science & politics or science & religion.
  1. People have tried to find a better way. They are, in order of creation,
    1. The New World Encyclopedia project.
      • One editor-in-chief, accountable only to his sponsoring organization, sets and enforces all ethical and scholarly standards. His decisions are final, and there is no "community discussion" on wiki. He receives advice from "area editors", but he is free to disregard it. The word consensus is not used at all.
      • Writers are paid for completed articles. There is very little collaboration, in the sense of 2 or more people co-authoring an article. You get paid for your own work; free contributions are exceedingly rare. There are no unsolicited volunteers. Applicants must supply two (long) writing samples, their real name, a daytime phone number, a mailing address (for checks), and a C.V.
    2. Citizendium (Larry Sanger)
      • All participants use their own names. Bias still exists, because Larry gets to choose the scholars in charge of each area. There is no way to appeal ethical lapses.
    3. Conservapedia (Andy Schlafly)
      • Not doing well, because they don't follow GFDL - all new works must be public domain or original.
      • Suffering from harassment campaigns and denial of service attacks
    4. A group of Wikipedians created a Veropedia (sp?)
      • Something like this could work, if the founding group all agree to high standards, and they don't allow new, voting members in who disagree with those standards.

How can things be improved?[edit]

  1. Checks and balances (deliberately thought out, not spontaneously generated like our current policies)
  2. Limited terms in office (no more admin for life)
  3. Division of powers (Arbcom has how much power now?)
  4. A deliberative body selected for the task of constructing a well thought out system of dispute resolution (there are experts at this that can be contacted and perhaps hired)
  5. Replace drama inducing rules that force people to accuse each other with rules breaking with a reconciliation process that focuses on an optimum outcome.

Sources and notes[edit]

  1. Wikipedia:Drama, Revision of 10:11, July 16, 2008