Wikimedia Ethics/Social contract

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This learning resource is for examining the nature and benefits of a social contract, with a specific focus on online collaborative environments such as Wikipedia.


Wikipedia's Social Contract[edit]

Wikipedia has a set of general guidelines called the Five Pillars, one of which is Ignore All Rules. Policy supports, and editors are generally required to accept, the maxim "if an action helps the encyclopedia, overall, it is good." It is however possible that the innate level of subjectivity within that statement is a source of confusion and conflict. In this section we will explore arguments for and against the strength and reliability of Wikipedia's 'social contract'.

The English Language Wikipedia does not have an expressed Community Social Contract setting forth the site's Vision/Mission Statement, mutually agreed-upon terms of engagement, or functional conflict resolution protocol. The Five Pillars have been overshadowed by a large number of additional guidelines which have evolved into confusing and conflicting rules over which editors often disagree and engage in escalating antagonistic recriminations.

On the English Wikipedia, breaches of expectations are typically first reviewed in Requests for Comments (example 1, example 2) and subsequently referred to ArbCom (example 1, example 2, example 3, example 4), which can take months to decide a case (if they take it at all). Most cases are not taken up (example). Alternatively, cases are referred to the Administrator's Noticeboard (example), where they are sometimes resolved and more often not.

Social contracts used by other websites[edit]

Functional social contracts exist when both the society and the individual have an understanding of prevailing norms that exist with a significant level of synergy. We will examine borderline cases in due course, however first it's worth looking at cases of a clearly functional social contract, and a clearly dysfunctional, or entirely absent social contract;

Two large technical communities that employ the Social Contract Model are the Debian GNU Project, and Google. Debian GNU has its social contract prominently linked at the top of the main page. Google has a social contract with its own employees, as describe in this NY Times story.

For a specific example of a social contract used in the 1990s by a small community (less than 100 participants), see the Blooming Lotus Forum Social Contract.

Suggested Reading[edit]