Wikipedia:Petitions are considered non-harmful

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What's wrong with this picture? Not necessarily anything. This could represent approval voting or multiple petitions giving very different viewpoints.

From time to time, Wikipedians publish petitions in the Wikipedia namespace in order to voice a statement or proposal, and they request others to sign them. Disputes on Wikipedia are usually resolved by discussion and consensus, however this does not mean that other methods are banned.

Consensus[edit]

A frequent argument made in favour of petitions being harmful is that they do not fit into the consensus model. Logically, for this argument to work, a proposition along these lines has to be made: Wikipedia functions by consensus, therefore every process and action on Wikipedia which does not follow the consensus model is harmful. At face value, this proposition may make sense when arguing against petitions, however when applied to other issues related to Wikipedia it is flawed.

For instance, do essays follow the consensus model? No, since they are not themselves discussions and are usually written with one point of view in mind, very much like petitions. Does that make them harmful? No, given that policy recognises a role for essays on Wikipedia for editors to give advice and opinion. One could argue essays are more useful than petitions as they can progress into a policy or guideline, however the same could be said about an idea presented in a petition.

To give another example, do user pages follow the consensus model? No, while decisions on what should be allowed on user pages as a whole are made by consensus, user pages are primarily written by the user they represent, so there is usually no consensus discussion on what the background colour of a user page should be for instance. Does that make them harmful? No, according to the user page guideline they have multiple uses including "communications, discussions, notices, trial workings and drafts, notes, and (limited) self disclosure if desired".

Clearly these examples lead to the conclusion that not every process or action on Wikipedia which does not function by the consensus model is harmful, based on the principle of reductio ad absurdum, and hence it is not a valid argument that the failure of petitions to be consensus based, in itself, makes them harmful.

Petitions verses polls[edit]

Petitions are not just polls where the only vote allowed is "yes". Petitions have a different function and aim to polls, both within and outside Wikipedia. Petitions are "A formal, written request made to an official person or organized body, often containing many signatures." or "A compilation of signatures built in order to exert moral authority in support of a specific cause." The meaning of "authority" on Wikipedia can vary, though possibilities could include the Arbitration Committee, Jimmy Wales, and the Wikimedia Foundation. A poll on the other hand is "An election or a survey of a particular group." On Wikipedia a "survey" includes checking the amount of support for a specific proposal e.g. the 2008 flagged revisions poll, and an "election" would cover Arbitration Committee Elections.

The differences between a poll and petition mean that there are cases when a poll is more appropriate than a petition and vice versa. For example, an appeal for action from the Wikimedia Foundation would be best presented as a petition, as it would not be assessing support for a proposal, just requesting action from an authority. In contrast however, a survey on community approval for a guideline would be best held as a poll.

Petition opposition[edit]

Petitions do not normally have sections for opposition by their nature. However, if a consensus is in favour, then there is nothing stopping petitions from having opposition sections on Wikipedia. A lack of space for opposition on the same page does not show that petitions are harmful, as again, that makes petitions no different to most essays. It should also be noted that requests for comment pages generally only have sections for endorsement under statements. If a user creates an essay (e.g. Wikipedia:Petitions are considered harmful) and another user disagrees with it, they can simply create another essay (e.g. Wikipedia:Petitions are considered non-harmful). Similarly, if someone creates a petition, and another person disagrees with its request or aim, they can simply create another petition giving another point-of-view. There is no limit to the amount of petitions that can be created on an issue, as Wikipedia is not paper, so petitions do not limit creativity. Like polls, there is also nothing stopping regular discussion taking place in another venue to supplement one or more petitions.

Divisiveness[edit]

There is a risk when Wikipedians mention controversial topics that they will divide the community, and petitions are no exception. Drama and divisiveness can be observed in numerous Wikipedia processes including articles for deletion, requests for adminship, and requests for comment. Does that mean all these processes are harmful? Possibly, if it involves personal attacks and incivility. However, it can be argued that this is not a fault with those processes per se, but how they are used, and the same can be said with petitions.

Petitions have the potential to help mitigate the problems of hostility on some topics by giving editors more options on how to give their ideas to the community, in the event they do not feel comfortable doing so with other processes. Petitions may be created in the event that consensus based methods break down, and are less aggressive than other alternatives such as wheel warring.

Bureaucracy[edit]

While Wikipedia is not a democracy, it is also not a bureaucracy. Wikipedia has always functioned with flexibility. Stringent restrictions on the use of processes which are not fully subscribed to the consensus model undermine some of the very benefits of consensus itself: openness, not sticking to strict rules and procedures, and avoiding unnecessary rules. There are some things that should clearly be outlawed with the harm they cause, for instance personal attacks, but petitions are not one of them.

See also[edit]