Help:Wikipedia: The Missing Manual/Collaborating with other editors/Handling incivility and personal attacks

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Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (Discuss)

In an ideal world, Wikipedia editors would discuss only content and would post only well reasoned, informative comments. They would assume, unless faced with overwhelming evidence, that other editors were also editing and commenting in good faith. Personal attacks would never occur.

Unfortunately it's not an ideal world. Bad things do happen to good people. This chapter shows you helpful ways to respond to incivility and personal attacks directed against you or other editors. It also discusses what you should do if you slip up and use uncivil words, or worse, attack someone personally.

If you've just experienced severe incivility or a personal attack, take a look at "Initial responses".

Enforcing norms of conduct[edit]

This chapter lays out some step-by-step processes for dealing with problematical editors. First, you need an understanding of Wikipedia's rules regarding its editors' behavior, and how those are enforced. With that understanding, you'll find it easier to understand the step-by-step process.

The norms[edit]

Wikipedia's rules for behavior center around two policies and a guideline. Experienced editors often mention the trio all in one breath: "WP:CIVIL, WP:NPA, WP:AGF", or even just CIVIL, NPA, AGF. In order of seriousness of implications of violation,

  • Wikipedia:No personal attacks policy (shortcut: WP:NPA). Do not make personal attacks anywhere in Wikipedia. Comment on content, not on the contributor. Personal attacks damage the community and deter users. Nobody likes abuse.
  • Wikipedia:Civility policy (shortcut: WP:CIVIL). Being rude, insensitive, or petty makes people upset and prevents Wikipedia from working well. Be careful to avoid offending people unintentionally. For example, an edit summary of "Making content compliant with [[WP:NPOV]]" is less likely to upset an editor than "Removing garbage and biased personal opinions."
  • Wikipedia:Assume good faith guideline (shortcut: WP:AGF). Unless there's strong evidence to the contrary, assume that people who work on the project are trying to help it, not hurt it.

Of the three, violations of NPA are considered the most serious, by far. Extreme or repeated violations will lead to an editor being blocked (prevented from editing) for a while, in the hopes that he comes to his senses. The administrator doing the blocking decides how long the blocked period lasts. If the editor doesn't mend his ways, he'll be blocked indefinitely.

Violations of CIVIL but not of NPA can lead to blocking, but an editor must truly persist in uncivil behavior to get banned or blocked indefinitely. Some editors, nevertheless, have succeeded at this dubious accomplishment.

Violations of AGF, on the other hand, don't lead to blocking. The purpose of the AGF guideline is to remind editors that underlying almost all incivility and, occasionally, personal attacks, is a lack of respect for other editors. It's the incivility and personal attacks—the consequences of failing to assume good faith—that get an editor into trouble.

Incivility and attacks

What's the difference between incivility and a personal attack on Wikipedia? Aren't all attacks uncivil?

Incivility and personal attacks do overlap some. As a general rule, a personal attack is directly saying, "You're stupid" (or racist, incompetent, ugly, and so on). Incivility is less overt; it implies something negative about an editor without actually saying it.

Examples of incivility:

  • An article talk page comment that starts, "The text you keep adding to the article is really difficult to read, so why don't you edit at the version of Wikipedia in your native language?"
  • An edit summary that says, "removed poorly worded garbage"
  • Posting a note on another editor's user talk page that says, "If you're going to create a pointless article, could you at least spell check it?"

Enforcing the rules[edit]

The entire Wikipedia community bears the responsibility of enforcing policies and guidelines. If you see incivility or personal attacks against another editor, you ought to help out, just as other editors should help out if they see incivility and personal attacks directed at you.

Normal editors can issue warnings, but they can't prevent a problem editor from continuing to post to Wikipedia. That's where administrators come in. Administrators are editors who have special authority, chosen by a rough consensus of editors. They can block editors from further edits, as a preventive measure against further abusive editing.

How Administrators are Selected

Any registered editor can nominate themselves, or be nominated by another editor, as a candidate for adminship, in a process called Request for Adminship (see Figure 11-1). Then other registered editors ask questions of the candidate, express their opinion (support, oppose, or neutral), and explain their reasoning if they want (which is expected for opposing and neutral opinions). An RfA stays open for 7 days, unless a candidate withdraws or the RfA has absolutely no chance for success. (That's a snowball case; see WP:SNOWBALL.)

After a week, a Wikipedia bureaucrat reviews the RfA, judges it successful or unsuccessful, and closes it. The threshold for success is around 80 percent support votes (not counting neutrals), but bureaucrats have discretion to close an RfA as successful or unsuccessful regardless of the actual percentage of support. (Such deviations are rare and usually controversial, but they do happen.)

Unsuccessful candidates typically fail to reach the 80 percent support level for one of three reasons: lack of general editing experience, lack of edits that demonstrate knowledge of Wikipedia policies and processes, and past problems like unproductive disputes with other editors. For more information, see Wikipedia:Guide to requests for adminship (shortcut: WP:GRFA).

Figure 11-1. On December 10, 2007, Wikipedia:Requests for adminship (shortcut: WP:RFA) listed 19 open candidacies for adminship. Editors are expected to read the answers given by candidates to questions posed to them, and the opinions of other editors about the candidates, and research the information provided to ascertain whether the candidate seems trustworthy and capable of handling administrator responsibilities.

Actions by the community[edit]

When one editor attacks another, they may think that any response by the attacked editor is defensiveness. A third editor entering the discussion can be quite a shock, particularly a third editor who civilly points out exactly what was done wrong and issues a warning.

Warnings serve a very important role in Wikipedia, in that they point out problems. As warnings accumulate on an editor's talk page, they provide the basis for more severe warnings and, when all else fails, a block on the account. If you see a problem and post a warning, you're not only informing an editor about problems with his edits, but you're also building a case against that editor. Hopefully, the case will end quickly with the editor seeing reason, but, if not, it may end with the editor getting removed from Wikipedia.

Interestingly, standard user warnings found on the page Wikipedia:Template messages/User talk namespace (shortcut: WP:WARN) (see Figure 11-2) do not include any warnings about incivility (as of this writing). Presumably, either warnings for AGF or warnings for NPA cover incivility.

There is no level 4, final warning for an AGF violation. Presumably that's because there would be associated violations of the no personal attacks rule, and those would lead to a level 4 warning and then, if necessary, to a block.

As with vandalism and spam warnings (see the section about vandalism and spam warnings), you need to look at prior warnings to determine what level of warning to issue. Sometimes you shouldn't issue a warning at all; for example, when a level 4 warning has already been issued, and there's yet another personal attack. (In this case, you'd post at WP:AN/I, as discussed in the section about AN/I.)

Figure 11-2. As of late 2007, there was no formal warning template for incivility. Warnings regarding failure to assume good faith only went to level 3, meaning that it's inappropriate to request that an editor be blocked for this problem (blocks require ignoring a level 4 warning). Wikipedia uses a catch-all "personal attacks" label for improper behavior toward other editors, and that can be the basis for blocking editors, whether or not they get level 4 warnings.

Should you remove personal attacks against other editors? The general answer is that personal attacks on article talk pages, where the posting has at least some relevance to the topic, should be left as is. But Wikipedia's NPA policy specifies that serious personal attacks—those that reveal an editor's personal information or "go beyond the level of mere invective"—should be deleted. Any attack that threatens an individual, the project, or the general community should be removed immediately. (For more on editing comments of other editors on talk pages, and other pages within Wikipedia where discussions occur, see the section about editing comments.)

Actions by administrators[edit]

Many editors think of Wikipedia administrators as judges: They analyze the facts, weigh the arguments, and mete out punishments (blocking people from editing, or at least harshly threatening the miscreants). But that's not the role of administrators. Administrators mostly do administrative tasks involving egregious cases of vandalism, deleting pages, protecting pages involved in edit wars, and so on. Furthermore, as the Wikipedia blocking policy (shortcut: WP:BP) says, blocks are for preventing damage to pages, not punishing users afterwards.

The difference may be difficult to grasp, but it's important. It's why warnings are so critical to fighting vandals and dealing with poor behavior. As well as giving an editor a chance to change his behavior, warnings—if ignored—demonstrate that the editor is unlikely to change his behavior in the future, and a block is the next step to protecting the project. Blocks typically start out being for short durations, and only escalate in length if an editor continues to show that he can't restrain himself from repeating problematic behavior.

Wikipedia has only a small number of administrators—roughly a thousand—who are unpaid volunteers like all Wikipedia editors. Their number has not increased as quickly as Wikipedia has grown (see Figure 11-3), making their limited time a valuable resource that Wikipedia needs to protect. That's why, in the processes described next, there's so much emphasis on ways that editors can solve problems themselves, or get the assistance of other editors, rather than asking administrators for help.

Figure 11-3. The greatest number of editors became administrators per week around late 2005, when Wikipedia was much smaller than it is today. The number of active Wikipedia administrators has grown more slowly than Wikipedia as a whole. The graph shows "User Rights" granted, not "Admin Rights" granted, but almost all rights granted are for new admins. [This graph is courtesy of editor Dragons Flight (Robert A. Rohde), based on a log analysis.]

Dealing with incivility and personal attacks[edit]

The processes described in this section may seem like bureaucracy run amok, but in fact they're an efficient, logical way to escalate a matter until it's solved, whether that's because an editor changes his ways, quits Wikipedia, or gets blocked.

If you're the subject of a personal attack or significant incivility, both you and the other editor determine what will succeed in stopping recurrences of the problems. If you fan the flames by attacking back, that's a violation of rules in its own right, and will probably get you your own warnings. In that case, the matter may not get resolved until it goes to the highest level of community decision-making in English Wikipedia—the Arbitration Committee (see the section about the Arbitration Committee). If both you and the other editor are reasonable people (and you'll certainly encounter editors who aren't), you may be able to solve the problem by simply talking it out on user talk pages.

What happens after your first response depends on what kind of person you're dealing with. So circumstances decide which of the following measures to choose. You're certainly not required to use them all.

Initial responses[edit]

Personal attacks almost always occur on your own user talk page or on an article talk page. There may be some obvious lead-in (you and another editor have reverted each other's edits in a content dispute, for example) or the attack may come out the blue (from someone whose edit you've reverted as part of vandal-fighting, for example). Regardless, there it is, staring you in the face. It may be a graphic insult, or a passive-aggressive jab. The first thing you should do is nothing. That's right. Don't respond at all until your emotional reaction has passed. Then you can consider your options.

Don't respond until you can respond unemotionally[edit]

The standard human response to an attack is hardwired into your brain—fight or flight. When you're in danger, your emotions tell you to act immediately. Your emotional system is much faster than your logical system. Quick decisions are emotionally driven, not the product of rational thinking. So before your typing fingers fly into action, say to yourself: Those are just words on a computer screen. I don't have to do anything right now. I have all the time I need, to think this through and do the right thing. I don't need to do the first thing that comes to mind.

Wikipedia doesn't operate at real-world speeds. Take a break, come back in an hour or a day, work on something else, breathe deeply, have a nice cup of tea—there isn't any rush.

Don't attack back[edit]

In the real world, responding to an attack is considered standing up for yourself. In Wikipedia, editors who attack back are considered part of the problem. Attacking an editor whom you think attacked you turns Wikipedia into a personal battleground, which is against policy. As WP:NOT puts it: "If a user acts uncivilly, uncalmly, uncooperatively, insultingly, harassingly, or intimidatingly toward you, this does not give you an excuse to do the same in retaliation."

Your goal in dealing with this type of problem is to get the other editor to change their behavior, and if they don't, have them removed from Wikipedia. If you succeed in the first, or are efficient in doing the second, that's what standing up for yourself in Wikipedia is all about.

Decide if you even need to respond[edit]

An editor who resorts to uncivil comments and personal attacks loses credibility at Wikipedia. If the editor's arguments were sound and logical, why would he need to get personal and emotional? You can gain credibility, assuming that what occurred wasn't a clear and convincing personal attack, if you simply ignore it. An editor may just be having a bad day. Don't reinforce snarky behavior by responding to it.

How you ignore incivility depends on where it occurs. If it's a posting on your user talk page, you can delete it or archive it (see the section about archiving user talk). If it's a posting on an article talk page, you can see whether someone else responds to it (with a comment or a warning), or if another editor ignores it and discusses the non-personal aspects of the posting.

If you're not sure whether or not to respond, wait a full day or so, and see whether anything else happens.

Don't comment about problematical behavior on article talk pages[edit]

As discussed in Chapter 8: Communicating with your fellow editors (see the section about what not to post on article talk pages), article talk pages are for discussing articles, not editors or their behavior. That said, if you've decided to post a warning or request that the editor be blocked (see the section about notifying administrators), it's helpful to leave a note to that effect on an article talk page. That way, other editors know the problematical posting is being dealt with. A comment like this is appropriate:

This violates [[WP:NPA]]; I've posted a warning at [[User talk:Name of problem editor]]. ~~~~

Or this:

I've reported this violation of [[WP:NPA]] at [[WP:AN/I]]; repeat problem. ~~~~

If you respond, be factual, not emotional[edit]

If you respond at all, stick to the facts. If particular wording wasn't in accordance with a Wikipedia policy, that's a fact. If you speculate on the editor's motives for writing something, that's your opinion. The guideline Wikipedia:Etiquette (shortcut: WP:EQ) stresses that text on a screen may comes across as rude, when you can't hear the voice or see the facial expressions of a person sitting in front of you. An ironic joke may come across as a full-on insult. Again, assume good faith. Don't assume someone's out to get you. Similarly, be sure your own writing is brief, clear, and to the point. Avoid saying things that someone could take the wrong way.

Your goal isn't to hammer the other editor into submission (which rarely works, anyway), it's to get them to realize that their actions have consequences. If the other editor has improved articles and shown reason in other edits, that's all the more reason to assume good faith. You're not helping Wikipedia by making things unnecessarily unpleasant and driving them away.

Your response should depend on the editor[edit]

The correct approach to warning an editor about behavioral violations is somewhat similar to warnings about vandalism, as discussed in the section about vandalism warnings. Start by looking at the warnings that others have posted on the user talk page, if any. Then take a look at the user talk page's history—the user may have deleted warnings. Next, take a look at the User contributions page: Is this a regular contributor or someone with very few edits? (It's harder to tell with anonymous IP accounts; just look at the last week or two of postings.)

Here are some types of editors you might encounter, and the appropriate responses:

  • An anonymous IP editor with no other postings. If you get a single drive-by attack, it's best to just drop the matter. Your warning probably isn't going to do any good. If the posting is part of an ongoing series, post something at Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents (shortcut: WP:AN/I).
  • Relatively new editor, lots of warnings. Post a standard warning template from the WP:WARN page, following the procedure laid out in Chapter 7: Dealing with vandalism and spam (see the section about posting warnings). If the editor has already hit level 4, and then attacked you, take the matter to WP:AN/I rather than posting a warning.
  • Regular editor, lots of contributions, very few problems. Depending on how egregious the attacking post was, tailor your posting from nothing at all to a measured response. Reasonable wording is, "Maybe I'm misunderstanding your post, but it seemed to me that saying I need to repeat the third grade crossed the boundary of [[WP:CIVIL]]."
Before you post any kind of response, double-check to make sure you're posting to the correct user page. Don't use a template on an editor who has been a regular contributor for a long time.

Don't argue about warnings[edit]

If you post a warning and the other editor comments that it's not justified, don't argue. If what the other editor says seems to have merit, it's fine to reconsider your warning (and, if you change your mind, do a strike-through, as described in the section about striking your comments). If the other editor says your warning is uncivil, or amounts to a personal attack, or violates AGF, ignore it. Those allegations are considered wikilawyering, and it doesn't impress administrators. Ultimately, the matter comes down to the future behavior of the other editor, future warnings they get, and what administrators decide when they read the edits that caused the warnings. You've made your contribution to reducing future problems by posting a warning, and that's what counts.

Read other editors' essays about civility[edit]

If you're still struggling with some of the underlying concepts of the advice above, reading a couple of these essays may help:

Explore less formal solutions[edit]

Most of the time, incivility or a personal attack is a one-time occurrence. But if it's repeated, and you think you need help dealing with it, you have a number of informal options. Use one or more of these options before turning to the formal process for dealing with problem editors.

You'll find instructions at the top of the main page of each option listed in this section. Read them. Other editors appreciate it when you read and follow instructions for asking for help.

Editor assistance[edit]

Wikipedia:Editor assistance (shortcut: WP:EA) is an informal way of getting one-to-one advice, feedback, and counseling from another, more experienced, editor. You can actually get advice in two ways: Post something on the Requests page, or contact one of the listed editors on the primary page (Figure 11-4).

Figure 11-4. At the Editor assistance page, you can post an open request for any editor who wants to assist you, or you can pick an editor from a list (lower down on the page than shown here). In either case, you can get a personal consultation about any editing situation.

You may think that asking another editor for assistance is an intrusion on their time. It is, in some sense, but for many editors, offering advice to a sane, reasonable person can be a welcome change of pace from what they normally do, particularly if they're administrators.

If you decide to go the route of asking an editor directly for advice, be sure to check his User Contributions page. You want to pick someone who has edited in the last day or so, not someone who has largely stopped editing but has forgotten to remove his name from the list.


Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents (shortcut: WP:AN/I) is for only serious, repeat attacks where the editor has received clear warnings and is ignoring them (Figure 11-6). You go here if an editor has engaged in a personal attack after receiving a level 4 warning, or if you've posted a warning and then a higher level of warning, and the editor persists in violating the NPA policy. (You could, in theory, continue to escalate your warnings, but two is enough.)

Figure 11-6. The page Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents is for reporting and discussing incidents on the English Wikipedia that require administrators' intervention. But if you can use a more specialized noticeboard (listed at top, in small print), you should post there, not here. Similarly, if a specialized page exists to report editing abuse, then you should post there, not here.

If you're unsure that the problem is serious enough for AN/I, don't go there—the page gets enough traffic as is. If you do post to the noticeboard, be sure to include a succinct description of the problem, together with roughly a half-dozen diffs (see the section about diffs) showing problem edits.

Report any cases of aggressive harassment (see WP:HAR) or attack pages (WP:ATP) to this noticeboard without waiting to see if warnings are useful. If behavior is egregious, deal with it promptly.

Use formal processes[edit]

If the problem continues, and you've exhausted your informal options, Wikipedia has two formal processes for dealing with problem editors: a Request for Comments regarding user conduct; and binding decisions by the Arbitration Committee, the highest level of community decision-making within the English Wikipedia.

Both of these processes are time-consuming: Each can take several months to play out, and the evidence presented and arguments made can be voluminous. Fortunately, only a small percentage of disputes are so entangled that they go to arbitration; RfCs are much more common.

Chapter 10: Resolving content disputes (see the section about the Mediation Committee) described a third formal process, action by the Mediation Committee. Requests for mediation (shortcut: WP:RFM) are limited to content disputes, so they're not included in this discussion of personal attacks and incivility.

The Arbitration Committee[edit]

A Request for Arbitration (shortcut: WP:RFAR) is the last step of dispute resolution on Wikipedia. The Arbitration Committee (see Figure 11-8) makes binding decisions. In most ArbCom cases, at least one editor gets banned from editing Wikipedia for at least a year, and rulings against multiple editors are common.

Figure 11-8. The Arbitration Committee consists of volunteer editors; the English Wikipedia is essentially a self-governing community.

The Arbitration Committee consists of volunteer editors. Committee members are appointed by elections held annually, where registered editors at Wikipedia express support and opposition to the candidates. Roughly a third of the Committee is elected each year, for three-year terms.

Except for a few cases involving serious problem actions by one or more administrators, the Arbitration Committee requires that cases must first have gone through the RfC process. The Request for Arbitration policy states that "The Committee considers community input from the RFC process both in determining whether to accept a case and also in formulating its decisions."

The likelihood that you'll ever be involved in a case before the Arbitration Committee is small, unless you're an active editor of articles whose basic subjects are controversial. In 2006 the committee handled 116 cases. This book doesn't cover the intricate details of filing and arguing a case. For now, know that this final resort is there for extreme cases. If editors don't voluntarily agree to behave properly, and if their behavior is not so egregious that an administrator blocks them, then the Arbitration Committee process is the final step that the Wikipedia community can take to prevent an editor from disrupting Wikipedia.

When you get irritated (or worse)[edit]

This chapter is primarily for situations where you're the target of incivility or personal attacks. But, sadly, you may be the one committing—or thinking about committing—mayhem against another editor. You know you shouldn't, but sometimes telling yourself that you shouldn't do something isn't enough. If it's not, this section can help.

If you haven't yet posted something you'll regret[edit]

If you're just thinking about posting something snippy, subtly insulting, or otherwise critical of another editor, take yourself promptly to one or more of the following pages:

If you have posted something you realize you shouldn't have[edit]

Say you've indulged in a little biting criticism of another edit. And, quite possibly, the editor deserved to be criticized. Nevertheless, you've committed a violation of Wikipedia policy, and (as good as it may have felt when you were doing it) done nothing to further the goal of building the world's best online encyclopedia.

First, rest assured that you won't get booted off Wikipedia for a single mistake, or even for a couple. You will get into trouble by ignoring justified warnings and continuing your behavior. As discussed earlier in the chapter, Wikipedia administrators don't block editors to punish them, they block editors to prevent future problems.

Second, do what you can to mitigate the damage. As a minimum, do the following:

  • For anything relatively recent (say, in the past week), go back and strikethrough inappropriate wording. To change text from normal to strikethrough, use a pair of tags: Put a <s> at the beginning and a </s> at the end. If you replace inappropriate words with neutral words, underline the added text using <u> at the beginning and </u> at the end. Make sure your edit summary includes something like my prior comments, so other editors understand that you're not editing someone else's words, which isn't allowed.
  • Post an apology on the user talk page of the editor who you attacked. If you can't bring yourself to actually say I apologize, then say something like I have realized that my postings were a violation of [[WP:CIVIL]], and I'll do my best not to do that again.

Third, try really, really hard not to do it again. In the future, when you're irritated (or worse), get up and walk away from the computer, or at least switch to doing something else. And if you decide you can't tolerate whatever's pushing your emotional buttons on a particular page or area, go to a different page. Wikipedia is a huge project (as this book should make clear), with an amazing variety of things to do, and whatever you do, you should enjoy doing it.