Wikipedia:Don't knit beside the guillotine

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Wikipedia's dispute resolution system includes some noticeboards that are relatively unmoderated. Discussions there can become free-for-alls that do more harm than good, with toxic piling-on that escalates instead of solving the dispute. Such a toxic culture harms Wikipedia's ability to maintain a collaborative editing environment, in which the best possible content can be created and improved.

It's important to understand the psychology and cultural context that underlies toxic piling on. With a better understanding, editors can avoid giving in to it, and can get things back on track when it emerges.

Les Tricoteuses[edit]

Les Tricoteuses: mind your knitting!

During the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, the Tricoteuses were women who worked as knitters, and who vocally supported the Jacobins. They are remembered as, gruesomely, knitting alongside the guillotine during executions. This performance of nonchalance in the face of horror served to enhance the terror of those who risked execution, and also allowed the knitters to assume a position of prominence and admiration within the mob witnessing the scene.

Madame DeFarge[edit]

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens made the principal villain Madame DeFarge, the fictional ringleader of les Tricoteuses. She was a complex character, with early-life tragedies that caused her to have understandable reasons to carry her resentment into adult life. But she came to be motivated by an insatiable and cruel hunger for revenge, aimed not only at those who had wronged her, but at anyone she felt was even remotely associated with them. She not only knitted beside the guillotine, but encoded into her knitting lists of the people she wanted to hunt down and have executed. Eventually, her all-consuming anger and lust for revenge (including against innocents) led to her own death, when she was shot with her own pistol by Miss Pross.

Her position at the head of les Tricoteuses carried with it a noteworthy collection of psychological underpinnings:

  • It was performative. She positioned herself not only where she could witness the executions, but where the rest of the mob could see her sitting there and knitting. They could not miss seeing her. And her performance was calibrated to shock and, by shocking, to be noticed and remembered.
  • It sought approval. She did not seek to repel the mob with her performance. To the contrary, the mob was impressed by her fanaticism. She fashioned herself as a heroine, and as a leader.
  • It was as a member of a group. She was at the front of the mob, but she was not isolated from it. She had the comfort of the solidarity of the revolutionary movement. And the mob's approval reinforced her feeling of belonging, of not being alone.
  • It was designed to make her feel good about herself. She may have been unhappy and preoccupied with anger, but the performance allowed her to enjoy the applause of the mob, and to be seen as prominent, even respected – and on the winning side. Instead of feeling sad about the injustices she had suffered in her youth, she could reinvent her resentment as righteousness.

Social media[edit]

Social media can get ugly. Wikipedia doesn't have to.

On present day social media, a particular type of ugly behavior has become all too common. Online comments sections have repeatedly become venues for review bombs, where anonymous gangs assemble to spew exaggerated mockery. Social networking services make it possible to rapidly spread falsehoods or criticisms of persons or things. When someone appears particularly vulnerable, it turns into an invitation for others to revel in victim blaming. This distinctly digital social phenomenon is made all the more potent by user anonymity, where there are few negative consequences in real life for behavior that would not be tolerated in face-to-face social interactions. Deplatforming and online shaming are sometimes practiced as little more than a sport.

At first blush, it seems to be quite a leap to go from Madame DeFarge to Twitter. And yet, the underlying social motivations are remarkably similar. The online mobs that join up to criticize their unfortunate targets are:

  • every bit as performative in their protestations of outrage,
  • every bit as focused on mutual approval,
  • every bit as reinforced by feeling like part of the winning group,
  • and, above all, trying every bit as much to assuage their own dissatisfaction with their lives by reveling in the mockery of others.

And digital platforms have an instantaneous worldwide reach that Madame DeFarge could only have dreamed of. Posting anonymously makes it possible to bask in mutual admiration without any risk of real-life repercussions. Social media can often facilitate friendship and communication, but at their worst, they display the twisted psychology of Madame DeFarge on a massive scale.

On Wikipedia[edit]

There are real people behind the edit box.

Wikipedia editors often begin editing here after previously having had other online experiences. Having witnessed mob-like behavior elsewhere online they sometimes assume that the same kind of conduct is appropriate here.

It isn't.

Wikipedia has a multi-part hierarchy for dispute resolution. At some of the higher levels of the process, such as Arbitration cases and Arbitration Enforcement, there are strictly moderated structures for discussion. But elsewhere, such as at the Administrators Noticeboard and the Administrators Noticeboard for Incidents, as well as at some of the content-oriented noticeboards and deletion discussions, participation is often minimally moderated. Threaded discussion allows editors to argue with one another, and support/oppose processes such as Requests for Comment allow editors to line up and vote. Sometimes, and especially when the consensus or the needed course of action is readily apparent and easy to agree on, these processes are efficient and work well. But other times, the process breaks down. Editors take sides, and dig in to uncompromising positions. The discussion drags on and on, far past the point of productivity, and fails to achieve a satisfactory resolution. Some editors report that they declined to speak up because they were afraid that they would be attacked for having done so. There is a reason why WP:CESSPIT has long been a shortcut to WP:ANI.

Those who care about the project certainly don't want it to be that way. But all too often, it happens anyway. And worst of all, it can sometimes leave well-intentioned editors feeling discouraged or unappreciated. And we sometimes lose productive editors that way, or a troubled editor who was capable of reforming just gives up and leaves. In the end, that's a net negative for the creation, improvement, and maintenance of articles. And that's everyone's loss.

How to avoid it[edit]

Lemmings act as a group, sometimes with self-destructive results (at least according to popular accounts). Wikipedia editors should think for themselves.

It can be surprisingly easy to fall into the trap of acting more like an insensitive person on social media, than like an editor of an encyclopedia who seeks the most collaborative editing process possible. Especially when you, personally, feel attacked, or when you see something that you care deeply about being attacked, it's all too natural to slip into the posture of us-versus-them. When you see another user who has genuinely done something wrong, it's all too natural to want to condemn their actions as strongly as possible.

But Wikipedia is not about teams. And all Wikipedia editors are real people with real feelings.

There are things to watch out for, to avoid acting like a Tricoteuse, and if you avoid these traps, you will find editing more enjoyable.

Resist the urge to see the situation as something with editors on two opposing sides, only one of which will "win". Try to understand why someone disagrees with you, and see whether it gives you any insights. Explain your perspective calmly, and avoid repeating yourself. Never forget that other editors are real people just like you. Don't say things anonymously that you wouldn't say in real life, face-to-face. If you are criticizing someone, don't exaggerate how bad they were. Hyperbole just reflects badly back on you.

Be careful not to engage in victim blaming. When you support someone's appeal of a previous sanction, don't fall back on the fallacy of deflecting the blame onto another editor who was the victim of what happened earlier. If an editor has genuinely been on the receiving end of harassing behavior, don't pat yourself on the back for telling them to be forgiving.

Think twice before inserting yourself into the latest dispute on the drama boards, and be alert to the signs of DeFarge-like motivations in yourself. Consider whether you are actually offering new insights or helpful solutions – or whether you are just saying "me too", in a torrent of criticism directed at some target. Perhaps you see someone accused of violating a particularly important policy. Such violations are, indeed, a serious matter. But if someone says that there was such an instance of wrongdoing, you need to ascertain for yourself whether or not the accusation is correct, before you start demanding condemnation. Just because it sounds like something happened, doesn't mean that it did. If you are just piling on with another "vote", reconsider. If you are performatively demonstrating that you are on the side of proper conduct and making yourself feel good about being on the right "side", then it's time to put down the knitting needles.

Never be someone who is just going along with whichever "side" looks to be winning. Never seek to show off for other editors on that side. If you think that it will raise your social capital on Wikipedia, you are mistaken. Instead, try to offer helpful and measured ideas on how to get back to productive editing. Think for yourself. Or just stay out of it.

Dealing with it[edit]

Stay calm, de-escalate, and don't lose your head.

What can you do if you see this behavior in other editors? This is not the kind of thing that can be spelled out and forbidden by policy, because each situation depends on the context. But if you are alert to the list of underlying motivations, you will readily see them even where you didn't recognize them before. And it's often just a matter of speaking up and getting the discussion back on track. Don't hesitate to refute a flawed argument. Don't shy away from defending and comforting a good-faith editor who was unfairly maligned. Sometimes, it falls to administrators to step in, but it is also something that any editor can do. And one should not fear stepping in. The community has, historically, not been very good at speaking up, but we all need to try to get better at it. Cesspit-like walls of text should not fester for days.

To start, there is a very simple question to ask yourself: How can I de-escalate the dispute, rather than escalate it?

The goal, ultimately, is always to get everyone back to productive content work. Sometimes the quickest route is, unavoidably, to block or ban someone who cannot be turned around. But when that is not the case, it does no good to turn a discussion into a review bomb.

So try as hard as you can to use calm language, rather than loud condemnation. (Admittedly, that is easier said than done, but it's what's needed.) Don't hesitate to suggest that the discussion needs to get back on track, and that an unhelpful tangent should come to an end. Discourage hyperbolic arguments and hyperbolic criticisms. Say it in a way that acknowledges other editors' concerns and feelings – better to call something "not helpful" than to call it "bad". Don't let "me-too" voting go on for too long. Sometimes, the shortest route to de-escalation is to recognize that the dispute is not a binary choice between good and evil, while also recognizing that the time has come to bring the discussion to a close, before it goes past its expiration date.

See also[edit]