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Wikipedia:Understanding IAR

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Back when Wikipedia was just getting started, its editors discussed what kind of rules the project should adopt. The first rule they considered was called "Ignore all rules", and its earliest formulation was,

If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business.[1]

While the wording of Ignore all rules has changed since then, its purpose has remained the same. Understanding Ignore all rules is the key to understanding the role of rules on Wikipedia in general.

The essence of ignorance[edit]

Two important implications of this policy are:

  • You can contribute to Wikipedia without needing to know what the rules are.
  • If there's a better way to do something than what the rules say, do it the better way.

Why have any rules, then?[edit]

The problem is that views can vary widely as to just what constitutes a "better way of doing things". Wikipedia has thousands, if not millions of contributors, and disputes are common. Rules help to unify Wikipedia's editors in their quest to build the gargantuan free encyclopedia that is Wikipedia.

Wikipedia has very little in the way of a formal power structure; most enforcement of its rules is done by ordinary users, making ordinary edits. This is what makes Ignore all rules such a fundamental part of how Wikipedia works. Rules are only enforced when people agree that they should be enforced. This also means that Wikipedia's rules must be descriptive, not prescriptive. The rules spell out areas of general agreement among Wikipedia's editors – methods that usually work and principles that guide the entire venture. Any rule that is not widely agreed upon will be disregarded by most Wikipedia editors, and should not be called a rule in the first place. And even when a rule does have wide support, there may not be support for applying it in a specific case. Editors are always free to consider ways of doing things other than what the rules specify.

Wikipedia's rules are thus not "rules" in the traditional sense, but standing agreements that are subject to constant re-evaluation (see Wikipedia:Consensus can change).

Successfully ignoring rules[edit]

By all means break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately and well. That is one of the ends for which they exist.

Most of the time when editing Wikipedia, you really don't need to know what the rules are. Just be bold, use common sense, and follow the style you see being used by other editors, and your contributions will generally be welcomed. Even if you don't know what formatting to use, someone else will come along and fix it for you, as long as they recognize your edits to be an improvement overall.

If you do "break" a rule – knowingly or unknowingly – another editor may explain to you which rule you broke. If you find the rule sensible, you will understand why the other editor suggested it should be followed. If you do not see the sense in it, however, you should explain why you disagree with it. Other editors will in turn respond, and with some luck, a sensible approach will eventually be adopted, which may involve ignoring the rule, following it, or taking an alternative approach that resolves the dispute to everyone's satisfaction.

Both those who wish to enforce a rule and those who wish to break it should explain why they feel doing so is the best course of action. Engaging in polite discussion gives the best possible chance for a consensus to form between disputing parties. In the course of such discussions, it may be possible to work out an intermediate position, or to experiment with different approaches until one that is acceptable to all parties is found. Many other forms of dispute resolution are possible as well.

If consensus favors a given approach, that approach will usually be taken – though you may continue to advocate for a different approach, given that consensus can change. Do not attempt to enforce your views through edit warring; this will sooner or later get you barred from editing.

A poem[edit]

There's way too much red tape on wiki
Sometimes that tape is rather sticky
You wouldn't be wrong, not by a particle,
To say we each should write an article
Instead of having to engage
In drafting one more policy page
Which (we lose sight of this) is very
Clearly something ancillary
Can't we all straddle this wide fence
With just a bit of common sense?

— Excerpted from a longer piece by Newyorkbrad

See also[edit]


  1. ^ RulesToConsider from 18 September 2001 (this is the earliest accessible revision)