Arbitrators Risker (top) and Kirill Lokshin at Wiki-Conference New York 2009
With the annual elections to the Arbitration Committee ("ArbCom") due to start in just over two weeks (see this week's News and notes), The Signpost interviewed three arbitrators and one former arbitrator about their experiences on the Committee and how it has evolved in the seven years since its inception.
Historical context and evolution
Having handled hundreds of cases, the Committee is one of the most public faces of the English Wikipedia. ArbCom has been examined in research on dispute resolution, and its decisions and role in Wikipedia-related controversies have been reported in the mainstream media (two notable examples from last year are a story by Noam Cohen in The New York Times, and a send-up by political satirist Stephen Colbert). In the early days of Wikipedia, the project's serious disputes were dealt with by Jimmy Wales personally, but the burden soon proved too much for one person to handle—so in December 2003, he created ArbCom to share the load. There have since been gradual but significant shifts in the Committee's relationship with both Wales and the community. At first, the status and future of the Committee were uncertain; in January 2004, Wales even declared that he reserved the right "to dissolve the whole thing if it turns out to be a disaster." But in 2005, a community referendum ratified the current Arbitration policy, and in April 2007, Wales confirmed that ArbCom can overturn any decision he makes in his traditional capacity within Wikipedia.
Arbitrator Roger Davies says the Committee's role has evolved significantly as the structures of the English Wikipedia have matured. "Until a couple of years ago, ArbCom was taking maybe four or five new cases a month, usually disputes between two or three editors. Since then, the landscape has changed a lot. The community is handling more and more of the routine stuff at noticeboards like AN/I. So these days, it's mostly intense, hard-core disputes that end up with ArbCom—the things the community isn't really set up to handle. So the cases ArbCom hears have become bigger, nastier and much more complex. Good examples are the Scientology, Climate Change, and Israeli–Palestinian disputes. One of the greatest challenges we face is the need to pore over large amounts of evidence from these types of cases to extract the essentials, while keeping up with talk page discussions. We are always looking for better ways of handling such cases, and different lessons can be learned from each of them."
Nature of the work
Kirill Lokshin says that while formal arbitration proceedings are probably the most visible element of the Committee's work, they are only the tip of the iceberg. "An ever-increasing fraction of our workload consists of 'behind the scenes' work—hearing appeals, responding to questions and complaints, investigating allegations of sockpuppetry. Managing this is less visible and glamorous than case work. Many new arbitrators come in thinking their main task is voting on proposed decisions, and are surprised by how little of that actually takes place." FloNight (arbitrator 2007–09) says, "the 24/7 nature of Wikipedia results in a constant flow of issues that need prompt attention. Behind the scene discussions are mostly related to ban appeals, and serious privacy- and harassment-related issues." Being an arbitrator also involves a considerable amount of correspondence. For Roger, "the variety of this work is challenging and engaging—each matter needs to be handled in different ways, with different degrees of diplomacy and sensitivity." One aspect of the workload arbitrators often struggle with, according to Kirill, is meeting expectations for the timely resolutions of tasks: "ArbCom has traditionally been quite bad at keeping to deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise. If there's one thing we perpetually need more of, it's arbitrators who can keep processes running and up to date."
The diverse nature of ArbCom's work benefits from the range of skills and interests among the individual arbitrators. In Kirill's opinion, "a group made up of editors with overly similar experiences would limit our ability to come up with new approaches to problems; we need members from all parts of the Wikipedia community to be successful." Risker agrees: "Far from being some sort of monolithic creature, one of ArbCom's greatest strengths is its diversity. Arbitrators' varied editing backgrounds and personalities have a significant impact on our ability to understand issues and anticipate the effects of decisions. Since the Committee's role is now more complex and its membership larger, different arbitrators tend to gravitate to specific roles. For example, this year one arbitrator has done much to coordinate the Ban Appeals Subcommittee and ensure timely responses; two arbitrators have focused on working with the checkuser and oversight teams. Probably the greatest challenge for us is to try to keep up with the information load. For a large or complex case, it's not unusual for arbitrators to review dozens of talk pages, archives and articles through their revision history; the evidence given by interested editors can often be just the starting point. Arbitrators who also track the oversight and checkuser mailing lists can easily find 100 new messages in their inboxes on any given day; it can be difficult to sort the chaff from the grain."
Rewards of the role
Despite the stress and acrimony that accompanies much of the work of ArbCom, the arbitrators find that it is not without recompense. FloNight says "the most rewarding aspect of the job was knowing that ArbCom was fairly addressing concerns that could not be resolved by the community alone. Despite the heavy criticism that ArbCom gets from parties in cases, positive remarks from the overall Community shows general support of ArbCom's work." Risker says, "One of the more rewarding aspects for me personally is when we have been able to identify that an editor or administrator is encountering significant difficulty, and defusing the situation before it has a disproportionate effect on either the project or the editor. It's far more healthy for the project as a whole to treat our volunteers with dignity and respect—particularly when they're not at their best than it is to have showcase discussions about all of their personal weaknesses."
For Roger, it's the complexity and variety that are rewarding about being an arbitrator, even though it can be stressful. There are some community debates he would like to participate in, but feels unable to because of the need to maintain the neutrality of his role. "The best part of it is where you occasionally see someone's attitude towards their own behaviour turn around during or after a case. That's when you feel you're really making a difference."