A look at new arbitrators
The Arbitration Committee is not a monolithic entity, but functions as a collective of individual editors serving as arbitrators. For the community to understand the important work the committee performs, it's important to understand the motivations and ideals of each individual arbitrator. Evaluating our newest arbitrators is the first step in such a process; each election brings new editors with different philosophies and ideas on how to make the work of the committee more efficient and effective.
On 1 January 2012, the English Wikipedia community elected four new arbitrators to serve on the committee. Our new Signpost series analyzing the work of arbitrators begins with a review of what each new member brings to our encyclopedia's most well-known body.
AGK has had a long tenure in Wikipedia Dispute Resolution. He was appointed to the Mediation Committee in May 2007, and continued to serve into 2010 when he was elected its chair by his fellow mediators. In addition to that experience in directly handling disputes between editors, he held a community seat on the Audit Subcommittee before his election to the full committee. With this background, it's interesting to see how he has reacted to the pressure-cooker environment that is ArbCom.
AGK was tasked with drafting a proposed decision in the contentious Muhammad images case. In that proposal, he introduced several new ideas for principles, as he indicated he would in his election statement. He proposed everything from the fetishisation of policy to specific principles regarding the uncensored nature of Wikipedia. AGK says that he "takes a harder line on principles than my colleagues do". He notes his disapproval of "banal restatements of simple policy", instead preferring principles that "demonstrate the committee's thinking in relation to the dispute [at hand]".
The proposed decision process in Muhammad images is unique in another regard – the posting of a summary of the dispute as a means to initiate new discussion on the workshop page itself. This move was "unprecedented", but received "a good response, especially to the mere fact [it] was posted". In AGK's mind, this avoided the sense that the committee's decision "appeared out of thin air [to] 'show our working'".
In light of the fact that AGK drafted the proposed decision by himself, it's interesting to see how he evaluates cases: "I use the evidence page to evaluate conduct issues with specific editors, and to get a feel for what the disputants view as the issues in a case ... we try to look beyond the question of 'who has thrown the most tantrums' to 'why is this dispute not resolved, and what can be done to bring it to a close'." He stresses that this deeper-looking inquiry is sometimes difficult on more technical cases, but that it held true for the decision he had to draft.
||We can do more [than] slap wrists ... we can give useful advice for resolving disagreements about content.
It's clear from an analysis of the cases that AGK has worked on, and his method of voting on cases, that he takes a view of cases as important for the long-term guidance for the community. His proposition of asking the community to handle content disputes, as a direct request from the committee, supports the idea that he will continue to use a bottom-up approach in future cases. This indicates that AGK may be likely to focus on how to help a conflict rather than trying to craft a decision around the sanction of specific editors: "we can do more [than] slap wrists ... we can give useful advice for resolving disagreements about content."
Courcelles opened his candidacy statement in the December election with the proclamation "editors that care about this project deserve an ArbCom that is available, active, and experienced". To that end, he submitted his name for consideration. Before his election to ArbCom, Courcelles served on the Audit Subcommittee and was confirmed as a permanent checkuser and oversighter. He has listed as his most important focus the content of Wikipedia, citing his contributions to 23 featured lists and assistance in the improvement of two featured articles. Thus, Courcelles' take on work on the Arbitration Committee is unique.
Within three months, Courcelles has already made a mark on committee decisions. In TimidGuy, his analysis of whether to ban an editor or merely to remove administrative privileges was found sufficiently compelling for his colleagues to approve his proposal to ban then-admin Will Beback. As Courcelles explained, "A mere desysop here exemplifies the 'Super Mario Problem' where editors with no advanced permissions get banned, and those with such permissions merely get them taken away. This is unacceptable, and the conduct here is so bad that it, in my mind, calls for this."
Along with Courcelles' discussions of remedies, a visible trend in his participation in decision debates has been an attempt to clarify principles and findings of fact when voting on them. For instance, in the Civility enforcement case, Courcelles told fellow arbitrators that "the expectation isn't, in my mind, so much that every editor has to raise the level from the comment before theirs, but that behaviour that actively lowers the discussion towards mud-slinging is not acceptable". This may be a sign that Courcelles will strive to find balanced and equitable principles when evaluating disputes and deciding cases.
Hersfold is the only newly elected arbitrator who can't be considered entirely new: he served on the committee for the first five months of 2010, before his real-life workload forced him to give up those responsibilities. However, he promised during the December election to "fully dedicate [his] time to ArbCom" – a promise that has been fulfilled with his active participation on all recent cases.
His most recent activity was on the Civility enforcement case. During the debate on the proposed decision, Hersfold held to a steadfast view that a harsh remedy was required, declaring that "an editor who thinks such behavior is acceptable is incompatible with this project". While this position was bounded to the case at hand, this may suggest a trend in the way Hersfold approaches cases. Hersfold himself says "usually [I'll] stand my ground on an issue until it's clearly demonstrated I'm in the wrong". But of course, he recognizes that with the diversity of the arbitrators, "there's always some disagreement".
As to the way he thinks through a case, Hersfold explains that "it helps to build a bit of a timeline from the evidence; ... to find a truly effective solution, we have to consider the full background of the dispute and involved editors". In a slightly contrasting view from that of new arbitrator AGK, Hersfold says that principles "really just fall into place on their own ... [they] echo the expected conduct that wasn't followed, and findings summarize the time timeline built from the evidence". His goal is always to work through that timeline of the conflict as a means of seeing which editors have been acting inappropriately. In this way, a future analysis of cases could suggest that Hersfold uses cases as a means to sanction unruly editors rather than as a basis for broad principle-building.
SilkTork announced in his statement for candidacy in the December elections that he would view ArbCom cases "holistically", to "see the relationship between the parts that make up the whole, which sometimes gives a new perspective". While SilkTork did not serve on any special committee or hold any functionary position before his election, he had been an active Wikipedian administrator with work on two featured articles and a collection of nearly 20 good articles.
In one of the year's new cases, Betacommand 3, SilkTork was very active in trying to craft a remedy that was explicit in its terms and balanced in its nature. On the proposed decision page, a great effort was made to keep Betacommand on the project with the imposition of strong restrictions, rather than a ban. When the committee moved to ban the editor, SilkTork joined five other arbitrators to oppose. He noted that "if one doesn't agree [with a proposal], that can be awkward. I hadn't expected that". Despite this occasional element of disagreement, SilkTork emphasized that "the cases we accept are complex ... if one does disagree with the decision the drafter has taken, then we have the option of further discussion".
For SilkTork, the distinction in remedies relies a great deal on sifting through the evidence. As an example, he notes that in the TimidGuy case "my initial impression was that Will Beback had been over-enthusiastic but well meaning...[but] reading the evidence...a ban was a reasonable outcome, and that's what I agreed with." This emphasis on the evidence phase creates a need for SilkTork to investigate the patterns of conflict in a case: "I will read something in the workshop, and this may lead me to investigate a particular bit of edit history...what is common is to have several Firefox tabs open at the same time, and this may be 20 or 30 tabs".
||This will last, and these early days will be remembered.
Analysis of SilkTork's activity reveals not only a fact-driven case-handling method, but also sheds light on his feelings on the role of the Arbitration Committee in the context of the broader community. He was hesitant to support a principle that "In certain circumstances, the Committee may overturn or reduce a sanction imposed by the community." However, as the arbitrator himself explained, "I feel that the current Committee is very aware of ArbCom's relationship with the community and that we act within policy and not above it".
Despite holding the very focused role of arbitrator (which he notes is a very tiring job), SilkTork remains very passionate about the project for the value it has in and of itself. "This will last", he says, "and these early days will be remembered."
The Arbitration Committee conducts its work with an eye towards the sustainability of the project as a whole. The decisions it crafts are reviewed in meticulous detail to ensure that the standards announced by that small group of editors will be an effective guide for the rest of the encyclopedia. Yet in crafting a decision, each individual arbitrator has their own ideals, principles, and even methods of analyzing a case. These are distinctions with a difference, and fully understanding that fact will serve to foster greater understanding of the committee as a whole.
The Signpost would like to thank all the arbitrators who responded to the interview questions; full responses can be found here. If you have a suggestion for a future 'Arbitration analysis' article, feel free to drop a note on the writer's talk page.