WikiProject Dispute Resolution
This week, we interviewed the lively bunch at WikiProject Dispute Resolution. Started in November 2011 to study and discuss improvements to Wikipedia's resources for resolving disputes between editors, the young project has supplemented dispute resolution efforts currently handled at the Dispute Resolution Noticeboard, Mediation Committee, and other venues. Over 40 editors have signed up to provide feedback, a variety of ideas have been proposed, and a manual for dispute resolution has been created. We spoke with nine of the participants: bobrayner, Steven Zhang, TransporterMan, Shooterwalker, Guy Macon, Noleander, Electriccatfish2 (Electric), Mr. Stradivarius, and czarkoff.
What motivated you to join WikiProject Dispute Resolution? For folks who are unfamiliar with the project's work, what is WikiProject Dispute Resolution's purpose and what does it do?
- bobrayner: Disputes don't just involve some contested piece of text; they also sap the time and goodwill of editors. Handled badly, a dispute can suck in more and more editors' time and lead to lasting grudges, burnout, or tit-for-tat edits elsewhere. Each member of the community is a cog in a bigger machine; good DR is the grease that keeps the machinery running efficiently.
- Steven Zhang: I set up the project in November last year in an effort to consolidate reform discussions on dispute resolution. I (as well as others) have a lot of ideas for reform of dispute resolution, which was also a reason i applied for a fellowship – to get more data about dispute resolution and develop ideas to improve the processes – this project acts as a central location for those and many other ideas. I also hope that this will be a location where people will go to if they have an interest in participating in dispute resolution – we have very few volunteers and could use a lot more.
- TransporterMan: I'm a lawyer in the real world and dispute resolution was just a natural place for me. Indeed, doing DR is about all I do here except for occasionally going on binges of adding geographical coordinates to articles. Joining the WikiProject to aid in DR planning was just a logical step forward. And that's what the project is for: planning and improving DR.
- Shooterwalker: The way we resolve disputes is essential to editor retention. Established editors don't expect a miracle where we stop having disputes and discussions. But we lose a lot of editors when conflicts continue in multiple forums with no real progress. Our dispute resolution pages aren't just so people can air out their "side", and then shrug and say "no consensus". The point of dispute resolution is to resolve disputes.
- Guy Macon: Off-wiki I am a consultant who specializes in fixing dysfunctional engineering departments. I find that volunteering at the Dispute Resolution Noticeboard is a natural extension of that. My reward comes when I see an article that is in bad shape because of an ongoing dispute, I help to resolve the issues, and later I see a big improvement in the article.
- Noleander: Passionate editors, although well intentioned, can sometimes be a roadblock to improving the encyclopedia. Uninvolved, level-headed dispute resolution volunteers can help break logjams.
- Electric: I liked the idea of a place where Wikipedians can go when they get in a dispute. We mainly handle content disputes, which are very common on here. Editors here come from all different backgrounds and professions, so content disputes are inevitable.
- Mr. Stradivarius: I was helping out a the Dispute Resolution Noticeboard a lot at the time the project was set up, and I was also a coordinator at the Mediation Cabal along with Steven, so joining WikiProject Dispute Resolution seemed like a no-brainer. The project itself is just a place for discussions about dispute resolution; the actual work of resolving disputes goes on in other places. Previously, there was no central location where editors could talk about dispute resolution. Discussion went on at the talk pages of the various dispute resolution venues, or at the village pump for anything deemed important enough. Aside from the dispute resolution noticeboard, the various dispute resolution venues on Wikipedia have a long history, and many aspects of them have become institutionalised. The result is a complicated system which is hard to understand for beginners who get into disputes. Centralizing the discussion made it easier for volunteers from the different dispute resolution venues to discuss the system as a whole. The hope is that this will translate into a more efficient dispute resolution system where more disputes get resolved, and get resolved faster.
- czarkoff: Once I participated in a minor content dispute which turned into epic war simply because it was mishandled and inappropriate forums were chosen to settle it. This experience was so frustrating that I found myself willful to offer help to other wikipedians seeking for dispute resolution. That's how I found myself participating in dispute resolution and (consequently) in WikiProject Dispute Resolution. As I see it, the purpose of WikiProject itself is to serve an umbrella for discussions concerning improving dispute resolution methods and practices on Wikipedia.
What are some common factors that contribute to heated debates on Wikipedia? When does dispute resolution become necessary? What can be changed about Wikipedia's environment to make the editing experience less prone to brawls?
Disputes on Wikipedia often surpass the soft-impact fun of pillow fighting
- Steven Zhang: Conflict occurs generally when there is a breakdown of effective communication, whether it be users talking past each other or getting angry, not coming to an agreement on certain proposals, misunderstanding of policy or simply a lack of understanding as to what other participants are seeking. Dispute resolution aims to restore order by structuring discussions with the involvement of uninvolved third parties who can help editors come to a compromise, understand policy and communicate effectively with one another. Once effective communication has been re-established, dispute resolution has ultimately served its purpose – editors can understand the viewpoints of their fellow editors and work collaboratively to a mutually agreeable solution. People also need to be open to compromise. You need to give a little to get a little.
- Shooterwalker: A lot of the truly hot-headed debates flame out quickly, because someone will make an obvious personal attack and get blocked. If you're worried about Wikipedia burning to the ground, you're more troubled by the slow boil. The slow boil occurs when an dispute (over conduct OR content) is revisited over and over without any consensus. The "no consensus" creates a vacuum that becomes a free for all, usually exploited (not necessarily in bad faith) by the more extreme voices as an excuse to keep doing what they've been doing, which escalates the conflict until multiple editors quit in frustration. We might avoid this if A: we were more able to recognize disputes that have gone on too long, and bring them to a forum where we can assist them in reaching some kind of closure, and B: our dispute resolution forums tried to achieve even partial or vague consensus rather than no consensus. Any progress is better than no progress.
- Guy Macon: On Wikipedia, if both of the disputing parties want to improve the encyclopedia but cannot agree, I think the present system works well and that some of the changes we are working on will cause it to work even better. In the case where one party is being disruptive and simply will not follow our policies and guidelines, the only tool we have is a series of escalating blocks. That being said, we should study other online communities and see what works, what doesn't and what we can adapt to Wikipedia. Why is it that every unmoderated USENET group is destroyed by flamers and trolls, and moderated USENET groups require a huge amount of time moderating them? How do Slashdot and Reddit avoid that happening? Why are YouTube comments so different from Fark or Slashdot comments? I think there are things to be learned there.
- Noleander: Most content disputes are initiated by an editor that puts their personal agenda before the readers' interests. Symptoms of a dispute are ad hominem attacks and a refusal to listen to the other party. There is no magic bullet to stop that from happening, but uninvolved editors can step in and try to get the parties back on track. I find that if often helps to ask the parties to supply quotes from reliable sources.
- Mr. Stradivarius: On Wikipedia, we tend to categorise disputes as either content disputes or conduct disputes. However, my viewpoint is a little different: I think that all disputes are essentially conduct disputes. If all parties to a dispute were always perfectly civil, then there would be no need for dispute resolution. The parties would simply look to the policies and guidelines, investigate the relevant sources, judge the relevancy of any past consensus, and then make the choice that seems in the best interests of Wikipedia. Disputes arise when one or more of the editors makes their editing personal, maybe by insisting that they are correct, or by assuming that other editors have ulterior motives. (Or by having ulterior motives.) This is a social problem at its root, and as such is hard to solve. It needs to be dealt with by educating users about Wikipedia policy and about better ways of interacting with others. How to improve user education is a big problem that has ramifications across the whole of Wikipedia, and there are no easy answers. However, a good start would be for experienced editors to make sure that they are following due process, and to remember to talk about content and not personalities, especially when dealing with newer editors.
- czarkoff: Probably the most common problems that lead to disputes are unwillingness to cooperate ("Why should I consider another editors' arguments if I already have my opinion"), lack of collaborative experience and lack of understanding of Wikipedia policies. Once the dispute has started, the editors become passionate about it, and the focus shifts from content to others' statements and overall behavior.
Do you have any tips or techniques the average Wikipedian can use when involved in a dispute? Who can a Wikipedian ask for help when things get tense?
- bobrayner: The first tip is: Ask for help. (And be prepared to accept that maybe you're not the right one. Sometimes neither side of a dispute is right. Alas, we're all just human). It's very easy to lapse into 386 mode and hit the revert button, but stepping back and talking is a better solution. This is the first stage of the dispute lifecycle, before it even reaches formal DR tools which are later in the dispute lifecycle.
- Steven Zhang: Put yourself in the shoes of the other person, and try to see things from the other perspective. Consider drawing up a list of issues that are being discussed ad have participants outline their view – sometimes their view isn't that different to yours and you just assumed they were on the opposite end of the spectrum. Be civil, and always be open to compromise – that is key. It's all about working together.
- TransporterMan: Take a deep breath, step back, and consider what best benefits the encyclopedia. Many things that come before the DR forums are edit wars over the color of templates: cutthroat battles over tagging, categories, music genres, the content of infoboxes, and the like in which the outcome doesn't really affect the welfare of the encyclopedia in the long run as much as the fight itself does. In those cases, I'm always tempted to begin my DR effort with "Really?!?" The first person to ask for help in a dispute is the other editor: talk about it on the talk page. A huge number of disputes come to DR with no effort to try to discuss the issue first. If that doesn't work, then go to Third Opinion or Dispute Resolution Noticeboard.
- Guy Macon: The best thing you can do to in a dispute is to follow the basic principle of "More Light, Less Heat." No matter what has happened before, remain calm, cool and collected. Focus on evidence and logic, not emotion. Be concise, making your case in as few words as possible and not repeating yourself. Finally, when a dispute resolution volunteer tries to help, listen. Don't ignore the advice you are given. Read every word of any policy pages you are referred to, even if you are 100% sure that you already know the policy. Finally, be humble. Don't enter into dispute resolution convinced that you are right and that you have nothing to learn from those who oppose you.
- Noleander: It helps to listen, and to focus on the sources, rather than the other editors. The problem is when the other editors don't play by the rules. That is when DRN or RfC comes into play.
- czarkoff: Sure:
- Don't take it personal; stay focused on content.
- If required, choose appropriate DR forum (WP:3O, WP:DRN, WP:MEDCOM). Don't bring the matter to broad public unless you understand the consequences.
- RTFM; Wikipedia have policies and guidelines, and numerous essays are there to help you comprehend the way the whole thing works.
- Always try to reconsider your position. However smart you are, you may make mistakes.
- Be prepared, consensus may be against your position. Move on when necessary.
Is the project planning any new initiatives or experimenting with any new tools? Where do you foresee the project a few years from now?
- bobrayner: A recent survey suggested that many editors felt the DR ecosystem was a little too complex. We are working on responding to this; the Mediation Cabal or Mediation committee might be closed, or pared down. Personally, I feel a little sad – medcab is where I first cut my teeth on DR – but I recognise that having a hundred different options (each with different rules) is unhelpful.
- Steven Zhang: In partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation, a workflow system has been developed to make it easier to file disputes at the dispute resolution noticeoard, but also better structure the discussion to avoid long posts before a volunteer can assess the situation. This will be trialled in August and potentially rolled out more extensively if it is effective. We're also discussing techniques and processes that we can implement to resolve disputes in a more timely manner. Furthermore, a bot is currently being developed – working in a similar way to ClueBot – that would be able to detect when a dispute is getting our of hand and needs looking into. It is very much experimental with no ETA, but if it is a success would be ideal – as generally the longer a dispute lasts the lower chance there is of successful resolution – early intervention is key. In a few years, I'd like to see the project with a list of accomplishments – to have made dispute resolution a simple, undaunting process with lots of volunteers. That's all the project really is about – reform and recruitment.
- TransporterMan: Keep your eyes on Dispute Resolution Noticeboard. In some ways it has become the premiere DR venue at WP and it's about to undergo a sea change to make DR faster and easier.
- Shooterwalker: Dispute resolution is a complex problem, and we've had a lot of discussions about where to even begin. We agreed that Wikipedia can make better use of the Dispute Resolution Noticeboard, so we've been improving that forum through volunteering and gradual redesign. We've also agreed that a good place to start would be to organize the DR ecosystem, because some mechanisms rarely work (if at all). Some ideas that have been tossed around are eliminating or merging some of the dispute resolution forums, or creating a clear "central forum" or "triage" that helps each dispute get the right kind of attention at the right kind of forum. We're discussing it.
- Mr. Stradivarius: I'm not sure what dispute resolution on Wikipedia will look like in the future, but at the moment, simplifying the process is highest on our priority list. Simple processes and quick resolution make for happier users who stick around for longer. One specific suggestion that I liked was to have a system like the one used at SPI, where every article has its own subpage. This way it would be easy to see whether the problem has been persistent, whether there have been related issues at the same article, and who the main editors involved have been. It would also be easier for the users involved, as there would just be one single dispute resolution venue, rather than the multiple venues we have today.
- czarkoff: The DR forums are constantly evolving. The current hot topic is condensing the means of dispute resolution with the goal to regroup labor at fewest possible locations to improve QA. Recently MedCab was deprecated in favor of other forums, and changes are about to happen with MedCom. Frankly, in several year I see us reiterating ideas over making dispute resolution more efficient and easier to reach, as it is absolutely sisyphean task.
What are the project's most urgent needs? How can a new member get involved today?
- bobrayner: Put simply, we need patient and hardworking people who can help resolve disputes. It's helpful to be able to recognise when process is important and when it's possible to cut through red tape; find a happy medium between bureaucracy and IAR. There are several fora where disputes can be handled (some are not officially within the project's scope); it would be selfish to suggest that only "our" fora need attention. Anyway. At the moment, WP:3O seems to be ticking over nicely, but I think Wikipedia:Dispute resolution noticeboard would benefit from a few more helpers, and I expect more disputes will go there over the next year or two.
- Steven Zhang: We need more volunteers, plain and simple. The dispute resolution noticeboard is in the process of restructuring to make it even easier for editors to offer assistance to a dispute, and a simple guide on techniques and best practices to use has been developed – so if anyone wanted to get involved, id go to the dispute resolution noticeboard, click the volunteer button, and get started. If I could ask for anything, it would be for more volunteers, even if its occasional. The more of us the better – and dispute resolution has an enormous impact on Wikipedia, it creates more stable articles and happier, more collaborative users. The existing volunteers there that will help and offer advice if you get stuck – but it's not as scary as it seems :-)
- TransporterMan: We need people. One of the problems with DR is that a lot of folks first move from content editing into the underpinnings of Wikipedia through working at DR. The ones who last tend to move on into either becoming an administrator or at least doing quasi-administrator kinds of things. When they do, many tend to leave DR behind so there's always a need for new help. It has been suggested (by Foundation fellow and Mr-All-Things-DR Steven Zhang) that there a lot of disputes that need to come to DR which do not, but if they did right now we couldn't handle them for the lack of warm bodies. As for how to join in, my recommendation would be — and this is certainly not the only way to do it — to first simply edit WP for awhile to get a feel for how it works, then become familiar with the most important policies, read a few cases listed at Dispute Resolution Noticeboard to see how experienced DR'ers do it, then jump right in and take a few requests at Third Opinion.
- Shooterwalker: I'd echo the call for real volunteers. I think there's been a lot of good discussions about dispute resolution and a lot of grand ideas. But if things are going to improve, it's going to be through the spirit of incrementalism that has made Wikipedia a success. That means we need editors who have the time and patience to get involved at the Dispute Resolution Noticeboard, and we need editors who can look for small-but-high-impact changes that would make dispute resolution more effective overall. Most disputes are difficult and require a lot of compromise and steady work. I can't imagine that fixing the entire dispute resolution system will be any easier.
- Guy Macon: WikiProject Dispute Resolution needs more of the experienced volunteers from places like WP:COIN or WP:RFCU to get involved with looking at the big picture and making the dispute resolution system better. Dispute Resolution Noticeboard needs more volunteers. There is a very real danger of the present pool of volunteers getting burnt out.
- Noleander: Just go to WP:DRN and find a dispute that is within your comfort zone. Or add your name to Wikipedia:Feedback request service to help with RfCs.
Next week, we'll try to bridge the gap between two hostile countries on a highly fortified peninsula. Until then, discover other cultures in the archive.
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