Monday, April 14, 2008

Interview with Filll

The Not the Wikipedia Weekly Skypecasts have been a wonderful way to get to know Wikipedians better. Filll has been one of the regulars on the project and he's an experienced Wikipedian who's been active at Wikipedia's difficult evolution/creation debates.

The site sees consistent problems at areas where real world conflicts migrate onto Wikipedia, and volunteer work in these areas can be a real test of an editor's patience and interpersonal skills. Fill has come through well, but it's something like editing in a different (and much harsher) world from what most Wikipedians experience. So he's created a page called "The AGF Challenge" where he presents real dilemmas and asks other users how they would handle them.

I found this interesting enough to do an interview. First, here's a summary of Filll's Wikipedia experience.

Joined Oct 2006
27,000 edits
Not an administrator

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The interview:

Durova says: Welcome!

Filll says: Thank you Durova.

Durova says: You've created a page called the AGF Challenge. That's "assume good faith". Could you talk a little more about it?

Filll says: Sure I would be glad to. I am thinking about creating a series of exercises to help people understand more about issues that come up when editing Wikipedia, and decisions that editors have to make. I hope this will also start a dialogue about some of these issues as well.

Durova says: What prompted you to create these exercises?

Filll says: I have noticed that many of the same questions and difficulties arise over and over, in slightly different form. Many people who are unhappy with Wikipedia's approach to a topic they are interested in, are readily able to understand why Wikipedia operates the way it does when they see the same principles applied to some other area. Also, when people are directly involved in a dispute, things sometimes get so heated they are not able to be objective. I thought if I created a set of "typical" difficulties that were not ongoing disputes, people could think about these a little more objectively. Also, many of those inside Wikipedia that complain about Wikipedia have little experience in dealing with contentious topics, so this gives them a chance to ponder these questions in a safe environment and avoid getting their hands dirty in a contentious dispute. Hopefully when these situations are studied in an abstract way, people can learn about why Wikipedia does what it does, and think about better ways to handle these sorts of difficult topics.

Durova says: So you have firsthand experience in contentious topics?

Filll says: Yes I have a little bit of experience in several controversial areas. I first encountered contentious discussions at the "Black people" article. I also have seen a lot of controversy at the articles associated with the creationism and evolution dispute, and with intelligent design. I also have edited some of the alternative medicine articles, which also can be quite contentious.

Durova says: How would you say the editing environment of a contentious article differs from a regular Wikipedia environment?

Filll says: It is much much more stressful, for one thing. It is much more time-consuming. A lot of effort goes into "defending" the articles from vandalism. In some cases, there are efforts to destroy the NPOV flavor of these articles 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even getting these articles to NPOV can be more difficult, if not impossible. There are organized groups of sock puppets and meat puppets and sometimes even paid editors from public relations firms attacking the WP articles. The editors can be targeted off-wiki and threatened and harassed in real life.

Durova says: That's something! Have you seen a lot of those extreme cases?

Filll says: Yes I have seen a lot of these extreme situations myself, or heard about them.

Durova says: But you also edit uncontroversial topics, is that true?

Filll says: Yes I do. For relaxation and fun, I edit a lot of uncontroversial articles. For example, I am working on creating articles for all the towns, villages and hamlets on the Isle of Wight. I am collecting versions of Frere Jacques in as many languages as possible, and other information about Frere Jacques. I am slowly working on improving the articles about the Way of St. James and towns along the route, and the Botafumeiro which is a large censor used in the Santiago de Compostella Cathedral. I am involved in improving the articles associated with Miquelon and St. Pierre, two islands off the east coast of Canada. I have edited some articles about linguistics and history and the history of publishing. I have an article about Bees and toxic chemicals that I hope to expand and improve; it is a GA article now. I have edited several articles about various fruits and vegetables. I have a lot of interests and I use Wikipedia as one way to explore them. I eventually will probably edit more in my main areas of interest, which lie in physics and applied mathematics.

Durova says: So with all of that hassle at the controversial topics, why do you go there?

Filll says: Well that is a good question. Sometimes I stay away from them for a while. I do help my friends who are working on these articles, and I think we make progress. I think we have an impact. Our intelligent design article gets over 70,000 visits a month, and our evolution article gets over 200,000 visits a month. My article on the Botafumeiro gets only about 1000 visits a month, and my article on Bees and toxic chemicals gets only about 1500 visits a month. Some of my more obscure articles get fewer visits per month than that. Our intelligent design articles are a valuable resource for people on all sides of the controversy, and for the legal and journalistic communities. Our evolution article was very highly rated in an outside review. We are providing the best possible information, in the most balanced form, and we are doing it free of charge. More information is better, I think, particularly in areas that are fraught with misinformation and confusion on all sides. It is my way to contribute a tiny bit to clearing up the disinformation and cutting throug the propaganda that both sides throw at each other. Also, many of the best sources of information on these topics are not so easily found. We give the public a way to find the information easily and put it in an organized format and provide some context.

Durova says: Now let me play devil's advocate for a moment: do you suppose the people who disagree with you ideologically think they're at those controversial articles in order to get good information in front of the public?

Filll says: That is not the impression I get from my conversations and interactions with them. For example, in the case of assorted Young Earth Creationists, they believe they know the Truth and that they have to write all articles to correct the mistakes that are in the scientific community, or the textbooks, or the museums. They want all the articles to reflect their personal views, instead of reflecting all the views that exist, which is what NPOV is. The impression I have is that they want to create religious tracts, not an encyclopedia article. The same is true at some alternative medicine articles. The proponents of assorted alternative medicine approaches want to censor any information that is contrary to their particular form of alternative medicine, and all studies that might reflect negatively on it, and only present information that promotes their approach. They do not want to present a balance between the various views, but to filter the articles to only present their personal views.

Durova says: And do you disclose your own views and background? I often find that people who are themselves at an article to push a point of view assume everyone else is there for the same purpose and with the same strategy, just pushing different points of vie.

Filll says: Sometimes I am goaded into it, but usually not. Many assume that I am an atheist, when I am not. Many have called me all kinds of things which I am not. They assume that since I want to present a mix of views, I must be one of their standard ideological opponents.

Durova says: And for the uninitiated, NPOV means "Neutral point of view", one of Wikipedia's core policies.

Filll says: I might even agree with them, but I try to present all views roughly in proportion to their prominence; this is part of NPOV.

Durova says: How would you describe that, as it applies to one of those controversial topics where you participate?

Filll says: Well many people think that Neutral Point Of View means that the article should not contain any negative information in it, or any information critical of a given view. It does not. It means that all views are presented in the same article. However, the dominant mainstream views are typically given more prominence than minor views. For example, in the case of creation science, which purports to be science, fewer than 1% of the scientists in the relevant fields subscribe to creation science views. And so, the articles about creation science on Wikipedia are mainly written from a mainstream science point of view. In another controversial area, if there are two or three views which are competing, and roughly all equally prominent, then the Wikipedia article will include all those, in roughly equal measure. That is what NPOV means.

Durova says: Now to someone who spends more time in church than at scientific conferences, neutrality might seem to balance differently from yours.

Filll says: Yes very true. And so before one starts on editing one of these controversial articles, one has to understand what the relevant community is, and what the views of that community are. So in the case of an article about Christianity, it would be the mainstream theologians and scholars in the area that are the relevant community, not the Buddhist or the Moslem view of Christianity, or the Atheist view of Christianity. In topics which overlap with science and physical reality, it is the mainstream scientific view that is given more weight. In the case of medical topics, it is the mainstream medical views that are more prominent. That is part of the difficulty about educating people about NPOV; we do not do a great job of it always on Wikipedia I am afraid.

Durova says: So the point of your challenge, if I understand, is to give the people who don't dive into these controversies a sample of the actual field conditions you and people like yourself face.

Filll says: Yes that is it exactly. It is a "safe" way to give people a little taste of these controversial editing areas, and the kinds of questions that arise. They do not have to edit these articles themselves, or dig through many kilobytes of talk page discussions to understand what is going on; the core of the difficulty is summarized and presented in the AGF Challenge Exercises. They could be used for training purposes, or to open a dialogue on what Wikipedia should be doing in the case of controversial articles, or to develop a range of "approved" approaches to handle these sorts of problems. When Wikipedia is criticized externally or internally over its handling of assorted situations, they are often extremely highly charged and emotional affairs, and often ongoing. This is a way to see a sanitized collection of problems in abbreviated and sanitized form, where critics inside and outside Wikipedia can offer their advice and suggestions.

Durova says: And what often happens when something comes under scrutiny - either at a noticeboard or at arbitration - is that individuals who have only come to Wikipedia to push a certain ideology will try to portray themselves as reasonable, or at least try to muddy the waters enough that a regular editor who disagrees with them at their particular dispute looks as bad as they do.

Filll says: Yes I agree. I have heard critics of Wikipedia, both internally and externally, make all kinds of similar claims. And they often seem reasonable. So what I wanted to do, with the AGF Challenge, is to present a few of these, boiled down to their bare essence, for everyone to ponder and then give their input on. And particularly when it is not a situation in which a person has a vested interest, sometimes viewing these editing situations from the outside can give one a different impression than when there are a lot of emotions involved, and a lot of hard feelings, and people are trying to smear each other personally.

Durova says: Now I happen to know for a fact that one of these examples is real, because you borrowed example 7 from me. So I'll mention something here that I didn't bring up before. One of the things that finally got that situation under control was an article content request for comments.

Filll says: Yes they are extreme, but they are all based on real situations.

Durova says: (If there are new readers here, that's a type of formal dispute resolution).

Filll says: I had a lot more written.

Durova says: May I give the background and you comment? It leads to a question.

Filll says: go ahead.

Durova says: The fellow would keep coming up with new reasons why his aunt's family tree proved he was descended from Joan of Arc's brother. Late in the game he argued that we had to cite it in the article because it was a primary source.

Filll says: Ah...ok.

Durova says: I opened a request for comment to get opinions on whether a family tree from the 1950s could be a primary source for fifteenth century history. The answer to that question was pretty obvious. We got several answers, all of them agreed with me completely, and he couldn't argue that they were biased.

Filll says: Yes. Well he had a lot invested emotionally in that answer, but others from outside could see it objectively. Which is the whole point of my AGF Challenge Exercises.

Durova says: That was one of the last times he tried to disrupt the article. Right. Do you find that certain types of dispute resolution are more effective than others?

Filll says: I have found the article content RfCs do not work very well.

Durova says: Really?

Filll says: Very few people respond and so it is less helpful.

Durova says: I set a lot of store by them. What's your experience, and what's better?

Filll says: If they were more clearly written and more people came, they would be better I think.

Durova says: That's right.

Filll says: I have not tried mediation yet. I know many people like it, but I have not tried it.

Durova says: The fellow I was disputing with tried to edit war over the wording of the request for comment. I tried mediation once. Had a bad experience with it. The mediator quit and we couldn't get a replacement.

Filll says: RfCs for conduct are pretty time consuming, but effective.

Durova says: You find conduct RfCs effective?

Filll says: Arbcomm is very taxing and should be one of the last options to try, if ever.

Durova says: Totally agreed there. I'm curious about your experience with conduct RfC. How does it help, in your experience?

Filll says: Yes I have found conduct RfCs, when done correctly, can really nip a problem in the bud. And they can bring a lot of outside input. More people show up to conduct RfCs. And as long as one can show that every effort was made and the person still acted in an unreasonable fashion, it can carry a lot of weight.

Durova says: And what's the effective way to do one?

Filll says: I try to build as much evidence as possible, offline and privately. And I provide useful DIFFS. I get advice from experienced people in the area first.

Durova says: And people show up who weren't already in the dispute, to offer impartial feedback?

Filll says: AN/I and other noticeboards can be helpful at times. Yes in the case of conduct RfCs and noticeboards, one gets fresh blood which helps. Another measure which User: Silence taught me is the effective use of the AfD.

Durova says: Would you say that dispute resolution always accomplishes its aim?

Filll says: It can bring a lot more eyes to the article if you are stuck and can help. It is a bit risky of course

Durova says: If you try enough, something will work?

Filll says: Well eventually yes in most cases. But it can be very very trying in the meantime. And you have to be willing to put in a huge amount of effort. I would like to see if there are easier and faster methods that we could develop.

Durova says: I agree, earlier and milder solutions are better - before editors dig trenches and start lobbing shells at each other.

Filll says: That is one of the things I wonder about the proferred solutions of the critics, which is to be more accommodating; sometimes that can make things worse.

Durova says: Another question, have you been harassed yourself?

Filll says: I have not been badly harassed but I have been harassed mildly.

Durova says: Would you feel comfortable describing it, at least in general terms?

Filll says: I have had people try to hack my computer or run phishing attacks against me, to reveal my identity

Durova says: Nod. So I get the impression you created this challenge in part to communicate a slice of the experience to editors who don't wade into the site's editorial swamps.

Filll says: Yes a safe easy sanitized way to expose them a bit to what the difficult topics are about and what that editing experience is. It hopefully will be a way that they can understand the situation a bit more.

Durova says: That even though most of Wikipedia is a pretty easy place to be, and most Wikiipedians are reasonable people, we also get these pockets where it's basically a street brawl. And not everyone there is a thug. Well you live in a rough neighborhood, as do I, in Wikipedian terms. Any final comments?

Filll says: I am glad to have this chance to present this new idea. And I hope people will be interested in taking the AGF Challenge and trying to test their skills on the exercises.

Durova says: Thanks very much for the interview.

Filll says: Thank you.


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