Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Lucifer Effect

Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus in psychology at Stanford University, published a book last year called The Lucifer Effect. It's good reading for anyone who wants to understand Wikipedia dynamics.

Some readers will probably derive an analogy about the Stanford prison experiment. I'm more interested in Zimbardo's observations about the fundamental attribution error and how they relate to Wikipedia site organization. Faulty policies and processes contribute to onsite problems. Then particular disputes where those flaws play out get labeled as drama. Some Wikipedians get sucked into the minutiae of personalities and diffs while others regard it as an ethical responsibility to avoid all drama.

You may have seen the mantra. Get back to writing an encyclopedia.

Well yeah, that has its place. But when the policies themselves are flawed that doesn't do anything to fix them. We've had Wikipedians toddle along generating encyclopedic content until they encountered something or other that absolutely needed a policy level solution, and then thwack a bad policy hit the well-meaning editor upside the head like a week-old trout. From that point onward (wikisoap being in short supply) the whole situation stinks.

This ain't good. Too many of the people who have the capacity to fix policy and procedural level issues either get sucked into dramas and squeezed dry once they're there, or avoid the process side altogether.

I've got a bunch of ideas in this regard, but in order to keep things focused I'll work on one at a time.

Today's solution: a path back to good standing for sitebanned editors.

One real shortcoming in Wikipedia policies is what to do after somebody gets sitebanned. We handle returns in a piecemeal fashion, without clear guidance or guidelines. I've got a proposal for something to help straighten that out. And after floating it with a few people on various sides of the fence, it looks like a win-win situation.

1. One of the reasons English Wikipedia is such a wild and wooly place is that there isn't any clear route back to good standing after a community siteban. So some of the people who've been banned linger around the margins of the project.

2. Other Wikimedia projects complain about winding up with English Wikipedia's problem children. Actually Commons gets such people from all over, but demographics being what they are, English Wikipedia predominates.

3. Occasionally, editors who've been sitebanned from English Wikipedia can demonstrate positive reasons to have their siteban lifted if they do good work on a sister project.

Let's set up a formal cross-project mentorship system where editors in good standing on multiple projects can take an individual under their wing, as it were. Rather than wandering over to Commons with no help at all (or Simple English or Wikibooks or Wikinews, etc.), an editor who's on the outs with one project can go and seek a contact point for some other WMF project where he or she wants to contribute. The mentor would help introduce that person to the second site's policies and standards of conduct, and help guide contributions. If there are problems the mentor would be the primary point of contact (and hopefully would manage the matter himself or herself--at least providing background and helping to address the matter if the community needs to become involved). If all goes well, then after a sufficient time the mentor would open a new discussion at the original project demonstrating a good history at the second place as a reason to ease sanctions. So a siteban might become a topic ban with mentorship--something like that.

The advantage to the smaller projects of a formal program is that this would give a location where cross-project mentorships are known, and provide a reputable contact point in case concerns arise. The advantage to the larger projects is that this would offer a clear and productive route back to good standing for people who are potentially okay but just haven't worked out so far.

Obviously a few caveats are necessary: the kind of banned editor who makes violent threats is somebody I just wouldn't want anywhere. This solution is for square-pegs-in-round-holes situations and acceptance would be at the discretion of the potential mentor. Opening an unban discussion would also be at the mentor's discretion, normally in the neighborhood of 3 months if there's been good progress.

Image credit:


Sam Blacketer said...

I for one would welcome a more established structure by which banned editors can make their peace and return. It would lift a burden from arbcom which often finds itself deluged by appeals (some from long-time banned users, some from those who have only just been declared community banned and want to chance their arm).

At present we often find we have no way of judging whether someone will be disruptive and it seems unfair on other projects to force the potentially disruptive banned-from-Wikipedia editors on them as a test. Of course you are quite right that it benefits us to have a path to redemption for banned editors; it makes them less likely to start up a vendetta.

Gregory Kohs said...

This all presupposes that being sitebanned is a "bad" thing for the editor in question, and that return to the forum where once banned is a "desired" thing in that editor's heart.

Some banned users are more interested in reform of the rotten governance than in "getting back to work".

Let me put it in other terms. In late 2001, Enron laid off or put on temporary leave (I believe) about 7,000 employees. How many of those still working at Enron do you think felt it was a top priority to get those workers back into the office and on the payroll again? How many of those laid off felt that returning to Enron's employ was the thing they most desired?

I'm not trying to be a troll -- just thinking you're not looking at this particular situation from the proper vantage point. Yes, the governance of the Wikimedia Foundation is as bad as it was at Enron in 2001. Why would anyone crave participation in that structure, if they knew how bad it was at the core?

Lise Broer said...

Mr. Kohs, thank you for your comments regarding institutional corruption. I notice that your message was sent at 3:31 p.m. in your time zone. Did you take a half day’s vacation and devote the middle of it to reading my blog? If so that’s very flattering.
Regarding corporate decision-making, here’s a question very much within your expertise. What is your opinion of the Federal Communications Commission investigation into your employer’s practice of singling out peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic for slower service?
According to c|net from June 4, Comcast is testing a new system to slow down service during congested time periods for certain users. The initial tests will be conducted in Pennsylvania and Virginia with plans to expand testing to Colorado. This sounds right up your alley, since you happen to be the director of marketing research for Comcast.

Anthony said...

I think I'd go so far as to say that a break from all projects is definitely a good thing for anyone who finds themselves banned.

Of course, this requires rejecting utilitarian ethics.

Evan said...

I think this proposal merits some consideration. A couple of comments: (1) Mr. Kohs points out that some who are unable to edit productively on English Wikipedia do not want to edit productively, but only want to reform things. In my experience, wanting to "reform" a system that an editor does not understand very well is probably not likely to result in anything useful. Also, if an editor is so confused, disruptive, or otherwise functionally-impaired that they cannot operate within the existing rules, the editor is not likely to be able to produce rational practical suggestions for improvement. (2) I have wondered about the creation of a "training wiki" that disruptive users can be sent to for mentoring, to see if they can operate in a wiki environment and produce useful content. This would eliminate the problem of "dumping" English Wikipedia problem users on the smaller projects, and allow the disruptive users to show that they have something to contribute. (3) Many problem users are not really interested in writing an encyclopedia at all, as Mr. Kohs suggests. Some are interested in projects which are more amenable to "original research", or writing material with a distinct "nonneutral point of view", and therefore Wikinews or Wikibooks or some of the other projects which have different requirements might be more suitable.

Moulton said...

Durova writes:

"Some Wikipedians get sucked into the minutiae of personalities and diffs while others regard it as an ethical responsibility to avoid all drama."

This is an interesting and insightful observation about the extremes of a continuous axis of possible responses ranging from those who habitually engage in scandal-mongering to those who habitually engage in peace-making practices. Of course, as Durova's reference to the Fundamental Attribution Error points out, most people are generally not well-modeled by pegging them at either extremity of any given behavioral axis.

For an example of scandal-mongering (albeit not necessarily habitual), see this fascinating page from the Static Wikipedia.

For an example of an analytical model that suggests a better peace-making practice that avoids WikiDrama, see this adaptation of Girard's Model of Competiton, Conflict, and Violence. In this case, it might be necessary to migrate to the Mirth Model. Sometimes levity is the best medicine. This is probably one of those times.

Regarding the issue about finding a way for outcasts from the English Wikipedia to return to an editing role within the English Wikipedia Community, I've taken a middle ground position. I've stated that I am not interested in editing mainspace articles on the English Wikipedia unless and until the site can see its way clear to establish a more collegial and congenial operating environment, more hospitable to academics like myself and Ottava Rima.

If that Age of Comity is not soon forthcoming, then I ask for something less. I ask first of all for the English Wikipedia to give me back my good name. If it is the custom of the English Wikipedia to take away editing privileges from members of the established academic community and culture, I can accept that as a defining feature of the prevailing culture and practices of the English Wikipedia. But there is no need to take away the good name of distinguished academics like Carl Hewitt (or considerably less distinguished academics like Jon Awbrey or myself). I secondly ask the English Wikipedia to give me back the longstanding GFDL content which Toddst1 hastily and summarily deleted without just cause from my userspace subpages.

B.C. Folloah said...

Firstly, let me just state for the record that I'm self-employed, am not affiliated with any company that opposes net-neutrality, and am not billing the time I'm using to write this commend to any of my customers...

There are, very generally speaking, three kinds of people who get "sitebanned" from WP: Spammers, haters, and people who simply believe they're right about something (or that someone else is wrong) and are unwilling to simply accept defeat. The first group (spammers) are usually banned fairly readily and should stay that way; the second (haters) are often not banned at all, though they usually should be. The third group is where most of the unfair/unjust bans come from.

The secret to winning Wikipedia: The Game is to convince others (especially admins) that someone who disagrees with you, but is otherwise relatively harmless, is actually either a spammer or hater.

These things have little to do with someone's "failure to understand the rules." They have everything to do with politics, personal alliances, refusal to compromise, wearing down opponents with ceaseless bickering, and so on.

Wikipedia can do nothing about this, at least not without external governance or professional peer review. It's endemic to the system, and this talk of "mentorship" and "contrition" is really just a waste of bandwidth, not to mention insulting to people who have clearly been wronged - at least as long as the current conditions are in place.

Chris Watkins said...

Good proposals.