Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wikitruth through Wikiorder

Browsing the Signpost today led to a scholarly study by two Temple University law scholars. The abstract looked intriguing enough that it overcame my natural antipathy toward PDF files and read the whole 45 page paper. Posting a few thoughts about it here.

More than is usual for this kind of work, the prose is readable and at times engaging. It prompted a few fond chuckles to see the following:
There are over thirty distinct ways to irritate other Wikipedia users, including being incivil, disruptive, or tendentious; researching the wrong way, attacking others’ gender or race...
Ah yes, but aren't there much more than thirty? Surely an enterprising spirit would generate new ones. Otherwise life might get boring.

On the whole, though, their analysis is structurally flawed. David A. Hoffman and Salil Mehra write about arbitration as if it were the only means of banning editors, but of course there are more. The period January 2005 through Septemer 2007 was a critical one in Wikipedia's development of community-based remedies, none of which are mentioned in the study.

To highlight the developments:
  • May 2005: Wikipedia formalizes its banning policy.
  • July 2005: David Gerard provides a definition of community bans: "Some editors are so odious that not one of the 500+ admins will unblock them." In slightly less colorful phrasing this becomes the de facto standard for community sitebans.
  • September 2006: Wikipedia formalizes a disruptive editing guideline.

In the time since then the community has become increasingly proactive in enacting, reviewing, and lifting sanctions. Unfortuantely these are not easily studied because the documentation of these sanctions is extremely diffuse. A page exists to record full sitebans, but not for any other type of community-based sanctions (topic ban, article ban, single revert restrictions, etc.), and the definition of community banning is itself diffuse enough to be disputed: when is an editor banned by the community, as opposed to placed under a block of indefinite duration? Discussion of bans (which may or may not require consensus discussion, depending on who you ask) has roamed across at least three noticeboards. Although automated search tools have been developed in attempt to compensate, they can search only for specific instances where the editor's username is known and the tools may fail to turn up the appropriate result.

Additionally, although the community enacts bans and other sanctions of indefinite duration, it has almost no articulated standards for reconsidering an indefinite sanction. Generally the blocking administrator is held responsible and should be consulted, but there is very little provision for what to do if that administrator is unavailable or under what circumstances sanctions should come to an end. The results of that lack are predictably chaotic.

So although it would be fair to say that a majority of sanctions were enacted by the Arbitration Committee or Jimbo Wales at the beginning of 2005, by September 2007 the minority of editor sanctions were coming from these sources. The nature of disputes heard by the Committee was also changing substantially as the community adapted to handling simple and obvious cases, so by the end of the period under study the character of cases before the Arbitration Committee had shifted toward complex and intransigent disputes for which no easy solution was at hand.

So, setting aside other criticisms (I had originally intended to mention the absence of analysis on wheel wars and other causes of administrative desysoppings, and a few smaller points), Hoffman's and Mehra's attempt to apply complex statistical analysis and game theory to Wikipedia arbitration is fatally flawed.

11 comments:

Sage said...

I found the game theory bit at least a little bit useful, and I think the point that the come to based on analysis of just arbitration (which they do acknowledge is just the most easily studied part of a larger, more diffuse system) is mostly valid for the community's general approach: we come down hard on violations of behavioral norms but attempting to channel those who contributed flawed content into more productive modes of editing, and our dispute resolution system is not primarily geared towards resolving content disputes but instead using such disputes to improve content.

That this strategy is analogous to "chicken" is at least provocative, even if it's obviously a drastic oversimplification (as applications of game theory to real-life sociological phenomena tend to be).

Durova said...

You've got a good point about the analogy to 'chicken'. It's quite provocative, and may have a degree of validity.

Habitual policy violation isn't a simple binary determination between troll/non-troll. Think how, long before the Internet, 'religion and politics' have been topics that were customarily avoided in social settings. A substantial percentage of arbitration cases are actually iterations of religion or politics. Outside the hot button topic, a fair portion of the people who sink into religious and political disputes are actually fine volunteers.

Gregory Kohs said...

Regarding the "community ban", I am (according to Admin:JzG and a few others) under such a ban. However, the period that I recall where a not-a-vote on the matter took place lasted about 17 hours, and under the pretense that I had "legally intimidated" you, Durova. Later, Jimmy Wales fairly forcefully suggested that I ought to be returned into the Wikipedia community. And, I recall there was "one last gasp" to have the community decide if I should be allowed to return under the terms of providing 100 edits to the encyclopedia, without antagonism, then see if any of my former adversaries would like to extend an apology for how I was treated... and this proposal was rejected (if I recall) by about a 40-to-20 count.

Durova, we are on fairly good terms now, so this is not meant to stir up bad blood. But, I'd be interested to know your impression of how the "community ban" process worked in my case.

Durova said...

It was an unusual case from a technical standpoint, because the ban had originally come from Jimbo and you asked the community to review it. There was no clear precedent at that time to establish that the community had the ability to overturn his bans. JzG's later action was, like many of his decisions, decisive and bluntly delivered.

As Mae West was fond of saying, "It's not what you do but how you do it." In that discussion you refer to, Greg, I was tactless. None of the three of us were at our best there. It's been two years and, let's hope, plenty of water under the bridge.

Gregory Kohs said...

Yes, there are those on Wikipedia who have a talent for delivering infuriating, hurtful commentary in a way that seems to manipulate the English language such that observers who are not on the receiving end of the attack don't perceive it to be an attack whatsoever. I lack that talent.

Thanks for your thoughtful answer, and similarly, I note that I failed to be tactful during many of my engagements on the Wikipedia game.

Joshua said...

Greg, you really confuse. You make comments like the above in a completely reasonable fashion. You have polite email exchanges (at least my last exchange with you seemed both polite and educational) and then we get just a few days ago http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Plausible_argument and http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Log&type=block&page=User%3APlausible_argument

Gregory Kohs said...

Yes, Joshua... that comment that I made, for which you handily provided a link, was rather quickly described by another long-time respected editor as "GOLD". So, you confuse now. You're saying that I am "completely reasonable", "polite", and able to provide short discussion edits that others quickly applaud as "GOLD". What seems to be the confusion?

Your argument was that a Wikipedia article about an Australian governmental agency darn well OUGHT to provide the reader a direct link to a questionable site featuring photographs of aborted fetuses.

I responded with "GOLD".

You are now confused.

Might I suggest that you go back and think about this some more?

Joshua said...

Greg, considering that the user in question who called it "GOLD" apparently thought that you were trying to support my argument
(http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk%3AVirtualSteve&diff=278254257&oldid=278253780 ) it speaks more about his lack of reading comprehension than anything else.

So let's refresh what happened: I argued that a Wikipedia page which discusses a specific website should in fact contain a link to that website. There might be decent arguments against that (one can bring up the issue of much data should have been in that article and how much should have been in the main article on Australian internet censorship instead). But that's not what you did. No, you attempted to personalize the discussion. You created a sockpuppet and made the discussion about me while linking to a video which you and other Wikipedia Review fans seem to think is a good insult of me.

Now, I could discuss how your stooping to 6th grade tactics it reflective of a lack of any valid argument. But I won't do that. You do have some valid points. But repeated behavior like this just makes more enemies where you don't need them and makes people less likely to listen to you when you have something useful to say.

Moreover, this doesn't deal with the basic issue: I don't understand how you can act all polite one moment, and even have a fairly polite email exchange, and post comments here on Durova's blog that demonstrate apparent thought and self-awareness at the same time you are creating sockpuppets so you can post a link to a video of a user when he was in 10th grade which makes him look like an annoying idiot.

Durova said...

Joshua and Greg, I've done you both the courtesy of approving all your comments to this post. It's been a close call and this conversation is heading downward.

Am close to nuking all responses, starting with Sage. Any reason not to hit the button? The silos are open and the ICBMs are waiting.

Joshua said...

Well, if one were to remove posts it would likely make more sense to start at removing my post and everything from therw which is what seemed to take the matter off-topic. I would hope that a disagreement between Greg and me would not interfere with any otherwise interesting and productive discussion.

Gregory Kohs said...

Agreed, it would seem rather disproportionate to nuke an entire discussion thread just because one adult and a slightly older adult have a bone to pick with one another.

Perhaps we could open up the discussion, in fact, to other visitors -- I ask them the question:

Was it appropriate for the Wikipedia article about the Australian Communications and Media Authority to contain a live hyperlink to a page on the site AbortionTV.com, which featured three photographs of dismembered fetuses?

Joshua said "yes", and I said "no". Please vote, everyone!