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Monday, August 22, 2005

Wikipedia: Order Without Law?

Over the last year, Volokh conspirators Kerr and Volokh, among others, have expressed a fair degree of skepticism about the accuracy and appropriate citation of entries in the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.  I tend to agree that the content of any given article in Wikipedia isn't sufficiently reliable to allow a reasonable judge, lawyer, academic or student to depend on.  I also agree with Prof. Kerr that there is no reason to believe that entries will naturally evolve toward accuracy -- the metaphor of evolution itself suggests why not

However, the question remains: how do the collaborative efforts of thousand of unpaid volunteers even come close to accuracy when any user can easily import her/his foolish views into any article?

The answer, I believe, lies in Wikipedia's dispute resolution policy. That policy, as written and applied, suggests to me that Wiki-community has created a set of norms to deal with conflict that look very much like the famous neighbor-ranchers of Bob Ellickson's Shasta County, as detailed in his book Order Without Law

When authors disagree as to the proper content of an article, they are directed to first remember Wikipedia's prime directive: adopt a neutral point of view.  This is apparently an important normative goal for members of the community.  They are told to always avoid the dispute by being respectful of others' edits, not "reverting" (or deleting the entire previous work of) others but instead improving it. 

If avoidance fails, Wikipedians are told to talk about the problem on each encyclopedia page's discussion tab.  There, they are to "avoid personal attacks," assume the other person is "acting in good faith", and to "stay cool."  Importantly:

[T]alking to other parties is not simply a formality to be satisfied before moving on to the next forum. Failure to pursue discussion in good faith shows that you are trying to escalate the dispute instead of resolving it. This will make people less sympathetic to your position and may prevent you from effectively using later stages in dispute resolution.

That is: Wikipedians don't "sue" Wikipedians.  They convince them.

If discussion fails, Wikipedia offers four second order resolution systems: discussion with third parties (there are pages devoted to such discussions), surveys, mediation, and (to aid in one of the previous methods) a third-party advocate. 

If none of these methods work, Wikipedia offers "formal" arbitration, which involves a committee  consisting of senior members of the community, empowered to make a final decision about a dispute.  Referrals to the committee are quite rare.

These norms may seem quite involved for what an unpaid project.  And, it is fair to wonder: does anyone pay attention?

If my experience is any guide, the answer is yes.  Check out this page, which recounts (in part) the Wikipedians' struggle to decide if my comments on this blog, and Eugene Volokh's responses, belong in an article about the retributive attempt to build a hotel on Justice Souter's New Hampshire property. 

You should go read the page to get its flavor, but in brief, one fellow ("OtisTdog") was unhappy with quotations to blogs (insufficiently neutral and authoritative, he claimed (Take that, Kerr!)).  The following sequence of events seemed to follow.

  • He "reverted" revisions he disliked;
  • Others criticized him for doing so, reminded him of the policy against reversions, and threatened a ban;
  • He called for mediation;
  • The community decided mediation was premature;
  • He eventually admitted that his "bull-in-a-china-shop entrance [was] born of unfamiliarity with the way things are done here" and moved toward a compromise position; and he now
  • "[G]enuinely appreciate[s] the chance to work this out here in the talk page instead of playing the revert game."

Is the original article accurate?  Not really, as I noted on the discussion page in question.  But who cares?  There is a whole ADR and conflict resolution system being set up behind the scenes, in the absence of (a) money; (b) the Bar; or (c) personal contact. And we don't have to go to Shasta County for months on end to see it.

For more on this fascinating topic, see this article by Joseph Reagle,

Posted by Dave Hoffman on August 22, 2005 at 08:04 PM in Odd World | Permalink


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Tracked on Aug 23, 2005 11:15:45 PM


I have frequently used Wikipedia as a reference, but never as an authority. I also frequently contribute to Wikipedia, and it is for the precise reason that someone like me can contribute to it that I do not regard it as sufficiently reliable to cite as authority. ;)

When I don't understand something, my first instinct is usually Wikipedia. One of our cats recently contracted a virus, and the vet told me by phone that it was a "corona virus". While I could have looked it up in Science magazine, I suspect that any article therein would explain it in painful depth. Or I could look it up in one of our two family encyclopaedias, but I suspect the entries therein would be outdated. So Wikipedia is ideal when you need an executive summary - but it truly isn't citable, in my view.

Posted by: Simon | Aug 22, 2005 11:40:25 PM

I'm trying to remember the rule of evidence for authoritative works. Is it "generally accepted by experts in the same field" or just "generally accepted"? Does Wikipedia have an "expert" requirement? I confess that I link to it often.

Posted by: nk | Aug 22, 2005 10:27:30 PM

Eh: As I understand you, we don't disagree about the merits of the Wikipedia dispute resolution process (it is great.) I don't think it is a good idea generally to compare cultural phenomena to biological ones, and then slap the label evolution on them. Evolution (as the book I linked to describes) has no direction, and isn't determined to progress toward accuracy, fitness, intelligence, height, good looks etc. As to your claim that Wikipedia does end up in the right place, I would want to see some good evidence before making up my mind, but on an anecdotal search of topics I know about, there were many (many) errors at various levels that an expert in the field simply wouldn't make.

Paul points out that it may be less unreliable than the alternatives. I think Eugene Volokh's post, which I linked to, deals with that objection in a better way that I could to justice to here. I do think incidentally that it is bad practice for courts to cite to law review articles, especially ones not raised and contested in the briefs.

Posted by: Dave Hoffman | Aug 22, 2005 10:25:06 PM

There's also a bottom-line point: "the content of any given article in [any secondary source, be it a newspaper or a law review article] isn't sufficiently reliable to allow a reasonable judge, lawyer, academic or student to depend on."

The real question is whether there's any reason to believe Wikipedia will not only be unreliable, but less reliable than the alternatives. Compared, for example, to academic journals, it has the disadvantage of non-expert contributors but the advantage of infinite alterability even post-"publication." It's not clear that the one advantage outweighs the other.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 22, 2005 9:17:11 PM

Evolution is an example of why a system under pressure won't evolve towards accuracy, when the pressure can be relieved by moving towards accuracy?

Explain yourself! :) Oh, wait, you provided a supporting link. Well, that must be okay then.

So, the wikipedia is a quasi-organic process... okay, sort of, yes. It's being written in parallel by organic beings, so yes, as to that.

They have norms, processes, and behaviors that they have accepted as a community- and by they, I mean we, for I am a member of that bizarre and far-flung community, because I created the substance of the entry for the word Blawg, see Blog under the subheading Legal.

Unlike the lobster-fishers, there's no tragedy of the commons in wikipedia. Resources are plentiful, competition is mostly ego-driven, and there's a bajillion square miles of topic to fish or farm or cultivate. We're closer to Locke's state of nature with acorns for most topics than we are to Shasta, although people choose to clump as they usually do, for warmth, for interaction, and to argue.

The most powerful argument for accuracy in Wikipedia is this:

- non-neutral and factually incorrect entries on controversial topics will attract attention.

- increased attention will bring disagreement, which will invoke the conflict-resolution norms and other apparatus you mention

- the solution will not be to accept the incorrect view, if there is one, but to remove offending portions, note the controversy if there is an objectively recognized controversy, and move the fight to the Talk pages.

- objectively correct and POV and generally accepted propositions will stay in, and the article will be richer as a result of the disagreement.

All this, because unlike comments, which easily degrade into insults and ad hominem and fury, Wikipedia processes almost inevitably end with the person who wants to fight isolating themselves, by taking unreasonable positions. It's almost impossible to persuade unless you're reasonable and reasoned on Wikipedia; it's almost impossible to persuade anybody if you're not. There's built-in meritocratic evaluation, and if experts don't like a particular post...

- Light a candle, or curse the darkness.

But we both know which is better, don't we? Chip in, post a comment about the right view, back it up with POV sources and a link, or just go ahead and fix the damned thing yourself.

Posted by: Eh Nonymous | Aug 22, 2005 8:59:25 PM

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