Sunday, August 12, 2007

Edit conflict

Edit conflict is perhaps the most unpleasant feature of participating in Wikipedia. Even in the best circumstances--where those concerned try to behave civilly--a conflict can be extremely annoying, as the editors must discuss their actions on a talk page. Back and forth they go, pointing out each other's errors and explaining the fundamental correctness of their own positions. At the end, if an agreement is reached, the number of words and the amount of energy expended on the talk page is many times more than the words and energy expended on the article page. A whole day or two can be spent just to get another sentence into the article. Edit conflict is emotionally draining, it wastes time, and very few editors seem to enjoy it.

Several mechanisms have evolved to help editors avoid edit conflict. First and foremost, there is the effort in Wikipedia to set the cultural environment so that discussions are civil, and to encourage editors to assume good faith. The three-revert rule allows an editor to revert another editor on a given article only three times with 24 hours, and serves to push conflicts to the talk pages. These policies serve to reduce conflict between editors, mostly by forcing discussion on talk pages, and focusing discussion on the article, rather than on the personalities of the editors. But beyond these official policies (which like almost everything in Wikipedia evolved spontaneously from the joint work of editors), several unofficial and largely unrecognized mechanisms have evolved.

One of these mechanisms is the tendency to form cliques. A cluster of related articles will typically be edited by a group of editors with similar interests, who have accepted each other as valid contributors. Even though they may not always agree, they have developed a tolerance and respect towards each other that allows editing to proceed without constant reversion. If an outsider wanders into this cluster of articles and begins to make edits that go against the prevailing norm, he will immediately find himself in conflict with, not one, but a whole clique of editors. The outsider will soon give up in disgust, and go elsewhere, where he fits in better and can himself become a part of a prevailing clique. Cliques are therefore the result of a sorting mechanism, an emergent property created by the desire of individual editors to avoid edit conflict.

While cliques solve one problem, they create another: the informational cascade. The homogeneity of clique members can create a very fragile consensus--fragile because based on a narrow set of information--which would be overturned were other viewpoints considered. In other words, clique control causes articles to be biased. A good example of clique-created bias is the article on the Armenian genocide: the article is entirely from the perspective of the Armenians, and any editor who attempts to explain the Turkish perspective will eventually give up in frustration.

A second unofficial and unrecognized mechanism to avoid edit conflict is the tendency of editors to avoid substantial edits, instead devoting themselves to reverting vandalism, fixing typos, and making minor changes for readability. Very few editors are willing to spend time on research, finding new sources, filling in the untold parts of the story. Even within a clique, big changes in an article require a lot of explaining.

A third mechanism to avoid edit conflict would be creating articles: rather than work on an existing article, create an entirely new one. New articles typically have empty talk pages for many months. So rather than work on that obviously unfinished article about a major figure, create a new article on a minor figure. New articles have the great advantage that they have yet to acquire a clique.

The desire of editors to avoid conflict with other editors can therefore explain many of the features of Wikipedia. It explains the terrific pace at which articles have been created, and it also explains why so many important articles lie about unfinished. It explains why so many good editors have given up writing articles and instead engage in more routine activities such as clearing up vandalism. And, most importantly, it explains why cliques form and take control of certain articles.

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