Sunday, October 14, 2007

Telling the teacher

In elementary school the teacher is an all-powerful enforcer, who interprets the rules of the school, and metes out reward and punishment. When children encounter conflict they turn to this enforcer, they "tell the teacher." There is some opprobrium associated with tattling, so it is considered only a last resort, and chosen only by the loser in a conflict, after peers have refused to rally to his side.

Wikipedia is celebrated as an anarchy, where it is possible to ignore rules, and where everything should be settled by consensus among reasonable editors. Nevertheless, these editors all came up through elementary schools, and all have learned the tactic of telling the teacher when they feel unfairly used. The analogue of the teacher in Wikipedia is the administrator, and these must constantly lend an ear to the complaints of the insecure and the marginalized.

In fact, administrators can't do much. A conflict takes time to develop, and may be spread over many pages; the users all have a background, providing context for the conflict, spreading over many more pages. A just appraisal of a conflict requires too much work, and no one is interested in a conflict to which they have not been a party.

But, on the other hand, users appeal regularly to administrators, and it seems wrong to simply ignore the appeal. There are a few rules that provide a clean way to assign guilt to a user, without requiring an administrator to study background material: the three-revert rule, and rules against threats, especially legal threats. Violate one of these rules, and the case is immediately decided; otherwise, the case is more murky, and the administrator's most sensible response is to say, in diplomatic terms, "don't be a crybaby, learn to get along with other children."

A system like Wikipedia needs a few rules whose violation leads to near-certain punishment. A good system of rules relies on a very narrow set of information: detection of violators should require reading only a small amount of text, and should require no effort to interpret what the user really meant. Violating these rules should function as a tripwire, leading to automatic punishment. Most of the worst species of trolls are weeded out with these tripwire rules.

Such rules create an environment in which a certain kind of troll has evolved: a troll who appears to be polite, but who edits aggressively, who is a master of subtle tactics of obfuscation and obstruction, and whose polite comments often appear to their recipients as thinly veiled taunts. Never in violation of the tripwire rules, this kind of troll flourishes in Wikipedia, and can only be detected by the subjective and laborious task of reading his posts and interpreting his meaning--a task that no administrator is willing to take on.

No comments: