Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Clique cohesion requires an enemy

Wikipedia editors are by and large too individualistic to stick together in cliques. Even in situations where several editors work together on an article, there is not likely to be full agreement and editors must learn to accept that others approach the topic differently. It's not much fun to make big compromises, and most editors prefer to work on articles where they can make edits unhindered by the need to accommodate others.

Cohesion in a clique requires a force to counteract the friction of working with others. That force is usually ideological, though personal ties reinforce the ideological. A clique will form with the intent of protecting territory from an enemy. A sense of in-group and out-group develops. The out-group is seen to have reprehensible beliefs or to belong to a reprehensible segment of the population. The clique requires an enemy, and will assign that role to almost any editor who enters their territory, imputing to this stray editor the worst of motives.

In such cliques, there is not likely to be much agreement beyond the agreement that the enemy must be kept from the territory. The pages protected by a clique will be badly written and full of erroneous information. The reason for the low quality is not the constant attacks of the enemy, but rather that the clique controlling the territory is unable to organize itself for the task of article writing. In fact, the members of the clique might not know much about the subject of the pages they are defending, since ideological fervor is often a sign that one does not understand the full complexity of an issue (an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect).

The ability of the clique to control territory is based upon the willingness of clique members to back each other up in an edit dispute. In Wikipedia, of course, edit disputes are over content, so there is always an argument about content at the surface of a dispute. Clique members have the illusion that they have won a dispute because they were correct about content, when in fact they have only won because of their numbers and their cohesiveness. Arguments over content are likely to be repeated whenever a new editor wanders into their territory, and the clique finds its arguments more compelling each time they are repeated (an "availability cascade"). Trust simultaneously strengthens among the members, as each sees that the others, again and again, back them up. Cliques thus can become stronger over time.

Cliques can usually stay within the boundaries of the rules. A numerical advantage allows it to out-revert the solitary editors who oppose them, and the ease with which the clique wins content disputes helps its members stay calm and civil. Solitary editors in conflict with the clique are more likely to run afoul of the rules, reverting too often or exploding with frustration and saying uncivil things. As the rules currently stand, cliques are not often threatened by administrators.

Cliques are a special form of the "ownership" problem on Wikipedia. One proposal I've seen is that all of the editors active on an article or its talk pages can be asked to leave (for several months), opening up the article to a new set of editors. For this to work, a rule must determine when an article hits a state that all of the active editors must go elsewhere. It must be a simple rule, requiring little research on the part of the administrator, so that it cannot be contested--like the 3RR rule.

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