Wikipedia takes a u-turn – The change in the editing concept of Wikipedia (Part Two)

26 September, 2011 at 18:51 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wiki systems, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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The following is the second part in a series of essays, which ellaborate my talk on Wikimania 2011. The first article is here.

Heated debates are not about the facts but rather on how to present them

Five cartoon images in various colors sitting or leaning on the Wikipedia puzzle-globe, engaged in deep reflections

Quo Vadis, Wikipedia?

How to call Ireland?

Looking at some of the heated debates on the English-language Wikipedia reveals that facts are never the core of such debates, but rather the way they should be presented. For example, in December 2008, the debate about Ireland culminated. The issue at stake had nothing to do with actual facts about this northeast Atlantic island, its people or the two geopolitical units on its land. Rather, the controversy was about how to name the articles about Ireland. With the name “Ireland” being used in the English language (and most other languages) in both political and geographical contexts, and considering the conflict that affected the island for several decades in the recent past, it is not surprising that the right way to present the facts about the island is a matter of controversy. It is not unusual to have polysemies like this, and there are simple ways to overcome them, especially with a flexible tool like a Wiki system (the software infrastructure upon which Wikipedia is built), but here, the decades old conflict reflects on the work of the Wikipedians. They can agree about the facts, they cannot agree on how to present them.

Is it “pro-life” or “anti-abortion”?

A similar case is the set of articles about abortion. In August 2011 the bitter debate about the articles on the English-language Wikipedia dealing with the termination of pregnency reached the “Arbitration Committee”. No one argues about the facts presented in the article or about the method in which they were collected. The controversy is about whether to call the movement that objects abortions “pro-life” or “anti-abortion” (see here and here) and whether the article about abortion should include this image of  a ten weeks old live fetus inside a uterus which was removed from a 44-old woman (for pure medical reasons, in this specific case, according to the photograph’s uploader). The lead of articles is often a matter of harsh debates, and this case is no exception. While Wikipedia is committed to fairly present all significant views about a subject, the lead is often perceived as if presenting the prevailing or most valid view. It is probably also assumed that many people read the lead and disregard the details that follow. Here, a question was raised several times whether the process should be described as “causing the death [of a fetus or embryo]” or “causing the termination [of a pregnancy]”. Once again we see that the facts are in consensus. It is how to present them that causes the controversy. 

English-language Wikipedia’s mechanism of conflict resolution 

At this point, and before moving ahead in my analysis, it might be worth while to shed some light on one of the ways in which the English-language Wikipedia resolves conflicts. In this partial overview, I will address one of the more recently developed methods, which seems to have gained prominence quite quickly. More details can be found in one of the excellent articles and presentations about Wikipedia written by Ayelet Oz. One of her peresentations about this subject is available on the Wikimania 2009 website.

Arbitration Committee: Popular idea that fails in most cases

 The English-language Wikipedia has an “Arbitration Committee” to which Wikipedians appeal when they think their debates with other Wikipedians have reached a dead end. The appeals are either against alleged misbehavior of another Wikipedian, or about a certain topic, at the center of one or several article, which seems too controversial. This whole system is quite peculiar. The Arbitration Committee is not supposed and usually not expected to act as an editorial board or a fact-checking committee. They actually act as a court of law judging where Wikipedia’s procedures of editing went wrong. The committee is supposed to offer remedies that would bring the procedures back on track and move away the “blocking element” that prevents the normal flow of the debate, when it heads toward a solution.

The Arbitration Committee method has become very popular for various reasons, even though it fails in most cases. In most of the cases, the Committee ends the heated discussion by repeating the main principles of Wikipedia in a general language, and declaring the topic in question a danger zone, so to speak. This means that Wikipedia’s administrators have the right to be much less tolerant toward editors who wish to introduce changes to these articles. They would be able to punish them in various ways, or even ban them completely from editing on the English-language Wikipedia, if they deem their edits contentious.

Eventually, it is the politically motivated that are heard

The debates on the pages of the Arbitration Committee are open to all, but just in theory. First of all, you have to know such a committee exists. Then you have to read long pages of instructions and recommendations. Filing a request or commenting on an open case improperly can have unpleasant consequences if you wish to keep editing the English-language Wikipedia. The structure of the debates and their languages is a mixture of debating club sessions and juristic discussions. You have to be very acquainted with this structure, as well as the language and jargon in order to have a say in the arbitration process. Finally, you need to have a lot of time and dedication. These debates are long, tiring and often frustrating. In real life, we often hire lawyers to do this kind of works for us. Here you have to do it all by yourself. Those who have political interest in the phrasing of the certain article in question, are usually those who have the motivation to make the time and effort, and they are the ones who will be heard. Those who have an innocent wish to contribute some of their knowledge will give up.

TO BE CONTINUED

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