A Case of Mutual Aid: Wikipedia, Politeness, and Perspective Taking

Joseph M. Reagle Jr.


The anarchist Peter Kropotkin once wrote that “Mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle” (1902). At the time, he was responding to arguments arising from Darwin's The Origin of Species : that in nature and society individual creatures ceaselessly struggle against each other for dominance. Kropotkin took pains to explain and provide examples of how animals and humans survive by cooperating with each other. Interestingly, Kropotkin also contributed the article on anarchism to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica , a collaborative product of the Scottish Enlightenment and a precursor to the Wikipedia, a collaborative, on-line, and free encyclopedia.

This paper explores the character of “mutual aid” and interdependent decision making within the Wikipedia . I provide a brief introduction to Wikipedia, the key terms associated with group decision making, and the Wikipedia disput e resolution process. I then focus on the cultural norms (e.g., “good faith”) within Wikipedia that frame participation as a cooperative endeavor. In particular, I argue that the “neutral point of view” policy is not a source of conflict, as it is often perceived to be, but a resolution shaping norm. However, the naive understanding that this policy is about an unbiased neutrality is also problematic. I conclude by identifying some notions from negotiation literature that may be inappropriate or require adaptation to the Wikipedia case.


The Wikipedia is an on-line “Wiki” based encyclopedia. "Wiki wiki" means "super fast" in the Hawaiian language, and Ward Cunningham chose the name for his project in 1995 to indicate the ease with which one could edit Web pages. In a sense, a Wiki captures the original conception of the World Wide Web as a browsing and editing medium. However, when the Web began its precipitous growth the most popular clients lacked the ability for users to edit a Web page.

The Wiki changed this asymmetry by placing the editing functionality on the server. Consequently, if a page can be read, it can be edited. With a Wiki, the user enters a simplified markup into a form on a Web page. To add a numbered list item with a link to the Wikipedia one simply types: “# this provides a link to [[Wikipedia]]”. The server-side Wikipedia software translates this into the appropriate HTML and hypertext links. To create a new page, one simply creates a link to it! Furthermore, each page includes links through which one can sign in (if desired), view a log of recent changes to the page (including the author, change, and time), or participate in a discussion about how the page is being edited on its Talk Page – and this too is a Wiki page. These powerful features are representative of Cunningham’s (2004) original design principles for Wiki: that it be open, incremental, organic, mundane (simple), universal, overt (there’s a correspondence between the edited and presented form), unified, precise, tolerant, observable, and convergent (non-redundant content). The application of a general tool facilitates a surprisingly sophisticated creation!

Yet, as is often the case, the consequence of this quick and informal approach was not foreseen – or, rather, was pleasantly surprising. Wikipedia is the populist offshoot of the Nupedia project started in March of 2000 by Jimbo Wales and Larry Sanger. Nupedia’s mission was to create a free encyclopedia via rigorous expert review under a free documentation license. Unfortunately, this process moved rather slowly and having recently been introduced to Wiki, Sanger persuaded Wales to set up a scratch-pad for potential Nupedia content where anyone could contribute. However, “There was considerable resistance on the part of Nupedia's editors and reviewers, however, to making Nupedia closely associated with a website in the wiki format. Therefore, the new project was given the name ‘Wikipedia’ and launched on its own address, Wikipedia.com, on January 15 [2001]” (Wikipedia 2004hw).

Wikipedia proved to be so successful that when the server hosting Nupedia crashed in September of 2003 (with little more than 23 “complete” articles and 68 more in progress) it was never restored. As of today, there are over 50 different language Wikipedias (2004wa); the original English version exceeds 390,000 articles, including most of the Nupedia content. The Wikimedia Foundation, incorporated in 2003, is now the steward of Wikipedia as well as a new Wiki based dictionary, compendium of quotations, collaborative textbooks, and repository of free source texts.

However, aside from the actual artifact and its history, one of the most interesting features of the Wikipedia is the community itself. One might characterize it according to the definition Kropotkin wrote of in his Britannica article on anarchism: “harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups.” Yet, as one can imagine, having thousands of participants editing a Web site so as to produce a coherent product and congenial community is a significant challenge.

Interdependent decision-making

Kelley et al. (2003:3) define interdependence as " The manner in which two individuals influence each other's outcomes in the course of their interaction . " Wikipedia certainly fits the bill : it is difficult to conceive of a large collaborative project that is as accessible to the general public as this one.

Not surprisingly, Wikipedians sometimes disagree : each contributor resisting the other's influence on the joint outcome of a contested article , Barki and Hartwick (2001:7) define interpersonal conflict as, “a phenomenon that occurs between interdependent parties as they experience negative emotional reactions to perceived disagreements and interference with the attainment of their goals.” In such cases the parties may enter into a “negotiation , or bargaining as it is sometimes called , [ which ] is a discussion between two or more parties with the aim of resolving the divergence " (Carnevale and Pruitt 2004 : 2 ). In the Wikipedia context , I would qualify this definition’s connotation that such discussion is an exceptional or at least a salient event ; Wikipedia is itself , really , a continuing discussion . Yet, when that discussion becomes particularly heated and participants become polarized the theory and practice of negotiation is relevant .

In recent negotiation literature a foundational concept is that of “integrated potential”: these are options capable of integrating the interests of the parties such that joined utility can be increased (Carnevale and Pruitt 2004). I expect that the integrated potential within the Wikipedia context is huge: any contribution other than that which deletes other useful contributions, or otherwise significantly impairs such contributions is integrative.

Wikipedia disputes

In an article entitled Problems of Conflict Management in Virtual Communities, Smith (1998:146) identified four causes of disputes in on-line (MUD) communities:

  1. Internet community is diverse
  2. Ambiguous goals contribute to conflict
  3. Asymmetric dependence and power leads to much conflict
  4. Administrator response can unintentionally intensify player conflict

Generally, these factors are relevant to the Wikipedia context. However, the Wikipedia does benefit from having an explicit goal and way of achieving it via its Neutral Point of View (Wikipedia 2004wnp) policy which I discuss below. Furthermore, in contrast to the MUD environments that Smith studied, the Wikipedia environment is much more egalitarian: contributions are accepted from all, including the anonymous, and there are few personal privileges that come with an elevated status, but many hassles.

The Wikipedia is often presented as a contentious community because of the occurrence of edit wars (Wikipedia 2004wew): participants repeatedly edit or revert articles to a previous state in order to remove another contributor’s text. As an example of the contentious presentation, on 2004 November 10, two popular press articles on Wikipedia were forwarded to the Wikipedia-l list . A New York Times article entitled Mudslinging Weasels Into Online History (Boxer 2004) summarized the history of edits to the Bush and Kerry articles during the last stages of the U.S. presidential election. And The Onion (Groznic 2004) included a parody of a letter from a “super-fan” taking issue with the Wikipedia entry on “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Yet, the vast majority of Wikipedia contributors and articles are not the subjects of severe dispute. A number of pages within the Wikipedia document ongoing disputes; the following statistics are those for the English language Wikipedia (2004wra, 2004wrm, 2004c, 2004ss) as tabulated on 2004 November 16.

In the cases of arbitration or mediation requests, such documentation typically identifies disputes between two contributors, occasionally more (e.g., naming conventions for geographical objects in Poland) . By tabulating the number of list items on the identified page or its archives I estimate 52 total Requests for Arbitration (with 0 active) and 74 archived Requests for Mediation (with 8 active) between users. Note, that there are over 13,200 users who have “edited at least 10 times since they arrived,” half as many which are considered “active,” out of a total of 135,763 registered users .

While not a substantive dispute, vandalism is much more common as it is often petty and easily done by anonymous users – or “ sock puppets ” wherein users participate with more than one identity. Consequently, vandalism entries are often associated with an IP number (the number associated with a Internet host) rather than an actual account name since IP numbers are more difficult to change. The Vandalism in Progress page (Wikipedia 2004wvp) for the past 5 days includes 25, 15, 12, 10 and 7 entries respectively and each entry may affect more than one page – though it is by no means certain all vandalisms are noted or identified. Yet, there are over 390,000 English pages (Wikipedia 2004wa).

However, even a relatively few disputes can be costly to those unfortunate enough to encounter them:

Consequently it is worthwhile to consider how disputes are mitigated or resolved.

The process

In the presence of social conflict Carnevale and Pruitt (2004:3) identify the following strategies that can be used in negotiation. I have provided (silly) examples from the Talk Pages associated with Wikipedia’s Lamest edit wars ever (Wikipedia 2004wle):

In continuing disputes (Wikipedia 2004wdr), participants can volunteer to a truce (refrain from editing the article) and "cool off," or, failing such magnanimity, an administrator might protect/lock the page for a period. Additionally, users can conduct polls or invite comment from the larger community in order to gain perspective – but it might also expand the debate. Failing informal resolution, participants may request mediation by a third-party and even obtain an advocate on one’s behalf. As a last resort, users might request arbitration that can produce an enforceable decision. (These last two steps are characterized as joint decision-making and third-party decision-making by Carnevale and Pruitt (2004:4)).

Wikipedia communion

The notion of "dispute resolution" is surprisingly optimistic: as if agreement and harmony are the natural state from which disputes sometimes errantly arise and must be swiftly corrected. Yet to characterize social relations as inherently conflicted – as is sometimes done with Wikipedia – is also mistaken. (Debates regarding stability versus conflict within social models have a long history. Burrell and Morgan (1979) distinguished the bias in such models as regulation or radical; Deetz (1996) as consensus or dissensus.)

Instead, one needs to recognize and appreciate that social interaction exists in a complex web of individual subjectivity, social structure, and cultural meaning. Diverse interests and expertise can be innovative or costly (Levina 2002). Close relations within a group are important for coordination and links across groups are important for learning (Reagans and Zuckerman 2001). Groups that cooperate do a better job of finding integrative agreements, but groups are also more likely to defect than individuals in a prisoner dilemma task (Morgan and Tindale 2002). Groups are not necessarily harmonious or contentious. Additionally, innovation and efficiency are not the only reasons for groups. Rheingold used the term "communion" to describe that which was both sought and exhibited by some of the earliest electronic communities, an arrangement that “feels to me more like a kind of gift economy in which people do things for one another out of the spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet calculated quid pro quo” (1993:59). Some communications theorists use the term “inter-subjectivity” to identify an awareness of and intention to convey information to another. And philosophers such as Habermas (1991) and Grice (1975) have proposed theories of community and discourse from which social institutions and cooperation can be constituted.

My point, simply, is to warn of my own hesitation in drawing too sharp a line between agreement and conflict. The consequent of this hesitation is my continued search for behaviors and norms that facilitate productive interaction rather than simply creating facile agreement or avoiding productive conflict.

The epistemic stance

A misunderstood notion about Wikipedia is that much contention arises from its Neutral Point Of View ( NPOV ) policy (Wikipedia 2004wnp): that debates arise from this seemingly impossible requirement to remain objectively neutral . Yet , the NPOV policy is quite the opposite and instead recognizes the multitude of viewpoints and provides an epistemic stance in which they all can be recognized as instances of human knowledge – right or wrong .

The NPOV policy seeks to achieve the " fair " representation of all sides of the dispute such that all can feel well represented . Articles should explain without advocating , characterize without engaging , and honor the intellectual independence of the readers by refraining from dogmatism. Hence, the clear goal of providing an encyclopedia of all human knowledge explicitly avoids many entanglements. Yet, when such disagreements do occur they often involve the NPOV. Most often, this is because a new participant is ignorant of or in opposition to the NPOV policy. In some circumstances, the debate legitimately raises substantive questions about NPOV. Consequently, while the perception is that NPOV is the source of much debate, it may act rather as a heat shield: reducing conflict and otherwise channeling outstanding arguments in the productive context of the primary goal of developing an encyclopedia that is representative of many viewpoints.

An additional, related, stance is that Wikipedia is not a place for original research . This permits the community to avoid arguments about crackpots, pet theories, neologisms, and vanity links (i.e., a person links from the Wikipedia to a site they wish to promote). If one has “a great idea that you think should become part of the corpus of knowledge that is Wikipedia, the best approach is to publish your results in a good peer-reviewed journal, and then document your work in an appropriately non-partisan manner” (Wikipedia 2004wno).

It is important to note that this stance does have important ethical implications. The policy of only reporting on what it is well-known has significant implications for minority views. This is acknowledged and debated within the Wikipedia community and the present norm is that Wikipedia should be fairly representative and proportional to the phenomenon it seeks to capture.

Within the Wikimedia projects, this stance has led to the development of Wikisource for collecting primary source materials, and a proposal of a collaborative Wikiresearch project. Additionally, Wikinfo , an offshoot of Wikipedia, was forked from Wikipedia so as to operate under a different philosophical stance that encourages a set of sympathetic and critical articles on a single topic: a "sympathetic point of view is a way of encouraging a pluralism of content, rather than limiting content to an unattainable encyclopedic goal" (Wikinfo2004).

Politeness and perspective taking

The Wikipedia’s Dispute Resolution (2004wdr) article advises that "the best way to resolve a dispute is to avoid it in the first place" by improving someone's contribution – rather than reverting it – and resisting the temptation to respond to rudeness in kind.

On the Wikipedia mailing lists and Talk Pages there is a surprising level of civility; participants often volunteer to take “a timeout” and even apologize . Such behavior is recommended in a number of Wikipedia policies. For example, Neutral Point of View (2004wnp) counsels that,

Wikipetiquette (2004ww) recommends that participants:

Staying Cool When the Editing Gets Hot (2004wsc) advises that if one is being attacked one should “just ignore it,” “politely ask the person to stop”, and most amazingly: “Edit their words to remove the insulting part—rephrase it as a simple statement of their beliefs, for example.” When humans are likely to exhibit over-confidence in their rightness (Kahneman and Tversky 1995) regardless of their lack of expertise or knowledge, such advice is an important corrective influence.

A consequence of these guidelines is that participants often find themselves writing for the enemy , as ,“We should all be engaged in explaining each other's points of view as sympathetically as possible”; while, “The other side might very well find your attempts to characterize their views substandard, but it's the thought that counts” (Wikipedia 2004wnp).

In the field of knowledge management this notion is known as perspective taking . In this conceptualization of group learning, participants have unique perspectives about related domains. By entertaining the perspectives of others they are able to engage in “perspective making”: identifying hidden commonalities (i.e., using of similar words for different concepts or different words for similar concepts) and unique information (Boland and Tenkasi 1995) in order to form a more valuable synthesis. In the negotiation context, "negotiators often fail to understand adequately the perspectives of their opponents. Misunderstanding the interest of one's negotiation opponent can lead to erroneous attributions (Morris, Larrick, & Su, 1999), a failure to maximize joint gains (Thompson & Hrebec, 1996), and impasses (Thompson, 1990)" (Galinsky and Mussweiler 2001).

Additionally, these Wikipedia practices are very much aligned with Yankelovich’s (2001) notion of dialogue which relies upon the notion of empathy:

The gift of empathy — the ability to think someone else's thoughts and feel someone else's feelings — is indispensable to dialogue. This is why discussion is more common than dialogue: people find it easy to express their opinions and to bat ideas back and forth with others, but most of the time they don't have either the motivation or the patience to respond empathically to opinions with which they may disagree or that they find uncongenial.

Psychologists have further found a cognitive relationship between cooperative/competitive priming tasks and the cognitive performance of subsequent tasks. Carnevale and Probst (1998) found that competitive situations, or even the expectation of them, lead to an impairment in problem-solving and categorization tasks – more rigid black-and-white thinking – relative to cooperative situations.

Finally, better solutions tend to be arrived at when participants approach a negotiation with a problem-solving orientation: a desire to solve a problem given the other parties needs (Pruitt and Lewis 1971). Consequently, Wikipedia, either purposefully or accidentally, reflects many findings in the literature on how to encourage productive interdependent collaboration.

Collectivity and Value

While key terms from the literature on interdependent decision-making, and findings on cognition in the psychology literature, are immediately relevant to the Wikipedia, this literature also includes a wide scope of material that that is less readily relevant. Perhaps this is because of a bias towards individualistic and economic models of human interaction.

As already alluded to, in the Wikipedia context it is difficult to distinguish between agreement and disagreement. Furthermore, while negotiators hope to achieve an integrated agreement by finding non-zero sum opportunities, most all Wikipedia interactions qualify as such: the Wikipedia is collective, there’s not much point in being invested in a single article only. (One might have the appropriate expertise for a single article, be proud of such an article, but, unlike other negotiations, one does not happily walk away from the relationship with the Wikipedia with that single article.)

Much of the experimental literature (i.e., that based on game theory (Axelrod 1984) and mixed-motive collective-bargaining (Kelley 1966)) presumes that the interests of the parties can be independently quantified and that the value of the joint product is divisible. If one is involved in an edit war, is there such a thing as a BATNA: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (Fisher, Ury, Patton 1991)? (I believe there is, but the options are mostly the same for the participants: exit.) Are such alternatives quantifiably valuated? In the Wikipedia, one's interest is grounded in ideology rather than material commodities. In this production function, time and effort are the input, any output is a collaborative non-divisible product with extraordinarily variable valuations – based in the “eye of the beholders.”


The Wikipedia is an intriguing case for study because of its growing popularity, its novelty as an example of "commons-based peer production" (Benkler 2002), the central role of cultural norms, and the transparency and self documenting character of its discourse. In this paper, I briefly reviewed a few concepts from the interdependent decision-making literature that are relevant to this community. However, I also expressed hesitation about viewing interaction as simplistic agreement or disagreement, and how the productive character of this interaction is not readily adapted to traditional models based on quantifiable valuations of interests and divisible joint products.

Furthermore, the inter-subjective realm of agreement, of “communal discernment” (Sheeran 1996), when there is a “high” that accompanies “a moment of increased coherence, where the group is able to move beyond its perceived blocks or limitations and into new territory” (Bohm, Factor, and Garrett 1991) remains largely unexplored.

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