Be Nice

The online version of a forthcoming paper in the Web Science special issue of New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia is now available. If you have difficulty accessing this version, you can also see an online preprint.

Reagle, J. M. (2010). “Be Nice”: Wikipedia norms for supportive communication. New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 16(1), 161-180. doi:10.1080/13614568.2010.498528

Wikipedia is acknowledged to have been home to “some bitter disputes.” Indeed, conflict at Wikipedia is said to be “as addictive as cocaine.” Yet, such observations are not cynical commentary but motivation for a collection of social norms. These norms speak to the intentional stance and communicative behaviors Wikipedians should adopt when interacting with one another. In the following pages, I provide a survey of these norms on the English Wikipedia and argue that they can be characterized as supportive based on Jack Gibb's classic communication article “Defensive Communication.”

Ported/Archived Responses

Peter Damian on 2010-08-19

Update: Connolley now indefinitely blocked for some bureacratic reason He objected to his talk page being blocked I think.  Blocking access to your talk page is the final humiliation imposed by the Wikipedia police.

Joseph Reagle on 2010-08-20

I have long had been appreciative of William's efforts, though I cannot say I've followed the minutia of his case over the past year. I think this might be a good reflection of how constant interaction with those who are ignorant (from an expert point of view) or even malicious can lead to "brittleness" in long time and productive contributors, and perhaps even administrative overreach. Burnout/exit is not then far away I fear.

Barry Kort on 2010-08-17

Notably lacking from the bibliographic references is the essential work of Suzette Haden Elgin, "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense," Dorset Press, 1980, and the sequel, "More on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense," Prentiss-Hall, 1983. []

With respect to the motivation and emotion attached to "Defensive Communication," let us not overlook this observation from Sam Vaknin on Narcissistic Rage:

"By holding the critic in contempt, by diminishing the stature of the discordant conversant – the narcissist minimises the impact of the disagreement or criticism on himself. This is a defence mechanism known as cognitive dissonance." []

Joseph Reagle on 2010-08-18

I think that's a fair critique, though I might rephase it as "Wikipedia has a bunch of pages on Wikipedian behaviour, many have been discussed in the context of specific cases, but no one's ever surveyed all of them, here are some issues involved in such a survey, and here's the application of a framework for assessing whether they are supportive or defensive." That's not ground breaking, but I hope it's a complement to other work (including my own) that looks at norms and nuances of their performance that you speak of. I did this work because I wanted to step back from practice and debates over particular issues and try to take it all in.

Joseph Reagle on 2010-08-17

@Peter: The scope of the paper is specific, written Wikipedian interactive norms, which are (seemingly) largely prosocial, though, for example, I mention some of the difficulties associated with neutrality.

@Barry: Thank you for the reference, I've put it in my queue and am looking forward to reading it. It probably would've been handy when I was teaching conflict management as well.

Peter Damian on 2010-08-17

I read this "survey of norms" with interest, but (as before) I feel it is uncritical and does not even mention the other norms within Wikipedian which are so destructive to the enterprise.  For example, the hostility towards experts which Sanger (2007 ) calls 'epistemic egalitarianism.  You don't mention Sanger's work anywhere - why not?

Peter Damian on 2010-08-20

>>might be a good reflection of how constant interaction with those who are ignorant (from an expert point of view) or even malicious can lead to "brittleness" in long time and productive contributors

Now there I agree with you entirely.  (Although I don't see how one could be ignorant from a non-expert point of view :)

Peter Damian on 2010-08-19

@Seth: The corporate manuals you mention are not enforced and, as you say, are completely ignored by both the firm and the employees.  By contrast Wikipedia rules such as 3RR and 'no personal attacks' are rigorously enforced by Wikipedia's 'police force' of administrators. 

@Joseph: These rules are more like strongly enforced rules of war.  'Collaboration' suggests a mutual goal agreed upon by all sides.  In a war, by contrast, the only goal is the complete destruction of the other side.  See this article on an organised campaign to promote Israel's POV on the Middle East situation.  And see this useful guide on how to use the rules to your competitive advantage. The idea of 'collaboration' doesn't leap out at me.  Words like 'winning an edit war', 'battleground', 'fight another day' and 'rallying supporters' suggest a different image.  As do tactics like 'posting messages on your talk page falsely accusing you of being combative', 'slander' and so on.  I don't know where you get the idea of 'collaboration' from.

There is a strong collaborative ethos in the administrative police force, I agree, but they have different goals, which is to support each other in blocking and banning disruptive users.  E.g. the current block of the global warming scientist William Connolley - see here .  If you read the talk page you will also get a sense of another battleground, namely between the Wikipedia police and content creators such as Connolley.  The content creators occasionally stop their continuing war with each other to take on the admin corps.  The best model for Wikipedia would be a gang fight or city riot between two opposing factions, with the police trying to manage the situation.  Occasionally the rioters stop stoning and petrol bombing each other, and turn on the police.

Seth Finkelstein on 2010-08-18

Hmm ... Perhaps I'm criticizing the paper for not being something else, but it struck me as very verbosely establishing very little (though not zero). As in, it could be boiled down to "Wikipedia has a bunch of pages preaching good behavior, here's a list of them". Yes, that's indeed true, it does. And it is significant as a fact compared to some other sites, granted. But ... that doesn't really say much about how much of the list is IN PRACTICE wishful thinking, puffery, someone's attempt at telling people they should be nice, regurgitating platitudes, and so on. I mean, any corporation has a policy manual telling employees something like they should be ethical, respectful, noble and loyal. But one really can't derive much from this in practice.

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