”Be Nice”: Wikipedia Norms for Supportive Communication


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 they can be characterized as supportive based on Jack Gibb’s classic communication article “Defensive Communication”.

Keywords : Wikipedia, prosocial, supportive, collaboration, communication.

This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in the New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia © 2010 Taylor & Francis; New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia is available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13614568.2010.498528 .

Wikipedians can argue about many things. Are Grace Kelly or Cher indisputably gay icons? Should potato chips be referred to as chips or crisps, and are they “flavored” or “flavoured”? (Did they originate in America or Ireland?) Was Nicholas Copernicus Polish, German, or Prussian? These are only a few among a listing of dozens of “Lamest Edit Wars” at the English Wikipedia (the focus of this study). Furthermore, the character of conflict has changed: “Back in the good old days, people would just get out their swords and guns and fight a duel”, now they incite personal attacks, entrap others into violations of Wikipedia policy, and wiki-lawyer and wiki-politic their way through process (Wikipedia, 2009ac). Because of this, Wikipedia is likened to an “argument engine” by some (Sjberg, 2006). However, despite such conflict — or, perhaps because of it — one can also find extraordinarily collaborative sentiments and behavior. The text of the “Be Nice” Wikipedia page, in full, states: “Be nice to your fellow Wikipedians. They are people deserving of your respect and your very best conduct. Be nice. It’s good for the project, and it is the right thing to do” (Wikipedia, 2009m). This is but one of many Wikipedia pages about Wikipedian behavior that attempt to mitigate unproductive conflict.

Given the significant challenges in working together, particularly in the online context, how might we understand the Wikipedia communications environment? While scholars have discussed the emergence and enactment of collaborative norms at Wikipedia, there hasn’t yet been an attempt to get a sense of the number and character of those norms. More specifically, what other norms beyond “be nice” pertain to Wikipedian interaction and how might we characterize them? In the following sections, I argue that the surveyed Wikipedia norms, captured in a collection of over one hundred pages about contributor conduct, provide a supportive communicative environment as specified by Jack Gibb (1961); on the whole, they encourage non-judgmental description, a problem orientation, spontaneity, empathy, equality, and provisionalism.

1 Wikipedia

“Wikipedia” is known as the “free encyclopedia” that “anyone can edit”. Its extraordinary openness is facilitated by the wiki platform which enables people to easily edit a webpage by using a simplified syntax within a webpage form: it requires no special software and little technical knowledge on the user’s part. The term “wiki”, meaning “quick”, comes from its inventor, Ward Cunningham, who chose the name for his collaborative Web software in 1995 to indicate the ease with which one could edit pages. (His choice was inspired by a Hawaiian term, which he learned when he was directed in the Honolulu Airport to take the “Wiki Wiki” shuttle bus (Cunningham, 2003).)

In 2001, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger adapted the wiki software to their struggling effort to provide a free online encyclopedia. People took to the wiki quickly, and Wikipedia is now one of the most popular sites on the Web. In August 2009 there were over “75,000 active contributors working on more than 10,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages”; the original English version includes over three million articles (Wikipedia, 2009h). Furthermore, its “Editing Frequency” page indicates that 41,393 registered (logged in) users made 5 or more edits in September 2008 (the most recent published figures) (Wikipedia, 2008e). Yet, this doesn’t represent the hundreds of thousands of contributors who may have previously contributed, those who edit “anonymously” or without a consistent identity, and the “Wiki gnomes” that may fall under this threshold.

In addition to millions of encyclopedic articles, Wikipedia is suffused with a coexisting web of practices, discussion, and policy pages, the latter of which populate the Wikipedia “project namespace” and “Meta-Wiki” of Wikimedia projects (Wikipedia, 2007e; Wikimedia, 2008). The three most important norms of Wikipedia are that Wikipedians adopt a “Neutral Point of View” in their edits, make use of verifiable sources, and do not engage in original research (Wikipedia, 2008l, 2007b). A charming example of wiki practice is the awarding of a “barnstar”, an image placed on another’s user page to recognize merit. “These awards are part of the Kindness Campaign and are meant to promote civility and WikiLove. They are a form of warm fuzzy: they are free to give and they bring joy to the recipient” (Wikipedia, 2009l). There are different stars for dozens of virtues, including random acts of kindness, diligence, anti-vandalism, good humor, resilience, brilliance, and teamwork. As in any other community, there is also a history of events, set of norms, constellation of values, and common lingo at Wikipedia.

2 Related Work

The challenges of online interaction have been a subject of scholarly concern for over a decade now (Walther, 1996; Briggs, Nunamaker, Mittleman, Vogel, & Balthazard, 1997; Smith, 1999; Friedman & Currall, 2003). However, from (initially) surprisingly successful examples of collaboration (e.g., help discussion boards, Linux, Mozilla, and Wikipedia) online communities have also been recognized as a positive and potent collaborative phenomenon (Constant, Kiesler, & Sproull, 1996; Benkler, 2002; Sproull, 2003).

Much like any other, an online “prosocial” community is one that exhibits behavior that is intentional, voluntary, and of benefit to others (Sproull, Conley, & Moon, 2004). Obviously, the importance of trust, empathy, and reciprocity on building community relationships and producing information is key (von Krogh, 1998, p. 136; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999, p. 792; Preece, 2004, p. 2). Furthermore, the prosocial character of the community is typically captured and facilitated by cultural norms. By prosocial norms I mean “cultural traits governing actions” that “enhances the average level of well-being” within a community (Bowles & Gintis, 1998, p. 2).

So how might we understand Wikipedia norms? Elinor Ostrom’s (1990; 2000) work on institutions and norms has inspired a number of researchers to think of Wikipedia production in terms of the challenges inherent in collective action. For example, Benjamin Johnson (2007) uses Ostrom to characterize Wikipedia vandalism and point-of-view (POV) pushing in terms of public goods and free riding. Additionally, Ostrom notes “communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time” (Ostrom, 1990, p. 1). This emerges in the context of norms (contingent values supportive of cooperation) that when shared by a sufficient portion of the community can further its welfare. By studying such systems she discerns eight principles of “long-surviving, self-organized resources regimes” (2000, pp. 149-153). Subsequently, researchers have compared Wikipedia process relative to these principles. Fernanda Viegas, Martin Wattenberg, and Matthew Mckeon (2007) argue that Wikipedia’s Featured Article process reflects Ostrom’s principles of locality, collective choice (participation), monitoring (accountability) and conflict resolution. Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman (2008) use Ostrom’s design principles to evaluate Wikipedia governance and its Biography of Living Persons policy.

However, these works tend to remain focused at an institutional level, focusing on community mechanisms for content and membership policy. Another segment of literature considers the emergence and use of Wikipedia policy. Travis Kriplean et al. (2007) introduce the “Wikipedia policy environment” and study vignettes of interaction to identify different types of power plays with respect to: article scope, prior consensus, interpretation, legitimacy, and ownership. This is followed with a quantitative analysis of references from discussion pages to those in the Wikipedia namespace — pages about Wikipedia itself rather than encyclopedic content; they find such references have increased over time (Beschastnikh, Kriplean, & Mcdonald, 2008). Christopher Goldspink (2009) also quantitatively analyzes Wikipedia discourse and finds it to be relatively “objective” (i.e., non-emotive), among other things. Brian Butler, Elisabeth Joyce, and Jacqueline Pike (2008) demonstrate that Wikipedia policy can be conceived of in seven different theoretical perspectives, including seeing Wikipedia policies as a rational effort to coordinate, an emergent self-perpetuating system, or as constructions of meaning and identity.

So, then, is the Wikipedia community prosocial and does it have corresponding norms? Joseph Reagle (2008) claims as much and that Wikipedia has a “good faith” collaborative culture. He focuses on a number of central Wikipedia norms, particularly “Neutral Point of View” and “Assume Good Faith”, to argue these collaboratively orient a contributor with respect to the production of encyclopedic information and their peers. In particular, this orientation counters a common human tendency, especially in online contexts, to see and assume the worst of each other.

However, while this Wikipedia-related literature focuses on key norms as encountered in Wikipedian interaction, can we identify the extent and character of the corpus of Wikipedia norms? The present work is intended to complement existing literature by providing a survey and portrayal of a wider set of norms than typically addressed.

This characterization is via a body of work that characterizes communication behavior, typically derived from and tested against the analysis of “real world” conflictual communications. For example, Alan Sillars, et al. (1982) specify types of speech acts within three larger communication tactics. Specifically, the integrative (“verbally cooperative”) tactic can be characterized by: description, qualification, disclosure, soliciting disclosure, negative inquiry, empathy or support, emphasizing commonalities, accepting responsibility, and initiating problem-solving. Similar communication characteristics are found in the classic work of Jack Gibb’s (1961) “Defensive Communication”. Supportive behavior/climates are characterized by non-judgmental description, problem orientation, spontaneity, empathy, equality, and provisionalism. Their “defensive” opposites are evaluation, control, strategy, neutrality, superiority, and certainty. I use these to characterize a survey of cultural norms about Wikipedian interaction.

3 Method

As noted, there is a growing literature on the richness of Wikipedian interaction and questions of policy and governance within the community. However, each of these efforts are appropriately selective to a particular concern or task, and there has not yet been an attempt to come to terms with the wider scope of actual written norms. Consequently, in March 2009, I conducted a survey of all pages in the Wikipedia categories relevant to Wikipedian collaboration. This includes the categories of “Wikipedia Behavioral Guidelines”, “Wikipedia User Conduct”, “Wikipedia Conduct Policy”, “Wikipedia Dispute Resolution”, “Wikipedia Culture”, “Wikipedia Essays”, “Wikipedia Humor”, and Wikimedia’s “Essays Related to Wikipedia” (Wikipedia, 2009a, 2009f, 2008a, 2009c, 2009b, 2009d, 2009e; Wikimedia, 2009). Most all pages in these categories are in the Wikipedia namespace. (User pages and Wikimedia essays are the exception.)

These 686 pages were then winnowed down to 104 on the basis of seeking pages that were: (1) in an imperative mood with respect to user conduct (e.g., “No Personal Attacks”), (2) germane to one’s interactions with Wikipedia contributors, and (3) minimally comprehensible — some are little more than confusing stubs and half-thoughts. This was a qualitative exercise affected by the following issues.

First, the meaning of many of these pages is bound to Wikipedia. They may take cultural context for granted, make use of specialized lingo, or be humorous and/or sarcastic (e.g., “Assume Bad Faith” and “Hold Grudges”). Second, there are three levels of force associated with Wikipedia norms: essays , non-authoritative pages that may contain useful insights; guidelines , actionable norms approved by general consensus; and policy , much the same but “more official and less likely to have exceptions” (Wikipedia, 2007d). Third, categories can have subcategories. For example, “Dispute Resolution” and “Behavioral Guidelines” are subcategories of “User Conduct”. My survey includes only pages in a category rather than its subcategories. If a subcategory was of interest, I specify its pages explicitly. Fourth, these categories are not necessarily exclusive: I removed a number of pages that were redundant. For example, “Disruptive Editing” is a member of “Behavioral Guidelines” and “Dispute Resolution”. (However, while redundant categories are removed, articles may still overlap in their content.) And, fifth, Wikipedia categories are somewhat haphazard and do not necessarily reflect a careful taxonomy (Kittur, Chi, & Suh, 2009). Finally, most all of these pages are in the Wikipedia namespace, meaning they are about Wikipedia itself and open to editing and contribution by all. Essays in the user namespace are typically “owned” by a user, and only one such page is included in the survey.

Within each page, I identified text that was relevant to my criteria (i.e., an imperative statement about Wikipedian interaction). These statements were tagged with one or more of Gibb’s twelve behaviors (2 climates over 6 behavioral traits). That is, were the norms defensive or supportive, did they encourage evaluation or description, control or problem orientation, strategy or spontaneity, neutrality or empathy, superiority or equality, and certainty or provisionalism?

It is important to note that despite “Defensive Communications” seminal status, Gordon Forward and Kathleen Czech (2008) describe it as an idiosyncratic work. For example, their attempt to operationalize Gibb’s categories and test them in a survey yielded significant overlaps (or “colinearity”) between categories, such as survey respondents tending to rate a superior as both descriptive and problem orientated . They conclude all the categories could be collapsed into four factors (2 qualifiers over 2 orientations): a supportive or defensive task orientation, and a supportive or defensive people orientation. (Similarly, there is significant redundancy and cross-references in the Wikipedia norms themselves.) Nonetheless, Gibb’s categories are useful in portraying the character of Wikipedia’s norms because he provides a rich description of each category, through which I present Wikipedia norms. Hence my goal is not to confirm, complement, or critique Gibb’s scheme, but use it as a basis for presentation and characterization. Simply, my intention is to portray a wider expanse of norms than is typically encountered in issue/process driven studies of Wikipedia.

Finally, in the following discussion I do mention a few norms that are not typically thought of as interaction norms, but are frequently referenced and relevant, including “Be Bold”, “Ignore All Rules”, and “Neutral Point of View” (Wikipedia, 2007c, 2008j). In particular, “Neutral Point of View” (NPOV) is formally categorized as a content policy. However, NPOV can be understood as a collaborative “epistemic stance” of a contributor in that they must write “from a neutral point of view” so as to deal with “verifiable perspectives on a topic”, rather than a feature of the encyclopedic content itself (Wikipedia, 2008l).

4 A Survey of Wikipedia Collaborative Norms

The following Wikipedia pages are expressive of at least some Wikipedians’ beliefs on how one should work with one’s peers. Not all of these norms are uniformly practiced, nor does its page necessarily represent all the complexities of collaboration within the community. Issues of emergence and enactment are addressed by much of the preceding literature, and the purpose here is to complement that work with a survey of Wikipedia collaborative norms as written. The categories are listed in the order of their relevance and normative strength. For example, every page in the “Wikipedia User Conduct” (e.g., “Be Nice” and “Civility”) are policy (and shown in bold). Most of these pages are also redundant in the “Wikipedia Conduct Policy” category. The 13 pages in the category “Wikipedia Behavioral Guidelines” are in fact Wikipedia guidelines (shown in italics). Every other page in the other surveyed categories is an essay, or an otherwise personal, humorous, informational, (failed) proposal, or historical page. I make use of these pages to find examples of defensive or supportive norms according to Gibb’s categories, each of which is introduced prior to a discussion of any relevant Wikipedia norms.

Category:Wikipedia user conduct

Category:Wikipedia behavioral guidelines

Category:Wikipedia conduct policy

Category:Wikipedia dispute resolution

Category:Wikipedia culture

Category:Wikipedia essays

Category:Wikipedia humor

Category:Essays related to Wikipedia

5 Supportive And Defensive Communication

Jack Gibb (1961) characterizes defensive behavior by its cause and effect. It arises in the context of perceived or anticipated threat, to one’s self or group, and causes a decrease in the ability to “perceive accurately the motives, the values, and the emotions of the sender”. In social psychology literature, this ability to perceive the state of another is referred to as “perspective-taking” (Batson, 1991, pp. 83-84), and there is much advocacy for related practices in the Wikipedia norms below. Furthermore, a defensive person spends much of her energy defending herself and creates reciprocally defensive postures in others. However, “as defenses are reduced receivers are able to concentrate upon structure, content, and cognitive meanings” of the message (p. 141-142). This insight, too, can be seen in Wikipedia norms. However, how might we first characterize the Wikipedia communication climate?

Wikipedia is acknowledged to have been home to “some bitter disputes”, which arise easily in the online context and sometimes escalate into flame wars that are “counter-productive and make Wikipedia a less pleasant project for everyone” (Wikipedia, 2009ai). Such disputes can arise among different types of participants. “Vandals” and “trolls” are people who come to Wikipedia so as to purposely cause mischief or argument. Dealing with such “bad faith” behavior can be a demanding and difficult task, and it sometimes make good faith contributors overly brittle to other good faith Wikipedians with whom they have a disagreement. As the “Don’t panic” essay notes, “It's easy to get caught up”, to feel “moral outrage”, and to believe that something “is so important that it must be fixed immediately” (Wikipedia, 2009w). Therefore, one should “edit while you are at your best, not while angry, scared, or intoxicated”, and refrain from escalating the problem (Wikipedia, 2009u, 2009ad, 2009t). Argument is not only likely in the online context, but as the “Ignore All Drama” essay notes:

Conflict is as addictive as cocaine, especially in a mature online community with a long history of grudges and petty vendettas; and as the encyclopedia ages, the articles mature, becoming harder and harder to improve. Conflict is the most usual substitute satisfaction, and it can become a source of easy entertainment for even the most long-term Wikipedians to watch the latest fights on the noticeboards, checking back again and again for witty ripostes and put-downs. It’s much harder to write an encyclopedia article than it is to look through the latest shabby contributor’s edits for evidence of wrongdoing, and write an indignant post about it. (Wikipedia, 2008i)

This theme of agitation as inebriation is made use of in another essay, “Editing under the Influence”, which notes that failing to edit in a calm frame of mind might result in some chagrin when the editor reviews their edits the next day and proclaims “I wrote that?” (Wikipedia, 2009y).

Therefore, among these Wikipedia norms, there’s a definite sense of Wikipedia as a climate that is shaped by and shapes Wikipedian interaction; so much so that collaboration and dispute resolution are argued to be “more important than content contributions in a wiki community”. Those who are disruptive or uncivil alienate other contributors who in turn “become a wellspring of resentment and negativity, which will worsen the alienation caused by the disruptive contributors” (Wikipedia, 2009q). Ultimately, “An uncivil climate is a poor climate to work in” (Wikipedia, 2009i). And, not to be forgotten, it is supposed to be a place where people can enjoy themselves. “Remember how to remain calm when editing becomes stressful. But never let Wikipedia become a chore” (Wikipedia, 2008g).

5.1 Evaluation and Description

Gibb’s first behavioral characteristic recognizes communication that is perceived as being “evaluating or judging” puts the receiver “on guard”. It can be particularly difficult to communicate in a way that an already defensive person will not regard as judgmental: “When insecure, group members are particularly likely to place blame, to see others as fitting into categories of good or bad, to make moral judgments of their colleagues, and to question the value, motive, and affect loadings of the speech which they hear”. Biased attributions about others are one of the inferential errors humans can make in defensive situations (Nisbett & Ross, 1980). Conversely, descriptive speech arouses a minimum of uneasiness and is characterized by neutral loadings that do not ask or imply a change in behavior or attitude. Gibb (1961, pp. 142-144) notes that it can be a challenge to use descriptive speech when discussing controversial (political) topics.

This challenge is also recognized at Wikipedia and the primary concern of two fundamental norms. While not typically considered to be a user policy, the content policy of “Neutral Point of View” does have significant implications on user behavior, particularly on controversial topics, asking contributors to withhold claims about “truth” and to simply represent “verifiable perspectives on a topic as evidenced by reliable sources” (Wikipedia, 2008l). Therefore, one should not participate in a political debate at Wikipedia, but instead describe it. The guideline of “Assume Good Faith” bears directly on Gibb’s concern about unflattering character attributions, noting that: 'Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, assume that people who work on the project are trying to help it, not hurt it. If criticism is needed, discuss editors’ actions, but avoid accusing others of harmful motives without particularly strong evidence” (Wikipedia, 2009j). That is, instead of making moral judgments about others, one should refrain from personal remarks and attacks: “Comment on content, not on the contributor” — even if it is a suspected vandal (Wikipedia, 2009ae, 2008c, 2006b). Similarly, rather than assuming someone is a troll “it’s usually best to assume that you are dealing with a reasonable person who is simply confused on a particular issue or has a POV different from your own”. Instead of flaming, “try to reach a truce”. This can be achieved by taking it slow, leading by example, giving the benefit of the doubt, and seeking other opinions (Wikipedia, 2008n).

5.2 Control and Problem Orientation

Controlling communication presumes inadequacy and therefore seeks to control and change the listener, often prompting resistance. On the other hand, a problem orientation implies a desire to collaborate in defining and solving a mutual problem without a predetermined solution or method (Gibb, 1961, pp. 144-145).

As already seen, Wikipedia norms recommend that contributors not focus on the personalities of others. Instead, one should “be friendly, flexible, and focus on the task” (Wikipedia, 2009z). The essay on “CANDOR” (Cease, Ask, Name, Discover, Operate, and Reevaluate) recommends that contributors “name the problem as you see it” without blame, and “discover a problem-solving plan with those involved”; such a plan can then be cooperatively enacted and reevaluated in time (Wikipedia, 2009n).

5.3 Strategy and Spontaneity

Strategic communication is when the content of the message is discordant with genuine motivations, prompting the receiver to become defensive for not wishing to be a “guinea pig, a role player, or an impressed actor, and no one likes to be the victim of some hidden motivation”. Spontaneous behavior is thought to be free of deception (“as having a clean id, as having uncomplicated motivations as being straightforward and honest”) and reduces defensive behavior. People are likely to have a strong reaction when strategy is masquerading as spontaneous communication, such as one’s boss claiming to be late for an appointment rather than simply asking to be excused (Gibb, 1961, pp. 145-146). One might understand this more simply as spontaneous honesty is preferred to strategic scheming.

The relative “anarchy” of wiki culture, the malleability of Wikipedia content, the pseudonymity of contributors, and its consensus-based decision-making make Wikipedia particularly vulnerable to such strategic action. While not directly included in the survey of collaborative norms, “Be Bold” and “Ignore All Rules” (Wikipedia, 2007c, 2008j) speak to the supposed spontaneity of Wikipedia life. And they are discussed by the surveyed pages with respect to how to balance these principles with community consensus and governance (Wikipedia, 2009af, 2008m). On the malleability front, the ironic “Assume Bad Faith” essay notes that a wiki permits one to think: “That policy page is wrong, because it doesn’t describe what I do. I’ll fix it” (Wikipedia, 2007a). Therefore, one should adhere to policy as written, which is hopefully representative of consensus. Even so, Wikipedians are a detailed bunch, and quite capable of “Wikilawyering” or “Gaming the System” in such a way that even if the words of a policy are not altered, they can still be used in ways contrary to their intention or “spirit” (Mcgrady, 2009). Therefore, “Utilizing the rules in a manner contrary to their principles in order to ‘win’ editing disputes is highly frowned upon by the Wikipedia community” (Wikipedia, 2009am, 2009aa). Also, one should not use pseudonymity and consensus in order to “stack the vote”.

The general rule is: one editor, one account. Do not use multiple accounts to create the illusion of greater support for an issue, to mislead others, to artificially stir up controversy, to aid in disruption, or to circumvent a block. Do not ask your friends to create accounts to support you or anyone else. Multiple accounts are not for collusion, evasion, disruption, or other misuse. (Wikipedia, 2009ah)

Commensurate with “Neutral Point of View”, one should be careful of any conflicts of interests in one’s activities at Wikipedia: “Do not edit Wikipedia to promote your own interests, or those of other individuals or of organizations, including employers, unless you are certain that the interests of Wikipedia remain paramount” (Wikipedia, 2009r). One should try to avoid “Tendentious Editing” altogether (Wikipedia, 2009ak). And so as to productively make use of the consensus building process when soliciting support for a position “editors should keep the number of notifications small, keep the message text neutral, and not preselect recipients according to their established opinions” (Wikipedia, 2009o).

Ultimately, honesty is the best policy as “Lying is unethical and hurts the project” (Wikipedia, 2009ab).

5.4 Neutrality and Empathy

As a type of communication tactic, neutrality means that communication appears to lack concern for others, which prompts defensiveness as people naturally desire to be perceived as valued by others. Note that in this sense, the meaning is different from when Gibb refers to the “neutral loading” of descriptive communication and Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View”. In the latter two instances, “neutral” refers to non-judgmental communication, but here it refers to the communication that fails to convey “empathy for their feelings and respect for the worth of the listener” (Gibb, 1961, pp. 146-147).

The idea of relating to other people is found in a number of popular norms. “Writing for the Enemy” is a process whereby one explains another person’s point of view as fairly as possible so as to show one understands another’s claims and arguments. Following this perspective-taking norm is said to halt an edit war in an instant, is a great way to end arguments in real life, and can result in one “having a greater understanding of the enemy’s position, and ideally not viewing them as an ‘enemy’ anymore, but rather just an individual with different assumptions about the world” (Wikipedia, 2009d). Perhaps the empathic approach is best captured in Wikipedia’s notion of “WikiLove”:

WikiLove is a term that refers to a general spirit of collegiality and mutual understanding among wiki users…. If we keep this common goal, this love of knowledge, in mind, if we concentrate on achieving a neutral point of view even when it is difficult, and if we try to actually understand what the other side has to say, then we can reach the state of “WikiLove”. If we fail to achieve WikiLove, this will only mean that the encyclopedia and its mission as a whole will suffer. Constant flamewars will scare contributors off, biased articles will drive readers away, and both will harm our reputation in the long term. (Wikipedia, 2009an)

This sentiment is also captured in the “Light One Candle” essay, a collection of tips for interacting with contributors, which is inspired by the proverb that: “it is better to light a candle for someone than to curse them in their darkness” (Wikipedia, 2008k).

Even so, even when Wikipedians fail to “WikiLove” one another, or even take others’ perspectives, they should remain considerate. Indeed, the exhortation to be considerate appears prominently in five different norms (Wikipedia, 2009m, 2009u, 2009p, 2009ad). In one, “Talk Page Guidelines”, consideration plays an alliterative role: “The prime values of the talk page are communication, courtesy and consideration” (Wikipedia, 2009aj).

That said, there is also some representation of neutrality in Gibb’s lack-of-concern sense. The “Don’t-Give-A-Fuckism” essay (Wikipedia, 2009v), much like User Dlohcierekim’s apathy page (Wikipedia, 2009g), is “concerned mainly with not giving a fuck. This is not a joke; it’s as serious an endeavor as everything else”. However, the substance of the norm is actually closer to Gibb’s “provisionalism” discussed below, a self-described “Buddhist inspired” notion of detachment so as to alleviate suffering from wiki-related stress. Furthermore, the essay claims itself to be in accordance with the wiki norms of neutrality, being bold, and not acting stupidly, and should not be confused as “rationalization for a dickish action”. Interestingly, in the Forward and Czech (2008) operationalization of Gibb, in which they asked faculty to evaluate departmental leadership, neutrality was the only communication behavior that was not internally consistent with other defensive behaviors. Similarly at Wikipedia, a sense of detachment is sometimes construed as a positive behavior.

5.5 Superiority and Equality

Superiority (in position, power, wealth, intellectual ability, or physical characteristics) arouses defensiveness as it indicates an unwillingness to enter into a shared problem-solving relationship. Furthermore, it can be construed to mean that the sender does not desire feedback or help and that he will likely try to further reduce the power, status, or worth of the receiver. However, if one perceives the sender “as being willing to enter into participative planning with mutual trust and respect” any differences between the communicators will have little importance attached to them (Gibb, 1961, p. 147). Therefore, equality in communication will permit the receiver to focus upon the statement rather than not hearing or forgetting the message, competing, or being jealous of its sender.

The issue of superiority and equality is a significant one for Wikipedia; it relates to the egalitarian ethos within Wikipedia and how it affects the enactment and construal of bureaucratic and content authority. That is, being an administrator was supposed to be “no big deal:” no extra power, just “janitorial” responsibilities. And with respect to content, everyone is supposed to be an equal editor; there are no credentialed reviewers, section editors, or an editor-in-chief (Forte & Bruckman, 2005; Reagle, 2008). One can find this ethos within the pages surveyed here as well.

As noted earlier, there is the frequent psychological phenomenon of thinking one’s self as superior and exceptional. Wikipedia norms seeks to counter this, as noted in the “Don’t Call the Kettle Black” essay: it is easy to violate a norm, such as “Assume Good Faith” or “Be Civil”, when one is chastising others for the same. This is such a slippery slope that a meta-norm of “Assume the Assumption of Good Faith” exists, recommending that, “When involved in a discussion, it is best never to cite WP:AGF” (Wikipedia, 2009k).

Additionally, at the content level, the historical and philosophical underpinnings of Wikipedia’s egalitarian ethos foster skepticism of arguments by authority. Arguments, on content or policy, should be on the basis of reason and reference to verifiable sources. As the “Accountability” page notes: “Accountability means that editors should generally explain the reasoning behind their edits, especially when making questionable changes to articles” (Wikipedia, 2008b).

With respect to the role of administration, while administrators may be “entrusted with additional abilities” they “do not have special rights beyond those of regular editors”: they still are expected to behave civilly, not to engage in revert wars, or claim ownership of articles. “With regard to simple misbehavior, admins are treated identically to regular users” (Wikipedia, 2006a). With respect to administrative actions, actions are logged, subject to discussion and reversible. Regular misuse of administrative tools may result in suspension. And, “Admins should never use their admin abilities to intimidate others. For instance, threatening a user with an inappropriate block is just as bad behavior as actually making that block” (Wikipedia, 2006a).

5.6 Certainty and Provisionalism

Gibb notes that: “The effects of dogmatism in producing defensiveness are well known. Those who seem to know the answers, who require no additional data, and who regard themselves as teachers rather than as co-workers tend to put others on guard”. Therefore, certainty is reflective of the dogmatic communicator’s need “to be right, wanting to win, and seeing his ideas as truths to be defended”. However, the person taking a provisional approach is seen “to be investigating issues rather than taking sides”, “to be problem-solving rather than debating on them”, and to be willing to experiment and explore; this communicates to the listener that she may have some control “over the shared quest or the investigation of the ideas”. “If a person is genuinely searching for information and data, he does not resent help or company along the way” (Gibb, 1961, p. 148).

As seen in earlier sections, dogma is contrary to the spirit of Wikipedia, particularly “Neutral Point of View” and “Writing for the enemy”. Accordingly, in the “Beware of the Tigers” essay, Wikipedians are cast as zoo keepers of sometimes difficult ideas:

Wikipedia’s articles are no place for strong views. Or rather, we feel about strong views the way that a natural history museum feels about tigers. We admire them and want our visitors to see how fierce and clever they are, so we stuff them and mount them for close inspection. We put up all sorts of carefully worded signs to get people to appreciate them as much as we do. But however much we adore tigers, a live tiger loose in the museum is seen as an urgent problem. (Wikipedia, 2008d)

In terms of being open to others, given it is a wiki, people should “be bold” and expect others to be as well. Wikipedia is celebrated as “the product of thousands of editors’ contributions”, each with their own skills. “Even the best article should not be considered complete; each new editor offers new insights about how to further enhance our content” (Wikipedia, 2009x). One of the key principles of “Civility” is “Do not ignore the positions and conclusions of others” (Wikipedia, 2009p). Particularly in the most contentious of activities, Articles for Deletion (AfD), in which “Editors are encouraged to fully discuss all arguments in AfD discussions. If you bring up a point in the discussion, it is okay if someone else responds to it” (Wikipedia, 2008f).

As noted, two exceptions to the “boldly edit” wiki-spirit are user pages and mature policy. Though, when at the outset of the consensus process, editors might “edit this policy” if it includes the so-named template. In such a case, an editor is referred to this page because “the original contributor has expressed the desire that you boldly edit ‘their’ proposal as a way of reaching consensus. This is not a general policy or guideline. Ideally, this proposal should never be voted on if we can’t get agreement on the basic idea. That just shows the basic idea is flawed, and we need a completely new proposal” (Wikipedia, 2006c).

Certainty can arise from taking oneself too seriously and from the polarization resulting from the dispute. Indeed, the opposite of WikiLove, WikiHate, is “a counterproductive attitude” that often results from “taking both Wikipedia and oneself too seriously” (Wikipedia, 2009al). The “Conflict Paradox” essay includes the image of an Ouroboros, a serpent swallowing its own tail, and notes that a small miscommunication can quickly become a perpetuating downward spiral of conflict; it recommends that one should “start at square 1 to see if a dispute has spiraled out of control from a fairly harmless situation before assuming the worst” (Wikipedia, 2009s).

6 Implications and Conclusion

In this paper I ask if we can complement more specific issue-based investigations (e.g., Viegas, Wattenberg, & Mckeon, 2007; Forte & Bruckman, 2008) with a wider survey of Wikipedia norms. Furthermore, can we then attempt to categorize those norms? In answer to the first question I describe the process by which I settle upon 104 norms related to Wikipedian interaction. This process merits a few concluding points with respect to implications and my use of Gibb.

First, Wikipedia, with its hundreds of norms, might be representative of a new type of large and verbose online community where such an undertaking is necessary to properly appreciate the scope of the community and its culture. Also, such an undertaking might reveal new questions for researchers. For example, the ambiguities and conflicts in the notion of neutrality, the recurrent motif of conflict and drama as being addictive and intoxicating, and the role of humor and sarcasm all merit further investigation.

Second, a fuller understanding of norms at Wikipedia might help one undertake comparative studies of wiki communities. For example, “Assume Good Faith” appears to be policy throughout most Wikimedia Foundation projects, but can also be found on the Meatball wiki, wikiHow, and Battlestar Wiki. Wookiepedia (the Star Wars focused encyclopedia) does not have its own “Assume Good Faith” policy, but links to the English Wikipedia from its “No Personal Attacks” page (Wookieepedia, 2009). One might soon be able to compare different communities’ collections of prosocial norms, and how they emerge and diverge within the larger wiki ecology.

Third, gems of collaborative wisdom might be encountered and adopted by practitioners, as Wikipedia norms can also be “a great way to end an argument in real life” (Wikipedia, 2006d). For example, based on this work I make use of Wikipedia conflict and its pro-social norms in a university course on conflict management. Students find the Wikipedia context surprising, but they find the norms’ to be highly relevant to their own interactions both on- and off- line. It is not that any particular norm is wholly novel, but the collection as a whole is rather comprehensive and surprisingly reflective of conflict management best practices.

Finally, while Gibb’s environments are dated, I expect they remain popular because they are widely known among communication scholars and still engage our intuitive sense of defensive or supportive behaviors in interpersonal communications. For the purpose of characterizing Wikipedia norms, I found Gibb’s categories to be appropriate. However, I expect using other approaches such as Sillar’s (1982) tactics or Forward and Czech’s (2008) collapsed-Gibb model could be equally so. And while I was not attempting to amend this model myself, the surveyed Wikipedia norms do raise at least two issues. The role of humor, as a supportive or defensive behavior, seems salient and unaddressed. And, in keeping with Forward and Czech, neutrality, even as a type of dispassion, can be both supportive and defensive.

With respect to characterizing the surveyed norms, the twenty-six pages in the behavioral and conduct categories (many of which are a Wikipedia policy or guideline) are supportive. This is so for the rest of the essays, with two caveats. There are a number of pages that are exemplars of a defensive communication climate. This includes “Assume Bad Faith”, “Hold Grudges”, and “Sarcasm Is Really Helpful” — among other self-apparent pages in the survey (Wikipedia, 2007a, 2008h, 2009ag). But these are all parodies: humorous (counter) examples of what not to do. Also, a number of pages recognize the difficulty in balancing between different Wikipedia values. For example, as already noted, in a discussion of neutrality, one should be impassioned and empathic, but not to the point of being embittered or burnt out. One should “Assume Good Faith”, but not permit oneself or Wikipedia to be abused. And one should be able to abide by policy and process, but not get too caught up in it. However, this balancing seems to be inescapable and prudently supportive rather than defensive.

Of course, this does not mean these norms are always followed, far from it. They developed in response to positive and negative experiences by Wikipedians, cross-reference each other, and are cited in discussion pages. In any case, Wikipedia does have a communication climate and set of cultural norms and these are important beyond institutional mechanisms. These norms are often cognizant of the significant challenges of working with one another, particularly in the online context, without being cynical — though many are humorously ironic. And in these pages, such as “Be Nice” because it’s good for the project, one can sense an underlying schoolyard-like ethic: share, be nice, and play fairly. Also, these norms are ultimately pragmatic. While a fundamental moral principle might be invoked, such that being nice is simply “the right thing to do”, the norms are concerned with making sure Wikipedia collaboration is productive and enjoyable.


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