Good faith, bad faith

Despite appearances, I do make note of the Wikipedia disaffected. A possible criticism of my work is my focus on the notion of “good faith” in collaboration misses this constituency. No doubt one could write many volumes on the conflict and “dissensus” of Wikipedia. (Deetz (1996) considers the consensus/dissensus cleavage as a common facet in approaches to “Describing Differences in Approaches to Organization Science.”) However, I often feel going for conflict is the easier, dramatic, route; it is even privileged. Perhaps to a lesser extent than in psychology (Seligman 2002) social scientists – and particularly “critical theory” types – privilege the pathological. When writing of his studies of primate behavior de Wall (1996) noted that “terms related to aggression, violence, and competition never posed the slightest problem” to editors and reviewers. Yet, he “was supposed to switch to dehumanized language as soon as the affectionate aftermath of the fight was the issue” (p. 512). This bias is common, but fortunately in organizational science there is room to consider both good and bad organizational leadership, culture, and structures, with a descriptive, normative, and/or prescriptive stance (Bell, Raiffa and Tversky 1988).

This week a controversy has been raging about misrepresentations a prominent Wikipedian made about his real-life credentials and Wales was criticized for seemingly endorsing this behavior. I planned to say nothing, or at least be patient, as it seemed much of the heat was from those with grudges or posing punditry. However, Wales had finally spoken up – he had been traveling in India without easy access to an Internet connection – with the following:

I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the community. In terms of the full parameters of what happens next, I advise (as usual) that we take a calm, loving, and reasonable approach. From the moment this whole thing became known, EssJay has been contrite and apologetic. People who characterize him as being “proud” of it or “bragging” are badly mistaken.... Wikipedia is built on (among other things) twin pillars of trust and tolerance. The integrity of the project depends on the core community being passionate about quality and integrity, so that we can trust each other. The harmony of our work depends on human understanding and forgiveness of errors. (Wales 2007utj)

I read that and think: this is why I am studying good faith.

In any case, the thread that really caught my interest this week was the banning of a user from the Wikipedia e-mail lists who exemplifies the operation of bad faith in two interesting ways. (I’m not linking to or identifying this person as it’s not my intention to attack or to make any judgments about the substance of his complaints.) The first interesting issue is what constitutes a contribution? In goal oriented and merit-based open content communities one’s authority in policy/administrative issues is often built upon contributions towards the substantive goals of the community (e.g., writing an encyclopedia). Strident, even if partially sound, criticism from someone who does little else has little weight. When John Doe responded that he did contribute he asked:

What do they consider “not making any positive contributions”? How about this? Or this? Or this?

The fact that these links only pointed to other complaints is telling. Later, when his links to his previous criticism in the email archives broke, he assumed the worst:

Yes, that’s right. Someone sort-of-cunningly reindexed the month. … Why would they do this? Presumably, it’s an attempt to hide the post. They know they’d get caught if they just deleted it, but if they just “shift” it a bit… sneaky, boys.

Much as I marvel at Wales’ invocation of good faith, I boggle at the paranoia of this statement. As readers of this blog know, I too was frustrated when references to the archive broke – a common “feature” of mailman – but to assume it was done to “hide the truth,” which is the subject of Doe’s entries, is an astounding and ill-founded assumption of bad faith.

Ported/Archived Responses

Stuart on 2007-03-12

Your approach does bring to mind Seligman’s notion of “accurate optimism.” So long as we don’t shrink from using the tools we have to analyze dysfunction in organizations where we need to, then let us certainly  affirm good faith in the Wikipedia and in other groups where it definitely exists.

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