Wikis can’t resolve arguments

Aaron Swartz has proposed WikiCourt, a Wiki-based system where statements like Bush went AWOL or Gore claims to have invented the Internet can be evaluated and decided pretty much true or false.

WikiCourt would have three stages:

  1. Anyone could submit helpful factual evidence … If someone challenged a piece of evidence’s validity (e.g. that photo is doctored, that testimony is forged), a Mini-Process could be started to resolve the issue.

  2. A wiki page would be created where each side would … build an argument for their case … Each side would continue bashing the other side’s work until the page gave the best arguments from each side, presented in such a way that nobody could object. (You may think that this is impossible, but Wikipedia has ably proven that it can work.)

  3. A group of twelve fairminded intelligent people (experts in the field, if necessary) would agree to put aside their partisanship and come to a conclusion based on the argument.

I try to avoid making predictions, as I’m often embarrassingly wrong, but there are just so many ways in which WikiCourt would fail.

People would dispute whether particular evidence was helpful or factual. Then they’d dispute the neutrality of whoever decided whether particular evidence was helpful or factual. Then some people would automatically challenge the validity of any evidence unfavorable to their side. If these chronic evidence-challengers were removed for abusing the process, other people would complain about that. If the evidence-challengers were allowed to remain, others would complain about that too.

When the Wiki was being edited, people would complain about opponents deleting or altering their arguments. People would complain about the length of time allowed for Wiki editing in general, then they’d complain about lack of balance at the moment(s) the twelve intelligent fairminded people looked at the Wiki in particular. People would dispute the fairmindedness of the twelve people, they would dispute the neutrality of the person who chose the twelve people, and they would dispute whether the twelve people were a fair representation of the political spectrum.

For everything people disputed or complained about, the process would take longer and be more acrimonious. And as that happened, more people would leave from frustration and boredom, and fewer people would care about the eventual verdict.

The WikiCourt model is superficially similar to jury trials. But jury trials work because they are supported by money and by physical force. Judges, court security officers, and (to a lesser extent) jurors are paid to be disinterested participants. And if you lie or misbehave, or if you try to reject a trial’s verdict, you may be fined or imprisoned. But in WikiCourt, you could lie, cheat, or just reject the outcome, and the greatest inconvenience you’d suffer would be having to get a new pseudonym and e-mail address for yourself before rejoining the fray.

What bewilders me most about Aaron’s proposal is his reference to Wikipedia as an example of how collaborative editing by ideological opponents can work. Aaron has contributed substantially to Wikipedia, but so have I, and I’ve seen quite the opposite.

Wikipedia works best when dealing with uncontroversial subjects. In controversial subjects — for example, Mother Teresa, or George W. Bush, or anything to do with Israel and Palestine — it often succumbs to edit wars, with two or more contributors repeatedly reverting each other’s changes until one of them gets tired, or until an administrator freezes the article at a state that no-one is happy with. And to the extent any dispute is eventually resolved, it is usually resolved by making the article’s characterization of the dispute so exhaustive and so weasely that few people want to read it anyway.

For a more relevant example, take Wikipedia’s article on Al Gore, which is currently frozen due to an edit war. As it happens, Aaron himself edited this article shortly after he posted his WikiCourt proposal; he edited the part about Al Gore’s influence on the Internet, almost five years after Gore’s infamous statement on the issue.

Which brings me to my next point: Wikis work because they don’t have a final state. Any contributor can hope that while a page doesn’t seem balanced now, it might become balanced tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or five years from now. This wouldn’t be true for WikiCourt, because the jury would have to make a final decision eventually. (Nor would it be true for a printed version of Wikipedia: as I write, it seems the Wikipedians still haven’t worked out how to decide which versions of articles are print-worthy.)

Wikipedia isn’t an isolated example. The same problems can be seen even in other Wikis where there isn’t so much influence at stake. For example on the original WikiWikiWeb, contributors can’t figure out how to cope with someone whose views are immovable, intolerant, and far from those of any other wiki participant. On Meatball Wiki, the term ForestFire refers to FlameWars … [that explode] across pages as the interlocutors feel that the existing pages are too difficult to understand … Their efforts are further undermined by emotional people unable to abandon the old argument, feeling that they need to get the last word in. And with the Atom Wiki, Diego Doval noted that some people had enough time to spend in the Wiki to out-comment anyone else.

This doesn’t mean Wikis are a bad thing. Wikis are good and useful, but they are not magic. They cannot resolve arguments without force; only people changing their minds can do that.

Comments are closed.