editors got locked in a dispute several months ago about the biographical summary boxes that sit atop some pages of the online encyclopedia. The tiff quickly turned heated.
“Your grammar is frankly awful,” said one editor while discussing filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s box. “This is just another throwaway, unreliable, unattributed pile of stinking horseshit,” said another editor during a dispute about actor Cary Grant’s box.
Foul language flew. The arguments spiraled out of control. So another editor brought the matter to the online encyclopedia’s top jurists.
“Let’s call it the Wikipedia Supreme Court,” says
a longtime Wikipedia editor who wasn’t involved in the dust-up. “There are cases or situations that are equivalents of Brown v. Board of Education.”
Wikipedia, the vast online crowdsourced encyclopedia, has a high court. It is a panel called the Arbitration Committee, largely unknown to anyone other than Wiki aficionados, which hears disputes that arise after all other means of conflict resolution have failed. The 15 elected jurists on the English-language Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee—among them a former staffer for presidential candidate
an information-technology consultant in a tiny British village and a retired college librarian—have clerks, write binding decisions and hear appeals. They even issue preliminary injunctions.
Founded in 2001, Wikipedia operates largely through community consensus. All editors are volunteers, and anyone can write and edit its millions of articles. In online forums, editors debate content, sources and style, and typically manage to broker peace by talking—or rather, typing—it out.
But every so often, tempers flare, necessitating a more stringent brand of justice. In 2003, Wikipedia founder
created the committee, known as ArbCom, as the final stop in the site’s dispute-resolution process.
“There are things that wouldn’t start an argument anywhere else that can still start an argument on Wikipedia,” says
a Manhattan litigator and the unpaid panel’s longest-serving current member. Among them: capitalization rules and whether individual television episodes deserve encyclopedia entries.
In some early years, Wikipedia says, the panel handled more than 100 cases a year. Since then, the caseload has tapered off. Last year, it heard four new cases plus appeals and other matters, and this year, three thus far. Mr. Matetsky, who is regarded internally as a chief-justice figure, suggested it was because the committee’s standards have become higher and the site has accumulated what amounts to a body of law.
Asked whether the panel’s members split into conservative and liberal factions like the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Matetsky said the committee, which typically decides matters of user behavior, not content, doesn’t lean left or right. “Occasionally you could say there are people who are stricter or more lenient in terms of the spirit of the law or letter of the law,” he says. That surfaces in debates about whether a previously sanctioned editor should be allowed to return to work.
Some committee members bristle at comparisons to actual courts and judges.
“We are a dispute-resolution body on a Website,” says an ArbCom member known online as Euryalus who, like some other members interviewed for this article, doesn’t want his name used for fear of offline harassment. “The worst possible penalty we can think of is you’re not allowed to edit this Website anymore.”
But many Wikipedians view the committee, whose symbol is the scales of justice, as a legal body. Mr. Sohn, 55 years old, says ArbCom is respected, whereas “in the metaphorical lower courts”—essentially, message boards to resolve disputes—”it’s much more of a frontier justice.”
Typically, an editor asks the committee to hear a case, and members take a vote. Clerks, who are also volunteers, handle grunt work, such as procedural steps needed to open and conduct a case.
In the case of the summary boxes, known on Wikipedia as “infoboxes,” committee members reviewed lots of evidence. At stake was how to handle misconduct during discussions of the boxes, which have consistently triggered bad behavior from editors. Some view the boxes as necessary, while others see them as reductive and ugly.
“This is something that’s been boiling over for years,” says jurist BU Rob13. “I don’t understand why passions run so high here.”
Two members drafted a decision. Language was parsed. Details were dissected. Proper punishment was weighed.
In late March, the panel issued its final ruling, which authorized sanctions that allow administrators to ban certain editors from contributing to or deleting infoboxes. “Each side of that case thinks we bent over too far to support the other,” says Mr. Matetsky.
It is a process that has been repeated about 500 times since the panel’s founding, according to Wikipedia. In one decision, the panel banned computers affiliated with the Church of Scientology from editing its Wikipedia entry. In another, the panel laid out guidelines defining “pseudoscience.”
These days, ArbCom declines to hear cases when its members believe editors can resolve disputes in other ways. Among the issues in rejected cases that prompted alleged misbehavior: Should Local New Jersey political figures have biographical entries? Is an April Fools’ Day joke about a presidential candidate’s small hands, and what they may imply, appropriate for the internet’s most prominent encyclopedia?
The court also hands down sentences, ranging from editing bans on particular users—“if you can’t edit, it’s like death,” says one banned editor—to restrictions on contentious pages. Among the topics where ArbCom has authorized editing restrictions: abortion, acupuncture, American politics, genetically modified organisms, Palestine-Israel, the tea party and Waldorf education.
a Wikipedia editor and academic who has studied ArbCom, finds the body’s approach to sentencing distinctly American.
“I always find it shocking,” he says, when an editor expresses remorse yet is banned from an article. Polish Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, he has heard, is more inclined toward forgiveness.
“It’s very dictatorial,” says
an author who has written critically about technology, including Wikipedia. “You don’t get to face your accusers because you don’t know the person behind the pseudonym. You might be talking to someone named Bizarro24 or Swampboy.”
Mr. Matetsky, the informal chief justice, defended his court. “It’s like Winston Churchill said about democracy, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ ”
Write to Corinne Ramey at [email protected]
Source : WSJ