Wikitruth Through Wikiorder
posted by Dave Hoffman
Almost four years ago, I blogged at Prawfs about a weird dispute on Wikipedia about the Kelo case. I wrote that “[t]here is a whole ADR and conflict resolution system being set up behind the scenes, in the absence of (a) money; (b) the Bar; or (c) personal contact. And we don’t have to go to Shasta County for months on end to see it.”
Wiki’s DR process continued to fascinate me, and I eventually teamed up with Temple’s Salil Mehra, a comparative IP scholar, to write about the system. We’ve finished just finished a draft, which starts with the following snippet:
Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on February 12, 1809. When some individuals hear about this coincidence, it seems remarkable. To others, it is mundane. To Wikipedia editors working on the encyclopedia’s articles about Darwin and Lincoln, the factoid was the subject of a contentious dispute resolution process that encompassed two polls, outside editor comments, a request for mediation, and a formal arbitration proceeding that generated over 30,000 words in evidentiary submissions and thousands of volunteer man-hours.
The problem motivating the fracas was whether or not the shared birthday merited inclusion in the Wikipedia’s biography of Darwin. Because Wikipedia’s editing process is open, editors who disagree might endlessly recycle their views, leading to unstable articles, entrenched disagreement and a loss of initiative, altogether destroying the site’s utility. In response, Wikipedia has developed a volunteer-run, highly articulated, dispute resolution system. That system starts with the informal, guided, exchange of views, muddles through mediation, and terminates in an Arbitration Committee, which hears evidence presented by the parties before issuing findings of fact and conclusions of policy and law. Such decisions, organized by volunteer arbitration clerks and disseminated by volunteer reporters, have created a virtual Wiki-common law.
As the result of the binding arbitration in the Darwin Birthday Dispute, two editors were banned from the site for a month for their lack of cooperation with others, and one was further prohibited from editing either Darwin’s or Lincoln’s article. A third individual was formally thanked by the arbitrators for his work as a counselor to one of the banned parties. The Arbitrators, per their usual rule, did not resolve the content of the dispute: non-banned parties were free to continue testing whether the Emancipator and the Scientist’s shared birthday was worthy of note.
There are at least two separate levels of strangeness about this story.
• Why do people spend time editing Wikipedia articles and why they would care enough about this particular fact to disagree?
• Why does Wikipedia have a dispute resolution system that doesn’t resolve disputes?
Interested in reading more? Download our draft, which just went up on SSRN. Or, if you are a law review editor, check your inbox. We’re in there!