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Charles Matthews: Evolution, not Revolution?

A guest post by Charles Matthews. See also his previous posts. —Brianna

After a quietish half-year, by the drama metric (one of the two unsubtle ways to talk about the English Wikipedia, the other being article count), July is heating up. The constitutional issue is traditionally one great big grey area with a few livid spots. It may now flare up, with results that are less predictable than usual. Where does this upwelling of political angst come from? And will there actually be change? Successful constitutional innovations are in fact few, and the traditional demand for a new, good-looking-on-paper constitution is equally traditionally disappointed. The wiki technology has seen substantial changes, such as logging in with one username on all the Wikimedia (WMF) sites; there is nothing recent you can point to that has smoothly upgraded the social side of the site. In a startling reminder that those at the heart of the matter, the embattled Arbitration Committee (ArbCom), are anything but complacent about the general direction, stalwart Arbitrator Kirill Lokshin resigned a few days ago over the hostile reception to a plan for a new ‘plug-in’ to the system, taking one of the 2009 intake with him.

The whole business is rooted in events of four or even five years ago: the period in which Jimmy Wales started to pull back from micro-managing the English Wikipedia (enWP). His role in the other language Wikipedias has always been largely symbolic, and one question is, with enWP still the flagship of the WMF, whether Jimbo should simply be a figurehead on the ship? This is not in fact a question the ArbCom has worried about too much about in the past (I should note that I have been out of the loop entirely for six months). If you take the issue of biography of living persons (BLP) as really concerning, much more so than constitutional niceties, the David Rohde story shows Jimbo still has a role as much more than a symbol: the editor of the New York Times phones him. BLP is vexed because there are hundreds of thousands of such articles, each one being a potential problem. When the ArbCom prompted a noticeboard to be set up the site for basic admin policing of BLPs in 2008, there was a predictable onsite row about the ArbCom overstepping its role in dispute resolution. (The OTRS email system gets something like 300 emails a week, typically complaints prompted by BLP troubles, but mere statistics cut no ice.) Jimmy Wales summarily deleted an article designed to attack a journalist writing about enWP: more attacks on him. The Rohde story was by remote control as far as Wales’s involvement went, but controversy raged. Was a life really at stake? Some people seem very certain about the answers to questions so indeterminate by nature.

So Jimmy Wales has pulled back some way, and the real point is not that he is still active on some fronts, but that there is no single replacement. The ArbCom is there to handle the worst disputes, but as an elected body has become the default object of constitutional debate. The politics can look simple, one-dimensional: picture an axis with hard-line administration at one end (people who would talk about “executive decisions” if they could get away with it), and at the other end extreme free-speeches and wiki purists. At first sight this looks no contest: enWP is not a purist wiki, because it has content policy (see On Notability), and if you get out of line, there are over 1000 admins to straighten you up. No one says that Wikipedia guarantees free expression. But once you mix special interests into the brew, you find greater complexity. Divisive talk about admins versus “article people” is one sign of this; fringe science and featured articles generate such strong feelings; such matters can constitute planks in electoral platforms for, what else, ArbCom. The way this all pans out can be sometimes be read in detail on Wikipedia’s criticism sites, if you feel it worthwhile to make it past the sneery misinformation which is their usual stock-in-trade (believe me, unless you have 90% of the story straight already it is essentially impossible to extract value).

What is hard to believe, right now, is that ArbCom+plug-ins, in other words the setting-up of some other bodies on the site to help management, is such a complete dog of a solution. In another part of the forest, there are people questioning Jimbo’s actual constitutional powers, namely (a) appeals from ArbCom decisions, and (b) implementing ArbCom election results by selection new Arbitrators. The scandal of User:Sam Blacketer shows that (b) is not a trivial matter: it’s the Internet, folks, and sometimes we’re in an episode of “House” with Hugh Laurie saying “everyone lies”. But in any case it is hard to see how to move ahead by evolution, not revolution, with (a) or with (b), without some sort of plug-ins. An impasse, and while I regret that Kirill resigned, I know how he feels. Wikipedia is taken seriously, now, something I wouldn’t change; I wish on occasion some of that seriousness would percolate into constitutional discussion onsite.

21 July, 2009 • , , ,


Charles Matthews: What did we learn from "Matthew Hoffman"?

This post is by Charles Matthews. Charles was a member of the English Wikipedia ArbCom from 2006 to 2008. His first guest post was On Notability. —Brianna

Some ArbCom (Arbitration Committee) cases on the English Wikipedia can reach the mainstream media: there was a recent decision on Scientology-related editing which did just that. Others are very much for insiders, and the innocuously-named Matthew Hoffman case, the topic of a recent ArbCom statement, is an example. I brought the case, a year and a half ago. This will be part retrospect, and part a meditation on “ArbCom 2009”.

What did we learn, then? The short answer is “not enough”. ArbCom 2009 has come to the view that the case should never have been accepted. I don’t think I’ll hire them as historians: the decision they have recently issued about the case is much the same as saying that in 2009 the case would not have been taken, and if taken would have been handled very differently. I’m not quarrelling with that conclusion since it is probably simply true, and it is well within ArbCom’s remit to reconsider matters and the way they were dealt with in the past. What catches my eye there is that justice was always an issue in the Hoffman case, since User:Matthew Hoffman was permanently banned by two admins on no evidence at all. That is one point, and the new statement changes nothing about it. And the other is that Wikipedia is a dynamic place. ArbCom 2009 is not ArbCom 2007 which accepted the case – only a couple of those Arbitrators are still there – and the whole context changes, particularly since ArbCom is an elected body. Elections also matter in this story, since both admins in the frame ran in the 2007 elections that could have put them on ArbCom 2008, and the case was concurrent with the election period.

The Matthew Hoffman case was brought by me because I thought the ArbCom (of which I was a member 2006-8) should look at how it could happen that two admins at the Adminstrators Noticeboard (AN) could decide on the flimsiest of grounds that the Matthew Hoffman account was a sockpuppet (of some other unspecified account), never think to ask for a CheckUser run to verify this and see what other accounts were involved, and one of them (SH as I shall call him) block the account permanently, with a misleading log entry saying “vandalism-only”. Now, in the light of the Scientology decision, the rationale on the admins’ side can be clarified this way: the class of ‘single-purpose accounts’ (SPAs) brings itself under suspicion, because an SPA edits just in one area. When (as for much Scientology-related editing) there is reason to believe that the editing of a group of SPAs is centrally organized, then worries increase. This argument was brought up in the Hoffman case, with creationism in the place of Scientology. The ArbCom of the time took little notice of this line of reasoning (rightly, in my view). It is still no crime to be an SPA, though it will in practical terms tend to tell against an editor in dispute resolution. Note the distinction, though: Hoffman was blocked by admins not trying to resolve a dispute, because the AN discussion of his case took place while he was blocked for 72 hours. That’s the key problem here with natural justice. Hoffman was locked out of responding on the site to the sockpuppet claim by a short block. (ArbCom found that while the Hoffman account was an SPA, there was no evidence at all that it was a sock. Suspicion is not evidence, but it plays a part in how matters are handled administratively on the site, so that justice is not always served.)

Someone else, before I got there, had put it to SH that the block should be reconsidered, only to be told that “sorry, it was consensus at AN”. Here’s another thing we learned, namely two admins on a noticeboard (meaning an unregulated onsite process) can decide to block someone indefinitely, on no evidence, and then fend off outside interest. That was as of 2007, and I don’t suppose the same uncritical attitude would pass muster now. It took some months for the matter to get to court, and I’ll not rehearse the whole history. The fact is that SH’s block was his personal responsibility, and was so treated by ArbCom when it took the case, which brought forth little general illumination beyond the SPA argument I have mentioned. It was shoehorned into being a case about SH; I (naturally) was recused, and this was not the inquiry I had wanted, but it was all out of my control. For more on the facts see my only extensive onsite discussion ; the matter is in the first two questions, but the joint statement in the blue box at the top of the page explains why I’m not going to cover this ground again, and indeed stopped short then.

I was outraged by the whole business: a culture of admins being unreasonable rather than responsive in this matter just created a fall guy. Let’s hope that has changed. How should it all work, in the big picture? My view: admins should be granted plenty of discretion in using their powers to defend Wikipedia’s content and mission. But admins who make poor discretionary decisions should expect to have to defend those decisions rationally when challenged; and failure to engage and make an acceptable case is a serious question mark over the admin. It’s not the mistake (we all make them), but the attitude to discussing the decisions that make up the admin workload. The admin community is in potential conflict with the small ArbCom (of about 1% of the size of the admin body) that can remove their powers. Some other Wikipedias do without an arbitration process, and so the justice mechanism is the admin body and its self-regulation; but self-regulation can be flawed, too. ArbCom can review ‘community bans’, namely bans upheld by all admins, but this kind of review now rarely causes trouble and it is unusual for a community ban appeal to succeed; this path isn’t really controversial.

The dispute that arose could certainly have been avoided by applying the maxim “thoughtful, not combative”. It was disastrous (all round) that a block discussed briefly at AN was confused with a community ban, with so much muddle. Was Hoffman a vandal, a sock, or a disruptive editor, and did anyone care which? None of the above: it was a bad block being covered up. Perfunctory discussion at AN must not be held up as deciding these matters once and for all. Why would it not have been important at least to know of what other account the Matthew Hoffman account was a sock? Why was he run off the site before being asked whether it was a real name? Those questions are pretty much rhetorical, but let’s not lose sight of natural justice. There has been strong advocacy, and much procedural argument, but let’s also hear it for the facts, evidence, and setting matters straight.

Hoffman hasn’t returned to Wikipedia. Moving on, what do we learn about ArbCom 2009? The ArbCom, as of 2009, seems to be binding itself to operate in a more tightly constrained way, by placing emphasis in its Hoffman statement on procedural rather than evidential matters. We are back to justice, but this is more like the apparatus of the television lawyer drama. In fact the ArbCom was changing as of 2008, accepting many fewer cases than before, and we are now at perhaps 25% of the caseload numerically compared to the peak period in 2006/7. These cases are generally more complex, and take several times as long to close.

The bigger picture is of admins plus ArbCom in tension on the English Wikipedia, as a shifting relationship that went through an uneasy period in 2008. We are certainly seeing some movement at the moment.

19 June, 2009 • , , ,

Comment [4]

ArbCom and Steward elections in progress

Well, there’s been really an awful lot of interesting stuff going on that deserves comment, but this brief note makes it to the top of the pile because of the graphics:





These are summaries of two sets of elections that are going on at the moment. The first is ArbCom, only relevant to the English Wikipedia. That election closes in a couple of days.

From these candidates, Jimbo is supposed to draw at least five arbitrators, according to the Signpost. At the moment the fifth-ranked candidate has a full 98 opposes, which is quite remarkable…

As for stewards, it seems obvious that people are going to be a lot happier with the results of this election. The WMF Board chooses candidates from those who get at least 30 supports and at least a 4:1 support:oppose ratio. They will be spoiled for choice, since about 2/3 of the candidates meet that at the moment. I couldn’t see any infomation about how many they will choose; maybe as few or as many as they like.

Stewards have a funny job. They typically do administrative work on wikis too small to have their own administrators or bureaucrats. There are currently 30 stewards. They are really in the Wikimedian spirit of contributing something that brings them no immediate personal gain but helps another person out who has done nothing more than ask politely. They would see quite some interesting things, too: emergency de-sysops in small communities and the like. There is even a Small Wiki Monitoring Team which does nothing more than try to keep spam off these projects too small to defend themselves. It is like tending to baby birds abandoned prematurely in the nest. ;)

Conclusion: the small wikis that rely on the stewards should be in good hands, but if Arbcom elections can only produce two candidates with > 80% support, it’s a good guess that controversy won’t be leaving the administration of the English Wikipedia anytime soon.

13 December, 2007 • , , ,


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