Sunday, June 8, 2008

Civility examined

I believe that civility on Wikipedia is important, but not necessarily for the same reasons that are endlessly and brainlessly spouted. I have often heard it claimed that uncivil behavior is responsible for driving away new editors, and creating an unproductive editing and working environment.

However, I think it would be good to get some data on this, instead of just making this claim without much thought. We have some anecdotal evidence that is a bit contrary to these claims:

*Militaries, such as the United States Marine Corps, seem to be quite productive and have not done anything over the centuries to try to squelch incivility in in the interests of a better and more productive working environment. If this contributed to winning wars, surely this would have happened.

*Academia itself is very uncivil. And yet, academia seems to do good work and seems to be respected. Wikipedia tries to emulate academia and uses peer-reviewed academic work as the gold standards in its references. And yet, academia has not been the subject of any civility drives and movements.

*The halls of Congress and "Big Business" are quite uncivil. And yet, there are no massive drives to stomp out the incivility "behind the scenes" in Congress and "Big Business". By contrast, Congress and "Big Business" are quite sensitive of projecting a civil face to the public, of course.

*New York City, London and Paris are famous for being rude uncivil environments. And yet, these cities seem to function and even attract new residents. People do not flee these cities because of incivility for the most part. In fact, New Yorkers who move to other places frequently state they miss the incivility.

I do think civility at Wikipedia is important, but not for the reasons most often given. Clearly, being the 7th most popular website on earth and the number one destination for all kinds of information, Wikipedia is very visible. And just like Al Jazeera and CNN and the BBC and the New York Times and Google and Yahoo and other high visibility information sources, Wikipedia is under scrutiny as a result. And just like other high visibility sources, Wikipedia has to present a certain inoffensive public image. A public relations disaster is just around the corner if we allow uncontrolled incivility and profanity behind the scenes at Wikipedia, since it is so easily accessible.

For example, why should Wikipedia care if editors advertise racist personal beliefs, or personal beliefs that some associate with racism, rightly or wrongly? Why should Wikipedia care if editors have controversial user boxes on their user pages and controversial user pages? The one unifying principle operating is the need to project a positive public image. CIVIL obviously has little to do with productivity, because the misuse of CIVIL, the Wikipedia civility policy, or the excessive application of CIVIL can be terrible for productivity. CIVIL obviously has little to do with BITE, the Wikipedia guideline suggesting that Wikipedia should be welcoming to new editors, since many newbies have run afoul of CIVIL rules that they were not familiar with. This has happened more frequently as the CIVIL rules have become more inconsistent and increasingly minor offenses are viewed as violations of CIVIL [1].

Interestingly, I have been angrily attacked repeatedly for questioning the standard reasoning behind the changes in the application of CIVIL, the Wikipedia civility policy. Some of the greatest proponents of CIVIL behave in ways that are quite contrary to CIVIL even when discussing CIVIL.

For example, I have been viciously attacked by one of the most prominent proponents of CIVIL in private emails which were positively venomous and laced with profanities. What was he so angry about? That I had cautioned another editor who was misusing CIVIL and NPA as weapons that it was not generally civil behavior to do so. I have seen other emails from another great proponent of CIVIL that claim that adding the modifier "amazingly" in front of the word "incorrect" in a discussion means that I have committed a CIVIL violation. This same CIVIL champion claims that using a bold typeface in discussions is a violation of CIVIL, but uses the bold typeface himself. Finally, I was told in a private conversation that I should never have asked at AN/I for uninvolved administrators to look at one editor calling another a "f_ckwit" because it was completely understandable and reasonable for them to do so, since they had been provoked. I was told that even raising this issue made me look bad. Huh? Does anyone honestly believe that any of this makes any sense at all?

What does it matter if people do not have a realistic view of CIVIL? I think that one of the dangerous undercurrents at Wikipedia is the making of decisions of all kinds based on intuition, and on who can scream the loudest, and the ignoring of evidence. For Wikipedia to mature as an enterprise, it has to move beyond intuition-based management and towards evidence-based management. And for people to respect CIVIL, it has to make sense, be more or less consistent, and not be used as a weapon against one's fellow editors.


Here is an example of why I will rarely if ever post comments here and reply to them. This is a part of a reply I received to this blog post:

I believe you are tilting at windmills by arguing that CIVIL should be abolished. I think instead you would be better off examining how the policy could be made more effective for encouraging good communication and less likely to be gamed.

Well I hardly know how to respond to that bit of insight. However, this person might find that he has more of a positive impact if he actually reads the blog posts he is responding to before he responds.

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