Let’s Talk About It: How Wikipedians Resolve Their Problems
Wikipedia’s “Talk pages” are a vital resource, not just for Wikipedia editors, but for anyone who wants to understand human interaction among strangers who share a common goal.
Wikipedia users know that the crowd-sourced, online encyclopedia is the product of the collaboration of thousands of editors. What most readers probably don’t realize is that the real meat of the encyclopedia takes place on the back pages – where the Talk page serves as a kind of teachers’ room / Hyde Park hybrid to hash out both minutiae and fundamental differences in approach. (When a disagreement arises among editors about specific content in an article, the editors step back, refrain from further edits, and engage in a discussion about how to proceed, until consensus among the editors is reached.)
This collaboration is invisible to readers unless they look behind-the-scenes: Every article has its own Talk page, easily accessed by clicking on the “Talk” tab on the upper left corner of the page. Editors are expected to always be civil in their remarks on Talk pages, and to always assume good faith on the part of other editors. It does not always go down that way.
“Because it’s there.”
Most of the time an in-depth discussion of edits is unnecessary. Edits are usually straightforward and can be concisely explained in the edit summary box right before an edit is saved to the page. From time to time, two editors can even discuss their differences right in the edit box, where those differences can often be resolved relatively quickly and painlessly. (Those edit summaries are immortalized on the “History page,” which is found on a tab on the upper right side of the Main article space.) If the dispute, however, is complicated or the differences are large, the editors will need to take the discussion to the Talk page.
The Talk page is the hearth and home of Wikipedia collaboration. Editors go to the Talk page to explain larger, perhaps less obvious, and/or potentially controversial edits, with an explanation of why the editor made that change. The editor isn’t asking permission; rather the explanation is a declaration of intent, as well as an invitation to anyone who might disagree with that edit to state any objections.
Take the following polite and somewhat humorous example:
On the George Mallory article’s Talk page, a discussion ensued about whether this article should be included in the category for “disappeared persons.” One editor held that just because Mallory’s body was eventually found does not change the fact that he had ‘disappeared’ for 75 years. The other editor argued that the Wikipedia category called ‘disappeared persons’ is only for those who have not (yet) been found. One editor suggested creating a new category called “formerly disappeared” or perhaps “disappeared and found.” A third editor was called in, explaining that the intent of the category was for people who are “missing, remains not found.” A consensus was therefore reached asserting that for 75 years Mallory was considered a “disappeared person,” but as soon as his body was recovered, he could no longer be included in that specific category.
Rules of engagement
Of course, overzealous Wiki editors can sometimes turn Talk page discussions into battles that can become quite contentious: not recommended for the squeamish or faint of heart. Foreseeing the potential for ugly name-calling and other rude behavior, a compilation of rules has been developed which editors are advised to abide by on the Talk page; if disregarded, editors can be punished with exile. Miscreant editors can either be barred from specific articles where fellow editors have deemed them disruptive, or from the entire encyclopedia, if their unscrupulous actions have wrought more widespread havoc. Bans can be anywhere from a few days, to weeks and even months. Unrepentant vandals can face permanent exclusion from the website. The following are some of the rules that must be followed at the risk of a reprimand at best or permanent expulsion at worst if they are ignored:
- Communicate clearly: Make an effort to be clear, friendly and willing to explain why you have a certain opinion.
- Stay on topic: Stay focused on how to improve the article. Do not discuss irrelevant subjects.
- Do not discuss the editing process in general: There are other places on Wikipedia for those meta-discussions.
- Be positive: Talk pages are not for criticizing, bullying, or venting.
- Be objective: Easier said than done, but editors must not argue their own personal point of view about controversial subjects. Always ask “what do the sources say?” And “are those sources reliable?”
This list only just begins to touch the tip of the iceberg of advice on how to remain civil on Wikipedia’s Talk pages. Despite the long list of guidelines, sometimes discussions can get out of control. Most of the time the guilty editor will first be gently rebuked and asked to cease and desist.
One such case happened during a discussion of whether the reasons for the financial failure of the Airbus A380 were being whitewashed. Reigning in the offending editor, another editor stated:
“Instead of making sweeping accusations, and “guessing” about the history, how about simply making some constructive edits to the body of the article to incorporate the information you believe to be missing. (You may well be right that the information is worthy of inclusion, but adopting a more WP:CIVIL tone in your comments here would do no harm whatsoever).”
The errant editor did not exactly apologize, but he did take the offered advice and refrained from any additional rude or sarcastic remarks.
Only when friendly persuasion or outright threats fail, will an editor be banned. In one fascinating case, an editor, who seems to have had an anger issue, banned himself after admitting to engaging in frequent bullying and rude behavior. (For the entire statement, which is truly remarkable go here.)
Sometimes even editors with the best intentions and the most polite and respectful behavior hit a wall and still cannot come up with an acceptable consensus about how to proceed. Wikipedia has several mechanisms that editors can turn to for help resolving these disputes.
Cheap thrills or the meaning of life?
Talk pages are a vital resource, not just for Wikipedia editors, but for anyone who wants to understand human interaction among strangers who share a common goal. Usually the length of a Talk page, the number of archived pages, the tone, and the timbre of the discussions are a direct corollary to how important the subject of that article is in the popular mind and in the prevalent zeitgeist. Many of the articles that have the liveliest Talk page discussions are about issues of vital concern to leaders, thinkers, and the general public
Talk pages at their best are fascinating; the pursuit of cooperation, compromise, and common purpose that unfolds on Wikipedia Talk pages are a window into the mind of the community working hard to create an entirely abstract edifice of knowledge, which is the foundation of human culture, and the cornerstone of our civilization. Every excellent article that is forged in the Talk page furnace creates another brick in that edifice of human knowledge.
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