Sunday, April 25, 2010

A culture for debate?

Spiegel ONLINE has a very interesting and well written article that tells a story about controversy and the limits of collective intelligence at Wikipedia:

The article contains some interesting facts, some of which you might have heard before. It is specifically about the German Wikipedia site, but I doubt this makes qualitatively much of a difference. While the site is frequently consulted, it's only a small fraction of people, of the order of some promille, that edit articles. Most of the registered users seem to never use their account. The people who contribute frequently seem to be driven to a large extend by the social ranking in that community. This is not very different to other online forums. The number of rules and regulations for editing Wikipedia articles has been steadily increasing. Spiegel online interviewed Henriette Fiebig who works at the German headquarters of Wikipedia. She says
    "Now you need three days just to read all the rules."

Even more interesting is what Elisabeth Bauer, who has played a leading role in the German Wikipedia community from the beginning on, says about these rules:
    "Discussions in those days didn't last long, because there was hardly anyone there to participate. We often just established rules quickly, without giving them a lot of thought. It seems strange to see how some people today are beating themselves up over things that you yourself simply wrote down at some point."

A development that I've seen happen in completely other circumstances as well...

The Spiegel ONLINE article further focuses as example on one particular debate that went on "backstage" in the discussion pages. It features a completely irrelevant detail, a guy who can't admit to be neither wrong nor compromise on that irrelevant detail, and a women who gets angered by that guy and tries to drown him in facts. The detail in this case is the question whether or not the Danube tower is a TV tower. For what I am concerned, as long as you haven't defined what a TV tower is, you can't answer the question, so first thing you should do is to clarify what the issue is about. And arguments about definitions are moot anyway. A definition is never wrong, it's just more or less useful.

But, as you can guess, a guy with a big ego who can't compromise can waste other people's time and in the end often wins just because everybody in their right minds realizes they are wasting their time.

It is a sad story and one that, unfortunately, is very typical for online conversations. It makes me wonder, once again, if not a wide-spread education in how to lead fruitful and constructive arguments would be helpful to alleviate this issue.

If you found that status report from the inner workings of online-communities depressing, I recommend you read this heart-warming NYT story:


  1. Interesting. I used to do a bit of editing at Wikipedia some years ago. I logged in a few times recently to have a look, and there are so many rules and regulations now that I wonder how a newcomer can do anything. I decided to not write anything.

    There are also these completely ridiculous arguments going on. For example, for some reason while lazily surfing around, I ended up on the article about push-ups. This article has the name "press-ups", because there are a few British people who call it that and now it can't be changed to the overwhelmingly more common "push-ups" because then you would have to provide incontrovertible proof (i.e. a citation) showing what everybody knows, that "push-up" is a far more common term... And the person who wrote the original article is a distinguished admin and is jealously guarding it.

    I saw a similar discussion about the names of Scandinavian ice hockey players in the NHL. There were heated arguments for why one should not include the dots on the "ö"'s, for example, (such as in Nicklas Lidström), differently from what they always do in other fields.

    This is a good illustration of what is wrong with wikipedia. Not very important, but can lead to long and emotional arguments.

  2. Hi Rikard,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It's indeed very similar to the impression I got from reading the Spiegel article.

    I do have a Wikipedia account but I hardly ever use it. I've only a few times used it to clean up one or the other error in a physics or math entry, or added a citation. This already started out being annoying because the first couple of time my edits were just reset as alleged spam attempts. (I was trying to refer to a website, which wasn't even my own.) As to the rules... I never read them...


  3. Hi Bee,

    for a "wide-spread education in how to lead fruitful and constructive arguments" I have discovered the new hobby debating a year ago, e.g. at That really helps!


  4. Hi Bee,

    I also have a Wikipedia account that dates back quite a while and yet have only used it to correct one entry, being the label of a photo in respect to the Solvay Conferences in Physics. It had Richard Feynman and Murray Gell Mann in a photo of a conference as one being held and dated at a time before they could have been graduate students. I simply changed the heading under the photo to the one denoting the correct one and date. When I look back at the page no they have removed most of the conference photos, except for the very early ones and so my correction is no longer there.

    I’ve heard about all the changes that have taken place in Wikipedia land and I am not surprised, as with many endeavours that are at first meant to seek truth to end up instead as ones which holds (self) righteousness as the goal, rather then truth. This of course is most evident in religion, yet exists also within the realm of the Ivory Towers. In a recent post you spoke of minds being shared and yet as is demonstrated here sharing is not what many are concerned with, as much as it being ownership and influence that drives them. So how could we ever expect they would be willing to share their minds when primarily interested in dictating as to what stands as their truth, rather than being open as to be concerned in discovering what it be.



    P,S, Sorry for all the corrections which gives some indiction s to why I never became all that active in the project, as I would cause more effort to be spent exceeding what I could contribute :-)

  5. Hi Bee,

    One other thing I found interesting about this article you pointed to, being that some of the most vicious of the Wikipedia zealots presenting as nice and reasonable people when encountered in person. This has me mindful of the discussion earlier as to what would have people resistant to mind sharing being in having their negative thoughts exposed.

    That is it seems as this media has many provided a way to have Jekyll give way to their Hyde as perhaps feeling protected from retribution and consequence. It had me to wonder if in a unified mind situation if the Hydes would be so preoccupied with each other as to allow the Jekylls to go on to peacefully and productively explore common interests and concerns or have them regret forming the link to begin with?

    I think this in part is wht formed to be Christine’s concern and yet after consideration it appears to be the greatest control over the Hydes of the world is that in truth they are not so bold as the Jekylls as to be rather the cowards, so thus I think mind linking would serve to diminish the effect of the Hydes and increase that of the Jekylls, Then we are left with the question if truth can only be found in having such a contrst of purpose and intent or better served with ridding ourselves of it>



  6. When your gathering research info one can come to rely on a "source of information" to help make decisions, arrive at least some conclusion, it is I am sure hoped that what decision ever made is always the right one as best we can given the circumstance.

    Outreach, given the idea that education can be given to the widest corners of the globe where education halls cannot reach, the virtual experience given a means by which one can communicate, why would not one who knows given the life experience share the scientific position of at least correcting a misconception knowing that they can correct part of the illusion that is perpetuated?

    Not to be cynical and and argumentative to advance this pursuance of info sharing and education. So must it be a cultural statement that reaches across all cultures. What is this highest honor that shall become the mission statement, not to be considered a Ivory Tower but the principal by which we accept this guiding hand for another.

    It is not possible for me/or anyone to demand that all scientists should have outreach conceptions as it would require that this rule be applied to all people "as a burden shared" to allow people the experience of at least making those decisions while using information that is considered reliable.

    What books/info shall be published and put in the virtual library and how shall the widest corners of our globe be allowed access too?

    The Initiative at front of the United States after the health care issue is the access to information which is a guiding light for me in what shall transpire in all countries as a road to giving this information for everyone.

  7. Can "lower life forms" inhabit the consciousness of those that have accepted that when the mission of one who entered this world asks to depart, shall only be the evil granted access to the body in which by agreement could enter?

    No, only those who who shall not have "any choice about the future" perhaps, are left to hang according to that evil?

    This is "one" possible fictional scenario.

    The capability of it even being possible is the idea, that given the choice as to the future of our societies is one again that the highest virtues be extolled for the future generations?

    You see, you are forming this "mission statement" about the future and not just the idea of the education and access to information.

  8. Wikipedia is a wonderful tool. I've spent countless hours reading it and am indebted to all those who contributed actual knowledge to the site.

    That said it does attract a large share of freaks who are in it for ego and power mostly. Their actions often lead to epic conflicts with various cliques taking sides often going up to teh Jimbo himself (who happens to be one of the freaks, for example he tried to change history claiming he was the sole founder). Soap opera doesn't even begin to describe it.

    Luckily most of the articles that interest me are too advanced for the freak crowd and are therefore left alone.

  9. Dear Bee,

    Without the focus on an external reality that serves to decide disputes - (e.g., even - is that general winning or losing battles? or is the competition's product better than ours?) - human organizations tend to spend an inordinate amount of energy on internally generated disputes. You can call this Arun's theorem :)


  10. --interesting post, Bee. I find that I use wikipedia very often as my peripheral brain, and, like memories, if it isn`t always totally reliable, thats O.K. It is a marvelous resource.
    The story about the Kenyan mother is also great. I tend to be so cynical about the human race, that I need some contrary evidence sometimes.

  11. Hi Bee,

    such stories like you mentioned at the end of your posting produce hope, that the world is working most times good!

    Best Kay

  12. Dear Arun,

    In my experience your theorem holds often true, but mostly for groups who lack a clearly defined common goal, or a goal that members in the group don't subscribe to (here we have folks who rate their own ego above the group's values). Groups who have a well-defined common goal and subscribe to it on the other hand have a tendency towards silencing dispute and promoting group-think, which isn't healthy either. The best way I think has to be somewhere in the middle. As I said in various earlier posts if you promote those to administrative positions who have the largest ego or are the most popular or well-known (which is what will happen if you let things "self-organize" as seems to be in fashion right now) it's a sure way to disaster. What Wikipedia is lacking is a suitable (democratic) administrative structure, and until they manage to come up with one, they'll continue to waste time and effort on many words with little outcome. Best,


  13. Hi Phil,

    I actually find it very hard to understand what drives these people. In particular what drives otherwise reasonable, intelligent people to cling onto an opinion long after they must have realized they are wrong, or at least partly wrong. I mean, I can understand that it's not nice to admit one is wrong, and if every word of the discussion is documented that certainly doesn't help either. But what strikes me is how often the time spent, the effort, and anger is completely out of proportion to the issue at hand. I mean, seriously, who cares what sort of a tower it is?

    Thus I am wondering if it would be beneficial to just list pros and cons and have them defended in some limited time span, and then come to a conclusion, if necessary by vote rather than consensus, with the procedure to be repeated if there are new facts. That is for cases in which a conclusion has to be reached like possibly: what do we write on this site, is it a TV tower or not. A conclusion should not be enforced though when not necessary (as is the case with many scientific debates where the situation is just inconclusive.) Basically, this would cut off the fruitless repetitions one very frequently finds in online discussions, as if repeating a point would make it true. It is interesting though that research has shown that people do indeed think facts more likely to be true if they have heard them repeatedly, even if from the same source. This fact been known to PR outlets and advertisement managers and probably to some extend, intuitively to humans generally, this might explain a lot of the repetitions we see in argumentations. Best,


  14. Hi Bee,

    I would say how we differ in the consideration of such matters, is that I’m constantly looking for the broad strokes that have things to be found as they are and you perhaps more convinced solutions rest with smaller and more subtle adjustments. Yet despite these differences, I would suggest, we might both agree that first the purpose and intent of things should form to be our guides as to what methods best used in having things achieved.

    So then, I would submit, the purpose and intent of Wikipedia is to have a resource of knowledge made available to everyone, that is as meaningful and true as possible, restricted solely by the limits of the best individual and collective abilities of humanity.

    What then I find so often forgotten, by those involved as the task they’ve accepted being one rooted in compassion, which can only be achieved in acknowledging that empathy being the primary aspect of intent. So I would say to those who consider being that just to be right is the prime objective of purpose have totally missed the point. I think then if they paid stricter attention to this principle, that the rules would be no longer needed, being self evident and emergent. I find this interesting as it also being one of the most discussed, concerning and hotly contested issues within science



  15. Bee said: "I am wondering if it would be beneficial to just list pros and cons and have them defended in some limited time span, and then come to a conclusion..."

    Could be, but it's currently against Wikipedia policy to have such votes ( ). In my experience, the argument drags on and on until nobody cares anymore, or one of the factions gets so worn out that they give up and leave. I have a long history of editing Wikipedia, but generally I just correct typos and fix grammar, or update articles to include recent news. Anything more than that quickly draws attention and is apt to be disputed. It's hard to know all the rules.

    -- Wayne Farmer ( )

  16. Hi Wayne,

    Everybody who has ever been engaged in any committee, group, or organization knows that consensus decisions don't work unless you have a small group with people who genuinely want to work towards consensus (which has other side-effects). Otherwise, you just end up talking and talking and talking until and the winner is who has the most breath not the best arguments. The way to deal with this is to come up with a smart voting algorithm. I would have thought that Wikipedia would meanwhile have such an option for the cases where it's necessary (in most cases it won't be necessary). My sense is that they either have an innovation on their discussion style soon, or they'll get stuck (with the same people and the same arguments). Best,



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