User:Qq/What kind of system is this?

Henry M. Robert

Wikipedia is a community that operates under a seemingly unprecedented system of decision making. The rules themselves seem at times paradoxical and frustratingly nebulous.


Consider these seemingly contradictory pairs of remarks:

    • "We don't take votes! Wikipedia is not a democracy!" (Said when the outcome of a debate differs from views expressed by the majority, or whenever you propose something resembling polling or democracy)
    • "The consensus was against it." (Said when you object to the community forcibly shutting down a project, vetoing an idea, or deleting a page)
    • "Policy is descriptive, not proscriptive." (Said when you object to a policy being ignored, or a page being deleted against policy)
    • "That goes against policy." (Said when you propose something that seems to you like a good idea for the encyclopedia, or keeping a page that seems useful, but is considered non-notable or otherwise unacceptable under policy)

At times, users will say that as long as they can get a consensus on, say, MfD, they don't have to go by a policy which suggests that a certain page should not be deleted. But where do these users derive their authority to delete any pages through MfD? Is it not from a broad community consensus expressed by policy? And that same broad community consensus also established parameters within which deletions may occur. So what gives them the authority to override those parameters? They respond, Policy is descriptive, not proscriptive. Ah, OK.

But isn't it fair to say that you guys are a little bit offsides? The deletionists hang out at the deletion pages and cherry pick articles, while we're off somewhere else. I thought the whole idea of policy is to be more reliably representative of the community's opinion than the results of a five-day debate somewhere.

So then, what kind of system is this, and how binding is policy? Several examples from real life present themselves, and will be compared and contrasted to Wikipedia in turn.

Types of systemsEdit

Federal systemEdit

The United States Constitution recognizes that within the larger community, we have smaller communities known as states. Federal laws are created with input from representatives of all the states, and they become the supreme law of the land. But under certain circumstances, such as invasion, states can wage war and do other things normally prohibited. (See Article I, Section 9). However, the implication is that state leaders had better make sure that the situation fits those criteria, or they will be in trouble.

Similarly, on Wikipedia, we have the overall community and smaller communities within it. The policymaking process involves a relatively broad range of editors, simply because of the policies' high visibility and the length of time allowed for debate (indefinite and ongoing, as opposed to, for instance, 5 days in a deletion debate). But under certain circumstances, we are allowed to ignore all rules. The difference is that, unless someone publicly objects, the larger community is unlikely to notice improper use of IAR.

Separation of powersEdit

Some people have compared our decision making process to separation of powers. The community as a whole serves as our legislative branch that creates policies and guidelines. AfD, MfD, etc. serve as law courts, interpreting those rules and applying them to individual cases. Where the rules are not particularly precise (e.g. because the larger community could not agree on, or did not want to create, more detailed instructions), these smaller forums fill in the gap.

In the United States, the Supreme Court can exercise authority under Marbury v. Madison to override laws which contradict the U.S. Constitution. Similarly, subgroups of the community can ignore all rules by appealing to a higher authority, our general mission of building an encyclopedia. However, the implication in either case is that, when overriding the rule, there should be an explanation of how the rule being set aside conflicts with the higher authority. Judges are not supposed to legislate from the bench and disregard laws willy-nilly.

Consensus-based communal/tribal systemEdit

Many communes have attempted to organize under a consensus-based system. The rule is simple – no unanimity, no action. These communities typically engage in extended discussions, which is similar to what we have here. But our idea of "consensus" is not necessarily unanimous agreement, which makes it an entirely different animal. It seems to be somewhere on the spectrum between requiring strict unanimity and being a majoritarian democracy, both of which are positions we have disavowed.

Parliamentary procedureEdit

Under parliamentary procedure, a society may have bylaws, rules of order, and standing rules. Robert's Rules of Order notes that standing rules can be adopted by a majority vote and temporarily suspended by a majority vote. Bylaws, on the other hand, "contain the provisions that are expected to have stability from session to session, and to represent the judgment of the whole society as distinguished from the members voting at any particular session. These rules therefore require both previous notice and a two-thirds vote for amendment (which a vote of a majority of the entire membership as an allowable alternative); and rules of order require a two-thirds vote for suspension, while bylaws cannot be suspended." (RONR, (10th ed.), p. 86)

Certain Wikipedia policies, such as WP:IAR, might be similar to bylaws in that they are designed to be extremely difficult to amend, and they cannot be suspended. Other Wikipedia policies may be roughly similar to rules of order. They can be suspended if necessary, but it's harder for a Wikipedia subgroup to successfully act in opposition to policy than it is to act in accordance with it. Many decisions can be made by unanimous consent; if no one objects, then the rules are suspended. Robert's Rules of Order provides, "Rules protecting absentees or a basic right of the individual member cannot be suspended." (RONR, 10th ed., p. 255) Indeed, one of the main purposes of parliamentary procedure is to protect rights, including those of individual members and absentees. Wikipedia:Free speech states that editors have no rights except the right to leave and the right to fork.

The main difference is that on Wikipedia, there is no precise quorum and we do not have voting bases such as a majority or two-thirds. Thus, the existence of a consensus is more vague and nebulous and may simply be measured by which group was more concerned and proactive about getting what it wanted.

Dictatorship of boredomEdit

P. J. O'Rourke postulated the existence of a dictatorship of boredom in America in which "the last person left awake gets to spend all the tax money." Just as most citizens have little time or inclination to get involved in day-to-day political decisions, most Wikipedians spend little time perusing deletion pages. Thus, while there is no cabal, decision making tends to rest with a self-appointed group of relatively consistently actively involved users. Unless an organized effort is made to counter this effect, it is possible for a minority to advance its agenda simply by slicing the majority into small segments and dealing with each one by one. This might be called the "Martin Niemöller" effect:

At Miscellany for Deletion, they came first for Esperanza, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t an Esperanzan;
And then they came for the Association of Members' Advocates, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Members' Advocate;
(etc., etc.)

What makes Wikipedia different?Edit

What makes Wikipedia operate so differently from other communities we have seen? Surely it is partly due to the nature of this venue. Parliamentary procedures have developed over several centuries into excellent methods for meetings in which people can see and hear each other simultaneously, but they can be difficult to adapt to venues such as Wikipedia "since so many situations unprecedented in parliamentary law may arise and since many procedures common to parliamentary law are not applicable." (RONR, (10th ed.), p. 2, 482-483)

Could part of the reason also be that some people prefer an ambiguous situation, in which they can wield policy as a weapon when they want, but disregard it when it's inconvenient? What prevents mob rule when the rule of law is not present?

It is logical that, even after all these years we've been gathered here, policy remains in such a nebulous state, if only because the fact that anyone can edit it puts it in a constant state of flux. In that type of circumstance, we have to have some flexibility as to whether we apply it. But if that's the case, perhaps we shouldn't be so fast to whack people over the head with policy. On the other hand, if we say that, what keeps us from a harmful type of disorganized chaos and anarchy?

The situation is frustrating and at times it's tempting to say, "Either it's binding or it's not. Make up your mind! If it binds me, it should bind you." Will we ever get there?

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit