This page is part of the Proceedings of Wikimania 2005, Frankfurt, Germany.




Editing notes:

  • Sunir's stuff lost in edit conflict, still only half here

Controversy and stability: How wikis have productive conflict

  • Author(s): Sunir Shah, Meatball
  • License: cc-by-sa (paper, presentation, video).
  • Language: English
  • Slides: {{{slides}}}
  • Video: {{{video}}}
  • Note: Presentation

About the author(s): Shah is the Founder and Editor of Meatball, a collective of active practitioners that are experts in wiki usage patterns and design that has supported Wikipedia since its founding. He also works for Socialtext, a company offering social software (including wikis) to large enterprises. At Socialtext, he works to support customers develop better practices for social software adoption and use within their business contexts.

Abstract: {{{abstract}}}



Group wikis can be said to be an exercise in managing controversy to gain productive outcomes. This talk will demonstrate that controversy is not something to be feared, but rather harnessed. Controversy, as it turns out, generates the highest quality outcomes possible.

This contrasts with the normal view that controversy is destabilizing and should be avoided. Traditional approaches, such as Britannica's, fearing unstability recommended installing single "authoritative" editors to quell controversy. In the face of research presented elsewhere at Wikimania that demonstrates clearly that the articles with the highest number of authors have the highest quality, it's clear that rather than taking the approach of the genius author, it's better to learn how to manage controversy so that it is productive rather than destabilizing.

This talk will describe how to manage controversy constructively using a wiki, focusing on well-known approaches in a variety of settings.



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Brändle (2005) demonstrates clearly in Transwiki:Wikimania05/Paper-AB1 the best Wikipedia articles are the ones touched by the most authors. This outcome is not unique; all group decisions benefit from having the widest number of contributors. However, we all know that the more cooks in the kitchen, the greater potential for food fights.

Controversy, particularly negative controversy frequently destablizes group processes, including wikis. Since Brändle's research indicates that controversy is not correlated with quality, we should be worried when negative controversy scares away would-be contributors--a concern frequently raised by Langer Sanger (2005).

"We're deciding what people are going to think." -- Wendy Doniger, Board Member of Encyclopedia Britannica (as qtd. in Ferkenhoff, 2005)

The belief that groups inevitably destabilize without strong controls leads many to criticize wikis, especially Wikipedia who has the largest and most diverse groups. The often recommended solution is a strong set of editors who know best, and thus quell controversy by having the final say. Or in one Britannica board member's words, "some of the smartest people on earth."

This solution of the isolated expert flies strongly in the face of many Internet projects who have shown indeed the more people involved the better. James Surowiecki's (2004) popular press book The Wisdom of Crowds demonstrates this phenomenon is wide-ranging in group behaviour. The larger, more diverse the crowd the better, he argues. Diversity and size are not the only important elements, though, but also critical is a way to aggregate and combine their input into a common outcome. Often, the outcome is better than anything an individual put forward alone, demonstrating the group is often greater than the sum of its parts.

There is a productive type of controversy


Brändle (2005) measured controversy as simply the intensity of the discussion, and it had no impact on the final quality of the article. However, in more common terms a controversy is a dispute or debate. Latour's (1987) seminal social description of science, Science in Action, outlines controversy as the process by which new facts sink or swim. In Science, diverse opinions in a controversy attacking a point can actually strengthen it in the end; the more test, trials, and attacks a point can defend against, the harder a fact it becomes. The harder the fact, the more people adopt it as truth, and it quickly becomes the commonly held knowledge.

This suggests taht controversy comes in two types. The negative controversy that destabilizes a group, and a positive controversy that results in the group outcome. Put another way, the two types of controversies are:

  • Divergent controversy. A controversy that gets out of control, getting wider and wider as an escalating conflict that has no other terminal point that a total cessation of discussion. This controversy can increase in intensity without creating any new knowledge.
  • Convergent controversy. A controversy that brings more and more facts into play, building on each other until a final group decision emerges.

What's the difference? Simply put, a convergent controversy is focused on ideas rather than feelings, in what is called a healthy conflict (Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, & Bourgeois, 1997).

In a divergent controversy, people put their egos on the line. Once they put forward their position, in order to save face, they have to harden their position against attack. Further, it is in their interest to attack other positions, thereby adding more and more tests, trials, obstacles, and concerns to overcome. Rather than attack ideas, people attack each other in order to disrupt the introduction of new ideas. Sometimes they attempt to disrupt the medium of communication itself, such as with edit wars on wikis.

Convergent controversy introduces facts and considers only facts. Facts reduces the gulf separating positions as some positions suddenly become untenable in the face of facts, making movement possible. As long as people are willing to give up their position, this process works.

Of course, if they are not, they have to resort to alternative attacks such as personal attacks or physical attacks on the medium, and you have divergent controversy.

Convergent controversy works best in the most diverse environment possible, as the widest variety of facts and positions attempting to cover those facts can be introduced. The only thing necessary is a mechanism to fairly integrate all of those inputs into a final group outcome that everyone can adhere to.

Controversy and wikis


Because a group wiki is a collaborative affair, the art of hosting a successful wiki is essentially the art of managing convergent controversy. Whether you have a small team wiki inside your company or Wikipedia, the essential problem is the same: How do you get people to contribute what they know and then integrate it with others peaceably?

Many approaches exist. The elegance of wiki's soft security rather than hard security is that it opens communication so that people can input their diverse opinions, whilst allowing room for reconciliation afterwards. Rather than be afraid of negative, divergent controversy and default to a closed and protected model, wikis assume good faith first and try to resolve conflicts afterwards.

The purpose of this talk is to outline how this works, both socially and structurally in a variety of wikis--from the office to MeatballWiki to Wikipedia. Topics that will be covered:

  • Peer review on wikis, and how it works without employing the "smartest people on earth."
  • Chris Purcell's stable copy structural solution to the old wiki adage, let hot pages cool.
  • Brainstorm-point form-reform. The oldest group facilitation trick in the book.
  • The art of Neutral Point of View.
  • ...

I lost my list in an 'edit conflict'. Argh! --Sunir



Brändle, A. (2005). Too many cooks don't spoil the broth. In Proceedings of Wikimania, 2005. Available from Transwiki:Wikimania05/Paper-AB1

Eisenhardt, K., Kahwajy, J., and Bourgeois III, L.J. (1997). Managing conflict: How management teams can have a good fight. Harvard Business Review, July-August, 77-85.

Ferkenhoff, E. (2005). "Venerable encyclopedia seeks just the facts." Boston Globe, July 21, 2005. Available from

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sanger, L. (2005). The early history of Nupedia and Wikipedia, Part II. Slashdot. Available from

Not to mention his numerous other writings on the same topic, like his 2004 article, Why Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism. -- Sunir

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds. New York: Doubleday.