An analysis of millions of Wikipedia articles suggests that ideologically diverse groups can not only cooperate effectively, but also produce better work than homogenous groups. How did Wikipedia succeed where much of the online world has failed?
Misha Teplitskiy and his colleagues at Harvard University looked at the editors of Wikipedia articles on politics, science and social issues and categorised them by their political and social attitudes. The most active editors were clustered around the ideological extremes and the more editors an article attracted, the more likely it was to attract them from both sides of the political spectrum.
The team found that the intense disagreement that happens between ideologically polarised editors often led to a more focused debate, with editors on both sides admitting the process had improved the final article. Meanwhile an unbalanced article attracts more offensive language on the Talk page.
Part of Wikipedia’s successful bipartisanship is down to design. “On Twitter, if you don’t like the climate change debate, you can go off to your own echo chamber,” says Teplitskiy. “On Wikipedia, if you want to talk about climate change, there is only one place to do it.”
The findings suggest that even ideologically opposed people can cooperate when working towards a meaningful goal, and that to make this happen both parties need to agree to a common set of rules, and have a clear arbitration process in place for when disagreements do flare up. Tense disagreements can often lead to a more focused debate, with editors on both sides admitting the process had improved the final article.
The attempt to moderate 1 billion users on Twitter and Facebook has failed because there is no consensus about the rules, and no clear objectives, either. If people are not prepared to abide by rules of conduct all you can do is ban them.
Journal reference: Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0541-6 (Frank Swain, Gary Cameron, Reuters)