[WikiEN-l] WP:LEAD

Abd ul-Rahman Lomax abd at lomaxdesign.com
Fri Feb 8 22:34:49 UTC 2008

At 12:23 PM 2/8/2008, WJhonson at aol.com wrote:
>In a message dated 2/8/2008 9:21:00 A.M. Pacific Standard Time,
>ian.woollard at gmail.com writes:
>I cannot  be kind about this, these people are engaging in, or
>recommending OR, and  are trying to hide behind the cloak of consensus.
>We don't want or need  consensus in the Wikipedia, we want *informed*
>When experts are "called in" to give opinions in contentious issues, the
>warriors cite Canvassing and Meatpuppetry.
>How do we address that?

Favorite question, actually. This happens to be my specialty, i.e., 
the theory of how very large organizations might be able to 
efficiently measure consensus, plus guarantee (at least in general) 
that the consensus is an informed one.

I apologize for the length of this, but I don't have time to edit it 
down, so ... following the principles implied herein, if anyone finds 
this of value, commenting on it and repeating what seems important 
about it could be very useful. It is not necessary that everyone read 
this, and, indeed, one person might be enough. So, if it serves you 
to read it, great. If not, I will not be offended if anyone passes it by.

We might notice that the problem described above is a generic 
organizational one, and it starts to bite organizations when they 
reach a level where, for example, if everyone shows up at a meeting, 
or even a major fraction do so, the meeting becomes too large to 
function, plus there is classic participation bias. Participation 
bias is a double-edged sword. On the other hand, it tends to favor 
decisions being made by the informed. However, there is also a higher 
incentive to participate on the part of those who are biased in some 
way, who have an axe to grind. So direct democracies, such as New 
England Town Meeting, tend to be replaced when the town size reaches 
a level that the number of fanatics and blowhards and tenacious 
debaters becomes large enough -- they are a certain percentage of any 
population that does not exclude them -- to raise the noise to a 
point that the meetings start to break down, the gatherings become 
tedious, expand the time consumed, increasing participation bias even 
further. Familiar?

Mailing lists and the like (including internet forums, which is what 
project or talk pages are on Wikipedia) increase the manageable 
scale, because, unlike the case with face-to-face meetings, readers 
can selectively read, they do not have to sit through a long and 
boring speech, and, if there is voting involved, they only need pay 
attention to actual and generally short questions, plus, to be 
informed, they may read a few posts from writers they trust, or skim 
over what has been posted. However, there comes a point where, again, 
the noise level is too great. That is not a specific size, because 
there are mailing lists with tens of thousands of subscribers that 
remain functional -- though mostly because these lists aren't really 
trying to make any kind of decisions, they are only discussing. When 
they try to make controversial decisions, there can be, if there is 
no process to prevent it, eruptions of highly contentious posts. At a 
certain point, though, *any* open mailing list is going to run into 
the problem of scale. I am only here considering unmoderated lists.

There are classic solutions or processes, each one unsatisfactory 
from various perspectives:

(1) Electoral democracy, where elected representatives reduce the 
number of participants. The big problems with elections is that 
security issues are raised: who can vote (sock puppets?), how do they 
vote, and who counts the vote. Further, whenever there is an 
election, there are losers, which may represent voters who end up 
unrepresented. There are voting systems that ameliorate this problem, 
so some kind of electoral democracy can be a solution, and this is 
generally how societies, when the exercise of sovereignty is 
concerned, have moved, and this and the second solution are the 
approach generally taken by nonprofits.

(2) Oligarchical control. There is single person or a small number of 
persons who have decision-making authority, and membership 
participation is limited to advising those people. Electoral 
democracy is, in one sense, oligarchical, but I distinguish this here 
by considering that the oligarchy is a fixed oligarchy, not subject 
to election but which elects its own continuing participants. This is 
actually the Wikipedia formal control structure, but it 
operationally, for the most part, defers to the third process.

(2) Anarchist approaches such as are (more or less) the status quo on 
Wikipedia, which works much better than some would expect but which 
turns out to be, as well, horrifically inefficient in ways that, in 
my opinion, will make it unsustainable. Like consensus process in 
voluntary communities, over the years, participation declines as 
people decide that they have better things to do that sit in tedious 
meetings, going through what it takes to find consensus. (Note that I 
am in favor of finding consensus, and am merely pointing out that 
traditional methods of finding it, when the group size gets large, 
become increasingly impractical). This approach does have legs, as 
Wikipedia shows; but participation bias can, again, cause the 
apparent consensus, as was being pointed out, to deviate from what 
would be a true consensus if one explained the situation to every 
member and asked them to vote.

(3) Proxy democracy, as practiced in the business world (where it is 
a democracy of property, i.e., own so many shares, one gets so many 
votes, and may assign those votes at will, to anyone, to cast. This 
allows, in theory, all shareholders to be represented at an annual 
meeting, whereas only a few are actually present. It is rigorously 
democratic, in theory, but in practice various conditions have 
developed that frustrate it, including large numbers of uninformed 
shareholders who assign proxies on request by the board of trustees, 
thus making proxy revolutions very difficult. As an example, the 
California State Automobile Association is a proxy democracy: members 
each get one vote. But this organization, like many in its class, was 
founded by people selling insurance, if I'm correct. And the board 
sends out proxy solicitations, which enough members helpfully sign 
and send back, that when an insurgent (perhaps pursuing his own 
agenda as a trial lawyer) tries to mount a candidacy to represent 
other interests than those of insurance companies (which only 
partially coincide with those of motorists), it's almost impossible, 
and there is no means of reaching the members directly, often, since 
the board controls access to the membership list and member 
addresses. But it is proxy democracy that contains the seeds of a 
solution, because it can create full representation without 
elections. Proxy democracy has seen little use in most nonprofits; 
however, as an example, some Green parties allow members to name 
proxies for voting at conventions; anarchists have commonly opposed 
this because it can create a situation where the anarchists have a 
majority at the convention, but are outvoted by those holding 
proxies. This opposition to proxy voting is actually quite generic, 
and most nonprofit membership organizations prohibit proxy voting, 
and discussing why this is the case is not necessary here, except to 
say that it is basically the same argument, made by the oligarchy 
that has effective control through participation bias, and believes 
that this control is essential for organizational success.

Wikpedia actually incorporates, already, many elements of what I 
would consider an advanced system. In particular, one critical aspect 
of such would be the separation of judgement from power. That is, 
there is advice and there is action, and the advice, properly, should 
be disconnected from action; this principle is more commonly known as 
the "independence of the judiciary," and represents avoidance of the 
direct exercise of power by judges. While it may appear that judges 
control, generally they do not; rather they issue decisions which may 
be considered binding, but the judges themselves typically cannot 
compel compliance themselves; rather, public servants ("the executive 
branch") act as authorized by the decision of a judge, and if the 
public servants refuse to act, the judges have no power. But, of 
course, that is not normally what happens.

With Wikipedia, ArbComm is technically only advisory. Jimbo Wales is 
not legally obligated to follow the decisions of ArbComm. Nor is an 
apparent community consensus binding on anyone. Rather, an ArbComm 
decision or an apparent consensus are enforced, if they are enforced, 
by individuals entrusted with enforcement powers, and none of them 
can be compelled to exercise that power, unless they choose, 
themselves, to be bound, and, if I'm correct, such choices are 
revocable. Ultimately, legal authority over Wikipedia is in the hands 
of the Foundation, i.e., the Board. The community consensus advises 
the Board, and the Board would disregard it at its own peril. 
Legally, however, the Board is obligated (and the members legally 
obligated, with possible teeth of they neglect the obligation) to 
insure that Wikipedia, for example, acts responsibly, for the 
protection of the public, so it is possible that a clear community 
consensus could appear, perhaps requiring certain expenditures, and 
the Board properly would refuse if it considered this fiscally 
unwise, risking bankruptcy and thus harm to the public.

So what is the function of the community consensus on Wikipedia? It 
is to generate and express advice, whereby the community advises 
itself and its servants and those who hold responsible positions as 
volunteers or employees. The consensus does not control directly, but 
it may effectively do so; in each case, however, each action of 
control is at the discretion of individuals entrusted with the power of action.

This kind of organizational/legal structure has been used before, 
with phenomenal success. It was used by the model for what I call 
Free Associations. Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, 
carefully studied what had caused similar temperance movements to 
fail in the past, and he consciously designed AA to avoid the 
pitfalls. He separated AA itself from the service board known as AA 
World Services, Inc. AA itself "ought never be organized," but then 
he went on, "but we may create service boards or committees directly 
responsible to those they serve." There is no central control in AA, 
not over the fellowship itself, nor over meetings or members. 
Individual meetings are fully independent, and may, if they choose, 
defy even a very strong majority opinion in AA (even what can be 
called a consensus), normally without any consequence at all. But it 
doesn't happen much! Each meeting is self-supporting; no action is 
taken centrally to start or help maintain local meetings. There is, 
however, a representative conference once a year, using delegates 
elected by a special process calculated to facilitate the development 
of consensus at the conference level by including some representation 
of significant minority opinion. I'm not presenting AA as perfect, it 
isn't, but it is very, very good at showing how anarchistic 
structures can function and be extraordinarily successful. Whatever 
one might think of the AA program, it became, in a few short years, 
almost the only show in town, and there is, in fact, at least one 
meeting in every town in North America and in many around the world.

However, AA was able to succeed largely because there are very few 
decisions to be made on the level of the overall organization. Every 
meeting is independent, and decisions are made by those who 
participate, and there is no enforced common standard. It would be as 
if, here, there were no enforceable policies and the editorial 
standards for every article were determined by the editors of that 
article. (To some extent, this is true, and it is both beneficial and 
harmful, depending. A consensus of editors can pretty much get away 
with anything, until and unless the consensus breaks, by an editor 
noticing it who thinks it wrong. It is not a consensus any more.) 
Universal membership is an important aspect of this. With a few 
exceptions -- which have been vigorously debated and are debated 
still -- every AA meeting is open to every AA member, and membership 
in AA is self-defined. I.e., say you are a member, you are a member 
unless it is proven otherwise. "The only requirement for membership 
is a desire to stop drinking." Further, "Any two alcoholics gathered 
together for the purpose of sobriety may call themselves an AA 
meeting, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation." 
This "other affiliation means, as I understand it, that there is no 
"Baptist AA," where you would have to be a Baptist to attend the 
group. (However, the exceptions: there are women's meetings and men's 
meetings and there are, I think, some gay and lesbian meetings; these 
are theoretically violating the AA traditions -- but they also have 
Rule Number One, IAR. As long as those who maintain local meetings 
lists don't exclude the meeting from lists, there has been no 
consequence; meeting lists will warn potential attendees of any such 
special requirement, and these special meetings don't exist in areas 
where alcoholics don't have lots of other options.)

But what would happen if the scale became very large, with common 
standards being expected for all meetings? In AA, meetings do tend to 
have strong resemblances, and there are strong traditions about, for 
example, no cross-talk, i.e,. avoiding commenting directly on what 
others have said, focusing on "principles, not personalities." But 
there is no overall rule requiring this, with sanctions against those 
who violated it. Comment on someone's sharing of their experience, 
and the most that is likely to happen is that people will shun you, 
or quietly suggest to you that it was inappropriate. (On the other 
hand, AA is composed of human beings, including some who are quite 
contentious, sometimes still fueled by their disease, and so whatever 
can happen probably does happen, occasionally, at AA meetings. I've 
only been to open meetings, I am not an alcoholic, but an observer of AA.)

Here, we have an encyclopedia to build and maintain. It is expected 
that certain common standards will be maintained, and maintaining 
them requires increasing precision of definition, plus application of 
the standards to real situations, which constantly vary in 
implications, there are exceptions to every rule except one.

So how to judge? This is where structure comes in. Wikipedia has a 
combination of the above described forms, but most decisions are made 
through the anarchist model, subject to participation bias. And, 
above, there is one method described that can balance out 
participation bias without excluding minority opinion, and that is 
proxy representation. However, creating a proxy structure could seem 
to be adding complexity and perhaps bureaucracy, and, when 
suggestions like this are made, most think of proxies as holding 
power, controlling. But if we look at proxies as elements in a system 
that only advises, but does not control, the picture changes. The 
security issues disappear. The elements we love about Wikipedia, such 
as "no voting," -- which means that decisions are made by servants 
based on arguments presented, not votes -- are retained. However, 
sometimes the process by which arguments are presented is 
horrifically inefficient, sucking in the expenditure of huge amounts 
of editor time, and often frustrating to all sides, plus, of course, 
a lot of it is, indeed, voting. I don't know what "Delete, per nom" 
means, otherwise. Obviously a lot of Wikipedia editors think we are 
voting in an AfD.

(In AA, the General Service Conference controls nothing, but its 
advice is respected. It nominates Board members, which the Board 
routinely elects. It approves of edits to publications, to insure 
that they reflect consensus. -- a "consensus" for these purposes is 
considered a 2/3 vote at the Conference level.)

Contentious decisions commonly involve interpretations of guidelines 
and policies where it is possible that there are quite legitimate 
alternate interpretations. While the theory of the process is that it 
is arguments that are being considered, not votes, in the end, in 
practice, an actual decision is made by one person, sometimes a 
person who has less experience and understanding of the arguments 
than those who commented. In the end, this is one person's decision. 
I would keep it exactly that way, but I would focus on what advice 
that person has received and to what extent it may be considered to 
be the collective understanding of the community. Suppose we had a 
proxy system -- never mind how we would get it for the moment, please 
-- so that there were a few commentors, each one of which presented a 
different comment, it becoming a tradition not to repeat comments, 
i.e., not to make comments of the form, "Me too." So there might be, 
with a controversial decision, two comments. Are they equal in power? 
Presently, in theory, yes. The decision maker has the right to 
choose, or even to make some totally different decision, having been 
advised. (in this case the most common decision would be no 
consensus, perhaps with renomination seeking additional comment.)

But, now suppose that one of these comments is from a high-level 
proxy, representing, directly or indirectly, 99% of Wikipedia 
registered users who have participated in such a system, and lets 
suppose there are, at least, thousands of them. This person has been 
massively trusted as being likely to have a good understanding of the 
issue and to comment fairly and neutrally (or, at least, representing 
in some sense the POV of those who chose him or her). And the other 
comment is from a new editor, who has been trusted by no one. *other 
things being equal,* which has more weight? Indeed, which decision is 
more likely to stick and not be reversed.

I can imagine some immediate objections, so I urge a careful reading 
of the above. "Other things being equal" is very important. This 
includes, for the deciding administrator, indecision as to which 
argument presented is the best. First of all, is this an inconclusive 
decision, "No consensus"? I'd suggest not! The fact is that admins do 
use the number of "votes" to determine the validity of a decision, 
and will consider the existence of opposing arguments as not relevant 
if one side is snowed. Decisions contrary to the majority are made, 
but I've never seen a snowed expression of opinion reversed by an 
administrator. But snowing takes up editor time. Rather, I'd suggest, 
weighting "votes," acknowledging them as votes, *but not making them 
binding*, is actually the Wikipedia way, it is what has been done *to 
a degree*, already. All that a proxy system would do is to measure 
participation (how many editors participated in the decision-making 
process, directly and indirectly) and the sense of the community (how 
many editors may we predict would vote a certain way if asked.)

(In this example, even though one proxy represented thousands of 
users, a careful decision maker might want to see at least one 
concurring opinion, and for the proxy or any user to contact another 
user to look at the issue could be quite appropriate. Here, I'm sure, 
if this were a matter of weight, we'd see more comments anyway, and, 
given the position of the proxy, if this is working, it's highly 
likely there would be some confirmation. But what I'd predict we 
would not see is an MfD with 600 votes and highly repetitious argument.)

Now, as to the latter, when proxy systems are proposed, one of the 
most common objections is "How can I be sure that the person I pick 
will vote the way I would want." The answer, of course, is that you 
can't. A proxy should be chosen as a person one you consider most 
likely to make a good decision if you don't participate. In the 
example above, with that high-level proxy, suppose you were a client 
of that proxy. You might watch what your proxy is doing, and if you 
see a vote you don't like, you simply vote yourself, effectively 
cancelling your vote. If this happens more than rarely, you would 
properly consider changing your proxy assignment. But, I suspect, 
most people would not watch their proxy unless someone called 
misbehavior to their attention. (If a proxy is blocked such that the 
proxy cannot continue to function, i.e, more than transiently, all 
the direct clients, I'd think, should be notified. But all this can 
be done without formal structure to do it.)

I've been thinking of Delegable Proxy, where proxies are considered 
to be delegable, so if A names B and B names C, then C, in the 
absence of A and B, represents both of them. DP is indefinitely 
scalable, the "hierarchy" it creates is bottom-up, a fractal (hence 
"fractal democracy" is one of the names for this), requiring no 
elections, only a list of proxy assignments. Wikipedia needs no 
special tools to do this, it is all in place, everything needed, 
except people assigning proxies. No policies or guidelines need be 
changed, no additional burden placed on anyone that is not 
voluntarily assumed, no power transferred from those who currently 
hold it. No bureaucracy is needed, beyond the thinnest.

Closing administrators would not be required to consider proxy 
expansion of votes. Any user could expand votes using the proxy list. 
(It's not hard to do it by hand, even with thousands of votes 
involved, but there are also tools being developed and I assume that 
there will be quite adequate ones available readily as open-source software.)

Now, why would I think that the vote of a proxy would estimate 
overall consensus "if the users were asked." First of all, of course, 
the proxy only estimates the consensus of those represented by the 
proxy, and a collection of proxies only would estimate the consensus 
of all those collectively represented by those proxies. However, 
proxies and clients will directly communicate. I would never name a 
proxy that I could not contact directly and reasonably expect a 
response. One person representing thousands of users, directly, is 
probably going to do a very poor job of communicating with them, and 
the vote of this person, I might tend to discount. (And proxy 
analyses, in the end, are the ultimate responsibility of the one 
doing the analysis, who is not bound as to how to do it, the analyst 
could, for example, deweight or even ignore the votes originating 
with new accounts, or could deweight or ignore votes coming from 
identified users with strong POVs being pushed, or according to any 
standard at all. People analyze proxy expansions in order to help 
themselves make decision, or to advise others who trust the accuracy 
of the expansion. It's personal.)

Now, I've actually only scratched the surface of what could become 
possible with a proxy network in place. Collectively, the users have 
disposable income and resources that dwarf those of WikiMedia 
Foundation. If the users are coherently connected as is hinted here 
-- don't think that this description, while it is long, is in any way 
complete -- and there were some financial emergency, extraordinary 
sums could be raised in very short order, with practically no effort. 
All you have to do is convince a *few* high-level proxies and they 
will quickly and efficiently do the rest, through personal contact. 
My proxy would have my phone number. It's an automatic telephone 
tree, the person calling me to ask for a donation would be the one I 
chose as trustworthy. Note that this is *not* some central decision 
being made to ask all members for a donation -- as happens with the 
current system (but not personally), and that I'm not proposing this 
as a change; I said "emergency." And those proxies who thought it was 
a bad idea simply wouldn't do it. But, before any action was actually 
taken, there would be a reasonable estimate of success, based on a 
poll and proxy expansion of it.

The same with decisions about guidelines and policies. If there is an 
RFC, and for any given editor, we may assume that, roughly, an 
individual editor is likely to accept and follow a guidelines that 
has received the assent of his or her proxy, plus, of course, the 
proxy may have explained it to the client. Every user is more likely 
to think of guidelines and policies as being created by "us," rather 
than from on high; I think there is currently some cynicism as to how 
much guidelines and policies currently reflect actual community 
consensus, and this, in turn, fosters disregard for them.

None of this would cause any *immediate* change. Am I calling for 
action? Not much! However, if these ideas are of interest, a reader 
might followup on what occurred to me as a joke, more or less, I 
registered a sock puppet, User:The Community. This came from a 
comment by User:Zenwhat on the Village Pump, asking sarcastically, 
after it had been noted that the community was ignoring source 
reliability guidelines, "How can we block The Community (TM) for 
disruption?" Well, it's possible now.

But that account isn't going to be used for any editing outside the 
User page and Talk page, and quite possibly none there as well, 
except as authorized by, at least, some actual community.

And, in fact, I'm not likely to do much at all there, in terms of 
implementing, for example, a proxy list and explaining and proposing 
other details, if there is not at least one editor who seconds the 
effective motion to create this account to serve as a "secretary" for 
the community. Right now, I'm user "The Community," but, as such, 
since I have not been advised by the community by any means which I 
consider truly representative, I must, in that function, remain 
silent, and I am merely a volunteer serving temporarily until replaced.

None of the actual actions that I would propose, if this second 
appears and there is some level of participation, will require 
overall community approval. They are all legitimate under current 
guidelines and procedures and would be highly unlikely to be 
disruptive in any way. On the other hand, it is possible that some 
will consider this threatening for various reasons. As an example, 
people who are very comfortable with the status quo, who believe that 
they understand the best interests of Wikipedia better than the 
average user (and they are probably right), may think that this could 
have an ultimate effect of reducing their influence. While they may 
be correct, I'd suggest that a system as I would envision it could 
enable them, if they are correct about their wisdom and 
understanding, to become more effective with less effort. Such people 
would naturally become high-level proxies if they do, in fact, 
represent the mature understanding of the community and wish to so 
serve. High-level proxies would be proxies who have been trusted by 
those who are themselves heavily trusted. These higher-level proxy 
assignments would be those made by experienced Wikipedians, who know 
very well the details of how this user operates, and the depth of 
understanding and integrity shown in his or her edits. Proxy 
democracy is a peer system, even though it tends to create a 
hierarchy, rooted in personal judgement and trust.

If it does not work, very little effort will have been expended. No 
software changes (unless it turns out to work well enough to justify 
that; there are already people working on public-source delegable 
proxy systems and I could see the possibility that MediaWiki might 
reasonably have a proxy field for each user and some tools for 
calculating proxy expansions, though I, myself, prefer to *not* make 
proxy expansion a central tool, for security reasons.)

I am calling a meeting for the purpose of considering the voluntary 
and decentralized implementation of proxy democracy on Wikipedia, for 
purposes as described above, and I have reserved a space for it, User 
Talk:The Community. I have, there, volunteered, as User:The 
Community, to serve as temporary chair of that meeting. Considering 
this as a motion to elect, if there is a second to that motion, 
discussion of it may begin there. (If it is seconded, amendments 
would be in order to change the designated secretary, or the duties, 
or whatever.) Currently, there has been a little discussion, from a 
user, one of the unsung Wikipedia heroes who patrol new page 
creation, wondering WTF this was about. Other than that, while the 
formation of the account was mentioned on the Village Pump, policy 
page, it appears to have been unnoticed.  

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