Wikipedia Wars: Implications for Building Consensus

Building Consensus the Wikipedia Way: Image by nojhan

Peaceful consensus, or all out, never-ending war?  Dr. Taha Yasseri of Budapest University of Technology and Economics, and his colleagues, investigated the dynamic nature of editorial wars in Wikipedia articles.

Yasseri’s findings promise to illuminate the broader nature of conflict.

Yasseri divided Wikipedia articles into three categories: consensus, sequence of temporary consensus, and never-ending wars, depending on the nature of the editing.

Research uncovered that while “burstiness,” or a large increase in edits in a short time-period, and the sheer number of edits were weakly associated with conflict, redactions or “reverts” were most strongly related.

Eventually, over time, even contentious articles would settle down, with a consensus emerging. New conflict would emerge when either outside events occurred (the example given was the death of Michael Jackson in articles about the singer) or when new “actors,” or new editors, would take up the cause, often reinvigorating, or dredging up, old arguments.

Conflict Resolution and Consensus Building: Real World Applications

Decoded Science had the opportunity to interview the author, and asked him what type of real-world application he envisioned for this research. Yasseri replied, “All kind of collective and collaborative activities aiming at a  common product can be seen as a field of application. From open source  software developing to scientific collaborations of scientists in large  projects, one could see the emergence of the common product (in first example  the software package and in the second one, scientific reports and  publications) from the initially scattered ideas and opinions. We believe  there are similarities between all these examples, such that the dynamical  model could apply on many of them.”

Reduce conflict in decision making by managing the size of the group. Image by svilen001

Consensus Building Institute, CBI, teaches the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and MIT. CBI refers to some disputes involving mediators as  “protracted, painful public disputes.” This sounds much like the never-ending war described by Yasseri et. al.

With the aim of avoiding protracted fights, Decoded Science asked Yasseri if  limiting the number of new actors in decision  making, and pushing for a more intense exchange, might aid in reaching consensus.

The author replied,  “In the first glance it may look like by limiting the number of  players, we lose the diversity of ideas and robustness of the consensus, but at least as we have seen in Wikipedia, in many cases new editors may revive already settled conflicts, since every conflict is new for a newborn as “every joke is new for a newborn.” However, sometimes new editors join the  editorial pool, evoked by new external events, and that pushes the article again out of equilibrium. If we want a smooth adoption of new information, we  should control the flow by limiting the number of agents.”

Reduce Conflict By Limiting Agents

One practical application of the Wikipedia reseach might be to invite fewer knights to the round table, so to speak. In other words, the fewer people involved, the more likely a group is to be able to reach consensus. Or perhaps the future, with the emergence of multiple modes of interaction available, will have to develop a tolerance for re-emerging conflict.


Yasseri, T., et al. Dynamics of Conflicts in Wikipedia. (2012)PLoS ONE. Vol. 7, Issue 6, e38869. Accessed June 24, 2012.

Field, P. The Unreliable Narrator. (2011). Consensus Building Institute. Accessed June 24, 2012.

© Copyright 2012 Gina Putt, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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  1. Chuck says

    Consensus is only useful if the conclusions of the consensus are “right” or at least more “right” than the alternatives. Consensus as an end is pointless. Agreeing that the moon is made of green cheese won’t make it so.

    To the extent that it is possible for anyone to be “right” about anything, I don’t see how the pursuit of knowledge is served by limiting who is invited to the table.

    I don’t worry about consensus. I worry about being right. Consensus be damned.

  2. Mike DeHaanMike DeHaan says

    It seems Yasseri, in the article, and Bacon in the first comment, might be working toward different goals and, really, are addressing different platforms. (Yasseri addresses Wikipedia; Bacon, the Internet). I absolutely agree with Bacon that one major benefit of the Internet (and, back when, the printing press) is to permit more people to express opinions or disseminate knowledge.

    On the other hand, a reference encyclopedia has a duty to present the most accurate information available at the time. That requires centralized authority for the editor.

    Is Wikipedia a reference encyclopedia? No, it’s crowd-sourced. But some people use it as a first, or only, source of information.
    Does it serve its users well if a controversial article is amended every hour, alternating between “yes” and “no” on some point? Probably not, especially if it is not obvious that the specific point is controversial.

    So I’ll respectfully disagree with Bacon to some degree. Both Yasseri and Bacon have the right to advise on, and the Wikipedia owners/curators have the right and responsibiity to decide, how Wikipedia should govern its editing. A site used as a reference, in my opinion, needs more editing than an opinion forum.

    Bacon also has the right to start up another wiki-reference if he/she chooses, with whatever rules seem appropriate; the Internet still offers that freedom.

  3. Bacon says

    So, in other words, recentralizing power is the answer. Typical.

    That’s not how the Internet works, and your idea completely misses the web’s most beautiful quality – disintermediation. What if the ‘knights of the round table’ described are all in agreement as to the ‘right’ way to think about, say, climate change or Trayvon Martin or Germany’s role in the Euro crisis. I think this would only lead to a myopic view being presented. Further, in the real world, it would only further aggravate those that disagree with whatever ‘panel of experts’ chosen.

    Someone, inherently biased, has to choose the ‘knights’ right? I don’t want it to be a liberal or a conservative or a moderate. A better solution may be to recognize that different views exist and allow sections to be devoted to many sides (not only the two that the media are currently pitting against one another)

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