Wikipedia Does Conflict Well

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon

On the internet, where conflict often gets ugly, Wikipedia has achieved something amazing. 80,000 volunteers contribute content to Wikipedia. Often, many volunteers collaborate on a single entry. Somehow, those many volunteers come to a consensus on every word of any article. The inevitable strong disagreements are managed in a way that keeps volunteers engaged and productive.

At least two of the five principles that have led to this successful collaboration are predicted by the transformative theory of conflict. According to Wikipedia itself, there are 5 fundamental principles that guide it. The first 3 principles are that it (1) is an encyclopedia, (2) is free, and (3) is written from a neutral point of view. The 4th and 5th principles address the interaction between the thousands of contributors. Those principles are: (4) Editors should treat each other with respect and civility, and (5) Wikipedia has no firm rules.

Transformative mediators don’t prescribe “respect and civility” for our clients, nor do we define it for them. (In fact it feels disrespectful for us to take on the role of telling clients how to treat each other). But we do find that there is a strong tendency toward respect and civility when people receive nonjudgmental support for interacting with each other. We find that people generally prefer to behave civilly and respectfully unless they’re feeling victimized, in which case expressing anger and even blame sometimes seem to be the natural and helpful tone. Often when people get to a better place with their conflict, that place is characterized by greater respect and civility, or as we call it, a recognition shift. So though respect and civility are not rules in transformative mediation, they very often emerge as a result of transformative mediation.

The principle of “no firm rules” fits perfectly with the transformative mediation mindset. Wikipedia relies on its volunteers to choose how to behave based on some guidelines, but especially on their own instincts and their ability to handle differences with each other. Rules can be used as weapons by people in conflict. Providing an environment where no authority figure rushes in to enforce rules has worked well for Wikipedia as it does for transformative mediators.

Jimmy Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia, recently spoke on the National Public Radio Show, “On Being”, and he described how conflict is handled at Wikipedia. He said that anyone can make an edit, and when disagreements arise about an edit, there’s a page the editors can go to to have a discussion. There’s an understanding that those discussions should be based on everyone’s intention to continue to improve Wikipedia by making it as free of bias as possible. So even in those disagreements, on, for example, political topics, the discussions generally don’t reveal the editors’ political biases. Wikipedia provides a variety of mechanisms for checks and balances. And in cases of long, intractable disagreements, there’s an arbitration committee.

So Wikipedia provides an environment for people to talk through their differences. While there is a culture of civility (just as there often is in the cultures where we mediate), the volunteers are largely supported in governing themselves. And just as in transformative mediation sessions, people often figure out what to do. It’s rare that Wikipedians needs to bring in the arbitration committee, but just as our clients can take their disputes to the legal system, arbitration is an option. The attitude seems to be that conflict is natural and often productive – it’s not to be suppressed – people are to be supported in talking about it. Wikipedia demonstrates that people can handle conflict and that most often they’re able to work through it with a discussion, and only rarely with the need to bring in authority figures.


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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