Wikipedia Wars: Implications for Building Consensus


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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.

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