Note: this is a transcript of Jimmy Wales’ “civility speech” at Wikimania August 10, 2014. The YouTube video follows the transcript.
This is my annual traditional talk and one of the things I traditionally do in my annual traditional talk is get everyone to stand up and say how many Wikimanias you’ve been to, but we did that in the opening ceremony, so I’m just going to get right down to talking about what I wanted to say this year.
Contents (based on slide titles)
- 1 Stats
- 2 Civility
- 2.1 Annoying user, good content
- 2.2 Causes of uncivil behavior
- 2.3 What I am talking about
- 2.5 Pages pertaining to civility
- 2.6 Moral ambitiousness
- 2.7 WP:BLP
- 2.8 What kinds of things do we ask of ourselves?
- 2.9 But going even further…
- 2.10 Inspiration: how to feel this in your heart
- 2.11 Love
So first of all, in a State of the Wiki address, one of the things I’ve done in the past is to talk about statistics — statistics about how we’re doing — how many articles and how many languages and so forth like that. But this year I just didn’t want to do that. You all know those numbers as well as I do or even better. I just wanted to highlight what I think is the real statistic and the thing that I think is incredibly important, and this is apparently timed to coincide with Wikimania. YouGov is the major polling organization in the UK. Some of you may have seen this already in the news, but they put out a poll result where they polled people and they found that British people trust Wikipedia more than the news. [applause]
[1:41] The UK is home to a very diverse newspaper community, a vibrant newspaper culture. We’ve got papers like the Sun, the Mirror, the Mail. [laughter] I was really heartened to see — I was actually happy to see–how little the public trusts them as the rest. But the thing that’s really impressive here is the BBC has an excellent reputation as an excellent news source, and we’re trusted slightly more than the BBC. Now, that’s a little scary… [laughter] and probably inappropriate, but it is something that we have accomplished and I think that it’s really important, and I think that all of the things that we think about, everything that we do at Wikimania, all of when we’re thinking about the software, we’re thinking about the community, we’re thinking about all of the nitty-gritty of our work, one thing that we should always remember is that we are here for these people (not just the British ones) but for the readers, for the general public.
They turn to us for reliable, neutral, solid information. We do a decent job of it. We all know it’s flawed, we all know we don’t do as good a job as we wish we could do, because we’re human beings, but we are succeeding at this. When you scroll further down in this news story, they also inquired about another source which was left off, which was Encyclopedia Britannica. And people trusted Encyclopedia Britannica — I forget the exact number, but it was like 20 points ahead of us — it might have been 89 per cent or 84 per cent — but you could look it up. So, that’s fine, Encyclopedia Britannica is quite good, but it does tell you that we still have — we’re not finished, right? I’m not going to rest until people trust us more than they ever trusted Encyclopedia Britannica in the past. And for that to happen we really have to do everything right, we’ve got a lot of things we have to get right in order to achieve that goal.
[3:40] So, one of the core things that I wanted to talk about this year — other people have talked about software. Lila, our new CEO is going to be really focused on ramping up the software development, and getting all that right for us. But then it’s also upon us as a community to realize — we have to build an environment that’s conducive to producing the greatest encyclopedia in history. And one of the things that we always talk about is civility. But this has long been a contentious issue in the community and I have, I hope, a new approach to thinking about this that I’m hoping to popularize today, because I think that in many ways our conversations about civility in the community have gone down a bad path that is causing us to miss an enormous opportunity.
2.1 Annoying user, good content
[4:30] One of the classic problems we have is — and we have this a lot in English Wikipedia — is the annoying user, who at least allegedly produces good content. There are users in the community who have a reputation for creating good content, and for being incredibly toxic personalities.
This is a tough issue but I have a very simple view that most of these editors actually cost us more than they’re worth, and we’re making a big mistake by tolerating people who are causing enor…
- [prolonged applause]
- Wow. [applause continues]
- Okay. [continuing applause]
- Wow. Um, I thought I was going to be pushing an agenda here. [laughter]
- Apparently I’m fulfilling my role as symbolic monarch by speaking the thoughts that bubble up through the community.
[continuing speech] A lot of users cost more than they’re worth, and they should be encouraged to leave, and not in a bad way. One of the things I’ve always believed is letting people walk away with dignity. We don’t have to shame them and scream at them and make them leave and then they’re sad and annoyed and then they make sock puppets and then they come back and harass us for years. If you’re a really excellent historian but you’re just not able to work with others, we should help them …go and make your own website, release it under creative commons license and we’ll try to use some of that material, because it’s just not working out.
2.2 Causes of uncivil behavior
Okay, so that’s just one problem. Another thing to think about is general causes of uncivil behavior. And this is one that I wanted to mention in order to simply to dismiss it. Sometimes people are uncivil because they care so much about the content — and that can be in a positive sense — that they just love Wikipedia so much that they get upset when people are doing the wrong thing. It can be people who are passionate and have a point of view on the issue, and that’s more problematic. But if we’re still talking about this kind of case where you’re talking about good people who care so much that they get upset, we actually handle that pretty well. When good users kind of go crazy for a while, when somebody’s really upset because the issue’s really important to them, people lose their cool, they apologize, we all understand that. And that actually works out pretty well. That’s not really what I’m talking about.
2.3 What I am talking about
What I’m talking about is any persistent environment of anger and hostility, not good people who lose their cool now and then, but the bigger issues around a hostile work environment, which we mostly don’t have, but we all know there are pockets of Wikipedia where it’s really bad. And we all know that it could be better, that we could improve this.
What I’m concerned about is good people who get drawn into a behavioral cycle that makes them, and us, unhappy and stressed. I’m imagining from the cheer I got from the room that a lot of people here have found themselves in a situation where they’re unhappy and stressed because of whatever’s going on, and there’s gotten to be a really uncivil debate going on, and a lot of unfairness, and it’s just no fun, and no one likes that. And that’s what I think we really want to cure, or we want to improve on. There are no magic bullets.
And by the way, people sometimes say “Oh, it was so…when I started..in the early days .. everybody was so nice, back in two thousand and eight …” [laughter] And some of us who are old-timers remember when we said, “Ahh, it was so nice back in 2004”. The truth is, we’re human beings, we’re a human community, and there’s always going to be some strife, there’s always going to be some debates that get out of hand, things like that. But I think we can capture a spirit, the spirit that you feel here at Wikimania, a really positive spirit.
I actually went and clicked on many, many languages and I read some very amusing Google translate, and I discovered something I didn’t know, that not all Wikipedias talk about five pillars. Some say four, one I found said three, but every one that I clicked on and looked at, they had some form of it, sometimes it said “code of conduct”. Sometimes it’s “civility rules”, sometimes it’s this, sometimes it’s that. But the core, in fact some of the [sayings?] are very common — I don’t think English has it — one is “stay cool when editing gets hot” — that’s not in the English one, but it’s in a lot of them.
2.5 Pages pertaining to civility
[9:30] So, it’s in the Five Pillars. Additionally we have a lot of policies — policies, guidelines, essays: “Stay cool when editing gets hot”, “please do not bite the newcomers” — this is really important: we want to grow the community, and biting the newcomers is the best way to damage Wikipedia in the long run — , “no personal attacks”, the classic “civility”, “assume good faith”, we don’t allow “attack pages”, “don’t insult the vandals” even. These are a lot of good ideas and good rules and good things.
But I still have a problem with this, because I think that what we’re really talking about in all these cases — civility is a concept that’s about how awful do you have to be, before you get banned from Wikipedia. Right? So, we’re talking about the minimum floor of behavior, and so when we focus our discussion about the environment in the community on that concept of civility — on what should we be banning people for — I think that we’re really distracting ourselves, and in fact, we’re inadvertently causing a bit of a race to the bottom. Because we’re saying that because this is the behavior we’re willing to accept, we implicitly end up thinking that’s the behavior that we expect. And that’s the behavior that we’re looking for.
2.6 Moral ambitiousness
[10:45] So, I have this concept that I’m calling “moral ambitiousness”, and I didn’t come up with this phrase, but I think it’s a good phrase. The idea here is to not think about what is that minimum level of behavior before we’re going to ban people, but think about the great soaring heights of what we want to be, and how we want to get there. What all of these policies hint at is really a way out of this endless debate about civility. And so I want to focus on something other than the minimum standard of behavior.
[11:12] So, now let’s go back and rewind a few years and think about our BLP policy. I remember talking about the BLP concept and the BLP policy at Wikimania at Harvard at 2006, and it was very soon after that, that we all got together and we formulated this very — what I would call a very morally ambitious policy around biographies of living people. We have actually taken a very strong position of moral ambitiousness here. We no longer have debates — it is very rare — I mean, occasionally you see a new user say it, or someone say it in an argument “well, it’s not illegal”, right? So we’ve got some sort of really hatchet-job article and one argument people might use is “well, it isn’t libel”. But that’s not accepted any longer in our community, to say “it’s okay as long as it’s not libel”. We actually seek to be a force for positive good in the world, and we internalize doing the right thing, rather than adopting an adversarial model.
Now, we don’t do this perfectly; there are a lot of problems around biographies still, but in general what I find a lot of people doing is saying, “right, so here’s this person, they’ve done something horrible in their life, or something negative, and we want to make sure that that is framed fairly, that it isn’t just a one-sided hatchet job. And we do that, not in a mode…like , we interact with that person, not in the mode of “we think you’re a bad person and we’re going to write a biography that just barely passes some minimum standard.” Instead we say, “No matter how much we find that person annoying or a bad person, we still want to come to it, and do all the right things, all the right Wikipedian things.” And that is a value that has really come through the entire community. I wouldn’t say everybody, otherwise we wouldn’t have so many arguments about biographies, but in general there is that spirit, and it’s a positive spirit, that’s way above the bare minimum of what you could do.
2.8 What kinds of things do we ask of ourselves?
[13:10] And so, what are the kind of things that we’ve already asked of ourselves, and ..I think.. I went through — I was trying to think of virtues, and then I thought — well I’m not a philosopher, and I’m kind of an idiot — so I bet Wikipedia’s got a list, so…of course Wikipedia has a list of virtues. So I went down the list of virtues, and I picked out some of the ones I think are already very common and very well understood in the community.
- Good temper —Good temper, right? We do value, “don’t lose your temper, don’t get angry and scream at people, be good-tempered”.
- Curiosity — Be curious, curious about the world, curious about improving our article, curious about some new thing that randomly comes across your plate as a Wikipedian and you decide for random reasons, “I’m curious about that , I’m going to learn about it, I’m going to help improve that, for Wikipedia.”
- Patience — Patience. We all have to be very patient, particularly when dealing with difficult people in the community.
- Fair-mindedness — Fairminded. It goes without saying.
- Respect — Respect. Respect for others but also self-respect, of saying “I respect myself and I’m going to believe in myself and I’m going to hold myself to a standard of conduct that I’m proud of.”
- Truthfulness — Truthfulness. Obviously something that we believe is very, very valuable in our community — obviously truthfulness is incredibly important if you’re writing an encyclopedia, because you’re not supposed to just make stuff up. So, these are some of the values, and I just picked these out, these are not completely random, but they’re values that I thought particularly relevant to our work. And these are values that I think we already understand, and believe in. But there’s some more virtues that I think we don’t talk enough about.
2.9 But going even further…to be ambitious
And this is the values that I think we should hold in order to be morally ambitious, and to build our community up into a more fabulous fun,loving environment, so that we can really get our work done, we can really build this great encyclopedia, and we don’t remain focused on that lowest standard of behavior.
- Kindness — So things like kindness, and I don’t mean kindness in a sort of minimal civility kind of way, I mean going out of our way to help someone who’s having trouble or who may be having trouble or who isn’t having trouble.
- Generosity — Obviously we’re all very generous people, we donate a huge amount of our time to this encyclopedia project. But I feel it’s something that we don’t talk about enough, and we don’t think about it in that way. You’re got some annoying troll on a talk page, and the first thing you think of is probably not “how can I be generous to this person”. I think that’s an incredibly powerful thing to think about. An incredibly powerful thing to think about as well, is “how can I be generous to all these people that the troll is annoying. What can I get here that can kind of change this conversation from a negative conversation about whether or not to ban this person into a positive conversation about what we can achieve.”
- Forgiveness — This one is also very hard to do. But it’s one that I think we do a lot of, but we don’t talk enough about it. And I think it is an ambitious thing to go and say, “look, I’ve had this huge blowup with someone”…and this is the hard part…”and they’re still wrong, but I forgive them.” I’m going to try to understand that whatever they’re doing is probably not coming from a bad place. I’m just going to forgive them and move on, because it’s just not worth having this fight. That’s an incredibly powerful value in the community where we all have to live together, we all have to get along over time, and there’s real opportunity if we do this and if we do this consistently in our community to raise the level of discourse, to make it harder for someone to be hard-hearted for a very long period of time. If they’ve been genuinely forgiven, and people treat them well, it’s a lot easier to come around and to be a nicer person themselves.
- Compassion — And compassion, compassion’s really important. One of the things that we know about the more difficult users is that they are probably coming from some kind of a bad place in their life. You wouldn’t behave this way if you didn’t have some kind of a problem, some kind of a stress on you, something that’s causing you to behave this way. And so we can be compassionate. We can love these people, in a general way as human beings, while we’re finding them incredibly annoying. And I think that the more that we can exhibit that compassion, the more we can say to ourselves, to good people in the conversation, “you know, right, I know this is really hard, I know this person’s upset, I hope that we can make it better,” and that sort of thing. So these are just four ways of putting it, but the overall point I think you’re beginning to see is the idea of saying, not just the standard virtues of being Wikipedian, be honest, and so on and so forth. It’s not a focus on that minimum standard of behavior before we ban someone. It’s a focus on building up, on the grand vision and the grand mission.
2.10 Inspiration: how to feel this in your heart
So, I think the only way to do this is we have to remind ourselves, we have to have inspiration. When you’re working Wikipedia and things are going along in a daily basis, you know why you’re here. We all know why we’re here — it’s this grand vision of free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet. It’s what attracted this to the project, it’s what keeps us doing it, even on rough nights. We also do it because it’s fun, and interesting. But there’s bad times, you know, things are boring, things are annoying. We should reflect and remember various kinds of inspiration. Right here I have this fantastic close; we’re all going to be cheering and weeping — I was standing back stage and a massive round of applause, and I said “what are they doing back there? Oh, they’re playing my video.” Really. I was going to show you the video; I didn’t know it was being shown. [laughter] So now, backstage, two minutes ago, I had to pull out the video and then “what will I replace it with? What’s inspirational? The only thing I can think of is…”
Love. Love of each other, love of the project, love of life. Love of the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish. This is a charity. We’re all volunteers. In a world with, –I mean, wow, the last few weeks, everything’s just gone horrible on the world scene. War, conflict. Ebola. It’s getting stressful out there. We’re trying to do something good, and indeed, in those conflict areas, I don’t think anything we do can change the mindset of ebola. We can educate people though, and our longer term mission, when I read that one of the problems in spreading ebola is a lot of superstitious behavior, a lot of lack of understanding of germs, and things like this, I think wow, like that’s really, really awful. We can’t do that much about anything yet, we’re not in enough languages, we’re not quite there yet, but we’re building an infrastructure, so that people can quickly turn and say “oh right, something horrible’s going on in my village, ebola, I’m going to learn about it.”
[20:08] So there’s love for that, in conflict areas, I think there’s really value to be had in neutral summaries of what’s happened, in calm, that Wikipedia style. It doesn’t solve problems necessarily, but it prevents problems from being exacerbated by misinformation and hype, propaganda and things like that. So for me, our work is so incredibly important and to remember these kids in the Wikipedia Zero video, and remember whatever it is that’s touched you emotionally. So now you suddenly come back to the talk page of that article where someone’s being incredibly annoying, and maybe you’ll be able to be calmer and you’ll be able to be more loving and more kind, even to those horrible people.
And then, you know, we’ll ban a few of them. It’s always a good idea. [laughter]
So, I’m not arguing against the minimum standard, don’t get me wrong, I think that civility piece, that minimum standard, is incredibly important, what I want us to do is to raise the level in the entire community, to raise the spirit of what we’re doing, and I think that thinking about love, is the right way to do that.
So, thank you. [applause]
Note: speech is licensed CC-by-SA-3.0.