Thursday, August 30, 2007

On Ignoring All Rules

One of Wikipedia's most important, and most embattled, policies is the infamous "Ignore All Rules". It's been there for a very long time, and in that time has changed quite a good deal from the original "If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the Wiki, then ignore them and go about your business" (which is the same form it had when I joined up in 2004, although more bits of it were wikilinked then than in the original). Today's "If the rules prevent you from working with others to improve or maintain Wikipedia, ignore them" is different from this in a very subtle and pernicious way: you are only permitted to ignore the rules if you are supported by a clique. Sadly, IAR has been subjected to constant attacks of this sort, almost entirely by people who either fail to understand IAR, or understand it but object to the principle behind it.

I admit that I don't pay a lot of attention to what IAR (or any other policy on Wikipedia) actually says. My experience is that Wikipedia policy documents are edited mainly by "policy wonks": people who seem to have a fetish for generate huge reams of policy without necessarily contemplating whether the policies they write either reflect actual practice or are actually calculated to benefit the encyclopedia. (There are also quite a few people who are constantly manipulating policy for "nefarious" purposes, but I don't want to dwell on that.) These people mean well, but that doesn't mean that their efforts yield positive results. The road to hell, after all, is paved with good intentions.

IAR is especially problematic to policy wonks. By and large, these are people who would prefer that everything be governed by well-defined, clear rules that anyone can understand so there is no excuse for not following them. The problem with IAR is that it gives explicit license to not follow the rules: anathema! Their preference would be to get rid of IAR, but Jimbo won't let them. Since they can't get rid of it, they spend a great deal of energy trying to find a way to write it that narrows its scope as much as possible while not offending the Jimbo-God by actually deleting the policy. The two thousand edits IAR has experienced in the past two years are the collective papercuts of these editors circling about, seeking to find the chink in IAR's armor that allows them to stab it dead, and never understanding that IAR reflects a attitude of the "old core" Wikipedia community that cannot be killed without killing that core.

The real problem here is that IAR is the "Zen koan" of Wikipedia policy: if you understand it, you don't need the words, and if you don't understand it the words (no matter what they are) won't help. Unfortunately, the proportion of Wikipedia's editor base today that understand what Zen is, or more generally understand how to balance opposing tensions, is small and shrinking fast. Many of Wikipedia's policies are in opposition to one another, and it is necessary to strike a balance between two extremes in order to move forward in a reasonable way. (This is not the sum total of IAR, but it is a significant part of it.) Unfortunately, the "follow the rules at all expenses" crowd (many of whom are Aspies, or so it seems) doesn't tolerate balancing tests well: they want hard, immutable, objective, brightline rules, not multifactor tests that evaluate competing interests in what is inevitably a subjective way.

I don't have a solution to this problem. We can't ban all the Aspies, or even exclude them from editing policy. The best we can hope for is that people will make more of an effort to try to teach new editors what things like IAR really mean. But we've been trying to do that for the past two years and it hasn't helped worth a damn.