Wikipedia’s First Lawyer

In Wikitruth Through Wikiorder, Salil Mehra and I detailed the history of Wikipedia’s dispute resolution process.  We highlighted the role of Alex Roshuk, a Brooklyn lawyer and site volunteer who played a key early role in the process by suggesting that the site’s dispute resolution process should look like a “very simplified version[s] of the commercial or international arbitration programs of the American Arbitration Association.” When writing the article, I confess I found it ironic that a lawyer proposed such a formal process, and believed that it was evidence that legalism is an inescapable (and dominant) part of American society.   I just found Roshuk’s response to our article online.   He offers a stinging indictment of the Wikimedia foundation, and what’s come of the dispute resolution system.  As he argues:

While I originally suggested in the fall of 2003 that Wikipedia have a structured dispute resolution process, instead of making this process simple and straightforward, ADR atWikipedia has become a complex system that has all kinds of hard to understand rules.  Perhaps it is the management of this dispute resolution process (or lack thereof) is what has caused or contributed to a lot of Wikipedia users leaving the project and the ripple effect this system has on the general behavior of editors and administrators whose behavior is mediated by this process . . . After seeing the discussion develop at Wikipedia in the fall of 2003 I saw that there were a lot of people who misunderstood the idea of arbitration, They wanted to make it something formal, like a Wikipedia court system, the ArbCom, as it was called became a place where someone could obtain status in the Wikipedia community, originally by being appointed by Mr. James “Jimbo” Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia, and later by election. When I suggested this kind of system my intention was to get people to talk, mostly through mediation by a neutral third party, to come to a mutual understanding that editors were all contributing knowledge, not fighting against each other to be “right” or “wrong”.

This view of the pathologies of the Arbitration system isn’t, of course, unique to Roshuk, nor is it really in tension with the story Salil and I set out in Wikitruth.  But it is notable that Roshuk has such a dim view of the site’s excessive legalization, and that he attributes the dominance of law to a desire for status and hierarchy, instead of the formal structure of the process itself.

(Image source: Wikilove.)

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