Saturday, March 15, 2008

Another chapter in the Betacommand saga

By the time you wind up with an admin noticeboard subpage dedicated to your name, it should be clear you're a bit of a lightning rod. I won't go into an in-depth analysis of these long-standing controversies, aside from: Betacommand does a lot of wonderful bot work for Wikipedia, work that is direly needed and often thankless, but his abrasive handling of that work all too frequently leaves a wake of confused and angry users, which in turn leads to increasing controversy and argument. Rinse and repeat.

Isn't that the stereotype? "Skilled programmer needs to work on interpersonal skills." I somehow doubt that's going to make headlines as a surprise story.

Numerous proposals have come up, over the past few months: keeping BC in charge of the bots, but allowing other people to respond to complaints at User talk:BetacommandBot and the newly created Image copyright help desk; splitting up the various BCBot tasks into multiple bots, to allow for (hopefully) less fragmented discussion; moving some of the most-argued-over tasks to Non-Free Content Compliance Bot; finding ways to limit the frustrating, harassing effect of suddenly getting potentially dozens of rapid-fire, lengthy messages at bot speed regarding their image uploads, either by compressing duplicate messages, refining the content of those messages, or allowing users to opt out of receiving them. That last proposal seems to have caught fire, today.

Proponents of an opt-out list argue that it would significantly reduce problems: these messages seem to attract the most drama, out of all the things BCBot does. Users often find the sudden hail of messages frustrating or confusing. Experienced users should be familiar with policies, and may not even find the messages useful. Users who wish to receive the notifications, of course, needn't sign up for the list. Such a list might help to reduce the vicious cycle of aggravation going around. This seems to be a reasonable position.

Opponents of an opt-out list argue that such a list might actually increase problems, if users later complain that they "weren't notified" of impending image deletions. The notifications can be an important notice of policy problems, either for users unaware of problems or for users interested in tracking them. The messages direct users, especially new users, to review image policy and compose fair use rationales, potentially saving a large number of images from sudden deletion, or helping users to realize that their images aren't appropriate. All of this is important for the NFC policy. This seems to be a reasonable position.

For my part, I think such a fix could go a long way to calming down this little war. It's not a perfect solution, but it may be a quick one that gets us all working on the wiki again.

Last night, Betacommand created an opt-out list at User:BetacommandBot/Opt-out. According to BC, users signing up must agree to two provisions:
  • Keep in mind that when you sign this list, you fully are aware that you lose the right to complain about deletions, reversions, etc. because you were "not notified" about them.
Harsh phrasing aside, this seems more or less fair. Doc glasgow proposed what seems to me a much better version: "Keep in mind that if you sign this opt-out list, you should not later complain that you were "not notified" about deletions, reversions, etc performed by the bot." BC replied that the harsh wording was intentional.
  • You also lose the right to complain about BetacommandBot itself or the issues it raises.
This second clause has ignited edit wars and furious debate. Arthur Rubin speedily deleted the page, and initiated an MfD when it was restored. BC has reverted attempts to remove this clause, calling them "vandalism," and likewise removed the signature of one user who rejected the agreement (currently there are no signatures on the page). Numerous users have objected to such a requirement, and rightfully so: it goes against basic principles of fair play, and there's no way that we as a community can stand for such a proposition. Users cannot forfeit their right to participate in discussion, in this fashion -- trying to force them to violates so much of what a wiki is about, including open editing and participation, the assumption of good faith, even fundamental civility. Are we really coming to gang warfare and coercion, here? The only way for users to avoid what they perceive as harassment is by giving up their right to speak? How long before we're looking at demands for protection money?

I find it hard to believe BC would seriously expect such a two-faced offer to last. Was this a cry for attention?

BrownHairedGirl had some comments I found quite insightful:
Doc glasgow has put an alternative wording on the table, but while I'm sure he was trying to help, I don't think that was necessary. I doubt that it would take more than a moment's work for BC to edit this short document to remove the gagging clause if he wanted to do so. However, if Betacommand believes (rightly or wrongly) that anyone who criticises him is just a drama queen, I can't see any amount of discussion here changing his mind on that point or on this wording.

I'm afraid that this just a manifestation of the wider problem that BC seems to have got himself into a position where he doesn't trust the editing community, and this particular problem won't be fixed until the wider problem is fixed. The question of how it is fixed remains to be seen, but this document is just another symptom of a breakdown of trust between a bot operator and the comunity.
I don't know if there is a solution. We definitely have a problem.


pfctdayelise said...

Nice post.

There's an Image copyright help desk... but there was just a Media copyright questions noticeboard...d'oh.

Being held hostage by bots or their operators is silly. that's my main thought about it for the moment.

I said...

I think one thing that might help de-escalate the tension is if Betacommand modified the header at the top of his talk page - it is really aggressive, and not a good first message with which to confront people confused as to why their images are about to be deleted. Unfortunately, attempts to suggest (or do) so have been met with hostility.

Kelly Martin said...

The problem here is that you're letting BetaCommand (a programmer with absolutely no social skills at all) act as a project manager. Get him out of that role! Find a project manager with real social skills to act as a go-between between the community and Betacommand. The PM can tell Betacommand what needs to be done, and Betacommand can do it, and then the PM can deal with the community.

Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Rather than constantly pounding on BC's obvious weak spot, you need to do something to pave over it.

Of course, if BC won't agree to such an arrangement, then it's time to say goodbye. There are lots of other programmers out there; BC, like everyone else on Wikipedia, is not indispensible.

James Redyva Vereen said...

Dear Sirs,

Please Delete userpages with "REDYDVA" or "Avyder" on Wikipedia. I am sorry. Thank you for your quick attention.

Master Redyva (James Vereen

James Redyva Vereen said...

Dear Sirs,

Please Delete userpages with "REDYDVA" or "Avyder" on Wikipedia. I am sorry. Thank you for your quick attention.

Master Redyva (James Vereen