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Do editors have the right to be forgotten? Should an editor's block history be a permanent "rap sheet", or does Wikipedia forgive and forget? A reform initiative has begun.


Fireworks on New Year's Eve in a small Swabian village (1), brightened.jpg
The Wikipedia community experienced fireworks similar to these this new year.

While the world was watching fireworks displays in celebration of the 2018 New Year, the English Wikipedia's editing community was experiencing a different kind of fireworks: back-to-back topic bans and blocks, including a few that were considered controversial and involved tenured editors who have since retired. It gave new meaning to "Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon".

Discussions for two New Year’s resolutions resulted, focused on the blocking policy and block log redaction:

The issues revolve around the way editors treat each other and the manner in which administrators act as "first responders", particularly in situations when a tenured editor becomes the recipient of a controversial block or topic ban.

Edit warring, discretionary sanctions, ambiguity in policies and guidelines, a lack of consistency in administrator actions, concerns over the unfettered use of admin tools, bad judgment calls, biases, human error, anger and frustration are, while not the norm, major pitfalls in editor retention. Blocks and topic bans are intended as remedial actions to stop disruption but at times tend to appear punitive and magisterial, which exacerbates the situation and raises doubt as to whether the end truly does justify the means, particularly when such actions arise from misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

It's natural for editors to defend against a block or ban – to feel angry when they believe a situation was punitive or grossly mishandled. It is also equally as natural for an admin to maintain an opposing view by defending their actions by insisting (and believing) it was neither punitive nor mishandled. An admin's primary concern is to stop disruption and prevent harm to the project. When the dust settles, what usually remains is the user's block log, but what does that log actually tell us?

Controversial topics germinate disruption, and when POV warriors and/or advocacies are involved, content disputes are likely to end in topic bans and/or blocks. Wikipedia doesn’t have content administrators, rather we have what some editors refer to, with levity, as behavior police. Editors also have access to a number of specialized notice boards for discussion, but some are considered nothing more than extensions of the article TP in that the same editors are involved in the discussions. Add discretionary sanctions to the mix, including stacked sanctions that add confusion and make it difficult to interpret their intent or application, and what we end up with are sanctions that act more like a repellent than a preventative...well, perhaps one could consider it a preventative if it repels but that should not be the ultimate goal.

The thought of being "blocked" or "topic banned" is unsettling whereas the action itself can be quite demoralizing, and at the very least, a disincentive.  The term dramah board, in and of itself, speaks volumes as an area to avoid. Perhaps we should consider replacing the block-ban terminology in the log summaries with less harsh descriptions like "content dispute, 24 hr time-out", or "30-day wikibreak – conduct time-out".  The harmful effects of blocks and topic bans are also evident in editor retention research, as are the inconsistencies in admin actions across the board. While the blocking policy provides guidance, admins are still dealing with individual judgment calls and unfettered use of the mop, both of which conflict with the stability of consistency.

Questionable blocks and errors are often attributable to time constraints, work overload, inexperience, miscommunication, and misinterpretations. Other blocks of concern, although extremely rare, may be the result of POV railroading, ill-will, biases or COI, situations which are usually remedied with expediency, and may result in desysopping. Unfortunately, bad blocks remain permanently on the logs.

Another unfortunate consequence of block logs involves the adaptation of preconceived notions and bad first impressions after review, which may lead to users being wrongfully "branded" or "targeted", for lack of a better term, and possibly even rejected by the community. Block logs are readily accessible to the public, and include only the resulting block summary, not the circumstances which may persuade the reader to draw a much different conclusion.

Few, if any, actually care or are willing to invest the time to research the circumstances that led to a block; it's a difficult and time consuming task at best. Accepting the log at face value is much easier; therefore, in reality the block log is actually a rap sheet that is used to judge an editor’s suitability. Unfortunately, the right to be forgotten eludes us. Hopefully that will change.