Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2021-04-25/Opinion

The (Universal) Code of Conduct: Explicit behavioral expectations are better than unwritten social norms

This essay is adapted from "The Code of Conduct" by Jesse Noller under the Creative Commons By-SA 4.0 license. Originally written in 2012 regarding the Python Software Foundation, it has been edited to reflect the Universal Code of Conduct debate within the Wikimedia movement.


By now, editors are likely aware of the Wikimedia Foundation's efforts to draft and implement a Universal Code of Conduct (UCC) for Wikimedia spaces. The first phase of the process was recently completed, with the board of trustees ratifying an initial policy on 2 February 2021. The second phase involves consultations across projects on how the UCC would apply to individual communities with the goal of developing appropriate mechanisms for enforcing the code globally. As part of this second phase, the English Wikipedia is holding a local consultation to provide feedback on how the code of conduct would fit into this project's community.

While a universal code of conduct is new territory for the Wikimedia Foundation, the debate is not. Arguments around codes of conduct have been active in the free and open source community for years. In 2014 Coraline Ada Ehmke released the Contributor Covenant which has served as the model code of conduct for many free software projects such as the Linux Kernel, Mozilla Webmaker, and Node.js as well as open source branches of major corporations like Facebook and Google. While projects were adopting codes of conduct, organizations were likewise incentivizing more projects to adopt them. For example, in 2012 the Python Software Foundation required that any conference it sponsors will be required to publish a code of conduct for the event. This was, partly, in response to questions the foundation had received from potential sponsors who were starting to require that their sponsored partners publish codes of conduct.

The following essay makes the case for a Universal Code of Conduct in the Wikimedia movement based on similar arguments from the Python community in 2012. Like the Python community then, the Wikimedia community is vibrant, diverse, and growing. Originally written by Jesse Noller to explain the Python Software Foundation's resolution requiring a code of conduct, the piece has been edited to reflect the parallels between the concerns then and those of the Wikimedia community now.


Community is a broad term. In the case in which I refer to it—I refer to is as the constantly growing and evolving and diversification of the global Wikimedia community. The community is growing at an astounding pace. The number of Wikimedia related conferences and events is also growing at a pace which frankly floors me. We have edit-a-thons popping up all over the world almost monthly. Wikimedians who are speakers of the Dagbani language this year had their m:Wikimedia user group recognized by the affiliations committee for the first time.

Most, if not all of these events are put together by small teams of dedicated, passionate and kind teams of largely unpaid volunteers. This is both amazing, and heartwarming. The level of love and passion shown by so many in this community amazes me on a daily basis.

This passion I have, this love for the community, its ever-growing diversity and what it has done for me is exactly why the Wikimedia Foundation should establish a Universal Code of Conduct. It's not because the global community is broken. It's not because we've had a "trigger event", although administrative abuses stick in my mind like a road flare when thinking about this.

So no: I don't think our community is "broken" or has performed ill—but nor has it been perfect, nor shall it ever be. I am proud of it, I spend countless hours working on behalf of it, and I would not trade it for the world. It has made me feel welcome, it has supported me in my times of need. It has allowed and empowered me to do amazing things.

Oh yeah, and I'm totally in love with the encyclopedia, even if I cheat on it sometimes.

But, like with code—there's a smell in the community—but it's the larger Programming community and its conferences and events as a whole.

D stands for Diversity

We've seen enormous growth in the diversification and inclusion of the vast non-majority within our communities thanks to the hard work of many—this includes the Art+Feminism movement, Women in Red WikiProject, m:Wiki Loves Africa and Wiki Loves Monuments contests, m:Wikipedia Asian Month, and many, many others.

What we are seeing is a fundamental shift in the awareness that we need to be more welcoming, more open to those who do not make the majority of our community. We need to have workshops, we need to be more inviting. We need to lower the barrier of entry of contribution. We need to make safe havens for those who want to contribute but who are scared and intimidated by the status quo. This includes men, women—everyone.

Part of this effort is the social realization of one of the Zen of Python rules:

What I mean is this: no more unwritten rules or expectations. No more assumptions that we're living in a utopian meritocracy. We don't. Sure, the free and open source software movement has been defined as "they with the best code and who does the work, wins"—but that ignores the frequent corollary of "those with the thickest hide, and ability to fight win". Look at any mailing list—look at the discussions on the relative merit of a given feature, bug fix, etc. You will see things that would make your hair turn grey. You will see people shouted down for naivety, you will see that even the most meritorious idea may not win against the establishment.

This happens everywhere. This is why I say "explicit is better than implicit" when it comes to social norms and expectations.

The idea that there's some unwritten guide on how to behave in society, at a conference, at a meetup, or anywhere is fundamentally absurd. Look around you for examples.

But what does this mean in the Wikimedia Community? It means we can do better! We already are on so many fronts—but just because we're seeing positive changes doesn't mean we should stop the movement.

Back to Code of Conduct

That simple, right? Well, yes, actually. When it comes to a code of conduct for a mailing list or group or for a community such as Ubuntu and Fedora or for a conference it all boils down to the same thing. A set of rules that don't dictate what you can do, or who you must be, but what is not acceptable.

It's sort of like laws. Laws don't generally dictate your personal freedoms—what they do normally do is dictate where, given unlimited freedom, your "right to do whatever you want" ends. Laws are there not to stop crime. They are there to set rational expectations for rational people—they tell the rational actors in our story what they can count on. They set in place the rules of societal engagement and put in place punishments for when those rules are broken.

A code of conduct is no different—it is an explicit set of rules on what isn't acceptable! It's not there to take away your rights—unless you feel your rights include sexual harassment, putting pornography in talk slides, or making sexist or racist jokes in a large group of people. It's there to show everyone what is not acceptable behavior, and to show what repercussions there are if anyone violates this behavior.

Quoting Jacob Kaplan-Moss on this (re: Code of Conducts/anti-harassment policies):

Just like laws; a code of conduct or anti-harassment policy is not going to stop bad actors. It won't. It can't. It might convince a person who acts in bad faith, or intends to do so to not attend the event—it is, after all, a signal they are not welcome, and there are consequences. Really though—again just like laws—it won't stop a determined bad actor. If I, a Wikipedia administrator choose to slip a bit of porn onto the Main Page, I can. No one is going to know until they see it ala Fight Club.

However, should I choose to do so, instead of unspoken, unwritten rules about what's acceptable, or what consequences there would be (social shame, etc), we have a lovely document that outlines precisely what will happen to me.

I will, simply put, be kicked out. As an administrator, I will be asked to leave the encyclopedia, I will not be given a refund. I will, in addition to this, probably be publicly shamed by all of those people who I knowingly and willingly abused, I will lose my administrator bit, etc. I would, in fact, support being asked not to return to the project, or other projects for a period of no less than 1-2 years.

If you read our policies, you'll note something interesting: there are protections in there for victims, and protections for alleged harassers/Code of Conduct violators. This is meant to protect everyone involved in the situation from false allegations, or knee jerk reactions.

This Code, this Guide, provides the explicit declaration of what is expected so that when violations occur we will know when and how to react.

But Everyone is nice, we've always been cool

I know. Honestly, I do. Except for minor incidents that I recall, the English Wikipedia has largely been free of issues. Every meetup, conference, etc I have been to has been filled with nice, kind people and largely jerk-free. This is a testament to the community as a whole.

So, you ask: if we're all chill cool people, and nothing bad has happened, why have one?

Because it won't always be that way.

If we continue to expand and grow (and we will), and if we continue to grow even more diverse - in sex, race, creed and geography - the chances of "an incident" will grow. In fact, I know incidents have happened and been dealt with.

So no, the unspoken rule of "don't be a jerk" doesn't scale very well. And that's what we're talking about—a scalability problem. The social norms and rules of a group of five people, or one hundred people may float. What about 200? 500? 800? How about 40 thousand people (the average number of active editors on the English Wikipedia each month)? No. "Don't be a Jerk" may be our unspoken, unwritten community motto; but its not enough for those on the outside looking in.

Those outside of these circles want clear lines on behavioral expectations. They want to know that not only are there unwritten rules about not being a jerk—they want to know what will happen if a Jerk Occurs. A Universal Code of Conduct sets their expectations, and it gives them comfort. It makes them feel more welcome, more safe. Especially when they're part of a group who has been put under constant objectification and harassment for decades in our industry.

The Social Signal Flare

A Code of Conduct is, in fact a social signal flare to "others"—it's a message to them on what to expect, that they can feel welcome and safe and most of all that someone cares. I have the emails and phone calls thanking me and the PyCon team for the Code of Conduct to show it. They all carry the common theme: "Thank you. Thank you for showing me you care, and that you are thinking of me."

What has the Python software Foundation's adoption of a Code of Conduct triggered? Combined with this guide, and outreach, we have drastically increased the number of (for example) female speakers at our event. We have more female and varied attendees. We have people bringing their families with them. Not just because of a single document. But because they know that because of that document and the history and people within the Python community they can feel safe, and welcome.

This social signal flare; this written set of guidelines matters to them. And the Python community is not the only one realizing this. OSCON, Ruby Conferences, JS Conferences and other events—all of them are realizing that having rules and expectations set out for all to see makes it better for everyone.

So why the Foundation?

Now we get to the beginning: why an "edict" from the Foundation board that states this is a must for any project they are hosting. Well, if you read this far, hopefully you're convinced of the basic case of having a document such as this in place.

Let's look at it from a brand perspective.

For PyCon 2013 I was asked by no less than four different sponsors if I had a Code of Conduct / Anti-harassment guide in place. If I did not, they would not become sponsors. Conference attendees are demanding conferences have one, or they will not attend, or speak.

For example, I applaud Caktus Consulting Group for taking a hardline, zero tolerance stand:

Let us assume that the Wikimedia foundation is no different than a sponsor (it is, sorta): we provide you money, we give you our name and logo, and provide servers and a tech team to handle the back end. We are, by our participation and funding, implicitly and explicitly endorsing your project.

This means that should something happen, the "Wikimedia brand"—which to many, is synonymous with "Wikipedia" (duh)—would be tarnished. We would be seen as endorsing a community project which did not deal with a situation or incident. We would be lobbied to pull our funding/sponsorship (and I would vote for it). We would probably, via social pressure, be required to distance ourselves from the project and the organizers and probably even issue an apology of our own.

So. Starting for the idea that these documents, these guidelines benefit us as a community, and help us grow more diverse and inclusive, that they help in some way to make events more safe and welcoming—we end up in a place where from a pure business perspective it is in our best interest to put these guidelines in place.

These guidelines provide social good; they are also smart business. Yes—it is a sign that we are growing up, but that's a good thing.


In closing, all I can say is this—no one is trying to be a fascist, or a nanny state. No one is trying to say you can't cuss like a sailor (I do, but mostly behind closed doors). No one is trying to censor you, or tell you you are not welcome.

Quite the opposite. We, the global Wikimedia Community, are trying to tell people who are scared, or who feel alienated that they are in fact welcome. That they belong. That the community, the foundation and everyone cares about them. That we want to provide a safe place for collaboration and the free exchange of ideas.

We want to show everyone what they hopefully already know by now—that the Wikipedia community, despite its quirks, is welcoming, supportive and open to all.