Keeping Eyes on the Prize by Breaking the Rules

What makes Wikipedia one of the most frequently visited websites?  What drives individuals to spend their spare time and other valuable resources contributing to the site?

We have asked ourselves this many times, and our research has led us down the path of examining the governance structure of Wikipedia.  What rules help or inhibit the success of Wikipedia?  On this quest, we found the oddest rule…a rule that says break all of the rules – the Ignore All Rules Policy (IAR).

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We term Wikipedia’s inclusion of the IAR policy in the community’s extensive rule system officially sanctioned rule breaking (OSRB), and it provides adjustments “on the fly” to the policy system to ensure continued support for collective goal attainment in context.

This policy not only permits but encourages rule breaking, but only in instances where a particular rule is preventing an editor from supporting the goals of the organization. Referencing IAR in Articles for Deletion deliberations allows individuals to influence the outcomes of those deliberations, particularly when many rules are potentially applicable and the overall rule system is larger and more complex.  In other words, when more rules exist and many of these rules apply, a policy like IAR can be used to cut through the clutter.

Given the challenges that any mass collaboration is likely to face with aligning its rule system to the particulars of the context of use, these results suggest that IAR-like policies which instantiate Officially-Sanctioned Rule Breaking may be an effective way to harness the “wisdom of the crowd” to apply and maintain a rule system.

For more, see our full paper, Keeping Eyes on the Prize: Officially Sanctioned Rule Breaking in Mass Collaboration Systems presented as part of CSCW 2013.

Elisabeth Joyce, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
Jacqueline Pike, Duquesne University
Brian Butler, University of Maryland

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  • Very interesting that the ignore all rules policy works so well. How do Wikipedians then come to consensus as to whether an individual decision to IAR conforms to the values of Wikipedia?

    • This is an excellent question, Jill. The focus of the deliberation is on whether or not to keep an article in Wikipedia, so consensus building is organized on that issue rather than on whether the decision to ignore one policy in this one situation will keep the organization directed towards its goals.
      This means that it is certainly possible that certain invocations of IAR could be based on self-interest or other inappropriate motivations (inappropriate in the sense that the community’s interests are not of primary concern). However, our findings suggest that most IAR citations are made with the community’s goals in mind (though it is possible that individual goals overlap reasonably often with those of the community).