How Wikipedia can become a no-asshole-zone

Sumana writes, "I gave the opening keynote address at Wiki Conference USA last weekend, and told Wikipedians what needs to change to make the site friendlier and more hospitable. I mixed in wisdom from John Scalzi, XKCD, Hacker School, and the Ada Initiative. The transcript and a thirty-minute audio recording (Ogg) are now up."

So how does that work? How do you make people feel more okay about working in public, which includes sometimes failing or showing ignorance? Well, a No Asshole zone really helps.


So remember when I talked about the selection process? Part of the interview and admissions was a pair programming interview where you tried to solve a small programming problem over the internet, and the main point was not "How good are you as a programmer?" It’s "How well do you deal with frustration, and do you turn into a jerk when you're trying to solve a problem with someone else or teach someone something?" ‘Cause it’s kind of hard to really keep the jerkitude inside, I think, when you’re, like, a little bit frustrated and you’re trying to work with somebody for that. And those people got rejected. It was amazing what a pleasure it was to be in a room with 58 other people, all of whom had specifically been chosen for their ability to collaborate with others.

Also, to keep us from accidentally discouraging other people from doing the things they need to do to learn, at Hacker School there are four social rules. These are social rules to help everyone feel okay with failure and ignorance. No feigned surprise. No well-actuallys. No back-seat driving. And no sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on. Now, the user manual, which is available online, does a great job explaining all these, and I’m going to talk about the first two, because they’re most important for our context.

Feigning surprise. When someone says “I don’t know what X is”, you don’t say “You don’t know what X is?!” or “I can’t believe you don’t know what X is!” Because that’s just a dominance display. That’s grandstanding. That makes the other person feel a little bit bad and makes them less likely to show you vulnerability in the future. It makes them more likely to go off and surround themselves in a protective shell of seeming knowledge before ever contacting you again.

Well-actuallys. That’s the pedantic corrections that don’t make a difference to the conversation that’s happening. Sometimes it’s better to err on the side of clarity rather than precision. Well-actuallys are breaking that. You sometimes see, when people actually start trying to take this rule in, that in a conversation, if they have a correction, they struggle and think about it. Is it worth making? Is this actually important enough to break the flow of what other people are learning and getting out of this conversation. Kind of like I think we in Wikimedia world will say "This might be bikeshedding but -". It’s a way of seeing that this rule actually has soaked in.

Sumana Harihareswara keynote