Editor's note: eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that we promised an interview with Newyorkbrad for last week's Signpost. We were unfortunately unable to deliver the interview as planned, and it is instead below. Our apologies to Newyorkbrad and to any readers who may have been disappointed by the interview's absence last week.
In the first of what the author hopes will become a regular feature of the Arbitration report, the Signpost speaks to veteran arbitrator Newyorkbrad, who recently retired from the committee after almost seven years of arbitrating. The Signpost was keen to hear his thoughts on his time on the committee and on the past, present, and future of ArbCom.
Harry Mitchell: What motivated you to stand for election back in 2008? And to twice seek re-election?
Newyorkbrad: Like almost every new user, I started editing Wikipedia in 2006 with the intention of working on articles. However, I quickly became aware that there was a back-office administrative apparatus to the site, including the arbitration pages. Although I wasn't a party to any arbitration cases, I began to comment on requests and to draft proposals for the workshop pages, which are open to any editor, not just the arbitrators. I also participated some on AN and ANI, making comments on disputes and how they might be resolved. And I started writing essays and thinking about some of the key issues facing the project, notably BLP issues.
Some kind editors saw my work and suggested that I might make a good arbitrator. They suggested that I run in 2006, just a few months after I'd started editing, but it was too soon then. In January 2007, I passed RfA and became an administrator. Around the same time, I also became an arbitration clerk, meaning that I helped run the arbitration pages and assisted the arbs in maintaining them. (The procedures were simpler then, even though there were a lot more cases than there are now.)
By the end of 2007, I thought I had enough experience to be a good arbitrator, so I ran in the election and was elected.
I ran for reelection in 2010 because I was still enjoying the role of arbitrator (well, as much as anyone ever enjoys that role) and I thought I was doing a good job. The majority of the community was kind enough to agree with me. My decision to run again in 2012 was much harder, because by that point I'd been an arb for five years, which is plenty, but several editors I trust suggested that I should seek one more term and so I did. At that time, I vowed that my third term would be my last, and I never had second thoughts about that decision.
HJM: What do you think ArbCom does well? What does it do less well? Is there anything it does at present that you feel it shouldn't do at all?
NYB: I think ArbCom has made some good decisions and some less-good decisions in most areas of its responsibilities. I wouldn't answer your question categorically with anything like "it does a good job on arbitration cases and a bad job on ban appeals and checkuser appointments," or the reverse, or anything like that based on categories of work. Like everyone else, I agree with some of the Committee's decisions over the past seven years and disagree with others.
I also can't think of any categories of the Committee's work as to which I would say "why the heck is the ArbCom handling that? What were they (we) thinking when they took that on?" There are, however, areas of responsibility that have landed on the Committee's plate as a matter of default more than anything else. I doubt that any arbitrators would insist on holding on to these responsibilities if the WMF Office (in a couple of cases) or the En-WP community (in others) agreed to take over the area.
HJM: How effective do you think ArbCom is at resolving the wiki's most interminable conflicts?
NYB: It's a mixed bag. Anyone can take a look at the list of the Committee's completed arbitration cases (found at WP:RFAR/C) and think "this dispute seems really to have calmed down since this case was decided," or conversely, "the ArbCom decision doesn't seem to have made a dent in that one."
One could potentially divide the Committee's cases into two broad categories, albeit with a good deal of overlap: one group dealing with specific editors (including admins), and the other group dealing with specific topic areas. If a case concerns one particular editor, it's comparatively easy to figure out whether that editor is still causing issues (if he or she is still editing), or whether he or she is missed and could have been saved (if the editor wound up being banned). In the case of topic-areas, ongoing contentiousness in the topic-area is often a function of the topic-area's real-world contentiousness today, not anything the ArbCom or Wikipedia does. Not to be flippant, but there will never be real peace on Ukraine until there is peace in Ukraine, and so forth.
As I said when I wrote a book review for the Signpost last year, I think we have a project-wide myopia about evaluating the success of our dispute-resolution mechanisms. No one goes back, a couple of years after an ArbCom decision, and tries systematically to say "well, this approach seems to have done a good job of resolving this type of problem" or "that remedy was pretty much of a disaster." We learn anecdotally, and experientially, but there's no attempt to collate the experience systematically. I say that it's a project-wide myopia because there's not enough effort to learn from the everyday experiences in other dispute-resolution processes either. For example, there must be a way of synthesizing the collective experience of thousands of 3RR reports about whether blocking or protecting or chatting is the best way to solve an edit war—not only to immediately stop the back-and-forth, but to maximize the future good-faith contributions of both parties—but I've never seen it written up anywhere.
HJM: How has the committee changed over your seven-year tenure?
NYB: The main change is that the case workload has decreased radically, because a lot of disputes that would have come to arbitration a few years ago are now resolved in other venues. I discussed that trend here a couple of years ago and it has continued since then. The result is that the Committee has fewer easy or straightforward cases these days, but only complicated morasses to try to help with.
HJM: How much time in an average week did you find yourself devoting to ArbCom business? Do you think the current workloads are too great?
NYB: You refer to "an average week" but I'm not sure there really was such a thing. There were heavy weeks, such as when I was reviewing evidence and drafting a decision or when I was on the Ban Appeals Subcommittee (BASC) and there were a lot of ban appeals, and there were other weeks that were lighter. On average I might say 5 to 10 hours a week but that is just a guestimate. I don't think the current workload is as insuperable as some people would suggest, but it couldn't hurt to lessen it, as long as the responsibilities taken away were handed off to appropriately qualified and selected people.
HJM: Did you implement or contribute to any reforms during your tenure?
NYB: I tried to emphasize the importance of being fair to all the participants in every case. I don't want to call that a "reform", which would suggest that previous arbitrators didn't care just as much as I and my colleagues did, but the arbitration process is complex enough that it's a useful thing to re-emphasize from time to time.
I called a couple of times for trying to simplify the arbitration processes and pages. For the most part I failed miserably at that; there is still more "paperwork" involved in arbitration than I'd like. One of my (and some others') suggestions that was accepted was combining the "clarifications" and "amendments" pages, because we were wasting time worrying about whether a given request was for a clarification or an amendment. This was an improvement, though I wouldn't call it a "reform".
I stood up for the principle that ArbCom has the authority to review and, if warranted, overturn a community ban or community sanctions decision. I simultaneously emphasized that we wouldn't often exercise that authority, but I do think it's important that there be some avenue of appeal from AN and ANI, which like any other decision-making venue can be fallible. I understand the reasons behind the proposals to remove BASC (ban appeals) work from the ArbCom's task-list, but I cannot support them unless there is a genuinely independent, high-level review board taking BASC's place. And even then, some appeals will still be resolvable only by ArbCom because non-public information is involved.
(As a sidenote, I've never understood the wiki-maxim that AN and ANI "are not a part of the dispute resolution process." These days, they're where most of the complicated disputes get resolved—or, often enough, fail to get resolved.)
HJM: There has been significant discussion over the years about the possibility of arbitrators who have not previously been elected administrators. How would you feel about non-admin arbitrators?
NYB: It's never bothered me that all of the arbitrators have been administrators, because that has been a collective community decision (as opposed, say, to having a rule that non-admins can't run in the election, which I'd oppose).
I think that many voters in the election view adminship experience as proof that a candidate is committed to helping administer the project, and as providing a basis for evaluating the candidate's skills in doing administrative work, including dispute resolution. (I don't believe it has anything to do with creating a caste system among editors, as some critics have suggested.)
On the other hand, it also wouldn't bother me if a non-administrator were elected. If that occurred, though, I think the community would need to agree to provide that arbitrator with the equivalent of adminship for the duration of his or her term (or else the candidate should launch an RfA right away, which he or she would certainly pass). I say this because there are rights available only to admins, most notably access to deleted revisions, that are necessary for working on some cases and appeals.
HJM: Is there anything you regret about your time on the committee? Any reform left undone, a decision that had unexpected repercussions? Anything you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
NYB: Among other things, I regret the two major incidents in which large numbers of e-mails on the arbitrators' mailing lists were hacked or leaked and published on other websites. This obviously compromised the confidentiality of our discussions and of communications we received from others. We've taken every step we could think of to avoid any recurrence of this problem. (Incidentally, we still don't know who did it.)
I regret a few of the hundreds of votes I cast on Committee decisions, though not very many.
I regret a few of the times I was outvoted, and an editor was banned or an admin was desysopped who I thought need not have been. On the other hand, I was consistently viewed over my tenure as perhaps the most lenient arbitrator—there is truth to that perception, though at times it is oversold—and I probably was in error sometimes in voting to keep an editor around who created more dissension and disruption than we should be prepared to tolerate.
I regret the two times, both early in my tenure, when I was talked out of a first draft of a controversial but necessary decision, and it soon became apparent I should have stuck to my guns. Long-time readers will know which cases I mean.
I regret that I didn't get to serve full terms with some of my most qualified and knowledgeable colleagues. In an earlier draft of this answer I had mentioned a bunch of them by name, but I'm fearful of leaving someone out.
I don't regret my decision to participate in the major Wikipedia criticism sites, which was very unusual for an arbitrator when I first showed up there—but I do regret a few times when I've found myself being blatantly trolled there, which didn't do the Committee or anyone else any good.
And I apologize for the worst of my bad jokes.
HJM: What qualities do you think a prospective candidate in this year's elections should have?
NYB: I think the community has elected very qualified arbitrators in recent elections, so I don't have much to add to whatever criteria the voters have been using.
HJM: What advice would you offer the remaining arbitrators, especially those who are just embarking on their first term?
NYB: I don't have much unexpected advice for the new group of arbitrators, because they are settling into their roles very well. Although my term as an arbitrator expired last December 31, I remained on the mailing list during January, because I was still an active arbitrator on the GamerGate case. During that month, I was highly impressed with the energy level, commitment, and knowledge base of the new group of arbitrators, seven of whom were brand-new to the Committee. Early in the nominating process for the election, there had been concern that there wouldn't be enough well-qualified candidates to fill the nine seats, but that turned out not to be the case.
A major piece of advice that I would give to the new arbitrators is to pace yourselves so as to avoid losing perspective and the possibility of premature burnout.
Another piece of advice—which I struggle to follow myself—is to try to spend at least some of your wikitime in mainspace. That, and not the back-office apparatus, is what the project is about.
HJM: If you could change one thing about ArbCom, what would it be?
NYB: Fewer interviews.
HJM: Where do you see ArbCom in five years' time? Ten years?
NYB: It's hard to answer where I see ArbCom in five or ten years' time without knowing where Wikipedia itself will be in five or ten years' time. There will always need to be a dispute-resolution procedure of last resort, and having a Committee of experienced, community-elected people address the disputes is as good a system as anyone has been able to come up with thus far.
HJM: Would you stand for election again in the future or do you see your priorities changing?
NYB: Given that I was active on GamerGate until it closed at the end of January, I've been fully off the Committee for just a month now—so it's premature for me to address whether I'd ever want to serve on it again. But since you ask, I have no plans to run for arbitrator again, and certainly not in the foreseeable future.
In addition to leaving ArbCom, I've also relinquished my checkuser and oversight rights (which I had rarely used anyway), though I remain an active administrator. I expect I'll comment on an AE or ANI thread on occasion, especially if I believe I could offer a perspective that others might miss. But my plan is to focus my Wikipedia efforts on content for awhile, as I had planned and hoped to do all along.
HJM: Is there anything you'd like to add?
NYB: I'd like to thank all the members of the community who elected me to the Committee three times, and who have said kind things to and about me during my service.
Beyond that, nothing to add off the top of my head, though I'll keep an eye on the comments section below and will probably wind up writing more there.
This fortnight's business
Things appear to be settling down now that the new committee is in place and the traditional rush of cases at the start of the year is slowing. Only one case remains open at the time of writing; another was closed in the fortnight since the last report.
After a stall during the proposed decision phase, this review of 2013's Infoboxes case—opened as a result of multiple clarification requests—finally concluded on 4 March. The purpose of the review was to assess the fitness for purpose of a remedy from the 2013 case, which prohibited Pigsonthewing from adding or removing infoboxes and from discussing their addition or removal. The review, and the enforcement and clarification requests which preceded it, focused largely on whether Pigsonthewing's participation at Templates for Discussion (where he regularly nominates infobox templates for deletion or merging) was in keeping with that remedy.
The arbitrators were satisfied that Pigsonthewing's conduct had improved since the disputes which precipitated the 2013 case—Courcelles (one of the drafting arbitrators) observed "I remember the 2013 case, and I honestly believe [Pigsonthewing]'s conduct is better [now] than it was back then"—but remained concerned that his conduct was still wanting. Arbitrator Yunshui, for example, saw "at least some comparatively recent instances of inflammatory behaviour [by Pigsonthewing], whether provoked or not". Remedies proposed included banning Pigsonthewing from any involvement with infoboxes anywhere on Wikipedia (opposed by all but the proposer on the grounds of Pigsonthewing's progress since 2013), discretionary sanctions on infoboxes (rejected because it was possibly out of scope for the review, and several arbitrators expressed concerns about its workability), and several more complicated restrictions on Pigsonthewing (rejected because of their complexity and concerns about workability). The final result was that all previous remedies against Pigsonthewing were vacated, and in their place Pigsonthewing:
is indefinitely restricted from adding an infobox to any article;
may be banned from further participation in any discussion by any uninvolved administrator, should he behave disruptively in the discussion; and
may add infoboxes to articles which he creates, provided he does so within a fortnight of the article's creation.
The proposed decision in this case was published on 2 March, four days ahead of the target date. The drafting arbitrators propose to sanction four editors for their part in the dispute, which has included edit-warring, failure to adhere to a neutral point of view, personal attacks, and possible sock-puppetry. At the time of writing, arbitrators are voting unanimously to site-ban two editors, while a package of restrictions for another editor are passing (after modifications) by eight votes to one and the committee is currently divided on whether the fourth editor should be admonished or subject to a similar set of restrictions. Arbitrators have begun voting on a motion to close, and the case is likely to be complete within a day or two of the publication of this week's Signpost.
American politics: The amendment request regarding Arzel (talk·contribs) discussed in last fortnight's report resulted in a topic ban for Arzel.
Eastern Europe: The committee overturned an out-of-process block ostensibly made in accordance with the discretionary sanctions on Eastern European topics, and advised the administrator responsible to better familiarise himself with the discretionary sanctions process.
Wifione: A request to strike a principle from the Wifione case (which stated that ArbCom had "no mandate to sanction editors for paid editing as it is not prohibited by site policies") failed to gain sufficient support among arbitrators, and was archived.
Toddst1: Last year's Toddst1 case was closed by motion after Toddst1 was desysopped for inactivity. Toddst1 indefinitely blocked himself and left Wikipedia while arbitrators were debating whether or not to accept a case about his administrative actions, as a result of which the case was suspended pending his return or desysop for inactivity.