Consensus failure

As most people reading this have probably seen, xkcd found a particularly entertaining Wikipedia argument. (It is all true. There are at least 40,000 words arguing over whether to capitalize an "i" in a page title. I went and looked last night and spent several hours following the conversation.)

This is, of course, funny, and I'm sure lots of people went away smiling at an excellent example of bikeshed painting on the Internet. But I think it's rather more serious than it appears to be. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a visible manifestation of a deeply-rooted problem that is the core of why I personally refuse to contribute to Wikipedia in any way that requires me to invest non-trivial time or become a member of that community.

To explain that statement requires a bit of background.

One of the very first services I found when I joined the Internet in 1993 was Usenet. Originally, I talked about comics collecting and then Magic: The Gathering, but I eventually ended up involved in Usenet governance. I spent more than ten years deeply invested in Usenet hierarchy administration; roughly, the process of agreeing on names for and sometimes moderators for global Usenet discussion groups, as well as all the supporting infrastructure for Usenet news server administrators to agree upon and share articles in those groups.

Usenet newsgroup creation was, throughout that period, a consensus-driven process. There was a voting system that was used to measure consensus, but the voting system was largely designed to ensure that rough consensus existed (it was heavily skewed towards not changing anything). We took great pride in that fact. I'm sure that one could find many articles from me proudly championing the concept of a consensus-based decision-making process against many alternatives.

That means I was also there when the toxic flaws at the heart of a consensus-based process completely destroyed it and, as a side effect, destroyed the community of people who had formed around it. I will never again invest my time and energy in a community that operates solely via a consensus process unless that community is small enough that consensus can actually work (which means not much more than twenty people). Consensus decision-making in large groups destroys communities and hurts people.

These sorts of extended arguments on Wikipedia are not rare anomolies. They happen with some frequency; just by going through the debate xkcd references and looking at pointers, you can easily find others (Sega Genesis, cat ownership vs. companionship, endless notability debates... there are many). They look funny from outside, but from inside they're hugely demoralizing. Even when they don't get heated and spill over into personal animosity (and if they don't do that, you're lucky), they consume astonishingly vast quantities of time — exactly not the resource that you want to be squandering in volunteer projects. And they do so without giving back anything emotionally.

I know these arguments very well. One of the most contentious and angry arguments in the history of Usenet newsgroup creation was the argument over whether, when breaking up a group into multiple more focused groups, to rename the original group to end in *.misc or leave its existing name. This argument went on for years and led to deep, lingering hatred between the participants. It's the same sort of thing.

These arguments happen in the way that they happen because there is toxic waste at the center of Wikipedia's governance process. And that toxic waste hurts people, wastes their time, and destroys their willingness to volunteer. It undermines community, which is sad and ironic because the whole point of consensus decision-making is to create, support, and empower community. But it doesn't work. It doesn't work for two very simple but very closely-related reasons: it's impossible to ever end an argument, and there is no incentive for anyone to shut up. As a result, it is nearly impossible to get the decision-making to cohere into something that is timely, consistent, unambiguous, and final. These are not optional requirements of a decision-making process. Without them, people will lose faith in the decision-making process itself, and some people will learn that, as long as they never stop talking about something, they can prolong the debate indefinitely and possibly eventually get their way.

Now, of course, I'm deeply involved and invested in Debian. And on the surface, it may look like Debian also uses a consensus-based decision-making process. But while Debian decision-making has some problems, it's much healthier for a few reasons that are useful to examine:

  1. Individual packages in Debian are not managed by consensus, but rather fall under the authority of the package maintainer, who is either a single person or a small team. (Consensus works in small teams; it's great if the number of people involved is five or less.) This drastically limits the number of decisions that are subject to a large-scale consensus process. Nearly all decisions in Debian are made directly by the person doing the work, and only in exceptional circumstances can some larger process be invoked.

    This, on the surface, sounds like it could be similar to Wikipedia, but note that appeals to a larger process are much rarer in Debian than they are in Wikipedia. There is a strong bias in favor of letting the person working on the package do their job however they want to do it. This is more social than structural, but it's a core value (and we should be very careful about changing it).

    As a result, Debian operates less by mass consensus and more as a federation of semi-autonomous fiefdoms. This sounds worse: it sounds authoritarian and non-democratic. But it's significantly more functional, and it doesn't waste people's time.

  2. On appeal, and for broader questions that necessarily cut across multiple packages, there are several people in Debian who are perceived as having clear authority to make timely and relatively final decisions, who are almost never overruled, and who can therefore effectively end arguments. These include core teams like ftp-master or the release team, formal appeal bodies like the Technical Committee, and the Debian Project Leader. Not all of this ability is written in black and white in the governance process, but that's not the important part; the important part is that it works in practice to provide timely, consistent, unambiguous, and final decisions most of the time. (Some parts work better than others, and we do struggle with timely, but I've seen much, much worse.)

  3. There is a well-established ultimate appeal (a General Resolution), the ultimate appeal process is very specific and concrete, there is little or no ambiguity or human interpretation involved in analyzing the results, it is time-limited, and it's almost universally respected. Everyone abides by the result of a GR if matters get to that point, and while it's theoretically possible to propose another GR immediately to overturn the first one, this doesn't happen in practice. There's also substantial pushback against invoking the GR process for anything that isn't really important.

We still occasionally devolve into endless discussion, usually on some technical topic that cuts across the distribution and usually when the options haven't cohered enough for any authority to make a useful decision (often because it's too early for it to be possible to make a final decision). Those cases, such as the recurring systemd vs. upstart discussion, are still quite frustrating. But they're also relatively rare and largely ignorable because they have to be about just the right sort of issue. Wikipedia has these sorts of arguments all the time, and they're much less ignorable, because consensus is invoked for every minor dispute on any page in the entire project. You have to participate in endless consensus process or risk having your work undone, reverted, or removed.

We would all like all decisions to be made by consensus, since we don't want anyone in a volunteer project to lose (and because we all love to convince other people we're right). And for small teams, consensus is wonderful. But that's precisely because governance in small teams is very easy; humans are naturally adapted for decision-making in small teams and have a huge variety of natural tools, tendencies, and abilities devoted to making those sorts of decisions. You rarely need any formal decision-making process; most decisions will just happen.

You need a decision-making process when enough people are involved that mutual social pressure can't bring a dispute to resolution, and when you're in that situation, consensus is a horrible process.

Due to my past experiences, I'm almost certainly at the extreme in dislike of consensus processes. Most people are not going to refuse to participate in communities solely on that basis. But be aware that 40,000 words of discussion about something that an outsider will not consider particularly important is not an accidental phenomenon. It's not something that just happens randomly on the Internet. It's an effect, and symptom, of a governance process, or lack thereof, and it's something that you can do something about if you want to.

Posted: 2013-01-30 23:01 — Why no comments?

Last spun 2021-09-25 from thread modified 2013-01-31