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Edit wars! Examining networks of negative social interaction

Published on
4 Nov 2016
Written by
Taha Yasseri and David Sutcliffe


Network of all reverts done in the English language Wikipedia within one day (January 15, 2010). Read the full article for details.

While network science has significantly advanced our understanding of the structure and dynamics of the human social fabric, much of the research has focused on positive relations and interactions such as friendship and collaboration. Considerably less is known about networks of negative social interactions such as distrust, disapproval, and disagreement. While these interactions are less common, they strongly affect people’s psychological well-being, physical health, and work performance.

Negative interactions are also rarely explicitly declared and recorded, making them hard for scientists to study. In their new article on the structural and temporal features of negative interactions in the community, Milena Tsvetkova, Ruth García-Gavilanes and Taha Yasseri use complex network methods to analyze patterns in the timing and configuration of reverts of article edits to Wikipedia. In large online collaboration communities like Wikipedia, users sometimes undo or downrate contributions made by other users; most often to maintain and improve the collaborative project. However, it is also possible that these actions are social in nature, with previous research acknowledging that they could also imply negative social interactions.

The authors find evidence that Wikipedia editors systematically revert the same person, revert back their reverter, and come to defend a reverted editor. However, they don’t find evidence that editors “pay forward” a revert, coordinate with others to revert an editor, or revert different editors serially. These interactions can be related to the status of the editors. Even though the individual reverts might not necessarily be negative social interactions, their analysis points to the existence of certain patterns of negative social dynamics within the editorial community. Some of these patterns have not been previously explored and certainly carry implications for Wikipedia’s own knowledge collection practices — and can also be applied to other large-scale collaboration networks to identify the existence of negative social interactions.

Read the full article: Milena Tsvetkova, Ruth García-Gavilanes and Taha Yasseri (2016) Dynamics of Disagreement: Large-Scale Temporal Network Analysis Reveals Negative Interactions in Online Collaboration. Scientific Reports 6 doi:10.1038/srep36333

We caught up with the authors to explore the implications of the work.

Ed: You find that certain types of negative social interactions and status considerations interfere with knowledge production on Wikipedia. What could or should Wikipedia do about it — or is it not actually a significant problem?

Taha: We believe it is an issue to consider. While the Wikipedia community might not be able to directly cope with it, as negative social interactions are intrinsic to human societies, an important consequence of our report would be to use the information in Wikipedia articles with extra care — and also to bear in mind that Wikipedia content might carry more subjectivity compared to a professionally written encyclopaedia.

Ed: Does reverting behaviour correlate with higher quality articles (i.e. with a lot of editorial attention) or simply with controversial topics — i.e. do you see reverting behaviour as generally a positive or negative thing?

Taha: In a different project we looked at the correlation between controversy and quality. We observed that controversy, up to a certain level, is correlated with higher quality of the article, specifically as far as the completeness of the article is concerned. However, the articles with very high scores of controversy, started to show less quality. In short, a certain amount of controversy helps the articles to become more complete, but too much controversy is a bad sign.

Ed: Do you think your results say more about the structure of Wikipedia, the structure of crowds, or about individuals?

Taha: Our results shed light on some of the most fundamental patterns in human behavior. It is one of the few examples in which a large dataset of negative interactions is analysed and the dynamics of negativity are studied. In this sense, this article is more about human behavior in interaction with other community members in a collaborative environment. However, because our data come from Wikipedia, I believe there are also lessons to be learnt about Wikipedia itself.

Ed: You note that by focusing on the macro-level you miss the nuanced understanding that thick ethnographic descriptions can produce. How common is it for computational social scientists to work with ethnographers? What would you look at if you were to work with ethnographers on this project?

Taha: One of the drawbacks in big data analysis in computational social science is the small depth of the analysis. We are lacking any demographic information about the individuals that we study. We can draw conclusions about the community of Wikipedia editors in a certain language, but that is by no means specific enough. An ethnographic approach, which would benefit our research tremendously, would go deeper in analyzing individuals and studying the features and attributes which lead to certain behavior. For example, we report, at a high level, that “status” determines editors’ actions to a good extend, but of course the mechanisms behind this observation can only be explained based on ethnographic analysis.

Ed: I guess Wikipedia (whether or not unfairly) is commonly associated with edit wars — while obviously also being a gigantic success: how about other successful collaborative platforms — how does Wikipedia differ from Zooniverse, for example?

Taha: There is no doubt that Wikipedia is a huge success and probably the largest collaborative project in the history of mankind. Our research mostly focuses on its dark side, but it does not question its success and value. Compared to other collaborative projects, such as Zooniverse, the main difference is in the management model. Wikipedia is managed and run by the community of editors. Very little top-down management is employed in Wikipedia. Whereas in Zooniverse for instance, the overall structure of the project is designed by a few researchers and the crowd can only act within a pre-determined framework. For more of these sort of comparisons, I suggest to look at our HUMANE project, in which we provide a typology and comparison for a wide range of Human-Machine Networks.

Ed: Finally — do you edit Wikipedia? And have you been on the receiving end of reverts yourself?

Taha: I used to edit Wikipedia much more. And naturally I have had my own share of reverts, at both ends!

Taha Yasseri was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.