Harnessing ‘generative friction’: can conflict actually improve quality in open systems?

14 August 2013

Is conflict always bad? Or can conflict in open systems actually be productive, leading to innovative solutions to the problems encountered? In her paper "The role of conflict in determining consensus on quality in Wikipedia articles", Kim Osman (QUT) finds that differences of opinion in Wikipedia actually spur the improvement of articles and that conflict, in contrast to earlier findings, can play a positive role in encyclopedic quality. Kim discusses her findings and what they mean for the design and governance of open, online systems.

This blog is in the form of an interview between Kim Osman and the editor.

Ed: I really like the way that, contrary to many current studies on conflict and Wikipedia, you focus on how conflict can actually be quite productive. How did this insight emerge?

Kim: I was initially looking for instances of collaboration in Wikipedia to see how popular debates about peer production played out in reality. What I found was that conflict was significantly more prevalent than I had assumed. It struck me as interesting, as most of the popular debates at the time framed conflict as hindering the collaborative editorial process. After several stages of coding, I found that the conversations that involved even a minor degree of conflict were fascinating. A pattern emerged where disagreements about the editorial process resulted in community members taking positive actions to solve the discord and achieve consensus. This was especially prominent in early discussions prior to 2005 before many of the policies that regulate content production in the encyclopaedia were formulated. The more that differing points of view and differing evaluative frames came into contact, the more the community worked together to generate rules and norms to regulate and improve the production of articles.

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