Are you free to park anywhere you like? There is a sense in which nothing prevents you from parking your car anywhere that can be reached from the road. You are not physically prevented from parking on your neighbour’s lawn or across the middle of the high street, but this does not mean you are free to do it. Drivers know they can only park in certain places. Elsewhere, they risk getting fined or towed away. So in a physical sense, you can park on people’s lawns, but in a more important cultural sense that actually shapes people’s behaviour, you can’t.
Wikipedia and similar communities have that same distinction between what is technically possible and what is culturally allowable. Technical possibility is determined by the software, but what is culturally allowable is decided in policy, values and community consensus. There is scope for interpretation and for human judgement in deciding what contributors are free to do, just as there is scope for a court to decide if someone’s actions count as murder.
It is technically possible to delete all the text from Wikipedia’s Featured Article, replace journal citations with tabloid newspapers, or to copy articles from a blatantly promotional site. This doesn’t mean that Wikipedia regards you as free to do these things, in fact they would be disastrous, even just as an experiment. For vandals, there are consequences: the edits can be undone and the accounts warned, blocked or banned.
So creating a community-driven site involves establishing and enforcing cultural norms and procedures. These answer such questions as:
- How does the community resolve disputes?
- What distinguishes constructive from unconstructive contributions?
- How do you distinguish good-faith but unconstructive contributions (which require educating or nudging the contributor) from intentional disruption (which requires minimising the future damage they can do)?
- How are disruptive contributions punished? How are constructive contributions rewarded?
- What changes are new users trusted to make, and how can they earn greater trust, or have trust withdrawn?
The transparency and perceived fairness of the answers to these and other questions will affect people’s experience of the community and their willingness to contribute.