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Essay:Exploring alternate wiki punishments

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In my tenure on RationalWiki so far, it has come to my attention that our abilities to take care of problematic users often feel... limited. In this essay, I want to explore how our current options feel limited and propose a few suggestions for alternative punishments.

The issue[edit]

I'm sure most of you have seen it by now: Someone opens a coop case or an ATIM case, evidence is brought up (or not) and discussed, and at some point we all have to move towards the punishment phase where we put the naughty boys and girls in the corner. The problem however is how often this typically doesn't actually fix anything. We usually either end up slapping both parties involved on the wrist and a stern "don't do it again", which sometimes results in endless returns to ATIM/Coop when users don't fix the shit that led to it.

To this end, let's explore what our current ways of dealing with problematic users and why they are often limited:

Permanent block[edit]

Considered by many (myself included) to be the biggest nuclear option the site has of getting rid of a problem: we simply remove the offending person! This option tends to meets a lot of resistance when proposed because in many ways it is antithetical to our Community Standards noted goal of wanting to welcome as much open discussion as possible, meaning that unless the person in question manages to be a really specific brand of nasty that really makes their presence here completely untenable for the continued future of the project itself it typically doesn't pass.

Periodic blocks[edit]

These are blocks that are applied with a temporary sysoprevoke on top to enforce it (making them community approved only). The problem we often run into with these is that while it can help in sending users a reminder that their behavior isn't acceptable, it sometimes also has a habit of the editor simply not learning the lesson, at which point only escalating blocks are our option as the permanent block becomes slowly inevitable.


In recent memory, this is probably the most often misused punishment suggestion. Sysop is granted here with a lot of relative freedom on the end of existing sysops, and as a result the most common request is to take away those rights. What is often overlooked here however is that sysoprevoke is specifically intended for the abuse of sysop rights and should not be regarded as a punishment in and of itself that we can apply for any CS violation. Sysoprevoke grants our regular editors important protections (such as the ability to unblock oneself after joke blocks and to protect pages against BON/fresh account vandalism) and it's recent usage as a naughty button concerns me.

Alternative options[edit]

So with that in mind, let's look at some alternate options. I will be borrowing these from Wikipedia and I have suggested both of these before in coop/ATIM cases and I want to explain why they could be useful on our site.

Topic ban[edit]

Often, editors who cause problems tend to do so in only one category or page. For instance, we might have a user who knows next to nothing about Anarchism but might have good ideas about biology and science. In an ideal situation, users who know nothing about a subject stay away from that subject as possible. That said, sometimes we run into a user who is suffering from an extreme case of the Dunning-Kruger effect and won't stop pretending they know stuff about a subject they don't understand in the slightest. To this end, a topic ban might be considered more useful than a regular sanction.

The idea behind a topic ban is more or less as follows: We determine the general area in which a user is likely to cause issues (for instance, in our previous anarchism example which was motivated by a real case, we eventually came up with "Leftism" as the general category in which said user kept causing issues, however it simply wasn't enforced because the user LANCBed and started trolling the site a few months later) and instruct them to not edit that area anymore. The threat of violation of that ban would then be that any sysop would be permitted to block said user for a short period of time (up to 3 days) with a sysop removal on the condition of a talkpage notice (as well as leaving access to the talkpage for a user to explain their behavior).

As with Interaction Bans (which I'll describe below), the most useful application of a topic ban is with an upper limit of violations, after which more general sanctions and longer blocks would be considered acceptable.

Appealing a topic ban is best done through having the user in question propose an arbitrary amount of edits in their own userspace and having another editor vet these edits.

A good case where a topic ban helped a user to improve (and got the topic ban eventually removed) was the case of Sievert 81, where the topic ban proved to be a highly useful punishment that eventually saw the user improve as an editor in general.

Interaction ban[edit]

Also known as an IBAN, this approach is one that we have not directly tried so far, but exists on Wikipedia.

The core motivation behind an interaction ban is to deal with users who simply just do not get along. They constantly argue, they constantly start flamewars, personal attacks fly rampant when one of them talks, their mere presence in a discussion derails it to a pet problem of theirs. Outside of those users however, these editors do provide useful contributions to the site and generally do get along with the rest of the users.

To this end, an interaction ban might be more suited. These bans are two-way to avoid gloating/baiting and place the following expectations on sanctioned users:

  • Not use the other user's talkpage.
  • Not revert the other user's edits.
  • Don't respond to each other directly in a discussion. (Responses in the same discussion thread are considered fine, but direct interactions are forbidden.)
  • Dont' make mention of the other user, whether in a direct or indirect fashion to other users. (To explain the latter; a comment like "avoid the user who keeps talking about how we should moderate our community" would for the sake of this essay only really refer to me and would be considered unacceptable).

In the category of enforcement, this is mostly similar to that of the topic ban. Any user who is not sanctioned is able to sysoprevoke block a violating user for a short period of time (up to 3 days) under the condition of leaving a talkpage notice and leaving access to the userpage. In addition, repeat violations would lead to the mob voting for harsher sanctions.

Freedom of mod punishments[edit]

This alternative sanction came up fairly recently. This would give moderators carte blanche to issue repeated short-term sysoprevoked blocks without community vote on a user. This option admittedly does not personally interest me. It is a speeding up of our processes that is poorly defined and is subjected to the elective process of our mod team. The only way in which this would be acceptable is if it were to automatically expire after moderator elections, to avoid new mods with personal vendettas against users to apply sanctions. However in adding that limitation, the effectiveness of this as a punishment option becomes limited to the point where I would argue it is useless.

Henceforth, I am strongly opposed to codifying this as a reasonable option, however at the time at which I started writing this essay, this seems like a sanction that is going to be applied.

Moving forward[edit]

If we are to enforce my proposed alternative punishments (encoding these in our block policy could be useful but would not be required), which the community seems partially responsive towards, a project page to track these would be useful because MediaWiki as is does not offer the option to enforce these. Furthermore, standarized notices (such as the ones we have to notify editors of coop cases) should be prepared to avoid confusion on the terms of a topic/interaction ban. Mandatory userpage templates should for now not be needed, a pinned talkpage comment would accomplish the same thing and would be less invasive of a users privacy.

In the concluding[edit]

This wiki needs more Goat. This has been Sirius, signing off.

This essay is licensed to Sirius. All rights reserved. Citation and reference to this essay on RationalWiki is permitted.