Consensus and community in the distributed web

The topic for this week in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC is Community. I struggled last week to understand how the concept of ‘Recognition’ was being interpreted in relation to the distributed web, and I suspect I am going to struggle this week to understand how the concept of community will be interpreted.

In his Synopsis for the week Stephen Downes writes that recent times have seen us shift from an idea of community based on sameness, to a time when society has difficulty agreeing on basic facts and truths. A whole blog post could be written about just this, but I will move on.

Stephen sees community formation, in this day and age of the distributed web, as dependent on decision making and consensus. Consensus is no mean feat, but is essential if we are to counteract the influence of ‘bad actors’ who distribute false information and fake news. A critical mass of society must check and agree on what information we can trust or not trust. In an interesting article by Preethi Kasireddy- How Does Distributed Consensus Work? – decision making and consensus at the level of algorithms is discussed and it is clear that artificial intelligence will have an increasing role to play in determining what we trust and how we perceive truth. But for now we will stick to a more familiar environment in which we can observe how decision-making to achieve consensus is achieved, by real people rather than robots.

This week Stephen’s conversation was with Pete Forsyth, Editor in Chief of the Signpost, a community newspaper covering Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement.  Their discussion covered what we mean by community and consensus in relation to how ‘Wikipedia approaches questions like managing fake news, reaching consensus, and managing content‘.

I’m not sure that a discussion of how Wikipedia reaches consensus is comparable to reaching consensus on the distributed web, since Wikipedia is built on a centralised platform, but it is a platform used by tens of thousands of people across the world, and therefore provides a good basis for exploring how consensus works across large numbers. According to Wikipedia’s own site an average of 561 new articles are written every day and Wikipedia develops at a rate of over 1.8 edits per second, with editing being carried out by about 10% of users. As of August 2018, about 1000 pages are deleted from Wikipedia each day.

How is this consensus achieved?  What can we learn from Wikipedia about how to trust that the information we are reading is ‘the truth’? These are some of the thoughts shared by Pete Forsyth.

  • Wikipedia does not trust in people. There is no mechanism for establishing the authority of the writer in Wikipedia. It trusts in facts.
  • Facts must be checked and backed up by sources. (Although this wasn’t mentioned, I think Mike Caulfield’s Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers – is worth remembering here).
  • Trust should always be rooted in understanding. It’s important to check the history and discussion forums in Wikipedia.
  • Wikipedia defines a reliable source as being independent of the topic.
  • Trustworthiness of sources is on a gradient. Exceptional claims require exceptional sources.
  • Wikipedia prefers consensus to democracy, i.e. decisions are not reached by voting but by consent, which does not necessarily mean agreement.
  • Wikipedia promotes individuals as decision makers.
  • Wikipedia is edited according to Be Bold, Revert and Discuss principles.
  • A record of every edit in kept in the page history.
  • Open process, open access and transparency are strongly held core values in Wikipedia.
  • Wikipedia software is designed to focus on creating a space for interaction and keep the software out of the way.
  • Wikipedia provides guidelines for interaction and editing.

Here is a video recording of the whole discussion.

For me the questions that remain are, is Wikipedia a community and what is a community?

Wikipedia is a community for some people – probably for the 10% using it who actually contribute to it, rather than simply use it, although on the Wikipedia page about the community, the community in the larger sense is defined as including: all casual and/or anonymous editors, ideological supporters, current readers and even potential readers of all the language versions of Wikipedia-the-encyclopedia.

My prior understanding of a community is more in line with their narrower definition: the community –  is that group of contributors who create an identity (either a user account, or a frequently-used anonymous IP), and who communicate with other contributors.

This is a better fit with my knowledge of Etienne Wenger’s work on communities of practice.  I mentioned this briefly in a comment that I made on Laura Ritchie’s blog post, where I wrote that in Wenger’s terms a community of practice exhibits the dimensions of mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise. Laura identifies her orchestra as a community, which seems to fit with how Etienne Wenger sees a community.

In his blog post Kevin Hodgson wonders whether a community is the same thing as a network or affinity space. I have heard Etienne Wenger say that all communities are networks, but not all networks are communities (see p.19 in this publication).

I also noted when watching the video that Pete Forsyth described community as ‘an amorphous concept of affiliation’.

And Stephen in a comment on Laura’s post writes about ‘natural as opposed to organised communities’. I will copy his whole comment here as I think in it we have the essence of how we are to understand community during this week of the course, and for considering how community might be thought of on the distributed web:

When we look at (what I’ll call) natural communities (as opposed to organized communities) they have two major features: lack of trust, and lack of mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise.

Think of your average city. There may be a lot of what we call ‘trust’ (eg. people stopping at stop signs) but in nearly all cases there’s also an enforcement mechanism, because we don’t actually trust people (eg. to actually stop).

Similarly, while in a city we can talk about engagement, repertoire and enterprise (and we should) in most cases there is no engagement, repertoire and enterprise that is _common_ to everybody in the city. Cities are polyglot, factional, disjointed. Yet, still – they are communities.

The challenge (indeed, maybe even the challenge of our times) is how to understand and improve communities where people are *not* engaged in the same enterprise as everyone else.

From all this I am beginning to think that the word ‘community’ has too much associated history to be useful when considering how to communicate, interact, make decisions and reach consensus on the distributed web. It leads to a set of expectations that may not be useful in this context. On the Wikipedia page about community is written: The essence of community is encoded in the word itself: come-ye-into-unity. That’s a lovely way to describe community as I have always understood it. But my understanding of this week’s topic is that we no longer want or need unity. Instead, we need consensus on what is true.

I don’t believe that the traditional idea of community or a community of practice will be lost. We will all interact in communities of one sort or another; Laura in her orchestra, Kevin in his classroom, me in the village where I live, and so on. But we will probably need to think differently about community when considering what information we can trust, and what is true, on the distributed web. A new way of thinking about it may become more obvious the more we interact on the distributed web.

The idea of a distributed Wikipedia was briefly discussed by Stephen and Pete, with reference to Ward Cunningham’s Federated Wiki. In 2014, I explored the potential of FedWiki with a few others. It is a wiki with no centralised space i.e. each person has their own site, from which they can link to other people’s sites and select or reject edits of their own pages. Looking back at my blog posts, I see that I found it intriguing but not easy – a bit like this course, which seems to challenge a lot of my prior understanding about learning on the web.

Mike Caulfield described Fed Wiki as a ‘neighbourhood’, not a community, nor a network. Would this be a better word than ‘community’ and if not what would? I think a different word would help with the change of mindset needed to understand all this.


How Does Distributed Consensus Work?
Preethi Kasireddy, Medium, 2018/12/05
The brief basics of distributed systems and consensus. Nakamoto Consensus is truly an innovation that has allowed a whole new wave of researchers, scientists, developers, and engineers to continue breaking new ground in consensus protocol research.

What is Blockchain?
Lucas Mostazo, YouTube, 2018/12/03
Blockchain explained in plain English Understanding how blockchain works and identifying myths about its powers are the first steps to developing blockchain technologies.

Education Blockchain Market Map
Stephen’s Web ~ OLDaily, 2018/12/05
HolonIQ, Nov 30, 2018 Though dated last June this market map appeared in my inbox from Holon only today. It reports five sectors of the education blockchain market: credentials and certifications (the largest by far), peer-to-peer ecosystems, payments, knowledge and marketplace. The website describes each briefly and links to some representative startups. The site reports, “Blockchain’s significant potential in education – from powering efficiency to collapsing costs or disrupting the current system – is becoming clearer to technologists, educationalists and governments alike.”

Consensus decision-making
Wikipedia, 2018/12/04
Consensus decision-making is an alternative to commonly practiced group decision-making processes. Robert’s Rules of Order, for instance, is a guide book used by many organizations. This book allows the structuring of debate and passage of proposals that can be approved through majority vote. It does not emphasize the goal of full agreement. Critics of such a process believe that it can involve adversarial debate and the formation of competing factions. These dynamics may harm group member relationships and undermine the ability of a group to cooperatively implement a contentious decision. Consensus decision-making attempts to address the beliefs of such problems.

Wikipedia, 2018/12/04
Decisions on Wikipedia are primarily made by consensus, which is accepted as the best method to achieve Wikipedia’s goals, i.e., the five pillars. Consensus on Wikipedia does not mean unanimity (which is ideal but not always achievable), neither is it the result of a vote. Decision making and reaching consensus involve an effort to incorporate all editors’ legitimate concerns, while respecting Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines.

How Wikipedia dodged public outcry plaguing social media platforms
Pete Forsyth, LinkedIn, 2018/12/05
Wikipedia has problematic users and its share of controversies, but as web platforms have taken center stage in recent months, Wikipedia hasn’t been drawn into the fray. Why aren’t we hearing more about the site’s governance model, or its approach to harassment, bullying? Why isn’t there a clamor for Wikipedia to ease up on data collection? At the core, Wikipedia’s design and governance are rooted in carefully articulated values and policies, which underlie all decisions. Two specific aspects of Wikipedia innoculate it from some of the sharpest critiques endured by other platforms.

Hacking History: Redressing Gender Inequities on Wikipedia Through an Editathon
Nina Hood, Allison Littlejohn, International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 2018/12/05
This article explores the “experiences of nine participants of an editathon at the University of Edinburgh on the topic of the Edinburgh Seven, who were the first women to attend medical school in 19th century United Kingdom.” The authors argue “it was through the act of moving from consumer to contributor and becoming part of the community of editors, that participants could not only more fully understand issues of bias and structural inequities on Wikipedia, but also actively challenge and address these issues.” It makes me think of the slogan: “no knowing without doing.”

Wiki Strategies. Making Sense of Collaborative Communities –

4 thoughts on “Consensus and community in the distributed web

  1. Laura Ritchie December 6, 2018 / 8:08 pm

    Hi Jenny, this topic has grabbed me too. Stephen’s comment did shed light on things, and your mulling it over has helped to ‘see’ some of your thinking. I agree the vision of community Stephen presented is a different understanding, and it is certainly not inherently wrong, just different – *his* perspective. Part of this week for me is an exercise in semantics and communication. I do think we need unity even in Stephen’s described community, but it is a different unity that involves reorienting our individual perspectives and having an agreed focal point. That’s where the unity is, in the conceptual understanding. Then each can exist, co-exist, interact or not as suits us.

    If we can come closer to articulating our understanding then we might just find that consensus.

  2. jennymackness December 7, 2018 / 10:10 am

    Hi Laura,

    Many thanks for this comment.

    There seem to be two aspects to this week/task – consensus and community. I think where I am coming from is that consensus (at some level) is necessary for community, but that community is not necessary for consensus.

    So for this task, that is what I would challenge. I think we can work in a distributed way (in our own sites, blogs, environments) to complete an agreed task, i.e. we reach consensus on what this task should be. Roland has suggested a task that I think would work.

    Stephen seems to think that because we have reached this consensus, we can then call ourselves a community. Personally, if this is indeed what he thinks, I would disagree. I think what we will have done is form a distributed network, in which for this one instance, we have been able to reach a consensus to achieve a desired outcome. For me this does not make us a community.

    I’m not sure if it’s possible to have a decentralized community. I would need to think more about that.

    And philosophically I’m not sure that unity in conceptual understanding is possible. I tend towards subjective interpretivism.

    Thanks for raising these thought-provoking points. I am still thinking 🙂

  3. dogtrax December 7, 2018 / 11:12 am

    Jenny: “… consensus (at some level) is necessary for community, but that community is not necessary for consensus …”
    I am mulling on this insight ..

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