20 Jan 2011  Working Papers

Testing Coleman’s Social-Norm Enforcement Mechanism: Evidence from Wikipedia

Executive Summary

Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorski and doctoral candidate Andreea Gorbatai look to the editing process on Wikipedia to test and validate the well-accepted (but little-verified) theory of sociologist James Coleman that social norm violations decline as network density increases. Support for Coleman's mechanism would alert us to the importance of punishments for norm violations and rewards for such punishments, and thus help us to design social systems in which norms are observed.

Key concepts include:
  • Coleman argued that high-density networks provide an opportunity structure within which third parties can compensate norm enforcers for the expense of chastising norm violators. Such payments encourage actors to punish those who violate norms, which in turn reduce the incidence of norm violation.
  • Despite ubiquitous citations of Coleman's explanation, little empirical work has tested it convincingly.
  • The researchers identified the improper use of the revert command by Wikipedia contributors-by which users can quickly knock out text they don't agree with and revert it back to a prior state-as a norm violation.
  • The research found substantial support for the theory, suggesting that increasing network density to elicit norm compliance is justified.
  • On Wikipedia, norm violations, punishments for such violations, and rewards for those who punish violators are all highly visible. Replicating these conditions in the design of a social system is critical; otherwise, norm violations will remain undetected and therefore unpunished.


Author Abstract

Since Durkheim, sociologists have believed that dense network structures lead to fewer norm violations. Coleman (1990) proposed one mechanism generating this relationship and argued that dense networks provide an opportunity structure to reward those who punish norm violators, leading to more frequent punishment and in turn fewer norm violations. Despite ubiquitous scholarly references to Coleman's theory, little empirical work has directly tested it in large-scale natural settings with longitudinal data. We undertake such a test using records of norm violations during the editing process on Wikipedia, the largest user-generated on-line encyclopedia. These data allow us to track all three elements required to test Coleman's mechanism: norm violations, punishments for such violations, and rewards for those who punish violations. The results are broadly consistent with Coleman's mechanism.

Paper Information

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    • Jon Awbrey

    What are the actual norms, as opposed to the advertised norms?

    That is the question.

    • Gregory Kohs
    • Founder, MyWikiBiz.com

    Everything I ever needed to learn about punishment and reward on Wikipedia, and how it influences content quality can be summed up by this edit:


    The administrator preferred that the article about Arch Coal become less accurate and more poorly worded, all to reap the rewards for doling out punishment on the previous editor (who was indefinitely blocked by the administrator from ever again improving Wikipedia).

    At Wikipedia, therefore, the "norm" is for content to ever become worse (as proven by a University of Minnesota study of "damaged views"), and for the culture of rational inquiry to be ever trumped by political gamesmanship.

    • LovelyLillith
    • Wiki editor, http://www.shoutjoyfully.com

    The overall content of Wikipedia is of comparable quality to Britannica. http://news.cnet.com/2100-1038_3-5997332.html Problems arise when certain editors monopolize or camp out on articles they consider their babies and prevent other people from making edits to them, becoming a problem for the good of the whole, but the problem stems from these editors, not Wiki policy or practice. This behavior is NOT encouraged and other editors are free to, and should, report them for doing such. Editors who are indefinitely blocked from editing generally have a history of purposefully making consistently bad edits, which is easily viewed and determined from their edit list. The assumption, and encouraging philosophy, is that ANYONE with good intent, whether longtime or first time editors, should be able to modify content as long as it is properly sourced, properly spelled, etc. Wikipedia errs in favor of those who make honest mistakes (and som eone else corrects them) in order to encourage more people to contribute to the project.

    • Anonymous

    Are there not instances in which reinforcing social norms can be a negative thing? Who is to determine which social norms are to be kept and which are to be replaced? How will this decision making process come about?

    Social norms might be self-reinforcing, but do they come at the benefit or detriment of society at large? If the social norms come at the detriment of society at large might there be a way to fast tract corrections, take climate change or abstinent priests as the norm and the act of sexual abusing minors as the negative outcome?