The 15 People Who Keep Wikipedia’s Editors from Killing Each Other



Alumnus Ira Matetsky ’87 was featured in a Wall Street Journal piece about Wikipedia’s arbitration committee.

Wikipedia, the vast online crowdsourced encyclopedia, has a high court. It is a panel called the Arbitration Committee, largely unknown to anyone other than Wiki aficionados, which hears disputes that arise after all other means of conflict resolution have failed. The 15 elected jurists on the English-language Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee—among them a former staffer for presidential candidate John Kerry, an information-technology consultant in a tiny British village and a retired college librarian—have clerks, write binding decisions and hear appeals. They even issue preliminary injunctions.

“There are things that wouldn’t start an argument anywhere else that can still start an argument on Wikipedia,” says Ira Matetsky, a Manhattan litigator and the unpaid panel’s longest-serving current member. Among them: capitalization rules and whether individual television episodes deserve encyclopedia entries.

In some early years, Wikipedia says, the panel handled more than 100 cases a year. Since then, the caseload has tapered off. Last year, it heard four new cases plus appeals and other matters, and this year, three thus far. Mr. Matetsky, who is regarded internally as a chief-justice figure, suggested it was because the committee’s standards have become higher and the site has accumulated what amounts to a body of law.

Asked whether the panel’s members split into conservative and liberal factions like the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Matetsky said the committee, which typically decides matters of user behavior, not content, doesn’t lean left or right. “Occasionally you could say there are people who are stricter or more lenient in terms of the spirit of the law or letter of the law,” he says. That surfaces in debates about whether a previously sanctioned editor should be allowed to return to work.

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