Wikipedia and Rules Proliferation

By Eric Goldman

I have previously mentioned how rule sets tend to expand over time. We’ve seen this with legislation; for example, consider how the Copyright Act has grown over time. Personally, I’ve seen code expansion over and over again in the context of negative behavioral restrictions in user-to-user communities. A 2008 article by Brian Butler, Elisabeth Joyce and Jacqueline Pike entitled “Don’t Look Now, But We’ve Created a Bureaucracy: The Nature and Roles of Policies and Rules in Wikipedia” provided yet another dramatic example of this phenomenon in the Wikipedia context. They write:


One useful measure of increased complexity is the change in lengths in terms of word count alone of the policies from the first version to most current. All policies studied grew enormously.

• Copyrights: 341 words => 3200 words: 938%

• What Wikipedia is not: 541 words => 5031 words: 929%

• Civility: 1741 words => 2131 words: 124%

• Consensus: 132 words => 2054 words: 1557%

• Deletion: 405 words => 2349 words: 580%

• Ignore all rules: exceptional case

The first version of the Ignore all rules policy is only 23 words long, stating, “If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the Wiki, then ignore them and go about your business” [45]. The current version is actually shorter, only 16 words, and says, “If a rule prevents you from working with others to improve or maintain Wikipedia, ignore it” [45]. However, as suggested earlier in this paper, while the actual wording of this policy declined 69% and it appears on the surface to be the least bureaucratic of the policies, the supplemental page directly linked to this policy contains 579 words, indicating that the policy swelled over 3600% [45].


There are some obvious detrimental consequences of this expansion. First, it facilitates wikilawyering. As the rules get more complicated, there are more ambiguities to debate and potentially more contradictory rules. Second, it becomes a bigger barrier to entry for newcomers or casual users; either they must try to master a greater and more complex rule set, or they are more likely to transgress and have their contributions reversed.