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How does large-scale social production coordinate individual behavior to produce public goods? Hardin (1968) denied that the creation of public goods absent markets or the State is possible. Benkler (2006), Shirky (2008), Zittrain (2008), and Lessig (2008) recently countered that the needed coordination might emerge though social norms. However, the means to this coordination is under-theorized. Focusing on Wikipedia, we argue that the site’s dispute resolution process is an important force in promoting the public good it produces, i.e., a large number of relatively accurate public encyclopedia articles. We describe the development and shape of Wikipedia’s existing dispute resolution system. Further, we present a statistical analysis based on coding of over 250 arbitration opinions from Wikipedia’s arbitration system. The data show that Wiki-dispute resolution ignores the content of user disputes, instead focusing on user conduct. Based on fairly formalized arbitration findings, we find a high correlation between the conduct found and the remedies ordered. In effect, the system functions not so much to resolve disputes and make peace between conflicting users, but to weed out problematic users while weeding potentially productive users back in to participate. Game theorists have modeled large scale social production as a solution to the herder problem/multi-player prisoner’s dilemma. But we demonstrate that the “weeding in” function reflects dynamics more accurately captured in coordination games instead. In this way, dispute resolution can provide a constitutive function for the community.


social production, social norms, law, dispute resolution, arbitration, empirical legal studies

Publication Title

Emory Law Journal

Publication Citation

59 Emory L. J. 151 (2009)