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Diffusion of responsibility is a tendency of individuals in large groups to avoid taking action to correct a problem because they assume someone else will. The term is sometimes used interchangeably for the WikiPedia:Bystander_effect, in the specific case where bystanders in crowds fail to stop a crime. It's also used in industrial/organizational psychology, to describe employees' failure to act to correct problems in the workplace or to speak up about unproductive or unethical practices.

DouglasAdams?, in "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe", described a powerful cloaking device called a SEP Field that would render objects more-or-less invisible. "SEP", here, stands for "Somebody Else's Problem"; the device would give the impression to observers that, despite outlandish appearances, this object wasn't their responsibility and they should just ignore it. The SEP field is a device that simulates diffusion of responsibility.

Another pop analysis of diffusion of responsibility is the "Everybody, Somebody, Nobody, Anybody" parable. Although it's a bit saccharine, the story does illustrate quite nicely the diffusion of responsibility issue.

Once upon a time, there were four people;
Their names were Everybody, Somebody, Nobody and Anybody.
Whenever there was an important job to be done, Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
When Nobody did it, Everybody got angry because it was Everybody's job.
Everybody thought that Somebody would do it, but Nobody realized that Nobody would do it.
So consequently Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done in the first place.

(Author unknown. This story -- with occasional additions and modifications -- can often be found as multi-generational photocopies tacked up to bulletin boards in rec centers and coffee rooms, and over secretary's desks. It's a call for help in troubled organizations, but also a booster's anthem.)

How does diffusion of responsibility factor into wikis and other online communities?

One method is building CommunityExpectations to act responsibly through rituals. This may not even be overt rituals; for instance, paraphrased from [MetaWikipedia:Protected pages considered harmful]...

One thing to note. Fixing vandalism, while exasperating, is one tradition of community building on a wiki. Taking away such common cases as the front page signals that there is a higher power who is entrusted with the wiki's protection while the common man is not, even if that is not really the case (although I think it really does mean that). It's something like a rite of passage to protect the wiki. Further, a more massive vandalism requires a larger community effort to come together, which helps build a tradition of BarnRaising. These kinds of rituals are more useful than the effort wasted reverting a page once in a while in my outsider's opinion. -- SunirShah

Perhaps, you have seen [History Flow - Results]. IBM Research has created a graphic visualization of how vandalism affects a Wiki page and how it is corrected by the community. A result that stands out is that how disastrous vandalism, like a page being wiped out, gets fixed almost immediately. I suppose this a kind of darwinian mechanism by which stronger communities evolve. -- SelvakumarGanesan

Yes - this also shows how effective StableCopy could be, across all wikis that are vulnerable to vandalism. --MartinHarper


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