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Within the realm of hypertexted discussions, there are two seemly contrasting phenomena that have been termed ForestFires; however, deeper analysis shows they are merely yin and yang. For uneditable texts, the discussion or argument can grow out of control as there are no means to fight the fire. However, wikis or wiki-like things can respond by fighting fire with fire.

See also AutomaticSandbox for an automated response.

You must read LynchMob for the AntiPattern version of the solution lest you be so tempted.


1. Growth

We practice EnlargeSpace to alleviate pressure on the commons. Normally this is good as the space grows when required as required. Typically, this organic growth is slow and digestible. This growth warms the hearts of the community, like talking around a good campfire. However, when too much energy gets put into the system--from FlameWars, trolls (cf. WhatIsaTroll), and deep rooted political debates for example--the growth can become too fast to handle. The campfire can grow out of control and become a ForestFire, a phenomenon where the argument spreads across multiple pages.

You can tell that you are experiencing a ForestFire when you suddenly lose track of where the rapidly expanding "front" of the argument is. You feel that you are making the same point in multiple places. You have to argue "laterally", across pages, in order to put forward a cohesive perspective. You no longer know what pages are related to the argument because people keep creating new ones in a self-defeating effort to contain the discussion, to recan the worms so to speak. Older pages, even gems, become casualties as the interlocutors recruit them for the fight. Honest people tidy pages, only to delete statements referenced on other pages, thus making the whole argument less coherent. RecentChanges is flooded, encouraging people to litter pages with references to events on RecentChanges or to a current context that will remain opaque to future readers. New paragraphs become highly dependent and coupled with older statements, possibly implying a temporal sequence and addressing people directly by name. And, of course, the whole thing is ugly ThreadMode, with no hope of synthesis or understanding.

FlameWars have a distressing habit of exploding across pages as the interlocutors feel that the existing pages are too difficult to understand. They start "fresh" pages in a hope of forming a synthesis. Usually these pages start off as DocumentMode or an innoccuous PromptingStatement?, only to be destroyed by ThreadMode. Their efforts are further undermined by emotional people unable to abandon the old argument, feeling that they need to get the last word in. Soon, the fresh start becomes unsynchronized with the old page, and the two become simply parallel and heavily cross-referenced arguments. This process is repeated as good intentioned people try to "refactor" the live discussion, only expanding the front further.

This process is well understood by trolls, who are masters of the flame war. Trolls actively attempt to split discussion across as many pages as possible, thereby weakening their responders by dividing them to conquer them. They attempt to lose their responders in a maze of ever shifting hypertext. They move their responders' text frequently, hoping to cause them to forget what they had said previously. They helpfully "refactor" the text, quietly losing parts, which only causes the emotionally involved responders to try to set the record straight. In short, they do anything they can to muddle the coherence and consistency of the discussion.

Even well intentioned people can fall into this trap. Often a deep-seated community disagreement can flood across the entire PageDatabase. Every case becomes an event to redebate the some points. Every point becomes grounded with every case. When faced with the necessity to make a decision, endless effort must be expended by one camp or another just to push the cause for a trivial case. When people do act out a decision, they must spend an enormous amount of energy defending themselves. Soon people no longer want to act. Analysis paralysis sets in. The dysfunctional community can not respond to crises. People become disillusioned and leave.

Fortunately, at least for wikis, a way out is clear. First, NameTheConflict. Identify the ForestFire for what it is. Second, collect all the arguments onto one page and then delete the rest--i.e. recan the worms. Just copy and paste the pages together. Don't worry about being clean; the argument is far from neat and tidy. Let the argument continue on that page for as long as it remains hot. It will die down soon enough now that the front is contained in one place and after people see the whole argument for the overbearing mountain of crap that it is.

Once a suitable break has been made, rework the argument into coherent essays. Don't worry too much about preserving everyone's little idea. Do the best that you can, with deference going towards the editor's patience. Just turn the informal slugfest into a formal debate. Once it is clear and clean and digestible, the argument can resume in the normal way, with small improvements. Anything important that was lost can be reconstructed. Most people, after they cool down, will be glad to ForgiveAndForget the junk that they wrote.

Centralizing and organizing the argument will do wonders you didn't think possible. Insults can be apologized, miscommunications can be clarified, conflicts can be resolved all in one location. Trolls will suddenly lose the excitement of seeing their handiwork all across RecentChanges, a suitable method to DissuadeReputation. Politics can turn into policy. And most importantly, everything regrettable can be deleted in one shot, making ForgiveAndForget all the more easier. Trust me, you'll be thankful later.

And if you find some worm defying your attempt to recan him, everyone is responsible for moving his text back to the central location. This CommunityExpectation is critical if you intend to still have a community in the morning. Even if you disagree vehemently, at least agree on that.


2. Reduction

On WikiWiki and MetaBaby, there have been occasions where great amount of text has been destroyed. These are termed ForestFires. Poor version control systems have left sites like these very vulnerable to unilateral attacks or unfortunate IncidentalCollaboration. However, even very strong systems such as KeptPages are vulnerable if the extent of changes exceeds the community's capacity to PeerReview and correct them, say an exceptionally huge refactoring. And even though it is everyone's collective duty to review thoroughly each and every edit, this doesn't happen because TheCollective just doesn't have that much energy. This is why people are discouraged from editing too rapidly.

The culture of WikiWiki being what it is, PeterMerel fictionalized the Wiki:BigWikiFireOfDoubleOught to demonstrate the romantic possibilities of destroying the entire wiki whilst keeping the same community. However, in smaller doses, WikiWiki has in fact looked at the positive side of a Wiki:WikiFire, even the occasional WikiMindWipe. Being forced to rethink difficult ideas can be very refreshing. And if you think of ideas being in an evolutionary environment, then it stands to reason they benefit the same way an ecosystem can benefit after massive die outs. It could be an opportunity for PunctuatedEquilibrium?. Out with the old, in with the new.

MetaBaby is even more poetic about this as they experience total site destruction many times a year. Some people now protect certain pages, archiving them and reposting them as necessary, but to many it gives MetaBaby the chance to put on a new face once in a while instead of making it the same boring site forever.

CategoryConflict, CategoryWikiConventions, CategoryTrolling


In growth... are you saying that attempting to move and refactor is bad? So you should move first, and ReworkLater, perhaps months later? Is this a general principle, or does it only apply to forest fires? MartinHarper

Only to ForestFires. Think about how aggravating it would be to be in the middle of an argument and have someone from the opposition rework your words into oblivion. Note that in civil arguments, you can refactor as you go, but in an all out brawl, you have to cool down first.


What a fascinating phenomenon, very well described. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it! I doubt trolls are often key players, though -- the phenomenon is just emergent, I think.

-- BayleShanks

Trolls are key players if the given community is visible enough and/or TrollFriendly? enough to attract them. WikiPedia tends to have about one forest fire a month, and there's often a troll involved with a big fan in his hands... -- StephenGilbert


Another way of view is the dialog analysis. The arguments may be compared and the arguments which are similar can be aggregated and supporting relations can guide to a consensus synthesis.( MI COELHO from Brazil)


When merging forest fires, it's important to add lots of appropriate links to the single destination article, to avoid concerns that the discussion is being "hidden" or "censored".

When a person watching one page sees only that text was deleted from that page, that person's correct response is to restore it. When moving text, leave behind a link to the destination. So that person sees that the text was moved, not deleted. (This is true even when there is not a ForestFire going on -- should we mention this in the StyleGuide ?)


ForestFires are only FlameWars?

Should we use the word ForestFire to describe only an expanding flamewar, and think of a new word for this phenomenon?

(Tangentially, I don't think this new phenomenon is bad.)

I haven't been around since around the time when ForestFire was first created and I don't have time to read all of those pages now. Back then it was specifically describing a near-flaming level of argument that spread in the manner there described. I'm not sure I like the expansion of the term to what it is now. I disagree that rapid change which is the bad phenomenon; I think what was bad was the rapid spreading of a flamewar (or something close to a flamewar). The words ForestFire describe rapidly spreading flames in a forest; it seems a great phrase to use for a rapidly spreading FlameWar in the PageDatabase. I think we should revert back to that meaning for ForestFire, and give a new name to the more general case of an "expanding front" of argument.

Rapid change (the introduction of many new ideas at once; an "expanding front" of argument that recruits older pages) may or may not be bad. I feel like it is something reminicent of exponential growth or singularity stuff, and mostly akin to good old fashioned revolution (but constrained to text, hence safely devoid of physical violence and fear). Wiki seems like a medium that can encompass multiple ongoing revolutions.

I think the rapidity is bad only because we don't have the tools to cope yet. I feel that the only really bad part of the phenomenon is the loss of the meanings of some older pages (as they are co-opted into the current frame of reference). But I am confident that we will eventually discover some way to allow this sort of revolution while still preserving more of the old than we do now.

-- BayleShanks

ForestFire has always meant what it says right now. I wrote the whole thing at once. I might amend it to include WalledGardens, however. Unlike you, I don't like revolutions. Revolutions are very violent and destructive, and often people lose their heads. I also don't want to destroy older pages because we've put a lot of effort into those pages to have them mutilated by somebody incapable of working collaboratively. I think that kind of "enthusiasm" works against BarnRaising. Have you ever worked on a team project where one individual takes it upon himself to "out perform" everyone? The team falls apart, both because no one else can get a word in edgewise, and everyone else has to waste their time cleaning up after the "martyr." That's no fun. You have to be considerate of others. -- SunirShah

I don't think that renaming ForestFire is necessary. It adequately describes what happens when a lot of energy is input into the system at once. One could presumably draw richness from the many philosophical arguments about whether fire would classify as a living system as well, though I think that would be too abstract. I also don't think the phenomenon is new. If you've read the philosophical debates during the Rennaissance, you'd see a ForestFire there too, and that might explain why those arguments took a couple centuries to "resolve" themselves by exhaustion. -- SunirShah


It's a mistake to can the worms as an attempt to push someone off the site. Treat only behaviour, not people. Only can the worms in an active dispute, but first AssumeGoodFaith (or maturity) and suggest to the combatants that it is in fact a ForestFire and things would be more easily settled by centralizing the argument, organizing it, and analyzing it. Hopefully they will agree (even if grudgingly), and you can go ahead. Otherwise, if they disagree, canning the worms may be perceived more as a hostile act and it will consequently exacerbate the conflict. You may have can the worms anyway if you are given no choice, but try to first diplomatically convince the people involved that they are doing something inappropriate. -- SunirShah

Most people respond to the strategy of canning the worms, accepting the waste of time in fighting it. However, to defeat a ForestFire, simply pour more time into the site that TheCollective can muster. However, with a good SurgeProtector, this will automatically ban the target. -- SunirShah


One response is to KillTheHostage?. Consider the case of a 1949 Montana ForestFire (a real one) that engulfed a parachute brigade of firefighters. They ran, panicked, up a 76% grade slope. Naturally, that failed, so their commander, Wag Dodge, lit a match and set the tall grass ahead of them on fire, clearing out the bush. He sat down in the middle of the burnt out area and escaped unharmed. He had invented the escape fire which is now part of standard forest fire training.

[Aside: Sadly, however, although he called out to his crew to join him they thought he was crazy and ran past him. This example is frequently cited [1] these days in medical management discussions as an example of how irrational organizations lose the ability to see lifesaving solutions.]

The EscapeFire? is no way a modern invention. I remember reading about it in a novel by Karl May written about 1920-1940, as a standard technique of African tribes used for hundreds of years. Maybe BusinessAsUsual may be seen as an online community analogy. -- HelmutLeitner

The creation of an escape fire is described in one of the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The books were written in the 1930s & '40s, and their action takes place in 1870s & '80s Midwestern USA. -- Wiki:ElizabethWiethoff


It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds. -- Samuel Adams


It was the last fugue Bach ever wrote. When I heard it for the first time, I had no idea how it would end. Suddenly, without warning, it broke off. And then...dead silence. I realized immediately that was where Bach died. It is an indescribably sad moment, and the effect it had on me was--shattering. In any case, B-A-C-H is the last theme of that fugue. It is hidden inside the piece. Bach didn't point it out explicitly, but if you know about it, you can find it without much trouble. Ah, me--there are so many clever ways of hiding things in music -- Douglas R. Hofstadter


What about helpful community processes that autocatalytically accelerate themselves?

FridemarPache: Take e.g. the growth of the Internet, telephone, cellphones, the exponential growth of human knowledge. The more people joined and interacted, the more scientific knowledge, goods and services were stimulated and created by NetworkEffects? and consequently the more people were attracted. I think nobody can claim to be in control of such processes. What about a selfaccelerating process of mass collaboration in the sense of WikiNomics and beyond, seen similar as an emergent process that nobody can control, but nevertheless with a great potential to solve the big problems of our planet.

NathanielThurston: Fridemar, I think it would be accurate to label such a process as a "religion". Some good might be accomplished by starting a new one, but I wouldn't advocate doing so, for two reasons:

FridemarPache: Thank you Nathaniel for boiling down the conversation to the less-ideological part. I consequently reformulated my point, so that your last statement is now a bit out of sync.


CategoryJargon

Discussion

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