I've noticed a disturbing trend in the past couple of weeks - there's been a surge in the number of edit wars, including some that have spilled over into Meta.

I keep having to cut and paste the same thing into these questions, so perhaps it's time for a refresher. Sometimes we see these meta topics as admonishing the person who had the policy wrong, and rewarding the person who continued to edit to match the policy. This is not the entire message.

Jeff Atwood put together an excellent blog post on this subject, which I will quote liberally, but it's worth reading in its entirety.

Authors

If you're the original author, you should know that this is a weird place to author content. When you post, you're essentially giving your content to the community, and they may edit it to improve it as they see fit.

From Jeff's blog post (emphasis mine):

As it says in the faq: if you aren’t comfortable with the community editing your posts, Stack Overflow may not be the right website for you. What we do here is edit posts, together, to make them better and clearer.

Sometimes I don't like the way my posts are edited, and I deal with it. The community as a whole decides what's best, and my input is a small portion of that consensus.

Or the FAQ version (again, emphasis mine):

All contributions are licensed under Creative Commons and this site is collaboratively edited, like Wikipedia. If you see something that needs improvement, click edit and help us make it so!

If you are not comfortable with the idea of your contributions being collaboratively edited by other trusted users, this may not be the site for you.

And finally, the legalese version (yet again, emphasis mine):

You agree that all Subscriber Content that You contribute to the Network is perpetually and irrevocably licensed to Stack Exchange under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license. You grant Stack Exchange the perpetual and irrevocable right and license to use, copy, cache, publish, display, distribute, modify, create derivative works and store such Subscriber Content and to allow others to do so in any medium now known or hereinafter developed (“Content License”) in order to provide the Services, even if such Subscriber Content has been contributed and subsequently removed by You.

Editors

If you're the editor, the basic message I want to get across is - it doesn't matter if you're right, if there's policy, etc - edit wars are not the solution. I put it this way on a couple of occasions:

Once someone has edited and someone else has rolled back, you and the other person have already expressed your opinions about the content in question and further editing/rolling back is unlikely to result in consensus.

If the relevant policy has been made clear, and someone is refusing to abide by it, we can take action against that person or the post as appropriate. Even if you think you're in the right, repeatedly editing, rolling back, leaving confrontational or angry comments, etc, is counterproductive.

Jeff's post says something pretty similar (emphasis mine):

Editing is welcomed and encouraged. However, if the author of the post is resistant to your editing changes, even a perfectly legitimate edit based on the above rules, be the bigger man (or woman) and let them have it their way. Our goal here is not to cause friction between users, or to make everything perfect overnight. All we aim to do is gradually clean up and improve questions and answers together. When in doubt, just move on! There will be plenty of other posts and other edits you can make. In time, that reluctant author will learn how Stack Overflow works.

Play the "long game"

To put this another way, let's assume that you're clearly in the right and the other person is causing trouble. What do we, as a community, want?

Ideally, one of two things:

  • The policy and this person's behavior align. Either they change or the policy does.
  • This person can't align with policy, and they leave the community. It is not a good fit for them.

Either way, at some point in the future, there is (hopefully) community agreement on the action that should be taken about a post. At some point in the future, it's easy to go back and fix the "wrong" post if it is in serious need of repair.

On the other hand, edit wars don't bring us closer to either of these goals. They make people angry and riled, and more interested in proving they're right/they're being persecuted/the policy is wrong than being a productive member of the community. They make it so that the person is constantly monitoring the state of their post to ensure it's the way they want it. The end result is a lot of negative effort being put in for no net gain.

This is playing the "short game" - what's the state of this post in the next five or ten minutes? Focus on the long game, which is building long-term site quality and community cohesion.

How should we react?

Instead of repeatedly trying to assert the "correct" version of a post, if things have gotten to the cusp of an edit war, just let it be. I tend to take note of the problematic posts and revisit them after a time, perhaps a few days or a week later. Usually by then, the controversy and emotion has died down, and it's possible to clean them up without any hassle.

Often, too, clear communication can help. Sometimes people are just ignorant of the policy, and that's OK! We were all new once, and there's a lot of policy. In these cases, a simple, calm, and friendly explanation can help.

However, posting rude or inflammatory comments only fuels the fire, and doesn't help. Additionally, if you see that someone else has already commented to note the policy, or that moderators are intervening, just let it be. Having a bunch of people jumping on a new person who doesn't "get it" yet is counterproductive as well.

You've also got to decide if the changes are relevant and important enough to warrant further effort - sometimes, it's just not worth fighting over the smaller changes. If you take a break and realize "gosh, this really isn't that important to the post quality," shrug and move on.

If an edit war is already in progress, users are being abusive, or the content in question needs immediate removal, a flag is appropriate. Let the moderators know and they can intervene.

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Who decides if you're 'clearly in the right'? –  GnomeSlice Jun 28 '12 at 19:33
    
@GnomeSlicE, I say "let's assume you're clearly in the right" because it doesn't make a difference. –  agent86 Jun 28 '12 at 19:35
    
Well, to be honest, it does. I can think I'm in the right, and not be, can't I? –  GnomeSlice Jun 28 '12 at 19:35
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So tempted to VTC as "Not a Question", since this is clearly an answer... ;) –  Jason Berkan Jun 28 '12 at 19:55
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@GnomeSlicE: You're missing the point entirely: Don't get into edit wars. It doesn't matter if you think you're right. If a user rolls back your edits, leave a post explaining why you made the edit and wait. –  Wipqozn Jun 28 '12 at 21:01
    
@MarkTrapp, if you'd like to suggest some alternative concise wording for that, I'm all for it. –  agent86 Jul 3 '12 at 14:09

3 Answers 3

Just to add something I've mentioned here before, from the editing page (emphasis mine):

HOW TO EDIT

► fix grammatical or spelling errors

► clarify meaning without changing it

► correct minor mistakes

► add related resources or links

always respect the original author

This means a couple things:

  • Changing the fundamental nature of the post requires buy-in from the author. Don't do it without their consent.

  • If the author really wants their post to be a certain way, and it's not something offensive or otherwise really damaging to the site, then it should be left in. This may hurt a question's chance of staying open. That's OK; the author is allowed to take that risk.

  • If the need for a community-serving version of a post is apparent, and you can't get buy-in from the author or it's simply too much trouble, just create a new post! Consider making it Community Wiki if you incorporate a bunch of content from the author's original post or want to emphasize the focus on collaborative editing.

Like agent86 said,

If you're the original author, you should know that this is a weird place to author content. When you post, you're essentially giving your content to the community, and they may edit it to improve it as they see fit.

But the other side of the coin is that the author's name is stapled prominently on their post. Non-CW posts do convey a strong sense of authorship and that's by design. Be sure to take that into account and balance it against the idea that posts are also "community property" and meant to be collaboratively edited.

And yeah, regardless of whether you're on the giving or receiving end of an edit, an edit war is not a solution.

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+1. If you're thinking about altering the scope or nature of a question rather than voting to close it, you're doing it wrong. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Jun 28 '12 at 21:40
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It's the nuclear option and should be rarely used, but one thing we did on Programmers when the canonicity of the post was crucial (like as the only way to save a frequently-asked question with 40 piecemeal answers) was to convert the post to community wiki to ensure we didn't put words in the original author's mouth. –  user3389 Jun 28 '12 at 22:17

Authors should be less possesive

As a general rule, editing a question in danger of being closed as too localized to make it more general, and thus more valuable in the long term, should be the accepted site policy. This is because editing takes work, and if we leave the question in a good state shortly after it is created, there is less chance we'll have to come back to it - and less chance it will become trash in the future, say... after the next patch.

That said - once is plenty! If the original author balks at your edit, leave it at that. You have the power to downvote if you don't think the question is valuable, and with enough rep you can vote to close as "too localized" if you feel the question "is unlikely to help any future visitors" or is "only relevant [at] a specific moment in time".

Moreover, the lead by example approach (as others have suggested) would be to open a more general Community Wiki question to show the user the value of a more general question.

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Expanding the question's scope - while being a good idea in principle means that you're changing the author's question to something that is no longer the author's question. This kind of action will cause hate and rage, usually resulting in edit/rollback wars –  user27134 Jun 29 '12 at 8:57
    
Thus I have observed is the general dynamic here, and hence this is not the action I myself actually take in these circumstances. Instead, I do try to give general answers to narrow questions. I propose this answer as it is my opinion of what site policy should be, though obviously most don't agree. Still, it's my opinion authors should be appreciative of actions that keep their questions from being closed. As I noted, they can still rollback the edit if they hate it, or it's wrong. The point is authors need to be less possessive. It's a wiki... –  EBongo Jun 29 '12 at 12:03
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Is there some reason that asking the author to change their question isn't a better first step? –  LessPop_MoreFizz Jun 29 '12 at 12:49
    
While I'm fairly neutral on that, it will likely create less controversy to ask the author first. I certainly don't think we should have a policy of not asking the author, but I think it should be case by case. A good edit is a good edit, whether you clear it with the author or not. Subjective edits should be clarified. The case in question was a good edit, hands down. Part of the point of my answer is that authors should be less possessive. If we want to put the author on a pedastle, why do we allow question edits at all? –  EBongo Jun 29 '12 at 21:28
    
I'd further point out, that the edit in question was "clarifying meaning without changing it". It's not as if the edit was totally changing the meaning of the question - it was simply an improvement to a first time question to be consistent with site policy and avoid being too localized. –  EBongo Jun 29 '12 at 21:34

Fun to see editors being extremely gung-ho about removing tags (cf. story) as well; especially when that is the only edit (or some minor grammar is corrected as a justification). And the only justification I see for that is 'Jeff said so', when he hasn't directly addressed at all to my knowledge, only which is a subset of game mechanics (and hence would be covered by the general case tag.

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this isn't really related to the topic except for 'editing'. However, you should read here if you haven't already, for more information about the tag cleanup. –  GnomeSlice Jun 28 '12 at 19:52
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Also, retags are not minor edits in the same way that removing a salutation is. Tags Matter. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Jun 28 '12 at 21:07
    
@GnomeSlicE: It was a comment on multiple mods adding/removing the tag sometimes, sort of an edit war in tags –  Alok Jun 28 '12 at 21:51
    
@LessPop_MoreFizz; agreed :) –  Alok Jun 28 '12 at 21:51
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How is this even remotely related to the question? –  Private Pansy Jun 29 '12 at 5:43
    
@YiJiang: Rollback tussles between mod are somehow different from rollback wars with a user? –  Alok Jun 29 '12 at 7:47
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Did you mention rollbacks anywhere in your answer? Or mods? And if you're going to do that, at least link to evidence. All I see is a irrelevant complaint about a clean up process which would be better posted- actually, don't bother. Rants aren't welcome. If you have actually have a good justification for keeping the tag, post it in the cleanup thread. –  Private Pansy Jun 29 '12 at 8:23
    
Mod rollbacks and angry comments were pretty much flavour of the hour when I posted this answer, sorry you missed all the fun. As for 'rants aren't welcome'; I fail to see how this is a rant but w/e :( –  Alok Jun 29 '12 at 8:32

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