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.
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.
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.