Paper #: 16-06-012
What is the boundary between a vigorous argument and a breakdown of relations? What drives a group of individuals across it? Taking Wikipedia as a test case, we use a hidden Markov model to approximate the computational structure and social grammar of more than a decade of cooperation and conflict among its editors. Across a wide range of pages, we discover a bursty war/peace structure where the systems can become trapped—sometimes for months—in a computational subspace associated with significantly higher levels of conflict-tracking “revert” actions. Distinct patterns of behavior characterize the lower-conflict subspace, including tit-for-tat reversion. While a fraction of the transitions between these subspaces are associated with top-down actions taken by administrators, the effects are weak. Surprisingly, we find no statistical signal that transitions are associated with the appearance of particularly anti-social users, and only weak association with significant news events outside the system. These findings are consistent with transitions being driven by decentralized processes with no clear locus of control. Models of belief revision in the presence of a common resource for information-sharing predict the existence of two distinct phases: a disordered high-conflict phase, and a frozen phase with spontaneously-broken symmetry. The bistability we observe empirically may be a consequence of editor turn-over that drives the system to a critical point between them.