Social norms have traditionally been difficult to quantify. In any particular society, their sheer number and complex interdependencies often limit a system-level analysis. One exception is that of the network of norms that sustain the online Wikipedia community. We study the fifteen-year evolution of this network using the interconnected set of pages that establish, describe, and interpret the community’s norms. Despite Wikipedia’s reputation for ad hoc
governance, we find that its normative evolution is highly conservative. The earliest users create norms that both dominate the network and persist over time. These core norms govern both content and interpersonal interactions using abstract principles such as neutrality, verifiability, and assume good faith. As the network grows, norm neighborhoods decouple topologically from each other, while increasing in semantic coherence. Taken together, these results suggest that the evolution of Wikipedia’s norm network is akin to bureaucratic systems that predate the information age.
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