June 12, 2011

Myriam Robin investigates why Wikipedia’s most devoted contributors seem to be throwing in the towel.

On the internet, ten years is a long time. Sure, little is ever lost. Most things are cached somewhere. But to maintain ten years of meaningful activity is a considerable feat. For this to have been done on a mainstream, open, ad-free and entirely volunteer-based website is virtually unheard of.

Wikipedia turned ten this year, and to the casual observer is going stronger than ever. Its last community fund-raising appeal – through which the site pays for its servers, outreach and employees – raised $16 million in two weeks, with the average donation a mere $22. I remember, just several years back, lecturers telling me to never reference Wikipedia. Today, the British Museum and the Smithsonian are two of a growing number of institutions employing a ‘Wikipedian in Residence’: a knowledgeable and vouched-for member of the Wikipedia community to improve coverage of articles relating to its collections. Closer to home, one of my assignments this semester is to contribute to a class ‘wiki’.

Wikipedia must surely count as the greatest piece of social entrepreneurship we’ve yet to see in the twenty-first century. The thought that thousands of people (hundreds of thousands) would spend hours of their time (hundreds of hours of their time) working on referenced, style-consistent, neutral articles on subjects both mundane and fantastical, for no explicit personal gain, still strikes me as ludicrous. But it works.

Of course, most of the edits made to Wikipedia are small, and many are unconstructive. Many, in fact, are either deliberately or inadvertently destructive. In response to such vandalism or poor editing, something strange occurs. Thousands of Wikipedia editors, using specially developed Javascript tools installed on their accounts, trawl through every edit made and revert the ones they deem detrimental. These are the defenders of the work put in by other members of the community, and without them Wikipedia would, very probably, be a useless husk within weeks.

Writers and Fighters

To survive, Wikipedia needs a mixture of bold content writers and vandal-fighters. To grow and mature, it needs editors to undertake a third function. Today, the main task facing Wikipedia is not the writing of new content, but improving already written content. Many of the articles on Wikipedia are far from high quality. Improving something already half-written means butting heads with other editors who have previously worked on it, and a system of resolving disputes as they arise is vital. Thus was born a bureaucracy, a legal system of sorts, complex and sophisticated enough to distinguish and appropriately deal with vandals, disputes between established editors, and of course, the trolls. This sphere exists on webpages behind the architecture the more casual user will see. It is large, growing, and causing ripples of discontent throughout the wikiverse.

In any large organisation, you’ll find a range of people. Some will be petty and prone to squabbling. Though they often do contribute to the encyclopaedia, squabblers are also are drawn to its bureaucratic forums, and on occasion their sheer mass excels at burying more reputable editors in hearings over relatively minor flaws. Often, the whole thing degenerates to an overdramatic mess. And before squabbles may be sorted out by those at the top – many of whom are generally quite reasonable – fatigued, harassed editors will often enough decide they’ve had enough, and quit. Yellowmonkey is only one victim of this process.

An established and well-respected Australian editor, Yellowmonkey is a freelance sports writer off-wiki. He used to edit the cricket articles – one of the more contentious areas of the encyclopaedia. In addition, he was a admin, meaning he had been vetted through a virtual election where the community had deemed him worthy of extra ‘Wikipowers’. He used one of these slap a two-week ban on an editor who was trolling. When an admin does this, they are meant to explain the reasons for their actions to the person they have just banned. He didn’t. When the banned editor was reinstated, he spoke out at the Incidents Noticeboard (where aggrieved parties can, among other things, begin to seek justice). After discussion, it was the consensus that the ban had been excessive, and Yellowmonkey perhaps needed to improve how he communicated on-wiki. He agreed to do so, and then did not log onto Wikipedia for a few days, presumably to watch The Ashes. This should have been the end of the matter, but while he was gone, the discussion continued. Some editors agreed among themselves that Yellowmonkey was a terrible editor who never acknowledged mistakes, and tried to take the issue further. They were rebuffed – it was seen as poor form to launch one grievance right after another. But they continued to agitate. Yellowmonkey, when he came back, no doubt silently read all this. He hasn’t edited since.
“Wikipedia’s bureaucracy is large, growing, and causing ripples of discontent throughout the wikiverse.”

Today, for every article page of the encyclopaedia there are four pages devoted to administration. This underlying structure is huge and unwieldy. In response to this trend, some of the editors primarily involved in the writing of articles are fighting back. They see what happens to users like Yellowmonkey, and are determined to save what they have poured hours into. They distrust the judgement of people who are not like them. People who have not written a lot of stellar content, or worse yet, who have never shown any interest in writing for the encyclopaedia at all, preferring the busywork of vandal-fighting and administration. The content writers form a tight-knit clique, a faction, preventing the rise of anyone they are not sufficiently convinced of. In this vein, when TheThingThatShouldNotBe (‘The Thing’) – a young and prolific vandal fighter – applied to be promoted to an admin, they stood against him. The discussion quickly turned very personal. The Thing was a phenomenal defender of the Wikipedia project, but his contribution was derided and belittled. The bullying took its toll, and he resigned. Wikipedia lost one of its best vandal-fighters.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the supply of people giving up time to improve the encyclopaedia is by no means infinite. A commonly held misconception about Wikipedia is that it is created by the millions who read it. That’s not the whole truth. As of March 6 2011, a mere 4000 editors were responsible for more than a quarter of all edits. This figure, while significant, understates their importance, because editing is not all they do. These thousands check edits, help new and less experienced users learn the ropes, and debate and decide on policy governing the encyclopaedia. If they begin leaving, Wikipedia will be far weaker.

It’s not just star-studded editors threatening to leave. In early March, the response to the adminship request of My76Strat was so demoralising he slapped a retired sign on his userpage immediately after it. He mightn’t have been the most qualified admin candidate, but he was still an asset to the project, and many users started a petition encouraging him to keep editing. Jimbo Wales, founder of Wikipedia, was among those who signed. He called the process for approving admins “horrible and broken”. Shortly afterwards, Wales wrote that he was seeking ideas for an alternate process to trial alongside it. Wales normally adopts a hands-off approach to the day-to-day running of Wikipedia, making initiatives like these a very strange occurrence. What he has recognised goes deeper than requests for adminship.

One qualification to the doom and gloom: Wikipedia does have a saving grace. Namely, its copyright arrangements. Wikipedia’s free license mean its articles may live on long after the community dissolves or the Wikimedia Foundation’s funds run dry. All that’s required is somebody willing to host the site’s content. Veteran content-writer Malleus Fatuorum pins his hopes on this. “It’s not at all obvious that Wikipedia’s model of unpaid and under-appreciated editors subjected to the harassment of an overly self-important admin cadre has any legs; for myself I contribute in the hope that something better will come along, and that our work will be ported over to it.”

This doesn’t entirely satisfy me. Wikipedia is more than the sum of its articles. Through its collaborative editing, Wikipedia offers an unparalleled way to collect and present information. If the grand experiment fails, I’m not sure another will take its place. Let’s not forget how ambitious Wikipedia’s aim is: to provide as much as possible of all human knowledge, expressed clearly to a lay audience, in as many languages as possible. It is a noble undertaking, undermined and jeopardised by the poisonous atmosphere that pervades many of its pages. Wikipedia cannot afford to keep losing its truest believers. The internet would be far poorer if it did.

Myriam Robin is an RMIT journalism student and a former editor of On Dit Magazine. She blogs at myriamrobin.com.
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