Keeping Wikipedia working is wearing some editors down

There's a community of vital editors and admins responsible for maintaining the web's best knowledge site, but it can be a thankless job.

It’s always worth paying attention to how Wikipedia works. Its community of editors, administrators, and everyday users - that’s us - have collectively generated something that one could quite legitimately claim is the best encyclopaedia ever.

However, it is a site with its drawbacks. The best editors spend a lot of their time repairing the damage done by vandals, but the useful thing about editing abuse into someone’s Wikipedia biography is that it’s usually quite obvious. The subtler edits, the ones that aren’t as obviously malicious, are more difficult to find. And it now appears that there are teams - nay, armies - of people hired to write those kinds of edits.

Martin Robbins wrote a great piece for Vice last week about the work of a company called Wiki-PR. It describes its work as follows: “We write it. We manage it. You never worry about Wikipedia again.” Snip:

The services they advertise on their website are a catalog of behaviors that run completely counter to the principles, rules, and etiquette of the Wikipedia community. Under "Page Management" they promise, “you’ll have a dedicated Wikipedia Project Manager that understands your brand as well as you do. That means you need not worry about anyone tarnishing your image—be it personal, political, or corporate.”

Another section focuses on "Crisis Editing": “Are you being unfairly treated on Wikipedia? Our Crisis Editing team helps you navigate contentious situations. We’ll both directly edit your page using our network of established Wikipedia editors and admins. And we’ll engage on Wikipedia’s back end, so you never have to worry about being libeled on Wikipedia.”

Wiki-PR’s work isn’t exactly stellar; their copywriters write out pages for clients which are then deleted because their subjects aren’t notable enough, and the clients notice it, so are unhappy. But Wiki-PR can't do anything about it, because their clients cannot overcome their unimportance.

However, while the edits are perhaps inconsequential in isolation, the sum total of the effect of having to correct every single one - and knowing that there are probably more that haven’t been noticed yet - is draining. Editors have left in the aftermath of the Wiki-PR clean-up. There may be other so-called sock-puppet accounts operating on behalf of organisations or individuals that have yet to be found.

This is a problem because Wikipedia has been steadily losing editors for a while. At the heart of Wikipedia are its official admins, who have the power to lock and delete pages, and who are only appointed after a rigorous screening process which includes background checks and a written test. There are close to 1,500 of these on English Wikipedia. After a big uptake in the early years of the site the

That trend is matched by the decline in regular editors. There is no proper definition of these but there are stats on the number of users who regularly make a certain number of edits. Here it is:

It's the same trend as for admins - downwards. The rate at which new articles are created on Wikipedia also peaked around 2007, so arguably these trends are connected. Fewer new admins needed as Wikipedia reached the total number of admins to manage its growth, and as growth is now falling it doesn't make sense to keep bringing new admins into the fold.

Editing Wikipedia is a voluntary job, even for admins, and the stresses of it can wear them down. Another good case in point is the debate over the "correct" way to refer to Chelsea Manning, one which descended into some nasty transphobia and which has caused divisions among the Wikipedia editorial community that have yet to heal.

Wikipedia depends on these volunteers cooperating and working together towards a stable site that can be trusted. Right now, there really isn't any need to worry about the community's ability to keep on top of trouble and maintain the site's reliability. It is, however, worryingly possible to imagine that what the Wikimedia Foundation calls "editor decline" could undermine the Wikipedia project at some point in the future. 

Update, 23/10/13: The Wikimedia foundation have asked us to clarify that the 1,500 figure for admins applies to English Wikipedia. Across the 287 Wikipedias which exist in different languages, there are nearly 4,500. They add that the last one was promoted on October 6, 2013.

The Wikipedia globe logo as a keychain. (Photo: Cary Bass/Flickr)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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An Amazonian tribe is challenging scientific assumptions about our musical preferences

The Tsimane’ – a population of people in a rural village in Bolivia – are overturning scientists' understanding of why humans prefer consonant sounds over dissonant ones.

It was 29 May 1913. Hoards of Parisians packed out the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Messrs Proust, Picasso and Debussy were in attendance. Billed for the evening was the premiere of Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring, a ballet and orchestral work debuted by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

The attention and conjecture focused on the theatre that day meant expectations were high. However, within moments of the piece beginning, all preconceived notions held by the audience were shattered, as what was unfolding in front of them was a musical tragedy unlike anything they had ever witnessed.

A bassoon hummed into the ether before ballet dancers stomped on stage; the music, unpredictable with its experimental edge, drove forth the onstage narrative of a young girl whose selection during a pagan ritual saw her sacrificially dance towards death. Stravinsky’s composition and the ensemble of the night caused the room to descend from laughter and disruption to chaos and uproar.

The employment of dissonance – sharp, unstable chords – largely contributed to the audience’s disturbed reaction. Dissonant chords create a tension, one which seeks to be resolved by transitioning to a consonant chord – for example an octave or perfect fifth. These musical intervals sound far calmer than the chords which riveted the audience of The Rite of Spring.

Dissonant and consonant intervals find themselves as binary opposites; the frequencies at which notes played together vibrate determine whether an interval is consonant or dissonant. Consonant intervals have simple mathematical relationships between them, but greater digression from that simplicity makes an interval increasingly dissonant.

It’s long been believed  both experimentally and anecdotally – that the preference among Westerners for consonant chords highlights a universal, perhaps biologically-rooted, leaning among all humans towards consonant sounds. If you were present at the introduction of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on that night of furore in Paris, you’d find it hard to disagree.

There is, however, a growing movement against this consensus. Ethnomusicologists and composers alike argue that favouring consonance may just be a phenomenon that has evolved from Western musical culture. And following the visit of a group of researchers to a remote Amazonian society, these claims could well be grounded in scientific evidence.

Led by Josh McDermott, an MIT researcher who studies how people hear, the group travelled to a village in the Amazon rainforest called Santa Maria. It’s populated by the Tsimane’ – a group of native Amazonians whose rural abode is inaccessible by road and foot, and can be reached only by canoe. There are no televisions in Santa Maria and its inhabitants have little access to radio, meaning exposure to Western cultural influences is minimal.

The researchers were curious to see how the Tsimane’ would respond to music, in order to determine whether they too had a preference for consonant sounds over dissonant ones. To everyone’s surprise, the Tsimane’ showed no preference for consonance; the two different sounds, to the Tsimane’ at least, were equally pleasant.

Detailing their research in a paper published by Nature, the group explains how the Tsimane’ people’s indifference to dissonance is a product of their distance from Western culture and music, removing any purported notion that humans are hard-wired to praise perfect fifths and fourths.

McDermott tells me that the Western preference for consonance may just be based on familiarity. “The music we hear typically has more consonant chords than dissonant chords, and we may like what we are most exposed to,” he says. “Another possibility is that we are conditioned by all the instances in which we hear consonant and dissonant chords when something good or bad is happening, for example in films and on TV. Music is so ubiquitous in modern entertainment that I think this could be a huge effect. But it could also be mere exposure.”

To fully gauge the Tsimane’ responses to the music, 64 participants, listening via headphones, were asked to rate the pleasantness of chords composed of synthetic tones, and chords composed of recorded notes sung by a vocalist. At a later date, another 50 took part in the experiment. They had their responses compared to Bolivian residents in a town called San Borja, the capital city La Paz, and residents in the United States – locations selected based on their varying exposures to Western music.

What made the Tsimane’ particularly interesting to McDermott and his group was the absence of harmony, polyphony and group performances in their music. It was something the researchers initially thought may prevent an aesthetic response from forming, but the worry was quickly diminished given the Tsimane’ participants’ measure of pleasantness on the four-point scale they were provided.

Unsurprisingly, the US residents showed a strong preference for consonance – an expected preference given the overrunning of Western music with consonant chords. Meanwhile, the San Borja and La Paz residents demonstrated inclinations towards consonant sounds similar to the US residents. The implication of these results – that consonance preferences are absent in cultures “sufficiently isolated” from Western music – are huge. We most probably aren’t as polarised by consonance and dissonance as we assume; cultural prevalence is far more likely to have shaped the consonant-dominant sounds of Western music.

McDermott raised the question about why Western music may feature certain intervals over others to begin with:

“One possibility is that biology and physics conspire to make conventionally consonant and dissonant chords easy to distinguish, and so that distinction becomes a natural one on which to set up an aesthetic contrast even if the preference is not obligatory. We have a little evidence for this in that the Tsimane' could discriminate harmonic from inharmonic frequencies, which we believe form the basis of the Western consonance/dissonance distinction, even though they did not prefer harmonic to inharmonic frequencies.”

There has been some criticism of this. Speaking to The Atlantic, Daniel Bowling from the University of Vienna said:

“The claim that the human perception of tonal beauty is free from biological constraint on the basis of a lack of full-blown Western consonance preferences in one Amazonian tribe is misleading.”

Though the results from the Amazonian tribe demonstrate a complete refutation of previous assumptions, people's musical preferences from other cultures and places will need to be analysed to cement the idea.

With research beginning to expand beyond WEIRD people – those from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic background – the tastes in music of people the world over may continue to surprise, just as the Tsimane’ did.

The Rite of Spring, which was met with ridiculing reviews has now been canonised and is considered to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century. A Tsimane’ crowd on that tender night a century ago in Paris may have responded with instant praise and elation. With further research, the imagined Bolivian adoration of a Russian composer’s piece in the French city of love may prove music to be the universal language after all.