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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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.