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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

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