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.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

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