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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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.