As a follow-up to the first post here at mrmerlot.com, I thought I’d post some additional observations about my experiences with the Wikipedia “admin” community and a “rebel underground” that I learned is moving against the cynical majority. Perhaps there is hope yet for Wikipedia.
Not one to back down from a confrontation, I continued to press the issue on a Wikipedia administrative page, seeking to get my account unblocked. As I expected, I immediately encountered resistance. What surprised me, though, were how many individuals and how much dialog (mostly rude and condescending) went into my eventual reinstatement (under a new account). However, one (later, two) individuals with credibility within the Wikipedia community had the courage to come to my defense. In conversations with this individual – let’s use the name “Rebel” – I learned that my experience was not unusual and that there are some serious problems with the community.
- Wikipedians, like many people online, hide behind their virtual identities. The disconnect between a real person and their virtual identity provides a feeling of anonymity which alters behaviors and lowers inhibitions. The Wikipedia gardeners who provided the terse and rude comments I received would likely not have the guts (or good sense) to do so face-to-face. If these same individuals did interact with friends, family, coworkers, or ANYone in the same manner, they would be alienated and/or fired. (Which, ironically, would then support my assertion that they have no life outside of Wikipedia.)
- Wikipedia senior gardeners should follow their own rules. The hypocrisy I encountered during this experience was perhaps the most appalling aspect of it. Here’s what Rebel had to say:
I believe your experiences are unfortunately fairly representative for quite a few people who try to come here and edit. I think this is a huge problem. It’s gotten very difficult, you’re expected to spend a lot of time knowing tons of policies (our collective policies amount to about 1/4 the size of a bible) before you’re “allowed” (in the social sense) to edit. We’ve in some ways gotten to be a bureaucracy in every sense of the word, often more interested in enforcing the rules than listening to users or even writing the encyclopedia. At the same time, most of the changes, policies and rules were put there with good intentions: they solve or have solved real problems – but collectively they’re a big burden and drive away tons of interested contributors.
I understand the need for rules within a community the size of Wikipedia and the threats that it faces. However, while insisting that I follow voluminous and cumbersome guidelines, the admins/gardeners themselves did not follow the very rules they themselves created. Consider, for a moment, that one of the philosophies is “Don’t bite the newcomer” (I would extend this to cover “infrequent contributors” as well). Or how about “Stay cool” when resolving disputes over articles. How can you expect the less experienced folks to contribute if you are not?
- The Community is dying. While Wikipedia has grown incredibly for years, that growth has slowed and the number of core users has grown stagnant. According to Rebel:
Wikipedia:WikiProject Editing trends shows that we’ve stopped growing (edits per day remaining constant) and that the number of active admins actually peaked in 2007. The barriers of entry to start editing wikipedia get higher all the time, which is probably one of the reasons for this. I’m interested in finding out ways to become more friendly and approchable [sic] to non-hardcore users.
- If you’re not “in,” you’re “out.” While being the subject of intense scrutiny, I realized that the admins quickly formed a groupthink about the decision to ban me which was difficult to break. This is typical of old, stagnant groups as evidently Wikipedia has become. Several times, acronyms like AGF (I had to Google that one) and IAR (even Google couldn’t help me figure that one out) were used with no apparent context. Behavior like this is also typical of a close group to “ward off” outsiders; basically, it says, “If you can’t understand our language, you don’t belong here.”From Rebel:
…the insider/outsider problem gets worse with a stagnating userbase in which everybody starts knowing each other and distrusting new users or starting to see them mainly as problems. In some other aspects, it’s a natural sign of an evolving community…
- Are Wikipedia’s standards for new articles too high? At one point, I read thorugh the notability requirements for Wikipedia articles. These set the bar very high for creating a new article, yet I have since found several existing articles that have not met this requirement since 2007 (as shown by a banner notice). Rebel supported my own hypothesis:
There used to be huge swaths of knowledge missing from wikipedia. Now we’ve covered quite a bit of human knowledge and the focus has shifted from increasing to maintaining it. The likelihood that an edit will improve a well-developed article is lower than the chance it will improve a new stub.
I would recommend that the Wikipedia community rethink its standards. What’s wrong with including knowledge that is peripheral or temporal? Isn’t that adaptability and flexibility partly what sets Wikipedia apart from Brittanica?
So where does this leave me? After much debate (and internal disagreements amongst the Wikipedia admins), I was allowed to start a new account and continue contributing…with Rebel acting as my wiki-chaperone (I did mention the condescension ripe within these folks, right?). So, for now, I will continue to edit periodically. However, I most likely will never start a new page again. The headache and hassle involved in doing it right the first time so either A) my initial hard work doesn’t get destroyed or B) I don’t get in another drag out fight are just not worth it. But I may make the occasional edit now and again to various pages I come across.
As a final thought, I’d like to encourage the admin community to rethink their approach to new and infrequent users. If the community is to continue growing and thriving, long-time editors need to take the time to shepherd junior users like myself. One guideline I push within the enterprise wiki community I help to manage is “garden right or don’t garden at all.” By this, I mean that when editing a new page or leaving messages on talk pages, be courteous, be instructive, and remember that most contributors do not have the expertise and experience of working in the platform as you do. Demanding that every rule be followed dogmatically will only end in Wikipedia’s slow, painful demise as the world’s encyclopedia that, in it’s prime, “anyone could edit.”