Wikimania 2008: Wikipedia Administrators / Arbcom Panel

5 minute read


This panel was going to be something else, but something happened and it became a panel with James Forrester, Andrew Lih, Kat Walsh, and Charles Matthews. Everyone except for Lih is or has been on the Arbitration Committee, and this turned into a discussion about admins.

Matthews: Who watches the watchmen? I am interested in governance and the hierarchy of administrators. Do they work? How do they work? I’m an arbitrator, and we deal with some nasty behavior. But 99% of editor behavior is constructive, and we don’t deal with them. We don’t need a discussion about microissues, but macroissues.

Lih: In IRC, someone mentioned that the adminship process is radically different now. The community has morphed to the point where knowledge about policy equals knowledge about the community. You must prove through questionnaires and creeds that you are committed.

Matthews: Adminship recruits several people a week by sufficient community approval. People have their own criteria, their view of what they want in an administrator. It is the training they would proscribe. The English Wikipedia is middle aged, many things are well defined. We can’t really change it. Of the 1500 admins, how many are bad and abusive? About 1% – not a bad record. There are a lot of good people on Wikipedia who are not admins. Fine, they are creating content. It seems to be an issue of recognizing the best contributors instead of seeing the best leaders. We have a celebrity system for articles – this is how it should be. But we don’t have a good recognition system. The best people don’t need to bash vandals, and that is all admins have.

Forrester: I disagree entirely. I joined a long time ago. The process for me getting adminship was lax – I had been around for a few months. I commentated on the main page. You don’t need, but the arbitrary number of edits is 1,000 or 3,000 or 29,000 edits. We dropped the ball – we let people in the higher rank of the community even though it never meant to be that because they were trusted. The community started appointing admins who didn’t share the same core values. The community has become a lot more top down, more instructionalist and less friendly. You can’t even change policy if you’re a new admin. By saying that being an admin is not a big deal, then saying that certain people aren’t allowed to be it, you’ve got a huge problem. Then as we move to the trials, the badge of honor, I’ve gone through this process and it means something, it is much harder to become an administrator. They feel that they have special status.

Walsh: People who don’t know about internal processes ask, “Who runs the site? Who are the editors?” Answer is, “Everyone!” but that is not helpful. Then tell them about administrators, and they ask who appoints them. Well, the community does. When I got involved in 2004, adminship was becoming a big deal. People were asking how. Now you have to have been on the site on the year, make 6,000 to 10,000 edits. Have to have edited in the Portal namespace which didn’t exist until 2005. That is very troubling. Are admins becoming a higher rank? How inevitable is it that it is?  Back then, we had consensus, people knew each other. Now we have compartmentalization, without cooperation. Featured article patrol, vandalism patrol, and never the twain shall meet.

Lih: Durova’s fourth law: small organizations run on relationships. Policies continue to grow until the policies no longer work, at which point the policies remain in place while the organization reverts to running on relationships.

Walsh: It would take a force of nature to change RfA – see flagged revision controversy.

Forrester: Flagged revisions remove the life of vandal fighters. Philipp Birken is having a lot of trouble with it.

Matthews: Vandalism has never been the major problem, as we know how to fight it. Policy innovation is hard.

Walsh: Policies began as a way to integrate newcomers. Not to be a complex beast that you have to master, learn all the acronyms and intricacies.

Lih: For an outsider, of course there should be high standards to being an admin. But for folks who joined at the beginning, with Ignore All Rules, Be Bold, no hard rules that will get you banned – the culture has changed. Editors get more experience but they have never been exposed to anything as insulting as adminship. Nupedia failed because it felt like homework. We may be approaching this.

Matthews: These are problems of scale that have not been encountered. We talk about this from a pioneer point of view. We’re on our own. We are receptive to new ideas, but if we bring in another model, we will ask why you think it will work. I don’t know what to compare us to. I would agree with Durova with the exception that instead of running on relationships say it runs on politics. These are problems of success. If things were not couched in terms of “it were better six years ago” it would be much better.

Forrester: How can a Wiki council be formed when even English Wikipedia can’t decide what to do with various issues?