As Wikipedia Gets Pickier, Editors Become Harder To Find

Jul 19, 2012
Originally published on July 19, 2012 4:38 pm

Admit it. You've used the free, crowd-sourced entries of Wikipedia to brush up on history or look up a fact or two in many a trivia conundrum. And you're not alone. Since Wikipedia was launched more than a decade ago, millions of Web users have "Wikied" this or that.

But what have you done for Wikipedia lately?

Maybe you've added a sentence or two to an entry, or even created a new page about for your favorite up-and-coming indie artist.

But what Wikipedia really needs today is more administrators — discerning editors to keep the collaborative encyclopedia that anyone can edit a reliable source without errors.

As The Washington Post and The Atlantic recently reported, Wikipedia editors gathered in Washington, D.C., last week for the annual "Wikimania" conference to discuss how to improve the 11-year-old site. The Post's Hayley Tsukayama summed up Wikipedia's top concerns:

"The community, once a tight-knit set of enthusiasts who wanted nothing more than to write the definitive online encyclopedia, has become less connected as it has grown, contributors say. Wikipedia is also struggling to draw new editors, especially women. And, some leaders worry, the Web site is beginning to show its age."

Wikipedia administrator Andrew Lih, who is also the author of The Wikipedia Revolution, tells All Things Considered's Robert Siegel that the early editors of Wikipedia were "modest folks" who were like the "janitors" of the site, cleaning up grammatical mistakes and making other relatively minor tweaks behind sloppy users.

"As Wikipedia's become more prominent and more popular around the world, and the articles have much more influence, the users have felt that they need to start to have kind of a more privileged class to lock down articles and maintain quality," Lih says.

Now Wikipedia has administrators, who can delete articles and even prevent other users from editing. Lih says this extra power given to administrators has made them "more like a police." The qualifications to become an administrator of Wikipedia have also grown.

"It used to be fairly simple. You just had to prove that you could reliably edit and you weren't doing anything wrong," Lih explains. "These days, it's unfortunately become somewhat of a hazing ritual." Lih says applicants have to answer complex questions about copyright and the "notability of certain topics or articles."

This has resulted in fewer applicants for Wikipedia administrator positions. In its 2011-12 Annual Plan, the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit behind Wikipedia, wrote:

"Declining participation is by far the most serious problem facing the Wikimedia projects: the success of the projects is entirely dependent upon a thriving, healthy editing community."

It's not the first time the pending "death" of Wikipedia has been reported. But Lih says the trend of fewer voluntary contributions on the site is perhaps indicative of Facebook, Twitter and other social media successfully competing for users' attention. The first generation of Wikipedia users has also grown up.

"The early contributors to Wikipedia were fairly young, tech-savvy. But they've moved on with their lives. They're still engaged in some way, but not in the same volume as before," Lih says.

Lih, who's the father of twin boys, says he no longer has three or four hours every night to edit Wikipedia entries. But, he says, "I still consider myself an active Wikipedia editor."

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There is no shortage of the information you can read on Wikipedia. In fact, according to Wikipedia, users can view about 4 million articles, and that's just in English. But the website is having a hard time finding the right people to maintain it. They are, in a way, the police of Wikipedia; guardians against the spurious entry. Officially, they are called administrators. Last week at the Wikimania Conference in Washington, it came out that those who are qualified for the position are few and far between. And Wikipedia is now trying to find more of them.

I'm now joined by Andrew Lee, himself a Wikipedia administrator, and author of the book "The Wikipedia Revolution." Welcome to the program.

ANDREW LEE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: You're one of them. So tell us, who are these administrators?

LEE: Well, administrators started out, in the history of Wikipedia, as being very modest folks. And it's something that was joked about in the early days, of being somewhat like a janitor of Wikipedia. So ordinary users on Wikipedia get to read and write articles. But administrators had the authority - or actually, the power to delete articles, to lock down articles if there was too much traffic.

But over the years, that has morphed to the point where - as you said in your intro, that it's become more like a police. And maybe not out of design but just out of habit and culture, it has grown to that kind of role.

SIEGEL: I'm surprised by this role. I've spoken a couple of times with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and he's always made it sound like a very, very nonhierarchical system; anyone can edit anything on the website. And in cases where facts are rapidly changing - if it's about something that's in the news - that access could be limited to experienced editors, which he defined for me as people who've done it for four days. You're describing a more qualified core of editors than that.

LEE: Well, the original conception was that an administrator should not have any more authority than anyone else; they just simply had the keys to the closet, so to speak. But I think that's changed over the years. As Wikipedia has become more prominent, and more popular around the world, the users have felt that they needed to start to have kind of a more privileged class to lock down articles, and to maintain quality. And unfortunately, there is no other strata except for administrators. So I believe that that role has been elevated to the higher functions that it has now.

SIEGEL: Well, what do you have to do to become an administrator?

LEE: Well, it used to be fairly simple. You just had to prove that you could reliably edit, and you weren't doing anything wrong. These days, it unfortunately has become somewhat of a hazing ritual. And you have to answer some very complex questions, to prove you understand copyright; whether you believe in the notability of certain topics or articles. And it's pretty extensive, to the point where there are not as many folks applying for adminship(ph) as in the past.

And whereas you used to have maybe 30 people to 50 people per month become promoted to administration status, right now there is only about one or two per month.

SIEGEL: Because it's just not that new anymore, or not that cool anymore? Why? What do you think it is?

LEE: Well, that's an interesting question. At Wikimania's conference, we found that with looking at other Wiki sites, there was a significant drop in 2007 not just in Wikipedia, but other Wiki websites out there. And the theory these days, that people are looking into, is whether the arrival of Facebook and Twitter and other social media properties actually, you know, got the attention of users in much greater numbers than we thought. And maybe there was a drop all around, in the blogging and Wiki world.

SIEGEL: Well, Andrew Lee, thank you very much for talking with us.

LEE: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Andrew Lee, author of the book "The Wikipedia Revolution," and himself an administrator of Wikipedia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.