[Wikimedia-l] Editor retention (was Re: "Big data" benefits and limitations (relevance: WMF editor engagement, fundraising, and HR practices))

Risker risker.wp at gmail.com
Fri Jan 4 05:48:46 UTC 2013

On 4 January 2013 00:01, Steven Walling <steven.walling at gmail.com> wrote:

> On Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 8:13 PM, Tim Starling <tstarling at wikimedia.org
> >wrote:
> > It should be obvious that what is missing is discipline. An
> > arbitration committee with expanded scope, with full-time members
> > funded by the WMF (at arm's length for legal reasons), could go a long
> > way towards solving the problem. Some users will be reformed when
> > their technical power is threatened (be that editing or admin access),
> > others will just leave as soon as their reputation is at stake.
> >
> Right! Because we all know the solution to social problems is oligarchy.
Ironically, Steven, there is a lot to be said in favour of oligarchy; it's
how most organized groups survive, provided they ensure the "few" who have
authority remain rooted in the larger group.

Tim raises many interesting points.

It's a difficult problem that has its roots much further back than most us
can imagine - remember that early English Wikipedians were largely drawn
from either the Usenet, the academic, or the open source/free speech
communities, and none of them are particularly noted for their deep-rooted
commitment to civil discourse.  Newer users learned their "wiki-manners"
from the old hands; certainly many of those who were in positions of
authority when I joined in 2005 were not exactly paragons of civility.
Back then, though, these behaviours were considered "quirky" or "off-beat",
and the individuals considered to have "character" and "guts".  To give
many of them their due, they managed to get this crazy enterprise off the
ground and keep it flying despite the many obstacles that existed.

At the same time, many of the processes that were established early on
depended on genuine good faith and a touching degree of idealism. Requests
for comment were intended to draw in users for additional considered
opinions, who had little or no history with the topic (or person)
involved.  For some time, that worked; however, today's requests for
comment almost always wind up with the editors whose opinions had already
been expressed repeating the same arguments, few additional uninvolved
voices, and often as not the same divergence that existed beforehand.

We have been, to some extent, the victims of our own success.  We grew
exponentially and not organically, and given the roots of our community,
the usual group structural forms were eschewed. There was also practically
no money for anything for a very long time (our fundraisers now raise as
much in a day as they did in the entire year when I first joined up), and
very few employees who kept the operation together with shoestrings and
sealing wax, while everything else was left to the editorial communities
(and the volunteer developer communities) to keep things going. This
"flattened hierarchy" of leadership worked reasonably well with a smaller
editorial community that had barely scratched the surface of content
creation, but quickly showed itself to be impractical when editors joined
in droves - many of them focusing on hand-to-hand combat with vandals.
Those who loathed wasting their time cleaning up after vandals were glad to
have this newer cadre join them; however, there was a palpable difference
in their reason for becoming part of the community, and when the number of
highly active contributors more than doubled over a short period of time,
it was impossible to provide an effective process to help them learn the
technical, policy, and cultural expectations. Efforts to try to remedy some
of these issues have been largely unsuccessful, with an overwhelming
proliferation of often-conflicting policies that are nearly
incomprehensible to the uninitiated, an overabundance of badly written and
poorly descriptive templates, and a dependence on automated tools for
social interaction.

And Tim is right about interpersonal interactions being one of the largest
problems on English Wikipedia, although I think it's important to remember
that the vast majority poor editorial behaviour never comes to the
attention of the broader community.  Only a microscopic portion of it ever
manages to get as far as a noticeboard, and if it gets there it will almost
always be because an experienced user is filing the complaint (most of the
time about another experienced user). No, the problems are on user talk
pages, and article talk pages - or they're not even discussed, they're just
edits that are reverted with snippy edit summaries or no edit summary at
all.  New editors don't know what BRD means (Bold, Revert, Discuss).

I'm not sure Tim's proposal would be the best solution, but I'm very
doubtful that the English Wikipedia community is able to pull itself
together enough to establish some of the important structures that it needs
to continue its growth.  We probably *do* need a group with the authority
to settle longterm content disputes, another with the authority to
harmonize and simplify the policies, and another to improve the
enculturation of new Wikipedians.  I do think the community knows that it
needs these things.


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