Wikipedia: Who Runs the Place?

As Wikipedia, the collaboratively edited online encyclopedia, becomes more prominent, people often wonder who operates and administers the site. I’m also asked sometimes how I became involved as an administrator.

A majority of the people who contribute occasionally to Wikipedia may have little or no interaction with the administrative side of things at all. A new user doesn’t need anyone’s permission to start editing or to register an account. One can make dozens or hundreds of edits and never encounter an administrator acting as such or come into contact with the site’s rules and guidelines.

My experience as “newbie” Wikipedian was a largely, and perhaps unusually, positive one, and the lens of my own early experiences probably still flavors how I look at the site. As soon as I registered my account, an experienced editor left a helpful “welcome” message on my talkpage, with links to relevant pages of policies and helpful hints. (Each user has a talkpage, which is a special page for messages intended for that user.) The first time I made a bunch of edits to an article, someone posted to my talkpage and thanked me for my contributions. When I had questions about how to format an article, I posted to the Help Desk and received a polite and useful response almost instantly. When I made rookie mistakes, they were quietly corrected and I was gently advised what had gone wrong. I was invited to join a project of editors with interests similar to mine. When I started to learn about policies, I read guidelines such as “be civil to your fellow editors,” “when there is a disagreement, discuss it and seek consensus,” and “don’t bite the newcomers.”

So my first impression was that Wikipedians included a collaborative group of exceptionally friendly people working together to write an encyclopedia while having some fun in the process. (Okay, I soon learned that not every page of Wikipedia was like that, as I was clued in pretty early to some areas where there was some nasty feuding going on. In fact, within a couple of months, I was trying unsuccessfully to mediate one of the loudest feuds on the site. But a first impression is a first impression.)

Of course, not everyone has the same generally favorable introduction to contributing that I did. If an editor’s first contribution is an article about an marginally notable person or a garage band or his junior high school, his first memory of Wikipedia may be of the article being summarily deleted. If a user starts off writing in a controversial area, her first experience may be one of “edit-warring” as disputing users change the article back-and-forth to their preferred versions. If an editor starts off by uploading images, she will very likely receive a warning for inadvertently violating one or another of the complex rules implemented to prevent copyright violations. And sometimes one just runs into another editor who either doesn’t know anything about the subject-matter but acts as if he does, or who just feels like being a jerk.

(I was once asked whether I’d ever been a party to a real edit-war. The biggest one I recall was an ongoing dispute about whether Presidential and Congressional terms prior to the Twentieth Amendment ended at midnight on March 3rd or at noon on March 4th. This issue comes up all the time in biographies and lists. The answer, of course, is March 4th, but because there are some otherwise authoritative sources such as older editions of the “Congressional Biographical Directory” that say March 3rd, this remains a matter of occasional contention.)

So sooner or later a truly experienced editor will run into the administrative apparatus underlying the site. On the English Wikipedia, any registered editor is eligible to run for the status of administrator. In practice a few months’ editing experience and a few thousand edits are required for a successful candidacy. Nominations can be made by oneself or by another user and are posted to a page called “Requests for adminship” (“RfA”), where any interested user can post a “support” or “oppose” comment (one must carefully avoid calling it a “vote”) based on whatever criteria (within reason) they individually choose to apply.

After seven days, the results are reviewed by a senior administrator archly designated as a “bureaucrat,” who determines whether there is a “consensus” to promote the candidate. Hundreds of megabytes of text on [[Wikipedia talk:Requests for adminship]] have been spent in seeking out the perfect metaphysical definition of consensus, but in practice, support from 75% of the “!voters” typically guarantees promotion.

There are no requirements for adminship beyond having a sufficiently strong record of participation to pass RfA. There is no requirement that the candidate disclose his or her real name or background, and many don’t. (I’ve never disclosed my real name on-wiki, although at this point I will soon go ahead and do so.) For example, there is no minimum age requirement. (Certain specialized functionaries do now have to be over 18 and provide proof of their identity to the Wikimedia Foundation Office, though they don’t have to disclose it publicly.) There have been administrators as young as 12 or 13 years old; there are no good demographic numbers that I’m aware of, but I would estimate that the median age would be no higher than mid-20s, and I’m painfully aware that at age 46 I am almost surely in the oldest decile of admins. (It feels like just yesterday that I was the youngest person ever elected to the School Board in my town, and now I’m a senior wiki-citizen.)

Critics of Wikipedia often suggest that there is a serious problem with the fact that so many of the administrators, with important powers such as blocking and deletion, are relatively youthful. These are often the same people who suggest that it is absurd for older people with more life experience to spend a portion of their hobby time serving as Wikipedia administrators. Sometimes the same critics make both of these comments, but they are, in effect if not in intent, mutually exclusive.

Administrators are given certain special powers not open to other users, such as the ability to block someone who has violated Wikipedia policies from editing; to delete a page; to protect a page from editing (either by new users or by any non-admin); close certain discussions and decide their outcomes; to view the content of most material that has been deleted. There are about 1600 administrators on the English Wikipedia, of whom a few hundred are active at any one time. There are rules governing how admins are to use their tools, and policies urging them to be civil and helpful in their interactions with other users. In my experience, most administrators do their best to live up to these guidelines; of course, the occasional exception affects the reputation of all.

There is also a system of methods for dispute resolution, including various options for mediation and noticeboards for discussing different types of concerns that may arise. At the end of the dispute resolution process is a body known as the Arbitration Committee, which consists of a group of editors (currently 16) chosen in annual elections. (Formally, the committee is appointed by Jimmy Wales, who holds a special role in Wikipedia governance derived from his role in founding the site, but in the past few elections he has followed the election returns.) The ArbCom addresses user conduct disputes, and typically is not empowered to decide issues such as “which version of this article is better?” or “what should our policy on such-and-such be?” At the moment there is no central mechanism for handing down binding resolution on content disputes or policy decisions, and there is disagreement about whether it would be desirable for there to be one.

I’ve been following the workings of the ArbCom since early in my wiki-career: first as an occasional critic, later as a clerk for the committee, and since January 2008 as one of the arbitrators. My work as an administrator and an arbitrator has completely changed my Wikipedia experience: Instead of contributing substance to a growing body of free knowledge in an atmosphere of respect and harmony, I must review the history of Wikipedia’s most contentious, protracted, bitter, and unhappy disputes and help decide what to do about them.

The cases that come to arbitration are those that cannot be resolved any other way. Most often, they concern editing disputes in exactly the areas one might expect to be the most contentious of all; cases we have accepted this year have included disputes about editing of [[Ayn Rand]] and related articles, of [[Scientology]] and related articles, of [[Ireland]] (is “Ireland” primarily the name of an island or a country), of [[Macedonia]] (or is it [[The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia]]?), and so on. We have also accepted cases involving individual administrators or editors who have engaged in allegedly problematic behavior.

After reviewing each case, the committee issues a decision comprising principles, findings of fact, and remedies. The remedies we can hand down range from noting instances of bad behavior and admonishing parties to do better, restricting a user’s editing (such as by banning her from editing articles about a particular topic), imposing various types of probations or mentorships, revoking an administrator’s adminship (“desysopping”), or in the most extreme cases, banning an editor from Wikipedia altogether.

We try to keep the process from becoming too legalistic, although occasional legal terms or wordings sneak into the process or the decisions, for which I am occasionally to blame. (The most useful thing I’ve tried to bring with me in terms of a legal concept is an instinct to always make sure that the parties have had a fair opportunity to present their views and evidence before we proceed to a decision.) My real-life work as a lawyer has not had much to do with how I think as an arbitrator: There are very few parallels between the work of a committee on a website and anything that happens in the real world, and in decisions, I’ve emphasized that nothing we decide is meant to have any consequences in the offline world. Still, sometime, if I can figure out a way to do it without sounding absurdly aggrandizing, I will write about what my time as a Wikipedia arbitrator has taught me about the types of decisions that must be made every day by a judge of a multi-member appellate court with a discretionary jurisdiction.

Ultimate control over the English Wikipedia, along with all of the sister projects and projects in other languages, resides with the Wikimedia Foundation. The Foundation is the charitable foundation that owns the equipment and the trademarks. The Foundation has a board of directors (chosen by a combination of members), an Executive Director and a small staff, and a General Counsel (currently Mike Godwin, of Godwin’s Law fame). It sets policy only at a very broad level, and does not get involved in addressing particular disputes.

Tomorrow: Some responses to reader comments.