Community of Wikipedia

Community of Wikipedia

Wikimania, an annual conference for users of Wikipedia and other projects operated by the Wikimedia Foundation.

The community of Wikipedia is a loosely-knit network of volunteers, sometimes known as "Wikipedians", who make contributions to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. A hierarchy exists whereby certain editors are elected to be given greater editorial control by other community members.

Emigh and Herring argue that "a few active users, when acting in concert with established norms within an open editing system, can achieve ultimate control over the content produced within the system, literally erasing diversity, controversy, and inconsistency, and homogenizing contributors' voices."[1] The community has also been criticized for responding to complaints regarding an article's quality by advising the complainer to fix the article themselves.[2] Professor James H. Fetzer criticized Wikipedia in that he could not change the article about himself;[3] to ensure impartiality, Wikipedia has a policy that discourages the editing of biographies by the subjects themselves except in "clear-cut cases", such as reverting vandalism or correcting out-of-date or mistaken facts.[4]

The community has been described as "cult-like",[5][6][7] although not always with entirely negative connotations.[8]

Wikipedia does not require that its users identify themselves. This means that multiple people may use one account, or, more often, one person may use multiple accounts, often in an attempt to influence an argument[citation needed]. The latter practice is known as "sockpuppetry", which is actively discouraged on Wikipedia.[9]

In April 2008, writer and lecturer Clay Shirky and computer scientist Martin Wattenberg estimated the total effort to create Wikipedia at roughly 100 million man-hours.[10]


Jimmy Wales' role

The community of Wikipedia editors has been criticized for placing an irrational emphasis on Jimmy Wales as a person, with phrases such as "What Would Jimbo Do?".[citation needed] Wales' role in personally determining the content of some articles has also been criticized as contrary to the independent spirit that Wikipedia supposedly has gained.[11][12]

Selection of editors

Stacy Schiff notes in her New Yorker article about Wikipedia that[13]

Wikipedia is an online community devoted not to last night's party or to next season's iPod but to a higher good. It is also no more immune to human nature than any other utopian project. Pettiness, idiocy, and vulgarity are regular features of the site. Nothing about high-minded collaboration guarantees accuracy, and open editing invites abuse.


Wikipedia does not require that its editors create accounts. Registered users may choose to maintain a profile on their userpage.

Anonymity of editors

Wikipedia co-founder[14] Larry Sanger wrote:[15]

Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not – in other words, the troll problem.

But more importantly, allowing anonymous editing generally induces a lack of authority, accountability, and healthy (or at least civil) interaction:[16]

... Wikipedia's anonymity reduces the accountability that stimulates healthy exchanges. ... When you put everybody in a system that is flat, where everybody can say yes or no, without any sense of authority, what you get is tribalism, ... What has gone into the article creation is very often the result of this dysfunctional system. It presents itself with this aura of authority, whereas what goes on behind the scenes is anything but.

On many occasions, open (anonymous) editing is the source of many problems: Pettiness, idiocy, vulgarity, lack of accuracy, abuse (complete quotation).[13]

A February 2008 article in SF Weekly details a journalist's futile attempts to track down the real identity of Wikipedia user Griot, who got involved in edit wars over the biography of Ralph Nader as well as local politicians, and was eventually banned on Wikipedia for sock puppeteering. The article draws the distinction between the press and Wikipedia:[17]

Say what you will about the press: There is at least a measure of accountability in a newspaper that is rarely seen on Wikipedia. It's called a byline. I mean, I'm sure I've produced some less-than-brilliant work during the dozen or so years I've been a journalist. But at least I've had the guts to sign my name — my real name — to what I write.

The article also quotes Paul Grabowicz, the new-media program director for the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism:

I guess I have the same feeling about Wikipedia and other citizen-generated sites [as I have] about the media: The more transparency the better [...] People should be able to find out who is producing the information.

In Wikipedia itself the term "anonymous" is used in a much narrower sense than in the citations above. Namely only those editors that do not have a registered account, and use an auto-generated IP-labeled account, are called anonymous or "anons". To disambiguate the two notions on anonymity, in the remainder of this section the term unregistered is used for the narrower Wikipedia meaning.

Unregistered editors reveal their IP addresses, which can be used by admins to register complaints with Internet service providers or to put "range blocks" in place. Admins may also choose not to block because they might exclude regular contributors who share the same IP. Knowledgeable computer users and hackers, though, are easily capable of finding ways around IP blocking. Many have suggested requiring users to register before editing articles, and on December 5, 2005 non-registered editors were prohibited from creating new articles on the English Wikipedia.[18] This does not address the larger problem of anonymity however.


In July 2006 The New Yorker ran a feature about Wikipedia by Stacy Schiff.[13] The initial version of the article included an interview with a Wikipedia administrator known by the pseudonym Essjay, who was described as a tenured professor of theology.[19] Essjay's Wikipedia user page[20] (now removed) made the following claim:

I am a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States; I teach both undergraduate and graduate theology. I have been asked repeatedly to reveal the name of the institution, however, I decline to do so; I am unsure of the consequences of such an action, and believe it to be in my best interests to remain anonymous.

Essjay also claimed on his userpage that he held four academic degrees: Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.), Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.), Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.), and Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD). Essjay specialized in editing articles about religion on Wikipedia, including subjects such as "the penitential rite, transubstantiation, the papal tiara";[13] on one occasion he was called in to give some "expert testimony" on the status of Mary in the Roman Catholic Church.[21] In January 2007, Essjay was hired as a manager with Wikia, a wiki-hosting service founded by Wales and Angela Beesley. In February, Wales appointed Essjay as a member of the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee, a group with powers to issue binding rulings in disputes relating to Wikipedia.[22]

Larry Sanger, who left Wikipedia and founded Citizendium.

In late February 2007 The New Yorker added an editorial note to its article on Wikipedia stating that it had learned that Essjay was Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old college dropout from Kentucky with no advanced degrees and no teaching experience.[23] Initially Jimmy Wales commented on the issue of Essjay's identity: "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it." Larry Sanger, co-founder[24][25][26] of Wikipedia, responded to Wales on his Citizendium blog by calling Wales' initial reaction "utterly breathtaking, and ultimately tragic." Sanger said the controversy "reflects directly on the judgment and values of the management of Wikipedia."[27]

Wales later issued a new statement saying he had not previously understood that "EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes." He added: "I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the [Wikipedia] community."[28] Sanger responded the next day: "It seems Jimmy finds nothing wrong, nothing trust-violating, with the act itself of openly and falsely touting many advanced degrees on Wikipedia. But there most obviously is something wrong with it, and it's just as disturbing for Wikipedia's head to fail to see anything wrong with it."[29]

On March 4, Essjay wrote on his userpage that he was leaving Wikipedia, and he also resigned his position with Wikia.[30]

A subsequent article in The Courier-Journal (Louisville) suggested that the new résumé he had posted at his Wikia page was exaggerated.[31] The March 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker published a formal apology by Wales to the magazine and Stacy Schiff for Essjay's false statements.[32]

Discussing the incident, the New York Times noted that the Wikipedia community had responded to the affair with "the fury of the crowd", and observed:

The Essjay episode underlines some of the perils of collaborative efforts like Wikipedia that rely on many contributors acting in good faith, often anonymously and through self-designated user names. But it also shows how the transparency of the Wikipedia process—all editing of entries is marked and saved—allows readers to react to suspected fraud.[33]

The Essjay incident received extensive media coverage, including a national U.S. television broadcast on ABC's World News with Charles Gibson[34] and a March 7, 2007 Associated Press story that was picked up by more than 100 media outlets listed in the Google news cache.[35] The controversy has led to a proposal that users claiming to possess academic qualifications would have to provide evidence before citing them in Wikipedia content disputes.[36] The proposal was not accepted.[37]

In 2009, it was revealed that a British Labour councillor had been anonymously editing Wikipedia as 'Sam Blacketer', including many political articles in the UK. He resigned from membership of the Arbitration Committee.[38]

Editorial process


The standard of debate on Wikipedia has been called into question by persons who have noted that contributors can make a long list of salient points and pull in a wide range of empirical observations to back up their arguments, only to have them ignored completely on the site.[39] An academic study of Wikipedia articles found that the level of debate among Wikipedia editors on controversial topics often degenerated into counterproductive squabbling:

For uncontroversial, 'stable' topics self-selection also ensures that members of editorial groups are substantially well-aligned with each other in their interests, backgrounds, and overall understanding of the topics... For controversial topics, on the other hand, self-selection may produce a strongly misaligned editorial group. It can lead to conflicts among the editorial group members, continuous edit wars, and may require the use of formal work coordination and control mechanisms. These may include intervention by administrators who enact dispute review and mediation processes, [or] completely disallow or limit and coordinate the types and sources of edits.[40]

Another complaint about Wikipedia focuses on the efforts of contributors with idiosyncratic beliefs, who push their point of view in an effort to dominate articles, especially controversial ones.[41][42] This sometimes results in revert wars and pages being locked down. In response, an Arbitration Committee has been formed on the English Wikipedia that deals with the worst alleged offenders—though a conflict resolution strategy is actively encouraged before going to this extent. Also, to stop the continuous reverting of pages, Jimmy Wales introduced a "three-revert rule",[43] whereby those users who reverse the effect of others' contributions to one article more than three times in a 24-hour period may be blocked.

Another edit war reported in mainstream press happened soon after the death of Kenneth Lay, the disgraced former CEO of Enron, who died from a heart attack. Several editors to the encyclopedia added content to Lay's Wikipedia biography surmising that the death was in fact a suicide, well in advance of any official determination of cause of death. Such edits were reverted and re-inserted several times; eventually the article reported the cause of death as a heart attack. As of July 2007, there is no evidence to suggest that Lay's death was by other than natural causes. The edit history of the article was investigated by the press, and The Washington Post published a column on the subject.[44]

Another edit war occurred in August 2009 on Swedish Wikipedia, where Onoff employees removed critical content from the article about Onoff, a Swedish retail chain that sells home electronics and appliances. Erik Frankedal, press contact for Onoff, told Computer Sweden that he didn't know about this edit and didn't have the time to check it out. IDG reported about this event.[45]

An SF Weekly article[17] commented on the stakes of edit wars:

Many an edit war may seem like a fight over nothing to the casual observer, but considering that according to its staff, the popular, multilingual Web site gets about 7 billion views per month, stakes can be high. An edit yields what millions of people read on the site on any particular topic.

Insults are often made by users to create a hostile environment. The increasingly hostile environment in Wikipedia has led to a sharp decline in the number of Wikipedia editors, as reported in a November 2009 The Wall Street Journal article, titled "Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages"[46]:

Volunteers have been departing the project that bills itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" faster than new ones have been joining, and the net losses have accelerated over the past year. In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia suffered a net loss of more than 49,000 editors, compared to a net loss of 4,900 during the same period a year earlier. ... "Wikipedia is becoming a more hostile environment", contends Mr. Ortega, a project manager at Libresoft, a research group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. "Many people are getting burnt out when they have to debate about the contents of certain articles again and again."[46]

This concern has been acknowledged by Wikipedia; civility[47] and "no personal attacks"[48] are official policies of the project, and the concept of "wikiquette" has been adopted by some users in response.[49]

In an article in The Brooklyn Rail, Wikipedia contributor David Shankbone contended that he had been harassed and stalked because of his work on Wikipedia, had received no support from the authorities or the Wikimedia Foundation, and only mixed support from the Wikipedia community. Shankbone wrote that "If you become a target on Wikipedia, do not expect a supportive community."[50]

Consensus and the "hive mind"

Oliver Kamm, in an article for The Times, expressed skepticism toward Wikipedia's reliance on consensus in forming its content:[51]

Wikipedia seeks not truth but consensus, and like an interminable political meeting the end result will be dominated by the loudest and most persistent voices.

In his article, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism (first published online by Edge: The Third Culture, 30 May 2006), computer scientist and digital theorist Jaron Lanier describes Wikipedia as a "hive mind" that is "for the most part stupid and boring", and asks, rhetorically, "why pay attention to it?" His thesis follows:

The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.[52]

Lanier goes on to point out the economic trend to reward entities that aggregate information, rather than those that actually generate content. In the absence of "new business models", the popular demand for content will be sated by mediocrity, thus reducing or even eliminating any monetary incentives for the production of new knowledge.[52]

Lanier's opinions produced some strong disagreement. Internet consultant Clay Shirky noted that Wikipedia has many internal controls in place and is not a mere mass of unintelligent collective effort:

Neither proponents nor detractors of hive mind rhetoric have much interesting to say about Wikipedia itself, because both groups ignore the details... Wikipedia is best viewed as an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits... To take the specific case of Wikipedia, the Seigenthaler/Kennedy debacle catalyzed both soul-searching and new controls to address the problems exposed, and the controls included, inter alia, a greater focus on individual responsibility, the very factor "Digital Maoism" denies is at work.[53]

In a 2005 study, Emigh and Herring note that there are not yet many formal studies of Wikipedia or its model, and suggest that Wikipedia achieves its results by social means—self-norming, a core of active users watching for problems, and expectations of encyclopedic text drawn from the wider culture.[1]


MediaWiki provides many features beyond hyperlinks for structuring content. One of the earliest features is namespaces. One of Wikipedia's earliest problems had been the separation of encyclopedic content from pages pertaining to maintenance and communal discussion, as well as personal pages about encyclopedia editors. Namespaces are prefixes before a page title (such as "User:" or "Talk:") that serve as descriptors for the page's purpose and allow multiple pages with different functions to exist under the same title. For instance, a page titled "[[The Terminator]]", in the default namespace, could describe the 1984 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, while a page titled "[[User:The Terminator]]" could be a profile describing a user who chooses this name as a pseudonym. More commonly, each page and each namespace has an associated "Talk:" page, which can be used to discuss its contents, such as "User talk:" or "Template talk:". The purpose of having discussion pages is to allow content to be separated from discussion surrounding the content.[54][55]

Social stratification

An article in Computer Power User asserted that former editors of Wikipedia formed Wikitruth, a site that exposes alleged censorship and infighting on the encyclopedia.[56] Jimmy Wales dismissed the site as a "hoax" created by editors who had their articles deleted or modified on Wikipedia.[57]

Since its creation, Wikipedia ostensibly upheld the basic principle of equal status for all good faith editors. As of 2010, Jimmy Wales still claimed in his statement of principles for Wikipedia:[58]

There must be no cabal, no elite, and no hierarchy or structure to get in the way of this openness to newcomers. Any security measures to be implemented to protect the community against real vandals (and there are real vandals, who do occasionally affect us), should be implemented on the model of "strict scrutiny".

Expansion of administrator authority

On the other hand, to reduce vandalism and to control user conduct, Wikipedia created a class of volunteer administrators or "sysops" who are invested with the means and authority to discipline users.[59] Administrator powers include deleting articles, protecting pages from editing, and blocking users; actions that ordinary (non-sysop) editors cannot do or undo. Special rules and protocols were set up to prevent administrators from abusing their powers; such as the Wikipedia:Articles for deletion (AfD) page, a forum to discuss article deletions. An administrator who wished to delete an article was required to post a notice on the article itself, and wait for comments of other editors, before carrying out the deletion. Moreover, since every sysop can undo the actions of other sysops, any reported abuse by one individual can in principle be corrected by his peers.

Nevertheless, those extra powers inevitably meant that the opinion of administrators, individually and as a whole, would prevail over that of ordinary users in certain kinds of disputes. While the principle of equality among editors was never formally revised, changes in Wikipedia policies have gradually increased the effective authority and independence of administrators. These changes intensified after 2006, when the Seigenthaler biography incident forced Wikipedia to tighten its defences against malicious edits. For instance, at some point sysops were given the authority to speedily delete, without prior discussion on the AfD, articles that were clearly malicious, or deemed inappropriate by any of several other criteria. In 2010, these criteria were further widened to include biographies of living persons (BLPs) which did not include adequate references, irrespective of their contents being verifiable or not. As a consequence of these enlarged powers, administrators have increasingly had to impose their opinion, ex officio, over that of ordinary users.[60] At the same time, the body of Wikipedia rules and procedures kept increasing in size and complexity. This further increased the authority gap between administrators and veteran editors, who know the rules, and ordinary editors — especially novice ones.

Complaints about administrator abuse

Complaints about abuse of power by administrators are frequently made in Wikipedia's internal forums, including the discussion pages associated with specific articles, pages for discussions of rules and procedures, the message boards of individual users, as well as general bulletin boards. A portion of these complaints appear to be due to ignorance or misunderstanding of Wikipedia's rules[citation needed]. Only a small fraction of those allegations have been formally submitted to Wikipedia's disciplinary committees[citation needed]. Allegations have also been made in those internal forums that administrator abuse has been steadily increasing in frequency and severity, and that it is one major reason for decline in editor numbers since 2006--a striking reversal from its exponential growth from 2001 to 2005.[61]

In the context of these complaints, the term "administrator" is often used to also encompass editors who are not formally administrators, but who engage in administrative activities like tagging and categorizing articles, running robots, writing and enforcing rules, and proposing user bans and article deletions, or who are mistaken by other editors as administrators on the basis of their previous actions or arguments.

Allegations of administrator abuse have circulated outside Wikipedia in blogs, online technical forums, and in mainstream media. "Some disillusioned former Wikipedians gripe about such bureaucratic heavy-handedness and/or the rabidity of some of the site's devotees, grumbling about 'Swastikipedia.'"[62] It has also been noted that, despite the perception of Wikipedia as a "shining example of Web democracy" that "a small number of people are running the show."[63] Despite the need for some form of control in an open system, this "doesn't explain the kind of territorialism—the authorial domination by 1 percent of contributors—on the site's pages."[63] In an article on Wikipedia conflicts, The Guardian noted complaints that administrators sometimes use their special powers to suppress legitimate editors.[64] The article discussed "a backlash among some editors, who argue that blocking users compromises the supposedly open nature of the project, and the imbalance of power between users and administrators may even be a reason some users choose to vandalise in the first place."[64]

'My vandalism started after an edit conflict over the Courier-Journal's sports and editorial coverage, where my – what I felt were – legitimate edits on the page for C-J criticism were removed and I was blasted,' he says. 'I have being vandalising Wikipedia and its user pages for months, mostly because seeing my vandalism or that of others was funny as hell... and to punish admins.'

Perception of administrators as a closed community

An ordinary editor can ask to become an administrator by submitting a request for adminship (RfA). The editor's record and qualifications are discussed by other editors for a week, and the promotion is then decided by one of Wikipedia's bureaucrats — a set of about 25 sysops at the top level of Wikipedia's administration. The criteria that bureaucrats are supposed to look for include knowledge and respect for Wikipedia's rules, steady and varied editing activity, etc.[65][66]

Among the allegations of administrator abuse, one often finds claims that the administrators have become a clique whose goals or viewpoints set them apart from ordinary users. An article on The Register, dated 4 December 2007 and entitled "Secret mailing list rocks Wikipedia", alleged the use of a private mailing list to coordinate administrative actions.[67] A follow-up article on 8 December 2007 specifically alleged that administrators were collaborating with critics of to "own" articles about the company.[68]

Consistency of complaints

The existence and significance of widespread administrator abuse is highly disputed within Wikipedia. A common rebuttal to such allegations is that a raising of editorial standards became necessary to improve the quality of Wikipedia articles. In particular, the higher rates of article deletions observed since 2006[61] are claimed to be necessary to meet new guidelines on allowed article topics, such as a set of "notability" requirements. The same argument is used to justify the insertion of tags in articles that warn readers against perceived flaws and/or request that other editors perform certain editorial actions.

There have been no systematic surveys of the opinions of ordinary editors about sysop behavior, or about Wikipedia governance in general. A limited enquiry was made in 2009 among former Wikipedia editors, with the goal of finding out the reasons why they had left.[citation needed] Another experiment was conducted in 2009, with the goal of determining whether Wikipedia had indeed become hostile to new editors. In this experiment, several experienced editors pretended to be inexperienced new users, deliberately created poor-quality articles, and followed their fate over the following weeks.

Pareto effect

Known phenomena such as the Pareto principle and the 1% rule affect the Wikipedia community. Wikipedia's own statistics show that only a small number of users account for a large number of the edits made.[69] The alleged results of this is that Wikipedia, as viewed, is not truly a global community work but rather the work of an anonymous minority whose material is overrepresented. (Note that this is different from the complaints regarding administrators because the users in question are not required to be administrators, just to edit a lot.) In 2006, Jimmy Wales himself observed that the majority of Wikipedia edits are made by a group of around 500 people who "all know each other".[70] (By contrast, the Encyclopædia Britannica, in spite of having a policy of vetting authors as experts in their field, has 4100 contributing authors.)

However, when amount of text was used as a metric instead of edit count, the result was often the opposite. Most of the top contributors to the content of articles were people who only edited Wikipedia occasionally, many of whom had not registered a Wikipedia account.[70]


Early studies of the size of the community of Wikipedia showed an exponential growth rate of the number of Wikipedia volunteers. By 2009, the rate of growth had declined.[71] In November 2011, there were approximately 31.7 million registered user accounts across all language editions, of which around 270,000 accounts were active on a monthly basis.[72]


In a 2003 study of Wikipedia as a community, economics Ph.D. student Andrea Ciffolilli argued that the low transaction costs of participating in wiki software create a catalyst for collaborative development, and that a "creative construction" approach encourages participation.[73]

Wikipedians sometimes award one another barnstars for good work. These personalized tokens of appreciation reveal a wide range of valued work extending far beyond simple editing to include social support, administrative actions, and types of articulation work. The barnstar phenomenon has been analyzed by researchers seeking to determine what implications it might have for other communities engaged in large-scale collaborations.[74]


Wiknic 2011 in Pittsburgh.

Offline activities are organized by the Wikimedia Foundation or the community of Wikipedia.


Wikimania is an annual international conference for users of the wiki projects operated by the Wikimedia Foundation (such as Wikipedia and other sister projects). Topics of presentations and discussions include Wikimedia Foundation projects, other wikis, open source software, free knowledge and free content, and the different social and technical aspects which relate to these topics.


The annual Great American Wiknic is a social gathering that takes place around mid-summer in multiple cities in the United States.[75]


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