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The myth of “Power Users” at Wikipedia

By Tim Davenport /// “Carrite” (Wikipedia username) /// “Randy from Boise” (Wikipediocracy username) with some modest assistance from Yerucham Turing




One of my pet peeves is the way that the WMF bureaucracy conceptualizes Wikipedia participants. They see the world as a potential drone army for them to manipulate into editing Wikipedia through “social networking” devices (such as their failed “Rate This Article” initiative) and artificially-sweetened raspberry-flavored software solutions (Media Viewer, Flow, Visual Editor).

There are billions of people in the world, after all, and golly, they should all be editing “The Encyclopedia Anyone Can Edit” because, ummmm, it’s an encyclopedia anyone can edit, after all. It’s just a matter of the Kumbaya San Francisco Friendly Spacers making it happen with good vibrations and their software programming brilliance! (Hurrah!!! Hurrrah!!! Hurrah!!!)

Of course this assumes that the community of volunteers that actually built the encyclopedia and governing apparatus behind the encyclopedia, are nothing but the Most Highly Perfected editing drones created by their Bay Area masters — who hold all the cards and call all the shots.

This is a matter of fundamental importance.

I was thinking during the Mediaviewer/Superprotection fiasco that it had finally sunk in with the WMF circle jerkers that the Wikipedia Volunteer Community was indeed a real entity, to be dealt with on the basis of partnership. No such luck. Get a load of the following slide from a presentation at the WMF Sept. 25 Mobil Metrics meeting held at Club Headquarters in San Francisco:

Once again we see WMF accepting as axiomatic the dangerous and erroneous model of linear “editor engagement” — casual visitors via Google become regular readers straight to the site; who become casual editors; who become more regular editors; who VOILA!!! become very active editors!

“It’s all a matter of getting more readers, you see, and the rest will take care of itself, thanks to us.”

This is not the way that Wikipedia’s core volunteer cadre is recruited and built and it is especially not the way that Wikipedia’s need for core content writers in specialized subjects needs to be recruited and built. We need specialists and experts, not an influx of random “crowdsourcers” tricked into making edits 1 through 6 with magic software beans…

“Very Active Editors”

On the other hand,  the notion of “Very Active Editors” (100 edits/month) is very useful: unless one uses high levels of automation, 100 edits/month takes a day or two of hard work each month, or sustained small efforts over the course of the whole month. It is also a metric that has been carefully charted for years. That’s not a bad means to estimate the size of the WP volunteer community — certainly the best metric extant. One venerable Wikipedia-watcher observed:

100 edits/month is a significant effort for someone who is primarily a content author. It is a modest effort for someone who is primarily a copyeditor. It is a trivial effort for a vandalism patroller, semi-automated spellchecker, or other “gnomic” sort of editor. The focus on edit count as a measure of participation and commitment clearly rewards the technical gnomes over writers and copyeditors.

“Power Editor” with bot

There is some limited academic research on this topic,  which was mentioned in a recent edition of Signpost. The summary lays on the jargon heavily; it is at root an attempt to analyze the question of editor turnover at WP by dividing WP participants into discrete categories and analyzing the process of change in participation of each category.

The paper assumes that WP editors have identifiable “life cycles” and indicates that one possible benefit of understanding the likelihood of continued participation would be the enabling of “task routing software” to assign specific jobs to volunteers most likely to complete them.

Reference is made to a 2011 study by Weser et al. which identified four primary groups of Wikipedia participants: “substantive experts, technical editors, vandal fighters, and social networkers.” Another 2009 study by Panciera et al. found that long term volunteers tended to “start intensely, tail off a little, then maintain a relatively high level of activity over the course of their career.” (pg. 2)

The study examined the activity of Wikipedians from the start of the project until August 2013, divided by three-month “quarters” of the year, tallying edits in each Wikipedia namespace (mainspace, mainspace talk, project, project talk, user, user talk, etc.). The study found that an “overwhelming number” of WP editors (4,468,352 out of 5,749,590 — 77.7%) were active only for a single quarter.”

One obvious trend is that the number of users who stayed active for longer time periods is becoming smaller and smaller, indicating that Wikipedia experiences high levels of member withdrawal,” the authors of the study noted. (pg. 5) Indeed, about 60% of registered users stayed only one day. (pg. 6)

The paper reveals that social networking elements have been consciously introduced by WMF in an attempt to “attract and retain user participation,” which it assumes is linked to editing activity. (pg. 6)

But this is all in one ear and out the other with WMF, if they bother to read it at all. WMF hasn’t made any effort whatsoever to understand who these people are and how they are subdivided.  There is much more they could and should be doing in terms of building databases of Very Active Editors and surveying their needs.

Image credits: Flickr/Saad Faruque, Wikimedia, Flickr/Nerds On Call ~ Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

17 comments to The myth of “Power Users” at Wikipedia

  • metasonix

    Ah, but then the WMF would have to show “initiative”, and “competence”, and “action”. An organization packed with Jimbo ass-lickers and pathological liars will never do such things. They can’t.

    Wikimedia will not reform until it is burned to the ground and all of its slimy insiders are tossed out the door permanently. The chances of that are only slightly better than the chances of an asteroid obliterating San Francisco in the next 10 minutes.

    (checks back 10 minutes later) Nope, still there…..

  • Unless the WikiMedia Foundation begins to understand that the content editors build Wikipedia, and are not easily replaced by new cannon fodder, the decline in editor numbers will continue.

    But then again, I understand the WMF is no longer about building content, but is now a software development organization, so content of a free encyclopedia is not really a problem any more.

  • Cla68

    Two other categories of editors that should be considered are editors who come to Wikipedia to write about a topic or hobby that they have strong interest in and editors who come to Wikipedia to push a particular political/social/philosophical agenda. A significant number of highly active Wikipedia editors fall into the latter camp, which is particularly problematic because they have made a number of topic areas basically uneditable for anyone outside of their group. Wikipedia’s administration has not been effective at resolving this problem.

    • James Salsman

      Are you suggesting that political/social/philosophical agenda pushers are anywhere near as disruptive as paid advocates trying to introduce COI bias to make a buck? The latter have always been far worse, except perhaps in the Israel/Palestine area.

  • Hersch

    Excuse me, but aren’t you referring to established editors who are defending the project against disruption?

  • eagle

    A further analysis of the “Power editor” is essential. How many of the current power editors are in fact paid PR professionals? How many are administrators? How many of them continue to create content as opposed to merely make protective edits so as to maintain “ownership” of the existing pages on their watch lists? How many of them could be considered competent in the subject areas where they have created content?

  • Ross McPherson

    Nice work Tim. Your companionable style almost makes me forget you are one of THEM.

    I have a different take on this argument. Yes Wikipedia’s first priority must be to introduce specialists and experts. However those guys are currently busy writing papers for peer reviewed journals, supervising theses, attending conferences, planning and implementing courses etc. They have no time for Wikipedia. They would probably find the time if employed on good contracts.

    The ‘specialists’ and ‘experts’ you are talking about are either retired, behind-the-times academics or amateurs who might have some knowledge they can show off but who lack real judgement, otherwise they would be publishing their work in respectable journals. The ones who are established at Wikipedia are power editors/junkies or survivors who have benefitted from the elimination of rivals, often via corrupt associations with admins and project groupies. I say get rid of them all and bring in real crowd sourcing. I trust the statistical average more than I trust the average power editor.

    • Magnus Hansen

      I know many academics who find time to contribute to wikipedia because they consider public dissemination of knowledge for a general public a part of the job description of an academic – in addition to publishing in academic journals. I would guess that such academics probably make up about 10%-20% of the expert/specialist editors at wikipedia.

      • Ross McPherson

        An interesting guess. My guess is this – the fewer the edits they make, the longer they hang around, the more they talk about how they edit Wikipedia. There is no room at Wikipedia for specialists and experts except at the level of contribution you would expect from a first year undergraduate, hardly saying anything in tutorials, barely daring to knock on the professor’s door. Most experts have too much pride to submit to that. But that is only my guess.

      • Tim Davenport/Carrite/RfB

        It would be interesting to know how many professors are currently contributing. I know of only one in the areas that I frequent, doing 20th Century American history (a conservative, for the record). My guess is that 20% of experts is definitely high, 10% might be close to the mark but I’d still be betting the “under” on that…

        • Magnus Hansen

          In the fields of linguistics and anthropology alone I know 6 tenured academics who currently contribute. These are very small fields in wikipedia, and they make a high percentage of the specialist editors in those topics. I know one who was decided not to contribute anymore due to the problems with getting high quality content to stick around and the annoyance of having to generate consensus for everything.

          • John Lilburne

            Maybe they can fix Theodor Mommsen then?

          • Magnus Hansen

            You could probably do that yourself if you were willing to spend an hour of your time. I don’t know any anthropologists or linguists who consider Theodor Mommsen to be an important article to their academic interests. If I meet one I will be sure to mention that the article needs attention.

            An interesting thing is that sometimes articles written by professional academics are not the highest quality. Not because the information is wrong but because their writing style is often at odds with Wikipedia’s style guidelines. The article by Franz Boas, the anthropologist, was written almost entirely by Steven Rubenstein who was a professor of anthropology graduated from Boas’ institution, and it is very different from how biographical articles are normally written in wikipedia, and probably will need a rewrite at some point to organize the information more clearly. Generally academics are pretty able and willing to collaborate with people on making their writing more audience friendly, they are used to working with editors for that.

  • Tarc

    Is this something in the vein of a “bring your son/daughter to work” week? It’s hard to get past the multi-exclamation points and the colorful allusions, e.g. “circle jerkers”.

    Y’all have been on a good blog run lately, don’t let it fall back into the hands of vernacular-laden amateurs.

    • Tim Davenport/Carrite/RfB

      Lovely to hear from you, Tarc!!!!!!!!!!!

      Are you enjoying your Arbcom ban from Jimbotalk for having trolled it?

      I know that I am…



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