Story of Wikimedia Editors

From Strategic Planning
see also: history of Wikipedia.
We keep pedia
Our free encyclomedia
By early wikipedians

Once upon a time...

Chapter one: Infancy (2001-2003)

In 2001, new wikis were often started via a "barnraising" bringing together editors from other wikis, and wikis had their own sort of web ring [1]. Wikipedia started as an experiment back in 2001, to gather drafts that would then be polished up and published in Nupedia an existing, more conventional encyclopedia. When the project grew much faster than expected in its first year, there was hope for ambitious goals. But nobody believed it would grow into such a ...

Early editors were different people interested in online tools, in writing, in knowledge, and in a smart community! First They were experienced with online tools and forums. Many were experienced editors of other wikis. They tended to be technically capable, introverted, experienced writers. Second They were curious. They enjoyed discovering. They cared about information, learning, and intellectual discovery. Most of them were educated brainy young men from well-off countries. Many were philosophers or language enthusiasts, drawn from forums dedicated to those topics. Third They were seeking the joy of and engaging with a community of other smart people. And thus they wanted to build Wikipedia into a broadly useful reference work.

They were argumentative. (Not just as philosophers, not just because online interaction encourages sparkiness. but also because a hot topic in Wikis then was discussion on how to use wikis for expression). they enjoyed argument as a form of intellectual play; Discussing knowledge and building Wikipedia was a fun intellectual hobby.

For two years, those people worked diligently, slowly gaining attention from users of similar projects such as everything2 and h2g2, building Wikipedia into a high-quality reference work.

In 2003, the MediaWiki software had a major upgrade, article growth sped up with the use of better bots, More designers and photographers started to get involved and make pages more beautiful to read, media attention increased, a permanent increase in readers and amateur editors were started.

Chapter Two, Teens! (2003-2005)

Between 2003 and 2005, Wikipedia surpassed in readership and popularity more than every news, media, reference and informational site in the world. It skyrocketed past NPR, PBS, Merriam Webster, Encyclopedia Britannica, Washington Post, Microsoft Encarta, Guardian, New York Times, BBC, CNN... everyone!

We tried hard

That surge in popularity continued for another few years. untill it changed everything:

  • Newbies increase avoided welcoming newcomers into the culture of wikis. Before 2004, a fire brigade would welcome the flood of new contributors each September; by the end of 2005, welcoming newbies was a full-time project year-round.
  • many of them were drawn to the project because they liked adding to a shared knowledgebase. but some were not interested in the wiki values of collaboration, discussion, and good faith; and in receiving welcomes. It took more of a focus on social norms to keep order in a community of 10,000 than norms to bring about harmonious collaboration.
  • Single and systematic attacks started: vandalism, Self-promotion and Personal agendas.
    • Vandalism: Many trolls, on discovering that anyone can edit Wikipedia, had always vandalized pages, inserting obvious and non-obvious nonsense, and making destructive test edits, but new vandals were more technically gifted and would develop vendettas against the project and keep them up for months.
    • Self-promotion: This became the sole use of Wikipedia for some people. People wrote glowing articles about themselves, and mean ones about their enemies. PR people were asked to sanitize articles about the companies they worked for.
    • Rewriting history: People started campaigns to get groups to coordinate article editing to reflect their own personal opinions and agendas.
    • Mirrors and forks: People started making money from Wikipedia. Wikipedia was attractive to people who monetized web traffic for a living. People cloned it and put ads on it,[2] they wanted to make deals that would funnel some of its readers towards their own web properties. Wikipedia wasn't ready for the flood of proposals it received, it did not have business expertise.
    • In late 2005, the Seigenthaler scandal made things worse, and heightened public interest in Wikipedia.

Our ambitious goals had a cost. Prior to 2003, Wikipedia had been, for editors, a kind of enjoyable intellectual pastime. Between 2003 and 2005, though, article patrol and vandal-fighting had become a much larger part of the community process. The small army of skilled, geeky editors were not just building an encyclopedia, they were defending it against never-ending hordes of vandals, POV-pushers, charlatans and scammers. Patrolling recent changes had effectively become a full-time job for its enthusiasts.

We keep pedia

But all was well when it ended well. It helped shape Wikipedia's internal culture:

  • Through all these, attackers learned Wikipedia!
  • Lots of productive editors appeared in Wikipedia during the 2003-2005 period.
  • Previously, editors had worked more-or-less in obscurity. very few people knew or cared what they were doing.
  • Some of those strong personal agendas and attacks shaped large-scale policies for the project. [3]
  • The tools developed to help editors with the constant work enabled them to work much more efficiently, but also in a much less sympathetic way. It became extremely easy to warn new users without more actively engaging with them or supporting them.
  • Wikipedia became popular enough both to receive awards and to be joked about. In 2003-2005, the main themes of media coverage of Wikipedia were that it was amazing and that it was a joke. The media didn't understand Wikipedia (and perhaps felt threatened by it).
  • After the Seigenthaler scandal; accuracy mattered more and policies about

At last, By Spring 2005, Wikipedia was one of the world's hundred most-popular sites. Two years later it had risen to tenth place. The Wikipedia community had built excellent encyclopedias in dozens of major languages and had similar projects in progress at different speeds in hundreds of other languages. Wikipedia was most popular, and its community of editors most active, in European and Asian languages; in the latter, Japanese clearly lead the way. The success Wikipedia had achieved in just a handful years was extraordinary.

We learned

Many online communities were struggling to cope with an influx of new people. Like the Communitree BBS in 1978, the LamdaMOO and the alt.folklore.urban in the early nineties; and “Eternal September,” since September 1993. An endless influx of newbies had degraded discourse on Usenet and the rest of the internet. An influx of new people is known to often result in:

  1. overwork and stress among experienced community members
  2. a call for new structures and policies, particularly to help arbitrate, mediate and settle controversies
  3. the community being externally viewed as cranky and hostile
  4. sometimes, a displacement of the original purpose of the community (meaning, it starts to focus on its own survival rather than whatever brought it together in the first place).

We've seen all of that, but this was not a new problem.

Wikipedia's success proved that strangers from around the world can and will work collaboratively together for the greater good. It proved that people, left to their own devices and without externally assigned leadership, could self-organize to create the biggest and most useful repository of information the world has ever known. It proved that online communities can self-correct and evolve and adapt over time.

Whether or not we are able to match our up and coming challenges, there's no turning back to traditional encyclopedias. This is most apparent in smaller markets, like Finland, where printed encyclopedias are published no more, and digital realm is not much better - only one commercial project left. The sales of printed dictionaries are also down, but they are still a viable business. But for how long, and how large a part of the development can be attributed to Wikimedia projects? In the global market Wikipedia's dominance also seems apparent. Encarta folded, Knol never got traction and Britannica decided to go wiki. Has Wikipedia become our last, best hope for a universal encyclopedia, or simply the start of a new era?

English Wikipedia administrators with 30 or more edits in the past 60 days

Chapter Three: The future (2007-present)

Unique visitors, article count, and gigabits per second served all continue to grow steadily, while new editors, page requests and edits per day are holding steady.[1] Fundraising far surpassed Foundation goals; by more than double in 2009.[2] But the first substantial statistical evidence of problems became apparent as the number of active administrators on the English Wikipedia fell 10% from 2008 to 2009. The downward trend is apparently continuing in an unsustainable fashion. Many complaints of heavier workload for the admins who remain, from both admins themselves and those who depend on their help, have been increasing in frequency. Is the long-term viability of the project in danger? If not, what can be done to reverse this worrisome trend? (topic discussion)


  1. see The Wiki Tour Bus
  2. w:WP:Mirrors and forks
  3. for instance, w:WP:NOR, and parts of w:WP:NOT)