Wikipedia reaches a turning point: it’s losing administrators faster than it can appoint them

In July this year, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales rejected the notion that the online encyclopaedia is struggling to appoint new administrators.

Wales was responding to an article in The Atlantic, which showed that since the 2007 peak of admin candidacies, the number of successful admin appointments on the English Wikipedia has diminished year after year. In 2007, a minimum of 18 editors were appointed administrators every month  – a stark contrast to the mere 20 appointed in 2012 so far.

With the ability to delete pages, protect pages from being edited, and block people from editing, administrators – admins, or “sysops” as they are also known – have a critical role in the site’s maintenance; a role whose significance is reflected in the arduousness of the admin selection process. However, the fact that fewer of them are being appointed is not necessarily a problem. The real issue is that they are gradually disappearing.

As this startling graph shows, the active admin corps has shrunk by around a third over the last five years, and it’s only those who have made at least 30 edits within the last 60 days that are considered “active” – more than half of the 1,465 accounts with admin privileges have not.

However, even this definition of an active administrator is fundamentally flawed: editing is just editing, and is not synonymous with the use of administrative tools. There are admins who, irrespective of how many recent editorial contributions they have made, may not have logged an admin action such as deleting a spam page or protecting a page from a flurry of vandalism for weeks, months, or even years.

Obviously this means that Wikipedia’s maintenance is far from being equally distributed, and actually depends upon a relatively small number of individuals doing the bulk of the unpaid and largely thankless work. And given the lack of contributions from the inactive ones, I’ll grant that their formal removal if they have not made a single logged action in a year is not going to have an impact on the actual amount of admin productivity.

But one thing is now on paper and is very clear: since 64 inactive admins have been desysopped this year with only 20 replacing them so far in 2012, Wikipedia is losing admins faster than it is replacing them, and that cannot be considered as anything other than a significant turning point.

What does this mean for the site? Sure, vandalism still gets fixed; the good editor goes off to do something else useful while an admin blocks the vandal if he or she ends up on the relevant notice board after failing to stop. But even though the site has made one of the most useful vandalism tools available to non-admins, and has also installed a powerful filter which scans every single incoming edit and can be programmed to throttle unconstructive edits without any intervention from administrators, not only are the backlogs which do require intervention creeping in more frequently than usual, they are not being dealt with completely behind the scenes and are increasingly requiring prompts by non-admins for attention on administrator notice boards. As backlogs seep in, this can only increase the ability for those who wish to harm the site and its content to do so – with accordingly greater freedom from sanctions.

Whatever the cause of declining editor participation and net loss of administrators, I hope that the editing community comes up with a solution, as the current trend puts Wikipedia at the beginning of a path down which most of us would not want it to go.

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