How does a project bite only the proper number of newbies?

I found a year-old draft of this post, but I think it’s apposite again — given that in a recent discussion of “how to attract more editors?”, Tim Starling seriously posited that we need to repel newcomers because the community (specifically the admin culture) is too toxic to throw them at.

Angie Byron did a presentation on getting women into open source which David Eaves spoke further on.

Summary: With open source software, there are people who think “that’s dumb,” there are people who think “I want to see it fixed” and there are people who think “I can do something about it.” The people at the intersection of all three power open source.

On Wikipedia, the intersection point – marked “These people power open source” – is pretty much anyone who knows something and can write it in a coherent sentence. But social structures have evolved to keep it from turning into complete rubbish. Sometimes way too much structure. This means there are all manner of social mechanisms to repel clueless n00bs, since there aren’t the technical or thinking-style barriers there are to coding. And many of these are (IMO) inappropriately strong.

How not to bite the n00bs is a perennial topic on Wikipedia, and I’m currently trying to get some old hands to edit as IPs so they can see how n00b-biting we actually are in practice. Results are disheartening so far.

Some open source projects do similar things to deal with the “Linus doesn’t scale” problem when they attract large volumes of people who can at least write code to a minimal degree. A high quality requirement on code is ony the start — there’s getting attention to your code, jumping through the right hoops, dealing with obnoxious-nerd-stereotype personalities (there’s a reason it’s a stereotype), etc.

But then the problem is what to do when you have more of them than you can deal with — the “Linus doesn’t scale” problem. It’d be nice if the only thing keeping them out was code quality, but it’s silly to claim that’s all there is.

Wikipedia has much the same problem — that intersection, which is tiny for software, is pretty much everyone who knows something and can type for a wiki. So hideously complex social structures have evolved to deal with the distributed crapflood. Many of which are way less than ideal and n00b-bite way too much.

That is: our problem is not getting people into that intersection point — it’s what happens to people in that intersection point, how to keep them from flooding you and how to make sure those mechanisms aren’t in fact damaging your project.

(It’s amazing how much time community nuts’n’bolts uses and how little sense one can have of things actually pushing forward. Wikipedia is the size of a small city. You know how hard it is herding five volunteers? Try getting ten thousand to do any particular thing.)

31 thoughts on “How does a project bite only the proper number of newbies?”

  1. In my experience editing primarily as an IP these days, it is functionally impossible to make anything resembling a substantive edit or one that is in the least bit controversial without having to log in under my admin account and bash some heads.

    If I had to sum the problem up in a nutshell, I would say it’s this – Wikipedia, due about 50% to the tendency of people to become self-important and about 50% to a complete failure to appropriately respond to the Siegenthaler incident (where we effectively elevated a lone piece of vandalism about an extremely esoteric public figure – one that was not caught because literally nobody actually cared about John Siegenthaler enough to look at the article and see the problem), grotesquely over-estimates the degree to which the crapflood is actually difficult to deal with.

    The fact of the matter is, an overwhelming majority of contributions to Wikipedia are net productive – either substantive expansions of accurate information, or at least non-worthless fixes. If one also excludes those contributions that are at the extreme limits of the stupidity/malice divide, the actual amount of non-transparently malicious crapflood is just not worth the effort we put into trying to stem it. It’s a complete mismatch of effort to actual problem.

  2. I saw an OTRS ticket asking for a complete book of all Wikipedia’s rules and policies. Which of course would be a very large book indeed.

    I think it has become so difficult to find anything new and genuinely significant that people devote themselves to the pretence that adding Wikipedia rulecruft is valuable work, with the result that we end up with inconsistent and mutually contradictory rules.

    A confession: I have a redlinked user page to catch out those who jump on users with no user page (a marker for newbies). It catches a few from time to time…

  3. @Fred – given that, per current internal discussions, existing core principles such as “No personal attacks” are pretty much ignored for the poison admins, it’s entirely unclear to me that further policy discussions would constitute productive effort. It would take a solution being imposed, whether internally or externally. Given the AC won’t act against poison admins (e.g. the “Utgard Loki” sockpuppeteer, where it took threats of going public when they wouldn’t do anything after months) because it’s not “politically expedient” (to use an appallingly common phrase from arbitrators on the functionaries list – arbs who are still on the AC), the question then becomes whether it’s bad enough for an external solution to be applied without it appearing to be crossing the streams.

  4. The idea that it is difficult to find something new and significant is patently false – Wikipedia still has appalling gaps in coverage. It doesn’t come close to covering major topics in the humanities as an academic field, its coverage of fiction has actually regressed due to deletion-in-lieu-of-improvement, and it could use some real organization of its mythology topics, which do an appalling job of providing any sort of master article that provides a coherent sense of how to read the sub-articles.

    Which only serves to create major problems with about 70% of what I use Wikipedia for.

    I think it’s pretty clear at this point that a reason for this is the rulescruft – particularly given that our coverage in the area of fiction actually got worse due to rulescruft – we took articles that were actually pretty good, and made them bad or non-existant.

  5. I’d agree very strongly with Phil. Part of the problem, though, is that for a certain type that’s strongly attracted to Wikipedia — young computer nerd, though that’s missing a few other factors — Wikipedia already contains almost every topic they know or care about. Worse, they think that every topic NOT in that list is unimportant stuff we’d be better off without — or if not that strongly, is so esoteric that it shouldn’t be on Wikipedia, but somewhere more focused.

    (I occasionally get people wondering why I stopped Wikipedia almost cold-turkey after my arbcom term expired. That above is a good portion of why, though not all of it, combined with exhaustion.)

  6. What’s ironic, of course, is that Rationalwiki – a project that actively endorses what amounts to the consensus POV of young, smart computer nerds – is far more accepting of my going and mucking together lengthy articles on occultism and postmodernism than the ostensibly NPOV Wikipedia.

  7. @Fred: Most Wikipedia policies at least have a historical version that was very sane and good policy. However, through a combination of the actual pages being progressively damaged (I have not looked at No Original Research and Verifiability in a few years, but they were actively bad policy pages when last I looked) and the fact that the arbcom has basically actively endorsed the policy of ignoring No Personal Attacks when enforcing it might get people angry at them so they would have trouble getting re-elected. Which is certainly part of the problem – the fact that there are clear and well-known examples of users who are blatantly permitted to violate rules does create a bit of a problem in enforcing said rules.

  8. @Fred – do they still use the phrase “politically expedient” or similar concepts when talking about poisonous admins?

    No, and, actually, I don’t recall them ever using such an expression, even when they were acting that way.


  9. David, I believe you very badly misquoted Tim. He didn’t say we should repel new editors. He said that it may be counterproductive to get a large number of new editors before we work out our social problems. He also specifically mentions technical ways that could possibly make Wikipedia friendlier to new editors.

  10. @Phil – you are right, of course, it’s only that it involves work. Or knowledge. For the lazy and ignorant these are insurmountable barriers.

    I have the opposite problem: the things I want to write about are so obscure as to defeat my attempts to source them to the minimum standards I demand of those attempting to write about their garage band.

    I would love to be able to properly source articles on Vic Nees, JanJoost van Elburg, Bill Hunt, founder-member of Fretwork viol consort, and others, but I can’t. I had enough trouble with Charles Medlam who is properly famous and even that’s not really adequately sourced, I would not create it today.

    I suppose I should subscribe to some print magazines.

    Incidentally, what is your opinion of Giano? My personal test of a behaviour policy is that if it won’t work for Giano, it won’t work.

  11. Giano as problem is not a phenomenon of a single person, at all, and it’s a category error to approach the problem in such terms. If Giano hadn’t had the protection of a group of enablers, who were then protected themselves (c.f. “Utgard Loki”), there wouldn’t have been nearly the problem – he would have learnt to behave in a civilised manner or have been kicked out. The problem was a group that got away with behaving appallingly and thus set the tone in a vast many areas, up to the AC. The problem now is how to deal with the effects of that and other such phenomena, and what led to them and will do again. Arbitrators are now politicians and think in terms of politics; I submit that the results are a failure.

  12. @David I agree, basically; the problem is how to put the genie back in the bottle. It’s not only admins, though, it’s more the vested contributors – who of course by the nature of Wikipedia do tend to become admins. I can think of several people who are not admins who carry grudges for years and are utterly poisonous to deal with.

    I wish we could have Badlydrawnjeff back. He was good at keeping us honest without being rude – a genuinely nice guy.

  13. Oh, and Giano’s main protector is Bishonen. How do I reconcile my impatience with Giano’s refusal to learn to play nice, with my admiration for Bish and her way of taking the sting out of stuff with humour?

  14. I think Giano belongs in the hallowed company of Lir and Mr. Natural Health as the most toxic editors ever to set foot on Wikipedia. How much of this is directly his fault and how much of it is the widespread and serial decision on the part of the arbitration committee and administrators to actively and vocally look the other way as he flagrantly violated civility policy is, however, a point I am extremely agnostic about.

    I think that anyone who seriously suggests that the breakdown in functionality of administrator discussions and the arbitration committee is worth some articles on arcane topics in historical architecture is being ridiculous. On the other hand, as I said, I think it’s likely that the complete failure of the community to deal with Giano effectively was far more harmful than anything Giano did as such.

    I suspect the problem you’re running into is one that stemmed specifically from Wikipedia’s very bad handling of Siegenthaler – the excessive fetishization of sources. Sources matter. Articles should be well-sourced. But the idea that it is possible to take a bunch of secondary sources, transparently copy the information from them into an article, and arrange it to be an encyclopedia article that is useful to anyone is completely false. Knowledge and information are more complex than that, and actually require people engaging in careful thought on questions where there are no clear-cut right answers.

    Wikipedia policy is, through and through, written to actively discourage that.

  15. Hmmm. As an OTRS volunteer I see too much pain caused by unsourced biographical information. And how do I prove that my knowledge (i.e. original research) is better than that of some guy pushing a crank theory?

    And how do we deal with those who are superficially polite but drive away everybody else? Like Abd, who stepped up as the latest and most successful proxy for the cold fusion cranks, and now proclaims himself an “expert” in the field based on having drunk gallons of their Kool-Aid?

  16. Original research was never intended as a synonym for personal knowledge. But I think that, for the most part, it can be handled by reasonable people looking at the available knowledge, evidence, etc, and discussing it rationally. I mean, I’ve done time on OTRS as well. One of the things that was most striking on OTRS was that our policies didn’t work preventatively – they were useful basically only as a club to whack people upside the head with in order to fix BLP problems. That is, the policies were seemingly useless in making it so people won’t be hurt and upset by what happens on Wikipedia. I mean, the Siegenthaler incident showed that – it’s not as though our policy prior to Siegenthaler endorsed the sort of crap that was written. It’s that nobody actually gave a fuck about Siegenthaler, so nobody saw it until he complained.

    Ideally, our article writing policy should allow two things.

    1) Knowledgeable editors should have an easy time adding what they know to Wikipedia.
    2) It should be easy to remove, eviscerate, or otherwise fix bad articles.

    Right now, we have #2 down, and not #1. I would suggest that we have, however, always had #2 down about as well as we do now, and that we used to have #1 down much more. The problem has been a bunch of policy that tries to prevent bad articles from existing in the first place. Such policies have had next to no actual successes in preventing bad articles, and have had alarming success at preventing good ones.

    I think that Wikipedia basically needs to accept that its solution to bad content is going to be reactive, and to abandon any preventative approaches that are in the least bit onerous. This has always been my objection to crap like Twinkle and the CVU – that they make the mistake of treating prevention as a viable priority.

  17. Ryan Lane wrote:

    David, I believe you very badly misquoted Tim. He didn’t say we should repel new editors. He said that it may be counterproductive to get a large number of new editors before we work out our social problems.

    I think it was a permissible exaggeration.

    He also specifically mentions technical ways that could possibly make Wikipedia friendlier to new editors.

    I think that policy and enforcement also has a role to play, but I haven’t been involved with that recently, so I can’t say much about it. I never had any success in changing Wikipedia policies while I was an active editor; I’ve found writing software to be much easier and less frustrating.

  18. David, thanks for a very thought-provoking post. I agree that it’s becoming increasingly apparent on en.wikipedia that the social structures that have evolved in response to a number of well publicised incidents in the past are strangling the community, driving away new contributors, and therefore slowing down the rate of article improvement.

    What’s the solution to this? There are many ways that we could go, but the aforementioned structures are going to prevent this needed change coming from within. Basic policies like notability, blocking policy, and how to get appointed to various positions of trust within the community (which is presently generating a load of kid cops with itchy trigger fingers running around tagging anything that’s not perfect first go) need to be comprehensively examined and altered.

    The WMF could always step in to make these changes, but any change they make are going to be resisted, vocally, by a large subsection of the community. Whether they’re willing to tinker with the cash cow that enwikipedia is for the foundation is also questionable.

  19. Well, mindless vandalism can be caught that way, and I have no problem with semi-automated instant response for those. The problem is scope creep. Drive-by admin-semi-bots should not be enforcing article standards except stopping page deletion, insertion of insults and general really obvious vandalism, and the like.

  20. Back when I was a newbie editing [[depleted uranium]] at the same time as a handful of nuclear industry and military PR flacks, I got a pretty good look up close at what it was like to be bitten hard by essentially the entire admin community at once. I was lucky that there were abundant secondary sources on that topic which completely vindicated me, but astonished it took so long to stablize the DU and GWI articles.

    What I’ve learned from all this is: look like a noob, act like you want to improve the encyclopedia, and train yourself to enjoy the bites because they are honestly meant as attempts at the shared goal of improving the encyclopedia. Now I edit about half the time as IPs and the other half as various sockpuppets. If anyone questions my commitment to improving the encyclopedia, I can point them to a raft of accomplishments in some of the most contentious areas, such as my improvements to [[Mitigation of climate change]] during the arbcom’s climate change case when everyone else was on an editing moratorium, or the article I took to featured status while banned (plug-in hybrid) etc.

    @Guy it’s interesting you bring up Abd and cold fusion. I first encountered Abd when he was trying to distort the reports of monte carlo simulations in [[IRV]] and it’s because of me that he became interested in cold fusion in the first place. How many more secondary sources in academic journals and military research labs before you stop using the term “cranks”?

  21. It does seem that a certain proportion of RC patrollers reflexively revert any anonymous edit. There’s a steady stream of “why did you bastards revert this factual change” type tickets, and a lot of the reverted changes are removing poorly sourced contentious material.

    Unfortunately I think most of the potential solutions come down to trying to instill Clue, which is not too easy.

  22. I too am frustrated at drive-by botting, especially when it comes to fair use pictures, mostly album and DVD covers from Amazon, hitting images I uploaded in 2004 and 2005. I’ve stopped trying to preserve material from those who think that it should be next to impossible to use fair use publicity material. They’d rather that the lead image on an actor’s article should be a snapshot taken by a fan rather than an iconic image from best known role. This is my favorite example of zealotry getting in the way of the encyclopedia.

    Then again, I’m accused of similar zealotry, and those accusations probably justified; articles about businesses that are Global Leaders in Today’s Ever Changing World of Technology and similar horseshit are unlikely to last long once I spot them. I too am guilty of using semi automated processes to sniff them out. (No need to get fancy. Simply looking for “management solution” and using “leverage” as a verb is surprisingly accurate.)

    We desperately need to improve and tighten up our coverage of mythology, folklore, and similar subjects. I’ve taken a bit of a break these past two weeks. I would like to be able to do more building rather than tearing down, but somebody’s got to watch out for all of those Global Leaders in Bombay and Madras. (Please, God, not “Mumbai” or “Chennai”.)

  23. @James – by the way, Akismet seems not to like you. I only found your comment because I just happened to bother looking in the spam trap – usually I never bother. No idea what triggered it … but if you see comments on WordPress blogs in general not showing up, you may care to alert the bloggers in question.

  24. Reading the comments on the post, I’m struck that a lot of it’s a pile of us old burnouts complaining about the youth of today and how much better it was when we were pouring our lives into it. Mnk mnk, young folk of today, you don’t get proper edits these days, mnk mnk. Oh dear …

  25. @Steve – “they’d rather that the lead image on an actor’s article should be a snapshot taken by a fan rather than an iconic image from best known role. This is my favorite example of zealotry getting in the way of the encyclopedia.” I understand your point, but I still think it’s worth the tactical loss for us to get the strategic win. YMMV, obviously.

  26. This reminds me of the unforgettable scene from ‘Casablanca’ when the antagonist realizes that he will not be able to live with the pain of knowing what the future holds.

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