The real Wikipedia FAQ: Who can edit?

Part of the real Wikipedia FAQ series, this time we deal with the issue of just who can edit Wikipedias (why is a whole different kettle of fish).
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For clarity, this entry will deal specifically with the English version of Wikipedia - it should be noted that other language editions of the online encyclopedia, and indeed all the other websites hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), have their own rules, but inevitably, being the biggest and most well known site, the English Wikipedia is really the only one where the issue of who can edit has been stress tested.

Now, to business. Like most people, you're probably only vaguely aware of the cancer on humanity that is Wikipedia, and as part of that knowledge you've probably at one time or another absorbed the basic idea that anyone can edit it. But is it true? Well, at one time it arguably was - Wikipedia originally was after all just a place where gullible people could contribute draft articles for Nupedia, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia would have been, had it not sucked.

Because Nupedia did suck, Wikipedia quickly became the only game in town, and the people behind it began peddling the idea that the fact anyone could edit it was a major feature, a founding principle even. And arguably it is the single biggest reason why it took off. Even today, it remains one of their stated fundamental principles, although bizarrely it is now wrapped up in the issue of copyright (which is ironic in the extreme, since most people who edit Wikipedia are quite clueless about copyright issues).

But that was when the problems began. As soon as Wikipedia, or rather the 'community' writing and running it, as they bizarrely became known, became too large for personal relationships to suffice as a management tool, that was when they first began to compromise on this principle and start to divide editors into the haves and the have nots, or rather the could's and the could nots.

At this point the heads of a few Wikipedians will be boiling over, so I'll set their minds at ease and freely declare that yes, even today, you can still just turn up and edit most of Wikipedia's articles - in percentage terms it's a really high number. You can still edit 'anonymously', i.e. as an IP user, or you can register an account and edit with a user name (counter-intuitively, the latter is the more anonymous method, in theory at least).

But this doesn't tell the whole story. The reason why they began introducing limitations as to who could do what was because they quickly realized that their Utopian project had a couple of major flaws - for one, if you let anyone edit, you cannot always be sure their edit is correct, or even deliberately malicious, and it takes time to ascertain this and take corrective action. And for two, they realized that when two editors, or groups of editors, disagreed on the content of an article, well, if you just let them resolve it by editing it to and fro for eternity, sure enough, they would. Since their other access management tool, the block, is rather crude, they often reach for one of these can/cannot type solutions to these problems.

So, fast forward to today, and Wikipedia now has a dizzying array of technical and social means to dictate who can and cannot do all sorts of things to articles that have been either vandalized or fought over in the past, which, as you can probably appreciate, accounts for a huge chunk of all articles readers would actually be reading, and budding editors would want to edit. The list of these measures is so long I'm not even going to enumerate them here - ultimately I hope to include it as a second post - it will have to be updated regularly, as the Wikipedia community and their pseudo-law enforcers are still finding new and different ways to make it harder for newcomers and novices to play in their sandpit.

Even worse, there has been a creeping acceptance of the principle that these measures can be applied preemptively, merely on the suspicion that something will happen, rather than reactively to something that has happened. For a time, preemptive action like that was fiercely resisted by the community for the very reason that it violates this principle in a major way, but even there it has been sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism as they gradually realise the operating model of their project isn't all its cracked up to be, especially in the face of hemorrhaging numbers of experienced users needed to monitor all manner of things if you did allow just anyone to edit anything.

Needless to say, in the functionality of all these various restrictions, IP users are always at the bottom of the hierarchy of privilege. Next comes registered users who haven't been around long or done much. Established users form the majority of the user base who can do most things, sort of akin to a Wikipedia middle class. Within the middle class, you can also obtain certain other privileges if you jump through certain hoops. Next comes admins, and while the community is still pretty convinced that this is just a janitorial role and they have no editorial authority over the middle class writers, it is notable that, due to the litany of different restrictions that now exist, in many circumstances even the most proficient editors cannot do functions which most outsiders would consider basic tools if you are doing nothing more than 'building' an encyclopedia.

Outside of the technical and policy based measures, there are also various cultural ways that the Wikipedia community ensures that the principle that anyone can edit isn't really true. Basically, if you've just arrived and don't have much of a record of constructive editing, then you will be accorded a much lower social standing - the practical effects of which mean you will be shown less respect and given less leeway for mistakes. You will also be more likely to have your work undone, often without any explanation at all, and you will generally be treated as if you are a disposable part in a giant impersonal machine, not a potentially valuable member of their community with skills and knowledge to utilize for the common good.

It is not unusual for IP users to be referred to in the most unflattering of terms even if they're doing nothing wrong at all, and they are left in no doubt that their lives on Wikipedia would improve immeasurably if they simply registered an account. It's not too dissimilar to the sort of pressure seen in protection rackets. Needless to say, this is not and never was how the founding fathers ever wanted their project to run, and indeed this is all behavior that is squarely condemned in their various rules which govern how they're supposed to interact. But the sad fact of Wikipedia is that in practice, they have no way of stopping this being the default way most community members behave - if they've tried telling people to be nicer to each other and treat all users equally once, they've tried it a hundred times. Indeed, most admins are among the worst offenders in ensuring this hierarchy exists.

If that sounds bad, you've not heard the worst of it yet - such is the Wikipedia's level of distrust of any newcomers or novices, one of the functions that IP users are completely prohibited from doing is posting in Wikipedia's version of Supreme Court proceedings, no matter what your motive - it is an automatic ban from participating. And while newcomers are not explicitly banned from using the site's other areas for reporting things needing attention, most notably the general incident noticeboard, invariably unless it's the most banal of requests, the reaction is usually to just ignore your complaint and instead focus on the fact you are a new user.

On Wikipedia, in stark contrast to other walks of life, concerned onlookers and even whistleblowers seeking to be heard on condition of anonymity, are expected to use only back-channels such as email, and trust that the people in positions of trust and power will act appropriately. As we critics have learned, they invariably do not. This would be bad enough if the only problems on Wikipedia were good faith disputes over what an article should contain, but it's horrific when you consider that Wikipedia has, for obvious reasons, become a haven for all sorts of truthers, cranks, PR agents, obsessives, trolls and narcissists.

At this point I'll also note with some amusement that the situation regarding these privileges has become so complex that it really isn't unusual now to find admins making mistakes in how and when the various different restrictions could/should be used. Needless to say, if they can't understand it, what hope for the very users they impact? As for whether they actually work, you'll struggle to really find any evidence that the introduction of any of these different erosions of the basic principle that anyone can edit has been done for sound, evidence based reasons. They get discussed, sure, but it's all very much based on gut feeling, with generous helpings of ideology. Some have been rushed through based on single high profile incidents, as opposed to any specific known trend. There's also more than a few Wikipedians who quite like to use the wedge strategy to ensure that once initially adopted, these measures get utilized far beyond their original scope.

So, in summary, while it is true that anyone can edit Wikipedia, in all likelihood, if you can and your edit sticks, then it is most likely an article literally nobody else in the world cares about, or you have expended enormous time and energy to become accepted by the community. In other words, it's a closed shop. And before you get the wrong idea, none of this entry is meant to be a resounding endorsement of the whole idea that allowing anyone to just turn up and change something is the perfect recipe for creating an encyclopedia - it is still the case that this feature is behind many of Wikipedia's biggest failings, even after they have eroded it in the many ways I've outlined. And on any measure, it has not resulted in anything that can reasonably be called an encyclopedia.

This FAQ exists to counter the idea that people can be part of the Wikipedia project from edit 1. If, after reading this, you still want to edit Wikipedia and work your way up these various levels, that's fine. It's not like people learning how the mafia worked suddenly cut off their supply of new recruits. But if you end up sleeping with the fishes because you didn't show one of your superiors enough deference or started asking questions above your pay-grade, well, you can't say you weren't warned. And there are, as they say, no refunds. Any time, indeed any money, you may have poured into the activity of editting Wikipedia, is lost forever. And if you're wondering why they now link this founding principle to copyright rather than any sense of a higher purpose, it's because everything you write for Wikipedia is instantly considered common property, and your rights over it are limited to merely being identified as one of the authors. You can no more retract or otherwise claim ownership of text, or indeed images, that you contribute to Wikipedia after the fact, than you can reclaim urine you contribute to the sea. And in many ways, that analogy is apt.

If you are anything like us and believe that Wikipedia is a corrupt and immoral enterprise, and humanity's thirst for knowledge would be better served if it was destroyed and replaced with something that actually worked, well, hopefully this entry has given you plenty of ideas on how you can exploit the Wikipedia's innate paranoia and mistrust to ensure that their march toward ever more restrictive hierarchies of user privilege continues apace. HTD. And if that's not your kind of thing, then just be vigilant and ready to correct anyone who is stupid enough to try and tell anyone else that you really can just turn up at Wikipedia and edit it.