Does Wikipedia have enough administrators?

  • July 25, 2019
Wikimedia admins – image by Jwslubbock CC BY-SA 4.0

By John Lubbock, Wikimedia UK Communications Coordinator

There are currently 1144 admins on the English language Wikipedia, of whom 501 are active as editors, though not all of those do a lot of admin-specific tasks. When you talk to people who have worked as admins on Wikipedia, they usually tell you that back in the early days of Wikipedia, a lot of people became admins quite easily, but that after spring 2008, it became a lot harder to become one.

What exactly do admins do? Well, according to the Wikipedia page about them, “Administrators, commonly known as admins or sysops (system operators), are Wikipedia editors who have been granted the technical ability to perform certain special actions on the English Wikipedia. These include the ability to block and unblock user accounts, IP addresses, and IP ranges from editing, edit fully protected pages, protect and unprotect pages from editing, delete and undelete pages, rename pages without restriction, and use certain other tools.”

User:WereSpielChequers has done some excellent analysis of the number of new admins being created on English Wikipedia, and the number of new admins has been in almost uninterrupted decline from early 2008 for over a decade. In an essay about the process of Requests for Adminship (RfA), WereSpielChequers says that it “is widely but not universally considered to be broken for various reasons.” but he also says “And yet, the great majority of those few who do pass do so almost unanimously.”

Graph of successful requests for adminship on Wikipedia by WereSpielChequers CC BY-SA 4.0

One issue of concern seems to be whether at some point there will simply not be enough admins to do all of the work necessary on the site, leading to a potential crisis. Another issue according to WereSpielChequers is that it creates a generational divide “between an active editing community – many of whom have been with us for less than two years and a large majority for less than four – and an admin community, none of whom have been here less than a year, fewer than 1% have been editing for one to two years and the vast majority have been editing for more than five years.”

I interviewed administrator User:WormThatTurned about how you become an admin and whether the process is currently too hard:

“Administrators on the English Wikipedia are promoted after a process called “Request for Adminship”. That generally either starts with a nomination from a long standing editor or a self-nomination, and answering three simple questions, which are roughly “Why do you want to be an admin, what’s your best work and what’s gone wrong for you on wikipedia?”. After that, the page is transcluded onto the requests page, and a week long process of scrutiny begins.

“Unfortunately, the community has very high standards for administrators.They require thousands (generally tens of thousands) of edits, and years of tenure. In addition, they look for evidence of article creation and evidence that the nominee has some idea what they’re getting themselves in for (that might be looking at why they need the tools, or how they’ve handled conflict in the past). I’ve written up a “Magic Formula” on how to become an admin, but it’s really not a simple task.

“The scrutiny period does involve many users taking a deep dive into your history, as well as any individuals who have previously had disagreements with you emerging to have a say. In addition, how you handle yourself during the process is taken into account. The entire process is so stressful that it is often referred to as “the gauntlet”, and while many users pass through with little or no comment, many others have a very hard time there.

“As to whether I feel the process is insufficient, well, yes. Editors who are eligible will regularly refuse to run, because they are fearful of the unpleasant experience that they will have to go through, and the benefits are small. Personally, I believe that the difficulty in removing administrators leads people to have higher standards than they should and the encyclopedia needs to go through the pain of not having enough admins for a bit to lower its standards. I also feel that fixed term adminship (rather than “for life”) would be a massive improvement in the long run.”


Confucius was an administrator in about 500 BC, but probably didn’t have the same issues Wikipedia admins experience. image Public Domain

User:WormThatTurned suggests that people who are interested in becoming admins check out a page he created about the process: Request an RfA Nomination.

One aspect of the RfA process which should be considered in light of discussion around the gender gap in the content of, and contributors to, Wikipedia, is that the reputation of the RfA process could put women off applying to be admins. WereSpielChequers has noted that the reputation of the process is worse than the reality, and points out that women made up a sizeable minority (8/28) of RFA candidates with over 200 supporters. It may also be true that women are more likely to be successful in applying for adminship because they tend to be overqualified at the point that they apply. Male editors may also be more likely to have red flags raised in their RfA discussions due to past behaviour which could lead to an unsuccessful application.

It’s certainly true that women make up a minority of admins on English Wikipedia, but then they also make up a minority of Wikipedia editors, so the problem with the lack of diversity in Wikipedia admins can’t really be separated from the problem of lack of diversity on the Wikimedia projects as a whole. Redesigning the whole process to encourage more editors to get involved is something that may need looking at in the future. It is certainly important to consider how the process could be improved to encourage more people from underrepresented groups to apply for adminship.

Despite the problems we have listed above, I would encourage more people to apply to be admins, and Wikimedia UK is here to support and advise you on who to talk to about doing this if you need help. Like the gender gap issue, we can only change the way that admins are created if more people get involved and help change the processes that lead to undesirable outcomes.



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