Wikipedia:Thoughts on Wikipedia Editing and Digital Labor

"Thoughts on Wikipedia Editing and Digital Labor" by Dorothy Howard
April, 2014.

Most Wikipedia editors self-describe themselves as volunteers. Editors generally are not just content producers, but truly believe in Wikipedia’s mission of a free and democratized web along its other social-humanist applications such as providing free and open information about medicine, media, current events, government, and so much more to skimmers and scholars. This is what makes Wikipedia a 'culture,' or as its been called, a 'movement' - words that try to get at the fact that it is more than just a non-profit organization, it is a lifestyle.

But recently I’ve been thinking about what it means for someone to be considered a volunteer when the work they do voluntarily turns into a full-time job and generates all sorts of other bonuses to the ‘movement’ if you like to call it that, like donations to non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, and fiscal benefits to other SEO engines like Google using Wikipedia's open data.

Another question I have related to labor and Wikipedia: What if, in all our good-hearted encouragement to build an editor pool, we have created a small class of obsessive editors that forsakes other types of paid work to make Wikipedia editing their main priority? I raise this question because I feel strongly about digital labor and labor ethics and think Wikipedia should consider what it means to have such a large base of volunteers just as another non-profit might consider whether to take on unpaid interns.

Many editors have taken their work on Wikipedia to the extreme side of an obsession. In 2012, Justin Knapp became the first Wikipedia editor reaching over a million edits. An interview at The Daily Dot reports[1] :

…so what does he do for a living? ‘I do all kinds of odd jobs for money, but my most recent forty hours a week was pizza delivery,’ he told me in an email. He added parenthetically: “which I lost two weeks ago due to a downturn in sales :/…The hardest working editor on the sixth most popular website in the world is an under-employed former pizza delivery man.

Justin is still the top editor on Wikipedia but is now joined by two other editors who have reached the million edits mark as well as several hundred other editors that have reached six-digits for edits. For these devoted editors, Wikipedia is more than a hobby it is a lifestyle and perhaps also full-time volunteer position.

While Wikipedia is not responsible for its editors getting carried away into editing and making this volunteer work a full-time job, I believe that it must address its indebtedness to these editors. Without them Wikipedia would have millions less articles and be a much less reliable source, let alone a much less promising enterprise for financial donations.

Hope LaborEdit

But why do editors get carried away? The first and most true answer is probably that they love editing and want to contribute to the site's good cause. But beyond that, Kuehn and Corrigan have written about online social production using the term “hope labor” to describe how, in the tough job market, people engage in uncompensated work like unpaid internships, excessive blogging, and other types of media contribution as a way to attract the attention of future employers.[2] While Wikipedia is a less public form of attention-grabbing, editing still has the psychological effect of making you feel that you are putting in work that will be rewarded. But the problem with “hope-labor” in unpaid internships and online media contributions is that the payoff often doesn’t come. Justin Knapp, despite his media attention, was still a pizza delivery boy in the end. That’s not to say that Wikipedia doesn’t provide a springboard for some- members of chapters, Wikipedian in residence, and others engaged in the movement get credentials, non-profit management experience, and more, but for many editors who never get engaged in the organized effort, this is not the case.

Hope-labor plays in the wider conversation about digital labor and crowdsourcing. Most of the major, top 10 websites, including Wikipedia, rely on uncompensated crowd-sourced labor.[3][4] This is the general direction that the web seems to be moving. The question then arises how different or separate is Wikipedia from these other sites? Wikipedia doesn’t usually care to talk about how its data is used by search engines like Google and Yahoo but I think it should. Using Wikipedia's data site, DBpedia, these search engines can easily access the structured data, categories, and biography articles, images, and so much more, generated by Wikipedia's largely anon users. With the recent developments with Wikidata, Wikipedia's data is only likely to become more sophisticated and useful for these search engines, who will use its CC0 data and resources free-of-cost.

While I am a firmly committed editor myself, I still feel worried when I think about how my contributions to Wikipedia are indirectly fueling these money-making machines. Someone is making money off my edits, and that is the people using the data that I voluntarily contribute under the guise of 'giving' to the open access movement. The rhetoric of 'giving' to the Open access movement inspires numerous volunteer contributors, but I hope we can approach this language with our eyes wide open so as to avoid possibly asking contributors to be our indefinite unpaid interns without the regular benefits unpaid interns get. More deeply, the question concerns what does it mean for someone to contribute their time and energy to Wikipedia and how do we honor and respect their labor?

Stereotypes of the Obsessive EditorEdit

The nicer stereotype of Wikipedians is that they are obsessive, perfectionistic, and OCD, the meaner ones are that Wikipedians are anti-social, Reddit-loving trolls. Perhaps one thing that encourages obsessive editing among volunteers is that Wikipedia is always there for editing. Everytime you open the internet you can edit, and many do, just as often as they may check Facebook or Twitter. The hours these volunteers commit are of course not met with any compensation, though it is unclear what it means for someone's hobby and obsession to be generating a resources which hundreds, thousands, and possibly millions of people are reading.

My mind jumps to recent debates over unpaid internships and the overworked, exhaustion of non-profit sector workers, who justify their low wages as a burden readily carried in the name of altruism, potential societal benefit, and career payoff down the line.

But I worry that the language of the 'obsessive editor' is used as a way to justify the immense amount of unpaid labor that Wikipedia contributors 'give' to the community without addressing the other factors potentially playing into their contributions. We all come into this community with a range of interests and reasons at the conscious and subconscious levels, and we should be open that it is not always because of obsession that we contribute.

That said, extending from this ‘obsessive editor’ stereotype, I also think this conversation about labor and Wikipedia should address something that the Wikipedia community talks about way less than those who do not edit Wikipedia– that is the perception that many editors are Neurotypical and have Aspergers and/or Autism.

There are many essays on Wikipedia written by and for editors with Aspergers and/or autism. One essay opens with the line:

“If a group of researchers had been tasked to create a working/hobby environment specifically designed to attract high-functioning autistics, it's hard to see how they could have come up with anything better than Wikipedia!" and continues,"'s very probable that here in Wikipedia we have a much higher percentage of autism-spectrum people than you'll find in the Real World. Wikipedia is like a honey-trap for people on the autism spectrum…”

— from Essay, Wikipedia

My question is, what does it mean to provide a space and activity for editors with Aspergers or autism to volunteer, but then for this hobby to be transformed into an almost full-time volunteer occupation. Would it be unrealistic to consider this transaction a form of exploitation? I bring this question up not because I want to accuse the Wikimedia Foundation of labor exploitation but because I think we need to talk about the ethics of digital volunteering/crowdsourcing that pertain to the particular types of editor-base that we attract as a movement.

What is There to Be Done?Edit

As Wikipedia moves forward, I hope to advocate for Wikipedia taking a keener interest in its labor practices as pertaining to digital volunteering. Most volunteers or unpaid interns sign a volunteer contract- are such contracts necessary for digital volunteering?

Even more radical is the question of compensating certain classes of 'super-editors' for major contributions.

I think of YouTube's Partner Program, in which Users can apply to get a slice of ad views once they have enough followers on their channel. The User then makes about $5-7 for every 1000 ad views from on their videos. Most Users in the Partner Program make a small amount of money, but some of YouTube's biggest stars have walked away with as much as $7 million for 3.7b video views. This model makes sense for YouTube because it is gaining immense amounts of traffic and ad views because of these User's contributions and it only makes sense to encourage them to keep producing and sharing videos.

While Wikipedia doesn't receive ad money and could not replicate this program, I am interested in starting a conversation about implementing a program to compensate 'super-editors' on Wikipedia with funds from Wikipedia's large pool of donations. This type of project would allow for more fair digital labor practices and would compensate viewers for their major contributions to the site's legitimacy as a reliable source.


  1. ^ "Meet Justin Knapp, the Hardest Working Man on Wikipedia." The Daily Dot. April 26, 2012.
  2. ^ Kathleen Kuehn, Thomas F Corrigan. “Hope Labor: The Role of Employment Prospects in Online Social Production.” The Political Economy of Communication. Vol 1. no. 1 (2013)
  3. ^ [1] Digital Labor Working Group. CUNY.
  4. ^ Tiziana Terranova (20 June 2003). "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy | electronic book review". electronic book review. Archived from the original on 26 July 2020. Retrieved 16 September 2020.