The Admin Ship – all hands on deck!
In last month's Signpost we reported that discussions about adminship had dropped not just to a trickle, but had dried up completely. The article produced a massive 70,000 byte river of comment, positive and objective. It refloated talks again at WT:RfA, once Wikipedia's most popular forum, after its longest period ever without a post, and culminated in the successful bids for captaincy by two new candidates. However, with still only five new admins for the year, as we mark the halfway point through 2018, the seachart painstakingly maintained by WereSpielChequers, continues to predict dismal progress over the sysop waters. In this June issue, we take a look at what admins actually do and why they do it. We asked an ad-hoc selection of some 40 or so of the most active admins to describe their work.
What they get up to while we're not looking
The vast majority of the work admins do comprises operations that get little publicity. Literally swabbing the decks of backlogs of routine issues, it's what give them the name of "janitor", and their tool(s) the "mop". Most of the admins we asked each do a variety of tasks that involve the tools in non-contentious areas. One admin, Diannaa, focuses nowadays almost exclusively on copyright cleanup using the copy patrol Interface. She spends two to five hours a day on this and chose this area because there are very few people working on copyright cleanup in particular. That's a lot of hours and shows real dedication to a single and very necessary chore. Most others, although they have preferred areas, touch on several aspects of the job. Just a few sysops systematically patrol areas for instances where their tools are most useful, AfD closures, and other deletion backlogs, such as RHaworth who sails on a set course through the Category:CSD: "Almost entirely doing speedy deletions from CAT:CSD with blocking and page protection to complete some jobs. Why? Each deletion is complete in itself. There is no need for ongoing monitoring and discussion as is needed if one looks after a specific article."
Others regularly take care of permission requests, or regularly responding to vandalism reports or requests for page protection. Many simply intervene during their normal editing where they can use their tools to resolve the problems they encounter, and occasionally close editing debates requiring admin trust to assess the consensus.
What they get up to while we are looking
Creating the bow wave with all their spray are the drama boards, blocks, bans and other sanctions. Wikipedia's Hurricane Alley with even hotter waters than the Atlantic Ocean is the poop deck of that dreaded sea dragon, Aunty Ani, more politely referred to as Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents, and woe betide anyone who gets dragged there, whether admin or simple deck hands. Not too infrequently, editors asking for other users to be keel-hauled end up with the wind blowing the spray back in their faces; there's a Wikipedia essay on that too: Boomerang. Not many of the admins we spoke to venture into these dangerous waters – for some, it's more to be feared than the Bermuda Triangle. One admin finds that ANI seems to have developed an "unruly and aggressive culture" that makes it "very difficult to hold a structured productive discussion". Boing! said Zebedee tells us:
|“||[...] I'm trying to keep away from difficult and contentious things now, because they get to be a drain over the long term. So, I'm not really doing anything particularly difficult or challenging these days. As an example, there are civility issues at ANI that in the past I might have tried to address, but these days it seems pointless trying to improve that horrible place. The Discretionary Sanctions area is one I find too complex to spend my time on – lots of rigid procedures and logs and stuff (which might be needed, but I don't get on with bureaucracy)||”|
One of the admins who rarely participates on drama boards or policy-making believes the growth of policies over the years is the worst change that has ever happened to Wikipedia. MelanieN is another admin who avoids the drama boards as much as possible. She nevertheless participates as a regular editor on contentious article talk pages and is sometimes described as "the grown-up in the room." On Discretionary sanctions, another fairly contentious area that has even led to wheel warring on several occasions, Bishonen, who actually likes working there also believes that people stay clear of all DS because of the paperwork, the logs, and the templates.
Just how challenging is it being a fairly busy admin?
One admin replies with one of his characteristic pithy comments: "Keeping my mouth shut and my tools in the box when people piss me off. I find it really hard sometimes to let them have the last word, but I usually do. It's unbelievable how stubborn and/or nasty some people can be. Some people just don't realise that admins, just like all other genuine editors, are unpaid volunteers." Comments from other admins include 'Explaining why I've done something. The explanation isn't necessarily difficult, but attempting to demonstrate to someone that what I've done is proper and completely within the bounds of what an admin should do (especially when they just are complaining and are refusing to listen) is frustrating at times' (Primefac), and Alex Shih (quoting Dennis Brown) says: "[...] the most difficult time would be when you are being personally attacked, but unable to take admin action when you technically could, and unable to receive assistance in time.'
What do they enjoy doing most as admins?
Our admins are almost unanimous in that they derive the greatest satisfaction from using their tools to rescue new or confused users who have strayed unwittingly into deeper waters and nudge them back into the shallows, although some do say that this is often not an easy thing to do. One admin finds the easiest and most pleasant part of their work is "being able to help the overwhelming majority of our responsible, collegial Wikipedians get on with their work by shielding them from troublemakers through administrative sanctions where they are needed." Yunshui enjoys the fact that so many admin tasks can now be completed in a handful of clicks using scripts instead of doing them manually. He gets satisfaction from "consigning vandalism only accounts to the dungheap of blockdom". Like most admins, Anne Delong likes "being able to fix my own problems instead of having to ask for help, and to deal with technical issues such as page moves, history merges, and [revision deletions]". Like most other active admins, she values being able to see deleted content when contributing to discussions.
|“||Working on speedy deletions, I am contributing to maintaining the quality of the encyclopedia. It requires skill and judgement. Perhaps surprisingly, it offers variety: there is a complete spectrum of responses to any one case from 'delete with disgust and block the perpetrator' at one extreme, through 'move to draftspace' to 'remove the speedy tag and reprimand the user who applied it' at the other extreme. Shameful thing to admit: I enjoy giving supercilious replies to 'why did you delete' questions on my talk page. I don't set out to be rude to people but it often seems to come out that way! —RHaworth||”|
One of the very quirks in our English language is that the phrase 'admin abuse' can be interpreted two ways. Yes, dear Reader, you've got it: either you are one of those editors who hurls insults and offense at sysops, or you are an admin who (apparently) mistreats the editors – or you simply get on with your work and stay out of the firing line whichever way the cannon balls are flying, which is actually what quite a few of our admins do. One admin has twice received nasty emails from editors who found her personal website and email address online, and for a while she was being impersonated by someone who was trying to solicit money for COI edits. She hasn't noticed general hostility towards her personally as an admin.
When asked about whether they have been the target of harassment or personal attacks, Sandstein reports "[...] regularly, from editors who are angry that I sanctioned them, or from their friends. If one works in sanctions-related areas, one has to accept this, to some degree, as part of the job, and one has to be able to ignore it. But I regularly have to remind myself that I need to be able to distinguish valid, good-faith criticism from the sort of reflexive assumptions of bad faith that are sometimes the consequence of sanctions, and this is not always easy."
|“||Of course I've been heckled by people I've disobliged. Doesn't bother me. Also it's worth noting that you don't have to be an admin to be harassed and abused for trying to make Wikipedia better. (Sitush again comes to mind.) I absolutely don't think the non-admin community is generally hostile. On the contrary. There are a very few established users who have made something of a career of panning admins as a group, that's all. —Bishonen||”|
The author of this Signpost article tells of being abused:
|“||[...] both on- and off-Wiki but possibly not as much as some admins who are also simply doing their job. On-Wiki it mainly comes from trolls, but the deliberate off-Wiki stuff on the Wikipedia hate sites can be particularly distressing. Any admin who is going to work in the trenches is going to have to put up with it. I don't think the non-admin users are generally hostile towards admins but there definitely used to be a significant number of recurring names that revelled in every opportunity to trip an admin up. In the past I've loosely referred to them as the 'anti-admin brigade' – indeed in the past their attacks have clearly been coordinated but since some of the major actors have retired, calmed down, or been blocked, it's very much less acute than it used to be.||”|
HJ Mitchell "Harry", explains that he has suffered abuse "many, many times":
|“||When I had more free time and was a more active admin I dealt with a lot of our less ... charming vandals. So yes, I've received abuse, some of it grotesque, but I usually take it as a sign that I'm doing something right (I'd rather they came to insult me than go somewhere where they might actually cause some damage!). As for the community, I don't think it's generally hostile to admins. In general, I think we as a community value the work our admins do to keep the wheels turning but some members of the community have negative feelings towards admins, or more accurately towards what they perceive as a specific group of admins. This is not helped by a few admins who throw their weight around, but some friction in a large community is almost inevitable.||”|
Are they in it for the power it gives them over content and to bully other users?
Apparently not. But most of them report a suspicion that some non-admins think they are. According to JamesBWatson, "[...] contrary to what a lot of non-admins think, being an administrator is not much about having more power, much more about spending time on routine cleanup work and therefore having less time available to do constructive editing, which is what I (and probably all of us) came here to do". Beeblebrox concurs, saying: "As always when discussing adminship I'd like to mention that it is not some all-powerful position of godlike authority. When you’ve deleted a few thousand pages of the same promotional garbage you begin to understand that it really is just keeping the place clean."
Generally, our most active admins like their work although some find it sometimes time-consuming and at times not quite so easy. Those who work in the stormier waters accept that they will occasionally bear the brunt of remarks and actions of less pleasant contributors, trolls, and vandals, but they take it in their stride. The questions we asked (for this article) were:
- In which areas do you mainly or normally use your admin tools? (such as deletion/undeletion, blocking, page protection, revdel, PERM, etc.). What's the reason for your choice?
- In what areas, if any, do you regularly exercise non-tool admin judgement? (such as debate closures, RfA, AN, ANI, Arbcom cases, policy making, etc). What's the reason for your choice?
- What do you find most challenging or difficult about being an admin?
- What do you find easiest, or most pleasing about being an admin?
- Have you ever been the target of harassment or PA? How do you perceive some of the claims that the non-admin community is generally hostile towards sysops?
The admins were exceptionally frank and forthcoming with their answers. Readers who are interested in how each admin replied can see the full set of sysop answers for this article, with an introduction, at Wikipedia:Signpost/June 2018 admin Q&A. We heartily thank the respondents for allowing themselves to be press-ganged into participating in our inquisition without any hesitation. We make no comments as to whether the survey is truly representative of our admins in general.
In next month's issue of The Signpost, we will be sailing into hopefully calmer waters on the last leg of the admin ship's current voyage. Admins will be giving us their thoughts on the RfA process and some advice for potential candidates.