Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2021-09-26/Discussion report

Editors discuss Wikipedia's vetting process for administrators: Emotional injury and rising standards against a backdrop of a dwindling sysop cadre: the 2021 Requests for adminship review grapples with tough issues.


Requests for adminship (RfA), the process by which potential administrators are vetted by the community, is undergoing a comprehensive review—the first of its kind since the administrator election reform of 2015. The first phase of the review, which seeks to identify problems in the RfA process, opened August 28 and will close September 28. Once this phase is completed, a "one-to-two week" brainstorming period will be undertaken to develop solutions for these problems. After the brainstorming period is completed, editors will have thirty days to discuss whether or not to implement any resulting proposals.

The ongoing first phase has discussed over twenty potential problems with the process. Several dozen editors have participated thus far to provide their insights.

To what extent are editors concerned about the RfA process?

There has been a sharp drop in the number of individuals requesting to become administrators. As of September 11, 2021, a mere nine editors had entered into the RfA process this year, with seven candidates approved, setting a pace for the lowest number of new administrators in any year. This drew concern from several editors who argued that the decreasing number of administrators cannot be sustained.

A minority of editors have stated their belief that there are no issues with the RfA process itself that require addressing. "Currently, it seems like we are mostly keeping up with demand," Jo-Jo Eumerus wrote, and Chetsford wrote that, "while the current uptake of new admins may become an issue, and may become an issue soon, and while this may not be sustainable, I agree that there is no issue."

A majority of editors in the discussions, however, believe that the RfA process has issues that need to be addressed. "We have only 24 admins whose first edit was since the start of 2015, that is not good for community cohesion, especially as many from a decade before that were becoming admins in months," wrote WereSpielChequers, "We also lose the editor retention benefit of appointing people as admins – new admins do tend to stay here long term. As for sustainability, if we appoint ten new admins in a year, to maintain a pool of a 1,000 admins half of whom are active at any time, we need the average new admin to remain an admin for 100 years and be active for half of them. Given current human longevity this is an unrealistic scenario."

Goszei agreed. "Our admin population is well below replacement rate, as evidenced by Wikipedia:Desysoppings by month," the editor wrote, "and the pool of admin tasks is not getting smaller."

What are the problems within the RfA process that editors have described?

Throughout the discussion, there were several issues that editors generally found to be of concern, including the community atmosphere at RfA and the scrutiny faced by prospective admins.

Is a corrosive atmosphere at RfA to blame?

Many editors agreed that the current RfA atmosphere is deeply corrosive. Vami IV, who withdrew his candidacy for adminship earlier this year, described his experience at RfA thusly:

My RfA constitutes the worst four days and several more thereafter of my now six years on Wikipedia. It was absolutely miserable. Aside from being told that you have problems that you need to work on, which is of course never pleasant, but my RfA was also dominated by running battles between the entire planet and Joe Roe for a now-redacted edit desc and his general attitude towards me, stupid opposes that were then badgered to death by my camp, zealot partisans of me, emotional injury to friends of mine, several of which were those zealot partisans. My experience on the whole was that I felt rejected, of course, but also like a humiliated, mistrusted vagrant. It has led me to think that whatever takes as much of the conversation about an RfA out of a candidate's earshot is the best and should be pursued.

— Vami IV, 00:33, 4 September 2021

Editors also debated over the benefits and drawbacks of moving to a secret ballot system over the current format, a debate which may carry over into the next phase of the comprehensive review. On this question, the discussion was rather split. Some participants, such as Andrew Davidson, argued that the current format requires editors who oppose the nomination to state their reasons publicly, leading to acrimony. Others, such as Nosebagbear, argued that moving to a secret ballot would make the vetting process worse: he wrote that doing so would make it "harder to identify reasons for failure, inherently eliminates Cratchats, would require people who were opposing for a non-obvious feature to note the reason so that others could be aware of it, or risk it going unnoticed."

Are standards for prospective admins too high?

Many editors expressed concerns that the level of scrutiny applied to editors requesting the admin toolset is too high. Ivanvector wrote that "RfA commenters have a pattern of treating any transgression as fatal, no matter how minor or how far in the past, and nobody who has any experience on this project knows if they put themselves forward, what someone is going to dig up from years in their past and frame in a way that fails their RfA. Most editors actually don't find it very enjoyable to have to defend every action they've ever made, just for the privilege of then having to defend every action they subsequently make."

A few editors argued that the level of scrutiny applied in requests for adminship is generally appropriate. L235 stated that "certainly there have been overly scrutinized RfAs, but in my experience, most RfAs face about the right amount of community scrutiny – we have to have some; adminship is now, under our present policies and norms, a big deal."

Standards for admins are also rising, according to most editors, who say that not enough editors qualify by the current standards. Valereee wrote that "[s]tandards have risen. Many very reasonable voters want to see at least some content creation, which I understand -- some of these editors have had interactions with admins who have no experience creating content and felt those admins didn't understand what content creators sometimes have to deal with. And many voters want to see an extremely high level of civility; I'm one of those voters. Those things weren't necessary in 2007."

Which aspects of the RfA process are leaving the community most divided?

The community has highly divergent views on several aspects of the RfA process. In particular, editors expressed a wide variety of opinions on whether or not the lack of standardized RfA criteria is part of the problem, the extent to which long-term editors are disadvanaged by the notion that mud sticks, and the extent to which the admin toolset should be unbundled.

Should RfA be the only road to adminship?

Over two-thirds of participating editors expressed a desire for an alternative path to adminship other than RfA.

"There are several other possibilities for mechanisms to get new admins," Rhododendrites wrote, "there's also the possibility of setting up recall/desysop procedures which would only apply to people who received their rights through that alternative mechanism. Perhaps more than all of the rest, this seems like it's worth an experiment at least."

Since WMF Legal requires community review as a condition of adminship, there was some skepticism among editors for the feasibility of this concept. Worm That Turned stated his agreement that editors should be "pushing for an alternative, as the public opinion of RfA is so low, and has been for so long."

"A completely new process - which meets the WMF scrutiny requirements and which has community buy in", Worm said, "is like to gain potential good candidates who are refusing to run RfA simply because it is RfA."

L235, a member of the Arbitration Committee, argued that these efforts were unlikely to yield fruit. "Adminship isn't just some buttons these days", the administrator argued, "we can't deny that adminship comes with a substantial grant of social capital and influence, and far-more-than-technical authority (e.g. DS authority). As long as that's the case, a pre-adminship community review seems like the only acceptable system that I can think up. I would love to be convinced otherwise, though."