Backstage with the Wikipedians: Inner Workings of Global Encyclopedia 'Better than a Soap Opera'

By Mathieu von Rohr

Part 3: 'Now You Need Three Days to Read all the Rules'

Getting involved in Wikipedia has become significantly more difficult since then, Fiebig says. "Now you need three days just to read all the rules. The standards for articles have risen, there's an obligation to include footnotes. A lot of topics have been taken already. There are relevance criteria, which determine what you're even still allowed to write about at all."

This trend can also be seen in the way user numbers have developed. For years, the number of new Wikipedians exploded, but more recently, it's declined considerably. Stegbauer, the sociologist, reaches the conclusion in his study that Wikipedia's inner circle has closed itself off more and more, making access for new users more difficult.

Why do people even participate in a project like this, writing an encyclopedia without pay? One important impetus, Stegbauer says, is the social recognition earned through collaborating in the community. This is why talking about Wikipedia so often means talking about interpersonal relations. The project deals with big questions and yet, in the end, it has to do more than anything with the simple fact that humans fight over social roles.

The lowest on the hierarchy are the IPs -- non-registered users -- the ones most likely to make small, senseless changes like adding the word "fuck" into an article on Diderot. Then there's the German Wikipedia's elite, a caste of around 300 administrators. They have the right to block or delete articles and to discipline users. Legends and star authors are also at the top of the food chain.

Most Wikipedians have a set role, whether they're administrators like Fiebig, article authors like the anonymous Islam scholar who simply goes by "Orientalist" or Achim Raschka, a big name in biology. There are also vandal hunters like a user called "DerHexer" ("The Sorcerer"). And there are people with a mission, like Wladyslaw Sojka. Wikipedia has its own celebrities, for example a user called "Fossa" who gained followers by deriding other users as wannabe encyclopedists and "wikiphants."

'People Now Come at You with a List of House Rules'

Then there's the woman who knows as much as anyone about Wikipedia, is disappointed by the state of the site and yet can't seem to leave it behind.

Elisabeth Bauer, 32, a slim woman with dyed red hair, is a political scientist and a legend within the German-language Wikipedia. She lives on a converted farm in a Bavarian village near Lake Starnberg south of Munich.

When others talk about Bauer -- they know her as "Elian" -- reverence mixes with incomprehension. "She was the mother of all of it," is an oft-repeated phrase. Many also say that they can't understand what she has against Wikipedia now, since it used to be her project.

She's thrown in the towel many times, once even leaving a picture of a nuclear explosion as her farewell, but she always comes back in the end. But her feeling of alienation now runs deep. In recent years, she collaborated on Christian Stegbauer's study -- he couldn't have found a better-informed assistant. Bauer says she tried to achieve some distance from Wikipedia during that time.

She says she's sick of the discussions, where she constantly thinks, "How can people possibly be so stupid?" She doesn't like the tone used on Wikipedia now. "In the past, there were more crackpots and outsiders," Bauer says. "I felt comfortable with them. The people now come at you with a list of house rules."

Bauer came across Wikipedia in an academic footnote in 2002. She was member number 44 of the still fledgling German version, and she quickly became an administrator and a member of the inner circle.

She talks about the "early days" when she speaks of the site's beginnings, and it sounds as if she means the "better days." The German Wikipedia was still practically empty at that point. The article about the North Sea consisted of a single sentence: "The North Sea is a see (sic)." Discussions in those days didn't last long, because there was hardly anyone there to participate. Bauer says, "We often just established rules quickly, without giving them a lot of thought. It seems strange to see how some people today are beating themselves up over things that you yourself simply wrote down at some point."

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1. another "german trait" ?
more q than a 04/23/2010
Read the article with some interest, since I have often wondered how frequently wikipedia is given as THE source of info in german fora and blogs. Use it myself : a quick FIRST step of research, but would hesitate - even be kind of embarrassed - to have it as my sole back-up .... Now I can't wait for someone to comment on how "very german" the whole controversy is ;)
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