The monster under the rug
Sven Manguard has been editing Wikipedia for just over a year. He works primarily in the File namespace, but also participates in backlog eliminations and other gnomish tasks. Below, Sven makes a personal plea to the community, asking editors to become more involved in eliminating backlogs. The author would like to thank editors ThatPeskyCommoner, Ironholds, and Fox for offering their support and advice in the creation of this essay.
The views expressed are those of the author only. Responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds. If you have one in mind, please leave a message at the opinion desk.
The task of encyclopaedia cultivation generates vast amounts of paperwork that, if left unaddressed by volunteers, accumulate into enormous backlogs.
Whatever people may say about declining participation, Wikipedia still generates a lot of new content. We add articles and upload dozens upon dozens of files every day, and that is unquestionably a good thing. However, as a community, we tend to neglect a large variety of problems that have cropped up in older articles. We sweep them under the rug, so to speak, and that is unquestionably a very bad thing.
The fact of the matter is that Wikipedia has swept so many problems under the rug that we now have a monster on our hands. We have backlogs that are in the hundreds, in the thousands, and in a few cases, in the hundreds of thousands, that have sat relatively untackled for months or years. These aren't petty issues either. There are 250,000 articles that need references. By that, I don’t mean that they need more references, I mean that there are, at last count, a quarter million articles that do not have a single citation to support them, and those are just the articles that are tagged as such. Some of these completely unreferenced articles were tagged as far back as October 2006, a half decade ago. There are an additional 250,000 articles that need additional references, and over 200,000 with unsourced statements. Less absurdly high in count but just as important, there are almost 10,000 articles tagged as containing original research, over 8,500 with disputed neutrality, and over 5,500 with disputed accuracy. I am cherry picking especially important issues with especially high numbers, yes, but there are about two dozen other content related backlogs with over a thousand items in them — listed at the Wikipedia Contribution Team’s backlog dashboard — that are not listed here.
What am I trying to say by listing all of these massive backlogs? I am saying that we, as a community, are failing our readers. People come to Wikipedia, for the most part, expecting accurate, neutral, well written articles. In almost a million cases, we cannot with a straight face vouch for the accuracy of the articles we're presenting. It is depressing, it is unacceptable, and unless the community, or significant portions of it, works to tackle these backlogs, the problem will only get worse.
There are a number of factors to blame for this problem. There was a time when ignorance of the problem was a valid claim, but considering the amount of times that one backlog or another has been mentioned in a prominent location, I no longer believe ignorance is a passable excuse. Instead, I believe it comes down to our culture. Working in backlogs certainly isn't glamorous, but more importantly, I don't perceive it as being looked upon by the community as being especially commendable or even as being especially valuable. It seems rather rare that a candidate for RfA puts forth their nomination by leading off their credentials with something like "I have spent the last six months clearing out the backlog at Category:Articles that need to differentiate between fact and fiction" (a category with over 3,500 items, by the way). Even worse, I can point to a few cases where someone did put forth backlog work as a credential, only to have it implicitly or explicitly disregarded by people who only seemed to focus on whether the nominee had written "enough" articles or had "enough" good and featured articles. Simply put, until the community decides that working on backlogs is a valuable activity, and shows it not only at RfA, but also in discussions and everyday community interaction, not enough people are going to jump in and start working on clearing backlogs.
This is not to say that no one values backlog work. There are a few groups of editors dedicated to working on clearing out particularly important backlogs. The Guild of Copy Editors and WikiProject Wikify deserve a tremendous amount of respect in particular for keeping the backlogs at Category:Wikipedia articles needing copy edit and Category:Articles that need to be wikified low; by doing so they ensure a great many articles are a great deal more readable than they otherwise would have been. In the area of files, which happens to be where I spend a majority of my time, backlogs are kept low by a combination of exceedingly useful bots, a few organized drives (such as WikiProject Images and Media's recently concluded Move to Commons drive), and a small handful of editors who devote large amounts of time to working with files.
It is, of course, not enough. This brings me to the primary motivation behind my decision to write this opinion piece:
I am asking, no, begging, everyone that reads this piece to go to this page, select a backlog that they think they can help out with, and knock off a few items. Spend an hour on it, devote ten minutes to backlogs once or twice a week, or do whatever else works for you. It doesn't have to take up a lot of time. If you want, show me a few diffs and I'll give you a barnstar; I'd be happy to. If 1,000 people read this, and each of them clears ten items this month, that’s 10,000 items. If everyone does ten items a month for an entire year, 120,000 items will have been cleared. Even distributed among two dozen or more backlogs, that is a formidable number.
I wouldn't go as far as to beg random strangers to do this if I weren't absolutely convinced that this was of vital importance, but here I am begging for all to see. I also wouldn't ask this of the community if I didn't think it were possible to make a noticeable difference. Recently I cleared a 1,500 item backlog in just a month, with the assistance of one other editor. The two of us, in weeks, took out a backlog that had sat untouched for years, and that specific backlog will never come back. While we'll never be able to eliminate maintenance tasks, it is possible to eliminate the massive backlogs that we have now, and return the number of pending cleanup tasks to a reasonable, functional, level. All it takes is work — and editors willing to do that work. Please join me in the coming months. Together we can defeat the monster under the rug.