User:L235/Our biggest challenge

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In the 2020 ArbCom elections, I was asked what I thought is the biggest challenge or problem facing Wikipedia. Below is what I wrote:

My answer would probably change by the day because there are many big challenges we face: systemic bias, coordinated misinformation, perverse incentives in undisclosed paid editing, politicization/polarization of trust in the media ecosystem, community-Foundation relations, and the (un-)reliability of small projects are just a few of many.

Right now, what I am concerned about is the declining supply of editor-hours relative to what we need to sustain our encyclopedia (even without counting the hard work necessary to research and write new content). There's a "supply" side and a "demand" side. What I mean by the "demand" side is this: over the last 19 years, we've created a lot of process. That's not in itself a bad thing; a lot of these processes serve very important purposes and have allowed Wikipedia to mature. AfD, NPP, and AfC let us set standards for what kinds of topics we can have articles about. RfCs allow us to get a definite consensus when needed. AIV and recent changes patrol prevent most bad faith editing. SPI helps respond to long term abuse and harassment and allows for some level of enforcement for our conduct rules. There's UAA, RFPP, DRV, unblock appeals and UTRS, AN/ANI, RS/N, OTRS, the Teahouse, and many many more. And let's not forget the mother of all process, the Arbitration Committee itself.

Certainly, none of these processes are perfect. But they all fill functions that are necessary for the encyclopedia to work well. In fact, as I write here, the price we pay for our one-of-a-kind free open encyclopedia that everyone can edit is that lots of things take way more editor-hours than they otherwise would. We could have an editor in chief and axe AfC, AfD, and all content RfCs, but that would be antithetical to our spirit, and so we keep our decentralized content review processes – rightly so.

But the "demand" problem I articulate earlier is this: we don't have enough editor hours to properly staff all our processes. Already a frightful number of AfDs have completely insufficient participation by the time they run out. Many content RfCs see embarrassingly low participation. The backlog at AfC is 3,279 drafts (3+ months), and that's actually lower than I remember. And I just checked: the oldest tickets in the checkuser-en-wp and paid-en-wp OTRS queues are over a year old. This is not to say that AfD participants, RfC participants, AfC reviewers, or CUs are lazy or incompetent – exactly the opposite, in fact: these dedicated volunteers are being stretched thin, and there aren't nearly enough editor hours to go around to cover all of the important process that we have.

At the same time, we have a "supply" problem. It's no secret that we do a poor job of recruiting new contributors. This is, in fact, an existential crisis that we need to recognize and step up to meet – one that both enwiki community leaders and the Foundation give lip service to but have not taken the time to seriously study for some time. I don't really know what drives people to want to contribute in the first place, but we certainly don't make it easy. Our policies and norms could fill several novels, and our unwritten norms are so extensive that most veteran editors occasionally run afoul of them by accident. We have probably the worst onboarding experience for new users out of any website in the top 100, and a lot of the time folks get treated like dirt when they join – maybe not as "standard practice", but our openness gives everyone the ability to generate official-looking warnings and post them with anyone. That's not to mention complaints of harassment and bias when trying to contribute.

A not-insignificant part of it that we ought to recognize is that, of course, it takes quite a bit of skill to edit Wikipedia. We brand ourselves as "anyone can edit", but we really mean "anyone who has general competence, enough social skills to get along with others on the internet, and skill in research and writing" can attempt to volunteer hours of their time trying to make a small difference in an often-hostile environment.

Another way to put it: I love Wikipedia, I love the time I spend on Wikipedia, and I love the feeling of making a bit of a difference here. But even I wouldn't recommend that anyone I know in real life try to edit here. I've been asked, and I think the only honest response is to talk through all of what I said above.

There are lots of things that I think might help with this. Some of the ideas I've talked about in answers above or in my statement might help a bit. But this is not primarily an ArbCom problem, nor is it a problem that any one answer will solve. When confronting problems like this, I am grateful that this project comprises thousands upon thousands of immensely talented people, people who built one of the finest human works in history – a monument to knowledge, free for anyone to access, anywhere. If there's anyone who can get through this, it's us.