This is an essay.
It contains the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. This page is not an encyclopedia article, nor is it one of Wikipedia's policies or guidelines, as it has not been thoroughly vetted by the community. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.
|This page in a nutshell: Some users appear to be impossible to block no matter what behavior they exhibit. However, if you proceed very carefully you may be able to produce a positive result, whether it involves blocking or not.|
Sometimes a long-term user or even administrator or arbitrator does something they shouldn't have done. Sometimes an administrator will go ahead and block them for it. And sometimes that user is rapidly unblocked by another admin, who may even openly admit that the user did the thing they should not have done, a thing we would certainly block a less experienced user for, but that this user should not be blocked for. If you have seen this happen, you have met one of The Unblockables.
These users usually have a great deal of experience, 40,000+ edits, and are often current or former administrators. They tend to work in one or more controversial topic areas, sometimes for many years. The simplest way to spot them is by their block log. They have usually been repeatedly blocked and rapidly unblocked, often for edit warring or incivility.
|While loosely based on actual events, these are fictitious scenarios and are not intended to represent any specific user or their actions.|
Head of a pin
An administrator has been editing the controversial topic of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin for four years. It is almost exactly what they want it to be. It says the right things, it is formatted well, and it has been relatively stable for some time. A less experienced user comes along and begins making numerous changes. These changes are not vandalism by any reasonable definition but they are rolled back by the admin anyway because they see them as messing up their near-perfect article. Seeing no reason for this, the newbie makes the same or very similar changes again. The admin reverts them again. And the cycle repeats again, this time the admin warns in an edit summary to stop edit warring and use the talk page. The user posts their reasons to the talk page and adds the content back in again. The admin reverts them and says there is no consensus for adding the content. Another user who has the page watchlisted sees this and reports the incident at the edit warring noticeboard. A previously uninvolved admin blocks both users for one day. Within two hours, an WP:ANI thread is opened on the subject. An admin with a long history with the blocked admin steps in and decrees that there is no consensus for the block despite the fact that only two users have commented and one of them supports the block. The blocked admin is unblocked. Ten minutes later the unblocking admin remembers to unblock the other user as well, "in the interest of fairness."
A former sysop has a habit of belittling anyone who disagrees with them. We're not talking minor condescension like "I don't think you understand the problem." It's more along the lines of "get your head out of your ass" or removing comments to their user talk with edit summaries like "removing comment from ignorant douchebag." Even though the comments are removed, the former sysop and their audience of admirers will continue to comment on the removed posting, the general intelligence of the user who posted it, why they are such a douchebag, etc. They will not allow any comment from the original poster to stand, even if it is a polite request to either include them in the conversation or stop insulting them. They find their comments removed, but their signature still attached to a "redacted" statement reading "redacted comments by enormous idiot douche." The former admin is blocked by a third party for a week for repeated unacceptable incivility. The block is reverted by another admin who has previously reversed a different block on this same user, with the explanation that a week won't stop them so what is the point of blocking them anyway.
Why do they get unblocked every time?
The reasons are varied, but tend to share some common elements.
- How long they have been on Wikipedia, often stated more nobly as "length of service," will usually be in the mix. This may seem odd as we expect our long-term users to understand policy better than the newbies who would have been blocked for the same offense, but somehow this makes sense to some users.
- You didn't warn them enough. Even if they have been blocked for the same thing repeatedly in the past you will find this objection being raised if they didn't get a new warning less than 48 hours before the block.
- You don't understand the background. The admin who did the block doesn't understand the many struggles the blocked user has had to endure, which somehow make it OK for them to edit war or be extremely rude to others.
- They are too valuable. This reasoning implies that if this one user isn't allowed unrestricted access to the article or topic area, it will rapidly fall into ruin and become an embarrassment to Wikipedia.
- Short blocks won't work. A very sneaky way for a friendly admin to help out an unblockable. They will argue that the previous short blocks failed to curb the user's the problematic behavior, so nothing short of an indefinite block or an ArbCom case is likely to help. Conversely, if you make a long block this same admin will reverse it as being too harsh or on the basis of "time served" if it's been a few hours.
What to do
If you are an admin who has seen edit warring or other unacceptable behavior from such a user, you must proceed very carefully.
- Warn the user(s). Even if they have 150,000 edits and have been blocked for the exact same thing multiple times before, any action you eventually decide to take will be challenged because they were not warned unless you issue a clear, specific, public warning to them, usually on their user talk page.
- Be specific, but not too specific. Explain what policies are being violated, provide diffs of the edits that violate policy, but don't make your warning so narrow that they can essentially keep doing the same thing but without breaking the "letter" of said warning. If they remove your warning, don't add it back, or respond at all. Anyone can still see it in their page history.
- Don't get personal. This is very important. One of the unblockables' defense mechanisms is to point insults at you. You must see this for what it is, bait. They are trying to goad you into responding in kind, making it a personal issue. If you do this even once, you've blown it and can never take any administrative action related to this person again.
- Don't get involved in whatever dispute they are involved in. Don't express an opinion about anything except the problematic behavior itself. Once you pick a side in the content dispute, you are an involved admin and your admin tools are out of play, even if the unblockable is an admin and is using them in the area. Don't sink to their level.
- Don't reinstate the block once it has been removed. Even if there is an emerging consensus that the block was valid, reimposing it yourself will be viewed as wheel warring and you may find yourself being desysopped for it. The wheel-warring policy gives the advantage to the second admin, who can revert you on the flimsiest of pretexts. Then, until you have a strong consensus behind your actions, nobody can revert them. It's an unfortunate situation but it's all we've got to stop wheel warring.
- Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. Sometimes, no matter how solid the block was, no matter how carefully you proceeded, your block will remain overturned. This is not necessarily a failure. The next time the unblockable does something similar (they almost always do eventually), it will be that much harder for anyone to claim it was just "a hiccup" and not part of a pattern. Your block of them will be revealed to have shown insight into what was going on, but only if you disengaged at the right moment and haven't been constantly hounding the user and stalking their edits waiting for another slip up. If they are that bad, somebody else will see it eventually.
What to expect
- The fan club. These users sometimes have a fan club who will leap to their defense no matter what outrageous actions they may take. The offending user and the admin who unblocked them can sit back and let these users shout at you until you are sick of the whole affair. The fan club is only interested in overturning the block and chasing away the admin who dared to impose it. Wikipedia policy, logic, reason, common sense, fair play, all these things are irrelevant to the fan club unless they seem to favor their side. They will twist and turn any statement you make, any action you make, to mean something sinister, and they will defend the unblockable in any way they can, even if it makes no sense.
- The filibuster. A favorite tactic is to write so much on the subject that it looks like a great debate with many facets and consensus is unclear, when in reality it is only one or two users who are endlessly going around in circular argument until most other parties have grown weary of the debate and wandered off elsewhere.
- Angry posts to your talk page. From the unblockable, the admin who unblocked them, the fan club, and if you are lucky a few outside observers who are actually looking at this objectively. If you can't handle all that criticism don't do blocks like this, 'cause you are going to get it no matter how sound the block was.
- Calls for you to step down as an admin from those same parties. If you really did make a huge mistake and there is an overwhelming consensus that the block was unjustified, and it's not the first time you have done something so stupid you should consider this. If not, just ignore it.
- Attempted boomeranging to make the issue about you rather than about the problematic behavior of the unblockable one. Give polite, brief answers to questions regarding other admin actions you have taken, but don't let them flip the debate around on you. Users with a fan club are especially effective at this. They sit back and say nothing while their "fans" attack you, and the focus shifts. Beware of this insidious tactic, don't get drawn into prolonged debates about your history, invite users who wish to do so to begin a separate conversation that is about you in general as that is not appropriate in a review of a single admin action.
There is some consolation in the knowledge no user on Wikipedia is immune from sanctions, there are cases of so-called unblockable editors who have eventually become indefinitely blocked, or lost privileges.
- Wulczyn, Ellery; Taraborelli, Dario; Thain, Nithum; Dixon, Lucas (February 17, 2017). "Algorithms and insults: Scaling up our understanding of harassment on Wikipedia". Wikimedia Foundation.
- Auerbach, David (December 11, 2014). "Encyclopedia Frown". Slate.
- Wood, Mike (April 7, 2020). "Untouchable, Unblockable and Often Unbeatable Problematic Wikipedia Editors". Legal Morning.