Wikipedia:Volunteer Fire Department
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As early as December 2001, Wikipedians predicted: "A media barrage: if we stay the course, it's not whether, but when. If we stay the course, however, this will happen probably a few times within the next year or two." Wikipedia has already been Slashdotted four times (once in 2001, twice in 2003 and once in 2004), and been the subject of much press coverage. While the timescale of this prediction may be inaccurate, it's still not a matter of whether, but when. In response to this potential threat, the "Wikipedia Militia" (now known as the Volunteer Fire Department) was formed and volunteers invited.
The fire department was called out in response to the second Slashdotting of Wikipedia, on January 22. As well as calling out the fire department on the Announcements and the mailing lists, various technical measures were taken to reduce the load on the servers. Through these actions the Slashdot effect was weathered: the servers became significantly slower, but did not crash, and while there was some increase in vandalism, particularly on articles related to Slashdot, it was not significant.
A wonderful problem we haven't yet had to deal with: lots of media coverage. Though there have been various types of publicity leading to surges in the number of new contributors, Wikipedia has never actually been the focus of a sustained and enormous barrage of media coverage. Of course, Wikipedia isn't about the publicity, the fame, and the recognition; it is a work of passion and love. But we might indeed get a lot of publicity and that could have some ill effects we might want to be prepared for.
It could happen all at once, too, that many different well-trafficked news websites send us large amounts of traffic, which we might well be concerned about. If it happened relatively gradually, the new recruits could be quickly trained to break in the even newer recruits. But what if it happens suddenly? In the near future, for example, we might break 1,000,000 articles, and be going gangbusters. Time (or whatever) might decide to write up a big hyped-up article about it, and that might lead to evening broadcast news coverage, Wall Street Journal analysts mentioning it as the next big thing--the works. It would probably be a mistake to dismiss this possibility. If Wikipedia becomes as large and useful as we want it to be, this will happen.
The accompanying invasion of new contributors. Now, if that happened, of course it would be mainly wonderful and fantastic. What is worrisome is that, overnight, many of the people working on Wikipedia, at that stage, would be new contributors. Suppose there were, say, 5000 people on average working on Wikipedia. (Currently, there are more signed up users but around this many contributors.) Then suppose that, over a period of two weeks, that number were instantly increased by a factor of ten, or a hundred: 50,000, or 500,000. A significant minority of new contributors need quite a bit of mentoring, as it were; if new contributors increase their numbers suddenly, the numbers of contributors needing mentoring will also increase--but the availability of mentors would be the same. Unless we commit ourselves to being available in such times of need!
By 2004, the nature of Wikipedia had changed. The number of active editors had grown, and Wikipedia culture had become more well defined. In dealing with slow but inexorable growth over the prior years, Wikipedia developed more and better tools — both cultural and technical — for dealing with newcomers.
The list of Volunteer Fire Department members had become stale by 2004, and unlike the early times, many Wikipedians have a habit of daily editing and daily review of Recent Changes. Thus, the idea of contacting a subset of Wikipedians by e-mail in the event of a "fire" lost much of its relevance.
Rather than become sinecures, the fire department chose to disband. Engine No. 1 was auctioned off on eBay and the proceeds used to purchase a new server, and the SCBA gear was divided up among the senior members. A banquet was held at the fire hall, after which all members retired to a nearby, trendy wine bar for refreshments and stories of riding the rig in the glory days.