Future Tense

Inside Wikipedia’s Historic, Fiercely Contested “Election”

A string of banners that read "Tamzin for Admin"
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.

In April, a programmer named Tamzin Hadasa Kelly ran for the unpaid, strictly volunteer position of Wikipedia administrator. Kelly, whose username is Tamzin, has contributed more than 34,000 edits to the site since registering her account in 2012. During her career, she has built up a substantial catalog of work, including Wikipedia articles about admiralty law and one for journalists killed during the Russo-Ukrainian war—a page that, sadly, has been growing.

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Despite Tamzin’s decade-plus experience on the site, her request for adminship, or RfA, was close and bitterly contested as editors fiercely debated whether a comment Tamzin had made about a hypothetical Trump supporter disqualified her from the position. RfA is essentially a week of heavy vetting by the relatively small but reliably opinionated group that makes up Wikipedia’s core editor base. In order to successfully clear RfA without facing additional hurdles, the candidate must demonstrate that they are publicly supported by at least 75 percent of the editors involved during the seven-day community review period. At the end of Tamzin’s review, the site’s bureaucrats found that she had achieved 75.3 percent support from the more than 450 editors who opined. For reference, the successful RfAs in 2021 had only about 214 editors weigh in on average, meaning Tamzin’s RfA was roughly double the norm. By Wikipedia’s standards, both sides totally rocked the “vote.” (Quotes intentional—more on that later.) Each camp in Tamzin’s record-breaking RfA said that it was trying to uphold the core Wikipedia value of neutrality—but they couldn’t agree on what that meant in practice here.

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English Wikipedia has 1,034 administrators—called admins or sysops (system operators) for short—but only about 500 admins are considered active, which means they’ve made 30 or more edits in the past two months. A few editors told me that 500 admins is not nearly enough. The issue is scale: Wikipedia is edited more than twice per second, not all of those edits come from users acting in good faith, and admins are the only ones with the tools to protect the site from plunging into chaos. There’s a sense among editors that the project needs new blood in order to repopulate the ranks. Over the years, several admins have quit due to burnout or to pursue other hobbies; others died out here in the real world. Although seven candidates for admin were successful in 2021, four admins died during that period, according to an online memorial for deceased Wikipedians, and a total of 62 were desysopped (demoted from admin) due to reasons like inactivity.

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Although they receive no financial compensation for their work, Wikipedia admins are entrusted with special powers, including the technical ability to block and unblock other editors, protect articles from disruptive editing, and purge bad content from the encyclopedic record. Under most circumstances, admins keep these special privileges for life. As Samuel Breslow, a journalist and active Wikipedia editor puts it, “Adminship is basically the Wikipedia equivalent of tenure.”

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Because it’s a lifetime appointment, some Wikipedians have taken to treating RfA with all the seriousness and showmanship of the SCOTUS confirmation hearings—except that the Wikipedia version is all in written form, taking place on a dedicated wiki page. Wikipedians are nothing if not prolific writers. Tamzin’s RfA page stands at about 65,000 words, making it roughly 40 percent longer than the text of The Great Gatsby, and that’s not counting the side discussions that sprang up in several anti-Wikipedia sites.

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During RfA, editors ask the candidate to opine on dicey subjective questions. What criteria would the admin use to block a “bad” user? What is their vision for the Wikipedia project as a whole? Tamzin told me that a lot of candidates try to play it safe, not wanting to anger any potential supporters by saying something too controversial. Instead of a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, many editors will write paragraph-length statements of support or opposition, outlining their reasoning in extreme detail. (A technical point: These statements are not considered literal votes, since Wikipedia operates based on the model of consensus rather than democracy. However, they do function as “votes” for purposes of determining the final result.)

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Graham Pearce, a 34-year-old Wikipedia administrator based in Australia, told me that the standards for adminship have escalated dramatically since he joined the project. When he became admin in 2007, Pearce had only two and a half years of editing experience, a résumé that was considered about normal at that time.* “I think RfA standards are too high for their own good these days and the generally tense atmosphere at RfA puts many people off the process,” Pearce said in an email.

For admin candidates, much of the stress comes from the fact that the entire discussion—the Q&A, the support/oppose statements, the probing of the record—takes place publicly in real time. Leading up to the “hell week” of her RfA, Tamzin (age 26) was anxious that somebody would ask her to defend something from the early days of her career. “It’s a week of ‘Will someone find the dumb thing I said when I was 16?’ ” Tamzin said in an interview. Outside of her Wikipedia life, Tamzin is a computer programmer, and she fully expected to spend most of the week tethered to her computer as the questions rolled in.

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According to Tamzin, the first 48 hours of her RfA were relatively painless, with a wave of supports and only a few opposes trickling in. Early on, one editor opposed Tamzin for not using the proper, lawyer-endorsed Bluebook citation method for the name of a legal case in one of her Wikipedia pages. But user Newyorkbrad (an attorney whom the Wall Street Journal has described as the site’s “chief-justice figure”) chimed in to say that Tamzin was, in fact, Bluebooking properly. With five days to go, Tamzin had 179 supports and only three opposes. It looked like her request for adminship was going to be smooth sailing.

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But then came the Wikipedia version of an October surprise. Question 14: Would Tamzin please explain a comment she wrote in 2021 during another candidate’s RfA? Back then, Tamzin had written: “I would be fine with a rule that we automatically desysop any Trump supporter. I will never vote for an admin candidate who’s right-of-center by American standards (although I wouldn’t vote ‘against’ someone solely on that basis).”

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In our interview, Tamzin described the larger context of her 2021 comments. A prospective admin named Vami IV was facing a backlash in their RfA because they had admitted to having fascist views in their youth. Tamzin did not think the community should necessarily oppose Vami for that mistake, since Vami had long ago denounced those views. Her comment about a hypothetical Trump-supporting admin was meant, in part, to differentiate Vami from such a person.

An unwritten rule of RfA is that it’s considered rude to leave a question “hanging” for too long without being answered. But in retrospect, Tamzin admits that her response to the infamous Q14 was too hasty and less than strategic. Rather than fully retracting her statement, Tamzin clarified that she shouldn’t have said that she would never vote for a right-of-center admin candidate. In her view, there was not a political “litmus test” for becoming a Wikipedia admin. At the same time, Tamzin wrote that she believed “support of oppressive regimes should be disqualifying, period,” and that in her view, “avowed, continuing support for Donald Trump constitutes support for an oppressive regime.”

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The pushback came swiftly. “Anybody who believes that half of the population of the United States can’t be a Wikipedia administrator, shouldn’t be a Wikipedia administrator,” wrote the user Noel S. McFerran. Tamzin began receiving dozens of opposes in a matter of hours; some editors called on her to withdraw. Quite a few users were concerned about her potentially misusing the admin powers. What if she locked Trump’s page during an editorial dispute so that it couldn’t be edited? (Tamzin had already recused herself in the RfA, in response to Question 18, from taking part in any admin action involving Trump’s page.)

Steve Pereira, username SilkTork, argued during the RfA that Tamzin was essentially advocating for “segregation” by political belief and that he doubted her ability to leave her politics at the door. Over an email exchange, Pereira told me that political bias was one of the greatest threats to Wikipedia. Publications like Fox News and OpIndia have a history of running headlines decrying what they view as Wikipedia’s leftist, socialist bias. In an email, Pereira argued that Wikipedia would not achieve its potential without a thriving culture of debate and dissent. “In Tamzin’s world, in which opposing views are stifled as unpleasant, Wikipedia would become a soft encyclopaedia of fandom,” Pereira said. “When we start to stifle debate, and negate opposing arguments, we end up with candyfloss, not hard brilliance.”

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Tamzin’s supporters argued that she was obviously within her rights to consider her personal circumstances. Tamzin is a self-described “disabled queer trans leftist Jewish woman.” (As Tamzin put it, “The Nazis would have killed me five times over.”) Supporters said her views were justified because of the Trump administration’s record of anti-trans policy positions.  “Some of these comments betray, to me at least, a distinct lack of empathy and understanding for what it means to be a minority and have your existence denied and/or threatened,” wrote the user nableezy. The user Leijurv cited Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance. The argument goes like this: One should not be required to tolerate intolerance because otherwise, intolerant people will quash the tolerant. Therefore, Tamzin can choose to be intolerant toward far-right actors who do not tolerate her.

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Throughout the RfA, both camps repeatedly referred to the policy of “neutral point of view,” one of the so-called five pillars of Wikipedia. NPOV states that the encyclopedia’s content must be written fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without editorial bias. But the language that the editors used to gauge Tamzin’s capacity for neutrality varied considerably. Pereira told me in an email that he expects an admin to be experienced, trustworthy, calm—temperamental qualities that he found lacking in Tamzin’s case. On the other hand, Tamzin’s supporters often pointed to her knowledge. The way she answered the questions, they said, showed she had a strong technical background and a good understanding of the rules. In the parlance of several of her supporters, she was “clueful.”

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Another consideration involves fixed parameters—the Wikipedia version of private sphere and public sphere. “Even someone who is very partisan could be studiously neutral in their behavior,” said Amy S. Bruckman, a professor at Georgia Tech and the author of Should You Believe Wikipedia?.  “It’s their behavior that matters, not their views.” Bruckman noted that attitudes on this point generally vary by geography, with Americans being more likely than others to assume that an individual’s personal beliefs predict their public behavior.

Tamzin told me in our interview that she was living alone at the time, and that her loneliness combined with the intense focus required that week was taxing on her mental health during RfA. “You have hundreds of people debating your fitness,” she said. “I think ideally one should be near one’s computer but not checking it constantly. [That] would be the best metagame, but it’s hard. You’ve intentionally made it so you don’t have much else to do that week.”

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Halfway through RfA, when it looked like her chances for adminship were starting to implode, Tamzin asked her mother if she could come and visit. Her mom agreed and traveled from D.C. to Cape May County, New Jersey.* The last two hours of the seven-day period were fraught, with Tamzin hovering within a few tenths of a percent of the required threshold—at some point, her mom said she couldn’t even look at her computer. But on day eight, once it was clear that she had cleared the bar and was moving on to the “ ’crat chat” phase, Tamzin and her mom celebrated by going to the beach. Relieved that the main event was over, Tamzin photographed some dolphins, a nod to her signature line [cetacean needed].

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In her debrief essay about the RfA, Tamzin noted that her difficult experience shows exactly why there’s a shortage of Wikipedia admins: Few sane people want to undergo that level of scrutiny. Although there have been several calls over the years for RfA reform and proposals to make the process less corrosive, Wikipedia editors told me there has not yet been substantial progress in this area. According to a 2021 RfA inquiry hosted on Wikipedia, “Because RfA carries with it lifetime tenure, granting any given editor sysop feels incredibly important. This creates a risk-adverse and high-stakes atmosphere.”

Then again, the notion that Wikipedia admins must have their powers for the rest of their days is certainly not an immutable law of the universe. With enough buy-in, that rule is just as editable as any wiki page. In Wikipedia as in life, we must pursue options for dialing down the heat.

Correction, June 16, 2022: This piece originally misstated that Graham Pearce became a Wikipedia administrator in 2005, when he had six to nine months of editing experience. Pearce became an admin in 2007 with two and a half years of experience. Due to a production error, the piece also misstated that Tamzin traveled from D.C. to New Jersey to visit her mother; Tamzin’s mother traveled from D.C. to visit her.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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