Stewards and Vogons
This is not another story, but an analysis of some of Wikimedian problems. If you didn’t read a satire “A not so ordinary night of one Steward“, you may read it firstly, and then to continue to read this analysis. However, it is not necessary for understanding of this post.
The day before yesterday I really felt like a Vogon. Maybe, it was a feeling between a being a Vogon and being a British lord-lawyer with a good will, but, let’s approximate it to Vogons. Because, unlike Vogons, British lord-lawyers don’t have real weapons. But, it is true that both species are horrible.
Yesterday I started to write this post, but I realized that I may make a satire. Satire is the next level of describing problems in a community, after a reasonable talk. Of course, while satires are not forbidden or satirists don’t suffer heavy consequences, the situation is still under the borders of regular. However, it is true that satire had to be used because reasonable talk didn’t succeed.
I used a real situation to make a satire, so if people from Turkish and Azerbaijani Wikipedias have bad feelings, I have to say sorry. The main targets are stewards and regulations around stewards and checkusers.
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From time to time I start to feel a light form of panic when I realize that rules are directly opposite to the projects’ needs. The same was happen the day before yesterday.
An admin from Turkish Wikipedia called stewards at #wikimedia-stewards channel by typing “@stewards”. This is a keyword for calling stewards for non-urgent asks, unlike “!stewards” — which is a keyword for calling stewards for urgent asks.
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Before I continue to talk about his reasons why he used non-urgent keyword, I want to explain differences between those two keywords.
Before a couple of weeks the topic on the #wikimedia-stewards channel was like: Type !steward in case of emergency | Non-urgent requests here: <http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/RFP> | Send en.wikipedia oversight requests to email@example.com
I think that demanding from contributors to call stewards only in a case of emergency is very very arrogant. Actually, when I realized that the topic is working, I started to think twice before I say anything to a contributor who asked for help. I don’t want to frustrate them more than the topic is frustrating them. Such topic repulsed people from talking with stewards. Such topic explains that “stewards are very important persons who shouldn’t be disturbed while working on much more important tasks”. Yes, I may work on some important task (privately, professionally or for Wikimedia), but I decided to be a steward not because of my vanity, but because those privileges are giving to me a possibility to help to Wikimedians. If someone has “much more important tasks”, then they should give back their steward rights.
So, a couple of weeks ago I started a discussion about the channel’s topic at the steward’s list. I thought that the solution is to make two channels, but Lodewijk gave a more reasonable solution: to make two keywords, one for urgent requests, one for non-urgent requests.
I was positively surprised when I realized that not only I when I got a general support for that, but when I saw that Dungodung made a technical solution very quickly. However, it was the end of the positive tendencies.
Today, the topic of the channel is: Type !steward in case of emergency; type @steward to discuss non-urgent matters | Non-urgent requests here: <http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/RFP> | Send en.wikipedia oversight requests to firstname.lastname@example.org
If you type “!steward” (for emergency cases), bot will call around 40 names. But, if you type “@steward”, bot will call only three of us: Lar, DerHexer and me. Adding people to the second list is opt-in and, after the initial configuration (DerHexer and I were present on the channel and we explicitly opted-in, while Lar said earlier on the list that he wants to talk with contributors) nobody else opted-in. This was happened something like between two and four weeks ago.
But, this kind of arrogance is not only a stewards’ characteristics. Wikipedia became known not only because it is the biggest encyclopedia ever, but also because it has a lot of arrogant admins. And I am sure that all stewards was/are admins on some of the projects. I don’t want to say that stewards are a product of a negative selection (because, in that case, I would be a product of a negative selection, too 😉 ), but I want to say that it isn’t complex to trace the roots of that arrogance.
Yes, I know that we are humans, even we are stewards…
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One contributor called us by typing “@steward”. So, his opinion was that it was not an emergency situation, but he wanted a help from stewards. Unfortunately, I was in the office and I had to go home. I asked him was it urgent or it have might to wait for an hour.
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There is a good reason why I don’t want to refuse to help to contributors, or at least to talk with them. After Florence and Angela stopped to be active stewards, I remember that it was a really frustrating task to ask stewards for anything.
As time was passing, Wikimedian bureaucracy were started to be more and more Kafkian. While it is obvious that no one is willing to be marked as a bureaucrat, it is obvious that accessibility of Wikimedian community managers is lower and lower as time is passing. And it is dangerously closely to the point when a management is becoming a bureaucracy. A number of “no one’s business” is one of the key factors in establishing if something is a management or a bureaucracy. And stewards are here to handle “no one’s business” (of course, in a reasonable amount). If stewards say that something is not their business, then we have a problem: it is definitely no one’s business.
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One hour later. When I was at home and turned on IRC client, he started to talk with me again. And, of course, if someone remembered that for an hour, it is important to them.
He is an admin from Turkish Wikipedia and he asked me for cross-wiki checkuser action on Turkish and Azerbaijani Wikipedia. But then my bureaucratic coprocessor started to scream… While I was sure that Azerbaijani Wikipedia didn’t have checkusers, I was not sure if the Turkish one had them or not.
And when I realized that they have checkusers, I started my bureaucratic talk: May he connect me with their checkuser? I may do checkuser only for Azerbaijani Wikipedia. Only if it is urgent or he had a really good reason, I am able to use my privileges…
I think that it is more than obvious that we had a couple of misunderstandings. He didn’t think that it is urgent, while it was urgent according to the checkuser procedure on Turkish Wikipedia: Possible sockpuppet was a candidate for adminship. If they started a checkuser procedure, it would have taken much more time than it is needed for one person to become an admin.
A lot of our talk was spent in my tries to understand what was the problem. Obviously, he is not a native speaker of English, as well as I am not. But, he is not a steward, too. He doesn’t know our bureaucratic jargon and it is not his job to know that. However, I am a steward and I know that I have to get formally expressed statements before I do any of the steward actions.
I asked for another checkuser, too. But, the other checkuser is not active. My next bureaucratic statement had to be: “Less than two active checkusers — no checkusers at all!” — Of course, this is highly unreasonable. One admin came to me for help and instead of help, I would have punish his project because it didn’t fit to our standards.
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The other question is about standards. I am sure that the most of meta-involved Wikimedians know how painful is to choose a checkuser. And I’ll give to you a little comparison: Imagine two projects: one with 5000 very active contributors and one with 500 very active contributors. I am not sure that English Wikipedia (a project with 5000 very active contributors) has more than 50 persons which are able to pass voting for checkuser rights. Consequently, a project with 500 very active contributors may have maybe 5 persons who are able to pass voting for checkuser rights. Turkish Wikipedia had 86 very active contributors in January 2008. They should be happy if two users are able to pass voting for checkuser.
And one of them is inactive, which, according to The Rules, means that they shouldn’t have checkuser at all. I think that this is one of a number of unreasonable rules. Instead of allowing situations when a trusting contributor may ask a steward for a checkuser action (if the procedure is too long, if a contributor doesn’t trust to one of checkusers, if…) and allowing projects to have a natural development — rules are forcing them to shrink from asking stewards for help.
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When I saw that we are going nowhere, I decided to call another steward, Thogo, to be a witness of my action.
For two and half months of my stewardship, I already made a couple of “non-orthodox” actions. This time I decided to make one more, but I really wanted to have a witness.
After another set of talk and my final understanding of possible duration of the formal checkuser process on Turkish Wikipedia and possibility that suspected sockpuppet may be elected as admin, Thogo did the right thing: He checked public logs and realized that there is enough supporting material for checkuser action.
That was enough for me. I asked Thogo is he against the action. As he said that “he may not decide”, I understood that, at least, he is not against the action. Decision was mine and I did it. As I said there, helping to the projects is above any of the prescribed rules; at least for me.
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If anyone would make an in depth manual for stewards, this may be a classic example of sockpuppetry: In two days three examples of editing from two accounts and the same IP address in intervals of 1 hour, 2 minutes and 4 minutes.
I have to tell that this is not even a question of reaction. In coordination with a checkuser from Turkish Wikipedia, we would need a lot of talk while looking separately in different logs. It is a technical question, too. There are two options: to give to a local checkuser right to check the other project, too — or to give such permission to a steward.
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I have to say that it is a really good feeling when you realize that you helped to some project.
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And after all those things, there is one very important question: What is the purpose of our rules when they are not so rarely directly against the purpose of stewardship, adminship, checkusership…? I understand that rules shouldn’t be followed only in extraordinary circumstances. But, if I count “ordinary” and “extraordinary” moments in my stewardship, I would conclude that they are far from statistical error: maybe 10%, maybe 20%.
So, do we want to change something?
For the end, one nice quote from Wikipedia:
“…far back in prehistory, when the first primeval Vogons crawled out of the sea, the forces of evolution were so disgusted with them that they never allowed them to evolve again.” (Wikipedia contributors, “Races and species in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“, Wikipedia, free encyclopedia, retrived at March 20th, 2008)