Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2023-12-04/Essay

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File:Memento Mori 'To This Favour' by William Michael Harnett, c. 1879.JPG
William Michael Harnett

I am going to die

19th century painting showing a human skull on top of books
Memento mori: Remember that we will die.

Here is an uncomfortable fact: I am going to die. I hope it won't happen any time soon, but it will happen, and it will happen to you, too.

On that day, will there still be editors here?

Replacing me

I firmly believe that I am not irreplaceable. However, I also don't think that I'll be easy to replace. Looking at the numbers, here's what we need to replace me:

  • 100,000 people to create an account.
  • 30,000 of them will make a first edit. (The other 70,000 will never find the edit buttons, or they'll open a page, see complicated code, and give up.)
  • 20,000 of them will make a second edit. (This usually happens within minutes of the first edit.)
  • 10,000 of them will make it to their fifth edit.
  • 5,000 of them will make it to their tenth edit.
  • 1,000 of them will make it to their 100th edit.
  • 100 of them will make it to their 1,000th edit.
  • 25 of them will make 10,000 edits.
  • 5 of them will make 50,000 edits.
  • One of those original 100,000 accounts will eventually match my volume.

Trends over time

When we're gone, will there be anyone to take our place?

The number of active editors has been pretty flat for about a decade. It might occasionally feel like everyone's quitting, particularly if a wiki-friend disappears, but we're holding on. However, anything that affects retention – whether that's a change we control, like how we treat each other, or a change outside of our control, such as an economic recession – could destabilize our balance.

We get about four million new accounts each year. That means that, in a given year, we can replace about 40 of the editors listed in Wikipedia:List of Wikipedians by number of edits#1–1000.

Everyone on that list is going to die some day. There are 1,000 editors on that list, and we are getting enough new accounts to replace about 40 per year. That's only 4% per year. We can only maintain our current situation if the average editor on that list stays active for 25 years. If we lose promising new editors, we may not have any editors left.

Replacing you

How many newbies do we need to replace you? Check your edit count at Special:CentralAuth, and find yourself in this list:

  • If you are newly autoconfirmed (10 edits): 20 new accounts, 7 first edits
  • If you have made 100 edits: 100 new accounts, 30 first edits
  • If you are newly extended-confirmed (500 edits): 500 new accounts, 150 first edits
  • If you have made 1,000 edits: 1,000 new accounts, 300 first edits
  • If you have made 10,000 edits: 4,000 new accounts, 1,300 first edits
  • If you have made 25,000 edits: 10,000 new accounts, 3,000 first edits
  • If you have made 50,000 edits: 20,000 new accounts, 6,000 first edits
  • If you have made 100,000 edits: 100,000 new accounts, 30,000 first edits
  • If you have made 500,000 edits: 1,000,000 new accounts, 300,000 first edits

What to do about this

We need to see clearly into the not-so-distant future.

The first is: Please do not bite the newcomers. Remember not just that you will die someday, but also that you were once new, inexperienced, clumsy, prone to breaking things, unaware of any of the rules, and generally making mistakes and screwing up articles. Go look at that list again: That's how many clueless newbies the previous generation of editors had to tolerate to get an editor like you. If we want editors like us to be here when we die, we need to extend the same grace to the current newbies. We won't get another generation of editors by making them feel unwelcome, especially since our environment is more complex than it used to be, and the alternative outlets (e.g., social media and video sites) are much more available and attractive than they used to be. We have to compete for potential editors' time and interest.

The second is: Remember that when you are "defending the wiki" in the short term, you could be killing it in the long term. We need new editors more than we need the endorphin rush of insta-reverting an uncited but probably accurate contribution. We need new editors more than we need to make things convenient for us. We need new editors to feel like they can be successful more than we need to get rid of subjects with borderline notability. Yes, you are permitted to blank uncited content, and sometimes articles really do need to be deleted. We do get a lot of attempted spam and self-promotion. But if we don't want Wikipedia to die off when we die, we are sometimes going to have to WP:FIXTHEPROBLEM ourselves, instead of pointing fingers at the less-experienced folks who didn't get it right the first time. We are often going to have to encourage and support the newcomers. We need to thank every good contribution from a new editor. The options shouldn't be reversion or radio silence; the options should include frequent thanks and praise and encouragement and enthusiastically building on their work.

The third is: Create actual content. One of the problems with evaluating replacement rates according to edit count is that it's possible to rack up a lot of edits by doing nothing of real significance. A well-written article is a solid contribution to the world; changing the order that refs appear in a list is not so important. If you dislike unsourced articles, go source them. If you dislike outdated articles, go update them. But the main thing is: figure out which articles are missing or in significant need of expansion, and go create some actual content. Good content will outlive you.