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Wikipedia Editor Says Site’s Toxic Community Has Him Contemplating Suicide

A longtime Wikipedia editor sent an email to the site's largest mailing list saying that being banned from the site has impacted his mental health.

(Editor's note: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is toll-free in the US and available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255, while suicide.org has a list of international suicide hotlines, including Canada and the UK.)

A longtime Wikipedia editor wrote an email to a large public mailing list Tuesday, saying he was contemplating suicide due to online abuse by his fellow Wikipedians.

"Nobody on Wikipedia seems to be kind," he wrote. "You are all so busy power tripping that you forget there is a real, live person on the other side."

He lamented that obstructionism by other editors stopped him from contributing to the site's "great mission—one I feel so keenly."

The email was sent to the Wikimedia-L mailing list, which is one of the largest community-run Wikimedia mailing lists and has hundreds of subscribers.

The editor was upset after an ongoing disagreement with other editors on the "talk" pages of an article about a local politician. The debate devolved into name-calling, the editor wrote, and eventually he was completely banned from editing the site he had devoted so much time to.

(Upon seeing the email, Motherboard immediately contacted local law enforcement, who are responding to the situation. We are not naming the person who made the post, but we believe the story is notable because of its public nature and the fact that nearly the entirety of the editor's letter centered on the toxicity of the Wikimedia community, a topic that is increasingly a part of the overall Wikipedia conversation.)

Mental health is highly complex, and we'd be wrong to assess or judge someone's mental state based on an email. However, the editor's sentiments about the Wikimedia community echo those that have been increasingly voiced by many editors in the community.

Wikipedia is notoriously unwelcoming to newcomers and has a dizzying list of guidelines, principles, and rules that are disproportionately applied across the site. The community is intense and passionate, which means its editors are often zealous in their policing of what goes on the site, and the ensuing discussion is not always civil.

Some people on the Wikipedia-L listed echoed the editor's woes. "This editor and their editing may be an extreme case, but they are not alone," one person response. "Yup. It's very, very toxic at times. And nobody really cares," another person wrote.

I am not a Wikipedia editor, but I monitor the community closely, and it's increasingly obvious that there is a lack of civility even at higher levels. For months, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and former Wikimedia Foundation board member James Heilman have been engaged in a public argument about Heilman's ousting that has often devolved into name-calling and hearsay. Earlier this year, the community was in open revolt against former Wikimedia Foundation director Lila Tretikov. Many threads in the mailing list are about people not doing their jobs properly or internal factions that have formed; "transparency" and openness give people license to be jerks to each other.

This civility problem is nothing new, but it's a persistent problem that Wikipedia—and online communities in general—have yet to solve. Wikipedia's rules are a big reason why the site is so popular and is seen as such an important resource. But those rules also create a bunch of rule enforcers who often lack tact when dealing with people who are trying in good faith to offer their time to the site. Wikipedia's global, sprawling nature also makes it hard to keep the power hungry in check or keep track of them. Wikipedia has guidelines about "civility," but as we've seen time and time again, getting a large community of largely anonymous people to be nice to each other is close to impossible.

"Recognition of an editor's work is fleeting at best. Unless … you run afoul of one of the many sociopathic recluses that lurk there."

In a 2012 blog post, former Wikipedia editor Kevin Forsyth said he was quitting the site because of constant harassment from his fellow editors and lack of consequences for those who were openly combative on the site.

"No bylines exist; recognition of an editor's work is fleeting at best. Unless … you run afoul of one of the many sociopathic recluses that lurk there. Then you get recognition, of the unwanted kind, and plenty of it. And that's where Wikipedia utterly fails," Forsyth wrote. "More than once I've been the target of attacks by people (and I use the term 'people' loosely) whose sole purpose in life appears to be watching the Internet burn."

In an op-ed for the New York Times last year, prominent Wikipedia community member Andrew Lih wondered if Wikipedia is dying a slow death in part due to internal turmoil.

Employees of the Wikimedia Foundation quickly said they were "looking into" the post, and a Wikimedia spokesperson told me that its "support and safety team has responded and will engage appropriately." Wikimedia does not comment specifically on individual safety cases. Wikimedia's Support and Safety team deals specifically with threats of physical violence and other crime that's posted on Wikipedia or other Wikimedia properties. Local authorities had no update as to his status at the time this article was published.

"The Support and Safety team has a 24/7 on-call rotation so that staff are available to respond to emergency situations or other threats of harm," a Wikimedia spokesperson told me. "All threats of harm are vetted against a protocol the team developed in consultation with the FBI and other law enforcement, and when needed, Foundation staff will escalate responses to appropriate authorities or other local emergency contacts."

Update: The author of the email wrote Motherboard to say that he'd been reached by police and is feeling better, and that "a lot of wonderful, caring people" contacted him in response to the letter.

(Editor's note: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is toll-free in the US and available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255, while suicide.org has a list of international suicide hotlines, including Canada and the UK.)