On Wikipedia, mentoring newcomers, reviewing vandalism, and discussing decisions can be meaningful if emotionally-draining work. Some Wikipedians have told us that encouraging and supporting others makes them feel more positive. Is that true on average? If so, does thanking others on Wikipedia actually change how people feel about their contributions to Wikipedia?
In 2019, CivilServant (now the Citizens and Technology Lab) tested this idea with 400 German, Persian, and Polish Wikipedia contributors. We surveyed volunteers, recorded their behavior, and designed an app that organized people to thank others on Wikipedia. We worked with liaisons from each community to refine the study design and coordinate community approval.
In our surveys, 40% of volunteers reported mentoring others, while 74% reported monitoring Wikipedia for potential vandalism. People who spend more time mentoring and people who do more to monitor Wikipedia for vandalism report feeling more emotionally drained than others. Yet people who do more monitoring also feel more positive about their contributions.
Our main question was to test whether organizing Wikipedians to thank other contributors would cause them to feel more positive about their work and increase their supportive actions over time. We did not find an effect. But we did make valuable discoveries about who spends time supporting others, how they think about the intentions of newcomers, and how they feel about their work. Here is what we learned.
Who Participated in the Study
After we recruited volunteers via banner ads and mailing lists, 447 people volunteered (286 DE) (52 FA) (62 PL). After forty-seven helped in other ways, our final group included 400. Of these, 238 started the study and 137 completed the final survey. The median volunteer created their account nine years before the study. In the 8 weeks before the survey, the median volunteer contributed 6.4 labor hours, 53 edits, and one revert to Wikipedia.
Mentoring Others and Monitoring/Protecting Wikipedia
Many debates about Wikipedia seem split between the views of “deletionists” who prioritize quality control and “inclusionists” who prioritize participation. Do the attitudes and behaviors of Wikipedians also split into these two groups on average?
To find out, we asked volunteers to report the proportion of time they spend on Wikipedia activities including adding new content, correcting small formatting errors, and working on projects or tools. We also asked about time they spent mentoring newcomers and time spent monitoring Wikipedia for damaging content (scale of 0 to 4).
Based on the answers, we separated Wikipedians into four groups: (1) those who mentor others and monitor content, (2) those who only mentor others, (3) those who only monitor content, and (4) those who don’t report doing either.
To learn what these groups do on Wikipedia, we recorded the number of reverts and the number of hours they contributed in the 8 weeks before the survey. We also counted “Talk Edits + Support” actions including edits to Talk Pages, edits on the Wikipedia namespace, and Thanks sent to others.
Many volunteers reported spending at least some time mentoring newcomers (DE: 37%, FA: 58%, PL: 40%). Most volunteers also monitored Wikipedia for damaging content. In every language, volunteers who mentor and monitor spent more labor hours contributing to Wikipedia than others. The mentor & monitor group also made many more reverts and contributed more to talk + support than the monitor-only group.
|Average Activity over 8 Weeks||Average Survey Ratings (0-4)|
|Total||Reverts||Talk Edits + Support||Labor Hours||Newcomer Capability||Newcomer Intent|
|Mentor & Monitor||37%||22.2||56.4||34.1||2.1||2.7|
To check the validity of survey answers, we compared them to people’s behavior over the past 8 weeks. In statistical models controlling for how many edits they made overall, we found that volunteers who reported higher levels of mentoring made 30% more talk + support edits (p < 0.0001, R2=0.67). Volunteers who reported higher levels of monitoring made 75% more reverts (p < 0.0001, R2=0.61).
Feeling Positive and Feeling Emotionally Drained
To better understand these experiences, we adapted questions from the Maslach Burnout Inventory. This survey was designed to study burnout for human service professionals and measures several dimensions of burnout, including levels of emotional exhaustion and sense of personal accomplishment. For Wikipedians, we asked volunteers to rate the following statements on a scale of 1 to 5:
- Contributing to [DE/FA/PL] Wikipedia is emotionally draining.
- I feel positive about the contributions I am making to [DE/FA/PL] Wikipedia.
Most volunteers reported feeling very positive about their contributions to Wikipedia, with a median answer of 4. Roughly 70% of volunteers reported feeling at least somewhat emotionally drained, with a median of 2.
In a statistical model, people who reported spending more time monitoring Wikipedia for damaging content reported feeling more emotionally drained (p<0.0001). They also felt more positive about their contributions (p=0.001) than people who did less monitoring (R=0.094). We also found that people who do more mentoring feel more emotionally drained on average (p<0.001; R2=0.7).
In our research, we found that people who felt more emotionally drained were much less likely to continue the study. On average, people who answered that they were one unit more emotionally drained were 6 percentage points less likely to continue the study after the first survey (p=0.005).
Overall, while Wikipedians feel positive about their work, people who do more mentoring and monitoring feel more emotionally drained. Those feelings can predict reduced participation over time. Since burnout is more complex than our two questions, we suggest further research in this important area.
The Effect of Thanking Others on Wikipedia
Our main goal was to learn if asking people to review and thank other Wikipedians for good faith edits had an effect on (1) how volunteers feel about their contributions and (2) how much they contribute to Wikipedia.
Wikipedia’s thanks feature is a popular way to encourage others. Roughly half of volunteers in each language had already thanked at least one other person in the last 8 weeks, sending a total of 1,720 thanks across all languages.
In August, after they took the first survey, we asked our volunteers to log into an app we designed. The app organized half of the volunteers to review pre-selected lists of edits and send thanks to up to 4 Wikipedians. The rest of the volunteers were asked to do 10 minutes of typical Wikipedia activity. Of the 400 people who signed up, 60% logged in. Eight weeks later, we asked volunteers to complete a final survey. In total, 137 completed the full study.
To test for an effect on contributions to Wikipedia, we calculated the difference in talk page edits and supportive actions in the 8 weeks before and after the experiment. For example, if a person made 10 supportive actions before the study and 8 supportive actions after, the difference would be -2. We then compared the average difference between the treatment and control group to find out if the intervention caused an increase or decrease over time.
Among the 238 people who used our research app, we did not find any effect from thanking others on the difference over time in a person’s talk page edits and supportive actions (p = 0.28). Among the 137 volunteers who completed full study, we didn’t find any effect from thanking others on a person’s positive feelings about their own contributions (p=0.065). We have added a further note on this finding to the appendix.
This study has several limitations including the following:
- We included experienced volunteers in German, Polish, and Persian Wikipedias. More general patterns within those languages and in other languages may be different.
- Participants who reported feeling emotionally drained were less likely to continue the study. They had every right to stop and no obligation to continue. However, we don’t know how the results would be different if they had continued.
- Our sample size was lower than we hoped. With a larger sample, we might have been able to see an effect.
- Most research on expressions of gratitude focus on short-term effects. While we failed to find a long-term effect, this study does not rule out shorter-term effects
We designed this study to discover if thanking others could cause Wikipedians to see their work differently and contribute more socially supportive actions. While we did not find support for this hypothesis, we learned many things about who takes supportive actions, how they feel about their work, and how they rate the intent and capability of other Wikipedians.
We are deeply grateful to the many Wikipedians who advised and supported this work. We are especially grateful to our liaisons from partnering Wikipedias – Reem Al-Kashif, Christine Domgörgen, Mohamed ElGohary, Maria Heuschkel, Amir Ladsgroup, Wojciech Pędzich, Mohsen Salek, Natalia Szafran-Kozakowska. These liaisons worked closely with us to design the study and guide us from start to finish. This work is a product of their endless wisdom, patience and dedication. We are also grateful to the Wikimedia Foundation for helping us navigate approval processes.
This research was funded by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.
- Experiment Plan: The Effect of Sending Thanks on Wikipedia
- Konieczny, P. (2018). Volunteer retention, burnout and dropout in online voluntary organizations: stress, conflict and retirement of Wikipedians. Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change (Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, Volume 42). Emerald Publishing Limited, 199-219.
- Maslach, C.; Jackson, S.E. (1981). “The measurement of experienced burnout”. Journal of Occupational Behavior. 2 (2): 99–113. doi:10.1002/job.4030020205
- Matias, J.N., Kamin, J., Klein, M. (2019) Kittens, Baklava, and Bubble Tea: How Wikipedians Thank Each Other in Different Languages. Global Voices
- Menking, A., & Erickson, I. (2015, April). The heart work of Wikipedia: Gendered, emotional labor in the world’s largest online encyclopedia. In Proceedings of the 33rd annual ACM conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 207-210).
Since the experiment result on positive feelings was so close to our cut-off of p<0.05, we feel obligated to report that people who were assigned to send thanks to other Wikipedians had a -0.2 difference in how positive they reported feeling about their contributions to Wikipedia. According to our statistics, this difference could result from random chance. Even though it doesn’t meet the standard of scientific publishing, it might be worth further research. It’s possible that being told to review long lists of edits is discouraging to volunteers, or that rewarding others makes someone de-value their own work if they have not received thanks.