Community Tech/Add a user watchlist

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Tracked in Phabricator:
Task T2470

The user watchlist project aims to make it easier to keep track of user edits. The Community Tech team, in collaboration with the Support and Safety team, have determined that we should not build this feature. See below for the rationale.


A user watchlist would make it easier to keep track of what an individual user is doing. This would be helpful both when dealing with potential vandals and when helping good-faith newcomers. It was the tenth most popular suggestion in the 2015 Community Wishlist Survey, with 62 supporting votes.


The Community Tech team has weighed the possible benefits and costs of building the user watchlist. Essentially, there are three main uses for a user watchlist:

  1. Keep track of editors that you know have vandalized pages or violated the rules, to make sure they're not causing more trouble.
  2. Help mentors and trainers to keep track of the participants in their program.
  3. (Bad faith:) Keep track of editors that you don't like, so that every time they make an edit, you can jump in and revert their edit or argue with them. This is hounding, which is against our policies.

During the Community Wishlist Survey, the people who proposed and supported this idea were supporting #1 and #2. There's no doubt they would use it in good faith. But there were also editors in that discussion who noted that it could be used to facilitate stalking and hounding. As we’ve investigated this topic, we’ve met more and more concern about potential abuse. This was enough that we wanted to consult the Wikimedia Foundation Support and Safety team, who have a lot of experience when it comes to harassment on Wikimedia wikis. They recommended to us in no uncertain terms not to proceed.

It's true that the information being collected in this tool is already publicly available in Special:Contributions, so it's possible to argue that there's no real harm in having a tool that just makes stalking more convenient. Still, that's the same reason why people want the good faith version – it's easier to manage this as a watchlist, rather than looking at people's contributions – so it doesn't tip the scale either way.

One thing that's difficult about judging the benefits and risks is that the use of this feature would be essentially invisible. Once this tool is built and enabled, there's no way to know whether people are using it for good or bad reasons; anyone who's using it to stalk people could be doing that by looking at their contributions. If we say "Let's enable it, and see if it causes any problems", then there's no obvious signal that would make people aware of the problems.

During the survey, many people brought up possible ways to tweak the feature, which could reduce the risk.

  • We could make it opt-in, so people would only be followed if they chose to participate. That would work for use #2 – the mentor/trainer use case – but it would make #1 utterly useless.
  • We could make it opt-out, so that people who don't want to be followed could take themselves out. But there's only a tiny fraction of new users who would know about the feature – of the many things that a new contributor needs to know, "there's a user watchlist you can opt out of" isn't high on the list – so an opt-out wouldn't make any real difference.
  • We could notify people that they're being watched, so that they could opt out, but that's a scary and distracting message to send to new users, and could easily be seen as a bigger thing than it is.
  • We could make this tool available to admins, which was suggested by several people during the survey. However, a lot of vandal fighters and mentors are not administrators. Also, to be honest, as active Wikimedians, we’re aware of many cases where admins have been part of personal conflicts. While the vast majority of trusted users would of course use it in good faith, it would create the perception of admins having a tool that could be used for stalking, which is invisible and inaccessible to other users and beyond their control. We’ve been strongly discouraged from doing this.

Happily, there’s some good news for the #2 use case: Helping mentors and trainers keep track of the participants in their program. The Community Tech team is helping to finish the WMF Programs and Events Dashboard, a program management tool that’s specifically designed for program leaders to manage the participants in their program. There’s some more work to do on the dashboard, but we expect to finish it before the end of the year.

Technical discussion and background[edit]

Internal Community Tech team assessment[edit]

Support: Medium. This proposal got a lot of support votes, but also some passionate dissents from people concerned about this tool being used for harassment or bullying. We've also heard this concern from other sources since the survey ended, including volunteer developers at the recent Wikimedia Developer Summit. The proposal suggested several different use cases, and it's useful to break those down. For the sake of discussion, we can call them the Vandal-tracking use case and the Mentorship use case. The Vandal-tracking watchlist would help people to keep an eye on potentially problematic editors. This could be used to track potential vandals, people with a history of breaking important rules, and other dubious types. The Mentorship watchlist would help mentors, trainers, editathons and WikiProjects, where a group of people agree to keep an eye on each other's work -- either at a single event, or over a longer period of time.
Impact: Vandal-tracking: Low-ish. You could bookmark Contributions pages of contributors that you're concerned about; this watchlist would just make it more convenient. It's the same whether you're using this tool for good (tracking potential vandals) or evil (harassing contributors that you don't like). Mentorship: This would be very helpful for large group classes, editathons and programs that support groups of contributors. Those situations are relatively rare compared to the entire user base, but for those people, it would be great.
Feasibility: High. This is straightforward, compared to other wishes in the top 10. For the Mentorship use case, the difficult thing is figuring out how people opt-in to join or leave the group.
Risk: For Vandal-tracking: High. This could turn into a tool that encourages harassment on wiki. It would be nearly impossible to track abuse of this tool. The proposal suggested limiting the tool to admins, but many people have pointed out that admins are not necessarily perfect actors. For Mentorship: Low risk.
Status: As you can tell from the analysis above, the team is feeling positive about the Mentorship use case and concerned about the Vandal-tracking. Our current plan is to think about an opt-in system, where contributors would agree to join the group of people being followed on the watchlist. There are some user interface design questions that we need to explore -- how people would be invited to join, how they'd leave, whether they're joining one collective watchlist or they're each agreeing to be followed by a single mentor. We'll need to talk with people who would use this feature, to learn more about what they'd want. For the Vandal-tracking use case: we agree that this would be helpful for good-faith tracking, but we can't ignore the risk of facilitating bad-faith harassment. That being said -- if people have ideas for how the Vandal-fighting could be addressed without increasing the risk of stalkers, we're very interested in hearing about it. We'll be talking more about this later this year.