Stupidity of the reader

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(English) This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.
A woman looking at an open book
A woman reading. Maybe she's revising a typed copy of her latest manuscript?

The stupidity of the reader is a recurring argument — often disguised, not explicit — which is worth addressing directly.

Premise is on wikis in general (known concepts but under a specific light); Invention of the reader gives some history of the concept in Wikimedia land; Facing the reader and Conclusion can be read alone, being focused on the problems at hand and on the proposed solution.


Humanity and individuals[edit]

"Our wikis" are open wikis. An open wiki is, in essence, an act of optimism towards humanity; aided by ways to deal with specific disruptive persons or actions.

A well known cornerstone of this approach is assume good faith: good faith is assumed until disproven by actions. Assume good faith speaks of intention, but is a tool to deal with actions: to improve the way users act on the wiki, i.e. to improve the wiki and further its goals; specifically, to take the correct conclusions from the users' actions.

There is no equivalent of assume good faith for those who don't interact with the wiki: first, because "judging" someone has no bearing on the improvement of the wiki until that someone edits; second, because our wikis only "judge" from actions, which is impossible where there are none.

In fact, on our wikis, a person is called a "user" and can only be one of two things: a registered user or an unregistered user; both can have edits/actions, or not, but they differ in how they (don't) affirm a stable identity on the wiki.

The wiki is a collective work and a collective responsibility, because everyone can edit it. Everyone is a (potential) author and is constantly invited to challenge and edit the wiki. Arguably, even acquiescence and inertia are an act of authorship: the act of confirming the wiki/page in its current form rather than editing it; however, it's for sure an untracked act, not observable.


The premise described above may not have been explicit originally, but was proven correct by the success of a number of wikis and especially Wikipedia. The success of Wikipedia is first and foremost its ability to bring together an unthinkable number of people to author a collective work: statistics across all languages show millions of contributors and tens of millions users who ever edited.

Previously, collective works might have reached tens or hundreds authors; nothing comparable to such an extreme form of collaboration. Even building works involved at most tens of thousands individuals for the Great Pyramid of Giza and hundreds of thousands for the Great Wall of China. In the 20th century, the tens of millions used to be able to come together and confront each other, to build a shared landscape on this planet, only by means of elections or wars.

Now, similar masses are able to gather peacefully and merge their thoughts in a shared text. Their life has been enlightened by nonviolent and creative collaboration and their mind has been empowered by a knowledge that no single brain could earn on its own.

Invention of the reader[edit]

Unlike active editors, unique visitors and pageviews have kept growing for a while, even though they may have started declining in 2013.

In recent times however, some advocates have invented a new figure for our wikis, which previously didn't exist: the reader, defined as one who visits (reads) the wiki but doesn't edit it.

Novelty and banality of the reader[edit]

In principle, the reader is not a person; it's only a state for a person who in a given moment is reading.[1] The user can (and should[2]) turn from a reader to an editor, and vice versa, at any time.[3][2]

In other words the reader is a persona: a role that a person can assume; and a fictional entity to which we can approximate reality in order to understand and explain it via a model. Why, then, bother so much (and write this essay) about something that doesn't even exist?

The reason is again humanity: it's a natural weakness to have a passion for big numbers, big (concentrated) power, expansion. Success of Wikimedia projects, for whatever reason (probably just an accident of history), came with an incredible visibility in the world wide web: billions page views and hundreds of millions unique visitors per month.

It's normal to marvel at such a number, but in reality, unlike the number of contributors, it's not unprecedented: Gutenberg and Luther earned an audience of comparable size for the Bible already in 16th century and radio/television programmes were able to reach billions already in the first half of the 20th century. Certainly, no human endeavour in history was both produced and used by as many people: this is the difference and what makes Wikipedia a wonder of earth.

Second, the human need for thinking positive clearly had a factor into the increasing stress put on the number of visitors: it's the easy way to affirm the value of our work (especially for those with a superficial appreciation and understanding of the value of collaboration); for many years of editor decline, it's been the only positive metric available.

Third, current giants of the Web live on the number of visitors that they have, and so does with them all the industry which makes a living on the trickle-down of internet advertising revenue. It's understandable that we compare our websites to theirs in terms of the same metrics. The Wikimedia projects don't have commercial ads, but the Wikimedia Foundation now runs a similar, permanent money-soliciting campaign throughout the year, to grow revenue compared to the traditional annual fundraising drive we had until 2011. The revenue is probably proportional to the number of visitors, which the organisation has a clear interest in growing.

Dogma of the reader[edit]

Think of the children! They clearly wouldn't want to write, would they?

Now that we have the reader, what are we doing with it and why does it matter?

The concept of the reader is not bad in itself: as said above, it's just a legitimate persona. It gets controversial and troubling when it morphs into the concept of a reader divide, that is a dichotomy between the reader and the editor, seen as separate persons; we may call this the "dogma of the reader". Emphasising, postulating or even just imagining such a separation is antithetical to our founding principles and is potentially able to cause the implosion and complete annihilation of the Wikimedia projects.

A reader who doesn't write is not a true reader, it's a stupid reader: a passive consumer similar to a television spectator, this is what the dogma of the reader proposes us. The true reader may be uncommon[2] and even more so the kind who writes on our wikis; but it is the kind of reader our wikis are built on and by.[4] It's also the kind of reader which we want every person on earth to become, in our vision.

In fact, the dogma of the reader is exclusively based on an ingenuous logical fallacy: because readers outnumber editors by several orders of magnitude (in reality: only one), then they must be an entirely distinct population with different needs (which need to prevail). False. The difference in totals only proves the different frequency of the two states, reading and editing: it doesn't prove that the population (potentially) interested in reading is distinct from and proportionally bigger than the one (potentially) interested in editing;[5] that's just discrimination.

The dogma of the reader is unlikely to win in the long term, because it's disjointed from reality; the question is, what else will sink together with it before its final defeat? Let's be positive: by knowing their allies, the Wikimedia projects will probably be able to survive. However, the dogma of the reader is certainly able to cause massive unrest.

The burden of the reader[edit]

A 2014 fundraising email campaign showed another ideological aim in the dogma of the reader, schiettamente materialistic:

PS: Less than 1% of our readers donate enough to keep Wikipedia running. Your contribution counts!

By singling out this supposed category of users, which was defined as passive, the Wikimedia Foundation is able to add that their main characteristic is that they pay so to increase its revenue. That's The Northern Reader's Burden. A "reader" who doesn't pay is not responsible, should be ashamed, indeed is an anti-national boycotter of the Wikimedia Foundation's ("Wikipedia's") finances and international power: which in turn is needed for the world's progress.

With this last move, the dogma of the reader destroys the little that was left of Wikimedia's principles: accessing knowledge on Wikimedia projects used to be part of the mission; now it's some sort of crime, unless one pays. How many users will be lost because they feel guilty of "consuming" the projects "for free"?

As shown above, they don't. Scientific research proved what argued above, that "readers" are not, and must not be characterized as, "free riders".[6] [7] In the next section, with the help of a couple stories, we'll show how the best solution to the dilemma is simply to abandon the category of the "reader".

Facing the reader[edit]

In the following two sections we'll show a couple examples which we find amusing (curiously, both from France).

Close encounters with the reader[edit]

Once upon a time, some proponents of the dogma of the reader, thinking that the editors don't know what's good for the readers, devised a tool to force the editors to listen to such supposedly unaddressed needs, called the Article feedback tool. There's no need to discuss here what was probably the most complete failure any MediaWiki extension in history ever managed to achieve.

We'll just quote a funny personal story:

This tool has one great merit: it almost managed to get me disgusted of editing, after over 45 thousands edits! [...]

In the past years, pageview stats have been a great encouragement: realising that many were reading such highly technical or niche articles made me write a good number more.

Then the article feedback tool arrived... what a horror! Once we walk away from statistics, we realise that the majority of our readers is composed of perfect idiots, degenerates unable to write three words in a row without fifteen errors. [...]

I hope that the high percentage of stupidity found was more a fault of the tool than the reality of our readership, or we'd really have to be desperate about the future of humanity...

In other words, the tool transformed our readership into a herd of idiots capable of demotivating our editors so much that they'd stop editing. An editor anti-engagement tool!

The reader as tool for autocracy[edit]

Self-incoronation by Napoleon
C'est par mon ordre et pour le bien de l'État que le porteur du présent a fait ce qu'il a fait. (Standard letter provided to WMF managers.)

Deities have been for a long time the justification of power, surely because those in power are confident not to be contradicted by them. Louis XIV famously proclaimed L'État, c'est moi and himself the Lieutenant of God on earth; Napoleon, more straightforward, took the imperial crown with his own hands rather than the roman pope's; Napoleon III was more subtle and systematically used plebiscites bound to confirm there was no alternative to him (other than anarchy) and to reinforce his power; he paved the way for 20th century populism.[8]

Since around 2010, facing the risk of the decline of Wikimedia projects, some have grown increasingly tired of consensus as a tool and have been looking for alternative sources of legitimacy (power). They found one in the dogma of the reader. "Think of the readers" is an increasingly common thought-terminating cliché used whenever one's own opinion is failing to convince others by means of reason.

Whenever one resorts to the dogma of the reader to win an argument, the consequences are fatal, because of the unavoidable polarisation. Curiously, when the dogma of the reader is called, both sides tend to proclaim the reader stupid (which undermines the humus on which our projects grow).

In particular, the self-proclaimed defendants of the readers tend to characterise readers as unable to edit and voice their opinions on their own. This is a very effective trick because it completely eliminates any chance of being contradicted: as soon as a "reader" joined a discussion to disagree, it would become an editor, hence not allowed to speak on behalf of the readers. This silent majority can therefore be enlisted to support anything you want.

On the other side, editors whose opinions are disregarded in the name of the readers are naturally brought to see readers as their enemies, hence the wiki's enemies (absurd): they may either be demotivated from devoting further volunteer work to "serve the readers"; or try to prove that the readers are stupid, i.e. their opinions are wrong or don't matter. In both cases, the projects lose.

The only solution is for readers and editors to walk hand in hand. Reading and editing are just two sides of the same coin, two aspects of one population, the humanity our vision speaks about.


A fox wearing a monk's cowl and looking at a book
If these mammals are able to read well, why wouldn't they be able to write?

Therefore, the reader must be assumed intelligent. As much as the editor, because every person is both, and the reader is not a person; the user is.

Having or — worse — instilling the doubt that the reader is not intelligent would make the very foundation of our wikis break apart. Discussing the intelligence of the reader, or looking for ways to (dis)prove it, is useless and counterproductive; any argument or supposed evidence against the intelligence of the reader must be disregarded.

This proposition has a number of corollaries, whose demonstration is left as an exercise for the reader.


  1. In more traditional terms, everyone is both a reader and editor in potency, but is usually only one of the two in actuality in any given time.
  2. a b c George Steiner, The Uncommon Reader (1978), in No passion spent: essays 1978-1995 (1996).
  3. Arguably, Wikimedia projects, with their focus on reliable sources, are the biggest program existing in the world for the promotion of reading. Wikipedia, Wiktionary and others force editors to read and reference written sources; Wikiquote promotes an active and critical reading even of fiction, encouraging to write marginalia and to transcribe carefully selected passages; Wikisource even turns the user into an amanuensis. All Wikimedia projects constantly throw references into the readers' face, confronting them with the challenge to read more, compare what they read and edit the shared reading on the wiki.
    Alternatively, we could consider Wikimedia projects a form of maieutics: as with Socrates' interlocutors, no reader is too stupid/ignorant to understand an argument when facing a reasoning and its sources (cf. in Socrates/Plato: when facing the questions appropriate for recollecting the intrinsic knowledge).
  4. Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, 2010.
  5. Analogy: because in any given day billions of humans pee and only millions have a child, it follows that the needs of the population of pee'ers are a thousand times more important than the needs of the birth-givers.
  6. Judd Antin and Coye Cheshire. 2010. Readers are not free-riders: reading as a form of participation on Wikipedia. In Proceedings of the 2010 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work (CSCW '10). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 127-130. DOI=10.1145/1718918.1718942
  7. Xiaoquan Michael Zhang and Feng Zhu. 2011. Group Size and Incentives to Contribute: A Natural Experiment at Chinese Wikipedia. In American Economic Review, 101(4): 1601-15.
  8. Interpretation by Paul Ginsborg, perhaps. Citation needed.

See also[edit]