How the online encyclopedia manages mental illness and suicide threats in its volunteer community.
One recent Tuesday night in the suburbs of Sydney, Elliott* was sitting in front of his home computer, editing Wikipedia and debating with a fellow volunteer who was continually undoing his hard work. He was devoting his weeknight hours to developing an article about Salim Mehajer, a former deputy mayor of a Sydney city council who had attracted national headlines for a variety of indiscretions, including shutting down a public street without authorization in order to film his own wedding. But as Elliott typed, his eyes intent on the screen, his mental state was deteriorating.
Elliott, 37, knew the inner workings of the online encyclopedia better than just about anyone. Since his first edit in 2004, he had invented the popular ‘citation needed’ tag, used by editors to indicate when a statement requires more evidence. He had started the administrator’s noticeboard, where the site’s volunteer leadership could discuss inflammatory incidents. And he wrote ‘exploding whale,’ a quirky article that remains emblematic of the sparkling brilliance for which the crowdsourced encyclopedia is widely beloved. For the latter creation, which summarized how the Oregon Highway Division attached half a ton of dynamite to a beached sperm whale carcass in 1970, he was awarded Wikipedia’s first ‘oddball barnstar,’ and so another user pinned a bright green badge to his userpage to acknowledge his enterprising work.
But on this particular night, his virtual achievements were far from his mind. With his wife and two young children occupied in another room, Elliott was locked in what’s known as an edit war, while using a different account than the one that had earned him his earlier plaudits. Elliott was convinced that his detailed account of Salim Mehajer’s traffic violations, including an occasion in 2012 when he ran over two women in his car, belonged on the site. His interlocutor, another Australian editor of prominent standing within the community, remained unconvinced. “I don’t like the guy either, but Wikipedia’s policies on undue weight, original research and biographies of living people don’t not apply because you don’t like someone,” the second editor wrote, mistaking Elliott’s industrious research for bias against Mehajer. On several occasions, this second editor had reverted these lengthy additions, before using one particular adjective to describe Elliott’s work: obsessive.
Their bickering had been brewing for several days. The pair went back and forth in the article’s ‘talk’ page, which is linked in the top left corner of every entry on the site. Elliott argued passionately for his cause, and at one point logged out of his account to back up his own argument anonymously; these contributions were tagged with his IP address. Two days earlier, he had responded anonymously to another editor, writing, “I fart in your general direction, which is a hell of a lot more pleasant than editing Wikipedia, I can tell you!” After reviewing the conflict, a site administrator decided to ban Elliott on that Tuesday night. “Given the seriousness of this conduct, I’ve set the block duration to indefinite,” noted the admin.
Elliott’s mind was on fire. Already short-fused from several months of unemployment and recent health and financial woes, he felt overwhelmed with stress. As he sat fuming in front of the screen, his wife approached and asked him to help put their children to bed. The request startled him, and he reacted with a flash of fury. Elliott immediately regretted his anger. Stunned and embarrassed, he grabbed his phone and keys, hopped into a white Hyundai, and sped off.
After driving for a while, he parked outside a local school and switched off the engine. He pulled out his iPhone and started typing a lengthy email. Titled “The End” and sent to a public Wikipedia mailing list watched by thousands of people around the world, late on the evening of Tuesday, May 17, Elliott’s email begins, “I’ve just been blocked forever. I’ve been bullied, and I’m having suicidal thoughts.”
More than 2,000 words later, after recounting the events surrounding his ban in the exhaustive manner of a man well-versed in defending his position to nitpicking online strangers, he wrote, “I know I’m not well. I have fought this feeling for a decade.” Elliott ended with this: “I sit here in my car and contemplate suicide. My despair is total. There is not a kind one amongst you. You have taken my right of appeal, my ability to protest and my dignity. You have let others mock me, and I have failed to contribute to Wikipedia’s great mission — one I feel so keenly. I failed. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I will drive, I don’t know where. I pray my family forgives me.”
The English language Wikipedia is among the world’s most popular websites. Though it has more than 28 million registered users, the number of regularly active global editors as of June 2016 is around 68,000 — the equivalent of a small city. As with any significant population of individuals, a fraction will be experiencing a mental illness or disorder, which may help — or hinder — their ability to contribute to the encyclopedia. Since the website is built on written communication, distressed users can be difficult to identify. Unless they decide to self-report.
One way editors may indicate the presence of a mood or personality disorder is to copy a snippet of code that displays a small box on their userpage. “This user suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder,” one box reads, in white text on a black background; some 30 editors have chosen to include it. “This user lives with major depressive disorder,” reads a blue box accompanied by a bulbous blue teardrop, which is used by around 20 people. These mental health boxes are an old trend, however, and are rarely seen on new editors’ userpages.
Buried deep in the site is an essay named ‘Wikipedia Is Not Therapy.’ It is not an official policy document or guideline; a banner at the top of the page notes that it may represent either a widespread norm or a minority viewpoint. First created in March 2006, the essay has been alternately expanded and truncated over the last decade, and debated in the accompanying talk page. As of August 2016, its second paragraph reads, “The phrase ‘Wikipedia is not therapy’ should not be taken to imply that editors with mental disorders are incapable of making constructive contributions to Wikipedia, or of collaborating with other Wikipedians. Editors with disabilities should not be banned from Wikipedia simply because of their disabilities.” At the bottom of the page, the essay concludes: “Wikipedia offers users the chance to practice being sensible, sane, and productive, but one’s psychological state is not an acceptable excuse for disrupting the encyclopedia.”
In other words: if you’re feeling mentally or emotionally unstable, it might be best if you spend your time somewhere else, so that you don’t ruin our good work. Like many other non-encyclopedic articles on the site, it has a shortcut that redirects to this page: in this case, it’s WP:NOTTHERAPY. If an editor types that abbreviated code anywhere while modifying the site, it’ll link to the ten-year-old essay. Depending on the reader, its tone might be perceived as just snarky or dismissive enough to rub a distressed editor the wrong way.
“A lot of people will bandy about these essays as if they have some form of authority, because Wikipedia is really a lot like a role-playing game,” says Scott Martin, a London-based archivist who has been an editor since 2002. “People take on roles and they’re competing for recognition.” To “win the game,” as Martin puts it, editors might try to write a featured article; create a page that doesn’t get deleted; or influence policy of the site. Essays such as ‘Not Therapy’ fall in the “influence policy” category. They only accrue authority when other people refer to them.
The ‘Not Therapy’ concept has proved to be unusually sticky since its creation. “I’ve seen this essay mentioned in the sense that there might be a discussion about someone behaving in a weird way,” says Martin. “Someone will pop up and say, ‘It’s not therapy — just block them!’ Where is the empathy? Where is the spark of feeling for your fellow person?”
Despite the flaws in the framing of that essay, which can be interpreted as suggesting that mentally ill people should never contribute to the project, it was recently used as the basis for a striking confessional by a well-regarded American editor named Jake Orlowitz, who published an article titled “Journey Of A Wikipedian” on Medium. “They say that Wikipedia is NotTherapy,” he wrote near the end of his 1,200 word essay. “It’s a serious place to write an encyclopedia, not to iron out one’s mental kinks or cracks. But I think that’s wrong. No one knew me on Wikipedia, except for my words, the wisdom of my input, and the value of my contributions. They couldn’t care less if I was manic, phobic, delusional, or hysterical. It just didn’t matter. They didn’t see that part of me.”
Six years ago, Orlowitz was 27 years old and living with his parents in his childhood home. Not much was going well in his life; his mood was so low that he rarely left the house, having isolated himself from almost all of his friends. He describes his 20s as a lost decade. But on the encyclopedia, he was one of five editors on three different continents who had dedicated themselves to monitoring the 2011 Egyptian Revolution article. In shifts around the clock, they took turns scouring the web for multiple independent news reports before updating the article with reliable information that was being read by hundreds of thousands of daily visitors. And then Orlowitz’s father happened to open a bathroom door to find his nude son lying in the bath, staring intently at his laptop, oblivious to anything else in the world.
“It was a really dark moment for me,” he recalls. “I was really comfortable in that bathtub: I was warm, cozy, ergonomically set up, and absolutely wired into Wikipedia. My body was perfectly content, and my brain just raced on.” His father saw something else: a depressed son who was playing with electronics while immersed in hip-high water. “There’s some risk in typing in a bathtub,” Orlowitz admits. “For him, it was symbolic that there was a recklessness in my behavior. But it’s so fucking ironic, because what I was doing on Wikipedia was hyper-vigilant and deeply self-aware. I was in these multiple worlds: one that was pretty dark and really isolated, and one that was full of life, interest, energy and excitement.”
Orlowitz, now 33 and diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, is employed by the Wikimedia Foundation as head of The Wikipedia Library, which helps editors access reliable sources to improve the site. He was motivated to write that essay at the start of this year, when the Foundation gathered for a two-day all-staff meeting. He signed up to give a ‘lightning talk’ in the closing minutes of the second day. “I just had this urge to get down on paper what had happened, and share it with the organization,” he says. “Because I felt like I had come so far, and nobody saw me as someone with any mental health challenges. The people I work with maybe see me as the opposite; a really driven, prolific person who doesn’t ever get flustered, and an overachiever in some ways. All that was hidden.”
His memory of the talk is a blur, but he later heard there was a standing ovation. Some of his colleagues came up to him afterwards in tears. Orlowitz wasn’t intending to publish the essay online, but another confessional scrawl, this time sent to the public Wikipedia mailing list, made him reconsider: “the Elliott incident,” as he describes it.
The Australian man’s desperate email hit very close to home, and Orlowitz took it personally. Immediately, he reached out to Elliott through Facebook; soon, he managed to find his mobile phone number, and he left him a supportive voicemail. “I felt like, ‘Holy shit — I could have been him; this guy could have been me’,” he says. “Elliott is a really legendary guy. This is literally the guy who invented ‘citation needed’! He has a brilliant mind, and I had no idea he had mental health challenges.” He didn’t fully understand the episode that had so upset Elliott, but he didn’t feel like he needed to, either. “It was clear that he was having an episode, where all these things were catching up with him, and he couldn’t contain them any more. I didn’t want him to die. I wanted him to come out the other end, like I had.”
For a moment, Orlowitz interrupts our phone conversation and addresses a child nearby. “I love you,” he says to her. “I’ll talk to you in a bit.” He met his girlfriend through a Wikipedia event, and now considers her five year-old daughter part of his family. He moved from Philadelphia to Santa Cruz to be with them, and nearer to his job at the Foundation’s San Francisco headquarters. “I’m living this life where, if you’d shown it to me in high school, I would’ve said, ‘That looks perfect,’” he says. “I somehow got here despite everything — or, to a degree, because of everything. I escaped the monster and won the jackpot, in the same story.”
At the bottom of his essay, which he published shortly after Elliott’s email to the public mailing list, is a list of things for online collaborators to keep in mind. Number six notes that mental health carries a powerful stigma, and that the more open we are about it, the less it weighs all of us down. Before he hangs up, he says, “From what I’ve seen of the highly active community, there’s no expectation that all of us are ‘normal.’ I mean, we obsessively, passionately, idealistically — and often in a contrarian fashion — spend our free time writing an encyclopedia. I don’t think any of us assumes ‘normality’ is the standard of a Wikipedian.”
On that Tuesday night in mid-May, Elliott wasn’t the only one out on the roads of suburban Sydney. After he had startled his wife and abruptly left the house, she had contacted a close friend, Andy Chung. A former Anglican minister who has personal experience with major depressive disorder, Chung has known Elliott for two decades. He was the best man at Elliott’s wedding in 2006, and until recently, the two families lived only a short drive apart. Now, it was a half-hour journey each way.
Still, Chung headed out to see if, by chance, he could somehow find his distressed friend and offer reassurance. As he drove, he managed to hold a series of brief conversations with Elliott, who would occasionally answer calls before abruptly hanging up. “It was the first time I realized how different he was in his panic state, compared to how he is in his normal, calm state of mind,” recalls Chung. “It was a marked difference.” At home, both wives were watching Elliott’s social media and Google accounts to see if they could glean any details about his location from his Google Maps history. No such luck.
To his surprise, though, Chung happened to turn down a random street and found Elliott’s car. But as he approached on foot, Elliott caught sight of him. Startled once again, he screeched off. Chung, too, was jolted. Inadvertently, he triggered a high-speed chase that ended only after Chung, unused to exceeding the speed limit, eased off the accelerator. All the while, Chung cycled through a series of silent prayers: that Elliott would stay safe, that he wouldn’t do anything rash, that he would make it through the night alive.
Later, when Chung turned down another random street and saw his friend parked in the white Hyundai, preoccupied by a glowing device in his lap, he pulled over nearby and switched off the engine. For ten minutes, he watched his distressed friend from a distance, like a patient predator studying his wounded quarry. Once they began driving again, there was even a strange moment where their vehicles were side by side while stopped at a red light. Chung avoided making eye contact so as to not spook his friend, but then he lost Elliott a second time after he took a sharp turn at an intersection. Chung headed home around 2 am, exhausted and worried.
One paradox of Wikipedia is that the longer you stare at it, the more it begins to reflect whatever you want to see in it. To the casual browser who arrives at a page after Googling a random topic, it’s a potent and dependable dose of education, and a starting point for further research. To the hardcore editor who becomes enmeshed in the thicket of talk pages, admin noticeboard debates and never-ending arguments about every bit of minutiae ever conceived, it can reveal some of the worst aspects of human behavior, including abuse, harassment, and threats of physical violence. It can be difficult to separate the anonymous keyboard warriors simply amusing themselves by pushing buttons from those who intend to act on threats to harm others, or themselves.
The Wikimedia Foundation has a system in place to examine and respond to this type of on-Wiki behavior. Patrick Earley is a longtime editor who now works as a member of the seven-person support and safety team, which deals with “heavy duty” aspects of the editorial community’s overall health, including attempts to reduce the amount of harassment that occurs. “An archetypal situation is where someone takes all the information off their userpage and replaces it with text that says something like, ‘It’s all too much — I’m going to end it tonight,’” Earley tells me. “That’s a strong indication toward self-harm. Something like that would catch someone’s eye.”
A ‘recent changes’ feed tracks every edit made across Wikimedia projects; this is constantly monitored by volunteer community members. Experienced editors know that when an alarming change hits the feed, they should reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. This address is connected to a 24-hour pager system that notifies Earley’s geographically dispersed team. Human eyes will usually read this message within a couple minutes.
If at least two team members agree that the situation seems serious enough, they will report it to a law enforcement agency. Earley says that the Foundation has established police contacts across the English-speaking world who are familiar with this type of online threat of harm; it’s never a matter of hurriedly trying to explain Wikipedia to a confused or suspicious local cop. “They’re very good at getting back to us right away,” Earley says of their law enforcement connections. “Sometimes, if the person is still active on-Wiki, we communicate with them by email. But if the person disappears, we can’t really have much contact.”
This emergency response system was established in 2010 by Philippe Beaudette, the former director of community advocacy who recently left the Foundation to work at Reddit. On his LinkedIn profile, Beaudette notes that during his seven years overseeing the various Wikimedia communities, he and his team responded to almost 500 threats of suicide and other imminent harm to people and property. A recent report from the Foundation’s talent and culture team noted that, in one quarter, they handled five suicide cases that were escalated through the emergency email address.
“It’s a stressful thing, for sure,” Earley says. “My blood pressure goes up. It can catch me at any hour of the day. I do feel the weight of dealing with that. But it’s definitely something that feels like it’s important to do. We have the technical infrastructure in place to make it as painless as possible on our end.”
The success of such a system, reliant as it is on a degree of self-reporting and timely real-life intervention, cannot be guaranteed. Each year, a handful of Wikipedians on the English language project die. Their names are recorded on a public memorial page, and an image of a lit candle is placed on their userpage to indicate their passing. Sometimes, suicide is the cause of death, as it was with prominent editor and internet activist Aaron Swartz, and a 21-year-old named Jackson Peebles, whose user history shows that he edited the site on the day he died in late 2013.
Browsing the contributions of dead Wikipedians can make for uneasy reading. At the top of a userpage for a female editor named Lucia Black is the photo of a lit candle and a note indicating that the page is preserved in her memory. Userboxes declare that she was a member of the anime and manga WikiProject, that she loved rainy days, and that she had decided to leave Wikipedia. Beneath the heading ‘current status’ is an image used to measure an editor’s ‘wikistress’ level; hers indicates ‘I quit/I need a vacation,’ and is accompanied by a caption that reads, “If there was a new gauge for suicidal. I would probably be right there.”
It is unclear whether Lucia Black edited using her real name or a pseudonym — off-Wiki, some question whether her death was a hoax — but her editorial history dates back years, including several self-imposed breaks from the site. She returned voluntarily in December 2015, but her clashes with other editors continued. Today, Black’s userpage reads:
It’s just not a healthy environment. I can never truly advance and it has affected me more than some realize. I’m just no longer mentally stable, nor am I wanting to really stay alive at this point. I know Wikipedia only thing can do is block me and send the proper authorities to prevent my inevitable expiration. I’m just done. I don’t think people realize how impact this place can be until they fall in the exact same situation.
On January 15, Philippe Beaudette blocked her for a week for disruptive editing, and struck a cautionary note. “I hope you’ll listen and seriously consider what I say when I tell you that nothing here — NOTHING — is so serious as to contemplate suicide,” Beaudette wrote. “You’re welcome to come back when the block expires, but until then, I hope you step away and get some clarity.”
On February 28, an unsigned account left a note on her talk page under the heading ‘regret to inform.’ “The Wikipedia member Lucia black has passed three weeks ago,” it reads. “Unable to access her password to solidify the statement, decided to send word in this fashion.” Among the messages of condolences is this: “Be at peace, little darling. I’ll miss you. I wish I could have done more to help you.”
After his night of aimless driving, Elliott eventually turned his white Hyundai back toward home. He gave his kids a cuddle, and was asleep in bed when the police knocked on his door in the morning to perform a welfare check. They had visited during the night, too, when he had disappeared. The details are unclear, but it’s possible that this was an example of the Wikimedia Foundation’s emergency response system working well, by connecting a troubled editor with local law enforcement in order to ensure his safety. Having calmed down from his flighty state of panic, all Elliott wanted to do was keep sleeping.
But the three police officers insisted he be taken to a nearby hospital for assessment. He and his wife resisted, at first. “The bloke said to me, ‘If you go out and kill yourself, it’ll be on my conscience,’” says Elliott. “When he said it that way, logically and clearly, and with a fair amount of compassion — he was quite polite, even though I was being a bit shitty with him — I just realized that I should stop making his life difficult, and just go with it.”
When we speak on an evening in July, Elliott can see the humor of the situation two months prior. After I pose the same question that the police had asked him — why was he feeling suicidal? — Elliott can now describe it like this, while laughing at the absurdity: “Well, I was editing a web page, and I was writing about Salim Mehajer, and people were mean to me!”
As we talk, Elliott walks from his workplace to a central Sydney train station. He started a new job in IT administration three days after his episode, and he says it’s been going well. Our conversation is punctuated by the sound of a male voice announcing platforms. “Wikipedia was the tipping point,” he says, thinking back to that Tuesday. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t the cause, but it’s a concern that Wikipedia can still have that effect. Frankly, I wasn’t too well.”
Elliott says he bears no ill will toward the other Wikipedia editors and administrators involved. He knows they could not have known of the other stressors in his life that contributed to his flight from home, which led to him pressing ‘send’ on that email in which he admitted to his suicidal thoughts. “I do have anxiety issues, which I think probably comes from my attention deficit disorder,” he says. “I do have some depression, but mainly anxiety. It all contributed.” His mental illness is being treated, and he is surrounded by a strong community of friends and family. He’s not ashamed of what happened, but he is aware of the stigma that surrounds this subject. Elliott wishes to protect his family and himself, which is why his name has been changed for this article.
He is unsure, though, of how the community might better respond to editors exhibiting similar behavior. “When somebody’s in that state, the challenge becomes — what do you do with a person like that?” he wonders.
Outside his front door, he pauses for a moment to say goodnight, then turns the key to be greeted by his wife and children. With his IP address blocked from editing the site indefinitely, Elliott has no choice but to become just another casual visitor; a tourist unable to affect change. It’s now clear to him that when it comes to Wikipedia, he might be better off as an outsider, looking in.
* Name has been changed
Anyone who is suicidal may receive immediate help by visiting Suicide.org or by calling 1–800-SUICIDE if you are in the United States. Suicide is preventable, and if you are feeling suicidal, you must get help. For a list of international hotlines, click here.