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On Wikipedia and other Wikimedia Foundation projects, "bureaucrats" are community members that have the technical power to grant other users "administrator" and "bureaucrat" permissions. (They also have some other similar powers, such as to flag bots as legitimate and to remove administrative rights and bot flags.) However, they are strictly bound by policy and convention to never take a bureaucrat action except where explicitly authorized, either by direct community consensus, by voluntary resignation, where specifically authorized by policy, or by order of the "Arbitration Committee".

The name "bureaucrat" always seemed a bit odd for this position. In real life, in my experience, bureaucrats seemed to never have too much technical power but have pretty wide discretion to use it where they please, and this misnomer may be misleading to new contributors. Is there a better name for users who have a technically high level of power, but are in practice bound never to use it except when directed to do so by the community?

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The most obvious term to me is administrators. What Wiki* calls “bureaucrats” are really administrators, both in the sense of a judicial administrator (someone who manages an estate on behalf of someone else) and in the sense of a system administrator in IT. In IT, system administrators have the highest level of privilege, but they don't necessarily make policy: that comes from management (including IT management).

In web-based communities, there is sometimes a distinction between owners, who make policy, and administrators, who apply policy. But sometimes, as in Wikipedia, the administrators both make and apply policy. Wikipedia's choice of terminology is a bit unfortunate here.

If you define your own terminology, I recommend not using “administrator” for a position whose main role is to define or arbitrate policy. If “owner” is out (because, like Wiki*, there is no owner, or because “owner” refers to financial ownership which is distinct from management), you could use “manager” or “governor”.

On Wikipedia, since the bureaucrats make and unmake administrators (even if they're merely applying rules), you could call them meta-administrators. But it's a mouthful and confusion-prone.

  • Hmm. I understand how the system works very well, but I was kind of looking for terminology specifically. Meta-administrator works decently, but is there a better word? (On Wikipedia, "meta-administrator" would even be confusing- would that mean "an administrator of Wikimedia Meta-wiki" or the traditional bureaucrat?) – L235 May 26 '15 at 5:49
  • @Lixxx235 My answer does suggest terminology, but I don't have a good proposal for Wikimedia. Are you trying to get Wikimedia to change, or designing a broadly similar community? – Gilles May 26 '15 at 5:52
  • Mainly the latter, though also just generally asking for clearer terminology as a concise way to explain it with an analogy to new Wikimedians. – L235 May 26 '15 at 5:53
  • You could also see this as a tongue in cheek title, given that the policies explicitly state that Wikipedia is not a bureaucracy – Jan Doggen May 26 '15 at 13:53
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Is there a better name for users who have a technically high level of power, but are in practice bound never to use it except when directed to do so by the community?

Yes, there are different names for such persons.

A community agent can handle issues brought up by the community and try to solve them either by using his (technical) power or negotiating with the administrative powers.

A community deputy / emissary can handle problems by directly negotiating with the administrators. The staff must listen to him since he's trying to present the problems ongoing in the community. He has no technical power but is a representative of the community.

A community arbitrator is most likely what you're looking for. He has the technical power to decide things on his own, nevertheless he's completely bound to the will of the community. Still, he's controlled by the staff so he can't commit rules violations.

Gilles' idea of electing a meta administrator is really good! Nevertheless, I would probably change the meta to formal, it indicates that he's bound to some rules. A formal administrator is an administrator as every other administrator but he strictly must follow formal guidelines before using his power.

Actually, you can use the prefix community to every position, it simply shows the strong connection between the community and this particular person or position.

Possible synonyms taken from Thesaurus.com:

  • administrator
  • public servant
  • civil servant
  • functionary
  • (politician)

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