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Culture

Defacing Wikipedia

Brian C. Wilson

As a free fount of altruistically supplied information, the ever-growing online encyclopedia is a researcher's boon and a model for aggregating the collective knowledge of the human species. So how come all I want to do is vandalize it?

Wikipedia is the product of years of labor by a community of self-sacrificing volunteers. An awesome, evolving source of knowledge, but ever since I discovered it I've been fighting the temptation to vandalize it myself. A puerile urge without any redeeming qualities, sure, but there it is.

It helps me to understand the vast Wikipedia site if I picture it as a person. It's a guy. With an untrimmed beard. He's terribly smart and a little cocky, more like a graduate student than a college professor. He has a German complexion, a British accent and an American hairdo, and he drives a Yugo. If I were to meet him at, say, a café for an extra-hot no-foam venti latte with an extra shot, he would probably dominate the conversation. Occasionally, however, Wikipedia might start to speak and then sort of flame out. On the topic of synaptogenesis, for example, Wikipedia has little to say. On the other hand, Wikipedia is a huge science-fiction fan, and he can speak at exhausting length about the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or AGX-04 Gerbera Tetra, which, he would explain, is a suit of powered armor that appears in the fictional Gundam Universal Century universe, an animated series of Japanese cartoons. Wikipedia would listen patiently if I attempted to contribute to the conversation, but he would not hesitate to tell me if he thought I was wrong. Although I would learn a lot by talking to him, I would never be absolutely sure he was telling the truth. After downing his coffee Wikipedia would hurriedly get up, wave goodbye and shamble back to his computer in order to resume his favorite activity, making himself smarter. He would probably leave me with the bill.

I find myself visiting Wikipedia more and more frequently for answers to all kinds of questions, and the information is usually helpful. But still, he's a bit smug; like Nick Burns, Your Company's Computer Guy from Saturday Night Live, he sometimes acts like he knows everything. But he doesn't really. And like most nerdy guys, he's also vulnerable. I could go in there at any time, to any page, and mess him up and there's nothing he could do to stop me. I could insert misinformation, rude jokes, pornography, anything! I could totally deface Wikipedia if I wanted to. Why? Because I could do it. Because, like a subway car in New York, it's a public venue where people are more likely to notice a destructive act than a creative one. An expletive is more arresting than a flower.

By the time I discovered the Wikipedia, it had already grown to such as size that its relevance and authority was, for me, never a question. I knew nothing of its past, nor of its manner of production. I assumed that it was like any other encyclopedia I had ever encountered -- written and edited by professional researchers. When I realized I could rewrite a major repository of human knowledge, it kind of rocked my world. I had to try it a couple of times before I believed it. As an experiment, I looked up the article on Philip K. Dick, one of my favorite science-fiction authors. The article was thorough, but the quotes section omitted one of my favorites: "Reality is that which when you stop believing it, it doesn't go away." I clicked on the "edit this page" link and typed in the quote. Then I saved the page and reloaded the article in my web browser. There it was: My own words were now part of the article. I felt as I had in high school, when I once stood in front of the auditorium and addressed the entire class. Suddenly people were watching. Suddenly, I mattered.

And I didn't even have to pay for the privilege. Unlike many of the web's heavily trafficked sites, driven by retail or advertising, Wikipedia is something rare on the Internet -- it's entirely free of advertising and has no ostensible or hidden commercial purpose. It collects no personal information. Registering at the site costs nothing, and they won't sell or trade your name. It's funded instead by contributions to the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit group with a total budget of about $1 million a year. Although Wikipedia is entirely written by volunteers and lacks the imprimatur of academic authority, it has already become a de rigueur stop for anyone searching for information on topics from Asteraceae (the species that includes the dandelion) to neoliberal globalization to Mordecai Vanunu. A globe-spanning army of Wikipedia authors has generated more than 850,000 articles in the English-language edition alone, and more than 2.6 million articles if you include its hundreds of editions in other languages, making it vastly more voluminous than the Encyclopedia Britannica, which contained 65,000 articles in its 2005 edition. Now there are more than 663,000 registered users of Wikipedia and millions of anonymous contributors. The English-language site grows by nearly 50,000 articles a month. Every day about 1.5 percent of all Internet users visit Wikipedia.

Like any heterogeneous society, Wikipedia has to deal with a lot of destructive behavior, which threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. The essential distinguishing feature of a site such as Wikipedia is that anyone can change it. Unlike, say, CNN.com, where articles are written by professionals and posted in immutable form, a website written with wiki software is the digital equivalent of a blank wall. Wiki users are handed cans of spray paint; it is the prerogative of the wiki user to adorn the wall with colorful murals or to deface it with racist epithets. In a wiki you can write over anyone else's work or create new content or even delete the whole damn thing. In principle you can do absolutely anything you want on a wiki because there is no editor or master to stop you.

One consequence of its open-source format is that battles break out between informational factions. Wikipedia offers a shortcut to finding these battles, called the Request for Comment page. When I recently checked it, this page displayed a list of requests that included a call for help in the Serenity debate ("We have an edit war. We could use some outside help here. Thanks!"), and a dispute over the birth date of rapper Snoop Dogg ("Was this person born in 1971 or 1972?"). There were also some more serious conflicts:

Dhul-Qarnayn - Extremely controversial topic relating to a wide variety of Islamic and non-Islamic literature. Large group of apologetic POV pushers are making unexplained edits, deleting vast amounts of content and refusing to explain their edits. Mediation, comments, or participation in editing is strongly requested.

This last request gets to the heart of the Wikipedian desire to build the site into a reliable and relevant reference. Sometimes Wikipedia seems like the attempt of a relatively small number of people to corral the energy of the rest of the world and direct it toward the creation of a broad, reliable and free encyclopedia. On a subject such as Dhul-Qarnayn, interested groups tend to be at polemical extremes. If the last person to edit to the page is strongly anti-Islamic, the article would read like a bigoted condemnation of one of the world's great religions, but if an Islamist fundamentalist wiped away that entry and inserted a vitriolic anti-western diatribe, the article would be equally useless.

Another problem is vandalism. Often, vandalism is obvious, but the more insidious variety is misinformation posing as truth. Wikipedia learned this lesson learned recently, after John Seigenthaler, a former editor of USA Today, found that his biography on the site linked him to criminal participation in both Kennedy assassinations. He then wrote a furious editorial that ran in USA Today, prompting a lot of public apologizing and presumably some private soul searching from Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales. Wikipedia removed the slanderous claims from Seigenthaler's biography and protected the article so that no further slurs could be placed there. For his part, Seigenthaler still believes that "Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool."

Despite the quick reparation, Siegenthaler is right about Wikipedia's potential to be wrong. As I discovered with the Philip K. Dick entry, the power to participate in something meaningful on a global scale is an existential affirmation. Knowing that an article will instantly become a published part of a worldwide reference is an intoxicating enticement, and knowing that another user can delete or modify my contribution if it is wrong or badly written compels you to try to get it right, so they won't have to. But we don't always seek affirmation through participation; sometimes we seek attention through destruction. Most Wikipedia entries are actually pretty useful and thorough, so the edit button sits there without a way for a user to use it constructively. But once you know it is there, the "edit this page" button is incredibly tempting. The frustration of having nothing useful to add may be one reason why so many users chose to use that button destructively.

Given the relative anonymity of the Web, many take advantage and indulge selfish and anarchic behavior. Wikipedia gets vandalized so often that the article on vandalism has categorized the practice into a variety of common types. These include "Silly vandalism," such as creating joke articles or replacing existing articles with plausible-sounding nonsense, "Sneaky vandalism," including adding misinformation, changing dates or making other sensible-appearing substitutions and typos, and "Link vandalism," or rewriting links within an article so that they appear the same, but point to something irrelevant or ridiculous. There are even "VandalBots," malicious automated scripts that attempt to vandalize massive numbers of articles at one time. All together the Wikipedia entry on vandalism identifies 17 distinct types that mar the site.

Wikipedia survives and even flourishes in its open environment, mostly because the builders have been, at least so far, more dedicated and persistent than the vandals. A vigilante army of self-styled Wikipedians defend the site and enforce community policies based on the principle that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and not a forum for advertisements, slanderous remarks or pictures of your cat. They police the site to try to establish a neutral point of view, warn users against violating copyrights, and call for respect toward the contributions of others. Wikipedians also have a secret weapon built into the site's software, which saves every version of an article and allows users to reinstate an older version with a simple click of a button. If I were to replace all the text in the entry on "influenza" with the phrase "my cat's breath smells like cat food," the wit and wisdom of Ralph Wiggam would not be likely to last long. Diligent, sleepless Wikipedians would swoop in and revert the page to its previous version. According to the Wikipedia's vandalism entry, "A 2002 study by IBM found that most Wikipedia vandalism is reverted within five minutes."

So why would I try to vandalize this vulnerable virtual tome? No one seems to have noticed my contribution to the Phillip Dick article. What's the point of making a positive contribution if no one says "Thank you" or "Good job?" I find myself opening the Wikipedia article on "Earth." It's very long, as authoritatively written as anything in the Encyclopedia Britannica, with cutaway diagrams showing the Earth from core to exosphere, measurements of the distance from the Sun and other planets, descriptions of the continents and complex ecosystems, not to mention natural resources, ocean depths and currents, and human geography. I click on the "edit this page" button. I'm poised to type something arch, hilarious, and completely useless, to replace all this scholarship with something that will surely get some attention. Then I see it. In a comment at the top of the page is a warning:

DON'T PANIC! But don't bother putting "MOSTLY HARMLESS" or "HARMLESS" or any Hitchhiker's Guide reference in here. It's been done to death. Find a gem with which to improve the article and you'll shine forever.

Caught like a hooligan in a searchlight beam, realizing that my intentions are unworthy of this huge collective effort, I put down my spray paint and walk away from the computer.

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