Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads

Making worlds with Wikipedia

Photo by Peter Stanglmayr

In the eyes of many, Wikipedia lost its innocence in the fall of 2005, when journalist and Kennedy family friend and legal advisor John Siegenthaler clicked on his own biographical entry and found that “for a short time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother, Bobby.” The libel had been inserted into the entry four months earlier, and had remained undisturbed there ever since.

The scandal made great copy. The culprit, as it happened, was no ideologue with an agenda or insider with a vendetta; he was an evening manager at a Tennessee delivery company playing a prank on a coworker. The whole episode seemed to capture everything dubious about an encyclopedia that dispenses with credentialed authority in favor of anonymous, unprofessional, unpaid collaborative work. In an age when cynicism about elite sources of information and opinion — the New York Times comes to mind — is at a high point, elite opinion turned with some relish to a story about the contamination of knowledge by the great unwashed.

Something of this was in the air when, in early December, the elegant Siegenthaler appeared on CNN alongside the embattled-looking founder of Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales, for a joint interview by Kyra Phillips. “We’re going into an election year,” Siegenthaler intoned, balancing personal magnanimity with civic indignation, “and every senator and congressman is going to find himself or herself subjected to the same sort of outrageous commentary that hit me and hit others. I’m afraid we’re going to get regulated media as a result.” Phillips was so radiantly seized by the first point that she blazed past the second, telling Wales she’d like to see “some sort of controls” in place on Wikipedia, having just suffered the shock of discovering her own entry made her look “like a right-wing commie.” Wales blinked, twitched, bobbed, squeezed his elbows, and took refuge in arcana about the procedural changes he’d introduced to the online encyclopedia since the start of the debacle.

Siegenthaler needn’t have worried so much about politicians, who know how to look after themselves. Wikipedia and the midterm elections were indeed on a collision course, but while Siegenthaler wrung his hands over the specter of defamation, members of Congress were rubbing theirs over the opportunities for spin. Wikipedia editors had been sweeping out bits of fluff wafting into the entries of politicians since midsummer (“Meehan developed a reputation as a tough law enforcer,” “Burns has been an [sic] true advocate of the agricultural community,” etc), but it wasn’t until late January that they compared notes, did a bit of detective work, and discovered that the tendentious edits numbered in the thousands — and were all streaming in from the offices of congressmen themselves.

The ensuing scandal received much less media attention than the Siegenthaler episode, but it’s a much more telling one. Hoax edits, after all, are quickly weeded out, while propaganda sinks into the groundwater. When puckish congressional staffers gave Senator Robert Byrd’s age as 180, for example, or added helpful links from the illustrated technical article on “douchebags” to the biographical entry on then–White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, the edits lasted only six minutes and twenty-four minutes, respectively. One of Wikipedia’s four cardinal rules is “verifiability, not truth”; if it doesn’t clear the bar of the former, it’s out, no matter how much it has the ring of the latter.

The other three cardinal rules are neutral point of view (NPOV), reliable sources only (RS), and “no original research” (NOR, meaning no editor can provide analysis not found in cited sources). It’s possible for interested parties to massage information through finesse of these rules, though, and that poses a more serious problem for Wikipedia’s long-term credibility than do spitballs swept up by the janitorial crew. When someone from the office of Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, replaced references to his use of the word “ragheads” for Arabs with a new section called “A Voice for the Farmer,” the edit lasted almost twenty-four hours. Every edit is accompanied by an edit summary; this staffer wrote, “The Wikipedia isn’t a tabloid.” No one calls it “the Wikipedia” (at least no one under fifty, which might lead one to wonder whether the anonymous editor was really a mere intern) but the “tabloid” objection was actually pretty savvy. Months after the congressional scandal was old news, regular Wikipedia editors were “reverting” to the expurgated version of Burns’s bio and questioning whether emphasizing a politician’s sensational verbal gaffes wasn’t in fact a violation of NPOV. One newly registered editor participating in the debate was suspected of being a Burns plant, which the editor vociferously denied.

And what if he was? While many were calling for a complete block of US House of Representatives’ Wikipedia-editing privileges, others were pointing out that if Wikipedia is indeed “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” then anyone means anyone. After prolonged debate, the proposed ban was implemented, then quickly reversed; Wales himself (who has admitted editing his own entry to remove references to a brief stint in the porn industry) made equivocal public statements, at once frowning on the practice while stressing that in principle there’s nothing wrong with interested parties wanting “to put in their side of things.”

In Wikipedia jargon, an unregistered editor is called an “anon.” The term is highly misleading. Any change made by an unregistered editor leaves a permanent public record of his computer’s IP-address, which is traceable to locations in the real world. The first and fa­tal mistake of the Congressional staffers was to remain “anonymous.” When a user registers on Wikipedia, paradoxically, she is thereafter known by a screen name, and her IP address is masked from the public and all but a handful of administrators, who can look it up only in exceptional circumstances. It’s the registered, regular users who are anonymous on Wikipedia. As in other situations where anonymity is the norm — masked balls, say, or sex clubs — the real world recedes, and role­ playing takes on a life of its own.

Wikipedia tries to some extent to regulate the role-playing. You’re not allowed to create multiple aliases who “support” your position in this or that editorial dispute; these are called “sockpuppets,” and anyone discovered to be manning one or more is sent packing from the community (along with said puppets). Since Wikipedia is ruled by consensus, sockpuppets can be useful, but keeping one is as delicate and dangerous as keeping a mistress. You can’t appear everywhere with your sockpuppet. If you’re discreet, others will return the favor; if you’re not, you risk being “indefinitely blocked” or even “banned,” the ultimate disgrace. Imagine a social space jointly devised by Jurgen Habermas and Edith Wharton; that’s the Wikipedia “community.” You’re anonymous when you enter, divested of real-world credentials, a voice of partial if presumptively disinterested reason; but you quickly develop a history there, a reputation, a precarious place within networks of shifting alliances complete with the rewards of authority and influence for those who play it right, ostracism for those who don’t.

Wikipedia also forbids editing by real-world proxies without “independent views and actual or potential contributions.” “Meatpuppetry,” as that practice is known, is defi­ned in passing as a variation of sockpuppetry. In fact, it represents a far knottier problem, as suggested by Wikipedia’s polarized and incoherent response to the congressional scandal. While the sockpuppet represents an ethical problem internal to Wikipedia, the meatpuppet threatens to destabilize one of its core fic­tions — that there’s some sort of visible and regulable boundary between Wikipedia and the world.

Take the case of University of Michigan academic Juan Cole, whose entry for months now has been an editorial battlefield. The con­troversy involves an accusation by Middle East historian Efraim Karsh that the anti-Semitic obsessions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion “resonate powerfully” in Cole’s writings, and Cole’s angry rejection of the charge as “scurrilous propaganda.” Wikipedians hostile to Cole (and to Israel’s critics in general) added this comment to his bio, even creating a special section for it. Other editors objected to its inclusion as defamatory and “ridiculous[ly] Jew-baiting.” Cole’s critics argued that “Cole is a Jew-baiter,” so words to that effect are appropriate, and that if anything was defamatory, it was Cole’s intemperate response.

“Flame” comments like these about “Jew-baiting” are very rare on even the most contentious of “discussion” and “mediation” pages. What one finds there instead is wikilawyer­ing — cryptic, acronym­-laden debate invoking protocol and precedent. Cole’s critics eventually prevailed on ingenious grounds: since in the disputed blog post, Cole was more outraged by Wikipedia’s repetition of the allegation than by its original appearance in The New Republic, they argued that he was tacitly prompting readers of his blog to go and edit his Wikipedia entry — in other words, to act as meatpuppets. Cole’s critics even floated suspicions that fellow editors pursuing the issue were doing so at Cole’s behest (a flurry of denials and recriminations followed). If Wikipedia didn’t draw a firm line in the sand, the argument went, it would find itself defense­ less against manipulation of the worst kind — not that of zealots within the community, but that of outside figures pursuing real­-world in­terests. It was a trump argument, going straight to the core of Wikipedia’s credibility envy, and Cole’s critics won the day. The entry on Cole now includes Karsh’s allegation and no rebuttal.

It wasn’t the first time the parties to the Cole dispute had squared off against one another. Unsurprisingly, any page even tangentially related to Israel/Palestine is the subject of ceaseless dispute, and everyone’s a regular. Also unsurprisingly, perhaps, the pro-Israel side is slightly better organized. Amid the scores of single-issue edit-warriors with screen names like PalestineRemembered, HumusSapiens, and G-Dett, two Wikipedians stand out for their tenacity and influence, and for the resourcefulness of their wikilawyering: Jayjg and SlimVirgin. Both Jay and Slim are administrators with the power to block other users; Jay has also served on the Arbitration Committee (with the power to resolve issues with binding resolutions when mediation fails) and is one of a handful of Wikipedians who can check the IP addresses of registered users. The editorial contribution of Slim and Jay to Wikipedia’s coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict is massive. On average, they each make around 20,000 edits a year, or roughly fifty­-five edits a day. Jay edits exclusively on political issues related to Israel/Palestine, while Slim does a sideline in animal-rights issues. Slim is said to have once made continual edits to Wikipedia for a thirty-six-hour stretch. Together they are a vigilant presence in hundreds of articles ranging from “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” to “If Americans Knew” to “Islamic Ethics” to “New Anti-Semitism.” Their teamwork has something of a good cop, bad cop quality, with Jay tersely and caustically “reverting” edits on technical grounds, and Slim giving patient, involved explanations to editors discouraged by the rapid gutting or wholesale removal of their contributions. If you’d like to meet either, it’s easily arranged: go, for example, to the entry on “Political Epithets” and question the inclusion of “Apartheid” (or the omission of “anti-Semite” for that matter); or if you know Persian, suggest that “wiped from the map” is an imperfect translation of the Iranian president’s verbal bluster.

All regular editors develop a personality and a reputation, but Slim and Jay have become legends, both within Wikipedia and outside of it. Slim in particular is an obsession for editors at_ The Wikipedia Review, a website established by political exiles of Wikipedia (many of them LaRouchies), and at _Encyclopedia Dramatica, a website established by those dissatisfied with insufficient crankery and insufficient anti­-Semitism at Wikipedia Review. Members of both groups were, in many cases, kicked out of Wikipedia after clashing with Slim. So when Daniel Brandt — the same internet sleuth who tracked down Siegenthaler’s defamer to his Tennessee lair — came forth with Slim’s “real identity,” the news was pure manna to the collective imagination of these sites.

SlimVirgin, Brandt says, is Linda Mack, a gray-eyed American beauty who became an undercover MI5 agent after her Cambridge lover was killed in the Lockerbie bombing, and who, after losing her job at ABC when it was discovered she was a spy, changed her name to Sarah McEwan and moved to Canada. Before she was outed as an agent, the story goes, ABC had Mack on the journalistic trail of Lockerbie, traveling to Syria and Libya and interviewing the likes of Abu Nidal. Solid sleuthwork shades quickly into fantasy in these regions, of course; and for the most fervent imaginations, Mack (aka McEwan, under new cover as SlimVirgin, the world’s most glamorous meatpuppet) is once again an intelligence agent, perhaps this time Mossad’s, working Wikipedia the way she once worked ABC. And what better place to blend in: at Wikipedia, after all, everyone is undercover.

Such imaginings, however, are merely the funhouse-mirror version of a more ordinary cynicism settling around the edges of Wikipedia. If Israel or the Palestinian Authority — or Barack Obama, or Paramount Pictures, or indeed any entity with resources and a vested interest in public perceptions — isn’t sending young talent into Wikipedia, then they ought to be, and almost certainly soon will be. As this article goes to press, reports are emerging that Microsoft has hired a tech blogger to begin editing Wikipedia.

And not to insert ad-copy puffery into the entry on Microsoft, which would be hopelessly old-school, but rather to make subtle changes to arcane entries dealing with the open-source standards used by Microsoft’s competitors.

Also very recently, Wikipedia has decided to make every link within it a “blind” link — that is, invisible to Google searches. Because Wikipedia’s search results are consistently highly ranked, companies have been able to piggy-back on its popularity. In an unverified leaked memo last September, Wi­kipedia’s in-house lawyer supposedly suggested that when administrators “see new user names and page creations that are blatantly commercial, they should shoot on sight.” Wales has emphasized that Wikipedia is free “not just in a ‘free beer’ kind of way, but also in the free-speech kind of way.” To which Stanley Fish might respond. There’s no such thing as free speech; speech always takes place within a configuration of vested interests. From utopianism to a kind of demystified pragmatism, that is: Wikipedia may have begun as Wales’s brainchild, but it’s beginning to look like Fish’s. Others see something worse in store. Eric Goldman, a legal scholar specializing in the internet and technology, has wagered that Wikipedia — avowedly his favorite website — will “fail” by 2010, that it “inevitably will be overtaken by the gamers and the marketers to the point where it will lose all credibility.”

The media, on the whole, remains oblivious to the structural challenges to Wikipedia’s long-term credibility, preferring to gape and marvel at the results of accuracy contests with Britannica, while continuing to crack wise over the encyclopedia anyone can edit and Joe Sixpack gets to fact-check. Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, puffing his chest and wagging his pencil in his sublime testosterone-dweeb homage to Bill O’Reilly, praised Wikipedia for “bringing democracy to knowledge” and thereby creating “wikiality.” “Who’s Britannica to tell me George Washington had slaves?” Colbert asked, meanwhile logging on to Wikipedia from his studio desk, live on television. “If I want to say he didn’t, that’s my right, and now, thanks to Wikipedia,” tapping keys, “it’s also a fact.” He went on to suggest that viewers change the entry on endangered elephants to reflect his impression that their numbers had tripled in the last month. Sure enough, a newly registered Wikipedian, “stephencolbert,” logged his first edit that night: “In conclusion, George Washington did not own slaves.” And by midnight, the elephant pages were indeed awash in upbeat “statistics” about a resurgence in numbers.

These were soon enough corrected. And yet all seemed to think Colbert’s joke was about the reflection of consensus reality on Wikipedia, not the manufacturing of it on television. Wikipedians, for their part, took evident delight in the episode, and promptly created an entry for “wikiality.” There were a few spoilsports, to be sure. One administrator blocked “stephencolbert” from further editing pending an apology. (He later suggested that being invited as a guest on the “Colbert Report” might help heal the matter.) And another administrator, when accused herself of trafficking in “wikiality,” instantly punished her critic by blocking his account. A higher-up just as quickly reversed her decision, an uncharacteristic rebuff. The first administrator was SlimVirgin; her rebuke came from none other than Jimbo Wales. The crowd of cranks over at The Wikipedia Review, who don’t miss such things, went wild.