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How Wikipedia’s Dr Jekyll became Mr Hyde: Vandalism, sock puppetry and the curious case of Wikipedia’s decline

Published on
21 Oct 2013

This is a (very) short paper that I will be presenting at Internet Research in Denver this week. I want to write something longer about the story because I feel like it represents in many ways what I see as emblematic of so many of us who lived through our own Internet bubble: when everything seemed possible and there was nothing to lose. This is (a small slice of) Drork’s story. 

Richard Mansfield starring in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Wikipedia. Public Domain.
Richard Mansfield starring in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Abstract This paper concerns the rise and fall of Wikipedia editor, ‘drork’ who was blocked indefinitely from the English version of the encyclopedia after seven years of constructive contributions, movement leadership and intense engagement. It acts as a companion piece to the recent statistical analyses of patterns of conflict and vandalism on Wikipedia to reflect on the questions of why someone who was once committed to the encyclopedia may want to vandalize it. The paper compares two perspectives on the experience of being a Wikipedian: on the other hand, a virtuous experience that enables positive character formation as more commonly espoused, and alternatively as an experience dominated by in-fighting, personal attacks and the use of Wikipedia to express political goals. It concludes by arguing that the latter behavior is necessary in order to survive as a Wikipedian editing in these highly conflict-ridden areas.

Introduction

Recent scholarship has painted two competing pictures of what Wikipedia and Wikipedians are “like” and what they are motivated by. On the one hand, Benkler and Nissenbaum argue that because people contribute to projects like Wikipedia with motivations “ranging from the pure pleasure of creation, to a particular sense of purpose, through to the companionship and social relations that grow around a common enterprise”, the practice of commons-based peer production fosters virtue and enables “positive character formation” (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006). On the other hand, we have heard more recently about how “free and open” communities like Wikipedia have become a haven for aggressive, intimidating behavior (Reagle, 2013) and that reversions of newcomers’ contributions has been growing steadily and may be contributing to Wikipedia’s decline (Halfaker, Geiger, Morgan, & Riedl, in-press).  

Studies on revert wars, vandalism and deletions on Wikipedia have focused on locating, isolating, categorizing and quantifying conflict. From these studies, we know that article reverts (where an editor restores an article to a previous version in order to fight vandalism or to promote one side of a conflict) are on the rise (Buriol, Castillo, Donato, Leonardi, & Millozzi, 2006), that this is a sign of a growth in the “coordination costs” required to manage and resolve such conflict (Kittur, Suh, Pendleton, & Chi, 2007) and that on Wikipedia, conflict is dominated by back and forth between pairs of people who are actively reverting one another (Yasseri, Sumi, Rung, Kornai, & Kertész, 2012). These individuals are generally supported by users who rally around them on “talk” pages and on administrative pages related to conflict resolution so that debates are rarely concluded on the basis of merit but rather by outside intervention, sheer exhaustion or the numerical dominance of one group (Yasseri et al., 2012).

Methodology

This case study involves a series of seven in-depth interviews over an 18-month period between September 2011 and March 2013 as well as content analysis of drork’s article edits, discussion pages, mailing list posts, and arbitration committee (arbcom) cases. In addition, I attended a workshop with drork as part of the Oxford Internet Institute’s MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Wikipedia project where I was able to observe his interactions with attendees who he had edited (and sometimes clashed) with during his editing of Arabic Wikipedia.

Who is drork?

I was brought up on this idea that there is objective knowledge and this whole idea of looking for the truth… so when I went to (the first Wikimania conference in) Boston it was like coming home. Everyone talked about how to convey truth and objective knowledge and information. (drork, Skype interview, 16 October, 2011)

drork was for many years a model Wikipedian. A linguist by training, he epitomized many of the ideals of Wikipedia: he spent countless volunteer hours editing the encyclopedia in three languages, he was transparent and open in his editing (he is one of the few editors who uses his full name in his Wikipedia work), he refused to become involved in any of Wikipedia’s “cabals” and played a strong leadership role beyond editing, speaking to the media about his experiences editing Middle East topics and assisting with outreach projects to bring offline Wikipedia to countries in West Africa. A true modernist, drork believed that Wikipedia was a place where people with different ideas about what happened could come together to collaborate in discovering the “truth”. He believed that Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View” that required secondary sources to back up any claims enabled an article to represent an issue in a way that was fair to all parties.

Downfall

At first I liked it. It was very interesting – like being invited into a club of intellectuals. When I had some free time at work, I would log on just to see if someone left me a message or note or changed something. It was like being involved in a constant intellectual meeting that is ongoing – a club that I could join day and night whenever I had free time. (drork, Skype interview, 16 October, 2011)

After a heady period where he spoke excitedly about the goals of Wikipedia, drork started to notice an increasing politicization within the Wikipedia community. He wrote to the internal Wikimedia mailing list in early 2009 that he felt that the principles of NPOV were not being maintained on many parts of the encyclopedia, most notably on Wikimedia Commons where politically-motivated imagery, including swastikas and anti-Israeli cartoons, as well as users’ info boxes supporting armed resistance against Israel and/or other political groups like Hezbollah (Wikipedia, 2013) were able to flourish.

drork was frustrated by the politicized debates and strategic wrangling that was required to prevail in long edit wars. He had always tried to stay away from being part of any cabal but he believed that it was becoming clear that the people who were able to prevail did so by playing politics, whereas drork had naively believed that the project should exist without such wrangling.

In early 2010, after six years of editing Wikipedia, drork was banned from editing for 24 hours on the English encyclopedia and then six months for disruptive behavior in a series of Wikipedia “trials”. He had been accused of breaking the English Wikipedia’s “3 revert rule” (3RR) that states that editors are not allowed to revert more than 3 edits in a 24-hour period, but drork said that he didn’t recognize the authority of the administrators to block him and started a number of new accounts, once again reverting edits and trying to bolster support for his views. Wikipedia administrators blocked each of these accounts for breaking rules against “sockpuppetry” (the use of alternative accounts to deceive other users) until drork became too exhausted to continue and stopped editing altogether.

Conclusion

It made me talk in a way I didn’t want to talk; it made me fight in a way I didn’t want to fight. It corrupted me in the face of people whose opinion of me I value. (drork, Skype interview, 8 March, 2013)

At some point during this time, drork realized that his behavior had devolved into the kind of political campaigning that he had been actively trying to work against. Despite not recognizing the 3RR or the authority of the arbitration committee, drork had complained about an editor on the “Administrators’ noticeboard” for violating 3RR, and he had tried to rally other Israelis through the local press to defend what he believed was an active campaign to alter the encyclopedia in the face of the upcoming UN resolution on the status of Palestine. Looking back on it now, drork believes that the experience brought out the worst in him – it was like “letting the demon out of the bottle,” he said.

This case study provides some initial evidence that engagement in Wikipedia editing activities, far from fostering virtue and enabling the kind of positive character formation that Benkler and Nissenbaum write about, can actually have the opposite effect in areas of intense conflict. Wikipedia is a place where distinct groups of people with different points of view are working together and this necessarily results in strategic wrangling, the playing of politics and the necessitation of bureaucracies and judiciaries in order to deal with disputes.

References

Benkler, Y., & Nissenbaum, H. (2006). Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue*. Journal of Political Philosophy, 14(4), 394–419. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9760.2006.00235.x

Buriol, L., Castillo, C., Donato, D., Leonardi, S., & Millozzi, S. (2006). Temporal Evolution of the Wikigraph. Retrieved from http://www.dcc.uchile.cl/%7Eccastill/papers/buriol_2006_temporal_analysis_wikigraph.pdf

Halfaker, A., Geiger, R. S., Morgan, J., & Riedl, J. (in-press). The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s reaction to sudden popularity is causing its decline. American Behavioral Scientist.

Kittur, A., Suh, B., Pendleton, B. A., & Chi, E. H. (2007). He says, she says: conflict and coordination in Wikipedia. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 453–462). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1240624.1240698

Marcus, G. E. (1995). Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24(1), 95–117. doi:10.1146/annurev.an.24.100195.000523

Ofer Arazy, Yeo, Lisa, & Nov, Oded. (2013). Stay on the Wikipedia Task: When task-related disagreements slip into personal and procedural conflicts. Journal of the American Society for Information Science  and Technology.

Reagle, J. (2013). “Free as in sexist?” Free culture and the gender gap. First Monday, 18(1). doi:10.5210/fm.v18i1.4291

Wikipedia:Administrators’ noticeboard/Incidents/Hezbollah userbox. (2013, January 23). In Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Administrators%27_noticeboard/Incidents/Hezbollah_userbox&oldid=496957783

Yasseri, T., Sumi, R., Rung, A., Kornai, A., & Kertész, J. (2012). Dynamics of conflicts in Wikipedia. arXiv:1202.3643. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038869

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the IDRC for their support of the Oxford Internet Institute’s workshops to study Wikipedia in the Middle East and North Africa.

License

This article is ©2013 Authors, and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.