Vigilance vs. Vandalism
Wikipedia’s controversies are well-advertised. And many of them stem from the fact that large swaths of the site lie dormant and unpatrolled indefinitely, leaving them vulnerable to misinformation. One of the reasons Sawczynec joined up was that he had great affection for the Wiki ideal, and wanted to protect it. But, he says, “To put it plainly, Wikipedia doesn’t have nearly enough people as it needs to combat vandalism.”
As an administrator, Sawczynec is forever scanning new edits—he has a watch list of about 4,000 articles of his own choosing, which is sprawling even by Wiki standards—ever ready to swoop in and undo misinformation.
“I keep an eye on a lot of pages that get vandalized a ton,” he says. “Rappers, for example. You would not believe how often they get messed with. The page for Lil’ Wayne? That gets vandalized. All. The. Time. I keep an eye on wrestling pages, which also get vandalized a lot. Movie pages get vandalized often.”
And then there’s the always fuced-with entry: George W. Bush. “It does get locked occasionally, but as a general rule we try not to lock it unless there’s constant vandalism from a lot of different people,” says Sawczynec. “If there’s a lot of vandalism from only one person, we wouldn’t lock the page—we’d block the person.”
As with anything, there’s always the risk of too much of a good thing. “Wikipediholism” is defined onsite, only half jokingly, as “an obscure form of OCD” whose sufferers “endlessly track and monitor the edits of users with whom they have become obsessed. This disorder can lead to a serious decrease in productivity in all other areas of the victim’s life, like any other addiction.”
There will always be discontent, both inside and outside Wikipedia’s ranks. Recently the English tech tabloid The Register reported that “controversy has erupted among the encyclopedia’s core contributors, after a rogue editor revealed that the site’s top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown [sic] on perceived threats to their power,” and that mistrust of this “ruling clique” had “rank and file ... on the verge of revolt.”
(The hierarchy at Wikipedia, whose head office, the Wikimedia Foundation Inc., will be moving from St. Petersburg, Fla., to San Francisco this year, is complicated. Learn about its “mix of anarchic, despotic, Democratic, Republican, meritocratic, plutocratic, and technocratic elements” at meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Power_structure.)
Indeed, some disillusioned former Wikipedians gripe about such bureaucratic heavy-handedness and/or the rabidity of some of the site’s devotees, grumbling about “Swastikipedia.” Meanwhile, Websites such as WikipediaReview.com and Wikipedia-Watch.org charge themselves with debunking what they see as the self-satisfied smugness of so-called Wikipediots.
Wikipedia’s own co-founder, Larry Sanger, left the site in 2002—not just because he was uneasy with the potential for abuse and inaccuracy, but because he believed Wikipedia’s populism went too far, to the point of disdain for experts and scholars. He’s since created another reference site, launched in March 2007, Citizendium. It strives for “credibility and quality, not just quantity,” enforces stricter rules and requires editors to post under their own names.
Of course, it’s never heartening to learn of the CIA and the Vatican perpetrating propagandistic edits all over the site, or to hear American Library Association President Michael Gorman castigating Wikipedia for creating “a generation of intellectual sluggards incapable of moving beyond the Internet.” But, by and large, Wikipedia is doing good work.
“History has shown that, when there’s a need for something that benefits society, there’s no way that anyone can stop its progression,” says Blackburn. “One of the most powerful things in our world is knowledge—whether it’s a train timetable or the specific flora and fauna in your neighborhood. Everyone has a need for information. And most people have a desire to explore. That’s what Wikipedia’s there for.”
Mike Miliard is a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix. This story is reprinted with permission.
Read City Weekly’s Feature Sidebar: Utah’s Own Busy Wikipediots by Holly Mullen