On the surface, all is well in Wikiland. Just last week, a headline from The San Francisco Chronicle told the world that “Wikipedia’s Future Is Still Looking Up,” as the paper happily announced that founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales plans to expand his operation with a high-profile move to the city by the bay.
But underneath, there’s trouble brewing.
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 on perceived threats to their power.
Many suspected that such a list was in use, as the Wikipedia “ruling clique” grew increasingly concerned with banning editors for the most petty of reasons. But now that the list’s existence is confirmed, the rank and file are on the verge of revolt.
Revealed after an uber-admin called “Durova” used it in an attempt to enforce the quixotic ban of a longtime contributor, this secret mailing list seems to undermine the site’s famously egalitarian ethos. At the very least, the list allows the ruling clique to push its agenda without scrutiny from the community at large. But clearly, it has also been used to silence the voice of at least one person who was merely trying to improve the encyclopedia’s content.
“I’ve never seen the Wikipedia community as angry as they are with this one,” says Charles Ainsworth, a Japan-based editor who’s contributed more feature articles to the site than all but six other writers. “I think there was more hidden anger and frustration with the ‘ruling clique’ than I thought and Durova’s heavy-handed action and arrogant refusal to take sufficient accountability for it has released all of it into the open.”
Kelly Martin, a former member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, leaves no doubt that this sort of surreptitious communication has gone on for ages. “This particular list is new, but the strategy is old,” Martin told us via phone, from outside Chicago. “It’s certainly not consistent with the public principles of the site. But in reality, it’s standard practice.”
Meanwhile, Jimbo Wales has told the community that all this is merely a tempest in a teacup. As he points out, the user that Durova wrongly banned was reinstated after a mere 75 minutes. But it would seem that Jimbo has done his best to suppress any talk of the secret mailing list.
Whatever the case, many longtime editors are up-in-arms. And the site’s top administrators seem more concerned with petty site politics than with building a trustworthy encyclopedia. “The problem with Wikipedia is that, for so many in the project, it’s no longer about the encyclopedia,” Martin wrote in a recent blog post. “The problem is that Wikipedia’s community has defined itself not in terms of the encyclopedia it is supposedly producing, but instead of the people it venerates and the people it abhors.”
Bang! Bang! You’re dead
On November 18, Durova banned a Wikipedia editor known as “!!”. Yes, “!!”. Some have taken to calling him “Bang Bang.” At Wikipedia, everyone has the right to anonymity, and user names are often, shall we say, inexplicable.
In banning this account, Durova described it as an “abusive sock puppet,” insisting it was setup by someone dead set on destroying the encyclopedia. “This problem editor is a troublemaker whose username is two exclamation points with no letters,” read the block. “He is a ripened sock with a padded history of redirects, minor edits, and some DYK work. He also indulges in obscene trolling in German, and free range sarcasm and troublemaking. If you find this user gloating, or spot his nasty side, hit him with the banhammer.” DYKs are edits made to the “Did You Know” section of the Wikipedia home page.
Durova then posted a notice to the site’s public forum, insisting the ban was too important for discussion outside the purview of the Arbitration Committee, Wikipedia’s Supreme Court. “Due to the nature of this investigation, our normal open discussion isn’t really feasible,” she said. “Please take to arbitration if you disagree with this decision.”
But it was discussed. At length. Countless editors were nothing less than livid, many arguing that the banned user was actually a wonderfully productive editor. “Durova, you’re really going to have to explain this,” wrote one editor. “I see no transgressions of any kind on the part of this user; indeed, with over 100 DYKs, he seems to be a pretty positive force around here.”
Meanwhile, Durova continued to insist that she had some sort of secret evidence that could only be viewed by the Arbitration Committee. “I am very confident my research will stand up to scrutiny,” she said. “I am equally confident that anything I say here will be parsed rather closely by some disruptive banned sockpuppeteers. If I open the door a little bit it’ll become a wedge issue as people ask for more information, and then some rather deep research techniques would be in jeopardy.”
Then someone posted a private email from Durova in which she divulged her evidence – and revealed the secret mailing list.
Basically, Durova’s email showed that Bang Bang was indeed a wonderfully productive editor. She was sure this was all a put-on, that he was trying to gain the community’s “good faith” and destroy it from within.
We’re not joking.
This sort of extreme paranoia has become the norm among the Wikipedia inner circle. There are a handful of sites across the web that spend most of their bandwidth criticizing the Wikipedia elite – the leading example being Wikipedia Review – and the ruling clique spends countless hours worrying that these critics are trying to infiltrate the encyclopedia itself.
Bang Bang was a relatively new account. Since this new user was a skilled editor, Durova decided, he must be “a vandal” sent by Wikipedia Review. “I need to show you not just what Wikipedia Review is doing to us, but how they’re doing it,” she said in her email. “Here’s a troublemaker whose username is two exclamation points with no letters: !! It’s what I would call [a] ‘ripened sock’…Some of the folks at WR do this to game the community’s good faith.”
Former Arbitration Committee member Kelly Martin confirms that this bizarre attitude is now par for the course inside the Wikipedia inner circle. “Anyone who makes large changes to anything now is likely to get run over by a steamroller,” she says. “It’s not a matter of whether your edit was good or bad. All they see is ‘large edit my person not known to me’ and – boom! They smack you on the head because vandals are so bad.”
As it turned out, Bang Bang was an experienced user. He had set up a new account after having privacy problems with his old one. Once her secret email was posted, Durova removed the ban, calling it “a false positive.”
Durova then voluntarily relinquished her admin powers, and over the weekend, the Arbitration Committee admonished her “to exercise greater care when issuing blocks.”
The secret mailing list
But this particular false positive was only part of the problem. With her email, Durova also revealed that the ruling clique was using that secret mailing list to combat its enemies – both real and imagined. “The good news,” she said, was that the Wikipedia Review “trolls” didn’t know the list existed. And then she linked to the list’s sign-up page.
The list is hosted by Wikia, the Jimmy Wales-founded open source web portal that was setup as an entirely separate entity from the not-for-profit Wikimedia Foundation that oversees Wikipedia.
The sign-up page explains that the list is designed to quash “cyberstalking” and “harassment.” But it would seem that things have gotten a bit out-of-hand. Clearly, the list is also used to land “the banhammer” on innocent bystanders.
“The problem is that their false positive rate is about 90 per cent – or higher,” says Kelly Martin. “It’s possible that every last person Durova has identified is innocent.”
Recently, in another effort to quash “harassment,” several members of the Wikipedia elite tried to ban the mention of certain “BADSITES” on the encyclopedia, and naturally, Wikipedia Review was on the list. Dan Tobias was one of the many editors who successfully fought this ban, and as he battled, he marveled at how well organized his opponents seemed to be.
“Over the months that I’ve been fighting people over issues like the BADSITES proposal, it looks like a lot of these people I was fighting were on this secret email list – at least I suspect they were,” says the Floridia-based Tobias. “They always seemed to be show up in right place, at the right time, to gang up on people.”
Yes, it all sounds like the most ridiculous of high school squabbles. But Tobias was merely trying to protect free speech on a site where free speech is supposedly sacred.
The irony, Tobias points out, is that in using this mailing list, the Wikipedia inner circle is guilty of the same behavior they’re trying to fight. “They’re villainizing the so-called attack sites because these sites are promoting pernicious ideas about Wikipedia,” he says. “The argument is that when a bunch of like-minded people get together, they’re sounding boards for one another, and they end up getting way off base because there’s not an opposing viewpoint around.
“But you could say the exact same thing about this secret email list: a bunch of like-minded people are encouraging each other’s possibly wacked-out views and, in the end, making trouble on Wikipedia.”
If you take Wikipedia as seriously as it takes itself, this is a huge problem. The site is ostensibly devoted to democratic consensus and the free exchange of ideas. But whether or not you believe in the holy law of Web 2.0, Wikipedia is tearing at the seams. Many of its core contributors are extremely unhappy about Durova’s ill-advised ban and the exposure of the secret mailing list, and some feel that the site’s well-being is seriously threatened.
In a post to Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales says that this whole incident was blown out of proportion. “I advise the world to relax a notch or two. A bad block was made for 75 minutes,” he says. “It was reversed and an apology given. There are things to be studied here about what went wrong and what could be done in the future, but wow, could we please do so with a lot less drama? A 75 minute block, even if made badly, is hardly worth all this drama. Let’s please love each other, love the project, and remember what we are here for.”
But he’s not admitting how deep this controversy goes. Wales and the Wikimedia Foudation came down hard on the editor who leaked Durova’s email. After it was posted to the public forum, the email was promptly “oversighted” – i.e. permanently removed. Then this rogue editor posted it to his personal talk page, and a Wikimedia Foundation member not only oversighted the email again, but temporarily banned the editor.
Then Jimbo swooped in with a personal rebuke. “You have caused too much harm to justify us putting up with this kind of behavior much longer,” he told the editor.
The problem, for many regular contributors, is that Wales and the Foundation seem to be siding with Durova’s bizarre behavior. “I believe that Jimbo’s credibility has been greatly damaged because of his open support for these people,” says Charles Ainsworth. And if Jimbo can’t maintain his credibility, the site’s most experienced editors may not stick around. Since the banhammer came down, Bang Bang hasn’t edited a lick. The Register