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Wiki-Paranoia

By E. A. Barbour

PART I:

One of the first things apparent to a visitor to Wikipedia, who tries to examine and understand its perverse internal “culture”, is the obsession with secrecy and obscurity. In fact, it is routine to see discussion on noticeboards, between people using goofy pseudonyms, about “privacy”. Typically, these may be parsed as “Who are you?”, often answered by cries of “incivility”, because some has dared to ask someone’s real name. Somehow, Wikipedia has taken up the obsession with secrecy and personal anonymity that were constant features of the “hacker underground”. It was understandable that a “black hat” hacker would not want his real identity known, as he was often involved in illegal activities. What possible advantage would anonymity offer to someone helping to write an online “open” encyclopedia?

The libertine culture of Wikipedia started very early in its history. In the first year of the Wikipedia-l mailing list, you find posts like this one, from Lee Crocker, posted March 14:

“I understand your position, Larry, and I agree that you need the
warning. But “DO NOT COPY COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL” would work just as
well, and would not be personally offensive to me and other
dedicated, moral, hard-working, law-abiding, intelligent people
working to abolish copyright law as it is today.

“Imagine it like this: bigamy is illegal in every state. It is
frowned upon by most religions and most people. But there are some
people who are quite decent, loving, moral people working to change
the laws and attitudes to make it legal. For them (and especially
those not actively practicing) to see themselves called “perverts”
or “criminals” in public is offensive, and doing so is most
definitely a biased expression of political opinion, even though it
happens to be the opinion of the vast majority.”

One could make a case that all kinds of disturbing aspects of Wikipedia flow from this single statement, whether it be the profound obscurity of administrative operations, or the Commons’ fondness for closeup photos of genitals, or the destructive arrogance of teenaged patrollers, or the continued presence  (and toleration) of pedophiles in the ranks of editors. Yet of all Wikipedia’s cultural aspects that flow from the “libertarian” attitude shown in Lee’s post, the most obvious to outsiders is the overarching culture of secrecy and contempt for (and often, active hatred of) outsiders. A “libertarian” framework is not the explanation for this; the hacker ethos, and its arrogation by certain early Wikipedians, is.

In early months, Wikipedia users tended to edit, and to post on the mailing list, under their real names. A few exceptions included people who migrated from the earlier, failed “Nupedia” project. This included Sean “The Epopt” Barrett, plus someone still only known as “Koyaaniqatsi”. But they were in the minority. After the first major mention of Wikipedia on Slashdot in July 2001, that began to change. Suddenly, digital-culture gadflies started to edit Wikipedia. Many of them used ridiculous “stage names” to edit, and many of them bluntly refused to identify themselves to anyone–even to Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. The administrator only known as “The Anome”, a paranoid “transhumanist” and primary supporter of today’s mad-robot editor Dr. Blofeld, was one. Among the most aggressive “nerds” to arrive from Slashdot was a short-tempered person with a short attention span and a massive ego, who was known only as “The Cunctator”.

The Cunctator

The Cunctator

Admittedly this was an everyday reality in the software community, a longstanding practice. It was commonplace on Usenet, of which Wales had been a fixture prior to Wikipedia. And it was SOP on the Open Directory Project (dmoz.org), a project with very similar goals to Wikipedia, but instead focused on the creation of a subject-organized web directory which anyone could use freely. At first, the ODP ran smoothly and was a friendly and inviting place. But within a few years, it began to develop a paranoid and corrupt internal culture. When David F. Prenatt, a well-known ODP contributor, was forced out of the ODP in 2000, he wrote a blog post about his experience. And if you do further research, you find that when Prenatt was pushed out of the ODP, another editor was also “shown the door” at the same time — somebody named “The Cunctator”.

There is great irony in Cunctator’s forced exit from ODP, whereupon he brought the same corrosive culture to Wikipedia. It was Cunctator who helped to harass Larry Sanger into quitting the project for which he was principally responsible. It was Cunctator who helped to harass Jimmy Wales into giving up his plan to turn Wikipedia into a commercial site, supported by advertising. It was Cunctator who was caught, years later, obsessively editing articles (with a sockpuppet account!) associated with conservative figures like Grover Norquist and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, in order to make them look as evil or as absurd as possible. And it was Cunctator who bluntly refused to identify himself. He even attended a Wikipedia meetup in 2004, and allowed himself to be photographed, but still refused to give his real name. Others saw this, and undoubtedly thought “hey, if HE can edit Wikipedia anonymously, AND be Jimbo’s close friend, so can I”.

Geeks from other online cultures began to turn up on Wikipedia. They came from Everything2, a previous aborted attempt to write a “reference database”. They came from Kuro5hin, a group blog that was popular with the cream of that ridiculous gang called the “digerati” (indeed, the aforementioned Slashdot post was made by Jimmy Wales, and pointed to a Kuro5hin post written by Larry Sanger about Wikipedia). And many came from the ODP. Such websites were usually founded and run by “digerati” who used cornball pseudonyms such as “CmdrTaco” and “driph”.  And they tended to bring the attitudes of those other websites with them to Wikipedia.

Coming soon: PART II — Newsgroup Trolls, Gays and Patrollers 

 

Photo credit: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Attribution: Wikipedia user Raul654

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