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Wiki-Paranoia ~ PART II: Newsgroup Trolls, Gays and Patrollers

By E. A. Barbour

(See also Wiki-Paranoia Part I)

Another piece of the Wikipedia puzzle is the role of Usenet newsgroups in the evolution of “wiki-culture”. Usenet was one of the earliest features of the Internet, popular long before it was all opened to the public in 1994. Newsgroups served as “bulletin boards” before the World Wide Web was invented. Since they were usually hosted on university servers and passed freely from node to node, they gained the same libertine culture as the hacker underground. In the late 1990s, use (and abuse) of Usenet for file sharing exploded, and anyone who wanted to push a minority, obscure, or “crank” point of view could usually find a home on a related newsgroup. It became a central point for protests against the Church of Scientology, since it was difficult to attack using attorneys and court orders. Before backbone servers and ISPs started blocking or disabling Usenet in the 2000s (claiming that it was “dying” anyway), it was the place to be for hardcore trolls. The case for keeping Usenet alive was not helped by the terabytes of regular pornography, child pornography, pirated movies, pirated music, garbage advertising, and “warez”, or pirated commercial software, available on special newsgroups. Usenet carried everything, good or bad. It was wasteful, it was “open”, and it was a mess. And trolls enjoyed a field day thereon.

No wonder Jimmy Wales was attracted to it. Starting in 1992, he was a regular on an Ayn Rand mailing list and in the newsgroup alt.philosophy.objectivism. That was where he first met Larry Sanger and Tim Shell. In February 1996, a new group was started, humanities.philosophy.objectivism, and Jimbo was made one of the moderators. Late 1996 was a banner time, as the traffic on Jimbo’s favorite newsgroup ramped up just when he was starting Bomis.

And Jimbo, Shell and Sanger were far from the only Usenet denizens involved with Wikipedia in its early days. Erik Moeller and Cunctator had both been on newsgroups for the “transhumanist/extropian” movement, as well as hacker groups. As Sage Ross mentioned in his blog, Usenet high priest Tim Pierce ended up on Wikipedia in 2005. Numerous pedophiles who had been Usenet regulars found their way to WP in the 2003-2004 period. David Gerard, one of the king-hell ranters on alt.religion.scientology, showed up on Wikipedia in early 2004, bringing other Usenet Scientology foes with him, including Chris Owen/Prioryman and Eric “Modemac” Walker. Tony Sidaway, another Gerard friend and anti-Scientologist, was one of Usenet’s most notorious pests. He inspired a “Tony Sidaway Drama Queen” award, widely used on hundreds of groups to brand extra-annoying trolls. Since Usenet was “open”, it attracted troublemakers. So the moderators of newsgroups would inevitably develop a certain paranoia about new users and “trolling”.

In fact, there are few early Wikipedians who did NOT appear on Usenet at one time or another. Some are still active on Usenet today, despite the slow death of newsgroups in the past several years. Wikipedians, being steeped in the pre-2000 “hacker culture”, remain fond of older and more primitive Internet communication schemes, such as Usenet and IRC. As Sanger said in 2002 : “Trolls, by contrast (and here again I’m speaking in the slightly broader sense), seem to take *delight* in not only flouting basic standards of protocol, but criticizing them openly and rudely as well. Any old hand on Usenet or mailing lists knows this all too well.” Prophetic, unfortunately.

Another part of the “libertarian” ethic of Wikipedia is its popularity with LGBT people. Which, with typical irony, flows from the bizarre Walesian concept of “trustworthiness”, and not from political or social niceties. As Kelly Martin bluntly said of Cary Bass: “Cary being gay meant that Jimbo didn’t have to worry about Cary competing with him for hot babes.” The Cunctator is believed to be gay, along with early Wiki-fan Brian Corr–both were left-wing political activists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as it happens. Bass, Daniel “Mav” Mayer, and Danny Wool also were part of the early scene, and gained considerable power prior to 2004. Virtually all of them wound up on Arbcom or working for the WMF in its early days, as did the sockpuppeting British pseudo-politician David Boothroyd.  Transgender people were common, and often high-profile: two early Arbcom members, Ambi and Kelly Martin, count here. These early LGBT people tended to do valid content work on Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, the gay-friendly atmosphere later encouraged the participation of LGBT extremists who became major troublemakers on Wikipedia, such as David “Shankbone” Miller, Benjamin “Benjiboi” Holman, and the notorious TG activist Andrea James. All of them abused POV and produced content with severe biases. Few people on Wikipedia were better than Andrea, at using it to defame their foes. And unlike Shankbone or Benjiboi, she continues to pull dirty tricks today. Her story is unbelievable, and can’t be written up without considerable documentation, as few would believe that a transgendered woman (a historically much-abused minority) could be so intensely evil. Such extremists used the system to their advantage, and when confronted, made claims of “homophobia” and “stalking” to silence their accusers. These activities paved the way for up-and-coming manipulators, such as Ashley Van Haeften, to use similar methods to manipulate the genitals of the system to their climactic advantage. And of course, no one casts a bigger shadow on the “project” than Essjay, who openly admitted to having a boyfriend — one of the very few things he did admit openly. Essjay was remarkably successful at playing the system, even though he lied about virtually every other aspect of his existence.

And where did vandal patrolling, that ultimate expression of Wiki-paranoia, come from? Even in 2001, there were vandals. Usually trashing the front page, usually under IP addresses. Wales would post an occasional message on wikipedia-l, harrumphing about “all these vandals”. Yet very little was actually done, because the vandalism was a small fraction of the editing traffic. And it still is today. Only the paranoid atmosphere has changed.

As Larry Sanger said in a September 2002 message, “It’s frankly a little silly to expect them to help us as long as we continue to be wide open to everyone (except “24” and Helga, perhaps…)” These were Wikipedia’s first two major “serial” vandals/POV abusers. Very little evidence of their activities remains, except for a few wikipedia-l messages. In a pattern that became institutionalized later, they generated far more blather and hysteria than actual damage. By 2003, aggressive people like Theresa Knott were becoming famous for fighting “vandals” and other aggressors — treated like heroes, typically. Indeed, the first Arbcom decision, in February 2004, involved her endless battles with a “New Age” POV pusher.

The solution to vandalism, then and now, was to revert the change. But that wasn’t enough, even by late 2001 it was commonplace to block the vandal’s IP address or account. Simple, stupid, often abused and misused. Perfect for automation. And the explosion of vandalism practiced by people like “Grawp” and “Willy on Wheels” in 2005 caused the nabobs to “circle the wagons” and start treating every newcomer like a possible cancer. Napoleonic law, evolved by accident — guilty until proven innocent.

Patrolling “bots” have become ubiquitous on various Wikimedia projects. One would think they have been a constant feature of Wikipedia — even though they did not start to appear in any quantities until late 2006. Before that, vandalism removal was basically a manual process. It seems likely that the difficulty of handling vandalism in this way encouraged the arrival of “man-children” who viewed Wikipedia as a war-game, not a reference work. The bots, such as late 2006’s AntiVandalBot, January 2007’s Twinkle, early 2008’s Huggle, Sigmabot and a hundred others, were smash hits, and allowed wargamers to inflate their contribution lists quickly, thus making them “good Wikipedians” without actually writing, or knowing, anything. By early 2008, the insiders were cheerfully handing administrative powers to anti-vandalism bots. By 2009, “good Wiki-citizen” was equal to “patroller”, and patrollers who wrote little or no content were soon in control of the administrative system. Today the situation has come full circle: there are presently seven patrollers on Arbcom, most of whom have written little or no encyclopedia content.

In all likelihood, this will be the future, and the death, of Wikipedia. Instead of people writing articles, it will consist of bots frantically chasing vandals. Soon, the paranoia will become all-encompassing, all changes to the database will become “vandalism”, and the “Great Project” will come to an end. Thanks, Jimbo!


Photo credit:  El Ronzo at Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

6 comments to Wiki-Paranoia ~ PART II: Newsgroup Trolls, Gays and Patrollers

  • Oz

    I’ve noticed that there has been a definite change in the attitude toward new editors. It used to be “Don’t bite the newcomers” and now if a new editor only has a handful of edits and they are all in the same topic area, he’s a “Single Purpose Account.” I’ve seen new editors with less than 10 edits banned as socks due to “similar edit histories” with an ostracized editor.

  • Volunteer Marek

    I don’t think Helga was a “vandal” strictly speaking, just a very tenacious POV pusher. That’s basically the person who started a lot of that whole Gdansk/Danzig and Copernicus nationality nonsense, I think. IIRC the thing that got her banned was some Holocaust denial comments she made (possibly on the mailing list).

    Also, I think she, or at least someone associated with her is still editing, via IPs.

  • I take offense to your suggestion that I came to Wikipedia at the behest of David Gerard. In fact, I was there back in 2002, even as I was busy causing trouble on alt.religion.scientology and a bunch of other Usenet newsgroups. So there.

    Proud to be a king-hell ranter and general rabble-rouser,

    “E.W. Modemac”

  • metasonix

    Well, Mr. Modemac, since I’ve asked you for an interview and you responded with insults, and since your early edit history on Wikipedia consists mostly of drivel about comic books, movies, Peter Gabriel, and (of course) the Church of the Subgenius, and not a bit about Scientology until well into 2003, then I guess anything I write about you might not be accurate.

    And now that you’re seemingly obsessed with cast-iron cookware, I mush suppose you no longer have an interest even in Scientology, not to mention comic books and Subgenius nonsense. Are we to talk you seriously about anything?

  • Since no one is taking you seriously about anything, I’m certainly more than willing to accept the same from you.

  • Eddy Martine

    What is this weird segue into the sexual orientation of editors you dislike? “openly admitted to having a boyfriend”? I . . . don’t understand how that’s relevant.