By Andreas Kolbe
The English Wikipedia and Wikimedia UK came in for criticism in the media last month over the Gibraltarpedia PR scandal. Roger Bamkin, a Wikimedia UK trustee and former chairman of the British charity supporting the Wikipedia website, had taken up a paid consultancy position for the government of Gibraltar, in a project designed “to market Gibraltar as a tourist product through Wikipedia”.
As an article in Wikipedia’s internal newsletter, The Signpost, reported, controversy focused specifically on the number of Gibraltar-related articles appearing in the “Did You Know …” (“DYK”) section of Wikipedia’s main page. This section of the Wikipedia main page features new work added to Wikipedia. Roger Bamkin had taken an active role in ensuring that articles related to his project appeared there, on Wikipedia’s most visible page, in a way that “seemed to some observers to blur his roles as a Wikimedia UK trustee, a paid consultant for the projects’ government partners, and an editor of the English Wikipedia”.
As reported in The Telegraph, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales expressed the view that having 17 Gibraltar DYKs in August, more than any other topic bar the Olympics, was “absurd”, and that it would be “wildly inappropriate for a board member of a chapter, or anyone else in an official role of any kind in a charity associated with Wikipedia, to take payment from customers in exchange for securing favorable placement on the front page of Wikipedia or anywhere else.”
The reach of Wikipedia’s front page should not be underestimated. A 2010 article noted that
Over the weekend, prominent placement on Wikipedia’s main page launched a nearly twenty-year-old Time magazine article about Scientology onto the Time site’s “most-read” list. The jump in traffic reveals both the continued popularity of Scientology-related reporting and the power of Wikipedia to bring obscure or old stories to the forefront of Internet discussion.
Any museum or other tourist destination that is featured on Wikipedia’s front page will derive a tangible benefit from this placement. It should be noted that a Wikimedia UK presentation of the business model on which Gibraltarpedia is apparently based made specific reference to the publicity impact of Wikipedia main page appearances: “We made the front pages of the main Wikipedias [...] so it’s actually going from our page, clicking through to their web page … it’s fulfilling our mission to educate and to share information around the world, and it’s raising the interest and status of the city” [time code 12:22]. The presentation concluded that the concept of a wiki town, with all the attendant media attention generated, is “a phenomenally cheap, and very, very imaginative way to absolutely energize a city and put a city on the map” [17.41].
A hot property
This latter fact was also appreciated by Severn Quay, a property development project by Chepstow Property Co. Ltd that sponsored an “Excellence in Marketing” business award for Monmouthpedia, the previous Wikipedia project based on this business idea. An article on the Severn Quay website breathlessly announces that Chepstow may well be the next wiki town:
Chepstow property, together with new developments in Chepstow and new developments in Monmouthshire, will also benefit. A spokesman for Severn Quay, a luxury development of riverside properties in Chepstow, added: “We look forward to hearing more about what sounds like a very, very exciting project.”
Wikimedia UK minutes of a board meeting on 26 July 2012 confirm that there are indeed plans for such a project:
RB [Roger Bamkin] explained that there are several small towns looking to do this themselves, but his recommendation is that we need to do Chepstow to push this forward.
DECISION: Contingent on the Monmouthshire County Council MOU being agreed by the board, and the QRPedia agreement being signed, the board have agreed the £14k proposal for Chepstowpedia.
One can understand why Severn Quay might feel it was in their interest to sponsor an award for Monmouthpedia …
As one might have expected, after the recent media scandal Gibraltar appearances on the Wikipedia main page stopped abruptly. Bamkin reduced (but did not end) his on-wiki involvement in Gibraltarpedia articles, and made no attempt to put further Gibraltar articles on the Wikipedia main page. Most people would have expected the matter to have ended there.
Gibraltar makes a comeback
Over the past week however, these so-called “DYK hooks” linking to Gibraltar articles have resumed on Wikipedia’s main page, appearing at a rate of one every day – a higher rate than ever before, and almost twice the rate Jimmy Wales described as “absurd”.
So what happened?
What happened was that a Wikipedia user named Prioryman effectively took over the role that Bamkin had played prior to the breaking of the scandal, writing, reviewing and nominating articles for appearance on the Wikipedia main page.
The Wikipedia Arbitration Committee has in the past asserted its belief that the ChrisO account is operated by the same person who identifies as “Chris Owen, MBE” in online writings on the topic of Scientology, and ChrisO has confirmed on Wikipedia that he is indeed said online author and Scientology critic with a particular interest in L. Ron Hubbard’s military career. So, breaking with Wikipedia (and Reddit!) tradition, let’s call Mr. Owen by what he says is his real name, rather than one of his Wikipedia handles.
Owen became a Wikipedia administrator in 2004. In 2009, however, he was stripped of his administrator rights for what the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee called “a long-term pattern” of abusing his administrator privileges.
In 2010, in trouble with the Arbitration Committee again, Owen claimed the “Right To Vanish” from Wikipedia. This curious right is reserved for Wikipedia editors who want to stop editing forever, and would like to have their account name expunged (the account name is then replaced with “Vanished user x”, where x is a number).
However, it eventually transpired that Owen had not vanished at all, but had simply registered a new account under a new name within hours of claiming the right to vanish. This account was spotted, and blocked indefinitely by a high-ranking administrator. Unabashed, Owen registered yet another account, Prioryman. This too was spotted and indefinitely blocked. Prioryman then appears to have come to an understanding with the Arbitration Committee, who allowed him back.
Why? There is another side to Owen: for all the abuses the Arbitration Committee has found him guilty of over the years, he is also a respected article writer, having contributed about a dozen so-called “Featured Articles” to Wikipedia (Featured Articles are those deemed to fulfil Wikipedia’s most stringent quality criteria), on such topics as the inner-German border, the sinking of the Titanic (based on research that was financially subsidised by Wikimedia UK), the Battle of Vukovar, and … the Icelandic Phallological Museum (slated for a prominent Wikipedia main page appearance on Valentine’s Day)!
A trip to Gibraltar
Owen announced on Wikipedia that he was going to spend the weekend of 6 and 7 October in Gibraltar, hoping to meet with Bamkin (Victuallers), Bamkin’s business partner John Cummings, and other Gibraltarpedia participants there. As soon as he returned, he energetically argued that the “backlog” of Gibraltar articles that had accumulated should be put through to the main page.
His argument has been that according to Wikipedia rules, article writers have the right to see new articles appear on the main page, provided they meet DYK requirements. A Gibraltarpedia competition is ongoing, with a main prize of a free “VIP trip to Gibraltar”, and editors get an extra two points if an article appears on the Wikipedia main page. Clearly, no editor wants to miss out on those two points, if they are there for the taking, and in comparison, any adverse effect on Wikipedia’s reputation weighs less heavily on editors’ minds. So enough DYK article authors and administrators supported Owen, and the stream of Gibraltar articles on the main page resumed on 12 October, at an average rate of one a day – to “clear the backlog”, and satisfy the writers wanting their extra two points for their competition, and their chance to win a Gibraltarpedia prize. More than a dozen further Gibraltar articles created as part of the competition are awaiting their turn at the time of writing.
This illustrates one of the fundamental weaknesses of Wikipedia. Wikipedia has no management. The resumption of the Gibraltar hooks has been controversially discussed on Jimmy Wales’ talk page, but he has not commented, fearing perhaps that as soon as he says something, journalists – who have taken to watching his talk page – will write articles quoting him. There have also been discussions on the DYK project’s talk page – How do we stop the Gibraltar DYKs? asks one longstanding administrator – but such discussions rarely reach a clear result in Wikipedia, and anything that is not clear consensus defaults to whatever is happening at present continuing. In this case, Owen helped the process by selectively canvassing editors, to the point where even some of those who were in favour of continuing to run Gibraltar DYKs complained.
Engineering a lack of consensus
First, Owen alerted everyone who had been in favour of allowing regular Gibraltar articles on the main page to come and look at the new discussion, warning them that their previous consensus might be overturned.
These were all editors in favour of running Gibraltar hooks who had participated in a discussion on a newly created subpage whose existence was not advertised to the wider community. The outcome of the discussion was that Gibraltar hooks should be resumed, with more careful review, and that they should be “limited” to one a day (a strange choice of word, given that even at their height in August, there were fewer than that). Owen elected not to notify the small minority of participants in the discussion who had disagreed with the decision to resume the hosting of Gibraltar hooks at this rate. Instead, he contacted Gibraltar DYK authors, notifying them that their ability to get DYK submissions onto the main page was at stake. Altogether, he notified 15 people whom he felt he could rely on to support him.
Enough of the people canvassed turned up to ensure that the discussion about stopping the Gibraltar main page placements ground to an inconclusive halt – and as explained earlier, a lack of consensus for change in Wikipedia means that the status quo, whatever it is, continues.
Owen’s canvassing was so blatant that even some of the canvassed users, who were happy to have Gibraltar on the main page on a daily basis, began to grumble. User:Zozo2kx for example, who signs his posts “Yazan”, said:
Comment: While I oppose this motion as a draconian measure that is hardly in the interest of the encyclopedia and because it has already been discussed to a satisfactory result; I have severe reservations about Prioryman (talk • contribs) and his involvement in the issue. The canvassing, badgering and almost constant pushing and lobbying for Gibraltarpedia makes me very uncomfortable with his role in nominating articles, “reviewing” them or finding reviewers for them, and then forcing them down DYK’s throat. There’s a process here, let it take its course. I have nominations who’ve been sitting in wait for weeks, they’re not controversial, they’re not under any “special measures” but they still take time. Just let the bloody process take its course without trying to game it and walk away from the dead carcass. Almost all the newly promoted material had a review from Prioryman, which, in light of his heavy involvement in the issue, should be declared null, IMHO. Yazan (talk) 12:11, 19 October 2012 (UTC) … Prioryman has “reviewed” at least 6 hooks from the Gibraltarpedia backlog, with an almost identical summary and a green tick. Forgive me for being suspicious given his involvement here. Yazan (talk) 13:59, 19 October 2012 (UTC)
Dr. Blofeld, one of Wikipedia’s most prolific content contributors, stated:
Two things which are starting to bug me. a] The belief that all Gibraltar DYKs are somehow degrading wikipedia and all contain adverts saying “Come to Gibraltar”. b] All of the canvassing that is going on, especially by you Prioryman. I’m happy to do the odd review but please don’t keep asking me to review and comment on things. Unless you start paying me of course hehe…♦ Dr. Blofeld 10:35, 19 October 2012 (UTC)
However, the canvassing still “worked”.
A failure of governance
It is now clear that the main page of Wikipedia is indeed open for business. Anyone with an interest can start a competition in Wikipedia, establish a point scoring system that rewards main page appearances, fund some modest prizes, and enough volunteers will be found to create new articles that are then submitted for a DYK slot on the main page, giving the paying customer the exposure they want – the chance to remind the public of their existence, and of what they have to offer. That this is possible on a website that used to pride itself in its refusal to host advertisements exposes a deep flaw in Wikipedia’s governance model.
On many important questions that affect Wikipedia’s public standing, Wikipedia is essentially paralysed. Once a fait accompli has been established by self-interested contributors, as in the case of the Gibraltar product placements on the Wikipedia main page, the site’s system of direct democracy ensures that the instigators have a first-move advantage: they can prevent a new consensus from forming, simply by muddying the water.
This failure also illustrates the danger of relying on local consensus. It closely parallels the situation in Reddit, where local consensus supported decisions that were indefensible from both a moral and a public-relations point of view: management only stepped in after a public outcry. But at least, Reddit still has a management.
Wikipedia has no management. The lights are on, but there’s nobody home.
Image credit: Flickr/RaMaOrLi ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)