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‘Tis the Season to be Banning at Wikipedia

By Mason

We’re at the end of October, and banning season is in full swing on Wikipedia. Two of Wikipedia’s most colorful characters, Jack Merridew and Malleus Fatuorum, have been put on trial this month, with Jack getting the axe and Malleus squeaking through with only a “topic” ban.

The Queen turned angrily away from him and said to the Knave: "Turn them over."

Bans are a tricky thing for a site that bills itself as “the encyclopedia anyone can edit.” If literally anyone can edit, how is it possible to prohibit specific unwelcome individuals from wandering over to a library or Internet café and editing anonymously to their heart’s content?

Well, it isn’t possible, of course, and many so-called “banned editors” are merrily editing away as you read this. Nonetheless, much of the culture of the site is pervaded by a “sock-hunting” mentality, where eagle-eyed sock-hunters keep close watch for any edits that look like they might be coming from a banned editor.[1] If they find such an edit, they’ll quickly undo it (without regard to whether the edit itself was helpful or accurate) and get the account blocked as a “sockpuppet” of the banned editor. There are a variety of helpful templates one can slap on such an editor’s user page, scarlet-letter-style, that announce to the world that this editor is Banned and/or a Sockpuppet. The templates typically come complete with a helpful red stop sign icon to signal to readers that this is Serious Business.

Part of the ritual when an editor is banned is to wipe whatever awards, photos and other trinkets they’ve decorated their user pages with, and replace them with one of these “banned” banners. However, as always, there are exceptions: some editors who are both popular and banned (yes, it happens) are granted dispensations, and may keep their decorations – so long as the banned banner sits atop the decorations to warn passersby that this is a persona non grata.

It may seem to an outside observer that performing such rituals to a booted editor is a bit like gravedancing; however, a helpful essay exists (“WP:NOTGRAVEDANCING”) to assure us that “blanking userpages of blocked editors is not necessarily gravedancing.” (There’s even a section that helps sock-taggers cope with “false accusations of gravedancing.”)

Or, alternatively, in the words of one sock hunter (“Balph Eubank,” so named in honor of an Ayn Rand character) these sock-taggings are in fact gravedancing, but (to channel Todd Akin), they are “legitimate gravedancing.

As any Wikipedia administrator (or administrator hopeful) can tell you, there is a world of difference between a “block” and a “ban”. Blocks are handled out for all sorts of misdemeanors, such as edit-warring, vandalism, name-calling, or lack of proper reverence towards the administrators. (Malleus Fatuorum was once blocked for calling editors “sycophants”, which he’ll be happy to tell you about if you ask him.) Bans, however, are more rare, and are only handed out when you’ve really ticked off The Community (or a powerful segment thereof.)

Long-term contributor and multiple account enthusiast Jack Merridew (aka Alarbus, Br’er Rabbit and a few dozen more usernames) found himself on the business end of a community ban this month following an edit war over a civility template. Support for the ban was overwhelming, with the pile-on “This guy is poison” “breaking a rule deserves ‘punishment’” not that dissimilar at times from a scene from Lord of the Flies, the children-turn-savage novel from which Jack Merridew took his username.

Not content to have Merridew’s head on a stake, some of the supporters of the ban were so emboldened by its quick and decisive passage that they began toying with the idea of compiling a tracking list of “suspected enablers” of the newly banned editor, starting with those who opposed the ban in the first place.

One of those who opposed the Merridew ban, Malleus Fatuorum, soon found himself in a “ban trial” of a different sort: not a “community ban discussion,” but an “ArbCom” hearing. ArbCom is Wikipedia’s supreme court of sorts: although nominally the “Arbitration Committee,” its members do very little actual arbitrating of disputes in the traditional sense. Rather, they mostly determine which editors in a given dispute have behaved poorly enough to warrant sanctions, and dole out warnings, topic bans and site bans accordingly.

Hot on the heels of the Merridew ban, ArbCom decided to offer The Community another head on a pike by turning a routine “clarification request” into a full-fledged motion to ban Malleus Fatuorum for crimes against Civility, the fourth of the five pillars upon which Wikipedia was allegedly (but not really) founded.

In an effort widely seen as priming the pump for a ban, arbitrator Jclemens characterized Malleus thusly: “It’s time to face the fact that Malleus is not now, nor has he ever been, a member of the Wikipedia community… all we do here is acknowledge that Malleus has never been a Wikipedian, no matter how many otherwise constructive edits he has made.”

Although the ban soon gained enough support among the committee members to pass (sentencing Malleus to become a “non-Wikipedian” for six months), a backlash against the “unpersoning” of an editor who had contributed dozens of featured articles soon arose, with several high-profile editors going “on-strike” against the treatment of Malleus (including at least one “I’m Spartacus” moment.) The committee quickly backtracked from the ban motion, and Jclemens himself was briefly blocked for “personal attacks” for his “never was a Wikipedian” comments, although a sympathetic administrator quickly unblocked him. The committee eventually settled on a less draconian “topic ban” designed to allow Malleus to continue churning out article content for the website but prevent him from criticizing its administrator selection process (aka “Requests for adminship.”)

But what if the committee had decided to dish out a full site ban for Malleus, as was originally intended? Would that have stopped Malleus from editing? Only if he chose to honor the ban; many banned users simply disregard such edicts, and keep on editing. For a handy example, let’s take a quick look at what happened when Jack Merridew was banned this month:

1. An administrator decides that sufficient consensus exists for banning Merridew, and attempts to close the discussion.
2. The actual closing breaks the discussion page due to some invalid markup within the sprawling discussion.
3. The newly-banned Merridew notices the breakage, finds the source of the problem, and fixes the broken markup, using a newly created account.
4. Sock-hunters see this, and scramble to play “revert the sock”, and edit-war Merridew’s fix out, leaving the page broken.

The philosophy, after all, is “better left broken than fixed by a banned editor.”

Meanwhile, Merridew continues to edit (mostly doing cleanup work and improving the markup of articles), using brand new IP addresses and accounts the sock-hunters haven’t caught yet. When and if they do catch him, they’ll dutifully block the account or IP address and slap a template on its userpage.

It may not be particularly effective, but it’s part of the ritual and must be done. After all, if the sock-taggers don’t take care of the “legitimate gravedancing,” who will?

[1] Naturally, there are many false positives, and it’s not at all uncommon for editors on one side of a dispute to call anyone making edits sympathetic to a competing point of view a “sock.”


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that “faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain, and that claims to the contrary represent an assault on the very concept of a public domain”.

19 comments to ‘Tis the Season to be Banning at Wikipedia

  • eric barbour

    Nicely done. Thanks. Some members will be using this to demonstrate to the clueless that Wikipedia is not a “wonderful place” or a “miracle”.

  • The Valeyard

    It’s unfortunate that some very good editors can get so caught up in the pedantry of Wikipedia.

  • Mark Arsten

    Great article–thanks for writing this. Those of us at Wikipedia who are still interested in building an encyclopedia are growing increasingly tired of all the kids who are just out to stir up more drama.

    • Ajax

      Sorry Mark, but having been banned by you in just the manner described and having had all your edits dumped without explanation, I doubt your sincerity. You might be trying to build an encyclopedia that says what you think it should say, but since it is replete with errors and deliberate substantive omissions I don’t see this being of any long standing value. You’re killing WP, not building anything worthwhile at all.

  • Great post on how pseudonymous editing and its consequences become a major preoccupation in their own right. “Outing” (saying someone’s real name on Wikipedia) is a closely related topic, on which Wikipedia admin Deryck Chan recently made a useful comment:

    “The current boundaries of “outing” are unclear: distinctions need to be made between the outing of information that have not previously been made public, and outing of information which are public on the internet (or even on past revisions of Wikipedia pages which haven’t been deleted).
    It is a basic principle in journalism and copyright that one cannot “unpublish” things that have been made public. It is extremely hypocritical that we regularly deny public figures’ requests to delete Wikipedia articles about them, yet go heavy-handed on Wikipedians who post information about one another that were (often intentionally) made public in the past.”

    “Information wants to be free” applies to everyone Wikipedians write about (with results that inevitably become a top Google link for the person’s name): but God forbid that it apply to Wikipedians themselves.

  • John Lilburne

    @The Valeyard

    Since they’ve banished pedagogy. all they have left is pedantry.

  • Volunteer Marek

    Just noting that this Balph Eubank fellah just got himself blocked as well.

  • Balph Eubank

    It looks like the author of this article (which I enjoyed reading) made the same mistake Merridew made. By “legit gravedancing”, I meant that which can legitimately and objectively be referred to as gravedancing, as opposed to, for example, someone making false accusations. My entire premise is that there should be a distinction between the two. Actually, what I’d like to see is all block and ban templates deleted forever, but since there’s about as much chance of that happening as a Pink Floyd reunion featuring Syd Barrett, I thought an essay differentiating between gravedancing and “special people wanting special treatment” would be doable. Some people don’t like that, though.

    Also, I’m not much of a sock hunter. I’m more of a “look how absurd/hypocritical Wikipedia is” kinda person.

  • Crisco 1492

    Well said. Jack and Malleus are definitely not net negatives to the project… yet Wikipedia’s turned on them, transformed from a disapproving parent to Leatherface.

  • James Salsman

    Thank you for not throwing Malleus into the briar patch.

  • sesquiculus

    I too have had the unfortunate experience of being banned from WP and then seeing everyone who agreed with me banned too as socks. Ironically, it loked like the pilling on was from a bunch of socks.

    Interestingly, WP only seems to block Starbucks IP numbers for a day or two, if that. Presumably, so many of their editors post from a starbucks that blocking it produces a big outcry.

  • Scarlet Pimpernel

    As a three-time banned WP editor who has made thousands of edits with hundreds of socks and different IPs, I believe wholeheartedly in doing so. It forces self-appointed WP admins, poobahs, secret-agents and other Jimbo wannabees to resort to what they should be doing all along: monitoring edits for vandalism or for lack of factual citation, neutrality and overall improvement. I obeyed every WP rule initially however silly and counterproductive, but after being banned the first time by an admin who ended up being found using socks of his own, quickly learned what a game it is to the hardcore sock hunters. As a former Silicon-valley technical writer, I refuse to play their game now (including autobio articles) and like forcing them to find fault in my otherwise letter-perfect edits. They are wasting time with their self-imposed policies that no other collective- or joint-work publishing group observes.

  • Awk

    Wikedpedia will soon be replaced by Goodstuff or something created by Google or Apple, and all this drama will be a thing of the passt.

  • CoachFastball

    Well, the Eric Corbett/Malleus Fatuorum blocking and unblocking saga stretches through eternity. Eric was blocked just last month on July 4 by administrator Fram for “multiple clear personal attacks on several editors”, which IMHO was a shitty block, and then in the process, it starts with losing GOOD admins. At WP:AN, it is hotly contested, but an admin, Sjakkalle decides to make an incompetent close and then abuses rollback and wheel wars, which could’ve been a desysop. With the result of part one of the saga, Boing! said Zebedee and Drmies turned in their tools on July 5 at WP:BN, albeit Drmies re-requested it one month later on August 5 at WP:BN once more. But wait there was more: Admin Scottywong extended Eric’s block to indef on July 5, but it was returned to a 29 day block the same day by Floquenbeam (who did Eric two favours: disabling autoblock AND reducing it to 29 days, cutting it down one day). Finally, on July 24, part two of the never-ending saga hits. INeverCry, a very trusted admin, albeit only got his tools in February 2013 decided to make a big move: he unblocked Eric. Once again, there is more drama at WP:AN aka the block board of teh dramah boardz. Eric is now getting clear consensus for an unblock. The only one who opposes is Kww. With all of that happening, Eric is re-blocked 55 minutes later by admin Prodego, but it all falls apart when 12 minutes later, INeverCry reverses the block Prodego made 12 minutes later. Now, Kww runs like a little wimp to Arbcom to request a hypocritical desysop, when more people want him to go then INeverCry, but INeverCry resigns at WP:BN. Kww is shouted at and not more occurs after that, so nothing will ever change with the MF/EC blocking and unblocking in case anyone wondered.

  • Jaime Buelow

    Or perhaps instead of all the bullshit, your neo Nazi dictation on what is or is not relevant should be re-examined and articles pertaining to certain areas should be edited by people in that area of the world rather than a bunch of fuckwits who don’t know crap outside the confines of the USA…I will be launching a personal campaign against the donation system for wiki should they not discuss this matter with me and they need to do so intelligently and without malice. I have been a contributor for years and thanks to the last batch of power mad admins and abusive content Nazis they have not only slandered me by calling me a vandal but have accused me of using multiple accounts to abuse wiki members…I only need one acct to “abuse” wiki members…if you act like an asshole I will treat you as one. YOU know who you are considering your name is mentioned on this discussion.

  • Jaime Buelow

    Oh and Mark Arsten, if you wanted to be a proper encyclopedia you wouldn’t ban contributors and would seek to talk to both parties before you abuse your power and just ban someone when you have no freaking clue as to what started the issue and what the dispute was to begin with. The only “kids” I have encountered on wiki that seem destructive and counter productive are the last batch that saw fit to accost me with their immature attitudes and refusal to define why the person in my last article is not a notable figure when clearly by wiki’s definition they are and locally even more so. My suggestion to you is that YOU take your inflated sense of self importance and find some other place where you can be a troll…I know of a few bridges if that helps but they are not on wiki because your Nazi content checkers refuse to allow anything of relevance outside their little world. By the way, I think you need to remove some other people that are just doing a job, like any sport team member or even the presidents of the United states because outside the USA a lot of people don’t think they are notable at all. Wiki has become a biased bunch of bullcrap…I feel that it is time to pull the plug on this “open-architecture” encyclopedia. It is corrupted by the internet trolls and geeks that have nothing better to do than remove articles and attack contributors than working with those people and finding a resolution. Power corrupts…absolute power….corrupts absolutely.

    • A.N.Onymous

      Uh, huh. No big problem finding the details at Wikipedia: Apparently, “JamieB64” created an entry about himself (problem 1), despite his claim to fame from the late 80s being rather meager (problem 2), and then started to insult everybody involved when editors deleted this (problem 3). For that, he got banned for 7 days. Not exactly a case of harassment and admin abuse, afaics.

  • […] March 23, 2013 at 9:37 am · Reply […]