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.
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. 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?
 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”.