When asking for donations, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales likes to refer to the site as “a temple for the mind” and “a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others.” And when reflecting on what makes Wikipedia contributors want to share their knowledge with the world, current Executive Director Sue Gardner claims that “Wikipedians do it for love. Really.” That may well be so for some of Wikipedia’s more casual and idealistic writers, but many of the regular editors of the encyclopedia flock to it not so much for love but out of a desire to promote their political views, advertise their websites and novels, plump up their Wikipedia biographies and damage the reputations of people they don’t get along with in life.
Wikipedia is the sixth most-read site on the Internet, yet anyone with a computer and an internet connection can change its entries at any time while hiding behind an anonymous handle. Some Wikipedia contributors are experts at manipulating the site’s articles to reflect their own versions of reality, and some have been doing it for a long time without being discovered. The case of the British journalist Johann Hari using Wikipedia under a pseudonym to smear a number of his colleagues is not an isolated one. Welcome to the age of Wikipedia revenge editing.
Wikipedia editor Qworty – the early days
One of the site’s more prolific contributors, at over 13,000 edits, goes by the pseudonym of Qworty. He specializes in editing the Wikipedia biographies of writers, and, like many Wikipedians, Qworty prefers not to reveal his real-life identity. Is Qworty editing Wikipedia for love? His very first contribution to the site might suggest so. On March 10, 2007, Qworty removed a large section of negative comments from the discussion page for minor American writer Robert Clark Young. Wikipedia editor Alabamaboy had discovered a blog post by bestselling novelist Michelle Richmond alleging that Young had bragged about having written his “weirdly glowing” biography himself. Alabamaboy went on to delete “a ton of his self promo items” not just from Robert Clark Young’s biography, but from other articles as well which had been linked to Young’s biography. This is in line with the site’s autobiography guideline which strongly discourages biographical subjects from writing about themselves. The Talk page for Robert Clark Young contained other unflattering material: two contributors had suspected that Young was still secretly editing his biography under the user names of Berenise and John Bryson. And while both accounts vehemently denied this, Wikipedia editor Imladros was convinced they were run by the same person, Robert Clark Young:
Does someone here know to which WP authorities people like [[User:Berenise]]/[[User:John Bryson]] can be reported to stop him from making this project a complete joke? You’re so obvious, man, and it just keeps in line with the allegations of anonymous self-promotion and vengeful behaviour made against the subject of this article on various blogs and forums! — [[User:Imladros|Imladros]] 01:31, 23 October 2006 (UTC)
Was Qworty’s removal of this embarrassing page motivated by a wish to protect a virtually unknown writer from ridicule – Wikipedia readers do occasionally come across an article’s Talk page – or did he have a different reason? Why was this supposedly new Wikipedia user already familiar enough with the site’s idiosyncratic mark-up language to not just delete the content, but to “archive” it, making it harder to find for future readers? This behavior usually indicates that an experienced user has either returned to Wikipedia under a different name or that he is operating several alternative accounts known as “sockpuppets”. Such accounts have often been used to manipulate consensus in polls where Wikipedia editors decide whether a person is notable enough to have a biography on the site, and what goes into that person’s article.
Qworty and his promotion of Robert Clark Young
Let’s assume, for the time being, that Qworty was a genuine newcomer who simply upheld Wikipedia’s policy on biographies of living persons which forbids adding poorly sourced derogatory information to Wikipedia. Qworty certainly has a lot of love for Robert Clark Young, and has so far made 25 edits to Young’s biography with this account alone. In July 2011, Qworty created an article about director Terisa Greenan. At that time, Greenan was most notable for a web series about her polyandrous lifestyle. In April 2012 she released a documentary called “Someday You”. The subject of “Someday You”: Robert Clark Young. And in August 2012, Qworty created a flattering Wikipedia article on Young’s 2008 essay “The Death of the Death of the Novel”. Sometimes Qworty failed to provide any sources when writing about Young. In more than one instance, Qworty referenced his articles on Young and his projects with mentions on obscure blogs and articles written by Young himself, which are not usually considered acceptable as sources on Wikipedia.
Qworty and Robert Clark Young’s critics – a pattern emerges
Qworty’s interpretation of what counts as a trusted reference on Wikipedia is very different when he edits the articles on other writers: In this edit, he removed large amounts of useful information from the biography for novelist Michelle Richmond and left the article in a skeletal, almost unreadable state, dotted with tags claiming “citation needed”.
“Does not play well with others”
Robert Clark Young’s claim to literary fame is founded more on his attacks on other writers than on his only commercially published novel, “One of the Guys”. The book, which appeared in 1999, was only moderately successful and received generally poor reviews. Publishers Weekly criticized the “improbable plot” and called it an “awkward debut novel.” Kirkus Review spoke of the book’s “one-line premise” and clichéd opening situation. Yet Young’s Wikipedia article chronicles his life in great detail, and the lavish Selected bibliography section seems to list every essay and newspaper article Young has produced since 1982.
Yes, a reader happening upon Young’s Wikipedia biography might come away with the impression that Robert Clark Young is quite the prolific writer who overcame his struggles with alcohol addiction, cares deeply about his infirm parents, and fearlessly calls out authors like Brad Vice for acts of plagiarism.
Young’s Wikipedia entry is significantly longer and more flattering than that of far more productive contemporary writers like Richard Bausch, who has eleven novels and eight short story collections under his belt. Coincidentally, Young had once accused Bausch of literary cronyism and of “greasing” Brad Vice’s career. Bausch in turn implied that Young was on a clear personal vendetta and that he felt nothing but pity for him. Coincidentally, the Qworty account subsequently edited Bausch’s Wikipedia entry, and reduced the formerly well-structured biography that contained all of Bausch’s achievements and awards to something far less appealing.
The background to this involves a scathing New York Press article by Young, published in December 2005, accusing Alabama author Brad Vice of plagiarism. Vice’s award-winning short story collection “The Bear Bryant Funeral Train” had been withdrawn from publication after allegations surfaced that one of the stories contained material from a 1934 book by Carl Carmer. Southern writers were divided on the issue of whether Vice had plagiarized or merely evoked Carmer. In Young’s piece for the New York Press, he not only condemned Vice, but also attacked the prestigious Sewanee Writers’ Conference for its hand in advancing Vice’s career, and tore into seemingly anyone who ever had anything nice to say about Vice or his book. Other authors commenting, including Richard Bausch, considered Young’s criticism more motivated by the fact that he had attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and received a less-than-enthusiastic reception after presenting one of his pieces in a workshop led by the late novelist Barry Hannah, a friend of Brad Vice’s. A large section of Young’s New York Press article was dedicated to mocking the friendship between Vice and his mentor Hannah. According to this commenter, nurturing friendships does not rank highly on Young’s list of priorities:
I used to know Robert Clark Young personally, though I ended our friendship some time ago due to his paranoia and other mental problems. Bob is one of the most vengeful persons I have ever met. If you ever managed to cross him somehow, in his estimation–no matter if it was ten years ago–he takes pains to make sure he gets even for it. He lives for it, folks. I have no problem with the idea that something happened between Bob in a workshop at Sewanee–an evening with Bob is a litany on his part of those who’ve “done him wrong.” It’s somewhat satisfying to see him display that in print for a change, but I feel sorry for anyone who’s the focus of Bob’s venom.
By now, it should come as no surprise that Qworty has also edited the Wikipedia biography for Brad Vice, repeatedly deleting passages suggesting that Young’s attack article on Brad Vice contained inaccuracies and was motivated by revenge. Vice’s article was eventually fully protected, which means that only Wikipedia administrators can update or change it.
Qworty has also had his fingers all over Barry Hannah’s biography. Since March 2, 2010, he has repeatedly deleted information on Hannah’s achievements while leaving misleading comments in the “edit summary” field in which Wikipedians explain their actions to their fellow contributors. On January 27, 2013, Qworty removed two paragraphs which illustrated Hannah’s evolution as a writer and mentioned his awards and nominations as “unsourced”. The sources were in fact listed in the extensive External Links/Webliography section at the bottom of the article. A little later, he deleted the list of prizes Hannah won as “unsourced”, which was again untrue. Hannah was featured and eulogized in respected publications like The Paris Review, Vanity Fair, and The Guardian, and these articles were all included in the bottom section. In his next edit, Qworty completed the trick by deleting that list of sources as well, as “spam” and “links to avoid”. But Qworty wasn’t done yet. In what appears like petty cruelty rather than improvements to the deceased novelist’s biography, he removed the mention of Hannah as a generous mentor. His most egregiously spiteful “edit” by far: changing Barry Hannah’s cause of death from “natural causes” to “alcoholism”, an untrue assertion not found in the cited source.
Wikipedia and the cost of anonymity – Qworty revealed at last
Is Qworty a neutral Wikipedia editor? Absolutely not. The evidence members of our site collected over the past two weeks suggested that Qworty is either Robert Clark Young himself or someone with an obsessive interest in promoting Young. And an equally obsessive interest in people that Young dislikes. The above is only a small sample of what we managed to find out about Robert Clark Young and his Qworty persona. We passed all of it over to journalist Andrew Leonard of Salon, who told us that when he contacted Robert Clark Young via his Facebook page, Young denied ever having edited Wikipedia. In yet another coincidence, the Qworty account then stopped editing Wikipedia for several days. A few days later, on May 16, 2013, Qworty replaced the contents of his Wikipedia user page with an essay: “Who is Qworty?”
About halfway through the rambling 1,400-word self-justification, Qworty wrote, “I was never much interested in Wikipedia until I was attacked on Wikipedia. People from the real world, who had volunteered to be my enemies, came here to create ‘fictions’ – in ordinary life known as ‘lies’ – about me, so I came here to correct a few things.”
Eleven hours later, after another Facebook exchange with Andrew Leonard, Robert Clark Young conceded defeat and admitted on his Wikipedia talk page that he has been editing Wikipedia as Qworty. And that he intends to continue to do so, especially when it comes to his own article. Far from apologizing to the many writers whose biographies he defaced, Young defiantly states that he stands by the spate of revenge edits he performed, given that they were “in compliance with Wikipedia policies.”
The case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty demonstrates the cost of allowing anybody to edit Wikipedia biographies anonymously. How many Robert Clark Youngs are there on Wikipedia, chipping away at the biographies of those who have offended them, or merely been more successful? Throughout all these years, Qworty was never sanctioned for his activities. If people like Robert Clark Young and Johann Hari can get away with such clumsy biased editing for years and years, until outside observers decide to investigate their Wikipedia history, how many others have managed to slip under the radar?
Andrew Leonard’s phenomenal piece on Salon.com is here.