Who is Qworty? Qworty is Robert Clark Young. And who is Robert Clark Young? Another bitter never-was jawing about how it’s not fair, how others got better than they deserved, and how he’ll show them some day. You’ve probably sat next to a gin-soaked Young at an airport bar as his self-loathing and anger rolled off him – before politely disengaging by claiming your plane was leaving a half-hour earlier than it actually was. And then you didn’t give him much more thought. Sad, really, and while the jealousy and bitterness are unattractive, they do no harm. Maybe they even help carry him through his difficult life. And then you put him out of your mind. But Qworty became a far more powerful figure than you would have ever guessed, as Andrew Leonard at Salon writes in an exploration of Qworty’s career as a Wikipedia editor. This website conducted its own extensive investigation and review of his activities on the popular crowd-sourced encyclopedia after Young, as Qworty, engaged in a bout of revenge editing against author Amanda Filipacchi. Her crime? She’d dared to complain about sexism in the popular and powerful website’s approach to female authors.
In turn, Qworty targeted Wikipedia’s article about Filipacchi, her mother, and her father, Daniel Filipacchi, the retired chairman of Hachette Filipacchi Medias, one of the two or three largest magazine publishers in the world. For good measure, Qworty went after the tiny Wikipedia article on that company as well. The attacks on the text of all these articles (which are the first hit on Google for all three individuals and for the company) created enough controversy both inside and outside Wikipedia that folks began digging into Qworty’s identity, and led to his “outing” (Wikipedia’s favored term for identifying its usually anonymous editors; outing is generally considered a high crime by the website’s administration).
There’s little point in rehashing the actions of Robert Clark Young since that’s been so ably done by the two articles I linked to above. But it’s worth reviewing that Bob Young, as Qworty and at least six other online handles (what Wikipedia and internet culture more generally call “sockpuppets”), had been attacking the articles of other writers, and grooming the articles about himself and his sole novel, since at least 2006.
For instance, between March 8 2007 and May 17 2013 Wikipedia’s article on the Comic novel (T–H–L) listed Young as a leading American comic novelist, right between John Kennedy Toole and Carl Hiaasen, a claim that was almost certainly inserted by one of his sockpuppets. The removal came only after its existence was brought to light by the efforts of this website – certainly not by Wikipedia’s editing team. And yes, Wikipedia’s “Comic novel” article is the top search hit on Google for the topic, notwithstanding that it’s a particularly poor effort, even by the website’s own low standards.
Complaints were periodically made to Wikipedia’s management – including to Jimmy Wales, the website’s co-founder – that “Qworty” was a nasty character, that he was probably Young himself, and that he was using Wikipedia’s cult of anonymity against itself. He had effectively taken the harmless bitterness out of the airport bar and injected it into the first place internet users go looking for information.
And what was done about it? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
When Young realized the jig was up and he’d been exposed, he posted a postmodern screed on his Wikipedia user page about the subjectivity of truth and the unreality of “text” (as if words masquerading as encyclopedia articles have no power to harm reputations). Leonard takes note of this in his article:
“Wikipedia is the great postmodern novel,” declared Qworty. “Wikipedia is ‘not truth’ … Wikipedia, like any other text, is not reality.” Those of us who depend on Wikipedia as a source of neutral, accurate information might find some cause for alarm in the fact that an editor responsible for 13,000 edits believes Wikipedia is a postmodern novel. But ironically, the closer one examines the trail of evidence left behind by Qworty, the stronger his case seems! If truth is messy, then Wikipedia is even messier.
Leonard appears honestly shocked that this was going on. He does wonder, “If Qworty has been allowed to run free for so long — sabotaging the ‘truth’ however he sees fit, writing his own postmodern novel — how many others are also creating spiteful havoc under the hood, where no one is watching?”
The answer is: Lots. Lots and lots. Young is simply one of hundreds of anonymous editors beavering away with grudges on Wikipedia. They hate Jews, or Muslims, or a local politician, or a former business partner who they think swindled them, or a former lover, or a celebrity they have a stalker-like obsession with. The smart ones carry on for years, by adhering to the letter of Wikipedia’s byzantine internal rules, its love of anonymity and its childlike mantra of “Assume Good Faith” (“agf” is a key piece of Wikipedia jargon, and is frequently used as a very effective shield and weapon by people there who do very little good at all).
A few years ago the British author Johann Hari was likewise found by an external investigation to have been maliciously editing the pages of rivals through various Wikipedia sockpuppets. When his behavior came to light, he was banned from participation (though skirting such bans with new sockpuppets is child’s play). The damage, of course, had already been done, as in the case of Young – whose virtual corpse is now being dragged through the streets of Wikiworld.
What Bob Young is really being banned for now is for the crime of having brought shame and embarrassment onto the Wikipedia community by inspiring external criticism – not his actions themselves. Because his actions on Wikipedia were there to see all along. As early as July of 2007, a Wikipedia editor and author who complained of cyberstalking by Young under his “Qworty” guise complained that he appeared to be operating a number of sockpuppets on Wikipedia. A requested internal investigation confirmed that this was the case. Any action taken? No.
In October 2010, Young (as “Qworty”) drew a scolding from co-founder Wales himself, apparently for attacks he’d made on computer executive Meg Whitman. “Qworty, your hostile behavior at Talk:Meg Whitman is completely unacceptable. You have been warned many times in the past about civility violations and so I know you know better,” Wales told him.
The point? Young wasn’t even one of the particularly smart attack accounts. He repeatedly drew attention from powerful insiders at the encyclopedia and yet… he was allowed to carry on. And on.
Wikipedia’s rules are applied inconsistently, and capriciously, and incidents like these never lead to discussions about the underlying structural problems that make abusing others on Wikipedia so easy. The question is never asked about the ethics of allowing “Qworty” to have more influence over Ms. Filipacchi’s article than Filipacchi herself (she has a conflict of interest, or “COI,” you see. “Qworty,” thanks to “agf,” is clearly simply a good Samaritan adding to the sum of human knowledge in his spare time.)
Or about the fact that anonymity is such a powerful tool for people that manipulate editorial content. Or the fact that there are no editorial controls exercised by professionals over the articles.
The best that can be hoped for is that an accumulation of incidents like Robert Clark Young and Johann Hari will eventually filter out into the broader public consciousness and damage the Wikimedia Foundation’s fundraising to the extent that they finally take steps to enforce better standards. That time does not seem close (Wikimedia broke its fundraising record again last year).
Meanwhile, I’ll be in the bar.
Image credit: Flickr/khrawlings, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic