Yo ho, yo ho, an admin’s life for me!
At Wikipedia, the administrators or “admins” constitute a privileged caste, a nomenklatura (with 1382 members, at last count, although most are currently inactive) that is beyond the reach of Wikipedia’s normal summary justice. Savvy contestants at Wikipedia will often devote the first year or two of Wikipedia activity to thankless drone work, in hopes it will have the effect of racking up brownie points with “the community” — because if an editor can make enough friends and allies to become an admin, his or her ability to pursue an activist agenda will be dramatically enhanced.
To become an admin, the contestant must file a Request for Adminship. The relevant policy page says the following:
There are no official prerequisites for adminship, other than having an account and being trusted by other editors, but the likelihood of passing without being able to show significant contributions to the encyclopedia are low. The community looks for a variety of factors in candidates; discussion can be intense. For examples of what the community is looking for, one could review some successful and some unsuccessful RfAs.
If the contestant is successful in getting the nod from The Community, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. “Adminship” is a lifetime appointment; revocation of the title is as rare as a Liberty Head nickel. Violations of Wikipedia policy, or similar offenses which would get a normal editor banned in a heartbeat, are routinely overlooked when the perpetrator is an admin. Conversely, if an editor presents an obstacle to an admin’s activist agenda, the admin can ban that editor using the flimsiest of pretexts, or no pretext at all. One admin who has a great many such notches on his belt is Bwilkins, who at some point found it convenient to cover his tracks and adopt a new moniker, “Dangerous Panda” (he has other accounts as well.)
In real life, Bwilkins/Dangerous Panda is one John Palmer. Like so many others, he has used Wikipedia for self-promotion. He once authored a biography of himself on Wikipedia, which was deleted for want of notability (note how Palmer, writing as Bwilkins, makes an impassioned plea to retain the article, while carefully referring to himself in the third person.) Since that time, he has cherished the hope of one day getting it restored.
The most recent chapter in the Panda Saga began when two Wikipedia editors, Msnicki and NE ent, filed a “Request for Comment/User conduct” (Rfcu). This is a standard procedure under Wikipedia policy, where comment is solicited from rank-and-file editors concerning allegations of disruptive conduct by a particular editor, in hopes of resolving the problem. The two editors objected to Mr. Panda’s treatment of an editor who called himself “Barney the barney barney” (yes, Virginia, this is Wikipedia we’re talking about.) In a manner typical of Wikipedia’s admin caste, D. Panda had goaded him until he lost his temper, and then banned him for “making personal attacks.”
Normally, a “Request for Comment” is an occasion for intense scrutiny of the subject editor, along with much sophistry and hyperventilation. Msnicki and NE ent had laboriously followed the required procedure and assembled the requisite evidence, but they overlooked one crucial fact: Dangerous Panda is an admin. The request was made according to form, but it was wiped out and deleted from the record by Panda’s ally, Wikipedia administrator Jehochman.
Who is Jehochman?
Jonathan Hochman AKA Jehochman (T–C–F–R–B) is approaching his ten year anniversary at Wikipedia. As an administrator, he has earned a reputation for vindictive blocks of productive editors. He has otherwise become a poster child for Wikipedia’s endemic problem of hypocrisy and double standards, as may be seen in this open letter from a former member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, which addresses a curious situation in which Jehochman on the one hand furiously lashes other Wikipedians for having an undisclosed conflict of interest, while on the other, he has a whopping, undisclosed conflict of interest himself. This case simply illustrates what might be thought of as Wikipedia’s “Prime Directive”: rules and policies apply to your opponents, not to you.
Panda’s rap sheet
Let’s take a look at some of Bwilkin’s/Dangerous Panda’s past exploits. In July of 2012, he made waves by intervening into an article content dispute, where he threatened blocks all around and boasted of his “giant administrative phallus.” He told one editor to “grow the fuck up“, which earned him an admonishment from none other than Jimmy Wales himself (although Jimmy more recently demonstrated the familiar kid-gloves approach toward admins with this blissed-out change of heart.)
The following year, D. Panda told an editor whose account was blocked from editing that he should just go and “rot in the hell that is eternal block.” Then, in the spring of this year, he raised the bar for admin obnoxiousness by attempting to permanently block a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Wikipedia contributor Dr. Brian Josephson, alleging that Josephson had violated Wikipedia policy against making legal threats. (Josephson was subsequently unblocked after a typically snark-laden discussion at Wikipedia’s Administrators’ Noticeboard. In the interim, however, Josephson had to endure a colloquy on his user talk page with Mr. Panda. Panda subjected Dr. Josephson to a series of irritating and condescending demands that the scientist would have to meet in order to be unblocked.)
Now, the reader may be asking, what’s wrong with a little cussin’ and hollerin’ in the context of a vigorous on-line debate? Does it make sense for Wikipedia to prohibit these things? These are debatable questions, but what is at issue here is not the policies, but the way in which they are enforced at Wikipedia. An admin such as Dangerous Panda will not think twice about permanently banning a rank-and-file editor, such as the hapless Barney the barney barney, for “incivility” or “personal attacks.” Yet when Mr. Panda commits a similar offense, his fellow admins will rally to his side, providing solace and sheltering him from the outraged cries of the hoi polloi. The official line at Wikipedia is that incivility can “undermine a positive, productive working environment.” It could be argued that allowing admins to impose arbitrary sanctions with impunity has a far more significant demoralizing, “undermining” effect.
|Back to our story
So let’s now return to the most recent episode, which begins with the deleted Request for Comment. Jehochman is not content to simply put a stop to the discussion, which had already attracted comment from a dozen or so editors; he takes the surprising step of “rev-deleting” it, which makes it invisible to all but administrators. So in effect, it has been air-brushed from Wikipedia history, as far as the average member of “the community” is concerned. So next, NE Ent approaches Jehochman for an explanation, and Mr. Hochman treats him to his tortured reasoning, which he offers in lieu of the obvious explanation: admins are above the law. The discussion is joined by Msnicki, Panda, and some additional Wikipedian drama-hounds, and predictably, goes nowhere.
And so, on November 1, NE Ent and Msnicki take their complaint to the ne plus ultra of Wikipedia’s “dispute resolution” hierarchy, the Arbitration Committee (“Arbcom”). They do this despite the fact that the outlook for success is rather bleak; as NE Ent puts it, there is a Catch-22 of sorts:
- The committee is unlikely take a case about long term behavior without an Rfcu.
- An rfcu about long term behavior will be deleted because it’s about long term behavior.
It is also worth noting that Palmer’s earlier “Bwilkins” account had been taken to the Arbcom once before, in July of 2013. The Arbcom declined to hear the case against him at that time, with some members suggesting that the appropriate way to address with problem would be with an Rfcu. Palmer’s response was to change his username. In May of this year, one editor’s novel attempt to initiate a reconfirmation Request for Adminship (also called a “recall RfA”) met with a similar fate; it was denounced by a number of admins (including Mr. Panda) as an attempt to set a precedent that might undermine the “appointment for life” system for admins.
Meanwhile, another consequence of this matter has come to light: there is now a proposal to dispense with the Rfcu process altogether. Comments from “the community” are underway; some want to eliminate the procedure out of frustration over its impotence, while others just want to make doubly sure that no mechanism exists that might conceivably impede their misbehavior of choice.
The moral of the story?
First of all, the story is not unique. There are many other administrators who are just as problematic as Bwilkins/Dangerous Panda, and there are no means available to compel them to use their power responsibly. Often, there are penalties for those who would make the attempt. Mechanisms have been proposed, such as “term limits” for admins, after which there would be a mandatory re-certification by “the community.” But the privileged status of Wikipedia admins is only a reflection of a deeper problem: Wikipedia was designed from the outset to be the feudal fiefdom of a group of insiders, not “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”