How Wikipedia’s Dr Jekyll became Mr Hyde: Vandalism, sock puppetry and the curious case of Wikipedia’s decline

This is a (very) short paper that I will be presenting at Internet Research in Denver this week. I want to write something longer about the story because I feel like it represents in many ways what I see as emblematic of so many of us who lived through our own Internet bubble: when everything seemed possible and there was nothing to lose. This is (a small slice of) Drork’s story. 

Richard Mansfield starring in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Richard Mansfield starring in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Abstract This paper concerns the rise and fall of Wikipedia editor, ‘drork’ who was blocked indefinitely from the English version of the encyclopedia after seven years of constructive contributions, movement leadership and intense engagement. It acts as a companion piece to the recent statistical analyses of patterns of conflict and vandalism on Wikipedia to reflect on the questions of why someone who was once committed to the encyclopedia may want to vandalize it. The paper compares two perspectives on the experience of being a Wikipedian: on the other hand, a virtuous experience that enables positive character formation as more commonly espoused, and alternatively as an experience dominated by in-fighting, personal attacks and the use of Wikipedia to express political goals. It concludes by arguing that the latter behavior is necessary in order to survive as a Wikipedian editing in these highly conflict-ridden areas.

Introduction

Recent scholarship has painted two competing pictures of what Wikipedia and Wikipedians are “like” and what they are motivated by. On the one hand, Benkler and Nissenbaum argue that because people contribute to projects like Wikipedia with motivations “ranging from the pure pleasure of creation, to a particular sense of purpose, through to the companionship and social relations that grow around a common enterprise”, the practice of commons-based peer production fosters virtue and enables “positive character formation” (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006). On the other hand, we have heard more recently about how “free and open” communities like Wikipedia have become a haven for aggressive, intimidating behavior (Reagle, 2013) and that reversions of newcomers’ contributions has been growing steadily and may be contributing to Wikipedia’s decline (Halfaker, Geiger, Morgan, & Riedl, in-press).  

Studies on revert wars, vandalism and deletions on Wikipedia have focused on locating, isolating, categorizing and quantifying conflict. From these studies, we know that article reverts (where an editor restores an article to a previous version in order to fight vandalism or to promote one side of a conflict) are on the rise (Buriol, Castillo, Donato, Leonardi, & Millozzi, 2006), that this is a sign of a growth in the “coordination costs” required to manage and resolve such conflict (Kittur, Suh, Pendleton, & Chi, 2007) and that on Wikipedia, conflict is dominated by back and forth between pairs of people who are actively reverting one another (Yasseri, Sumi, Rung, Kornai, & Kertész, 2012). These individuals are generally supported by users who rally around them on “talk” pages and on administrative pages related to conflict resolution so that debates are rarely concluded on the basis of merit but rather by outside intervention, sheer exhaustion or the numerical dominance of one group (Yasseri et al., 2012).

Methodology

This case study involves a series of seven in-depth interviews over an 18-month period between September 2011 and March 2013 as well as content analysis of drork’s article edits, discussion pages, mailing list posts, and arbitration committee (arbcom) cases. In addition, I attended a workshop with drork as part of the Oxford Internet Institute’s MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Wikipedia project where I was able to observe his interactions with attendees who he had edited (and sometimes clashed) with during his editing of Arabic Wikipedia.

Who is drork?

I was brought up on this idea that there is objective knowledge and this whole idea of looking for the truth… so when I went to (the first Wikimania conference in) Boston it was like coming home. Everyone talked about how to convey truth and objective knowledge and information. (drork, Skype interview, 16 October, 2011)

drork was for many years a model Wikipedian. A linguist by training, he epitomized many of the ideals of Wikipedia: he spent countless volunteer hours editing the encyclopedia in three languages, he was transparent and open in his editing (he is one of the few editors who uses his full name in his Wikipedia work), he refused to become involved in any of Wikipedia’s “cabals” and played a strong leadership role beyond editing, speaking to the media about his experiences editing Middle East topics and assisting with outreach projects to bring offline Wikipedia to countries in West Africa. A true modernist, drork believed that Wikipedia was a place where people with different ideas about what happened could come together to collaborate in discovering the “truth”. He believed that Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View” that required secondary sources to back up any claims enabled an article to represent an issue in a way that was fair to all parties.

Downfall

At first I liked it. It was very interesting – like being invited into a club of intellectuals. When I had some free time at work, I would log on just to see if someone left me a message or note or changed something. It was like being involved in a constant intellectual meeting that is ongoing – a club that I could join day and night whenever I had free time. (drork, Skype interview, 16 October, 2011)

After a heady period where he spoke excitedly about the goals of Wikipedia, drork started to notice an increasing politicization within the Wikipedia community. He wrote to the internal Wikimedia mailing list in early 2009 that he felt that the principles of NPOV were not being maintained on many parts of the encyclopedia, most notably on Wikimedia Commons where politically-motivated imagery, including swastikas and anti-Israeli cartoons, as well as users’ info boxes supporting armed resistance against Israel and/or other political groups like Hezbollah (Wikipedia, 2013) were able to flourish.

drork was frustrated by the politicized debates and strategic wrangling that was required to prevail in long edit wars. He had always tried to stay away from being part of any cabal but he believed that it was becoming clear that the people who were able to prevail did so by playing politics, whereas drork had naively believed that the project should exist without such wrangling.

In early 2010, after six years of editing Wikipedia, drork was banned from editing for 24 hours on the English encyclopedia and then six months for disruptive behavior in a series of Wikipedia “trials”. He had been accused of breaking the English Wikipedia’s “3 revert rule” (3RR) that states that editors are not allowed to revert more than 3 edits in a 24-hour period, but drork said that he didn’t recognize the authority of the administrators to block him and started a number of new accounts, once again reverting edits and trying to bolster support for his views. Wikipedia administrators blocked each of these accounts for breaking rules against “sockpuppetry” (the use of alternative accounts to deceive other users) until drork became too exhausted to continue and stopped editing altogether.

Conclusion

It made me talk in a way I didn’t want to talk; it made me fight in a way I didn’t want to fight. It corrupted me in the face of people whose opinion of me I value. (drork, Skype interview, 8 March, 2013)

At some point during this time, drork realized that his behavior had devolved into the kind of political campaigning that he had been actively trying to work against. Despite not recognizing the 3RR or the authority of the arbitration committee, drork had complained about an editor on the “Administrators’ noticeboard” for violating 3RR, and he had tried to rally other Israelis through the local press to defend what he believed was an active campaign to alter the encyclopedia in the face of the upcoming UN resolution on the status of Palestine. Looking back on it now, drork believes that the experience brought out the worst in him – it was like “letting the demon out of the bottle,” he said.

This case study provides some initial evidence that engagement in Wikipedia editing activities, far from fostering virtue and enabling the kind of positive character formation that Benkler and Nissenbaum write about, can actually have the opposite effect in areas of intense conflict. Wikipedia is a place where distinct groups of people with different points of view are working together and this necessarily results in strategic wrangling, the playing of politics and the necessitation of bureaucracies and judiciaries in order to deal with disputes.

References

Benkler, Y., & Nissenbaum, H. (2006). Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue*. Journal of Political Philosophy, 14(4), 394–419. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9760.2006.00235.x

Buriol, L., Castillo, C., Donato, D., Leonardi, S., & Millozzi, S. (2006). Temporal Evolution of the Wikigraph. Retrieved from http://www.dcc.uchile.cl/%7Eccastill/papers/buriol_2006_temporal_analysis_wikigraph.pdf

Halfaker, A., Geiger, R. S., Morgan, J., & Riedl, J. (in-press). The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s reaction to sudden popularity is causing its decline. American Behavioral Scientist.

Kittur, A., Suh, B., Pendleton, B. A., & Chi, E. H. (2007). He says, she says: conflict and coordination in Wikipedia. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 453–462). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1240624.1240698

Marcus, G. E. (1995). Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24(1), 95–117. doi:10.1146/annurev.an.24.100195.000523

Ofer Arazy, Yeo, Lisa, & Nov, Oded. (2013). Stay on the Wikipedia Task: When task-related disagreements slip into personal and procedural conflicts. Journal of the American Society for Information Science  and Technology.

Reagle, J. (2013). “Free as in sexist?” Free culture and the gender gap. First Monday, 18(1). doi:10.5210/fm.v18i1.4291

Wikipedia:Administrators’ noticeboard/Incidents/Hezbollah userbox. (2013, January 23). In Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Administrators%27_noticeboard/Incidents/Hezbollah_userbox&oldid=496957783

Yasseri, T., Sumi, R., Rung, A., Kornai, A., & Kertész, J. (2012). Dynamics of conflicts in Wikipedia. arXiv:1202.3643. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038869

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the IDRC for their support of the Oxford Internet Institute’s workshops to study Wikipedia in the Middle East and North Africa.

License

This article is ©2013 Authors, and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

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5 thoughts on “How Wikipedia’s Dr Jekyll became Mr Hyde: Vandalism, sock puppetry and the curious case of Wikipedia’s decline

  1. At least if you’re involved in the Israel/Palestine topic area, yeah. There’s a reason why I pretty much never ever go there. I think i’ve gone there once or twice because of an outlying article rather removed from the main topic articles and sometimes because of an Articles for Deletion discussion or two, but never more than that. And even those cursory investigations into the field was extremely violent, with lots of negative words being thrown left and right.

    But I don’t exactly find it surprising. It makes sense that the state of Wikipedia in regards to that topic area would reflect the state of the conflict in the real world. I would actually be extremely surprised if that wasn’t the case.

  2. I also avoid controversial issues and tell people not to trust Wikipedia content on controversial topics. I do think they make for interesting social studies, but that is not good for Wikipedia. In the long run, the Foundation will have to fundamentally change how people work on Wikipedia, essentially redefine “anyone can edit” to not mean “any article at any time” At the very least, controversial articles should be edited only by those who have a proven track record of constructive editing non-controversial articles (yes that means mandatory accounts). Admins should be required to do a minimum amount of content creation to keep their positions. Right now the focus has gotten away from creating and improving the encyclopedia.

  3. This is a very interesting case study. However, I am not sure that the evidence you present supports your conclusion. I would encourage you to delve deeper into drork’s personal biases. It appears that the source of his downfall was political wrangling over issues to do with middle eastern conflict. But as an Israeli, this is surely something that drork was far from unbiased about. Considering this, surely it is less likely that something about wikipedia’s structures and practices corrupted drork, and more likely that the source of the corruption was drork’s own values and opinions coming into direct conflict with those highly opposed to him.

    My point is, that if a non-Israeli editor had been involved in the same discussions, maybe they wouldn’t have had such an inverse effect. It is possible that due to his background, drork is a statistical outlier – maybe if you followed other editors who stuck to areas that they aren’t politically motivated by, you would find less evidence of corruption and conflict.

    Of course, editors are likely to be drawn to work on topics that interest them, and often interests will correlate with political investment. So it is likely that a lot of editors end up corrupting themselves by getting involved in areas where they are bound to be aggrevated by all the conflict.

    So, with a study of wider scope, you could probably present some good evidence that this attraction of editors to areas likely to upset them, like moths to a fire, is a major source of Wikipedia’s problems. I think this would be a very interesting area to explore. But I don’t think you could then conclude that it is Wikipedia’s systems that are at fault – perhaps these systems are as good as they can be, but are simply being overwhelmed by the human tendency to argue about things that matter to us.

    I actually did a study of Wikipedia last year, and concluded that wikipedia’s systems are extremely well-constructed for helping editors foster a social image of participating in an imaginative community. I also argued that much of the conflict and vandalism on Wikipedia was very important for helping create this and bring editors closer together. I believe that while Wikipedia’s is nothing like the Utopian ideal that Benkler and others present (as you said), it is very socially functional, and that much of what people claim is unhelpful conflict that is leading to Wikipedia’s demise is actually a natural and important part of normal social processes.

    You can read it here: http://www.academia.edu/2067102/Destructive_Editing_and_Habitus_in_the_Imaginative_Construction_of_Wikipedia

    Keep up this research – this is a great case study and a very interesting direction to be looking. But I advise looking beyond surface level-signs of Wikipedia’s downfall. It’s more robust than people think!

  4. Hi Heather, this is a brilliant short article, thanks for sharing it! I wanted to take it as an opportunity to mention a grant proposal for WMF that I’ve been working on, https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Grants:IEG/Patterns_of_Peeragogy — the idea there is to try to understand Wikimedia as a peer learning platform. How can we learn from conflict and dissension rather than merely repeat and amplify it? I think it is this kind of learning that makes Benkler/Nissenbaum type “virtues” possible, not simply the wiki medium per se! Indeed, CBPP requires increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for “integrating” contributed work. I’d be curious to know what you think of our proposal (and I’m going to back-link to this article from the proposal itself).

  5. Thank you so very much for all your great comments :)

    Sterling, yes, you’re right (although I would push back a little on the statement that conflict on Wikipedia is the same in the “real”/offline world – I think there are some important differences). What I’m trying to speak to in this piece is that the theory doesn’t reflect the experience of a lot of people who find themselves involved in conflict in the encyclopedia. Reminding us (and trying to work towards more inclusive, more accurate theory) is about deeply understanding people who don’t reflect what’s considered normal.

    Leigh, that’s really interesting. I’d love to hear more about what you think are good, practical answers here :)

    thedarkfourth, thank you for sharing your paper! I do disagree, though. Drork certainly has biases that impacted his engagement with other editors. Everyone has biases and personal motivations for being involved (in these and other articles). My aim here is not to generalise i.e. I’m not saying that this is every single person’s experience on Wikipedia (although, I would argue that there are more and more people who have had similar experiences). I’ve tried to give an in-depth perspective on a single case because we get a lot more information about why people turn away from Wikipedia than from the vantage of the crowd.

    Joe, yes! I’d love to read more. I’m about to give a presentation on this at IR14 in Denver but will look when I’m free.

    Thank you all for your comments! They’ve been really helpful before I give the talk :)

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