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Truth, anonymity and the Wikipedia Way

Why it's broke and how it can be fixed

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Comment Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions - Catch-22

If you've read Catch-22, you know what it's like in Wikiland.

In Wikiland, if someone has a conflict of interest, they could be grounded. But the inhabitants of Wikiland also have the right to anonymity. This means that if you try and prove someone has a conflict of interest, you're breaking the rules, and they won't be grounded after all.

Taken separately, these two pillars of the Wikipedia law book are sure to ring a few bells. At least once a month, a news story appears in which some self-serving organization is slapped for violating Wikipedia's conflict of interest policy. This month, it's the BBC wearing the dunce cap.

And, naturally, we all realize that Wikipedia is a place where you needn't identity yourself. At the very least, this hit home in March when cyber sleuths revealed that a 24-year-old uber-Wikipedian was masquerading as a professor of theology with not one, but two PhDs.

But few seem to realize that these two Wikicommandments are completely incompatible. The trouble with Wikipedia goes deeper than a few edits from the BBC, deeper even than a 24-year-old pretending to be someone he's not.

Much has been made of the so-called Wikiscanner, a tool that purports to reveal the identities of anonymous editors trying to rig the world's most popular online encyclopedia. But the Wikiscanner only identifies casual editors, people who edit without bothering to create an account.

If you don't create an account, your IP address is exposed for all the world to see. The Wikiscanner can track you down. But if you take the time to actually sign in and create a user name, your IP is masked. You're anonymous to everyone - except a handful of privileged Wikipedia admins. Which brings us to the issue at hand.

Our recent story about Wikipedia, Judd Bagley, and Overstock.com has sparked a, shall we say, heated debate. Some have sided with Bagley. Others have sided with Wikipedia. Still others have decided that the best thing to do is call The Register "a piece of trash."

For the record, there's no denying that Bagley voiced his opinions on Wikipedia in completely the wrong way. He admits as much. In the beginning, he didn't know any better. And now, almost two years later, the Wikipedia inner circle has developed such animosity for the man, he has no hope of making himself heard.

But the question is: If Bagley is right, what does this tell us about Wikipedia? Better yet: Whether Bagley is right or not, what does his story tell us about Wikipedia?

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