Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/12/18/the_wikipedia_paradox/

Truth, anonymity and the Wikipedia Way

Why it's broke and how it can be fixed

By Cade Metz

Posted in Media, 18th December 2007 19:43 GMT

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?

Is The Register trash?

In his recent piece on Google "Knols," the search giant's answer to Wikipedia, El Reg associate editor Andrew Orlowski points out that Wikipedia articles may be "tightly controlled by a 14-year-old you've never heard of, who has risen to the top of the social backstabbing by seeing off rival 'editors,' by forming cliques and drinking huge amounts of Red Bull."

But that's just one possibility. The point is that if they have enough time and make the right friends, anyone can hijack a Wikipedia article.

Multiple Wikipedia insiders - some who've risen to the very top of the encyclopedia food chain (and we mean the very top) - make it quite clear that rigging the system is terribly easy. Whether you're 14 or 54, you can readily become an administrator or make friends with an administrator. Especially if you have little else to occupy your time.

And once you've done this - once you're in with the in-crowd - you can control an article simply by shouting the loudest.

So, let's say you do it. Let's say you hijack an article simply to push your own agenda. This is potentially a powerful position. After all, Wikipedia is the eighth most visited site on the web. For better or for worse, it's where people get their information.

Then, let's say, someone realizes you're doing this. Let's say they approach the Wikipedia elite with word that you're behind an anonymous account trying to tell the world how to think. Chances are, this rat will be shot on sight. At Wikipedia, attempting to reveal the identity of an anonymous editor is a no-no.

To be fair, one uber-administrator tells us that if someone plays their cards right, there are ways of outing Wikipedia hoaxers. But again, this all boils down to who's with the in-crowd and who's not. If you have the right friends, you have the power. If you don't, your voice isn't heard.

In the wake of the Wikipedia elite banning edits from Judd Bagley's entire Utah neighborhood, the site's Arbitration Committee also considered banning any mention of certain "BADSITES," including Bagley's AntiSocialMedia.net. In the end, the ArbCom took the high road, refusing to lay down such a ban. But part of the committee's decision alluded to Wikipedia's much larger problem - without choosing to actually address it.

"Allowing anonymous editing and forbidding conflict of interest," the committee said, "is an obvious contradiction which necessarily is imperfectly resolved."

Of course, there's an easy way to eliminate this problem. If Wikipedia would simply require editors to identify themselves, so much of this would go way. Yes, there would still be issues. An IP address still provides a certain pseudonymity. But this is certainly a better situation that the one we have now. You'll notice, dear reader, that Google Knols ask that everyone admit to who they are.

Is any of this true? That's for you to decide. The truth, after all, is relative. If you decide The Register is trash, you can safely ignore everything we've said. ®