You are here

When Wikipedians Go Wrong

The final day at AoIR 2013 starts for me with a panel on conflict, controversy and aggression in online spaces in which Theresa Sauter and I also have a paper - but the first presenter is Heather Ford, whose focus is on Wikipedia. She has been involved with Wikipedia for some time, and has seen a substantial level of conflict (leading to article deletions and user bannings) during that time. Her paper here focusses on the specific case of a Wikipedian being stalked and banned.

Being a Wikipedian means being part of a peer-production community, which Benkler and Nissenbaum have claimed fosters virtue. But more recent research has exposed some of the darker sides of Wikipedia - as experienced especially to newcomers to the community. Entering the now-mature project at a late stage is difficult, and many contributions from newbie users are reverted by established participants; this has been seen as contribution to Wikipedia's decline and the slow-down of new user sign-ups.

The Wikipedian Heather focusses on is drork, an Israeli who came to the site with an idealistic hope to contribute to the "truth" and has contributed to the English, Hebrew, and Arabic versions of Wikipedia. He became a leader in the community, and a spokesperson for the site, and at first thoroughly enjoyed his participation because of the constant intellectual feedback he received; he became addicted to this experience.

In 2010, however, drork was first blocked for 24 hours for breaking the "three-revert rule", because he had repeatedly reverted another editor's contributions in a 24-hour timeframe. But drork did not accept this ban, continuing his reverts when re returned, and subsequently being banned for longer periods. He then began to create sockpuppet accounts to continue editing; this was investigated by Wikipedia admins through a trial-like process, and drork was found guilty.

He now realises that he made a mistake in doing this: he was drawn into this misbehaviour by his addiction to editing Wikipedia, and feels that he has been corrupted by the process, and let down fellow editors whose behaviour he values. He had become involved in some of the admin politics which he had aimed to involve.

How representative is drork, then? Clearly, Wikipedia involvement can lead to aggression, addictive behaviour and low self-worth, as shown by this case; clearly, Wikipedia's supposedly non-hierarchical environment has power structures and a kind of "private judiciary"; clearly, these issues can poison the space and lead the site to lose participants.