There’s been a lot of discussion recently on one of the mailing lists I subscribe (the one run by the Institute for Distributed Creativity for anyone keeping track) to about the corruption in Wikipedia’s governance structure, sparked by a recent art project called Wikipedia Art. The “art” (if that’s what it really is… but that question is a whole other post) consisted of the group creating an article about Wikipedia art, then publishing articles about that article, then using those articles as sources to prove the article was indeed notable, according to Wikipedia’s standards. And of course lots of drama ensured, and they got mega-deletz0red by Wikipedia’s admins. Hilarious, but pretty wanky (to use some good academic terminology). So the point of this “art” (I think, it’s kinda unclear what exactly the goal was… but again, that’s a whole other post) was some sort of commentary on Wikipedia’s governance and rules about what should be included in the encyclopedia. As a fan of Wikipedia and all things wiki (I used to have a job where all I did all day was edit a wiki), I took the side of Wikipedia and was glad they took a hard line with the art vandals. This mentality caused me to dismiss all the negative things people were posting to the list about how Wikipedia governance was corrupt and the gatekeepers were all non-academics under 30 (of course, anyone younger than 30 is an ignorant troublemaker!) who only cared about making sure Wikipedia was filled with articles about Dungeons & Dragons but not the “important” stuff. But then the following happened, and I realised that actually, Wikipedia’s governance probably is bankrupt, although probably not because of the age of the admins or their love of D&D.
An American teen posted videos of himself brutally abusing his cat Dusty on YouTube over the weekend (I found the video so, so sad… it will haunt you). This enraged everyone’s favourite band of internet trolls, Anonymous, who decided to track him down and get him arrested. An unnamed person set up kenny-glenn.com with the personal contact details of the abuser and his family. After a flurry of activity all over the internets, which can be chronicled on Encyclopedia Dramatica (yes, as we will soon see, we have to use them as a reference because Wikipedia doesn’t have any information about what happened. How sad is that?), it was reported that Kenny Glenn has been arrested.
This case is interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is that it could also be the first time a loosely organized group of people on the internet initiated a campaign to identify a suspect and then notify the police… in the least no case before has been so high profile or had so many people involved.
Anyway, Wikipedia admins deleted the Kenny Glenn article and then blocked the creation of a new one, despite it being all over the news and the internet. I asked that the protection be removed, and I was told if I was to create a passable draft it might be used as an article since all the other edits had been vandalism. At the same time, a group of people from the Facebook group about the story created a page called “Timmy_(animal_abuse_suspect)” which was factual and backed up all its claims with journalistic sources, as required by Wikipedia. I followed up with the admin and asked if he/she could use the Timmy page as a draft. In response he deleted the Timmy article, saying it was a deliberate attempt to circumvent the protection placed on the Kenny Glenn article. I asked the admin again if the page could be used as a draft in the way he/she first proposed, to which the admin replied that he/she wanted to take “a step back” and another admin should deal with it. The admin then posted on some special Wikipedia notice board basically saying that his reason for blocking the article was about the questionable ethics of posting information about a minor. You can see our exchange here.
What stuck out for me was that this seemed to be more of an issue of following rules rather than making Wikipedia a better information source. We didn’t follow them perfectly, so the admins are upset that we challenged their authority (how dare we!) and then that becomes the reason to continue the protection on the page. From the time I spend wading through all the different rules and pages and guidelines made it very clear to me the system is a mess. After going through this, it is even more unclear to me as to what the process and rules actually are. I mean, the reason the admin gave me for the block switched from a lack of a neutral well sourced article to being an issue of ethics (if you look at the deleted Kenny Glenn page, even, the original reason for its deletion was listed as “Article about a real person, which does not indicate the importance or significance of the subject” – no mention of the issue being one of ethics.) I do agree there are issues with the suspect being a minor, but I think there is a lot more going on here. It also begs the question as to why information about this kid and the case itself can be all over the internet (in “credible” sources and otherwise) but that it is being blocked from being reproduced on Wikipedia. Isn’t one of the goals of Wikipedia to provide an open and valuable source of information that acts as an alternative to conventional sources of knowledge which are protected by gatekeepers? I mean how messed up is it that the mainstream news is covering it, but Wikipedia is censoring it?
As my friend Luke said so aptly: “Wikipedia started out as this great if somewhat unreliable source of information, but now there’s all these admins who think they’re holier-than-thou and if they haven’t heard about or don’t like something, it can’t possibly go. And what they don’t realize is that they’re just turning Wikipedia into a normal, old-school encyclopedia.” There’s also a great post on all these issues on the P2P foundation blog: Is something fundamentally wrong with Wikipedia governance processes?
This all makes me very, very sad. I was so excited about the potential of the internet, especially Wikipedia which I have heartily defended until this point. I believed Wikipedia was doing something truly collaborative, open, free and democratic. It was a sign that maybe, we could one day accomplish all of the things we haven’t been able to before – giving everyone a voice and getting rid of the gatekeepers that control knowledge and information. But this just shows that eventually, our hunger for power – and all those other terrible features of human nature – win out. I hope I can be proven wrong.
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