Montag’s Grin: A Look at Wikipedia

“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”  

— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Internet culture seems to want to promote two values that, when combined, cannot help but produce some mischief.  How much mischief remains to be seen, but the values to which I refer are anonymity and the wisdom of crowds (a term coined by James Surowiecki).  Both of these principles are central to the design and maintenance of that populist repository of all knowledge known as Wikipedia, which is the sixth most-visited site on the web.  It is rare to conjure a search term that does not produce a Wikipedia link among the top few results; and the site is presumably a first source for most of us and the ultimate source for a lot of us despite the fact that, for instance, biographical information is frequently disputed by many a horse’s mouth.

Wikipedia is egalitarian, not-for-profit, and all-volunteer. Anyone can be an editor (usually under a pseudonym), but it isn’t meant to be a free-for-all.  There are rules and guidelines that are supposed to be maintained by self-governance within the collective, fulfilling the theory that the crowd will, on the whole, produce better work than an elite minority. Nevertheless, the potential for individual actors, shrouded in anonymity, to wreak havoc should not be underestimated, as will become clear if you read this excellent piece of investigative reporting by Andrew Leonard for  In the article, Leonard describes motives and methods behind the antics of a vengeful author named Robert Clark Young, who as Wikipedia editor “Qworty” set about maliciously revising the biographies of literary figures with whom he had a beef while tending to the stewardship and embellishment of Robert Clark Young’s own curriculum wiki.

All in, Qworty claimed to be responsible for some 13,000 edits to the online encyclopedia, and as Leonard rightly points out, he was just one of thousands of editors who work on the site every day.  Although the Wikipedia community seems finally to have put an end to Young/Qworty’s shenanigans, it must be very difficult to mitigate this kind of behavior in an environment comprising anonymous editors with no required credentials.  Certainly the mission of the group Wikipediocracy “to shine the light of scrutiny into the dark crevices of Wikipedia . . .” suggests that Qworty may not be an anomaly so much as representative of some systemic problems within the Encyclopedia Publica.

I’ll be honest. I generally don’t get the anonymity thing when it comes to free expression in the digital age. I think of anonymity as a tactic for dissident poets in dangerously oppressive countries and total wusses, bullies, trolls, and hackers in free societies.  In fact, I’ll argue that the overvaluation of anonymity in the digital age moves us free societies a step closer toward the not-so-free ones, a sentiment echoed in this weekend’s OpEd by Julian Assange when he refers to the degradation of privacy as a segue to authoritarianism. Presumably, it is the abandonment of privacy that spawns the need, or perceived need, for individuals to assume alternate identities in cyberspace, but it’s easy to see how anonymity through avatar can catalyze an authoritarian society which needs mob rule like fire needs oxygen. Anonymity on the web has fostered the ugliest of mob (i.e. unwise crowd) behaviors where death threats and misogyny seem to flow all too easily from the keyboards of self-righteous young men.  Even the generally well-meaning society of Redditors managed to form a virtual posse that harassed the family of an innocent and troubled young man immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Why anonymity would be necessary for the composition or editing of encyclopedic work is a mystery, but I suspect it has little to do with practicality and everything to do with ideology.  After all to add the imprimatur of a name would only lead to the conclusion that some editors might be perceived as more valuable than others because they are associated with specific expertise or experience in a given area, and this only results in the kind of elitism of experts Wikipedia is disposed to reject as substandard. In theory, all voices are equal, and if we let the process run its course, balance, truth, and fairness will prevail over the occasional malicious actor like a Qworty.  In theory.

But if we look at Wikipedia as a social experiment that represents the larger promise of the Information Age, it’s entirely possible that we may never know if it succeeds or fails. After all, there must be a tipping point when too much mischief by individual, corporate, or state actors can corrupt enough data that it becomes the new reality upon which subsequent generations then build.  It is, of course, possible that in practical terms it may not look all that different from the pre-digital era.  “History,” as Mr. Churchill teaches us, “is written by the victors,” and thus what we think we know is never exactly what is or was. Ask most Americans about our colonial origins, and they’re likely to say something about the English (victors) and very little about the Dutch (losers), despite the fact that much of our culture begins in the heart of Amsterdam. Still the potential for round-the-clock, revisionist history is food for thought.

On the one hand, Wikipedia projects the hopeful conclusion of Fahrenheit 451, in which man subordinates a bit of his identity to become knowledge itself in order to preserve and pass down that knowledge. But at the same time, Wikipedia’s subordination of the individual to the crowd also allows the victorious author of history to be any anonymous hack and his army of sock puppets, teaching us that there is more than one way to burn a few books.

© 2013 – 2019, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Funny you should mention Fahrenheit 451. Thanks to that book, people assume that that is the temperature at which paper burns. However, Bradbury got it wrong: the autoignition point varies by paper thickness, and in any case Bradbury’s source said 450 *Celsius*, which is about 842 Fahrenheit.

    Wikipedia gets it right, but google it and you’ll get the Bradbury number.

    And don’t get me started on fake Lincoln quotes…

  • Ni!

    You should try editing controversial topics on Wikipedia without anonymity. Or non-controversial topics that end up becoming controversial. You’ll see very quickly why anonymity is crucial for the project.

    Imagine the whole Internet of Trolls accessing an article “where their favourite fantasy gets mashed into pieces and their idols crushed by facts”. Now imagine that with a click they could get to the real name of the editor who did it. From that, it’s easy for them to get his email, facebook account, phone number and street address.

    Now realize that not only Trolls would do this, but also corporations, governments and extremist groups.

    The immediate result of this imbalance is censorship. Strong and widespread censorship.

    Anonymity is absolutely crucial to the balance of power that makes freedom of speech meaningful. It is constituent of it. There is no freedom of speech without anonymity.

    Go look around at countries where anonymous speech is not protected and you’ll see how ugly it gets.


    • Arguably, however, all those extremists are using anonymity, too…

    • David Newhoff

      As stated, there are countries and circumstances in which I can imagine anonymity being required, but I personally reject the notion that free speech as a universal principle depends on anonymity. To the contrary, enlightenment depends on a society in which individuals speak both freely and openly. Yes, even in the United States, where free speech is the law of the land, speaking openly has cost some individuals their lives, but I fear those sacrifices could well be in vain if we regress toward a general philosophy in which freedom can only thrive through secrecy.

      • David,

        If you want to give random nutjobs on the Internet the ability to fuck with your personal life that’s your choice, but not a choice to make for anyone else.

      • David Newhoff

        I am not empowered to make the choice for anyone else, and I wouldn’t presume to try. I merely reject some of the arguments for its overvaluation. Nearly all professional reportage is done by named journalists, some quite famous. Why are they at any less risk than bloggers or Wikipedia editors? Especially Wikipedia, which is supposed to be neutral, encyclopedic facts. If facts are so controversial as to incite mobs of trolls, doesn’t this imply that on some level the crowd is failing to produce a workable encyclopedia? Trolls are part of “the crowd” too. Is there perhaps a correlation between certain web forums and bat shit crazy behavior? Salon is a web-borne publication, and a serious one, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an anonymous article there.

  • On the topic of Wikipedia, you might want to read about Nupedia.

  • Well, it seems the arguments in your replies don’t address the ideas I raised, but only a convenient distortion of them. You conflate anonymity with secrecy and ignore that vulnerability is asymmetrical. There’s no point to this discussion, bye!

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