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It’s been awhile since we had any Wikipedia controversy, so maybe it’s about time for a pile-on — you know, something about how Jimmy Wales doesn’t care about quality, or how he runs the “open source” encyclopedia as his own personal fiefdom, or how people run around using strange technical terms that no one outside the Wikipedia cabal can understand (okay, that last one is totally true). This time it’s the revelation of a top-secret… wait for it… mailing list only for insiders! According to a breathless piece in The Register:

“Controversy has erupted among the encyclopedia’s core contributors, after a rogue editor revealed that the site’s top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown on perceived threats to their power.”

I just love the language throughout this story: words like “erupted” and “rogue editor,” combined with phrases like “ruling clique” and talk about how the “rank and file” are in revolt. It sounds like the author is describing France in the 1600s — with Jimmy Wales (presumably) playing the role of Cardinal Richelieu. Wikipedia is said to rife with dissent and “tearing at the seams.” Insiders are quoted by The Register as saying that senior editors are enraged, and that Jimmy is playing down the whole matter as a tempest in a teacup (in other words, failing to act).

Wow. I’m gobsmacked. Wikipedia has an internal mailing list for senior editors? Quelle horreur. Despite the attempt by places like The Register and perennial gadfly Seth Finkelstein to turn this into some kind of scandal, I just don’t see what the big deal is. Wikipedia has editors — pretty well everyone knows that by now. They ban people and edit things, and occasionally make mistakes, as the editor in this particular situation has admitted. This is no Essjay controversy, that’s for sure.

As for the “cabal” comments, Wikipedia knows that it has a cabal — insiders even call it that, in a gesture of self-referential irony. There’s also this entry on the topic, among others. As Stan Schroeder at Mashable notes in his post on the subject, this kind of phenomenon is endemic in almost any large, self-organizing social group. Does Wikipedia have problems? Sure. But a secret mailing list isn’t one of them.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

49 Responses to “News flash: Wikipedia is run by people!”
  1. Mathew, my own column on it comes out tomorrow, so I'm in a better position to discuss my own take on it then (sigh, it'll be bogosphere “old news” at that point).

    I actually don't even mention the secret mailing list angle, I cut that for space.

    But anyway, Wikipedia rank-and-file may not be in revolt, but there are a lot of Wikipedia people unhappy at what looks like political backroom factional dealing having to do with Wikipedia's judicial system.

  2. Part of the problem is that there is a three-way disconnect at Wikipedia.

    In one corner, Jimmy Wales goes around making speeches about how Wikipedia is changing the world. He pretends that there's some sort of long-tail, high-tech magic that makes all of that volunteer labor gel into something unprecedented and wonderful. He's a poor manager, and is usually unresponsive or even uninformed when he's approached by those who appeal to him as the god-king of last resort. There's also a conflict of interest in that Jimmy prefers the for-profit Wikia to the nonprofit Wikipedia. They're supposed to be completely separate, but he often starts talking about Wikia when he's invited to give speeches about Wikipedia around the world.

    In the second corner you have the Wikimedia Foundation, which tries very hard to pretend that it's not legally responsible because it's a service provider, not a publisher. They solicit donations, they own the servers, they hire the developers, they have lots of meetings, they get travel expenses, and now they're moving the office to expensive-but-fun San Francisco. None of this is concerned with, or even hardly aware of, the editing conflicts that happen in the trenches among the hundreds of volunteers, or the dozens of people who complain about defamation or invasion of privacy when they discover that they're mentioned in an article. For the Foundation, the best policies are no policies at all. If they made policies, a court might decide that they are a publisher more than a service provider. If that happened, they could lose their presumed Section 230 immunity.

    In the third corner, you have a cabal, you have lowly editors who can be banned on the whim of any of the 1300 administrators, and you have a bunch of already-banned people who went off and started anti-Wikipedia websites. That's the real foundation (small “f” as in “platform” or “substructure”) of Wikipedia. This foundation is at war all day, every day.

    What you have at Wikipedia, then, is essentially a three-ring circus.

  3. The really strange thing is that the mailing list in question was not for “insiders” and was not run by the “ruling clique” if such a thing exists. The sad smear here is that a list for people who have been the victims of cyberstalking (including cases which have forced us to get the police involved) is somehow twisted by the Register into a list of the cabal involved in banning people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  4. There are two lists here, one Jimmy Wales is thinking of, and another that was not widely known.

    The former is a list for people who have become the victim of cyberstalking due to their involvement in Wikipedia or other Foundation projects. Frequently these will be administrators who've discovered some action has upset Daniel Brandt or his minions.

    The latter is a wholly unsanctioned list which I would guess sounded like a good idea at the time. It isn't secret anymore, and thus any effect those on it thought it would have had is gone.

    I was delighted when someone pointed me at your blog post this morning; someone actually being sensible when it comes to Wikipedia instead of going “OMG! its a CONSPIRACY !1!!111!one one” – like the Register loves to do. As a consequence of that, I'd like to ask a question – which you can answer here, by email, or as a followup blog post.

    Why is the majority of the publicity given to Wikipedia of a negative nature? It mostly works. As said, there's about 1300 people with the power to block anyone. If it was out of control there would be cases like the one the Register chose to report on a daily basis. Personally I think it is a positive sign in a near-bewilderingly complex modern world. A mass-collaboration project like this can take off, become one of the most popular sites on the net without advertising, and – what I consider the best part – the people who want to keep the project on track generally win out over those who seek to subvert or derail it. What this says about human nature is encouraging.

    Yet, this can be contrasted with the World Economic Forum recently listing the Wikimedia Foundation as one of their Technology Pioneers of 2008 – the only non-profit organisation on the list. This got slightly more publicity than the last time I cut my toenails. I believe the only serious coverage was from sister site, Wikinews who were criticised for not sticking more closely to the famous NPOV policy when writing about the Foundation.

  5. For most of this year, I've been fighting a clique that is adamant in enforcing its bizarre ideas involving draconian censorship of any criticism they don't like, such as by banning links to so-called “attack sites”. That clique always seemed to be well organized at ganging up to shout out opponents. Now I find that this “cyberstalking” list apparently consists of the same “Usual Suspects” I've been fighting all along. This sure smacks of cabalism to me.

  6. it really strikes me how the wikipedia power corruption is a lot like local politics.

    People get so wrapped up in it when the stakes are so low.

  7. google the great purge.

  8. In case anyone is interested, the mailing list was actually set up as a way of managing an increasingly cumbersome cc list in a lengthy email thread started by a past victim of harassment. The group was constituted to discuss the problems of harassment arising out of actions taken on Wikipedia, such as the blackmail and attacks launched by Judd Bagley when he was frustrated in his aim of promoting Patrick Byrne's jihad against naked short selling. The irony here is that Wikipedians are, in the main, all to happy to get one over on The Man, and a less obnoxious approach would have resulted in support rather than banning.

    Whatever, the group includes people who've been around long enough to have pissed off someone who then went off the deep end. Most of those engaging in harassment are just garden-variety kooks, but some are incredibly dangerous – one has served jail time as a result of stalking and is considered particularly dangerous.

    Unfortunately, attempts to manage harassment often fall afoul of the free-speechers on Wikipedia. This puts us in a no-win situation: we leave unfounded allegations on the site, or we delete them and then have a weeks-long drama about it. This is the fundamental problem the group was set up to discuss. And no, we don't have an answer yet, but if anyone feels like suggesting one then we'd be glad to hear about it.

    Unfortunately, one of the group made a jaw-droppingly bad call, based on evidence she mailed to the group but nobody, it seems, interpreted as indicating she was intending to block the user. This has brought out of the woodwork a nunmber of people who have a pre-existing agenda against this person, others close to her, or the Cabal (TINC) in general. A lengthy discourse on the Wikipedia mailing list, wikien-l, left some people feeling dissatisfied. I have a view on that; one individual repeatedly insisted that we provide evidence to identify the individuals plotting to ban the editor despite repeated statements that no such plot existed and therefore no such individuals existed and therefore no evidence would be forthcoming. And so on, round and round the same loop.

    So yes, it's disappointing to see the blatantly false picture of this group, rebutted at great length by long-standing editors of the very highest levels of community trust, members of the Arbitration Committee, and even Jimbo Wales himself, taken to media that are all ears for any kind of low drama. It was a petty and vindictive thing to do. One of them seems to have been retaliating for a 90 day ban enacted that day as a result of his careless editing of biographies of living individuals and abuse of multiple accounts.

    All in all, one of the more depressing outcomes of a genuine good-faith attempt to make Wikipedia a nicer place.

  9. You know, if it was just this one thing, you'd be right. But it's not. Wikipedia is rife with arbitrary, capricious behavior that consistently bullies editors and enforces a bizarre bureaucracy. What it has become is everything it says it is not. You seem to have forgotten or did not RTFA, because this is not just about questionable mailing list on a private server, but also about the highly questionable banning of 'bang bang', when other 'elite members' such as slimvirgin, gets a pass at the far more serious crime of sockpuppetry which she was caught at red-handed.

    The secret mailing list is just a symptom of a much larger issue of transparency, a concept that completely escapes Jimbo Wales when he implemented the 'oversight' function. One can only guess hopw far this goes, so the idea of a 'conspiracy' is not as far-fetched as you seem to be ignorantly dismissing out of hand.

  10. More info and discussion on Wikipedia's troubles can be found at these sites:

    Kelly Martin's blog: http://nonbovine-ruminations.blogspot.com/
    Casey Abell's blog: http://wikipediafunnies.blogspot.com/
    Wikipedia Review: http://www.wikipediareview.com/

  11. […] "not admitting how deep this controversy goes." Mathew Ingram points out that the apocalyptic rhetoric is rather silly. Wikipedia, like every large organization—and especially like every organization run […]

  12. […] "not admitting how deep this controversy goes." Mathew Ingram points out that the apocalyptic rhetoric is rather silly. Wikipedia, like every large organization—and especially like every organization run […]

  13. Guy Chapman's comments, above, are illustrative of the typical mentality of the Wikipedia cabalist. (He is, of course, one of the worst of them, he who has left Wikipedia at least four times now, and whose user page says that he's left, and yet he continues to actively administer the site as well as participate in controlling it through the cabal he is very much a member of.) I would know; I'm a former cabalist myself, and just as ex-Scientologists make the most ardent critics of Scientology, ex-Wikipedians make the most ardent critics of Wikipedia.

    I draw the cult parallel intentionally: Wikipedia has many of the hallmarks of a cult. Anybody who critically observes a Jimbo lovebombing session, on IRC or in person, will quickly see what I mean.

    Somewhere (I forget where) I recently read someone who described Wikipedia as the latest in a long stream of failed utopian enterprises. Sad, but true. Godwin is going to lose his bet.

  14. The weirder Wikipedia's fabricated interpretations of reality become, the worse Wikipedia's reputation will be. It is not like the rest of the world actually shares these views, as much as they, and apparently you too, would like it to.

    And looking at the last twelve months, it seems it doesn't take much more to finally push Wikipedia over the edge of being classified as “group of total lunatics”.

  15. Wikipedia is pure trash. It is a crazy secret society that is being presented as an encyclopedia. It is controlled by a mob of ignorant and lifeless creatures, most of whom have no knowledge of the subjects theyve chosen to hijack, as is expected. for who has time to obsessively edit and distort particular articles but one with an unhealthy fixation of the subjects of such articles? if one were interested in knowledge and not propaganda, one would not hawk but research. Then you have the socially inept minions who are looking for approval and acceptance, these creatures are employed to revert, revert..they even have “to do lists” : keep an eye on this article, revert this article automatically. Jimmy Wales, no one is buying it. Wikipedia is worthless, it is a cult of ignorance, filthy Fascist.

  16. Soylent Green is…. Wikipedia!

  17. Wikipedia is run by people. Unfortunately it is now run by a new generation of people like Guy Chapman. Most of the collegiate, enthusiastic, intelligent and dilligent people have either been bullied away or have left in disgust.

    Guy Chapman was himself one of the guilty parties at the center of this storm. He has no credibility and became a target of critics due to his poor attitude and relentless false claims against good faith users. He quit the site a number of times due to “stress” on the advice of senior contributors, but does not seem to be able to heed their warnings, returning each time. What we are seeing is someone with problems related to online addiction, these personality difficulties combined with a misuse of power are at the root of what is bringing the site down. For his own sake and everyone else's, he should be strongly urged to remove himself from the Wikipedia community before it is too late.

  18. That's one way of putting it. Of course, I don't recall making any false claims against good faith users, and I certainly recall people like Charles Ainsworth making some blatantly false claims against me. I've been a Wikipedia user since 2004, so I'm not sure if I'm genuinely a “new generation”. I do know that most of the criticisms against me have been by justly banned abusers of the project like Jonathan Barber (user JB196). As a paid up card-carrying depressive I do of course get down from time to time, but I have given thousands of hours of my time to the project and made many thousands of edits to articles. The refusal to accept that admins are devoted to the project as well was, in fact, a core part of the problem. And another core part was the refusal of some people to acknowledge that harassment of Wikipedia users is a problem at all. Perhaps they would change their minds if they were the ones being called at home.

    I note that the word collegiate is used. Giano, held up as a model of probity, is, in point of fact, one of the least collegiate people on the project. Most of his work is done one article at a time, with mostly him doing the work. He, like me, is prone to being rude, bullheaded and obnoxious. Neither of us is perfect, but there is no doubt in my mind of his commitment to the project. He, on the other hand, thinks I should be hounded out. This is emblematic of this particular teapot tempest: admins are evil, “contributors” are being done down. Only, most admins are contributors too. And if I was not committed to Wikipedia I hardly think I'd have put up with the kind of shit that's been sent my way over the last couple of years, since well before I was an admin, almost all of it from people who Wikipedia needs slightly less than it needs to be sued by a disgruntled article subject. The first time I was savaged by a website for a Wikipedia action it was for removing defamatory and false text from an article on a living individual, written by a tiny group of people who consider the individual concerned to be some kind of ogre. I was far less hard on them than others were, and they are all now banned from the project as being constitutionally unable to be anywhere close to neutral.

    Like it or not, Wikipedia is now a big target for people pushing an agenda. The old days when nobody cared, we could take time to fix things, and every newcomer was probably an OK guy at heart, are past. Every single article on a politician, fringe science subject, controversial individual, group, band or anything else that inspires strong passions, is at risk of being hijacked by zealots. And many of these zealots have to be shown the door, which was always the case. There are more articles, the profile is higher, there are more zealots. If you feel the existing admins are doing a poor job of dealing with them, then you are free to stand for adminship – it's no big deal. The more the merrier.

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