[tt] Secret mailing list rocks Wikipedia
<eugen at leitl.org> on
Tue Dec 4 10:22:46 UTC 2007
(Took them much longer than I expected).
Secret mailing list rocks Wikipedia
By Cade Metz
Published Tuesday 4th December 2007 00:48 GMT
Exclusive On the surface, all is well in Wikiland. Just last week, a headline
from The San Francisco Chronicle told the world that "Wikipedia's Future Is
Still Looking Up," as the paper happily announced that founder Jimmy "Jimbo"
Wales plans to expand his operation with a high-profile move to the city by
But underneath, there's trouble brewing.
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.
Many suspected that such a list was in use, as the Wikipedia "ruling clique"
grew increasingly concerned with banning editors for the most petty of
reasons. But now that the list's existence is confirmed, the rank and file
are on the verge of revolt.
Revealed after an uber-admin called "Durova" used it in an attempt to enforce
the quixotic ban of a longtime contributor, this secret mailing list seems to
undermine the site's famously egalitarian ethos. At the very least, the list
allows the ruling clique to push its agenda without scrutiny from the
community at large. But clearly, it has also been used to silence the voice
of at least one person who was merely trying to improve the encyclopedia's
"I've never seen the Wikipedia community as angry as they are with this one,"
says Charles Ainsworth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Cla68), a
Japan-based editor who's contributed more feature articles to the site than
all but six other writers. "I think there was more hidden anger and
frustration with the 'ruling clique' than I thought and Durova's heavy-handed
action and arrogant refusal to take sufficient accountability for it has
released all of it into the open."
Kelly Martin, a former member of Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee, leaves no
doubt that this sort of surreptitious communication has gone on for ages.
"This particular list is new, but the strategy is old," Martin told us via
phone, from outside Chicago. "It's certainly not consistent with the public
principles of the site. But in reality, it's standard practice."
Meanwhile, Jimbo Wales has told
the community that all this is merely a tempest in a teacup. As he points
out, the user that Durova wrongly banned was reinstated after a mere 75
minutes. But it would seem that Jimbo has done his best to suppress any talk
of the secret mailing list.
Whatever the case, many longtime editors are up-in-arms. And the site's top
administrators seem more concerned with petty site politics than with
building a trustworthy encyclopedia. "The problem with Wikipedia is that, for
so many in the project, it's no longer about the encyclopedia," Martin wrote
in a recent blog post
problem is that Wikipedia's community has defined itself not in terms of the
encyclopedia it is supposedly producing, but instead of the people it
venerates and the people it abhors." Bang! Bang! You're dead
On November 18, Durova banned a Wikipedia editor known as "!!". Yes, "!!".
Some have taken to calling him "Bang Bang." At Wikipedia, everyone has the
right to anonymity, and user names are often, shall we say, inexplicable.
In banning (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:%21%21) this account, Durova
described it as an "abusive sock puppet," insisting it was setup by someone
dead set on destroying the encyclopedia. "This problem editor is a
troublemaker whose username is two exclamation points with no letters," read
the block. "He is a ripened sock with a padded history of redirects, minor
edits, and some DYK work. He also indulges in obscene trolling in German, and
free range sarcasm and troublemaking. If you find this user gloating, or spot
his nasty side, hit him with the banhammer." DYKs are edits made to the "Did
You Know" section of the Wikipedia home page.
Durova then posted a notice
to the site's public forum, insisting the ban was too important for
discussion outside the purview of the Arbitration Committee, Wikipedia's
Supreme Court. "Due to the nature of this investigation, our normal open
discussion isn't really feasible," she said. "Please take to arbitration if
you disagree with this decision."
But it was discussed. At length. Countless editors were nothing less than
livid, many arguing that the banned user was actually a wonderfully
productive editor. "Durova, you're really going to have to explain this,"
wrote one editor. "I see no transgressions of any kind on the part of this
user; indeed, with over 100 DYKs, he seems to be a pretty positive force
Meanwhile, Durova continued to insist that she had some sort of secret
evidence that could only be viewed by the Arbitration Committee. "I am very
confident my research will stand up to scrutiny," she said. "I am equally
confident that anything I say here will be parsed rather closely by some
disruptive banned sockpuppeteers. If I open the door a little bit it'll
become a wedge issue as people ask for more information, and then some rather
deep research techniques would be in jeopardy."
Then someone posted a private email from Durova in which she divulged her
evidence - and revealed the secret mailing list. Wikiparanoia
Basically, Durova's email showed that Bang Bang was indeed a wonderfully
productive editor. She was sure this was all a put-on, that he was trying to
gain the community's "good faith" and destroy it from within.
We're not joking.
This sort of extreme paranoia has become the norm among the Wikipedia inner
circle. There are a handful sites across the web that spend most of their
bandwidth criticizing the Wikipedia elite - the leading example being
Wikipedia Review (http://wikipediareview.com/) - and the ruling clique spends
countless hours worrying that these critics are trying to infiltrate the
Bang Bang was a relatively new account. Since this new user was a skilled
editor, Durova decided, he must be "a vandal" sent by Wikipedia Review. "I
need to show you not just what Wikipedia Review is doing to us, but how
they're doing it," she said in her email. "Here's a troublemaker whose
username is two exclamation points with no letters: !! It's what I would call
[a] 'ripened sock'...Some of the folks at WR do this to game the community's
Former Arbitration Committee member Kelly Martin confirms that this bizarre
attitude is now par for the course inside the Wikipedia inner circle. "Anyone
who makes large changes to anything now is likely to get run over by a
steamroller," she says. "It's not a matter of whether your edit was good or
bad. All they see is 'large edit my person not known to me' and - boom! They
smack you on the head because vandals are so bad."
As it turned out, Bang Bang was an experienced user. He had set up a new
account after having privacy problems with his old one. Once her secret email
was posted, Durova removed the ban, calling it "a false positive."
Durova then voluntarily relinquished her admin powers, and over the weekend,
the Arbitration Committee admonished her "to exercise greater care when
issuing blocks." The secret mailing list
But this particular false positive was only part of the problem. With her
email, Durova also revealed that the ruling clique was using that secret
mailing list to combat its enemies - both real and imagined. "The good news,"
she said, was that the Wikipedia Review "trolls" didn't know the list
existed. And then she linked to the list's sign-up page.
The list (http://lists.wikia.com/mailman/listinfo/wpcyberstalking) is hosted
by Wikia, the Jimmy Wales-founded open source web portal that was setup as an
entirely separate entity from the not-for-profit Wikimedia Foundation that
The sign-up page explains that the list is designed to quash "cyberstalking"
and "harassment." But it would seem that things have gotten a bit
out-of-hand. Clearly, the list is also used to land "the banhammer" on
"The problem is that their false positive rate is about 90 per cent - or
higher," says Kelly Martin. "It's possible that every last person Durova has
identified is innocent."
Recently, in another effort to quash "harassment," several members of the
Wikipedia elite tried to ban the mention of certain "BADSITES" on the
encyclopedia, and naturally, Wikipedia Review was on the list. Dan Tobias
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dtobias) was one of the many editors who
successfully fought this ban, and as he battled, he marveled at how well
organized his opponents seemed to be.
"Over the months that I've been fighting people over issues like the BADSITES
proposal, it looks like a lot of these people I was fighting were on this
secret email list - at least I suspect they were," says the Floridia-based
Tobias. "They always seemed to be show up in right place, at the right time,
to gang up on people."
Yes, it all sounds like the most ridiculous eams. Many of its core
contributors are extremely unhappy about Durova's ill-advised ban and the
exposure of the secret mailing list, and some feel that the site's well-being
is seriously threatened.
In a post
to Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales says that this whole incident was blown out of
proportion. "I advise the world to relax a notch or two. A bad block was made
for 75 minutes," he says. "It was reversed and an apology given. There are
things to be studied here about what went wrong and what could be done in the
future, but wow, could we please do so with a lot less drama? A 75 minute
block, even if made badly, is hardly worth all this drama. Let's please love
each other, love the project, and remember what we are here for."
But he's not admitting how deep this controversy goes. Wales and the
Wikimedia Foudation came down hard on the editor who leaked Durova's email.
After it was posted to the public forum, the email was promptly "oversighted"
- i.e. permanently removed. Then this rogue editor posted it to his personal
talk page, and a Wikimedia Foundation member not only oversighted the email
again, but temporarily banned the editor.
Then Jimbo swooped in with a personal rebuke
"You have caused too much harm to justify us putting up with this kind of
behavior much longer," he told the editor.
The problem, for many regular contributors, is that Wales and the Foundation
seem to be siding with Durova's bizarre behavior. "I believe that Jimbo's
credibility has been greatly damaged because of his open support for these
people," says Charles Ainsworth. And if Jimbo can't maintain his credibility,
the site's most experienced editors may not stick around. Since the banhammer
came down, Bang Bang hasn't edited a lick. ® Related stories
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