Note: This post originally appeared in Reddit’s /r/trueunpopularopinion sub as Wikipedia is not so great, and is overrated written by a user there. It is explicitly released under CC0 public domain by them.
You all have heard by now that Elon Musk said that Wikipedia has a “left wing bias” when the article about Twitter Files had been suggested for deletion. This has been received with mixed responses from liberals and conservatives alike; the former dismissing it as “an attack on free knowledge” and the latter cheering the move as “against censorship” and vindication of their beliefs that Big Tech is biased against them.
True, Wikipedia is supposedly editable by anyone around the world and I had been an on and off editor there for years mostly doing small-ish edits like fixing typos and reverting obvious vandalism. This is done while on IP as opposed to using accounts because I would rather that some edits (i.e. sensitive topics like religious and political areas) not tied to my name and identity. However, reality is far from the preferred sugar-coated description of Wikipedia, particularly its editing community.
The editing community in overall is best described as a slightly hierarchical and militaristic “do everything right” structure, traditionally associated with Dell and recently Foxconn and now-defunct Theranos. Exceptions apply in quieter and outlier areas such as local geography and space, usually the top entry points for new users wanting to try their first hand. There are higher tolerance of good-faith mistakes such as point-of-view problems and using unreliable resources, which are usually explained in detail on how to correct by them rather than a mere warning template or even an abrupt block.
Ultimately those sub-communities which can be said as populated by exopedians, have relatively little to no power over the wider and core communities, mostly dominated by metapedians. A third group called mesopedians often alternates between these inner and outer workings. Communities can have shared topical interest which are grouped by WikiProject, an example being WikiProject Science
I spend a lot of time casually browsing through edit wars (can be so lame at times) like a fly on the wall, along with meta venues of Wikipedia such as Articles for Deletion, Centralized discussion Neutral Point of View Noticeboard, Biographical of Living Persons Noticeboard, Conflict of Interest Noticeboard, Administrator’s Noticeboard Incidents, Sockpuppet investigations, Arbitration Committee noticeboard which is the “supreme court” in Wikipedia community for serious behavioral and conduct disputes. Therefore I can sum up how the editing community really functions, although not really as extensive as you might expect because I am not a “Wikipedioholic” with respect to inner workings.
Deletionism and inclusionism
This has been very perennial and core reasons for just about any disputes on Wikipedia ever. Deletionists treat Wikipedia as another “regular encyclopedia” where information has to be limited once it become very much to be covered; like cutting out junk, while inclusionists treats Wikipedia as a comprehensive encyclopedia not bound by papers and thus can afford to cover as much information as it can take; one man’s junk could be another man’s treasure. Personally I support the latter and often the conflict between two editing ideologies leads to factionalism, where attempts to understand mutual feelings and perspectives are inadequate or even none at all.
There are no absolute standards of what defines “encyclopedic knowledge” and “notability”. Inclusionism posits that almost everything could become valuable and encyclopedic in the future, even if they’re aren’t today. An example I can think of is events, figures and stories from World War II. Deletionism has been closely related to “academic standard kicks” and rely on the premise that Wikipedia has to be of high standard and concise. There are people who deem an addition of something as useful, and there are those who think it’s “trivia” or “crufty” something that is nominally discouraged if not prohibited by Wikipedia’s documentation (see this in particular, although sometimes exceptions are applied through the spirit of “Ignoring all rules for sake of improvement”, which are frequent at entertainment and gaming topics).
On pages, notability debates around a person subject and otherwise are frequently the main point of discussion in Articles for Deletion threads, where articles deemed not substantial enough (such as very few sources) are suggested for deletion. Usually they will run for a week but they can be quickly closed if there are too many votes in favor of “keep”, “delete” and so on, the AFD nomination is withdrawn by the initiator, or that the nomination is found to have been done in bad faith (such as to “censor” articles from public view for questionable motives like ideology, paid editing or so).
Here I believe that deletionists are seen far more harshly by inclusionists, than the vice versa. The chief reason is to add something, you have to navigate through the user experience unfriendly editing interfaces (although somewhat improved in recent years) all the while having to scroll through the internet to find sources and references to add. When you found some you have to go through an extra hoop to assess whether they are reliable or not, before finally transcribing the information through your own words which has to stick to the neutral point of view (NPOV) policy; paraphrasing that are so close are not allowed because, copyright. Non-English speaking editors would often find the latter very difficult.
In contrast, as per an old adage, destroying something is easier than building something, deletions are comparatively easier than addition. This could be the reason why deletionism currently maintains dominance over the whole site as I see it, since in order to become an established an esteemed editor, one has to garner a high amount of edits which are not reverted. Thus, many editors like to gain these “scores” by deleting “unuseful information” from passages up to entire articles by interpreting the documentations and rules strictly, the latter through processes such as Articles for Deletion and if confident enough, Proposed Deletion that doesn’t require discussion. Simply speaking, it’s a feature not a bug and aren’t necessarily beholden to any political ideology; a liberal is as equally likely as a conservative to become a hated deletionist.
Even though every edit changes are recorded and displayed through page histories which you can see for any given articles by clicking “View History” at the top, the bone of contention remains particularly when page deletions results in the redaction of these histories from public view. This will be explained further later.
Some historical contexts that can be think of regarding the current prominence of deletionism are the excessive amount of Pokemon pages during or before 2007 which had alienated some readers and editors alike because search engines back then are not quite as adequate as today in terms of finding precise information. Another is that child predators like Nathan Larson used to sneak in as inclusionists to warp Wikipedia to fit their agenda all the time, which are indelibly horrendous to all of us here and those back then. Think of the poisoning of the well and the fruits from a poisonous tree. Furthermore there are also large portion of userbases from tech companies like Intel and those from the academic world (maybe instead of GLAMs, short for galleries, libraries, archives and museums) that gained top positions such as administrators, bringing along their work culture and so-called “academic standards kick” respectively. To be absolutely fair, I find that there are instances where deletionism is right enough, specifically the removal of copyright violation and libel materials on biographical pages of any living persons.
Regardless of whether a page is deleted or not, they remain available in Wikipedia’s servers and accessible to administrators or higher only.
Eventually, what defines as “encyclopedic knowledge” are vulnerable to systemic biases as well. Different from some Musk’s thoughts about it, users who are white, male, US/UK/CA/EU/AU/NZ, middle or old aged, and English speaker tend to have the greatest advantage above the rest in the editing community. With this in mind, a prominent musical artist in Zambia may be treated as too small-bore enough for a page on Wikipedia by an editor in Canada. Shopping malls in the US are less likely to be deleted than those in Vietnam. Such a bias doesn’t go one way; the hypothetical artist in Zambia would be “unimportant” to someone in Peru.
This is the top causes of animosity between editors and also why many editors chose to quit or rather fell from grace. You will always hate that kid who like to ruin your LEGO structure every time you have assembled the blocks.
Neutral point of view
Different from mere deletions and additions, this normally means that how to present a given information in a way to the readers ideally so that no disproportionate biases towards or against something are left in their impressions. You see arguments and conflicts concerning such a lot in political articles, historical articles and geography topics of areas under dispute from two or more nations. Say that a political figure is engaged in activities that are remotely linked to extremism. Side A would argue that the figure is therefore an extremist and it should be made prominent on that page and any other linked pages, but Side B wants to tone it down by writing it something like “Political figure was engaged in activities which were sometimes reported by some as extremist” and limit it to a mere mention on a single page. Another is a nation should be said as a “partially recognized state” because some UN members don’t recognize it as such and instead as part of a bigger country, with others expressing views that simply having an effective sovereignty for its own and different from another nations would be enough to be deemed as a state.
It can come into play on cases involving “fringe theories” as well, like Bigfoots, UFOs and medical treatments, although Wikipedia indeed has a preference of giving prominence to mainstream views in these cases, something I don’t find a problem with and is quite different from regular harmful biases.
Venues for resolution in this case are Neutral Point of View noticeboard, along with Request for Comment. The latter entails a process where a notice is put up in a centralized noticeboard all the while a pool of experienced/established editors receive notifications to comment, provide insights and make suggestions on a given issue. A month is usually on how these discussions are up and running unless there is a need of extension because of reasons such as unbroken deadlock.
Along with deletionism and inclusionism, this is a major cause of editors “going naughty” and getting blocked/banned/kicked out, whether for right or spurious reasons.
The most important part of this post in my honest opinion. I’ll start this section by writing about edit war. Usually when you change something in Wikipedia and it was undone/reverted by somebody else, then you have only two tries before you get reported to the edit-war noticeboard if you’re stubborn enough not to go to the article’s talk page (“Talk” in the top left) for discussion, either by the person undoing your edits or by a third party. In the meantime you get notifications on your personal talk pages (“Talk” on the top right) inviting you for such discussion and if lucky enough, the Wikipedia Teahouse for further help by some kind-hearted editors, increasingly a rarity these days. In some quieter or outer areas where as said before are slightly lenient, you may get up to approx. five chances counting your original edit before getting referred to the admins.
The tries count are reset after 24 hours but can be retained further just as a guard against “gaming the rules”. Clearer cut vandalism (like putting gibberish such as “LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL” at any pages) usually gets reported to a separate noticeboard for administrators to intervene, although first time vandals regularly get warnings on their talk pages beforehand. When a report is there and if found guilty of edit-warring, administrators would either give ultimatums to the users in question or block their accounts for a day. They could escalate to multiple days, weeks and up to indefinite (practically infinite) period should the behavior continues beyond that. The same goes for vandalism, although they are dealt more harshly with many prompt indefinite blocks (indeffs) for “vandalism-only accounts”.
Regular editors can be in danger of falling from grace too either by themselves or by others. Because Wikipedia is commonly seen by so many as the biggest comprehensive encyclopedia in the world, sometimes equated to history itself, many vested interests, feelings and sentiments have been invested on the website.
Those who are nationalists or otherwise fanatics of any imaginable notions found themselves having incentives to make Wikipedia to support their narratives both as an end itself or rather just means for other ends such as “proving that they’re great in the long annals of great history”. The same applies to run off the mill “promotional editing” by corporations and individuals, along with those made by their supporters or fans. On the opposite many people find it extremely attractive to twist it to denigrate any ideologies, corporations, people, and just about anything they personally oppose. For instance, they can make an article and fill it with disparaging information against them, which is called an “attack page”.
I find that there are kernels of truth in the commonly-held viewpoint that “Wikipedia is a placeholder of information” and that “Wikipedia is history”. A MIT report described how judges’ behavior are increasingly influenced by Wikipedia articles, while there are initiatives by space missions such as Beresheet and Peregrine to perform civilizational backups of humanity with all of English Wikipedia (version as of a given date) in the event of collapse.
After having their way, to keep their changes forever in “annals of history” or simply the “placeholders of information” in general, gate-keeping measures are utilized. A simple example would be using excessively harsh language against editors who made a change challenging a given status quo. In contrast, if anybody has a reason to radically change a page and make sure it stays unassailable afterwards, the same set of actions are used too but arguably these would be “antigatekeeping” measures instead.
In gatekeeping/antigatekeeping one would resort to different levels of intepretation regarding PAGs (policies and guidelines) and user essays, the latter sometimes used as a basis of many editorial and administrative actions. The documentations can often contradict each other, like how “not indiscriminate” is to “not a paper encyclopedia”, and on top of all, can be overruled by ignoring these if anybody sees fit. Hence, whoever has the “biggest fist” gets to be the most advantageous in Wikipedia community. In order to have the “biggest fist”, they can befriend anyone sharing interests with their own and form a cabal/gang that look after their own. To increase their power and when enough time had passed they can nominate each other for administrator positions giving them extra privileges of blocking users, deleting pages, protecting an article from editing by lower-ranked users. You don’t get paid for spending your efforts and time on editing Wikipedia unless perhaps you’ve listed a Venmo link or a crypto address on your user profile, and these administrative tools alone are so addictive and appealing given that you are essentially in control of the important bits of “writing history” if you have these, apart from usual human nature. Wikipedia is among the top 10 visited websites in the world after all.
Even more, there are additional ranks above administrator positions. Two of those are CheckUsers (CU) and Oversighters. CU has the power to look through IP address used by an account to see if it was a sockpuppet account of a person, while Oversighters have super-delete rights to hide contents or pages, even beyond the reach of administrators.
Those on the other end of the power-tripping, gate-keeping and so on rarely fares well. One would find them belittled, bullied by those editors. Should they attempt to properly resolve an issue through established processes such as talk page discussions, dispute resolution noticeboard, and up to the infamous Administrator’s Noticeboard Incidents (ANI), they would expect to find obstructions upon obstructions along the way. If the victim decides to invite other editors to give balanced/impartial opinions and suggestions on a problem they would find themselves stonewalled on the grounds that these are “canvassing”. It can be quite hypocritical if the “bully” had their gang friends informed beforehand, which is reasonably believed to often be the case. Finally, if it escalates into the ANI, this is where it start to get out of hand.
The reason why I use the term “infamous” is because ANI is the mother-lode of all kinds of ugly dramas. It is frequently the first place in getting an editor sanctioned or so on. The bullies (I do not use the term lightly) would then put all sorts of allegations and aspersions against other for any types of wrongdoing, whether real or perceived, big or small, or whether the result is a real harm or just a nothing burger. Regardless, if they twisted the rules (derisively referred as “wikilawyering” or otherwise “gaming the system”) and played the victim good enough, the passing administrators would then close the discussion and place administrative actions against the “real” victim. Common egregious example of such an action is the “not here to build an encyclopedia” indefinite/permanent block that can be arbitrary interpreted from any given actions. It’s ironic given that the bullies are guilty of such as well. A prime example of twisting the rules to railroad/squeeze out other editors would start with so-called bad faith negotiation, where they promised a victim not to remove content at other pages if the victim lets the bully keep their changes in a page. Soon the bully reneged it and when confronted by the victim the bully immediately accused them of being “tendentious” or “POV pusher”.
The bullies, which can consist of most editors operating at the inner workings, aren’t necessarily beholden to any ideologies and come in all stripes. The only attribute that they all share is the addiction to power.
After such permablocks, most would be forced to leave it for good, further bleeding the editors numbers. Still, because Wikipedia’s so preeminent and no viable competitors are currently available, some would rather stay behind, disguise their identity and either continue editing or start over in different areas. For those with knowledge of foreign languages, they could simply switch to other language Wikipedias to continue their work far from most perturbances. A smaller number would come back as vandals to spite editors who had wronged them.
This is where “sockpuppetry investigations” kick in, mostly referred as SPI. Editors go there to start a new case if they suspect that an account is an alt/sock account of someone else particularly users who evaded the blocks/bans. When a user is blocked or banned for good, they are relegated to a pariah status much akin to “unpersoning”, Scientology’s suppressive persons, and the lowest ones in North Korea’s Songbun, in the respect that any and all edits by them under other accounts or IPs are liable to be reverted/undone pursuant to policy pertaining to block evasion. While the original goal of not separating the wheat from the chaff is expressedly to prevent them from gaining further recognition and diminish the spirit of the block, in practice this means a Monkey’s Paw that any further potential good contributions from them would be lost forever, handicapping the improvement of encyclopedia as a whole in a way or more. Other editors have the exception from edit-war policy to revert and undone any changes from the violators of the blocks, perhaps as well as anybody who helped them. In effect this is like what the Meatball Wiki said, a “PunishReputation”.
During a SPI, there are “clerks” who will look through the user’s contribution history to see if there is a similarity in pattern to warrant a block for abuse of multiple accounts (sockpuppetry). If that alone is not enough, the CheckUsers can then be called upon to check and compare the IP used by the accounts.
If a user is determined to have engaged in sockpuppetry, the userpage of original and alt accounts used are then replaced with a scarlet letter notice such as this example boasting that which sock account belongs to who and therefore blocked. Forget about “denying recognition”, this is simply a punitive name-and-shame.
The SPI case, now listing the accounts and IP used, would then be archived in a separate page, still publicly viewable. This is despite recent GDPR regulations and the implication that major privacy-improving adjustments should’ve been made for the process while keeping it viable. Try that in Reddit and you’d be instantly banned for doxxing, I can assure you.
In there you can effectively cosplay as a CSI although substantive attention are given to clerks, administrators and CheckUsers. Keep in mind that the results and outcomes of most if not all sockpuppet investigations aren’t really 100% accurate, given that there are a lot of unforeseen variables such as the imitation of writing and behavior styles that are mostly a result of multiple people pushing any particular editorial change for any reasons i.e. brother helping his sister, along with the use of software that can mask your IP addresses such as VPNs and TeamViewer. Those admins in charge of sockpuppetry investigations often aren’t privy to the root cause of a “sockpuppetry” or “block evasion” and as such tend to for example, underestimate the amount of users who has the right reasons to support an edit made in violation of a block.
VPN IP addresses, which are used for obvious privacy reasons, are blocked in sight by any administrators pursuant to policy against open proxies. They even have a dedicated WikiProject and a bot specializing in finding and blocking these proxies, with the result being a great inconvenience for people wishing to edit from countries such as Russia and China.
In time, if someone continues a behavior the other editors deemed as “disruptive” or “vandal” past the initial block, they end up getting displayed in so-called “Long Term Abuse” caselist. Right there, their accounts and/or IP addresses, along with a likely-skewed description of what they’ve done were listed out. The places they’ve been and accounts outside of Wikipedia were frequently exposed there, as if it’s an opposition research and spiteful doxxing. Things that’ll get you quickly banned here are just a normal Tuesday over at Wikipedia, with GDPR out of the window.
As I see it, there are two categories of LTAs/vandals/whatever you call it. The first are the inherent vandals who had been problematic and disruptive for Wikipedia upon their first edit, and the other are those who had been regular or good standing users in the past until their fall from grace, normally caused by themselves such as being too overworked over one thing but could be by others, like the bullying example.
There is a reasonable possibility that some of those LTAs/vandals would be redeemed and become a good editor once again if enough diplomacy and mediation were tried. However, those would be a time-consuming process compared to simply actioning them, and I reasonably suspect that some of those are intentionally provoked by corrupt admins or their friends into vandal or disruptive editing in order for them to increase that admin actions count so as to further their own standing in the community, and to stay away from losing their cherished tools if their KPI fell low enough in a given period.
It’s fearful that the cycle of toxicities in Wikipedia could eventually led to real-world harm, though I will not further speculate how that might transpire for fear of stuffing the beans and giving bad ideas. However, VICE had reported in 2016 that an editor had nearly driven to suicide after being subjected to online abuse by the editors despite what the documentation say about community collegiality. Furthermore, just before Musk’ comment against Wikipedia, the Anonymous group hacked a Chinese ministry site and a satellite system out of the suspicion that a state actor has manipulated Wikipedia’s system and process to censor information about their hacking activities against China. It was a hot news in Taiwan then.
Theoretically a deep and comprehensive reform is past due for Wikipedia in order to (re-)foster collegiality among the members of Wikipedia community and reduce the amount of synergies that leads to intractable conflicts, as opposed to sinecures such as blockings and SPI which often treats the symptoms but not the cause.
Still, it appears that the core editors and/or administrators are so content enough for the present status quo and thus doom any effort to change the system. An example would be the temporary ban of an administrator made in 2019 by the Wikimedia Foundation (ultimately responsible for maintaining English Wikipedia and any other projects such as Wikimedia Commons for photos and Wikipedias written in other languages), nearly causing the split of Wikipedia into two or more. This is not to mention that presently Wikipedia has a financial cancer and having to beg for donations despite having sufficient funds so it may be worthwhile to put your donations for the Internet Archive instead.
A key to a solution may lie in the comparative analogy that Wikipedia is like the only restaurant in a food desert. It could be a McDonald’s, KFC, BK, Taco Bell, White Castle, or so on, but customers are forced to go there to dine in every time, even if some does not really like their food. Thus, they will be really happy if a second restaurant is opened at the location.
If Musk is really serious in fixing whatever problems Wikipedia has brought as a result of its internal problems, then he would be wise in angel-investing any alternatives which aims to become a better or next-level version of Wikipedia.
The hypothetical rival alternatives could come in the form of a more comprehensive encyclopedia, close to the level of a compendia. It can come in a format similar to GitHub where anyone can present in their preferred version of a subject instead of edit-warring at a small point, and if version is good enough then they can be merged/pushed/vouched by other users to work upon and goes to the top in ranks.
In fact, every edition of page histories are logged by Wikipedia when a change is make, but in addition to heuristic placements which make these to be perceivably obscure, those would get redacted if the page in question is deleted.
Forking contents from English Wikipedia isn’t really a big problem since all you can do is to go to the Wikimedia dump site and look for enwiki, but the biggest issues are how to convince editors and readers alike to move over to the alternative. One possible solution that I can think of in terms of editors would be a pitch promising that the contents will eventually get copied into discs that lasts for billions of years and launched to the Moon and beyond for posterity.
It is entirely possible that if such solution with out-of-the-world approach had been thought about earlier, the synergies that led to all sort of intractable conflicts in Wikipedia could be cut by a half or so. Perhaps inside Wikipedia the environment would not resemble an authoritarian police state like now. After all, you can find so many real stories echoing the same theme on Wikipediocracy, Wikipedia Review and Wikipediasucks.co, which are like how Xenu.net is to Scientology.
Finally this post is released under Creative Commons CC0, which is a public domain as the only thing I want is let everyone know how Wikipedia really works in the inside given the recent attention to Musk’s comments against it and to dispel idealistic notions (as seen in WhitePeopleTwitter regarding Musk’s tweet) that overrated it beyond what should’ve been, while hoping for alternatives to spring up to provide greater opportunities for anyone to preserve histories without corrosive influence from systemic biases such as those in Wikipedia.