Another horror story about Wikipedia
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/01/29
I received quite a few private messages after posting my view that Wikipedia is best understood as a cult. Here’s one of them:
“Dear Henry Bauer,
I just got around to reading your article as published on the Intersect website, and I can only applaud to your criticism of Wikipedia. Your description of it as sharing the features of a cult rings absolutely true to me. With a lifetime experience of observing various cults, both in the political and the religious spheres, I have no doubt that many Wikipedia members, and the most attached and influential among them, behave and think as if they belonged to a cult, albeit not only and necessarily in such a linear, pyramidal fashion as your article seems to suggest. There is much more to it than just Jimbo sitting at the top, and there are many ramifications that were born with a life of their own.
To be more specific, I embarked two years ago with my knowledge of ten languages or so on a tentative side-career as an editor of Wikipedia, in several of the localized versions. I’ll focus for now only on French Wikipedia, where I promptly headed into troubles and at the end I was properly deleted out of existence as an editor. It all started when I introduced in some articles a couple of references which were already well accepted and even the object of proper articles on Italian and English Wikipedia. This apparently went against the consensus on the articles’ contents on French WP, and I was very quickly exposed to public contempt and literally harassed by the local cult leaders/administrators, with the same language and mob following which always have characterized such entities. As it turned out, the most vociferous among these administrators had a particular attachment to the Catholic church and the current head of same said religion. When I pointed this out in the scuffle that ensued (arbitration procedure and the like), he promptly removed the contents of his own user page, but that didn’t lead his ire to abate.
Understand that this all happened within only a few weeks. That same administrator, probably believing that I wouldn’t be able to trace things on WP, made some disclosures to other users which revealed the existence of a semi-secret mailing system within Wikipedia. A mailing system that worldwide, it turns out, is only accessed by twenty or thirty admins endowed with special permissions and allegedly elected by their “peers”. As this referred specifically to my person, I demanded to see the mails’ contents. When this was refused to me (by other admins, under the guise of neutrality) and I both opposed the decision and questioned the existence of that system on my own user pages, the latter’s contents on French WP were first blocked, then erased.
I then brought this particular issue – Wikipedia’s secret mailing system – to discussion on the Wikimedia site, in English this time. The result was that I was also soon forbidden there. Asking help in Danish from one admin on Danish WP I had been in touch with previously and who happened to be listed among those elected few with access to the secret mail system, he responded irritatedly that he wouldn’t have anything to do with the issue. I then wrote to Jimmy Wales, who responded, seemingly concerned, that he would delegate the issue to the then head of Wikimedia Foundation, a French woman, as she would be able to understand what things were about. I never heard a word from her. I would never try to guess why!
In the meanwhile, my very existence as a user had been deleted from French WP, albeit not from the other localized versions. A very little indignity to suffer, considering that I hadn’t in the least built any kind of emotional tie to the institution, and especially when compared to the indignity of having those cult leaders claim to the mobs that my name (I had been foolish enough to use my own name, not a pseudonym) actually was only a pseudonym (a so-called sock-puppet, I believe) used by one of their long-term foes. Moreover, I was to discover that someone was using my name as a pseudo on some forum discussions attacking Wikipedia on the website of a Belgian newspaper, and that others the same place were accusing me (or my name, that is) of actually being… a Wikipedia administrator in disguise! The last indignity suffered was reading the contents of the mails from WP’s secret mail system that concerned me published on that same forum: anonymous email threats to bring Wikipedia and myself to a Belgian court for having introduced on French WP a reference to an historical fact that was there for everyone to see, free of any form of censorship, on Dutch WP.
So much for the cult, or rather for the dirty underwear all cults always end up trying to keep hidden, while they always manage to get entangled in them. While they weren’t nearly as dramatic, there were other issues on English Wikipedia, that also corroborate your own observations. But this mail was long enough, I believe, and for fear of boring you, I’ll pass on them for now.