Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Encyclopedia Game

There's an fascinating new documentary in the making. The website is here with some promotional clips here.
"Wikipedia is a massive online free encyclopedia. It's one of the most visited sites on the web, with two billion hits every month. With the stated goal of compiling the sum of all human knowledge, it's the most used reference source in the world. Yet, at any given moment, it may contain information that is completely untrue and misleading. How can this be?

"The world of Wikipedia, which many assume to be a collegial community of experts collaborating to write an encyclopedia, often more closely resembles an arena in which personal conflict and gang warfare are standard operating procedures. Wikipedians are collaborating to write the world’s largest and most used encyclopedia, but their behaviors often more closely resemble those of a large group of anonymous characters playing a vast and intricate online game in which “writing an encyclopedia” merely provides the basic scenario and context within which the game is played".
That seems about right. I have identified the accounts in question, plus quite a few more that the site doesn't mention, and this is probably the most skilled 'sockmaster' I have ever seen. But to understand what a 'sockmaster' is I will have to explain one of the fundamental design flaws of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia was set up in 2001 by free culture types, who believe that knowledge should be both free and open. Free means, well, free, and I can deal with that, and open means user-generated, which is more problematic. Having anyone edit means that anyone can open an account without restriction. Indeed, the same person can open as many accounts as they like without restriction. This is a fundamental principle of Wikipedia, and is unlikely ever to change, given the politics and ideology of the people who run the site. Add to this the premise that people generally edit for selfish reasons, as I argued here, and you have two nicely toxic ingredients. If you have some passionate belief in some piece of nonsense – it doesn't matter what the nonsense is – then you want the nonsense in Wikipedia. Given that other people may oppose the nonsense, then you will want to stack the argument with as many multiple accounts or 'sockpuppets' as you can create, defending the nonsense against all comers.

This takes some skill. Using sockpuppets to stack the vote is a (theoretically) a banning offence on Wikipedia, unless you are a highly influential member of the administration. So ideally at least one of your socks is an administrator, which this guy was*. In addition, the rest of the sockpuppets should not be 'single purpose'. If they all start to edit just the one article, you will normally be caught out pretty quickly. So you edit in many different and non-overlapping subject areas, occasionally editing the subject in dispute. At crucial moments you bring the socks together, usually to gain consensus, or stack a vote, or to bypass the '3RR'** rule. This all takes time and effort, but young people with an agenda and time on their hands can manage that. The achievement of Cognition was to add significant content in various contentious areas without being caught out. I haven't yet checked to see how much of the nonsense is still there, but it is likely to be significant. The main point, as the character says, is that Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia, and the skill required to participate in it are more aligned to John le Carre, than Diderot.

And he is still editing.

* I can imagine Belette's dorsal fins flapping here. No, not with the Cognition account.
** 3RR = three revert. If you revert someone's edit more than three times, you can be blocked.  So you get your socks to do some of the reverting.  Of course your opponent will be using socks too.  It is not uncommon to see what looks like a whole crowd of people arguing with each other, when in reality there are just two.  Sometimes there is only one!  Really skilled sockmasters will create good/bad hand accounts to increase the appearance of reality, often putting silly arguments in the mouths of the bad hand account in order to refute them more surely, and to make the opposition look foolish.

Labels: ,

7 Comments:

Blogger Belette said...

> I have identified the accounts in question... an administrator, which this guy was

You've left out a pile of context, because I've got no idea what you mean by this.

> the same person can open as many accounts as they like without restriction

This isn't true.

9:58 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>You've left out a pile of context, because I've got no idea what you mean by this.

I mean the accounts of the sockmaster, who is referred to immediately before in the post.

>>> the same person can open as many accounts as they like without restriction

Well there are a few minor restrictions, such as checkuser (which is what nailed two of the sockmaster's accounts in September 2009).

10:34 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>because I've got no idea what you mean by this.

Or was your question about the parsing or semantics of 'which this guy was'. I meant 'this guy - the sockmaster, one of whose accounts was called 'Cognition' - was an administrator.

Obviously the administrator account was not the 'Cognition' account.

This has given me an idea for another post about identity and descriptions. Wikipedians tend to think of Wikipedia accounts as defining the identity of a person. Ordinary people, by contrast, think of people themselves as defining identity. But this would need another post.

10:38 am  
Blogger Belette said...

I still don't understand. What sockmaster, what "accounts in question"? Am I expected to read something else to make sense of any of this. Could you just name the account, that would be a touch less mysterious. If you're deliberately being obscure, I'll go away again.

12:55 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>I still don't understand. What sockmaster, what "accounts in question"? Am I expected to read something else to make sense of any of this. Could you just name the account, that would be a touch less mysterious. If you're deliberately being obscure, I'll go away again.
<<

I linked to the website which should fully explain everything if you read it. In summary, the documentary is about a Wikipedia user called 'Cognition' who claims to have extensively vandalised Wikiepdia. The documentary - yet to be completed is largely about him.

I have identified some of the other accounts that Cognition used, and those are 'the accounts' I was talking about. I won't name them given the film maker wants to keep the mystery for now, but if you want to investigate it separately, go ahead. The main account is user:Cognition.

3:41 pm  
Blogger Belette said...

That account has been blocked since 2009, and has made no contributions since 2006. This all seems very stale.

If you want to argue that this account, or its socks, has made some substantial contribution to anti-wikipedia, rather than just being some run-of-the-mill vandal seeking publicity, you're going to have to provide some evidence.

8:42 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>If you want to argue that this account, or its socks, has made some substantial contribution to anti-wikipedia, rather than just being some run-of-the-mill vandal seeking publicity, you're going to have to provide some evidence.
<<

I emailed the film makers a few days ago, asking if it was OK to discuss the case in more detail, but have not received a reply.

Given that part of the interest of the film is the surprise element, I don't want spoil that. The main point of my post was to talk about the weird Tinker-Tailor aspect of Wikipedia that most non-Wikipedians will be unfamiliar with. But you will know all this, William.

Also, I haven't fully checked how much of the vandalism has actually survived. So I don't know whether we are talking about an incident on the scale of Jagged85, or not. I know he added massive amounts, like Jagged. I don't know how much of this was since removed, however. His alternate accounts were working in areas that are more heavily scrutinised than Jagged, and which are more 'verifiable', in the sense that you don't need to use specialist libraries and search through 9th century Arabic manuscripts.

9:00 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home