Wednesday, August 01, 2007


When the Going turns Surreal, only Criminals will own Librarians

I think we all know the famous cartoon and its punch-line: on the Internet, no one knows that you are a dog. This leads to the corollary: on the Internet, you can't prove to anyone that you aren't a dog, the posibility that of millions of dogs at computers produced Wikipedia aside. This can lead to a surreal environment.

Last week came Slashdot's "revelation" that Slim Virgin is a spy, allegedly a female James Bond. When I had encountered this story long ago, the allegation was far less exotic: that "Slim Virgin" was the screen name of one Linda Mack, an eccentric college student who lost someone close to her (either a family member or a friend) on the Lockaby air plane crash, and volunteered a lot of her time and energy into finding the people responsible. Because Mack worked with the British MI5, some appraently think this made her a spy -- although what I read never made it clear that Mack did more than obsess over who brought down the plane and bothered a lot of people.

Or "Slim Virgin" is the screen name of one Sarah McEwan, a resident of Canada. That is plausible because Slim Virgin at one time signed her posts with a first name "Sarah" -- assuming that was her given name, and not a nickname or a pseudonym. (This is not just another bit of idle speculation: my grandmother preferred to be called "Roberta" instead of her birth name of "Ethyl", a detail that caused a minor bit of confusion when I severed as administrator for her estate after her death.)

Or that all three women are the same person. At that point, I remarked to myself that all of this was mildly interesting -- and if true, more interesting than any equivalent period in my own life -- and thought no more about it. All of this didn't appear to have any relation to Slim Virgin's behavior on Wikipedia as far as I could discern, and I concentrated on my own projects on Wikipedia -- which she did not participate in.

Let me be clear on this. My involvement with Wikipedia does not spring out of some desire to make the whole project conform to my own image of what it should be, just to share facts and ideas with other people that I find in my reading. As long as other Wikipedians do not interfere with that, I won't interfere with what they do. Periodically I do get involved in matters I don't need to, but often I find that I can't control my anger, which leads me to write or do things that I wish I hadn't. I'm not the skilled diplomat many other Wikipedians are, and often I feel my intervention has only made a bad situation worse. So I'd rather assume that other Wikipedians are doing their jobs well and tend to my own garden within that project.

Besides, so what if she is a female version of James Bond? As long as she doesn't resort to some black ops tactics to resolve disputes (even if that is the only way to settle them), is it a problem? Maybe she can draw on that experience to improve some articles.

However, as Kelly Martin and others have pointed out, the way this has been handled has only made things worse: removing material from article histories only creates more controversy, not less. A simple denial is all that is needed to handle this surreal rumor.

Speaking of surreal, we have the case of Oldwindybear. (No link to his user page because he asked for it to be deleted.) He was made an Admin on the English Wikipedia a couple of weeks ago, then resigned the post and quit the project entirely last week. Apparently he had a couple of sockpuppets -- a claim I still can't get my head around. Here's the evidence, so you can decide for yourself. It's just that from my experience with the guy, I can't think of any reason he would want (or need) sockpuppets: he was well enough liked and respected under his own username to become an Admin. (His nomination carried 66-0 and one neutral.) How would he benefit by doing this? We only saw one part of Oldwindybear, the persona he presented to Wikipedia, and never truly knew what he was thinking.

As a result of this surprise, there was a thread on the Requests for Administrator Talk page about how the process was completely broken, it needed to be changed, et cetera. All this incident proves is that online is not better than face-to-face communication. I trusted Oldwindybear based on my own experience with him; if he had done all of this, then he pulled a successful con, and only a minor mistake gave himself away.

I don't agree with Tlogmer that requiring Administrators to furnish (or use) their real names would solve problems like this. For example, I happen to share the same name as a car dealer in Australia. I don't know how trustworthy car dealers are considered in Australia, but in America they are not well thought of, and I don't need to risk confusing people that I am one. If anyone wonders who is really behind the name "llywrch", a Google search ought to answer that.

All of this agitation over an encyclopedia is confusing. It would make more sense if people fought over a piece of extremely soft Camembert. To quote another Wikipedian, it's just a website. Even if someone like me gained complete control over it and forced articles to contain only one set of opinions (say, adding to the George W. Bush article that he is a war criminal and has inexplicably avoided impeachment), what would be the result? There are thousands of websites who advocate those same ideas, and Bush is still president of the United States.

I'm puzzled how a love for libraries and reading could create the surreal environment Wikipedia is at the point of becoming. While some might argue that Surrealism was a creative movement, even Surrealists lose their muses.


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To take your points in order:

1/ If she was an agent of influence paid by the CIA/Mossad/MI5/SMERSH, it would make a difference because of the potential COI. But that exists with all sorts of people, and if your edits conform with policy, no real problem ensues.
2/ Kelly is, as so often, very wrong. Editors in good faith on Wikipedia should be protected from the sort of thing Sarah has suffered. Were I in Jay's shoes, I'd be doing what I could to help prevent further information from leaking to those who want to use it to harm her. I know Kelly doesn't like Jay. I don't either. But I think lining up behind the Wikipedian is not a bad idea in this case, rather than seeing it as an occasion to make political hay. Also, you do not give enough weight to the possibility that a denial is not completely possible.
3/ You can clearly benefit from running sockpuppets if you work on contentious articles. Persistence and commitment win, Geoff. If you do not have the numbers, the voices, you cannot make edits stick. I think that many well-meaning Wikipedians just aren't aware of how political many pages are, and how they have been slanted to one point of view very successfully. The closer that pov is to an orthodox American pov, the easier that process is.
4/ Why fight over it? You cannot have given that much thought! Wikipedia articles generally are in the top 10 for any given google search, and Google is the most used search engine by far. On most subjects, they are the top result. Wikipedia is many people's leaping-off point for finding out about any given subject. And unless Google acts, this will become more pronounced. This makes articles worth fighting over, and it fuels the bitterness some feel towards editors such as SlimVirgin.
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