Whose Wikipedia Is It, Anyway?

Please don’t get the wrong idea about this column; I have nothing against crowdsourcing. Some of my best friends belong to crowds. I also have nothing against the concept of a “free, Web-based, collaborative multilingual encyclopedia project,” as Wikipedia defines itself. And while journalists, students and others doing research should know by now to consider the wide variety — and quality — of sources that go into most Wikipedia listings, I’ll admit that there is some value within the information that’s presented; it can steer you in the right direction to validation. On the most trivial level, it can mean hours of time-wasting fun to skip around the listings and check out what’s been written about a favorite movie/rock band/pro athlete/geometric equation.

But we learned in the last couple of weeks that Wikipedia is still in dire need of some professional editing and vetting help, and that the crowd has taken over this particular Web 2.0 asylum. And that if you cover Web businesses, the internal struggles and machinations at Wikipedia rate very high in gossip/dish content.

Last month, Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger, who parted ways with the organization in 2002, outed the Wikipedia’s parent, Wikimedia, to the FBI, writing in a letter that the site was intentionally distributing child pornography. It doesn’t get more damaging than that; it would have been very hard to dismiss the claims as the grumblings of an ex-executive gunning for payback, since Sanger had specific examples in two Wikimedia Commons categories, “pedophilia” and “lolicon.” The listings included drawings depicting children engaging in sexual activity with adults. broke the story and has done a good job pursuing it with updates. Shortly thereafter, the other half of the cofounder team who’s still in charge, Jimmy Wales, announced that Wikipedia editors had begun deleting “hundreds of images,” and that he himself was killing some of the possibly illegal content. (As of this writing, the FBI has not filed any official child pornography-related charges against Wikipedia, even though two Ohio congressmen have now sent their own letters to the agency asking them to look into the matter.)

“Wikimedia Commons admins who wish to remove from the project all images that are of little or no educational value but which appeal solely to prurient interests have my full support,” wrote Wales on his Wikimedia Commons page. “This includes immediate deletion of all pornographic images. We should keep educational images about sexuality — mere nudity is not pornography — but as with all our projects, editorial quality judgments must be made and will be made — appropriately and in good taste. I am stating here my public support for admins who are prepared to enforce quality standards and get rid of a large quantity of what can only be characterized as ‘trolling’ images of people’s personal pornography collections.

“We were about to be smeared in all media as hosting hardcore pornography with zero educational value and doing nothing about it. Now, the correct storyline is that we are cleaning up. I’m proud to have made sure that storyline broke the way it did, and I’m sorry I had to step on some toes to make it happen.”

Wales just thought he was stepping on toes. Judging from the resultant outcry from other Wikipedia editors and users, you’d think Wales had run over their feet with a Hummer. Some images that many judged to be more of an artistic or educational nature — even though nudity or other sexual content was involved — were caught up in the purge anyway despite Wales’ intentions. The comments came fast and furiously, accusing Wales of launching the mother of all “wheel wars” — feuds between Wikipedia administrators over deletions and replacement:

  • “You have repeatedly violated speedy deletion policy by speedy (sic) deleting files that should have gone through the normal deletion process.”
  • “A young woman who grows up in a conservative American environment has a right to know what masturbation is and how it works.”
  • “You have single-handedly destroyed Wikipedia’s trust in Commons. You show absolutely no respect for the users here and on Wikipedia. And we cannot be a free encyclopedia if we delete files to make Fox happy, it’s intellectual corruption.”
  • “So rather than answering to the legitimate concerns of the community, you would just rather wipe their concerns away: out of sight, out of mind, as if blanking their questions was part of this great cleanup mission?”

The ire reached such levels that Wales was forced to revisit the situation and issue an apology of sorts. “In the flurry of activity this weekend, I made some mistakes, and I’m sorry about that. I had thought that a good process would be to engage in a very strong series of deletions, including of some historical images, and then to have a careful discussion about rebuilding. That proved to be very unpopular and so I regret it. It also may have had the effect of confusing people about my own position on what to keep and what to get rid of.”

The Commons’ sexual content policy regarding works of art was referred to, as were some current laws regarding what is considered illegal in U.S. courts. However, many editors and users felt the damage had been done: Even though Wales helped launch Wikipedia and, despite prior controversies, has made it the influential website it is today, the community felt that he had overstepped his bounds. “Will you abide by a community consensus over what your user rights should be?” asked a commenter.

“I’ve decided to simply sidestep and remove that question completely by removing virtually all rights to actually do anything from the ‘Founder’ flag. I can’t block people. I can’t delete things. I can no longer even edit semi-protected pages! (I can still view deleted revisions and so on, since I need those rights quite often.) Can we please now get back to discussing the real issues?” Wales responded on May 9.

That had to hurt. Supposedly, more guidance is coming soon from the Wikimedia Foundation. However, there are already hints and trends apparent in Wales’ actions and those of the Wikimedia Foundation. Clearly he believes that Wikipedia is under a microscope because of its business model, and he believes he’s been burned by the media in coverage of aforementioned controversies (including stories here on ECT News). He tried to put out what he thought was a flash fire in the mainstream media, but he ignited another blaze, and it continued to burn outside the tech-centric press; the Huffington Post and BBC News have picked up’s lead and followed the story.

To be fair: Not all the comments were critical of Wales’ deletions. Some users and editors thanked him for thinking about the average Wikipedia consumer who may not want their kids seeing some of the more egregious images that were meant to be the focus of the purge. And it’s also clear from some of the comments that the critics have issues with Fox News.

Wales, to his credit, admitted making a mistake with the hasty round of initial deletions and has agreed to step out of the process regarding “protected” content. That doesn’t take away from the fascination in watching this Frankenstein monster that Wales helped stitch together turn on its creator. A “Web-based, collaborative” project has become the unruliest of democracies, but Wales has to abide by the evolving rulebook he set up.

Yet no one should hold it against him for wanting to get rid of child pornography on the site; it’s indefensible and there are ways of discussing the issue on Wikipedia’s pages without showing examples. Some of his critics should try to keep that in mind.

Also, Wales is right when he talks about this matter being “about our reputation in the world, generally.” If Wikipedia is to be taken seriously, it’s going to have to accept a measure of self-censorship and editing. Wales and his critics are going to have to work together to find that proper balance or users will start voting with fewer mouseclicks. The Wikimedia Foundation has taken some tentative steps in that direction this week with the announcement that a US$1.2 million dollar grant from the Stanton Foundation will go toward asking academic experts and students to help improve the quality of public policy postings and discussions.

Wikipedia remains a work in progress. How will we know when that work is finished? It will probably be along the lines of Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s attempt at defining pornography: I’ll know it when I see it.

TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation. San Miguel is host/managing editor for Spark360, which produces news-style paid content for SMBs distributed via branded Web video portals and social media platforms.

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