Mon, Aug 14, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Wikipedia geeks battle scourge of `vandals' and `sock puppets'

For the dedicated enthusiasts who write and update the online encyclopedia it can become an all-consuming passion, though not one without a few headaches


They call it "wiki-crack" -- and in the summer of 2003 it took just one puff to change Mark Pellegrini's life. Pellegrini, a doctoral student of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Delaware, was trawling the Internet looking for questions and answers to a pub quiz he was preparing. He kept stumbling across Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and getting "quality results."

But when he came to the page on Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, he noticed something missing.

"I knew he wrote a sequel before he died and it wasn't on there. So I went on and edited it in. Then I was hooked," Pellegrini says.

It was his first puff of wiki-crack.

"I got a real rush. People like to know that other people are reading what they wrote," he says.

Before long the addiction had started to take over his life. He started offering new articles and editing more established ones. In December 2003 he stood to become a Wikipedian administrator (any Wikipedian with an account can vote) with access to technical features that help with maintaining the site. Since then he has climbed up the hierarchy to "bureaucrat," giving him the technical ability, among other things, to promote other users to administrator or bureaucrat status. Most recently he was elected as a member of the arbitration committee (only those who make 100 edits a week can vote), which is the highest dispute-settling body in the organization before you get to Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales, who can deliver a fiat.

How long does Pellegrini, who is also Wikipedia's featured article director, spend doing this?

"In a slow week, a low-ball number could be 20 hours," he says.

And a high-ball number? His girlfriend, who is a wearing a T-shirt asking, "But what if the Okey-Kokey is what it's all about?" giggles and Pellegrini chuckles with her.

"Maybe 40 ... it becomes like a full-time job," he says.

Only Pellegrini does not get paid.

To most, Wikipedia is a comprehensive if fallible online research tool. But to those like Pellegrini who attended last weekend's Wikimania conference at Harvard Law School, it lies somewhere between a personal obsession and an entire world view.

Opening the conference, Wales referred to it at different moments as a "mission," a "movement" and a "community." It has an established hierarchy, in which Pellegrini is one of a small number of aristocrats, which enforces "community norms." Those who transgress them inhabit their own subculture populated by "vandals" (who wilfully wreck the pages) and "sock puppets" (people who create multiple online personalities to make it look as though lots of people agree with them).

"A lot of them are probably the sort of people who would have social problems in real life," said one wikimaniac over lunch, as though being a "wikiholic" suggested a full and active life.

It is an easy world to ridicule. The conference is three-quarters male and 90 percent white, with the other 9.9 percent being of Asian extraction.

"I got into it when my marriage collapsed," says Brian Corr, confirming the view of many that those most devoted to the Internet are those with too much time on their hands.

Back then he was the chairman of the mediation committee.

"I used to do three or four hours a day then. But I'm in a relationship now and I have a kid. So I just do about two hours a week. I just don't have time to do more but now I've been to Wikimania, I might try and find time. It really is like a drug. It's challenging to do it moderately," he says.

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