On the moral bankruptcy of Wikipedia’s anonymous administration

I announced, named, and launched Wikipedia way back in January of 2001. My originating role in the project was acknowledged by Jimmy Wales later on in 2001, when he wrote, “Larry had the idea to use wiki software…” Virtually all of the news articles about the project before 2005 identified me as one of the two founders of the project, as did the project’s first three press releases, all of them approved by Jimmy, of course. I managed it as “instigator” and “chief organizer” for the project’s seminal first 14 months. To give you an idea of what role I had in the project, Jimmy declared, a few weeks before I left the project, that I was “the final arbiter of all Wikipedia functionality.”

Since then, I’ve become better known as a critic of Wikipedia. But this is mostly because I am defending myself against repeated attacks on my reputation and pointing out inconvenient truths that a more responsibly-managed organization would try to fix. Contrary to what some have said, I bear no grudges–once I have defended myself, I let matters drop. And I am not trying to damage Wikipedia. Rather, because I inflicted it on the world, I am trying to improve it because it has become one of the most influential websites in the world. I feel some responsibility for it, even though I’m long out of its administration.

I’ve been reading draft chapters of a fascinating book, written by some online friends of mine, about the history and conduct of Wikipedia and its administration. I knew that Wikipedia’s administration is screwed up and somewhat corrupt, but these writers have opened my eyes to episodes and facts that I had not been tracking. However useful Wikipedia might be–and its usefulness is something I have always affirmed–the sad fact is that Wikipedia’s administration has been nothing but one long string of scandal and mismanagement. The saga of Wikimedia UK and its chair is only the latest. Did you know that the deposed chair, Ashley van Haeften, continues to sit on the Wikimedia UK board, and continues to head up Wikimedia Chapters Association? This is despite the fact that van Haeften has been banned from editing Wikipedia, for various violations of policy such as using multiple “sockpuppet” accounts (anonymous, fake accounts), something truly egregious for a high-ranking editor. What kind of Internet organization allows its leadership to continue on in positions of authority spite of being banned (for excellent reasons, mind you) from the very institution it is promoting? Wikipedia defenders, consider what you are defending.

But again, this is only the latest in a long, long series of scandals, which included things like Jimmy Wales telling The New Yorker, of all things, that he didn’t have a problem with someone lying about his credentials on Wikipedia, the hiring of a deputy director with rather dodgy views on child-adult sexual relations, and the hiring of a COO who turned out to be a convicted felon.

Let’s not forget the problems associated with the many, many questionable editorial decisions made by Wikipedia administrators. Like the rank-and-file, they can be and often are completely anonymous. You read that right. The people who make editorial decisions about what is taken to be “probably pretty much right” by a lot of gullible Internet users do not even have to reveal their own identities. That’s right. There are all too many Wikipedia administrators who self-righteously pride themselves on insisting that the full, ugly truth be revealed about the targets of their sometimes quite biased Wikipedia biographies; yet those very same administrators bear no personal responsibility for their actions, which can be quite consequential for people’s careers and personal lives, insofar as they remain anonymous.

No other journalistic or scholarly enterprise would tolerate such unaccountability. The reason that journalists are prized in our society, the reason they are in their positions of power and influence, is that they have committed themselves to high journalistic standards and put their personal reputations on the line when they make claims that can damage their targets. Wikipedia, like it or not, enjoys a level of credibility but without personal accountability. The system has been ripe for abuse and indeed far too many Wikipedia administrators do routinely abuse the authority they have obtained. I look forward to the above-mentioned book because it will really blow the lid off this situation.

Wikipedia administrators bear a heavy moral burden to make their identities known. If you make serious decisions that affect the livelihoods and personal relationships of real people, or what students believe about various subjects, the price you pay for your authority is personal responsibility. Without personal responsibility, it is simply too easy to abuse your authority. Why should anyone trust the decisions of anonymous Wikipedia administrators? They could easily be personally biased, based on ignorance, or otherwise worthless. Worse, aggrieved parties–whether they are persons whose reputations have come under attack or scholars who are seriously concerned about the misrepresentation of knowledge in their field–have no recourse in the real world. If someone writes lies about you, there is no way you can name and shame the liar, or at least the Wikipedia admin who permits the lie. Instead, you have to play the stupid little Wikipedia game on its own turf. You can’t go to the real world and say, “Look, so-and-so is abusing his authority. This has to stop.” In this way, by remaining anonymous, Wikipedia’s decisionmakers insulate themselves from the real-world responsibility that journalists routinely bear for their statements and publishing decisions.

If you were a Wikipedia administrator, wouldn’t you feel absolutely bound to make your identity known? Wouldn’t you feel cowardly, craven, to be standing in judgment over all manner of important editorial issues and yet hiding behind anonymity? I know I would. Why shouldn’t we hold Wikipedia responsible for making its administrators’ identities known? A Wikipedia administrator who refuses to reveal his or her identity is morally bankrupt, because unaccountable authority is morally bankrupt. Members of democratic societies are supposed to know this.

Even the so-called “bureaucrats,” the people who are responsible for conferring adminship on an account, can be anonymous. In fact, from a glance at their usernames, most of them are anonymous.

It is a little strange that journalists, who are trained to understand the importance of taking responsibility for published work, have given Wikipedia a pass for this appalling state of affairs. It’s one thing for Wikipedia authors to be anonymous, a situation journalists often remark on with bemusement. It is quite another for its administrators to be, a fact that journalists have hardly noticed at all.

Indeed, why is the fifth most popular website in the world, which shapes what so many people believe on all sorts of subjects, controlled by a cadre of mostly anonymous administrators? Isn’t that fact, all by itself, scandalous? Why don’t we as a society demand more accountability? I don’t get it.

Wikipedia, wake up. We, the undersigned (let’s make a petition out of this), demand that all administrators be identified by name.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

27 Responses to "On the moral bankruptcy of Wikipedia’s anonymous administration"
  1. Reply Larry Sanger August 19, 2012 15:52 pm

    I think Wikipedia administrators should not be allowed to remain anonymous, and I think those who hide behind anonymity are cowards. Agree? Sign below, please! –Larry

    • Reply Andreas Kolbe August 21, 2012 17:58 pm

      Well said, Larry.

      • Reply Andreas Kolbe August 21, 2012 18:15 pm

        It should be noted that it is not unheard of for Wikipedia’s administrators, even the uber-administrators known as “bureaucrats”, to be teenagers. Candidates do not have to disclose their age. The youngest Wikipedia “bureaucrat” I am aware of was, it transpired later, 12 when his request for bureaucratship was approved.

  2. Reply Eric Barbour August 19, 2012 16:09 pm

    Looks good, Larry. As one of the authors of said book, add my name to the list. We’ve collected so many examples of abuse by Wikipedia insiders, we could write 4 or 5 books just about those cases.

    • Reply Larry Sanger August 19, 2012 16:12 pm

      Make a brief annotated list of the few dozen worst cases, with links, how about?

      • Reply Eric Barbour August 19, 2012 20:17 pm

        I would, unfortunately we are saving the worst cases for the book, Plus, many of them can’t be summed up easily or quickly, plus there’s a persistent problem with certain administrators deleting links in order to cover up their abuses. I can email you a few examples, if you agree not to publish the links just yet.

        • Reply Larry Sanger August 19, 2012 21:11 pm

          No, that’s all right. I’ve seen enough problem cases to expect much more of the same.

  3. Reply PokerDad August 19, 2012 16:29 pm

    You somewhat remind me of Maurice Greenberg going around begging the board of directors to allow you to help them… within a year AIG was broke. The Ol’ Chap was so disappointed his warnings went unheeded.

  4. Reply Cedric Thecat August 19, 2012 19:15 pm

    As bad as the facts and circumstances set forth in this post are, the situation in its entirety is much worse; you are just scratching the surface here, Larry (as I’m sure you realize now). My research into Wikipedia’s history has been disclosing that practically everything to do with its hostile and sociopathic culture stems back to certain decisions made and not made in the critical period of 2001-2003; many by “Sole Founder” Jimbo Wales himself.

    Chief among these critical decisions was the decision by Jimbo to dump the Nupedia project and proceed with Wikipedia alone, doing “everything 180 degrees opposite” of the way it was done on Nupedia. This decision alone probably accounts for at least 90% of Wikipedia’s dysfunctional governance.

  5. Reply Vocal August 20, 2012 04:40 am

    +1

  6. Reply Michael Byrne August 20, 2012 09:38 am

    What would you do with their personal information if you had it? Ring up their employer if they deleted something you thought ought not be deleted? Poke around the Internet and post photoshopped pictures of their family and friends for laughs?

    Well, probably YOU wouldn’t do that, but you are just one of many people listed in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Critics_of_Wikipedia – and I can assure you that your fellow critics such as the GNAA have done and will continue to do that. This is one of the reasons people would prefer their personal information be kept personal when they volunteer.

    And they do volunteer. I think your analogy to journalists is quite flawed – journalists get paid, so they at least get some compensation for the risks they take.

    And I find it ironic that the signers of this petition have chosen to preserve their anonymity while demanding it of others. (Who is “Cedric TheCat”? Who is “Vocal”?) Why do Wikipedia critics get to remain anonymous while they demand that Wikipedia administrators give up their anonymity?

    Respectfully,
    Michael Byrne

    • Reply Larry Sanger August 20, 2012 10:00 am

      Thanks for the comment. This is a point that perhaps I should have answered in the post itself, as it is important.

      It is one thing for “volunteer” bloggers and commenters to be anonymous. Most of them are simply another voice in the online cacophany, and it is not usually important that they be identified, because what they say is not taken terribly seriously. Matters are different for the fifth most popular website in the world, the owners of which sponsored a (flawed) Oxford study that indicated that Wikipedia is as reliable as traditionally edited encyclopedias.

      The fact of the matter is that Wikipedia administrators wield significant power, whether they like or admit that fact or not. The fact that they are volunteers does not absolve them of responsibility for that power. Why should it? That’s an important question you don’t answer. You simply say, “Oh, critics will pester them.” Well, yes. This is what happens to journalists and editors, you know. You didn’t know that? They get a lot of mail from disgruntled people who disagree with what they write. It goes with the territory. Nobody has ever suggested that journalists have the moral right to make themselves anonymous as an entire class. Why think they would?

      Ultimately, a right is competing with a responsibility, here: on the one hand, Wikipedia admins qua individuals do possess a right to privacy, but on the other hand, qua powerful editors they are burdened by the heavy demands of justice and personal responsibility. You are born with a right to privacy, I think. But you give yourself demands of justice and personal responsibility if you take on the job of Wikipedia administrator. Nobody is suggesting that Wikipedia administrators should give out their home phone numbers and addresses, any more than a New York Times reporter should. It is simply that their consequential editorial work should be attached to their real-world reputations.

      If they aren’t, they’re being cowards. And considering how they abuse their position and hide behind their anonymity, they’re craven, contemptible little cowards, who should run home to mommy instead of pretending to be important editors.

      Oh, and what would I do with their personal information? Nothing, unless they’d done something that needed correction. I’d name and shame them if necessary. They would bear the responsibility of their stupidity or corruption, just as real journalists must. If they don’t like that, they shouldn’t be admins. Some rogue former admins have actually rejected the coward’s way, and they do use their real names, at least for one of their accounts; David Gerard for example. At least he does bear responsibility for the things he’s said and done. He can’t be accused of hiding, at least as far as his name attaches to some of his work.

  7. Reply Roger Pearse August 20, 2012 09:39 am

    Agree.

  8. Reply Edward Buckner August 21, 2012 05:34 am

    I agree with Larry. (But declaring a slight conflict of interest here, as I am the other author of the book-in-progress that Larry mentions in his post).

    Edward

  9. Reply Alex Perekati August 21, 2012 10:52 am

    Of course anonymity of administrators should stop, but how are you going to achieve this in practice? What prevents a teen-administrator from using his father’s name, age, occupation, or even from emailing a photo-copy of his father’s driver license to WMF to “prove” his identity? Besides members of the Arbitration Committee are required to identify themselves to WMF. Did it make a difference in making them more honest? None whatsoever in my opinion.

    • Reply Larry Sanger August 21, 2012 12:59 pm

      Nobody outside of Wikipedia-land cares what the WMF knows or doesn’t know. Accountability to the WMF is obviously not real-world responsibility; since when did WMF ever rein in any ill behavior on the part of the Wikipedia hierarchy?

      And, wait. Do you mean to tell me that there are anonymous members of the Arbitration Committee? I hadn’t even thought of that. But of course. Let me check… Good lord. A past chair of Arbcom is anonymous. Hmm, I’m going to count. Let’s see…David Fuchs, Kirill Lokshin, Ira Matetsky, Phil Knight, Roger Davies, and Steve Pereira are people whose probable names are relatively quick to discover via their user pages, though two of these go by a pseudonym. It seems that only six of 14, just 43%, are identified to the public by name, and the majority supply no identifying personal information at all. A few other of the usernames might include first or last names, but of course it’s hard to tell.

      • Reply Alex Perekati August 21, 2012 16:15 pm

        I guess I was trying to tell you that although knowing real names of administrators would have been nice, I do not believe it will significantly improve accountability. I also was trying to tell you that in my opinion Wikipedia is messed up beyond fixing.
        For example you write that “van Haeften has been banned from editing Wikipedia, for various violations of policy such as using multiple “sockpuppet” accounts (anonymous, fake accounts)” If this were the case, it would have been great, but in reality we do not know what van Haeften is banned for. The only hint of a real reason was given by SirFozzie http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/F%C3%A6/Proposed_decision&oldid=503496449#F.C3.A6_banned
        “Fæ has attempted to ask the WMF to intercede”. I am sure it was the only “crime” that made Fae banned. Banning Fae is probably a positive development, but he was banned for not for the right reason, and Philip from WMF has never bothered to provide some explanations http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Philippe#Your_help_requested_please
        http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Philippe_%28WMF%29#Fae
        Wikipedia community let go on it, and I believe it is wrong. “Accountability” should mean “accountability” in regards to everybody no matter what, no matter if a user is a friend or an enemy, no matter if the user is right or wrong.
        Besides even being banned from Wikipedia means nothing. I believe two former Wikipedia users who responded to your blog are banned from Wikipedia. What does it mean?

  10. Reply Alex Perekati August 21, 2012 11:38 am

    Mr. Wales is not an anonymous. Does the fact that his name is well known makes him more honest or less abusive?
    The only way to achieve at least some kind of accountability on Wikipedia might be making WMF to govern Wikipedia, but this is not going to happen of course.

  11. Reply Edward Buckner August 21, 2012 14:18 pm

    >>Roger Davies

    Not his real name, I was told.

  12. Reply Peter Cohen August 22, 2012 05:32 am

    Casliber is open about his identity and Risker has disclosed hers on another Wikimedia site recently.

    I do agree with the main point that Wikipedia is a powerful top-ten site that affects real people and therefore those with any power on it should disclose their real identities.

  13. Reply Mark Slater (LessHeard vanU) August 22, 2012 07:57 am

    While it is true that administrators may be anonymous, same as the editorship from which they are drawn, it is a fact that some do (or in my case, did) choose to reveal their identity. I also feel you misrepresent the intended role of administrators – that of people conversant in applying the principles of the project to disputes.
    Yes, there are those who abuse the implied authority and, worse, use their powers to pursue their own interests and viewpoints. The latter, I would suggest, is the major issue with anonymity within the encyclopia – the numbers of unaccountable writers who attempt to only portray a certain perspective on a subject or range of subjects. These individuals (and often groups) use many tactics to achieve their aim, and becoming an admin is only one of them,
    The reason why I resigned as an admin, and have otherwise stopped contributing, is because I got burned out from trying to get people to accept that an encyclopedia needs to incorporate all relevant viewpoint, and without bias.
    I suggest that being able to link a real person to an account – even if not visible to the readership – is one of the ways to counter the bias being deliberately placed into one of the major reference sites on the internet.

    • Reply Larry Sanger August 22, 2012 08:18 am

      “I also feel you misrepresent the intended role of administrators”–how? I was Wikipedia’s first administrator, before they were called administrators. I was there when Jimmy Wales–with very questionable judgment–when I left, started giving out administrator rights to anybody who had been on the site for a while, when he declared (quite stupidly) that being an admin was “no big deal.” It’s part of the silly Wikipedia mythology (and cargo cult) that admins are merely “janitors,” reluctantly doing a job no one else wants to do. This is not only wrong, it is dishonest and contemptible. It enables admins to pretend that they do not bear any important personal responsibility for what are actually important decisions that affect others.

      • Reply Ngor August 26, 2012 12:54 pm

        Well said Larry. I could’t have put it better myself.

  14. Reply William Reid Boyd August 31, 2012 05:27 am

    Yes. I completely agree with all of this Larry and I am grateful for your eloquent piece here.

  15. Reply Magnus Hansen September 16, 2012 10:01 am

    I used to be an admin and I used to edit with my identity disclosed. No more. Simply being an admin at wikipedi attracts an insane amount of hostility from crackpots, from nationalist or extremist politicians and from a large group of people who are simply convinced that being an admin automatically means that you are a power hungry fascist and should be treated as such. I stepped down as an admin and began to edit anonymously after receiving threats online and off line, directed at my professional and personal lives. Editing with disclosed identity may be the right thing to do, but its not worth it. I do think that the problem would be mitigated if all editors had to disclose their identities – but having identified admins and anonymous users simply makes admins sitting ducks.

    • Reply Larry Sanger September 16, 2012 10:46 am

      Thanks for making this point. Interesting and worth taking into consideration.

  16. Reply W.S. March 17, 2014 05:41 am

    Larry, I agree with your diagnosis of the issue. It is good to hear from someone who ought to know the real story (even though every story is always subjectively told). I partly disagree with your conclusion, that volunteering admins should be identified to the public.

    Given the weight of the responsibility of that job, I think that this would only be a stopgap. People who ultimately decide what is going to WP and how should ideally be employees to the company running WP, and they also should possess a firm education on journalistic principles and, most of all, ethics. Knowing the names of admins will be better than not knowing anything about them, but still nobody knows who these people really are and what their vested interests are. Given the impact of WP it is only to be expected that people and parties try to gain influence on its contents (especially politically relevant content), and becoming an admin in such an area would be a win for any party involved in matters related to these areas (namely: companies, political actors, PR agencies, high influence individuals…).

    Also, making the admins identities public might make matters worse, because that gives mentioned parties access to a key resource of WP. Just like gaming companies are buying off “independent” lets-play video makers with a big audience to ensure positive critics for their games, companies and other actors will pursue those admins and try to win their love with whatever works. Given that these admins put a lot of hours into the work on WP, it is easy to imagine some of them succumbing to such offers, because after all, “they’ve earned it” etc. etc. The fact that there are companies and PR firms meddling with WP content already is no secret and I think proof enough that admins will be subject to bribery and threats once their identities are known. Magnus Hansens post above is another argument for that.

    The only defense I see against that is having well paid, well educated people protected by law and a company that can afford a law suit or two and has a reputation to defend.

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