Monday, June 23, 2008

Professor Gametheory

Somey makes an interesting comment regarding my last post:
The secret to winning Wikipedia: The Game is to convince others (especially admins) that someone who disagrees with you, but is otherwise relatively harmless, is actually either a spammer or hater.

These things have little to do with someone's "failure to understand the rules." They have everything to do with politics, personal alliances, refusal to compromise, wearing down opponents with ceaseless bickering, and so on.

He's articulate and his longstanding commitment to Wikipedia Review demonstrates sincerity. And although I don't like this, I've seen it play out. Not entirely in the way he describes, but sometimes.

The most common shape it takes is frivolous noticeboard threads. When I was an administrator I estimated something like 30% of the requests for administrative attention that came from accounts I didn't already recognize were initiated as political moves by the primary aggressor in a dispute.

People come to Wikipedia for a lot of reasons. I've known doctoral candidates who worked on articles as a study technique for their boards and dissertations. It's easy to see when those people are for real. We're lucky when we have them and I do my best to make the site a collegial place for them. On rare occasions I've also endorsed sitebans for people who have doctoral degrees. And no, I'm not thinking of a Wikipedia Review contributor with that description. Long before that, there was a mathematician from the Southern United States whose principal activity was to create and recreate a biography of himself. After enough iterations and enough failed attempts to communicate, we gave up. I'll call him Professor Gametheory.

There are some people that, if they don't know, you can't tell them. - Louis Armstrong

Was he harmless? Maybe some would say so. But the article didn't meet Wikipedia's notability guidelines. Facebook and MySpace are better suited to an assistant professor's purposes; open edit is a problematic format for low traffic biographies of living subjects. Those of us who volunteer for Wikipedia notice a pattern after a while: a large number of garage bands, mom-and-pop businesses, and ordinary people view a Wikipedia article as a status symbol and want a page about themselves.

Some of them reeaaaally want it.

And those diligent individuals set about creating the article they want, and canvassing the deletion discussion with family and friends, then recreating the article, and creating it again under a different account, then creating it under a slightly different name, and the cycle continues until one of three things happens.

1. Professor Gametheory's colleage Doc Sensible listens to one of us friendly volunteers when we explain about referencing. Hey Doc, did you get written up in the newspaper? Kept the clipping? Cool, that'll help. Got a couple more articles in your scrapbook...? (Caveat: after the tenth go-around the volunteer may sound more exhausted than friendly.)

2. Would-be rock stars realize that they are really truly not going to keep a Wikipedia article before the garage band gets signed. Land the label first. Wikipedia won't book your concerts.

3. A bunch of volunteers riding Professor Gametheory's delete-go-round for the fifteenth or twentieth time all shout in unison stop this ride! I don't get paid for this hassle! A ban ensues and the dizzy volunteers stumble back to solid land, wondering how an interest in day lilies ever led to this.

This is where Wikipedia's theater of the absurd begins. Because as Somey knows from long experience on Wikipedia Review, actually having a Wikipedia article about oneself isn't necessarily all milk and honey.

So Professor Gametheory gets sitebanned without an article and is hopping mad about it. Doc Sensible rummages through old boxes all weekend and salvages just enough newspaper clippings and dusty awards to become notable. Doc gets her article and is happy for a little while. Then she discovers that someone else other than herself and her Mom might edit the page. Someone who doesn't like her. Someone who's gunning for the same tenure position. Someone like that shady dude down the hall: Professor Gametheory.

Professor Gametheory is socking and Doc Sensible is no longer happy.

Um, but wait. The page doesn't just automatically come down because Doc doesn't want it anymore. She is, after all, notable: she earned the East Georgia Academic Distinction of Biggest Bubblebutt in the Department (I pasted this from her biography just now--could that have been vandalized)? The volunteers who had been on this all got sick of the silliness and are running a featured article drive for the day lilies page. That's nice for day lily enthusiasts, awful for her, but what are you going to do? Dock a volunteer's pay?

There is a better solution: blame the administrator.

As of this writing, English Wikipedia has 1563 administrators to oversee 2,419,730 articles. (Check here for the latest numbers). On average that's 1 administrator for every 1548 articles--in theory. In practice about a third of the admins are AWOL on any given month because these chumps are volunteers. Or to put it another way, that's one administrator for every 4695 registered accounts. That's quite a chunk even if half of those regular accounts are operated by the same twelve people.

Doc Sensible wants to get rid of that article. She locates the list of administrators and e-mails one of the names under a.

User:Adminitis sounds like a responsible name.

Adminitis is expected to respond within twelve hours, having memorized the entire Doc Sensible biography and edit history. He returns a few lines a day later, having skimmed the introduction.

Strike one.

He does not delete the article instantly upon demand.

Strike two.

He mentions that Wikipedia has policies. And provides links to the pages where Doc Sensible might solve the issue herself. More e-mails from Doc Sensible follow, with the underlying expectation that Adminitis has nothing better to do than read whole talk pages in search of five words she happens to paraphrase. He asks for page diffs. Then, after Adminitis reads the original deletion discussion, he commits the fatal error: he mentions that Doc Sensible seemed to want this article two months ago.

Strike three. Adminitis is wicked and corrupt.

Doc Sensible, fretting over upcoming tenure review, posts a long and unprofessorial rant on Adminitis's user talk.

Meanwhile Professor Gametheory, who has been certain from the beginning that Wikipedia is indeed corrupt, creates a spoofing sock account via Tor node called Doc Insensible to leave obscene vandalism on Adminitis's user page.

Doc Insensible gets indeffed while Doc Sensible gets blamed and lands a 48 hour block for socking and personal attacks. Adminintis puts a "Wikibreak" sign on his user page and stops answering messages. Oblivious to each other's actual identities, both Professor Gametheory and Doc Sensible head to the same critical forum to lick their wiki-wounds.

They wonder who this Adminitis is? Why is he granted such power? Is he even an adult? Soon a plan is hatched to track the administrator like any other endangered species: by shooting his rumpus with a tranquilizer gun and stapling a radio tag to his ear. All good wikicritics everywhere must uncover Adminitis's whereabouts for the good of humanity.

Back at the university, at the end of the final exam a quiet sophomore pulls out a Blackberry. After the lecture hall has emptied he places a blue book directly in Professor Gametheory's hands. It contains only three lines of text.

Hi, we know each other better than you realize. Call me Adminitis. Let's talk about your tenure and my grade. G-mail chat, off the record.

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