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Jul 30, 2008

Keane: This Wiki sh-t is really Whack

The notion of a user-edited source of knowledge simply excites the vandal in me. And that's why I got wacky with politicians' Wiki. Bernard Keane explains.

Last week The SMH recounted how a Parliament House IP address was behind numerous edits to the Wikipedia entries for Australian politicians, suggesting MPs and their staff were amending the entries. The relevant address shows a long list this year of edits to entries of current and former politicians — not to mention a range of other, non-political topics.

Now, full disclosure: I might be an old reactionary who doesn’t understand that “authoritative sources” like encyclopaedias are an outmoded, 20th-century construct of elitist information management, but the notion of a user-edited source of knowledge simply excites the vandal in me. Thus, when Crikey editor Jonathan Green — who alas has no Wiki entry yet — wanted to see which politicians corrected their Wikipedia entries fastest, I set to amending the entries of many of our leaders.

Signing myself in under the name “Fairtrade Soyaccino” — alert readers will spot that that isn’t my real name — I immediately headed for Kevin Rudd’s entry, only to discover that it was locked from editing. So much for digital democracy. Brendan Nelson’s, however, is open for business, and I promptly added a sentence on Nelson’s relief when the man responsible for his hairstyle was caught and shot. I sat back and admired my handiwork, thinking myself a clever little vandal.

It only lasted five minutes, before being removed. Who removed it? Well, no-one at Parliament House. Rather, some self-appointed guardian of the sanctity of Wikipedia, who swooped in and removed my hilarious addition.

Meanwhile, I had gone to Kim Carr’s entry to explain that Kim Beazley had originally intended to appoint Ministers according to their surnames – Wayne Swan for the environment, Nicola Roxon for the music industry, Joel Fitzgibbon for primate breeding — and that Carr’s appointment to the Industry portfolio was the last vestige of this. That lasted only four minutes before the same Wikinerd removed it, presumably on the “No lame puns” rule.

Things weren’t going well. A comment about Harry Jenkins’ levels of exasperation lasted all of eleven minutes before the same ruthless editor removed it. I began getting Wikimessages telling me to stop. Clearly they were onto me, so I logged out and went commando, editing anonymously. This appeared to work better. Malcolm Turnbull’s hitherto-unknown reliance on a Segway as his principal means of transport, complete with tassels on the handlebars, lasted over half an hour. Julia Gillard’s decapitation of Christopher Pyne in Question Time while she discussed the skills crisis lasted more than an quarter of an hour. Alan Ramsey’s new role as a vintner of somewhat acerbic cool-climate semillons got a good twenty minutes.

Anxious to establish a sort of control for the experiment, I went to Crikey’s own entry, which appears to have been last updated in the 1990s, and added that its current Canberra correspondent is a lazy, useless clown. No way anyone would look at that, I figured. I was halfway through adding that Stephen Conroy’s favourite film is “anything by Ron Howard” when I realised that they were onto me again, and had even restored the Crikey entry. Another Wikinerd was tracking me, removing my edits almost as soon as I had made them, and I was promptly informed that my IP address had been banned from editing.

Not to be put off, I immediately created a new avatar, Shaun Cassidy, who was mysteriously granted all the editing privileges I was supposed to be denied. That’s rock’n’roll, I figured, and explained Peter Dutton’s successful involvement in the writing and production of Police Academy 9, then noted that Amanda Rishworth was a founding member of the Emo faction of the SA Labor Party. Both amendments this time stuck for several hours.

Hoping to cover my tracks, I logged out and went anonymous again, adding Murray Farquhar to the list of current Federal MPs, but with less luck. Similarly, the revelation that Coalition MP Bob Baldwin enjoyed a career as a life model prior to politics got short shrift. Disappointed, I added the entire lyrics of Radiohead’s Let Down to Mark Arbib’s entry, only for that to be removed moments later. A new avatar, Leif Garrett, was soon busy noting that Bob Debus had starred in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em in the 1970s while Luke Hartsuyker was in a Kung Fu telemovie. Mixed success: the former, despite actually being true (have a listen to Debus some time and think “Frank Spencer”), only remained for a minute, while the latter lasted an hour, both succumbing to a zealous wiki guardian, who eventually also tracked down my Dutton and Rishworth amendments and removed them. Bastard.

I gave up. It’s not our political leaders and their staff or public servants who zealously protect Wikipedia. It’s the self-appointed Wiki guardians who spend their entire days monitoring and removing any inappropriate edits. And it’s not just unfunny vandals like me. The SMH reported that Wiki editors were outraged that politicians would seek to edit their own entries. Apparently that’s a “conflict of interest.” They’re a precious mob in the digital democracy.

Only one of my efforts survived, and at the time of writing still remains in place, having been missed by these vigilant protectors of the Wiki world. I hope it consoles Ian Macfarlane that, having lost his position as Brendan Nelson’s Queensland representative, his true nature as one of Doctor Who’s greatest villains is now a matter of public record.

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8 thoughts on “Keane: This Wiki sh-t is really Whack

  1. Dave Liberts

    My personal fave wiki vandalism was sparked by Tony Martin’s now-defunct Get This radio program. Check out the history of Karl Stefanovic’s wiki page and see how many deleted references to Karl actually being a robot there are. When Wiki got smart and blocked edits to his page, the Get This vandals got smarter and started including Karl Stefanovic references on C3PO’s wiki page instead.

  2. Boniface VIII

    I’m impressed that the following has survived for at least a couple of years:

    “(Showing how cultural attitudes have changed since the 14th century, the usurers’ ring was shared only by the blasphemers and sodomites.)”

    I’m impressed very, very easily, of course.

  3. Paul Hodgson

    Bernard, This was a great piece of journalism: perceptive, witty, creative, anarchical and satirical. It came in the same issue of crikey as a lugubrious and sad spray from your predecessor Christian Kerr who appears to have succumbed to the neuro-degenerative disease that has been infecting mostly everyone in News Corp for a while.

    As it happens, I think wikipedia is an extraordinarily useful endeavour and I hope it survives and flourishes. But good luck to you nevertheless.

  4. Luke Buckmaster

    Very funny stuff Bernard. Last year I also decided to mount my own Wikipedia test, and added myself as a band member of Guns N Roses (vocals and harpsichord). It lasted almost 25 minutes.

  5. Classified

    LAugh!… thats very, very funny dude

    well done

  6. Richard Laidlaw

    Nice one, Bernard. Really Wiki’ed.

  7. Boniface VIII

    I’m impressed that the following has survived for at least a couple of years:

    “In The Divine Comedy Dante places the usurers in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell, below even suicides. (Showing how cultural attitudes have changed since the 14th century, the usurers’ ring was shared only by the blasphemers and sodomites.)”

    I’m impressed very, very easily, of course.

  8. Peter Wood

    Bernard, wiki-admins like citations – if you put supporting evidence for your claim on the web somewhere, then cite that in the wikipedia article, I can guarantee that they will last much longer!