2009 Paid Editing Investigations on WikipediaWexperts.net 08 Jul 2009 13:24 GMT
In principle, Wikipedia, the largest on-line encyclopedia, was intended to grow through the voluntary work of registered and unregistered users. However, the importance it gained in the last years and the erratic patterns created by such voluntary contributions determined a serious disadvantage for notable subjects not yet included or poorly covered. This is complicated by the increasing amount of knowledge necessary for editing in wiki code and for understanding the "Wikipedia common sense", thus impeding the outsiders' attempts to write there without a previous training. Although this problem became one of the most discussed issues around this website, the higher authorities did not take any measures to address it, considering they can live with it. The expected outcome, disadvantaged parties hiring experienced users for covering missing areas, was subsequently frowned upon by the same authorities and also by some of the users.
The issue of "paid editing", as it was labeled, got a public scrutiny first in summer 2006, when the Wikipedia user MyWikiBiz announced his willingness to be paid for covering subjects still missing there. The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, quickly blocked the user and opted for keeping the issue underground. Thus even today, this issue does not have a clear regulation on Wikipedia. Nevertheless, the paid editing kept growing in importance, usually, due to the price competition, recruiting users with backgrounds from the traditional geographic areas of outsourcing.
The concept of paid editing surfaced again on June 2009, this time determining a community debate and a series of internal investigations. Since we work in this field, being directly affected by what is going on, we started our own investigation, and this is what we have found.
The row was unleashed at the beginning of June 2009 with a notification made by the Wikipedia user YellowMonkey about suspecting another user being a paid editor. The assumption was based on the details of an Elance account, reminding of a certain user from Wikipedia. Jimbo (Jimmy Wales) reiterated his desire to keep the issue underground. However, this time the community became too much interested, creating a competitive milieu for "who's finding the most paid edits". It appeared also an unprecedented lengthy debate about the pros and cons of this practice.
As the "paid editing round-up" (as the hunt was subsequently baptized) kept growing in proportions, it acquired the characteristics of a classical mob violence, used as a mean for personal revenges and for self-promotion of individuals as "saviors". Additionally, it surfaced a strong bias against "outsourcing" people, with non-Western backgrounds.
The very tip that created the row has the features of a personal vendetta. The screenshot presented as a proof of the activities of the Elance account was taken at the beginning of this year, showing a "Last sign-in" of the owner on 28 January and displaying only the feedback he received during 2008. This while the owner of the account was active and worked on Elance in all the months until June. YellowMonkey knew about this Elance account and its Wikipedia-related work at least since January of this year. An in-depth research reveals that both him and the squeaked user live in Australia and share a common interest in cricket (somehow a recurring theme there). This invalidates the claim of an unselfish tip of a random discovery, as it was presented to the community. This is further confirmed by the way YellowMonkey paraded him inside and outside Wikipedia as a "bad guy", with an obvious goal of public shaming. Nobody bothered to ask about these obvious facts, the Wikipedia authorities played to the tune of YellowMonkey and the account of the Wikipedia user presumed to work on the behalf of the Elance account was quickly blocked. It is noteworthy to say that Jimbo considered that an explanation from the targeted user would be enough, this accusation would not entitle ending the years-long career of a valued Wikipedia user.
The success of the tip and the subsequent fame of YellowMonkey prompted other users to find other such accounts on Elance. Some of them conducted minute searches through the Elance and the Wikipedia accounts, giving them the possibility to become rapidly famous inside the community. Interestingly, the second one spotted did not induce any harsh reaction. This although it used the same user name of John Bulten, both on Elance and on Wikipedia (no wonder it was the first one discovered after a true search) and the edits on Wikipedia corresponded to the jobs performed on Elance. Some of his articles got some mild tags and that was all, he keeps editing happily on Wikipedia even now. For some reasons, one of the other Elance accounts, named Tayzen, became the next preferred target. When contacted by us in relation to the reasons of targeting, the reply was:
"We are sure that our East European location, our exotic account name and our multilingual approach played an important part in targeting us or at least in the level of 'permitted' violence against us. We could change later on our account only the location, to look 'boringly Western', hoping for a similar approach as in the case of John Bulten (funny name, isn't it?), but it was too late. The first Elance account under fire belongs to an Indian student from Australia, this indicating a preferred targeting of non-Western people. There may be also other reasons and we are currently trying to find out what is going on, why exactly us. Anyway, the result is a clear favoring of the other Elance accounts, the Wikipedia-related jobs keep appearing, only that the others take them (we suspect also an intended indirect rigging of the bidding process)."
Another disturbing pattern of this "round-up" is the suppress of free speech when users try to point out the murky side of the recent frenzy. We learned this by ourselves, when, several days ago, we tried to bring our arguments in the discussion. To our surprise, the text we added in order to draw attention to the circumstances of YellowMonkey's "discovery" (this is how it looked at that moment) was deleted after half an hour. Few hours later both the account of our team and the one of our spokesperson were blocked. Somewhere else on Wikipedia it followed a tragicomic dialogue between some users wondering which would be the official explanation of the blocking, for this "first shoot then ask" approach. Finally someone found a provision saying that organization accounts are not permitted, it must be an individual account. Well, even admitting this pretext, this does not entitle the blocking of the spokesperson. The reason added there, that the individual account would be a sockpuppet (in Wikipedia jargon, this means an account of another user, used for deceiving purposes, to create the illusion of more people), is untrue and childish. The spokesperson mentioned clearly the relation with the other account and this is permitted on Wikipedia. Even the initial "informer" has two accounts (1 2) clearly mentioning the relation between them. In this manner, even now the account of Wicked Pundit is blocked without any reason complying with Wikipedia rules, presumably because some users considered it is better to mute us.
However, we find even more tragicomic and worrisome a strange case that occured in the last few days. One of the "detectives" found that the Tayzen account from Elance included in its portfolio from October 2008 the work of Desiphral, a veteran user who contributed a great deal of voluntary work at English Wikipedia and also founded the Wikipedia in his native language. The proposed conclusion, namely that this user is engaged in paid editing, was accepted by most of the other users without any inquiries. Quickly, in the discussion place there appeared users seemingly having some previous grudges against Desiphral, using the opportunity to request his block. Additionally there appeared some at least dubious users requesting the closure of the Wikipedia founded by Desiphral (in the language of a certain minority of Indian origin widely discriminated). In a normal (or better said, a previous) communication process at Wikipedia, such conclusions would have been dismissed as a good joke, but it was not the case here. We took our liberty to check the edits of the incriminated user and we did not find anything to suggest paid editing. Needless to say that the accusers too did not present any actual evidences for their allegations.
After a few days, when it appeared there Desiphral himself, it turned out that he had some years ago a collaboration on Wikipedia with people from the staff of Tayzen, but not in the field of paid editing (our investigation found out that the respective Elance account did not even exist at that time). Somehow unexpectedly (given the current atmosphere of fear and adulation at Wikipedia around the issue of paid editing), besides complaining about the attempt of public shaming, he started to point out the unprofessional manner of conducting the current purges. There followed some retorts, then... silence. When we contacted Desiphral to find out what exactly is going on there, we learned that his account was blocked, but the blocking notice was hidden somewhere in the talk page, not displayed on the user account, as it is the common practice at Wikipedia. The "death sentence" was done on the sly, after talking too much, somehow reminding of our attempt to talk openly there. We found the blocking reason really sarcastic, namely that "he indicated he permitted the use of his account for commercial purposes" (without showing where exactly was that indication, while we could not find anything of this kind in his replies). Even if it would have been true, this is not a punishable offense on Wikipedia... only you'll get intro trouble with those who do not like this. The accusers changed later the reason for blocking to "group account", because he permitted some years ago some people to learn how to edit, using his account. Obviously, a pretext, the same "first shoot, then ask" pattern, since the casual teaching of other people did not amount to what is understood at Wikipedia as a "group account", plus that the respective user was not active on Wikipedia for about a year and a half and at the time scale of Wikipedia such old issues are not considered when judging an user.
The suppressed user also told us that he was not announced by e-mail about the public shaming (he was not active on Wikipedia for long time and for such cases this would be the standard procedure), thus preventing him to present his position. He was not announced also about the following requests of somebody to block him in the Wikipedias in all languages and to close down the one he founded. The most ironic thing in all this affair is that those suspected editing on behalf of Tayzen are free to edit even at this moment (although they keep being hindered), while the one who was wrongly accused to associate with them was taken to the backyard and executed on the sly for sulking against the conduct of the purges. The language and the conduct of this episode suggests a combination of muting the dissent and a seizure of the opportunity by some people who have a problem with the respective user and/or with the Wikipedia he started.
In this manner, the current frenzy on Wikipedia determines a level of (self)censorship reminding of Communist China's approach to Internet. This suppression of free speech, combined with the encouragement to tip the "enemies of the people", produces a violent atmosphere of accusations, power struggles, public executions or backyard executions, reminding too much of a totalitarian society with an "unique truth". The higher authorities of Wikipedia consider they can live with the issues developed by its growth, but this approach only produces the necessity of a group allegiance to a certain "truth". In this particular case studied here, they do not give an answer to the disadvantage Wikipedia creates for subjects entitled to be covered, but currently absent there. We would like to point out that the "paid editing", as the outcome was labeled, has a regulatory effect not noticed until now. Those likely to work on Wikipedia are people from less affluent countries/backgrounds, this permitting them to contribute further voluntarily on the subjects not covered and not affluent enough to pay for their coverage (which, in the current composition of Wikipedia, tend to belong exactly to the universe of such people).
As one may imagine, the paid editing is currently a reality there, only that it must not be disclosed. The recent crackdown and denouncements used loopholes in the bidding process of the on-line marketplaces. Here (Paid editing roundup section) it is described shortly the way to find paid users in such places. It is necessary to not give hints about the intended work. The best way seems to remain the direct contact with people working in this field, guaranteeing a fair approach to the eventual texts written on Wikipedia in this manner.
Anyway, the current "paid editing madness" on Wikipedia does not show signs to cool down, while there are no signs of a willingnes to address the issue (and it is likely we will come with follow-ups). This is our attempt to highlight what is going on there and to draw attention to the abuses produced around this issue.