The Tragedy of Wikipedia

A well-known problem in philosophy and political economy since the time of Thucydides and Aristotle, and in modern economics since 1968, is what Garrett Hardin termed the “tragedy of the commons.” The classic example is that of an “open” village pasture equally available to shepherds. It is, unless the villagers somehow agree to regulate the use for the sake of their common good, inevitable that the pasture will be destroyed and that the destruction process will begin almost immediately.

The reason for this is that each herder will recognize that the cost of adding one more animal to the pasture is zero to the individual herder, whereas the benefit is great. He will also realize that if he does not take the opportunity to put the additional animal on the pasture someone else will. The benefit will thus be reaped by someone, the question is but by whom.

So in order not to be beaten to it by the others, each herder will rush to maximize their benefits through adding as many animals as possible to the pasture. This will soon degrade the land and make it unusable due to the excessive overuse caused by the rational benefit-seeking herders. The more obvious the profit, the faster and more devastating will be the overuse.

The same type of problem is haunting the Internet, since the Internet technology makes a number of activities almost or totally free. The very structure of Internet builds on the free transmission of data on any suppliers’ networks, which means it is an easy target for anyone who can make a profit out of its use.

Spamming is the most obvious “tragedy of the commons” problem. Since e-mailing is virtually free, anyone can contact anyone else with an e-mail account at no cost – and it does not cost more to send one million e-mails than it costs to send only one or two. Radically increasing the volume is therefore “free,” which means that anyone who can make money out of sending e-mails will tend to do so. This is why so many spend hours of their potentially productive time clearing their inboxes of numerous unsolicited and anonymous e-mails with misspelled offers of Viagra, penis enlargements, and women “for sale.”

The problem of spamming is further increased by the Internet making it possible – indeed, even easy – to send such e-mails anonymously. The structure of the Internet allows for far-reaching privacy through hiding one’s whereabouts, and it is also an open system, which makes it easy to pretend to be someone else. The result of a commons that allows its users anonymity is obvious: it will suffer from hyper overuse.

Another problem on the Internet, which is not as commonly identified, is so-called trolling. This phenomenon is often described as people using commons such as Internet discussion forums to post irrelevant, offensive, and possibly harmful messages in great quantities. The obvious reason for such anti-social behavior is to disrupt and destroy the discussions (or the web site), but it is also the case that these so-called “trolls” find pleasure in being seen (however anonymously so).

Trolls haunt practically any setting on the Internet that supplies a costless framework for discussion or sharing, and since the Internet is built on the principles of freedom, gratis, and anonymity it has proven very difficult to be successful in charging for such services. Thus: discussion forums and other such “collective” free services develop different methods to keep trolls in check and minimize their damage. Such methods include anything from moderating and surveillance to blocking of IP addresses and users. But since it is easy for a troll to, e.g., simply create a free e-mail account and re-register, most measures taken to get rid of trolls are rather ineffective.

The trolling problem is increasing all over the Internet and it has lately become a rather great problem with the world’s largest encyclopedia: Wikipedia. With its success it has become increasingly important for the organizations and people with “articles” on Wikipedia to make sure they look good and that the articles do not give them bad will. In other words, it has been noted that e.g. the CIA has routinely edited articles that are of interest for the United States government – the government wants to keep sensitive information (about its illegal and oppressive policies) out of the Wikipedia and far from common people’s knowledge. Also, it has been discovered that the Vatican is also editing Wikipedia entries in order to hide not-so-beneficial details of its past and present.

Of course, big business has also recognized that they can lose a lot of the goodwill they might have in the market place through letting people write “anything” in “their” Wikipedia entries.

Part of the negative information added to the Wikipedia articles might not be true and some might even be slanderous. Since the Wikipedia allows anyone to update and edit articles, one would think that the positive and negative extremes would even out so that most information in the articles are true or mostly true. This is however not the case, partly because of the commons problem, which is why the Wikipedia has appointed volunteer editors and even hired people to check the quality of entries.

But the problem with Wikipedia is greater than a lack of quality. It is easily targeted for campaigns due to its nature of being a “commons.” There are a great many trolls out there, and they seem to have a lot of time on their hands.

For instance, it has been noted that pro-global warming trolls are very active in changing Wikipedia entries on scientists who are skeptical towards the “imminent man-made catastrophe” scenarios. They therefore edit entries as part of their campaigns or even delete entries they are not very fond of. The National Post wrote about the scientist Fred Singer who, the Wikipedia entry said, believed in Martians.

The NP writes, for example, on U.K. scientist Benny Peiser:

Wikipedia refused to accept Peiser’s critique, or his interpretation ofhis own views, or an account of his views that he had provided to me, or an account of his views published in a peer-reviewed journal, or an account of his views published in The Wall Street Journal, or an account of his views published by the U.S. Senate committee on environment and public works.

Instead, the Wikipedia trollers insisted that all of the above sources were disqualified or irrelevant under Wikipedia rules, and that the trollers’ own understanding of Peiser’s views trumped all others.

The trolls are numerous and they are always there, which makes it very difficult to make sure the truth is kept for long in the articles. This is a problem for a great many people who are slandered on Wikipedia and cannot seem to have the slanderous remarks removed. Others have entries added only to see them be deleted over and over again even though they seem to comply with Wikipedia policies.

In this case, scientifically proven truths are tested by popular vote. If a sufficient number of people editing Wikipedia consider it important to have only one view on global warming on Wikipedia, then it seems this will be the case. But scientific truths aren’t subject to popular vote; on the contrary, it is science that is supposed to challenge our faulty world views through offering new theories and empirical proof that we are, indeed, wrong.

After all, if science was subject to popular vote, then we still wouldn’t have begun using the wheel and we certainly wouldn’t have adopted the view that the Earth is round – not flat. Popular belief 500 years ago was that the world was the center of the universe and that it was flat – that one could fall off if traveling too far in one direction. Was the discovery that the earth is indeed round a step forward, or would we be better off with the popular view?

I am myself a victim for such a trolls’ campaign on Wikipedia as described above. The last few years there has been an article on me emphasizing my anarchist views and political writings. But beginning the summer of 2007 there were constant “flags” on the article stating that it was up for deletion. The reason? I’m not “notable” enough. This may be true, I don’t know, but it seems strange to me that I was notable for three years or so before anyone questioned my notability – and that notability became an issue only after I had become somewhat known for my writings. Or was it an issue because I had become “notable”?

I tend to think the latter, since my views are hardly respected by most – and I have even received quite a few death threats, which would prove that some people aren’t too accepting of my views.

I’m personally not very interested in whether I’m on Wikipedia, but it was fun to see how the article evolved. It is not allowed for the person to edit articles on him-/herself, so I stayed away – but I checked it a little now and then and was amazed about how people could keep track of my views, my background, my whereabouts, and my ideological evolution. Most of it, I must say, was absolutely correct – even dates and places were correctly noted in the article.

An article was also added on the web site I started back in 1999 (or was it 1998?), But as soon as the article on Per Bylund was flagged or deletion, so was the article on A debate followed on the Wikitalk pages, and it was repeatedly decided that the article on me should not be deleted. But just like it isn’t possible to keep politicians at bay through clearly advising them against their wishes in a referendum (have you noticed how they always seem to hold another referendum soon after the first one if they aren’t pleased with the outcome?), one cannot beat trolls in a democratic vote.

The article on Per Bylund was kept the first, the second, and – I think – the third times it was up for deletion. Between each “flagging” it was updated by people who had more references and information, so the article quickly grew. This was not enough, however. The trolls finally won the battle through being more persistent than the anti-trollers, and both the articles on Per Bylund and are now deleted from Wikipedia.

The interesting thing in this “war” on Wikipedia was that as soon as a deletion “flag” had been removed, another one was added. And there were only two or three people adding the deletion flags every time, at least one of them being a Wikipedia editor (with rights to make the final call to delete or keep). They obviously had a strong interest in not having these articles on Wikipedia. One would think nobody should think it important whether there would be an article on Per Bylund on Wikipedia, but obviously a couple of people thought it extremely important not to have it there.

I was continuously updated on what was going on by people with an interest in editing articles on Wikipedia. It was an interesting experience, to see how some people so eagerly invest such enormous amounts of time into having an article on someone so insignificant as myself removed from a free, online encyclopedia. I hope their gain, which I suspect is at best “feel-good,” was worth the trouble.

These are just a couple of examples, on that I experienced first-hand, of the tragedy of the commons problems on Wikipedia. The solution for Wikipedia is of course the same as for any such problem: adding cost to the use (and especially abuse) of the resource. Paying as little as 1/10 cent for editing a page would keep all or almost all trolls away. They are, after all, only doing it because it is at the expense solely of others.

In a sense, these trolls are unsuccessful politicians. Whereas politicians manage to get their hands on power and enrich themselves through making use of the that great [force-based] commons called the State, the trolls on Wikipedia and elsewhere don’t get further than their personal computer. But they have a lot in common – both thrive off the use of commons and eagerly invest in other people’s misery.