September 22, 2015

Stormy Wiki Weather

I’m in favor of responsible participation in places like Wikipedia and Twitter. If you’re going to publish things, you should take responsibility for what you say. In particular, you should not hide between anonymity to threaten to rape or murder your opponents, to spread rumors about their sex lives, or to extort their silence.

One of the main Gamergate targets at Wikipedia, Tarc, has been banned from Wikipedia over something he twittered which Wikipedia’s arbitration committee has termed “harassment”. Tarc is a responsible editor: his work at Wikipedia is connected to his real work. I’m responsible in this way, too.

The problem with accepting responsibility on Wikipedia is that tea-party movement conservatives who are not responsible are free to threaten and harass you, but you must not retaliate in kind or you will be permanently cast out. (In practice, is helps to be a well-connected guy who supports the libertarian GOP, while progressives, women, and gay editors seem to be more vulnerable.) This asymmetry alone may explain Wikipedia's increasing tendency to embrace right-wing fantasies: for example, 14-year-old clockmaker Ahmed Mohamed has a page which the usual suspects want to see deleted: one Gamergater suggested that the page be deleted and "if he uses his clock to blow something up, we can add it later."

The decision to be responsible is probably irrevocable and should not be made lightly. It must be made when you set up your Wikipedia account. Children cannot make this sort of choice. Just as we keep children from signing up for anonymous chat rooms, it’s getting to be time to think about the importance of keeping Reddit and Wikipedia accounts away from children. Permitting kids to use Wikipedia could tempt them to sign up, with dangerous consequences.

Wikipedia won’t address this voluntarily. I’d welcome opinions on whether this problem is best addressed through legislation, regulation or education.