Sunday, March 02, 2008

Contributional compulsions

Widely linked to already, but Nicholson Baker has a great little essay on Wikipedia in the latest New York Review of Books:
Say you're working away on the Wikipedia article on aging. You've got some nice scientific language in there and it's really starting to shape up:
After a period of near perfect renewal (in Humans, between 20 and 50 years of age), organismal senescence is characterized by the declining ability to respond to stress, increasing homeostatic imbalance and increased risk of disease. This irreversible series of changes inevitably ends in Death.
Not bad!

And then somebody—a user with an address of, a "vandal"—replaces the entire article with a single sentence: "Aging is what you get when you get freakin old old old." That happened on December 20, 2007. A minute later, you "revert" that anonymous editor's edit, with a few clicks; you go back in history to the article as it stood before. You've just kept the aging article safe, for the moment. But you have to stay vigilant, because somebody might swoop in again at any time, and you'll have to undo their harm with your power reverter ray. Now you're addicted. You've become a force for good just by standing guard and looking out for juvenile delinquents.

Some articles are so out of the way that they get very little vandalism. (Although I once fixed a tiny page about a plant fungus, Colletotrichum trichellum, that infects English ivy; somebody before me had claimed that 40 percent of the humans who got it died.) Some articles are vandalized a lot. On January 11, 2008, the entire fascinating entry on the aardvark was replaced with "one ugly animal"; in February the aardvark was briefly described as a "medium-sized inflatable banana." On December 7, 2007, somebody altered the long article on bedbugs so that it read like a horror movie:
Bedbugs are generally active only at dawn, with a peak attack period about an hour before dawn, though given the opportunity, they may attempt to feed at your brain at other times.
A few weeks later, somebody replaced everything with:
A piece of antivandalism software, VoABot II, reverted that edit, with a little sigh, less than a minute after it was made.

1 comment:

  1. Aardvark. Wiki. Johnson vs. Blackadder; cage match.

    Surely we'll get to a variant of whuffie; folks will expend it on editing wikis, and be paid in kind (more or less - where "more or less" is relative to the expenditure required to edit).