Is Anonymity Good Or Bad For Wikipedia?

from the depends-on-who-you-ask dept

Last year plenty of attention was paid to the release of Wikiscanner, a tool from Virgil Griffith that connected the IP addresses of Wikipedia edits with the companies from which they came. This resulted in a few PR flare ups as people noticed some questionable editing by biased parties. Griffith has now upgraded Wikiscanner to do even more (and renamed it to Wikiwatcher). While the revelations probably won’t be as surprising, it will allow some way of connecting those who may have edited at home to their employers.

However, perhaps an even more interesting discussion is somewhat buried at the end of the Forbes article linked above: the question over whether or not anonymity is a good or bad thing for Wikipedia. The article quotes Marc Rotenberg, the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, complaining that Wikipedia needs to do a better job protecting individuals’ privacy. Griffith responds that removing anonymity should improve the quality of Wikipedia:

“I would say that if people are anonymous, the quality of their contribution is probably much lower. Wouldn’t you want Wikipedia users to be held accountable for what they change?”

This brings up a few interesting questions. Rotenberg’s complaint seems misplaced. The fact that your IP address is revealed with each edit is a known fact. Anyone editing Wikipedia should take that into account. That’s hardly Wikipedia’s problem. But anonymity can also be an important factor in getting content out. And so far, it appears that all of the “scandals” associated with Wikiscanner were related to biased parties changing info in their favor — which certainly suggests Giffith has a point: catching those who are changing Wikipedia with ulterior motives does seem to improve the reliability of the site.

Filed Under: , , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Is Anonymity Good Or Bad For Wikipedia?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
David Gerard (profile) says:

Anons write quite a lot of content

In terms of the normal operations of writing an encyclopedia, allowing people who aren’t logged in to write stuff has been highly beneficial. There seems to be a core of a few thousand editors who do most of the polishing, tweaking and formatting, but quite a lot of the content is written by more or less drive-by editors. Requiring login is a massive barrier to contribution – everyone has 100 web page logins, another one is just a nuisance. We welcome drive-by fixes. And quite a lot of our regular editors started editing drive-by, not logged in.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Anons write quite a lot of content

Requiring login is a massive barrier to contribution – everyone has 100 web page logins, another one is just a nuisance. We welcome drive-by fixes. And quite a lot of our regular editors started editing drive-by, not logged in.

I wasn’t saying anything about requiring logins. I agree that it’s better with it. The question is whether or not the IP addresses should be obfuscated.

Rob (profile) says:


I agree that there can be problems of bias, but the statement, “biased parties changing info in their favor” is itself a biased statement.

If someone writes that you are a pedophile in Wikipedia and you go and change it are you a “biased party changing info in your favor”? The answer is yes, of course. But, assuming the charge is false, does that mean you should be chastised for making the change or prevented from making the change?

Identifying a party or their affiliation isn’t proof of bias either. It’s a conclusion that will most likely be jumped to without any other evidence (or as the Magliozzi brothers say, “unencumbered by the thought process”).

All parties are biased to some degree. The issue isn’t, or shouldn’t be, are the parties biased but, are the changes factual enough and supported by other reputable publications to be in compliance with the requirements for an encyclopedia.



Kenny S. (user link) says:

IP Problem

Correct me if I am wrong, but any sort of tracking done to IP addresses at a user’s home and attempting to link those IPs to the individuals is a bit of a time waste.

Sure, in the cases of a corporate IP – this could prove more useful where a static IP address is typically given to a network. However, most ISPs like Cable and DSL connections assign dynamic IP addresses to their customers which are constantly changing.

If people’s anonymity has any bearing on the quality of their contributions (aside from the obvious corporate trolling) – perhaps we should then question the anonymous financial contributions made to charities every year which amount to hundreds of millions for those organizations.

I’m not strictly comparing the two but I don’t believe that forcing people to login will do anything at all. Considering how easy it is to “spoof” yourself, you are merely putting up a roadblock for those who just don’t want to be bothered but could have something of interest to add to any given article.

Spectere (profile) says:

Re: Modest proposal

Given the way that wikis work that would be impossible to implement.

Think about it: what if a registered user does a minor modification on something that an anonymous user posted (say, corrected a typo)? What would people who had the “filter” on see?

The only way to allow something like that would be to create two totally separate wikis, which would definitely be out of the question in this case.

Also, for the record, Wikipedia does “semi-protect” articles that receive a large amount of vandalism. Semi-protected articles require editors to be registered to edit them.

blub says:

I’d be interested in your take on a famous Wikipedia episode from last winter. Mary Spicuzza, a print journalist, upset because she thought an article about her sister Jeanne Marie Spicuzza was unfairly dropped from Wikipedia, conducted a campaign to “out” the Wikipedia editor whom she thought wronged her sister. She wrote an article explaining how she tried to out him. You can read it here:

However, she was forced to resign from her newspaper, the SF Weekly, for using newspaper resources for “personal reasons.” She also violated several journalistic rules, including using sources in her family without revealing as such to readers.

You can read an interesting take on the matter by the editor she tried to “out” here:'_noticeboard/IncidentArchive372#Attempted_Outing_of_Wikipedia_Editor_User:Griot_by_Tawdry_Tabloid_Journalist

Wikipedia just keeps getting more interesting….

From the SF Weekly web site (user link) says:

Problem with blub

I edited this story and I can assure you that Mary did not get fired for this story or any other. Mary decided to leave the paper to take a job with a local documentary filmmaker. She gave her notice before the Wikipedia story was published. She disclosed to me early in the reporting process her sister’s fights with Griot and her sister’s role is mentioned high up in our story. Bottom line: We stand by the story.

Comment by Will Harper, Managing Editor, SF Weekly on Feb 26th, 2008, 13:55 pm

Sezmo says:

Mary Spicuzza's ethics

We read about the Mary Spicuzza case in my journalism class. An interesting question: Should a journalist be able to use their newspaper’s IT resources to try to out somebody who has crossed her family. It makes for an interesting ethical discussion. It think it was a gutsy move on Mary Spicuzza’s part to risk her job like that.

Organ Donor Card says:

Anonymity or IP edits?

You seem to be conflating the anonymity of logged in users with the anonymity of (not logged in) IP editors. While there are issues with the anonymity of both, David Gerard’s comment above ignores the simply massive amounts of simple YOU EAT POOP JERRY RULES vandalism by IP editors. The time spent finding and fixing these nuisances is a distraction from (a) building an encyclopaedia and (b) rooting out the types of shenanigans hinted at in the article. Closing Wikipedia to IP editors would significantly raise the bar for simple vandals and free up a lot of volunteer time for more productive uses.

Jon Awbrey (user link) says:

The Question Is Whether WP's Irresponsibility Is Good For Society

I’m tempted to say “‘Nuff Said”, but maybe a bit of e-laboration wouldn’t be out of place.

The question that people ought to be asking is not whether anonymity is good for Wikipedia, but whether Wikipedia’s anonymity is good for Society.

Wikipedia is a place for social, moral, and intellectual adolescents, for people who haven’t yet taken the step to a level of maturity where they naturally choose to take responsibility — for what they write and for how they treat other people.

There are plenty of reason for having low pressures environments where people can escape, temporarily, from the pressures of full-fledged adult responsibility, so long as they can do that in a way that harms neither themselves nor others. That is why we have chat-rooms and holodecks. But a general purpose, wannabe reliable encyclopedia and all-round news source is not one of those places. Sadly, all too sadly, far too many Wikipediots have yet to learn the difference. Whether they know it or not, Wikipedia space cadets harm both themselves and others by staying too long in the moral and intellectual vacuum known as Wikipedia.

Jon Awbrey

Jacob says:

I find it hard to believe that Spicuzza’s editor “approved the story.” Did she know the Spicuzza family’s history with Griot? That her own sister and niece had had run-ins with him. Did her editor know that she quoted her own neice in the story without telling readers she was quoting her own niece? I don’t think so. It’s no coincidence, in my view, that Spicuzza abruptly left the SF Weekly after the article came out. Anyhow, I would sure like to get to the bottom of this for an article I’m writing.

Telogen says:

What really happened

Griot, the user who instigated these past and present SPP accusations and Jeanne Marie Spicuzza article deletion, is an SPP. We challenged ‘his’ Ralph Nader article, so he began stalking my contributions, saw me contributing to an article that’s been around for years before I ever came to Wikipedia, and he’s determined to get rid of it. He felt powerless, so he’s reacting out of fear and spite. He announced his departure from Wikipedia, but went around ‘secretly’ vandalizing user talk pages and links to the JMS article (see Telogen’s note on the article’s deletion page). It wasn’t enough, so he prompted Calton to put boxes all over the article. I was away. Telogen reported it to the AN/I board. A few admins told Calton not to do that, and Calton got very miffed, violating WP:CIVIL, 3RR, etc. Calton placed the article on his AfD list. He and Griot, SPP, gathered some editor and admin friends together (why else would so many people vote “DELETE” on such an “obscure” article, as he called it, in 24 hours?). I try to fix it, I’m COI, SSP, etc. I must be blocked. It might become too good to delete or something. Telogen tells it like it is, now he and I are being trashed. My GF edits have been reverted by the same people who are now promptly voting to delete articles that Telogen and me and contributed to. As for the IP ID, per instruction of WP, I choose not to adopt a name, and Telogen adopted his with TNM hers (see above). I understand taking a name is an option, not mandatory. Please correct me if I’m wrong, because I don’t want to disregard WP policy. Per WP:AGF, you might chalk it up to the fact that I’ve contributing off and on for all of two months. I have a history of good faith edits, and Telogen guided the Ralph Nader article resolve that Griot was aggravating. TNM left for good. I pulled back. Otheus asked me to. I did. That’s why we’re being accused of what exactly what Griot is doing. He’s had some practice. He’s got a Dick Cheney approach to personal politics. I’m pretty fed up with the whole business, I don’t like all the conflict and backbiting. I’m noticing a lot of quality problems with articles, a lot of people not qualified to edit, poor writing, bullying, COI not addressed because these users know more people to back them than first-timers. Users aren’t who they say they are. That’s ironic, by keeping my IP visible, I’m MORE outright about who I am. I’m concerned about teachers telling their students not to come to WP, because it’s so inaccurate. I wanted to help. Now, I’m just tired of it all. Griots of the world think they’ve won, because they get their way. They bully you into their way. Or do they? As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for, man is powerless to the results, etc. The way some people are acting, you’d scarcely recognize their humanity at all. Maybe it’s the computer, they think no one can see. Fear. But it’s that much more visible, really. The best people do great things when they don’t know or think someone else is watching. The heroes. Others hide behind an eponym, and by trying to hide, revealing their true natures. How lonely it must be, and so hunched over a keyboard most of your life. Telogen and I stated before that we are different people. We know the truth. Others continue to accuse, to cause confusion and divert from their own transgressions. Monkey politics. The hope of it– I can leave here, have my life, know I’m honest, do good work. That’s all I’ve got to say on that.

Jerry K. says:

We studied this too!

My journalism class also studied the Mary Spicuzza case and the ethics thereof. Our teacher was really into it! At what point do you cross the line when you use your newspaper’s resources to attack somebody on a personal level? My professor was getting a kick out of imagining the two sisters (over a Thanksgiving dinner, he imagined) plotting how they could bring down a Wikipedia contributor. Small-minded stuff on the sister’s part but interesting in regards to the ethics of journalism.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...