Wonderful world of Wikipedians

We’ve not talked about Wikipedia for a while but a couple of interesting articles caught my eye over the past few days duty_callswhich give a fascinating insight into the sort of person that dedicates their evenings to sharing and perfecting human knowledge.

The first came via Nicholas Carr, who flagged a piece from the New Scientist that looked at the psychological make up of regular contributors to the mass-collaboration project. Mainly the Israeli based researchers found that Wikipedians tend to be ‘disagreeable and closed to new ideas’ . Headed up by the wonderfully named Yair Amichai-Hamburger, Sammy Ofer School of Communication in Herzliya, Israel, the study surveyed 69 Israeli Wikipedians and compared them with 70 students, who matched them in age and internet usage.

The questionnaire aimed to establish if they felt more comfortable expressing themselves in the real world or online. Of the five main traits examined, openness to experience and ideas, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, Wikipedians scored lowest on agreeableness and openess. Leading Amichai-Hamburger to suggest that perhaps those pedantic tireless editors are not being altruistic, but rather compensating for not having a voice in the real world.

Which makes the following entry on a wikipedia discussion page perhaps slightly more understandable, if not any less palatable*.

What happened is just ridiculous. A man’s life doesn’t justify censorship of informations on Wikipedia. What are good reasons for censorship? The ones that Jimmy Wales chooses? What if someone who has ‘power’ decides that something must not be published, for his alleged “good reasons”. A life perhaps has been saved (are we sure that it was because of the media blackout?), but Wikipedia’s neutrality and freedom has been seriously undermined. Not counting the fact that the New York Times editor, with only several phone calls, succeeded in making all the other media not to publish the news.


The incident to which the anonymous user refers is the kidnap of New York Times reporter, David Rohde, by the Taliban  in November 2008. Following the kidnapping of Rohde and his driver, the NYT believed that publicity would increase Rohde’s value to his captors and negatively impact on his treatment and chances of survival. Keeping the story out of the mainstream news meant a discreet editor-to-editor phone call, keeping it our of Rohde’s wiki entry was far more of a battle. Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, became involved at the behest of the NYT and he arranged for  Rodhe’s entry to be monitored. It was edited several times over the following months, usually anonymously and frequently from the same, similar, group of IP addresses, believed to be from Florida.

Last Saturday, Rohde escaped, prompting NYT to email Wales prior to making the news public. Wales personally unfroze Rohde’s entry only for  the anonymous editor to post information about the kidnap and subsequent escape with the following note.

“Is that enough proof for you [expletives]? I was right. You were WRONG.”

Wales stated in the NYT article about the difficulties of suppressing the news on Wikipedia that they had no idea who the editor was or if they had no ill intent but they had no way of reaching out to tell them why they kept deleting their entries. I don’t know if it was the same person who posted that they felt that the life of one person does not justify censorship but it lends a tad more colour to Amichai-Hamburger’s study of the personality characteristics of wikipedia members.

Also posted on Clicking and Screaming

UPDATE: The talk page behind Rohde’s entry has evolved into a fascinating discussion on censorship and ethics and is well worth a read.

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