A new Web site unmasks Wikipedia's vandals.

Culture and technology.
Aug. 24 2007 4:35 PM

Wikipedia Unmasked

A new Web site reveals the sneak attacks and ego-fluffing of your friends and co-workers.

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It would be easy to assume that this is an example of Wikiscanner capturing Jack's modesty in action. But when I asked him if he made the change, he pleaded not guilty. He also pointed out that the page has his alma mater wrong.

It's not news that Wikipedia is occasionally incorrect. It's also not a surprise that tobacco companies, the Mormon Church, and Scientology are altering pages to promote their products and worldviews. More interesting are the small fry who were also caught in the Wikiscanner net. Someone with a New York Times IP made a crucial edit to the Condoleezza Rice page, altering "pianist" to "penis." A Greenpeace IP sniped at Ted Nugent (the Nuge is a prominent pro-hunting spokesman) by claiming that he once had a 9-year-old Hawaiian girlfriend. A Republican Party IP ruined the sixth Harry Potter by blanking the entire entry and adding a spoiler.

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For the past week, I've been running various large law firms, banks, and consulting groups through Wikiscanner. While I haven't uncovered any great gotchas, I have noticed a few trends. First, corporate America shows an unparalleled creativity when it comes to describing erotic activity. (I will never think of milkshakes the same way again.) Second, way too many of you are adding yourself to Wikipedia as "Notable Alumni" of your school or as a "Person" from your hometown. Third, most every investment bank seems to have some British guy who's obsessed with football and vandalizes the Arsenal page. Fourth, people who went to Yale cannot resist editing their Secret Society page. Fifth, there's still a lot of love out there for Larry Bird. And, memo to everyone: Adding your buddy's name  to the entry about "Oral Sex" is not original.

Wikipedia vandalism is as old as Wikipedia itself. The Wikipedians have a whole section devoted to the most inspired damage, called "Bad Jokes and Other Deleted Nonsense." I especially liked the archive of hoax pages, including the justly celebrated Upper Peninsula War, which details (complete with maps and historical photos) a skirmish over the Michigan's Upper Peninsula between Canadians and Americans during the Spring of 1843. But even a hoax as convincing as this one lasted only two weeks before being found out. Wikiscanner, despite its litany of mischief, points to the success of Wikipedia. The egotistical edits, slurs, and blatant puffery eventually get re-edited and fixed by the community.

As I scanned away, I found devoted Wikipedians who corrected grammar, argued finer points of historical incidents, and updated entries relating to their catholic interests: Jacques Lacan, steampunk, the Rabbit tetralogy, cannabis, the Empire State Building, weather balloons. So, that's the image I'm left with after two weeks of Wikiscanner: a thousand Cliff Clavins, anonymously sculpting the knowledge of Wikipedia during their working hours. No doubt there are subtle Wikipedia vandalism and public-relations black ops waiting to be discovered, but, for the moment, the open-source encyclopedia seems to be holding the fort against the forces of idiocy and spin.

Bonus celebrity edit: A Dreamworks IP gives Seth Rogen an adopted Laotian child named Pingpong Applesauce Rogen.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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