Exclusive On the surface, all is well in Wikiland. Just last week, a headline from The San Francisco Chronicle told the world that "Wikipedia's Future Is Still Looking Up," as the paper happily announced that founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales plans to expand his operation with a high-profile move to the city by the bay.
But underneath, there's trouble brewing.
Controversy has erupted among the encyclopedia's core contributors, after a rogue editor revealed that the site's top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown on perceived threats to their power.
Many suspected that such a list was in use, as the Wikipedia "ruling clique" grew increasingly concerned with banning editors for the most petty of reasons. But now that the list's existence is confirmed, the rank and file are on the verge of revolt.
Revealed after an uber-admin called "Durova" used it in an attempt to enforce the quixotic ban of a longtime contributor, this secret mailing list seems to undermine the site's famously egalitarian ethos. At the very least, the list allows the ruling clique to push its agenda without scrutiny from the community at large. But clearly, it has also been used to silence the voice of at least one person who was merely trying to improve the encyclopedia's content.
"I've never seen the Wikipedia community as angry as they are with this one," says Charles Ainsworth, a Japan-based editor who's contributed more feature articles to the site than all but six other writers. "I think there was more hidden anger and frustration with the 'ruling clique' than I thought and Durova's heavy-handed action and arrogant refusal to take sufficient accountability for it has released all of it into the open."
Kelly Martin, a former member of Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee, leaves no doubt that this sort of surreptitious communication has gone on for ages. "This particular list is new, but the strategy is old," Martin told us via phone, from outside Chicago. "It's certainly not consistent with the public principles of the site. But in reality, it's standard practice."
Meanwhile, Jimbo Wales has told the community that all this is merely a tempest in a teacup. As he points out, the user that Durova wrongly banned was reinstated after a mere 75 minutes. But it would seem that Jimbo has done his best to suppress any talk of the secret mailing list.
Whatever the case, many longtime editors are up-in-arms. And the site's top administrators seem more concerned with petty site politics than with building a trustworthy encyclopedia. "The problem with Wikipedia is that, for so many in the project, it's no longer about the encyclopedia," Martin wrote in a recent blog post. "The problem is that Wikipedia's community has defined itself not in terms of the encyclopedia it is supposedly producing, but instead of the people it venerates and the people it abhors."
Bang! Bang! You're dead
On November 18, Durova banned a Wikipedia editor known as "!!". Yes, "!!". Some have taken to calling him "Bang Bang." At Wikipedia, everyone has the right to anonymity, and user names are often, shall we say, inexplicable.
In banning this account, Durova described it as an "abusive sock puppet," insisting it was setup by someone dead set on destroying the encyclopedia. "This problem editor is a troublemaker whose username is two exclamation points with no letters," read the block. "He is a ripened sock with a padded history of redirects, minor edits, and some DYK work. He also indulges in obscene trolling in German, and free range sarcasm and troublemaking. If you find this user gloating, or spot his nasty side, hit him with the banhammer." DYKs are edits made to the "Did You Know" section of the Wikipedia home page.
Durova then posted a notice to the site's public forum, insisting the ban was too important for discussion outside the purview of the Arbitration Committee, Wikipedia's Supreme Court. "Due to the nature of this investigation, our normal open discussion isn't really feasible," she said. "Please take to arbitration if you disagree with this decision."
But it was discussed. At length. Countless editors were nothing less than livid, many arguing that the banned user was actually a wonderfully productive editor. "Durova, you're really going to have to explain this," wrote one editor. "I see no transgressions of any kind on the part of this user; indeed, with over 100 DYKs, he seems to be a pretty positive force around here."
Meanwhile, Durova continued to insist that she had some sort of secret evidence that could only be viewed by the Arbitration Committee. "I am very confident my research will stand up to scrutiny," she said. "I am equally confident that anything I say here will be parsed rather closely by some disruptive banned sockpuppeteers. If I open the door a little bit it'll become a wedge issue as people ask for more information, and then some rather deep research techniques would be in jeopardy."
Then someone posted a private email from Durova in which she divulged her evidence - and revealed the secret mailing list.