Exclusive Web 2.0, the believers say, gives a voice to everyone and their brother. But that's only part of the story. Truth be told, the net's second coming gives a voice to everyone and their brother and all their alter egos.
In the alternate universe cultivated by an endless parade of blogs, online discussion forums, and so-called social media sites, the CEO of Whole Foods can spend seven years masquerading as an everyday stock watcher, talking up his own company - and his own haircut - while badmouthing his biggest competitor. A senior editor at The New Republic can reinvent himself as the most vocal and devoted reader of his own very column. A 24-year-old nobody can fool a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist into thinking he's a professor of theology with a pair of PhDs.
And then there's the case of Michael Baxter, a 52-year-old British civil servant and alleged closet transvestite who used a certain free online encyclopedia to reinvent himself as a rogue's gallery of wikifiddling women. Fronting multiple Wikipedia accounts with photographs of unsuspecting young women from our world, he juggled no fewer than 15 alter egos, and eventually, a handful of these virtual personalities spilled onto other sites, including Wikipedia Review - the infamous Wikipedia criticism site - and Wipipedia - a free online encyclopedia for the London SM scene. Yes, that's Wipipedia.
"This is a story not just about Wikipedia, but about social media in general," says Timothy Usher, the longtime Wikipedia and Wikipedia Review contributor who helped expose this curious tale. "it shows what people can get away with on the web that they can't in real life."
Gagged and Bound
In the spring of 2006, Londoner Chris Selwood discovered that the free encyclopedia anyone can edit was hosting photographs of his girlfriend. The photos appeared on the "user page" of a regular Wikipedia editor known only as "Taxwoman."
"A friend of my girlfriend phoned and told us," Selwood explained during a recent interview. "At the time, we didn't even know what Wikipedia was. But she said the photos were on the page of someone who seemed to be discussing - and writing articles about - bondage. It was as if my girlfriend was posting information about various paraphernalia used within the bondage scene."
Selwood - who asks that his girlfriend remain nameless, for obvious reasons - soon created his own Wikipedia account and complained to the site's help desk. When that failed, he removed the photos himself.
But like so many new editors, he was promptly reprimanded by a longtime wikifiddler, accused of undermining efforts to put the sum of all human knowledge online. "Suddenly, I was told that I was vandalizing the site and that if I did it again my account would be deleted," he says. "I tried to tell them why I'd done it, but the response was 'How do I know you're telling the truth? How do we know you're not the one who's lying?'"
After some additional back and forth, the person behind the Taxwoman account wrote him an email - from the address "firstname.lastname@example.org" - saying the photos had been taken down. And within the year, Wikipedia administrators banned the entire account. As it turns out, the person behind Taxwoman was also behind at least nine other Wikipedia accounts, including one called "Poetlister" and another called "Rachel Brown." And some of these accounts carried photos of other young women.