Backstage with the Wikipedians: Inner Workings of Global Encyclopedia 'Better than a Soap Opera'

By Mathieu von Rohr

Part 2: Wikipedia's Back Rooms -- The Discussion Pages

Wikipedia wouldn't be able to function without this dedicated core, the Wikipedians. It's a community that exists in the back rooms of the project -- the discussion pages. The proportion of new Wikipedia users who ever stray onto these pages is low -- somewhere between 1 percent and 10 percent.

Just a few hundred users make up the German-language Wikipedia's innermost circle. Many of them know each other personally -- not just from discussion forums or from their user pages, where they introduce themselves at length, but many also participate in Wikipedia gatherings that take place throughout the country.

Things can at times get very contentious behind the scenes, but Wladyslaw Sojka admits that the bitter manner in which the dispute over the Danube Tower escalated was an unprecedented incident -- even for Wikipedia. But towers are a subject that is near and dear to Sojka, and he finds it difficult to let nonsense stand. "Besides, I have relatively high stamina," he adds.

Sojka is an athletic man with short hair. From the brown corner sofa in his apartment in Lörrach, he can see Rötteln Castle on the hill across the way. He wrote his first Wikipedia article six years ago about the castle. In the intervening years, Sojka spent 10 hours a week working on Wikipedia and says he wrote more than 400 articles, uploaded more than 1,000 images and left his mark in more than 7,000 articles. He's been a productive member, overseeing the Wikipedia portal for the Swiss city of Basel and writing 50 television tower articles.

An Argument Worthy of a 'Stooped Ant'

The first time Sojka tried to declare the Danube Tower a television tower was three years ago. He was stopped and let the matter rest. But this time around, he wanted to fight.

"Danube Tower is not a television tower. That's a fact, an Austrian fact if you want!" wrote a user called "extrapurifier." This argument, Sojka responded, "is worthy of a stooped ant."

His opponents, who were in the beginning mainly irritated Austrians, pointed out that the Danube Tower broadcasts only radio, not television, and was built as an observation tower for a horticultural exhibition. It was entirely beside the point whether or not the Danube Tower broadcasts television, Sojka replied. Rather, he wrote, a much more decisive factor was that it fulfilled the "architectural criteria" of a television tower, namely: a freestanding tower, usually of reinforced concrete, including a protruding tower top. This was a definition he would refine considerably in the course of the discussions.

On the second day, Sojka reported strangers' edits of the article as vandalism due to "deletion of the correct technical term" and the article was blocked. Surely this "little problem" could be resolved through discussion, an administrator replied. That, it turns out, was a serious misapprehension.

Is the Danube Tower debate typical of Wikipedia's inner workings? Wikipedians also discuss more important topics, of course -- the 1945 bombing of Dresden, the Industrial Revolution, Scientology or the earthquake in Haiti. Yet it can certainly be said that the people involved in Wikipedia clash intensely -- and that they're also debating important things when they fight so earnestly over small details. The significance of a topic doesn't necessarily correspond to the fervor with which people discuss it on Wikipedia. Once someone is personally involved, everything seems equally important.

The people who contribute to Wikipedia are "not a random assortment of people even if they sometimes pretend to be," writes computer science philosopher and Wikipedia critic Jaron Lanier. "They are often, so far as I can tell, people who are committed to whatever area they are writing about."

A Neutral Point of View

One of the guiding principles of Wikipedia is the neutral point of view (NPOV). No personal passions should influence the way topics are portrayed. In reality, though, most articles have only a few main authors, who often adopt these works as their own and defend them against changes made by other users. Whether they get away with it, writes sociologist Christian Stegbauer, depends not only on the accuracy of their arguments, but also on their position in the site's social structure.

Suggested compromises came up in the Danube Tower debate. Some offered Sojka the option of covering the television tower aspect in a later part of the article. He declined. The mere definition as an "observation tower" is misleading, he said, when presented alone at the beginning. One user suggested writing "It conforms architecturally to the style of a television tower," since that would mean the Danube Tower is only similar to a television tower, but isn't actually one. Sojka replied: "Your suggestion of compromise isn't a suggestion of compromise, it's unencyclopedic rubbish." And: "The object is a television tower that's used as an observation tower. Period. Anything else is unfounded fairy tales."

In essence, it was a simple question: Is a television tower only something that broadcasts television, or can it also be something that looks like a television tower? Is there such a thing as a "television tower" architectural style? After two weeks, someone drew up statistics on the discussion entries so far. Sojka was far ahead -- at 242 entries, almost a quarter of the entire conversation -- with his opponents lagging behind.

'I Enjoy Dissent'

That was when Henriette Fiebig got involved. Fiebig is well known within Wikipedia. She says it herself and it's also true. Active since 2004, Fiebig is an administrator and former member of the site's Arbitration Committee. If Wikipedia functions like an oligarchy, as Stegbauer says, then Henriette Fiebig is a member of the ruling class.

She's sitting in a café on Nollendorfplatz in Berlin, a plump 42-year-old whose face calls to mind a younger Angela Merkel. Her T-shirt bears the word "Enzyklopädist" ("encyclopedist" in German). She talks fast, and a lot.

"The Danube Tower debate was already kilometers long when I came across it," she says. "I kept reading and reading -- I enjoy dissent. Wlady had shot himself in the foot by getting more and more aggressive. At some point, of course, you just start to feel such hate for someone like that. You think, I want to shut him up."

Fiebig went to the Berlin State Library. She researched, found sources and wrote a long entry for the discussion. Her first assertion was that Sojka's main source, which he himself described as the "tower bible," wasn't an academic work, but more of a coffee table book. Second was that what Sojka saw as a television tower architectural style is apparently known, at least according to an "Encyclopedia of Architectural Styles" she had turned up, as a "Kopfturm" (literally "head tower") in German.

As if that could have convinced him.

Fiebig says that true Wikipedians have seen many such discussions and know that they never reach consensus. "At some point you get it: Ultimately, we're looking for the truth, but it doesn't exist." Fiebig says she gave up wanting to prove she was right after spending two and a half years "struggling with those idiots with the 'phantom time hypothesis'" -- followers of a conspiracy theory that claims the years 614 to 911 never existed. In that particular battle, Fiebig prevailed.

272 Language Versions around the World

Fiebig doesn't only live for Wikipedia, she also works at the headquarters of Wikimedia Germany. The association supports Wikipedia and related projects, collecting donations for them, but it explicitly does not operate the sites -- that's done by the United States-based Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that collects donations to fund Wikipedia in all its 272 different language versions. According to projections, the Wikimedia Foundation will spend $9.4 million (€7 million) in the current fiscal year on operating costs, including staff and around 400 servers around the world.

The German association is located in a six-room Art Nouveau apartment in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. Fiebig, one of 12 employees, works as a "community assistant," a link to Wikipedia users.

A fair amount of her time is spent answering the phone. She takes calls from people who use Wikipedia, but don't yet understand quite how the site works and want her to make changes to entries for them. People also call wanting to order concert tickets or an oven, having mistaken the "Contact" link next to a Wikipedia article as a way to place an order.

Fiebig joined Wikipedia after breaking off a degree in medieval studies. In the beginning she thought, "I don't need a bunch of know-it-alls who write stupid stuff on the Internet." But then she came across deplorable articles on her favorite topics, Donaldism and heroic epics. That's when she knew -- the project needed her.

She started to notice that people in the discussion forums listened to her. More and more, she had a feeling of being able to have an effect. "Of course I'm a self-promoter, like any Wikipedian," she says. Those were the early days, when it was easy to rise quickly through the ranks, and she was elected to be an administrator after two months.

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1. another "german trait" ?
more q than a 04/23/2010
Read the article with some interest, since I have often wondered how frequently wikipedia is given as THE source of info in german fora and blogs. Use it myself : a quick FIRST step of research, but would hesitate - even be kind of embarrassed - to have it as my sole back-up .... Now I can't wait for someone to comment on how "very german" the whole controversy is ;)
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