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

Wikipedia, the world's largest encyclopedia, is a massive project, where human knowledge is collected and edited by ordinary users. But behind the scenes of the German-language version of this intellectual utopia is a group of small and dedicated volunteers. Their passion for truth at times leads to bitter disputes.

It was only one word that Wladyslaw Sojka changed on Wikipedia. But by doing so, he set off a running battle that lasted two and a half months and took on a tone so hateful that it even surprised Sojka -- even if he himself was partly to blame for it.

It started one night when Sojka modified the first sentence of the German-language Wikipedia article on the Danube Tower  in Vienna. He changed "The Danube Tower is an observation tower" into "The Danube Tower is a television and observation tower."

Sojka, 34, an insurance agent from Lörrach, southwestern Germany, had given plenty of consideration to this step. There are few people, he says, who know as much about television towers as he does. Towers have fascinated him since he was a boy. He has literature on towers, coffee table books about towers and pictures of towers. On their honeymoon, he and his wife took a helicopter flight around his favorite -- the CN Tower in Toronto. A poster-sized photograph Sojka took of that tower hangs in their bedroom.

Who then, if not he, had the right to judge whether a 252-meter (827-foot) reinforced concrete pillar in Vienna should be described as a television tower?

The very next morning, Sojka saw he had been pulled up short. An Austrian with the username "Elisabeth59" had undone his modification and added a comment: "The Danube Tower is definitively not a television tower. It was conceived and built as an observation tower."

The move rather annoyed Sojka. He changed the article back again and wrote: "If you don't know anything, you should just keep your fingers still -- the danube tower is obviously a ttelevision tower (sic)."

Thus began one of the most absurd debates ever carried out on the German Wikipedia website. It amounted to pages and pages full of insults and corrections, reaching a length of 600,000 characters -- as much as a book. The underlying issues soon became much greater than just the Danube Tower -- it was about the truth and who has the right to enforce it.

'A Social Innovation'

Wikipedia is the world's largest encyclopedia and it soon may be the only remaining one, so those issues are crucial. The print version of the German-language Brockhaus Encyclopedia as well as Microsoft's CD-ROM encyclopedia, Encarta, have been discontinued, and the Encyclopædia Britannica is experiencing financial difficulties. The days of thick encyclopedia volumes lining bookshelves are past, as are the days of encyclopedia editors who selected, assessed and sorted material. These tasks have been passed on to the collective of Internet users.

Wikipedia seems like a utopia come true -- global knowledge compiled by everyone, administered, amended and corrected by everyone, serving the philosophy that knowledge shouldn't be a good to be sold, it should be something freely available to all. The German version contains more than 1 million articles, thousands of users access the site every second and about 20 modifications are made to articles every minute. It's possible to observe here in real time the production of knowledge, the struggle for truth and how painful that process can sometimes be.

The miracle of Wikipedia, though, is how all that bickering can actually give rise to knowledge. "Wikipedia is a social innovation, not a technical innovation," Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales once wrote.

The vast majority of Wikipedia's millions of users never even noticed the dispute over the Danube Tower. These users access the online encyclopedia to quickly look something up, and they know, for the most part, that not every single thing they find there is necessarily true. In fact, they know little of the life that goes on behind the scenes, or of the blood, sweat and tears poured out just a few clicks away, in the project's metaphorical back rooms.

It turns out Wikipedia is not actually the project of many, but the project of just a few. It is a widespread misconception that all users contribute mutually and democratically to the site and that Wikipedia is the product of "collective intelligence." The German Wikipedia has several hundred thousand registered users. But according to research carried out by sociologist Christian Stegbauer in Frankfurt, more than half of all users who register on the site never make changes to an article. Only 0.5 percent of all active users are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all editing. That's a group of not even 2,000 people.

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.

'Now You Need Three Days to Read all the Rules'

Getting involved in Wikipedia has become significantly more difficult since then, Fiebig says. "Now you need three days just to read all the rules. The standards for articles have risen, there's an obligation to include footnotes. A lot of topics have been taken already. There are relevance criteria, which determine what you're even still allowed to write about at all."

This trend can also be seen in the way user numbers have developed. For years, the number of new Wikipedians exploded, but more recently, it's declined considerably. Stegbauer, the sociologist, reaches the conclusion in his study that Wikipedia's inner circle has closed itself off more and more, making access for new users more difficult.

Why do people even participate in a project like this, writing an encyclopedia without pay? One important impetus, Stegbauer says, is the social recognition earned through collaborating in the community. This is why talking about Wikipedia so often means talking about interpersonal relations. The project deals with big questions and yet, in the end, it has to do more than anything with the simple fact that humans fight over social roles.

The lowest on the hierarchy are the IPs -- non-registered users -- the ones most likely to make small, senseless changes like adding the word "fuck" into an article on Diderot. Then there's the German Wikipedia's elite, a caste of around 300 administrators. They have the right to block or delete articles and to discipline users. Legends and star authors are also at the top of the food chain.

Most Wikipedians have a set role, whether they're administrators like Fiebig, article authors like the anonymous Islam scholar who simply goes by "Orientalist" or Achim Raschka, a big name in biology. There are also vandal hunters like a user called "DerHexer" ("The Sorcerer"). And there are people with a mission, like Wladyslaw Sojka. Wikipedia has its own celebrities, for example a user called "Fossa" who gained followers by deriding other users as wannabe encyclopedists and "wikiphants."

'People Now Come at You with a List of House Rules'

Then there's the woman who knows as much as anyone about Wikipedia, is disappointed by the state of the site and yet can't seem to leave it behind.

Elisabeth Bauer, 32, a slim woman with dyed red hair, is a political scientist and a legend within the German-language Wikipedia. She lives on a converted farm in a Bavarian village near Lake Starnberg south of Munich.

When others talk about Bauer -- they know her as "Elian" -- reverence mixes with incomprehension. "She was the mother of all of it," is an oft-repeated phrase. Many also say that they can't understand what she has against Wikipedia now, since it used to be her project.

She's thrown in the towel many times, once even leaving a picture of a nuclear explosion as her farewell, but she always comes back in the end. But her feeling of alienation now runs deep. In recent years, she collaborated on Christian Stegbauer's study -- he couldn't have found a better-informed assistant. Bauer says she tried to achieve some distance from Wikipedia during that time.

She says she's sick of the discussions, where she constantly thinks, "How can people possibly be so stupid?" She doesn't like the tone used on Wikipedia now. "In the past, there were more crackpots and outsiders," Bauer says. "I felt comfortable with them. The people now come at you with a list of house rules."

Bauer came across Wikipedia in an academic footnote in 2002. She was member number 44 of the still fledgling German version, and she quickly became an administrator and a member of the inner circle.

She talks about the "early days" when she speaks of the site's beginnings, and it sounds as if she means the "better days." The German Wikipedia was still practically empty at that point. The article about the North Sea consisted of a single sentence: "The North Sea is a see (sic)." Discussions in those days didn't last long, because there was hardly anyone there to participate. Bauer says, "We often just established rules quickly, without giving them a lot of thought. It seems strange to see how some people today are beating themselves up over things that you yourself simply wrote down at some point."

The Inclusionists vs. the Exclusionists

The German Wikipedia today is embroiled in many debates over fundamental principles, for example the question of relevance. Late last year saw a fight break out between the "inclusionists," who consider almost any topic worthy of Wikipedia, and the "exclusionists," who want to rigidly limit what can and should be written about. The argument ballooned further into an association called the Victims of Abuse against Internet Censorship, which was denied the creation of its own Wikipedia entry. The debate even reached the media.

Elisabeth Bauer sees these debates as artificial. The real questions, she says, should be how many articles the community can maintain at a reasonable level and how they can be protected from vandals and press offices. Relevance isn't the issue for her. Instead, she sees a problem in the fact that when a new user writes an article that's incomplete and too short, administrators simply delete it -- and berate the new user. That too is a type of vandalism, Bauer says, and a new user who encounters such aggressiveness won't write again. That's a pity, because the project, as she points out, depends on new volunteer collaborators.

This is what Bauer means when she says that Wikipedia still works very well for readers looking for information, but not as well on a human level. Most Wikipedians are young men. "It's sometimes astonishing, how young they are," she notes. That too may explain some things. "Many of the people who display such atrocious behavior in the discussion forums are actually alarmingly nice in person," she says. For some, Wikipedia is more than an encyclopedia and more than a pastime -- it becomes a central part of their lives, even an addiction.

Take a look at the debate over the Danube Tower, Bauer suggests, and see how a single sentence turned into months of discussion. Then she adds, "Or maybe it's better not to. Otherwise people will think everybody there is crazy."

It's simply not possible to represent the course of the discussion about the Danube Tower here in a way that does justice to its aggressive and interminable character. It can be summarized, though, as follows: Wladyslaw Sojka refused to recognize his opponents' arguments, repeated his own in countless variations. As proof, he cited books with titles such as "The German Television Tower: A Political and Architectural Border Crossing." His opponents responded in kind.

The battle also spread to other Wikipedia pages, for example to the "list of the highest television towers" Sojka once drew up, where the Danube Tower had previously stood at 50th place and now had to be protected from deletion.

It was Henriette Fiebig who seemed to have the definitive last word in the argument. She made 7 megabytes' worth of technical articles available to all participants in the debate, which supposedly proved beyond a doubt that the Danube Tower was, in fact, an observation tower. She had carried out her research in the Berlin State Library every day for two weeks. Sojka still demanded to see proof that the Danube Tower wasn't a television tower. But he had clearly lost the battle.

It appeared, Sojka wrote in a bitter closing entry, that "the content of an article is determined not by arguments and academic literature, but by groups and personal animosities." Then he wrote, "I'm out of here."

Banned from Wikipedia

Looking back, Sojka says it probably would have been a better strategy to write considerably less. He says this in Lörrach, in his study, in front of the same computer where he once spent so many hours on Wikipedia.

He doesn't like Wikipedia anymore, Sojka says, and feels he was treated badly there. He finds it absurd that people can participate in discussions on everything, even subjects they know nothing about -- television towers, for example.

Sojka left Wikipedia after the debate. The site has since also banned him, having detected that he used "sock puppets," or different user identities, to strengthen his position in the discussion. It's a misdoing that has claimed other prominent victims on Wikipedia.

That was the end of Wladyslaw Sojka's career as an author, but only temporarily. He still uses the site under a new user name.

Henriette Fiebig says this edit war shows how seriously Wikipedians take documented truth. Certainly, she says, there are times when she doesn't want to hear another word about Wikipedia or the self-righteousness involved. "But then I want to know what happened next anyway."

On good days, she says, Wikipedia is "better than any soap opera."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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