Safety and Wikipedia

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Some say shared reference works like Wikipedia may have the power to transform civilization. Egalitarian ideals or an anarchistic vision may guide a work produced free, by anybody. But participants and lurkers are not equals. And anonymous and pseudonymous users and those with real names are also unequal. Risks to users must be weighed into the balance along with benefits, and one great risk is harm that can come not to its readers but to its editors.

The Free Speech Zone offers a space for contributions from readers, without editing by the TC Daily Planet. This is an open forum for articles that otherwise might not find a place for publication, including news articles, opinion columns, announcements and even a few press releases.

Academic and advocacy studies of cyberbullying center on youth and teenagers but stalking and attacks on adults are just as devastating. A user has no way to know which pseudonymous editors are well intentioned and which ones may mean them harm. And they have no way to know who is watching–lurking–without editing. Even experienced users can fail to notice incidents, which could be subtle social engineering or full-blown disputes, and not all will be sympathetic. David Shankbone wrote for The Brooklyn Rail in June, “If you become a target on Wikipedia, do not expect a supportive community.”


A paradox of sorts emerged this year, suggesting that online users are on their own. Mattathias Schwartz published a report for The New York Times in August that documents why some people choose to attack others online and their belief that cyberharassment laws cannot be enforced. On the other hand and also in August, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Public Citizen, and fourteen law school faculty members chose to say that those laws are preferable to the federal government enforcing violations of terms of service.

Wikipedia has received much good press and sometimes it may sound idyllic. Recognizing its shortcomings, Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard University praised it as an example model for the future of the Internet. Clay Shirky of New York University praised it in Here Comes Everybody. When in 2006, Time magazine named “You.” the Person of the Year, Wikipedia was lauded as the “cosmic compendium of knowledge.” Presumably these authors write as observers and have been spared negative experiences like the 98% of Wikipedia users who, by Shirky’s count, read and never contribute.

“Assume good faith” is a Wikipedia fundamental behavioral guideline. Editors can be somewhat prepared by knowing that two neighboring guidelines are no “edit warring” and “no personal attacks.”

Asked to comment on an Internet security flaw, expert Bruce Schneier told The New York Times in July that flaws are commonplace and no reason to get off the Internet, explaining, “Most people keep driving.” And indeed, at this time, some of us have no other choice–our infrastructure will no longer function without computers. Most people will make their connections for work, duty, love and fun. Some cars will crash, some passengers will escape with cuts and bruises, and some will experience excruitating injuries.

A Wikipedia user, Susan Lesch owns Textet and is not a lawyer. She lives in San Diego, California, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA.