Implications of WikiScanner

There’s been a growing buzz about Virgil Griffith‘s WikiScanner for several weeks, but it didn’t catch my eye — or ear — until I listened today to an Aug 22 podcast from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, featuring an interview of Griffith himself.WikiScanner, in the simplest terms, is a database that maps the IP address of Wikipedia editors to the organizations that own those IPs, allowing users to search for dodgy editing practices by members of those organizations. Griffith, hesitant to name individual corporations or individuals, describes a general “whitewashing” of a number of Wikipedia articles on corporations and political figures. (If you want to take WikiScanner for a spin, here it is. )Since WikiScanner launched–in early August–journalists, bloggers, and conspiracy nerds everywhere have been scrambling to catch The Man red-handed. The most comical example, in my opinion, is a Sony employee caught editing a page for Halo 3, the anticipated game by rival publisher Microsoft, set to release later this month. “[Halo 3] won’t look any better than Halo 2,” wrote the Sony insider, although the edit was quickly removed.Aside from the cool factor, and the stick-it-to-The-Man factor, why is this technology interesting?For starters, it raises a huge challenge to authority over the control of information. To a large extend, Wikipedia’s Truth-by-Consensus model of information was doing this already, but WikiScanner takes it a step further. Instead of simply saying everyone can participate in the recording of information about our world, WikiScanner says everyone can participate in the recording of information about our world, but if you participate in a specific way, on behalf of an institution of power, your participation will be nullified AND ridiculed. That’s a pretty significant shift.I’m also amused by the transference that is happening, in terms of the actions of individuals being interpreted as the actions of corporations. The tacit assumption in the coverage of this story appears to be that the Halo 3 edit described above was made with the approval of Sony, that the anonymous employee was acting on behalf of his company. If the same employee had written “Halo 3 won’t look any better than Halo 2″ in a bathroom stall at the mall, would we assume that he was speaking on behalf of Sony just because his business card had fallen on the floor? Not likely, and yet the digital — and highly public — nature of Wikipedia triggers a different response.On the other hand, catching someone at the Vatican editing Gerry Adams’ entry is certainly suspicious. As are employees of Fox News editing entries on Al Franken.I think this is a really fascinating wrinkle in the various Wiki-related debates about authority, authorship, and “facts,” so I hope to hear some comments from our readers.

Brad Weikel

Brad Weikel received his MA in Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) from Georgetown University in 2009. His thesis, "From Coding to Community: Iteration, Abstraction, and Open Source Software Development" argued that programming practices, particularly iterative workflows and abstraction models, can help explain both the success and struggles of open source software. His work was a technocentric complement to prior explanations from economists, lawyers, and political and cultural theorists. While writing his thesis, Brad blogged about his topic at OpenCulture.cc, where he has since continued blogging, more broudly, about collaborative production and the commons at large. Brad was Managing Editor of gnovis during the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 school years, and Creative Director in 2006/2007. He is currently the Web & Communications Coordinator for EarthRights International.