Who edits Wikipedia?

August 18th, 2007 by Gabriel Bodard

A very interesting site has been doing the rounds of news and blogs lately, which allows users to trace anonymous edits of Wikipedia articles by comparing to the public record of registered IP addresses. The WikiScanner is itself neutral as to the kind of searches one may carry out–it merely accesses and mashes-up information from two publicly available sources–but many of the most public implementations (such as those collected by Wired magazine) have been political, moral, or salacious. So, for example, users with an IP address registered to the office of a given religious organisation might be shown to have “anonymously” edited the Wikipedia entry on that religion, whitewashed crimes or scandals, or slandered rival groups or individuals of their own organisation. (All this by way of example only–actual instances you can look up for yourself.)

This is not only an interesting and imaginative example of a mashup, but also a potentially very useful control on one of the biggest threats to Wikipedia’s much-vaunted “neutral point of view”–namely the ability of wealthy corporations or individuals to hire lobbyists and PR agencies to clean up their profile on the web. More transparency means more accountability means more reliable information. Potentially. Effectively this tool removes the ability to edit completely anonymously, without raising the bar to entry in the Wiki community by requiring registration and identification.

I’ve yet to find any interesting academic examples of biased “anonymous” edits–and I guess they’d be hard to pin down because the range of IPs registered to a university would typically include lab workstations and other machines accessible by a large number of people. I’m sure something interesting will turn up, however. Keep looking.

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