The great power of a Wikipedia sysop

On: September 20, 2009
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About Yu-Fen Chen
A newbie in Amsterdam since summer 2009, Yu-Fen Chen is a current student at the New Media M.A. program. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Public Administration from National Chengchi University, and previously worked for Ogilvy Public Relations in Taiwan. Yu-Fen is interested in social media and environmental activism. Outside the classroom, she enjoys travelling in developing countries and loves Malaysian foods the most.

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http://yufen5chen.pixnet.net/blog    

A sysop (as a system operator) is a controversial actor in Wikipedia. The term sysop means an administrator of a multi-user computer system, such as a bulletin board system (BBS) or an online virtual community. In the Wikipedia world, Sysops are known as editors who have been trusted with access to restricted technical features. There are no official requirements for Wikipedia contributors who want to become a sysop, yet he/she is expected to play a regular active role in editing Wikipedia pages for least several months, with familiarity with the procedures and practices of Wikipedia. The most important but disputable[1] asset of a sysop is the right to protect and delete a page, as well as to block other editors[2].

Although mainstream media has recognized Wikipedia as an open, free, and collaborative community, it is ironic that the purpose of assigning administrators stays blurry. Even more, a sysop’s editorial authority is purposely disavowed by Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia founder[3]:

I just wanted to say that becoming a sysop is *not a big deal*.I think perhaps I’ll go through semi-willy-nilly and make a bunch of people who have been around for awhile sysops. I want to dispel the aura of “authority” around the position. It’s merely a technical matter that the powers given to sysops are not given out to everyone.I don’t like that there’s the apparent feeling here that being granted sysop status is a really special thing.

—Jimbo Wales, wikimedia.org archive entry

My interest to know more about Wikipedia sysops arises from creating a new Wikipedia page of “Googlization.” Before I made the posting, I accidentally found one cache of Wiki webpage which showed 2 records of deletion of “Googlization” in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Therefore, I tried to understand Wikipedia’s rule of Neutral Point of View (NPOV), and provided recognizable academic sources as I could. Nevertheless, within two hours after my posting, the “Googlization” page immediately fell into a non-NPOV article (shown as below) by a Wikipedia user: WikiDan61.

“The neutrality of this article is disputed. Please see the discussion on the talk page. Please do not remove this message until the dispute is resolved. (September 2009)”

 

Though I was well-prepared to the possible deletion by choosing “Googlization,” my rage still urged me to argue in the Talk page: Are the academic sources I collected unreliable? And aren’t “McDonaldization” and “Cocacolonization” both a pejorative term as they are?

Then, one eerie moment happened. It was about 6 hours later after my argument that I found the “Googlization” page was completely gone! I couldn’t believe how speedy the deletion was and started to spread this uncanny news in my MSN messenger and Facebook. Surprisingly, the page appeared again 30 minutes after my panic.

At this moment, deep in my heart I started to sense the secret dark forces behind my laptop screen. The ‘page disappearing’ myth remains irresolvable, and the part I ponder and fear the most is: who are those Wikipedia sysops being granted with the right to delete Wikipeida pages and how can them alter our world view of knowledge?

Recent survey shows that the Wikipedia contributors’ profile consists of 87% of males (as in 2009)[5] and 84% from the Western countries in (as in 2008)[6] . For the academia, the Wikipedia editor as a white male geek with a limited mono-cultural worldview based on Western rationality remains a concern[7]. It is also self-explanatory that a majority of males dominates the sysop roles in the Wiki community.

These white-male-geek sysosp are powerful not because of their knowledge, but ironically, it is the tool they are skilled at that can kill knowledge. The distinct between information and knowledge is smeared by the tool they are holding—computer programming language. Is the most basic requirement for contributing to Wikipedia, not knowledge. Once a Wiki contributor owns the great power, he/(with minor possibility, a SHE) then can operate his own worldview and random knowledge to judge if a Wiki page violates sensitive issues such as a NPOV. Under the community of biased sysop dominance, the price that Wikipedia readers have to pay is sacrificing “to know” to “to be informed,” along with “to know more” to “to know less.”

And even for people who don’t usually depend on Wikipedia, thanks to Google Search they are gradually programmed to retrieve their knowledge from Wikipedia. Jure Cuhalev’s analysis in 2006 shows that Wikipedia ranks highly and favorably in Google (and Yahoo) search. And according to Chris Anderson, the Wikipedia Foundation, which pays for the services and bandwidth that Wikipedia runs on, is a nonprofit supported by donors including corporate like Google[9]. It is therefore reasonable to argue that Google is abusing the non-profit Wikipedia to enrich the search engine’s key words and content, and Wikipedia is betraying its contributors by ‘selling’ their Wiki pages to certain stake holder’s interests. Internet users become more than a victim of inferior knowledge—their world view is also pathetically dominated by voracious business interests.

Would a Wikipedia sysop be a part of the common criminal structure? It would an interesting subject to understand the limitation of their power in this opensource community where individual, community and business interests entwined.


[1] Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_Wikipedia

[2] Wikipeida, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Administrators

[3] Joseph M. Reagle Jr., Do as I do: leadership in the Wikipedia

[4] Wikipedia,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Administrators

[5]Andrew LaVallee, Only 13% of Wikipedia Contributors are women, Study Says, Wall Street Journal. 31 Aug 2009

[6] Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:English_Wikipedia_contributors_by_country.svg

[7] Nishant Shah, CPOV: Critical Point of View, The Centre for Information and Socieity. 10 Jul 209

[8] ibid

[9] Chris Anderson, FREE: The Future of a Radical Price, 2009: New York. p 218

3 Responses to “The great power of a Wikipedia sysop”
  • October 2, 2009 at 5:09 am

    Quick thoughts…

    1. The Wikipedia editor could have explained the issue better, but it is pretty clear. The Business Week article cited was written in 2003 about an *imaginary* world of 2006 where Google dominated everything. The beginning of the article, in which this world is imagined, was written for comic effect. The “dominance of Google over nearly all forms of informational commerce on the web” mentioned in the article is something that the author speculates might happen. The Wikipedia entry does not make this clear; it seems to take this situation as real-world truth. There is also the problem of hyperbole. The truth is that Google has no significant impact on “modern human society.” Google is not “disrupting culture, commerce, and community.” Putting images of books online, for example, does not disrupt culture. It just lets people see some books that they would not have been able to see, which allows forgotten books to be rediscovered and may actually cause some people to buy books that they otherwise would not have bought. Stealing a few page views hardly qualifies as disrupting commerce. Neither does offering free online document editing. The Wikipedia entry is not “neutral” because it says, or seems to imply, things that are not true. It does not take specialized knowledge for the Wikipedia editor to recognize this; it is obvious.

    2. McDonaldization and Googlization are not comparable terms. The terms look similar because both are neologisms formed by adding “-ization” to something famous, but the similarities end there. McDonaldization points to a real social phenomenon (routinization and depersonalization for the sake of efficiency) that has been around and that has been written about (under other names, of course) by many thinkers such as Marx and Weber. The new term, coined by George Ritzer, is now generally accepted as a modern term for this ancient phenomenon. It does not attack McDonald’s; it just takes that company as a modern symbol of this ancient and universal phenomenon. “McDonaldization” is a mildly pejorative term in that many people wish that the world could be different; however, it is not pejorative against McDonald’s in particular. “McDonaldization” is pejorative in the same way that, say, the word “depersonalization” is pejorative. “Googlization,” as presented in the Wikipedia entry, is a paranoid slur against one particular entity. Some innovations made by a company called Google are presented in a negative light and a sinister tone and termed “Googlization.”

    3. The Wikipedia editor makes the pretty obvious point that an encyclopedia is not a dictionary and that a pejorative neologism would belong in a dictionary rather than an encyclopedia. This author replies in this article with a race- and gender-based attack on the editor. As with any instance of racism or sexism, this makes the author look terrible without scoring any intellectual points against the editor.

    4. Enforcement of rules is always a thankless task. Wikipedia editors may not be perfect but should not be resented. They are what allow Wikipedia to be somewhat reliable.

  • October 2, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    To respond to you with my quick thoughts:

    1.The distinguish between a dictionary & an encyclopedia: according to the definition from Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

    A dictionary is-
    : a reference source in print or electronic form containing words usually alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses

    An encyclopedia is-
    : a work that contains information on all branches of knowledge or treats comprehensively a particular branch of knowledge usually in articles arranged alphabetically often by subject

    The term ‘googlization’ involves with knowledge and it is more than a piece of information about its lexical usage; therefore, an encyclopedia seems to a more suitable place to accommodate this term. While ‘Googlization’ is used in different fields including business and internet users’ personal interpretation, so far the reliable theoretical and academic sources can be found only in the field of media and cultural studies (correct me if my info is limited). It is therefore I suggested earlier in the Wikipedia Talk Page that the Wiki sysop can add ‘(New) Media Studies’ in the page title to further supplement the term.

    2. As you charge my using hyperbole to take Business Week’s prediction as real-world truth, I am even surprised to see you claim that” […] the truth is that Google has no significant impact on modern human society. Google is not disrupting culture, commerce, and community.” The way you further support your argument by mentioning ‘putting images of books online, for example, does not disrupt culture’ seems very naïve and self-deceiving to me; the most contradicting part is that you are using your own POV to attack the Wikipedia page. What even worse is the fact that you believe it doesn’t take specialized knowledge for Wiki sysops to recognize the truth as long as it is something seems ‘obvious’ to them.

    3. It is correct that both ‘McDonaldization’ and ‘Cocacolonization’ are used as a modern symbol to describe a universal phenomenon, which is same as Googlization for the relationships between commercial interests and media, as well as its further influences on our society. By quoting the facts and academic sources, the Wiki page doesn’t intend to attack the Google as an entity.

    4. The Wikipedia contributors — more than 80 percent male, more than 65 percent single, more than 85 percent without children, around 70 percent under the age of 30. Even the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, pointed out the diversity problem by saying that “we are mostly male computer geeks.” (see 31 Aug 2009, New York Times) )

    5. And about the enforcement of rules, I agree that it could be a thankless job because the needs for regulations and freedom coexist in our human society. However the problem is Wikipedia is a collaborative network with contributors who help spread knowledge worldwide. The network culture in many ways is different from any traditional organization, thus the role of Wiki sysops have to be further discussed and defined. In cases like NPOV, a sysop is acting like a policeman/jury who has the right to reach a decision without an open, deliberate process. History has also shown us that law enforcement does not equal to reliability, esp. when there is a lack of mutual trust and understanding.

  • October 2, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    1. through 4. We seem to have different ideas about what would constitute knowledge, universality, a “reliable” or “academic” source, a significant impact on human society, disruption of culture and/or commerce, and racism/sexism/bigotry. (As well as a “reasonable” argument or a “voracious” business interest.) Our categories and thresholds seem to be different. That’s life. I appreciate your taking the time to reply to my comment.

    By the way, the Reagle article that you cite demystifies the role of the Wikipedia sysop quite a bit. Either you have not absorbed the information in that article, or you don’t believe it. For example, you throw around words like “dominance” and “power” in a way that the Reagle article would indicate is totally inappropriate. So I assume that you don’t believe the information in the Reagle article. But I don’t understand why you don’t believe it.

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