In the last few weeks Mark Bernstein, a leading light in digital culture, and an established figure in the hypertext and web community has posted a sequence of articles (Infamous, Careless, Thoughtless, Reckless and most recently Caring) on #Gamergate and that movement’s use of Wikipedia. Particularly the proposal by the Arbitration Committee to ban key editors who were taking issue with Gamergater’s actions, while leaving untouched Wikipedia accounts used for those actions.
Mark’s argument is that Gamergate has effectively weaponised Wikipedia, turning it into a mechanism to spread lies, foster rumour, and ruin the lives of women in the software business. His argument is persuasive. Gamergate for those who don’t know is emerging as a loose coalition of misogynists, right-wingers, sociopaths, anti-Semites, and a small (let’s graciously say naive) group of people who are worried about ethics in game journalism (I know, I know, I’m supposed to be a neutral academic, but really, these are people who use the term Social Justice Warrior as a pejorative).
In the interests of full disclosure Mark Bernstein is a long time professional colleague and friend, but then what are professional and personal friendships based on if not mutual respect. I believe that this is a person whose opinion is worth listening to (and others, and more others, think so too).
Broadly, what Mark is pointing out is that what Gamergate has accomplished with Wikipedia reveals alarming things about Wikipedia as a subvertable system (for details, see Careless). Their actions are different to the everyday edit wars that appear on the encyclopaedia, as they are targeted and personal, aiming to harm, both psychologically and socially, key individuals with whom Gamergate takes exception. This is organised trolling on a scale that makes it look like the armies of Mordor are on the move.
Whatever you think about Gamergate’s stated aims (and Mark is surprisingly magnanimous on the topic), it is impossible not to take exception to the methods. By any standard this is disgusting behaviour, but what is alarming here is how sophisticated it is, and how it threatens one of the greatest constructions of the 21st century: Wikipedia itself. In one of my Social Media Tech lectures, I present students with a quote from Robert McHenry (former editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica), where he compares Wikipedia to a public toilet. I then ask the question: Is Wikipedia a Toilet? And we discuss the checks and balances that make Wikipedia usable. But recent events reveal the weaknesses of those checks and balances, and the answers to that provocative question are increasingly unclear.
Anti-social behaviour on the web is hardly new, and we have an emerging vocabulary to describe it (flaming, vandalism, cyberbullying) but this sort of co-ordinated trolling is different, and probably deserves not only a new name, but new responses. Because unlike isolated trolls, unpleasant and frightening as they are to their victims, this type of behaviour has the potential to render entire information systems unusable. It’s really nothing short of cultural cyberwarfare.
For his stand (within the Wikipedia, and he suspects without) Mark was himself banned. And I am struck by the personal cost in time and energy it has taken him to fight this fight (not to mention the barrage of personal animosity it has attracted). Those of us who study the Web, and the behaviours of Web users, are conditioned to remain neutral and objective, and there is a tendency to step back, as if we were in some ways separate from the world we study.
But we are not.
So bravo, Mark. Thank you for making a stand.