I have a confession to make to all of you: In my past life, I was a Wikipedia troll. Yes I know, this all probably comes as a bit of a shock, but please let me explain.
In our recent class discussion on trolling, we mostly focused on major social media and message board platforms—Twitter, Reddit, 4Chan, those sort of sites. But there’s a trolling epidemic that’s been festering right under our noses for years, and it’s been happening on Wikipedia.com.
Okay, so this might mot be the most groundbreaking of revelations. Depending on your age, you probably had plenty of middle and high school teachers warn you to never use Wikipedia as a credible source in any sort of research. I probably got the “Anyone can write anything!” speech a few dozen times throughout my time in the public school system, and the warning is still alive and well on the Internet today.
Many of the common arguments made against trusting Wikipedia articles rely on a number of good points: you should never rely on anonymous or semi-anonymous sources of information, Wikipedia contributors often have their own agendas they want to push, an overwhelming majority of the contributors are young white men, and so forth.
And then there’s the more blatant issue of trolling. Standing by their promise of being a truly open and collaborative platform, the website allows for anyone to edit articles, and doesn’t even require a registered account. (In 2006, Wikipedia began locking some of their more controversial articles in order to prevent rampant vandalism, but the vast majority of pages are still open for all.) Unfortunately, in practice this system is frequently abused by clever pranksters and their not-so-clever troll counterparts. For years, I fell into the latter category.
Unfortunately, I can’t share with you all of the exact edits I have made over the years. As part of my research for this post, I attempted to track down my old Wikipedia edit history in order to get an accurate account of my trolling tendencies. But after scrolling through extensive article edit history logs dating back to 2011, I am still unable to find the Metuchen Board of Education IP address that empowered years and years of online vandalism.
With that being said, I’m pretty sure that my targets included the pages for Australia, Scandinavia, Henry Clay, cicadas, Vasco de Gama, and the NBA. Many of these edits were pretty minor and went unnoticed by the excellent Wikipedia moderation team for hours and in some cases even days. In each case, the article was reverted to its pre-troll state, and my school IP address was banned for a period of time. The first time I did this in my freshman year, the ban was only for a few hours, but with each new ban the duration of my lockout increased exponentially. I’m pretty sure I was banned for a whole two years between sophomore and senior year, but I was able to get banned one more time before I graduated.
And I didn’t stop at just the articles. Many of my initial edits were too discrete to be spotted by the platform’s network of anti-vandalism bots, so most of my early bans came from a human Wikipedia administrator. The encyclopedia has a very active and in-depth online community, and there are plenty of rules and regulations on how one can become an administrator. Each of the site’s 1,274 administrators also has their own editable user page (see below), so back in my trolling days I took it upon myself to “blank” the pages of moderators who had previously banned me.
I never really felt all that bad about my online trolling habits, mostly because they were never really directed at anyone in particular (well, aside from blanking admins, but that damage can easily be rolled back with the click of a button). I was never spewing hate at an individual, instead choosing to spread misinformation and dumb jokes that would be deleted within the day. I’m not trying to excuse my actions, but I do think that there are many different shades of online trolling. We often use it as a blanket phrase, but perhaps we shouldn’t. I’ve also trolled in online gaming before, convincing my teammates in Halo to take the passenger seat in my car before then driving us both off of a cliff. Sure, that’s annoying and pretty childish, but with the current troubling state of the online world I don’t think those two descriptors are the first that come to mind when people hear the word “troll.”
I’m not proud to say it, but my days of Wikipedia trolling didn’t end when I left high school. A few months ago, my roommates and I vandalized the article for the Italian song “Funiculi Funicula” in order to add a reference to its inclusion in an old Spiderman video game. The edit remained live for 15 hours until it was reverted by an unregistered Wikipedia user, meaning it was probably just another regular Wikipedia user who saw the vandalism and wanted to get rid of it. I can’t say for certain that I will never vandalize the site again at some point in the future. But if and when I do, I’ll be putting a lot more thought into the vast and intricate network of bots, admins, and trolls that have turned Wikipedia into the unique vandalism battleground site that it is today.