Wiki Woman

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APRIL 9, 2008

Wiki Woman

Back when we got basic information from encyclopedias instead of Wikipedia, politicians were at the mercy of the encyclopedia-writers' particular biases. Take the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Apparently controlled by smug British nationalists, it described the important Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell as "not over-scrupulous," "repellent," "powerful for evil," and, owing to the "mental affliction of his ancestors," probably possessing a "mental equilibrium [that] was not always stable."

Wikipedia was supposed to fix this problem. Anyone can add, delete, or massage language in its online articles, and--boom!--refresh the page to see their changes appear instantly. These volunteer contributors ("editors," in Wikipedia lingo) discuss their changes on an article's associated "talk page," and eventually (or so the theory goes) merge their different perspectives on various subjects into something truly neutral. But, after you see what happens when two warring Democratic candidates are thrown to the mercy of the Wikipedians, you kind of yearn for the 1911 Britannica.

There was the day in February when an editor replaced a photo of Hillary on her Wikipedia page with a picture of a walrus. Then there was the day this month when a Hillary supporter changed Obama's bio so that it referred to him as "a Kenyan-American politician." But such sweepingly hostile edits are usually fixed quickly by other Wikipedia users. Often, it's the most arcane distinctions on the candidates' pages that provoke the bitterest tugs-of-war. Recently, an angry battle broke out on Hillary's page over whether to describe Clinton as "a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination" or just "a candidate," since each phrase implies a different shade of judgment on her chances. Five minutes after an Obama supporter deleted "leading" just after 11 p.m. on March 8, another editor put it back. Seven minutes after that, the word was deleted again. Some thirty minutes after that, it was put back. On it went, with different Wikipedia editors debating the significance of Hillary's delegate deficit on her talk page and accusing each other of introducing the dreaded "POV"-- or "point of view," a violation of Wikipedia's most fundamental principle--into the article. At around six in the morning, completing the atmosphere of pandemonium, somebody replaced Hillary's whole page with "It has been reported that Hillary Rodham Clinton has contracted genital herpes due to sexual intercourse with an orangutan."

The battles over Hillary's and Obama's pages have been so heated because the stakes are so high. The candidates' Wikipedia pages are their second Google hits, right after their official campaign portals. And, with Clinton and Obama locked in a tight race, even the simplest adjectives seem to become powerful weapons. (By contrast, much of the editing on John McCain's page these days involves correcting formatting mistakes.) With emotions running high (at this point, is it really possible for anyone not to be "POV" on Clinton or Obama?), you would think that Wikipedia's entries on the candidates--which, after all, anyone can edit--would have long ago devolved, as the race itself pretty much has, into total chaos. But, for all the bickering, this hasn't quite happened--thanks, in part, to a 53-year-old software developer from central New Jersey named Jonathan Schilling.

 

Schilling is the man who protects Hillary's online self from the public's hatred. He estimates that he spends up to 15 hours per week editing Wikipedia under the name "Wasted Time R"--much of it, these days, standing watch over Hillary's page. Hardly a news event or argument over her situation goes by without Wasted Time R's input: He edited her page 77 times in the last month, mostly pruning away changes he viewed as inappropriate, such as a rant about Geraldine Ferraro or a stealthy effort to diminish Hillary's role in improving the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The fact that Schilling is married to a librarian who, he laments, "never recommends anybody use Wikipedia" (no one, no one, hates Wikipedia as much as librarians) does not diminish his vigilance. "You constantly have to police [the page]," he says, recalling the way Rudy Giuliani's Wikipedia article declined in quality after its protectors lost interest. "Otherwise, it diverts into a state of nature."

Yet, despite all the work he does on Hillary's page, he sometimes finds himself embarrassed to tell anybody about it. "One of my friends knows," he reveals, adding, "I told like one person at work, but she's leaving." The embarrassment might have something to do with Schilling's complex feelings about Hillary herself. It is sadly fitting that Clinton's biggest Wikipedia defender approaches her with curiosity and even empathy, but no real love. Schilling voted for her on Super Tuesday, yes, but "she's not perfect," he stresses. "I wrote a long thing about the Norman Hsu affair, which didn't make her look great." After he started editing her page in June 2005, Schilling became consumed with trying to capture her uncomfortable place in American culture, researching and writing a whole section on how she polarizes the public. At the same time, he also believes Hillary the woman is widely misunderstood. "One of the things I've tried to get across in the article was how much people were impressed by her before she got married to Bill," he says.

To develop a richly written narrative of Hillary's life, especially her time at Wellesley and Yale Law, Schilling read her memoir Living History, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.'s Her Way, David Brock's The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, Roger Morris's Partners in Power, Gil Troy's Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady, and more; he tracked down details on her work with the Legal Services Corporation in an online law library; he spent a night in the Rutgers stacks digging up academic articles on polarization. After talking with him for an hour, I suspect that Jonathan Schilling, software developer, probably knows more about Hillary Clinton than her press secretary does, or perhaps even her husband.

We think of Hillary as the ultimate political hot potato, but Schilling has been relatively free to shape her article because, oddly, the substance of her life is not nearly as controversial on Wikipedia as Barack Obama's. Beyond arguments over the state of the race--like the recent fight over the word "leading"--the attacks on Hillary's page mainly take the form of crude vandalism. On February 25, the page briefly read: "[D]uring her husbands late- night romps with his secretary Hilary would sneak out and make love to the other secretary, and not the guys oh no she would make love to the female secretary." On March 6, it said: "She owns a dildo shaped like JFK." And on March 12, the entire page was replaced with: "SLUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

It's different on Obama's page, where the fans--no surprise--are more enthusiastic, the haters are more intelligent, and the arguments reflect the fact that Obama himself is still a work under construction.

"It's pretty clear that he did pray at the mosque with his stepfather," a prolific editor named Andyvphil--who recently made 32 edits on the Obama page in a single day--wrote, explaining changes he wanted to make to the language describing Obama's stepfather Lolo.

"Are you kidding me? Fortunately, it isn't only Bellwether [another editor] who sees through your obvious attempts to twist this article to suit your own personal agenda," retorted user Scjessey.

"Ah, yes. This from the dedicated and unbiased Scjessey, who insisted I couldn't mention that Trinity was Afrocentric," sneered Andyvphil.

Until recently, Bellwether, a.k.a. Kevin Bailey, was an analogue to Schilling on Obama's page. As a mild-mannered but resolute Obama fan, Bailey, a North Carolina teacher, took it upon himself to guard Obama's page. It was a harrowing job. "I woke up [one morning] and there was a whole new section [titled] 'Obama, his church, his pastor, and politics,'" he recalls. He deleted it. "The only reason to put those things in the article, in my view, is to try to do guilt by association."

The Obama page has become such a firestorm--it's had more than twice as many changes as Hillary's page in the last week, and a Wikipedia administrator restricted editing to let things cool down--that it has shattered another of Wikipedia's fundamental mores: what Wikipedians refer to as WP:AGF, or "assume good faith." Among some Obama supporters, suspicion has recently focused on Andyvphil's agenda. One editor alleged to me that he was the conservative pundit Daniel Pipes in disguise. In reality, he is Andy Phillips, a libertarian from northern California who works for UPS. The Obama supporters "have got it the way they want it, and they don't want anything changed," Phillips complains. He says he went out on a date and returned to find his access had been blocked, shortly after he was accused of "sock puppetry."

Bailey is emotionally exhausted. "The work I've been doing trying to protect the Obama article has completely sapped my energy," Bailey told me last weekend. "I've been thinking about just saying, 'You know, the hell with it. If you want to put crap in the Obama article, just do it.'" After leaving a little message of support for fellow candidate guardian Schilling, Bailey decided to take a break. "I'm tired of it," he told me. "I'm tired of the drama."

 

The bitterness of the fights on Obama's page could be taken as a bad sign for the candidate. But it may actually be Hillary's page that contains the more troubling omens. Few, if any, Hillary defenders are standing watch besides Schilling. In recent days, the vaguely deserted air of a de-gentrifying neighborhood has settled over her page, with some editors losing interest and the main excitement provided by the "slut" and "cuntbag" graffiti artists. While Obama's political past and future provoke intense argument, when I look at Hillary's relatively static page I am reminded of Schilling's description of the Rudy page at the beginning of his decline.

To test the air, I undertook my own little, highly unscientific experiment. I made a professional-looking but somewhat negative edit on each of the candidate's pages. For Hillary, I wrote a line on the hopelessness of her chances even when you count superdelegates; for Obama, I added a phrase about his loss of some white support. My Obama edit was fully scrubbed within three minutes, by an editor I'd never even seen before. My Hillary edit languished untouched for four hours until Schilling finally got around to deleting it. But, even then, he carefully preserved my skeptical text and pasted it onto the separate history-ofHillary's-campaign page, a gesture of acceptance. It has remained there, a little wart on Hillary's Wikipedia face, untouched, ever since.

Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor of The New Republic.

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