Wikipedia isn’t just a rich resource for those looking to read up on a subject, it’s also a seething mass of humanity, with users, contributors, editors and admins all adding and updating pages. And sometimes, things go wrong.
There’s an essay on a page on Wikipedia devoted to a single mistake once made by an admin. That mistake, made on February 3, 2008, was to delete the main page completely.
The story itself is a study in humanity. If there’s a button to be pushed, someone will push it. Especially if it says ‘do not press’.
To explain, two admins were debating online if pages over a certain number of revisions could be deleted. One admin joked that he’d tested the delete function, and it didn’t work. The other admin decided to test that himself. The main page was deleted.
Here’s what happened:, according to Wikipedia itself.
One admin was discussing the deletion of the main page in IRC and asked if the technical ability to delete pages with over 5,000 revisions, like the main page, had ever been re-enabled. Another admin (jokingly) commented that he had tested it and found that the main page still couldn’t be deleted. The first admin thought he would test it for himself. The main page got deleted.
Wikipedia’s hall of shame
Of course, there’s been hundreds of other remarkably odd or just plain dumb mistakes made by those with power within Wikipedia.
Some of the best are on a page dedicated to moments of madness. Some of these make little sense to those outside the Wikipedia bubble.
Our favourites include an admin accidentally blocking co-founder and boss Jimmy Wales, plus a much more serious error in January 2008 (a rich era for mistakes) where an admin deleted the test editing environment called ‘Sandbox’, which locked up servers for half an hour. (Editors, left with no editing to do, celebrated the lack of new edits made during that time.)
The Arbitration Committee
Wikipedia remains free and open-source. It’s still open to anyone to edit almost any page, although some pages with a long history of problems are locked to approved members only – such as those about religion, or famous persons.
Of course, absolute power corrupts absolutely. With increased rights and access, sometimes editors and even admins go rogue.
Wikipedia have an Arbitration Committee that aims to settle disputes between users, and editors. It employs a panel of experienced volunteers that work to come up with solutions to problems that haven’t been resolved by the general community.
Mostly, ‘Arbcom’ is only for bigger, complex disputes. Simple disagreements between editors over minor edits are usually solved by a third party or a request for comment from outsiders.
Your own Wikipedia page might be wrong, and you can’t do anything about it
Elitism is alive and well in Wikipedia, and many arguments break out over seemingly simple facts. Quite often, rules are stuck to in maddening ways.
One person who came up against this was Neil deGrasse Tyson. He edited his own Wikipedia page because it claimed he was an atheist, when Tyson is agnostic. That edit was reverted by an editor who assumed vandalism. So Tyson changed it back, leaving a comment to explain – and it was reverted again.
A look at his current Wikipedia page shows no mention of the word Atheist. Perhaps it was due to this:
There are many atheists who say, “Well, all agnostics are atheists.” Okay. I’m constantly claimed by atheists. I find this intriguing.
In fact, on my Wiki page – I didn’t create the Wiki page, others did, and I’m flattered that people cared enough about my life to assemble it – and it said, “Neil deGrasse is an atheist.”
I said, “Well that’s not really true.” I said, “Neil deGrasse is an agnostic.”
I went back a week later. It said, “Neil deGrasse is an atheist.” – again within a week – and I said, “What’s up with that?” and I said, “I have to word it a little differently.” So I said, okay, “Neil deGrasse, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic.”
And some will say, well, that’s – “You’re not being fair to the fact that they’re actually the same thing.” No, they’re not the same thing, and I’ll tell you why.
Atheists I know who proudly wear the badge are active atheists. They’re like in your face atheist and they want to change policies and they’re having debates. I don’t have the time, the interest, the energy, to do any of that.
I’m a scientist. I’m an educator. My goal is to get people thinking straight in the first place; just get you to be curious about the natural world. That’s what I’m about. I’m not about any of the rest of this.
And it’s odd that the word atheist even exists.
I don’t play golf. Is there a word for non-golf players? Do non-golf players gather and strategise? Do non-skiers have a word and come together and talk about the fact that they don’t ski? I don’t — I can’t do that. I can’t gather around and talk about how much everybody in the room doesn’t believe in God. I just don’t — I don’t have the energy for that, and so I … Agnostic separates me from the conduct of atheists whether or not there is strong overlap between the two categories, and at the end of the day I’d rather not be any category at all.
If you do know something but need to somehow prove it to Wikipedia, you’re likely need a source. You’ll need the fact to be published, preferably somewhere respectable where independent sub-editors will review it. You can then use that as a source for your known fact. Most of the time, that works.
The world of Wikipedia automation around vandalism
Wikipedia employs a range of bots. Sometimes they are moved on. ClueBot is one example, a bot currently on an indefinite break after fixing around 1.6 million attempts at vandalism of Wikipedia pages over 3.5 years. ClueBot is succeeded by ClueBot NG, another anti-vandal bot that tries to detect and revert vandalism “quickly and automatically”.