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Repurposing the Wikiscanner

Introduction

The Wikiscanner 'de-anonymizes' edits on Wikipedia, linking IP addresses to the organizations and institutions where the edits were made. Released in August 2007, it was quickly taken up on the Web and in the media, and within days a number of high-profile cases of misconduct were revealed. These included unsavory edits by "the Al-Jazeera network, Fox News Channel, staffers of Democratic Senator Robert Byrd and the CIA" and, here in the Netherlands, a revelation that 'the Royals' were touching up their involvement in the Mabel affair.

As a tool, the scanner is skewed toward scandal research. Its question, 'Who edits Wikipedia?' comes with a suggestion: some of these edits will be "salacious". The results are presented per edit rather than aggregated, meaning the focus is not on collaborative processes or article 'evolution', but solely on the single, incriminating edit. On the one hand, this benefits from a core assumption about Wikipedia, that it is subject to manipulation and should be approached with caution. On the other, it is perfectly in line with the larger Wikipedia narrative, the power of the many over the few.

The Wikiscanner reapplies the Wisdom of Crowds at a meta-level. Meta-editors now lead the charge in exposing conflicts of interest. But will this result in a better encyclopedia, or simply a relocation of ongoing 'edit-wars' to more news-worthy portions of the Web? At what point do we need to know who queried a certain set of Wikiscanner results?

Taking a step back, we wonder whether the Wikiscanner can be repurposed as a (new) digital method. Tools for Web research, including the Wikiscanner but also those created by the DMI team, use exploits in Web services (Google, Wikipedia, etc.) to test them and make claims about the knowledge they produce or make available. However, the tools themselves come with methods 'built-in'. Can research questions be tweaked without tool-modification? Perhaps we are better off aiming for tool-amalgamation - combining existing tools so as to reposition their individual limits. Can we get past scandal research with the Wikiscanner?

'Grounding' Virtual Knowledge Production on Wikipedia

In the following case studies, we use the Wikiscanner to locate the production of Wikipedia knowledge within specific geographical and institutional borders. Rather than focus on acts of concealment or subversion - the individual deletion or addition - we want to examine the 'local' dimension in the collaborative authorship of Wikipedia.

Case Study: Comparing Palestinian and Israeli anonymous activity on Wikipedia

What is the relative 'anonymous' presence of Israel and Palestine on Wikipedia? Can we speak of Israeli or Palestinian 'ownership' of articles related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict? Are conflicts 'wikified' in article disputes?

The projects in this case study are still being worked on. Findings will be online soon.

For the full case study detailing method and findings, see:

Case Study: Anonymous Wikipedia Production by Dutch Universities

Which Dutch universities are the most active on Wikipedia? Do the universities have 'preferred topics' relating to their research programs? Which universities edit topics relating to national politics and culture, and which make contributions to topics located outside the Netherlands?

Findings
  • The anonymous edits from 13 Dutch universities were aggregated and compared. Discrepancies were found between university size and the amount of Wikipedia activity, but these could be explained by contextual factors: some universities have lively campuses with students living close by (Twente, Eindhoven), while others are relatively isolated (Erasmus Rotterdam, Tilburg).
  • Activity on articles related to Dutch culture, history and politics was measured. Utrecht, Groningen and Leiden were found to be the most active - interestingly, these three universities have the highest-rated Language and Culture programs, according to one recent national survey. Wageningen University and Research Centre is also very active on these topics, but a closer look reveals that this is limited to a great number of edits on just a few articles (especially 'Ayaan Hirsi Ali', 'Wageningen' and 'Wageningen University').
  • The three technical universities (Twente, Eindhoven and Delft) were 'profiled' based on the articles each edited. As expected, each contributes often to articles relating to mathematics, science and technology. In addition to this, each was found to conform somewhat to 'Geek' stereotypes, with a high proportion of edits on topics dealing with science fiction and fantasy games. This was most pronounced in the results for the Technical University of Eindhoven.
  • A trend in the edits from the University of Amsterdam could be termed a 'Great Man' view of Wikipedia. Half of the top thirty articles edited were biographies, and generally more than one were of a certain type (e.g. artist, charismatic leader, University of Amsterdam professor).

For the full case study detailing method and (other) findings, see:

Conclusions

The Wikiscanner, with some tweaking, makes it possible to 'localize' Wikipedia activity by linking edits to specific institutions or within geographical borders. Such a move adds a dimension to studies of Wikipedia. Where these have had to hang on to notions of the 'virtual community' in describing the ins and outs of collaboration online, the kind of research hinted at here will make it possible to rethink this production as both a local and global operation. General assumptions about Wikipedia's 'U.S.-centrism' should be tested empirically, and alongside article content researchers should make use of location as a variable. In the case of universities, presumably hubs for the production of knowledge, this 'trick' is all the more interesting and relevant.

Limitations

Only anonymous edits are indexed, meaning the samples are relatively small and, until one can prove otherwise, not representative of all edits. Also, despite any attempts here or elsewhere, it will be tough to disassociate 'anonymous' from 'discreditable'. With the profiles of technical universities, there is some indication that anonymous edits are somewhat representative, but this needs more work. Taking the Wikiscanner further will require adequately theorizing the 'anonymous edit'.


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Topic revision: r8 - 12 Sep 2008, MichaelStevenson
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