"Word War III"
The Washington Post Sunday Magazine
August 10, 2008
HE LIT THE FUSE BY ACCIDENT, with good intentions serving as his matchstick. On June 8, 2005, at 10:50 a.m., a 26-year-old computer software engineer in Tehran created a seemingly innocuous entry on Wikipedia about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then a fringe candidate running for president of Iran. The minibiography was just 73 words long. Its author, Roozbeh Pournader, had no clue he was touching off an explosive war of words that would rage online for more than two years.
"At that time," says Pournader, who now lives in California, "Ahmadinejad's running was considered a joke."
Pournader is part of an army of several hundred thousand volunteers who collectively produce Wikipedia, the enormously popular online encyclopedia. Wikipedia is rooted in the utopian notion that ordinary people can unite in cyberspace as citizen-scholars, conducting a grand town meeting of the minds on thousands of topics. But, as the Ahmadinejad dust-up vividly demonstrates, communal encyclopedia writing can be as messy as sausage making.
Pournader happens to be that rarest of creatures: a full-disclosure Wikipedian. While the vast majority of Wikipedia's enthusiasts and editors take refuge behind online alter egos, he uses his given name, even posting his birth date, place of employment and photo in his Wikipedia profile. Pournader is a bespectacled man with a full-moon face. In his Wikipedia picture, he's wearing a goofy conical hat that has ear flaps. Think Grand Dragon of the Keebler Elves.
By virtue of his computer background, Pournader was an early convert to the idea of shared, open-source data. He founded the Persian edition of Wikipedia and has contributed dozens of English-language entries about Iranian people and politics, including an overview of that 2005 Iranian presidential campaign. A few days before the initial round of voting, Pournader noticed there were Wikipedia profiles for seven of the eight candidates, the exception being Ahmadinejad.
"So I created an article about him," he explains. His entry described Ahmadinejad as "the most fundamentalist" of the candidates, recipient of a doctorate in civil engineering and the current mayor of Tehran. It bore what's called a "stub" tag, indicating that the biography needed fleshing out. Not to worry. Other Wikipedia contributors would soon be stepping forward.
"I started an article about an obscure Iranian politician," says Pournader, "and, in a few short months, he was the most talked-about Iranian in the world."
JIMMY WALES, THE 41-YEAR-OLD CO-FOUNDER OF WIKIPEDIA, once compared the Wiki universe to "a softball league for geeks." These days, Wales speaks more loftily about putting his freebie encyclopedia within reach of every person on the planet. He's well on his way to doing so.
Launched without fanfare in 2001, Wikipedia now ranks among the top 10 most frequented sites on the Web, according to ratings compiled by Alexa Internet, an Amazon.com subsidiary. Another company that tracks Web viewership, ComScore, estimates that Wikipedia attracted 250 million unique visitors in June alone. Inventory has swelled to 2.4 million articles, encompassing topics as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt's Supreme Court appointments, navel lint, the Declaration of Independence, exploding whales, the death of John Lennon and, yes, even the kitchen sink. And that's just English Wikipedia. There are spinoffs in more than 250 other languages accounting for some 8 million additional articles.
Last December -- less than seven years after its debut -- English Wikipedia became the largest compendium of knowledge in history, surpassing the Yongle Encyclopedia, which was compiled 600 years ago during China's Ming Dynasty. Of course, it's unlikely anybody knew about that Yongle Encyclopedia milestone unless they'd taken time to read the article about Wikipedia in ...Wikipedia.
Mike Godwin is general counsel of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which reaches beyond the encyclopedia to include, among other things, free-content Wikinews and Wikibooks, plus a home-study Wikiversity. He's one of only 18 salaried employees; the rest are all unpaid volunteers, who, on English Wikipedia, come from the ranks of 7 million registered users, and who knows how many dabblers. Godwin contends that Wikipedia signifies "something new under the sun": unbridled information-building made possible by the elastic properties of the Internet. Any number of voices can join the discussion and speak up. And up. And up.
The proof of this unfettered and often heated exchange of ideas is appended to each Wikipedia article's home page. There you'll find a discussion archive that captures all the online chatter about a specific topic, as well as a history archive that contains the running chronology of all text edits and reverts (reverse edits) that have been made. Every byte of minutia is preserved. Those transcripts are enlightening in their own right, offering a peek at scores of major and minor Wiki wars being fought behind the scenes.
"There are conflicts on topics that one would think are completely non-controversial," observes Kirill Lokshin, a 24-year-old software engineer from Rockville and avid Wikipedia editor. "We had a very long, very rough conflict about Charles Darwin being born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln and whether that needs to be mentioned in their articles." (That standoff ultimately wound up in Wiki mediation, where the birthday exclusionists prevailed.)
Florence Devouard, a 39-year-old agronomist who became a Wikipedian in late 2001, back when "it wouldn't even show up in a Google search," recalls "a huge edit war" over a French Wikipedia article about a vegetable: the humble endive. The root cause, if you will, was a dissident faction loyal to the word chicon, as endive is known in Belgium. A firefight ensued over which name deserved top billing. Endive advocates emerged victorious, but not before several members got so riled up that they were briefly suspended from French Wikipedia for rude behavior.
"It was very passionate and nasty," says Devouard, who lives in a small village in France and recently stepped down as chairman of the Wikimedia Foundation's board of trustees. "Food is very serious."
THE AHMADINEJAD ENTRY ATTRACTED LITTLE ATTENTION during its first week on English Wikipedia. Only two users materialized, making minor tweaks to Pournader's biographical sketch. By June 19, 2005, about a dozen people had weighed in. The text grew to 850 words. Readers now knew Ahmadinejad was the son of a blacksmith, objected to the veto power of the five permanent members of the U. N. Security Council and joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq war. The last paragraph declared he "possibly had a hand in international assassinations" and "covert operations in Iraq" -- juicy but unsubstantiated tidbits that later would be dropped. The introduction noted that he was "considered by some to be an ultra-conservative hardliner."
All those cumulative details led to the removal of the stub designation by an anonymous Wiki administrator, a Canadian who identifies himself in his user profile as "a Wikipediaholic" with an interest in politics, religion, history and philosophy. There are about 1,500 Wikipedia administrators or "admins." These unpaid uber-editors are selected by their fellow admins, who entrust them with shepherding online discussions and with enforcing the rules of polite engagement. Admins, however, are supposed to tread softly. Wikipedia is a stubbornly egalitarian enterprise that depends on the magic of mass consensus.
Two hours and seven minutes after Ahmadinejad gained full-article status, a college student in Tehran who goes by the name "Sina" logged on and revised the opening to read "considered by some to be a fascist." Within three minutes, the admin from Canada resurfaced, striking the revision. "Please refrain from calling him a fascist unless you have a source which clearly shows that he adheres to the tenets of fascism," the Canadian admonished on the entry's history page. "Otherwise factual edits welcome."
Embedded in that reminder are Wikipedia's twin bedrock principles: One, no original research or hearsay are allowed in Wikipedia entries. All facts must be derived from reliable outside sources, primarily old-media magazines, newspapers and books. Two, objectivity rules. Articles must adhere to a neutral point of view, or "NPOV" in Wiki shorthand.
Despite those guiding-light edicts, subjectivity invariably rears its head. That's not surprising, since Wikipedia is such a labor of love. Wikipedians gleefully peck away at their keyboards for hours on end because they believe in Wales's free-information gospel or because they have a bubbling passion for some particular person, place or thing they want to see included in the sprawling encyclopedia. Some have agendas, not always benign ones.
As Ahmadinejad page traffic began to pick up, so did the differences of opinion. Pournader inserted the descriptive adjective "Islamist," which he didn't intend as a political put-down. That ever-watchful Canadian admin again overruled, insisting that Islamist has become "a widely controversial term" that "might give the wrong impression of who he really is."
Pournader took no offense. "In the Wikipedia community, it's lovely to see other people take what you've started and continue to expand it," he says. "It's a very good thing when you see an article grow into something else."
It was not such a good thing, in Pournader's opinion, when Ahmadinejad pulled an upset in the second round of voting on June 24, 2005, and was elected president of Iran. That night, Pournader turned his private blog into an SOS.: "The Iranian people have proved their idiocy...we have a religio-fascistic government now...according to the threats I have received before, specially about my work on the Wikipedia...I consider myself in some danger."
He uploaded his resume, telling the world: "If you have a job for me outside Iran, please leave me an email."
AHMADINEJAD'S UNEXPECTED VICTORY kicked off a full-blown Wiki spat. Thirty-four comments were posted on the discussion page by nine different users over two days. At issue was a snippet of background information someone had added to the article: namely, that only Muslim men approved by the cleric-packed Council of Guardians are eligible to run for president. The Canadian admin scratched the addition, claiming it was biographically irrelevant. His heavy hand prompted "Barneygumble" -- an American mechanical engineer of conservative bent, according to his Wiki bio -- to sarcastically inquire, "How exactly does whitewashing the 'election' provide NPOV?"
That marked an escalation of sorts. The whitewash bomb had been dropped. It's a favorite Wiki weapon, but not the only one. Almost 20 years ago, Mike Godwin, the Wikipedia Foundation attorney, made a pithy observation about rhetorical excess on the Internet. Godwin's Law gained notoriety and eventually a page in Wikipedia. It asserts that "as a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches" 100 percent.
In early October 2005, Godwin's Law caught up to Ahmadinejad when Wikipedia poster "Osprey39" declared on the discussion page, "Ahmadinejad is a cross breed between Stalin and Hitler."
A couple of weeks later, Ahmadinejad threw gasoline on his own Wiki fire. The occasion was a speech at the World Without Zionism conference in Tehran, during which he quoted Ayatollah Khomeini, the bearded holy man who led the 1979 Iranian revolution and famously denounced the United States as the "Great Satan."
"As the Imam said," Ahmadinejad parroted, "Israel must be wiped off the map." That inflammatory statement was dissected worldwide. Were Ahmadinejad's words translated correctly? Was he talking literally about destroying Israel and/or Jews? And hadn't Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust? The discussion about Ahmadinejad's Wikipedia entry grew increasingly tense as assorted editors pressed to brand him an anti-Semite...or, conversely, to block those attempts.
Ahmadinejad "used a euphemism, transparent to everyone but toddlers and whitewashers...Calling for the destruction of the Jewish state is antisemitism," argued Wiki user "Humus sapiens."
"Incorrect, calling for the destruction of the Jewish people is antisemitism," countered "Irishpunktom."
"Under no circumstances should this discussion be deleted, let it remain as a testament to the stupidity of the vocal few and so Wikipedians know who the morons and anti-Semites are," replied someone with the handle "Battlefield."
Wikipedia has a two-track system for handling intractable disputes. Complaints about member misconduct go to arbitration; disagreements over article content qualify for mediation. (There are about a dozen volunteer arbitrators and mediators. Periodic Wiki elections are held to fill arbitration posts. Mediators are subject to approval by the mediation committee.) In either procedure, civility is usually an early casualty.
"A lot of people take what they do in this community very seriously," explains Mark Pellegrini, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Delaware who refereed dozens of verbal fisticuffs when he served on the arbitration committee. "Is it surprising people get as emotional as they do? No!"
Pellegrini shrugs off the physical threats he has received as harmless venting. Most memorable, he notes, was the time Jonathon Sharkey, oddball presidential candidate and founder of the Vampires, Witches and Pagans Party, had problems with his profile that, in his mind, could only be properly addressed by the remedial impaling of some Wikipedians.
At their worst, Wikipedia article deliberations ramble on like bad wedding reception toasts. In Ahmadinejad's case, a series of secondary issues cropped up. Did the photo showing him with America-bashing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez constitute unintentional bias? (Yes, was the discussion-page consensus; a replacement photo was found.) Was Ahmadinejad involved in the U.S. Embassy siege in Tehran in 1979? (That misconception briefly made it into the article before getting axed.) Is it fair game to make mention of anti-Ahmadinejad student demonstrations in Iran? (Yes.) Is conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer an acceptably objective source to quote? (No.)
How to handle the hot-potato allegation of anti-Semitism continued to defy resolution for months.
"Ahmadinejad is infamous for saying Israel must be 'wiped off the map,' and saying that the Holocaust is a 'myth.' This is what [should] be reported in the lead, not whitewashed statements," insisted "Jayjg," a Wikipedian admin with an interest in Jewish subjects and more than 62,000 edits under his belt.
"I gave up on Wikipedia," countered "Gerash77," a Farsi speaker who said he'd urged the Iranian authorities to block Internet access to "this ridiculous patcho-pedia."
LAST SUMMER, Virgil Griffith, a computer science graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, got the urge to unmask some of English Wikipedia's warriors and the biases they might bring to the table. He compiled a database of 34 million edits made between February 2002 and August 2007, and cross-referenced that information with the IP (internet protocol) addresses of the computers from which the edits originated. He then tracked down the organizations assigned to those IPs.
Griffith named his creation Wiki-Scanner and turned it into a free, easily searchable Web site (Wikiscanner.virgil.gr). He connected some interesting dots. Someone using a computer at the North Canton, Ohio, headquarters of Diebold, Inc., maker of electronic voting machines, had excised multiple paragraphs from a Wikipedia article about voting machines. Those paragraphs happened to be critical of Diebold and pointed out that the company's CEO had raised money for President Bush. Likewise, the chief of staff of then-Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) admitted to having supervised some favorable rewrites of Meehan's Wikipedia biography while eliminating all traces of the promise that Meehan had made to serve only four terms in office.
Wikipedia's in-house statistics show that from June 2005 through December 2007, the Ahmadinejad profile was edited 5,742 times. A WikiScanner check reveals that the users were far-flung: Barcelona, Budapest, Dublin, Dubai, Hamburg, Haifa, Paris, Stockholm, multiple locations inside Iran, and one from within the CIA. On Dec. 15, 2005, at 11:38 a.m., someone at Langley scrolled to the paragraph in Ahmadinejad's biography about him running for president under the catchy slogan: "It's Possible and We Can Do It." He or she then typed a one-word addition to the text: "Wahhhhhh!"
Thirteen minutes later, Wiki user "Izehar" dutifully expunged "Wahhhhhh." Mission accomplished. Neutrality restored.
IN THE FALL OF 2006, Ahmadinejad tried to do some image repair during a news conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York. "I am not anti-Jew," he told reporters. "I respect them very much."
His declaration opened up a new front of debate among Wikipedians: What verb should be used to characterize Ahmadinejad's denial that he is anti-Semitic? Does "insist" imply a defensiveness that violates Neutral Point of View?
"It is best to use 'state' because it definitely has no connotation," argued "The Benham," a college student who describes himself as half Iranian, half "white American."
By April 2007, "state" had given way to "said," which, in turn, had become problematic. "I strongly doubt that he was sincere when he said he respects the Jews... As such, we should avoid the POV that he is sincere about this quote by replacing 'said' with 'claimed' since this is less POV wording," stated/said/claimed "Sefringle," another college student, who identifies himself as "an atheist of African American and Jewish ethnicity."
Each side dragged out third-party sources to bolster its argument that Ahmadinejad is or is not anti-Semitic. The combatants were beginning to sound like bickering spouses trapped in a bad marriage.
"But my question was directed at you. Could you please respond?"
"I'll do that as soon as I get an answer to my question."
"Holocaust denial alone qualifies as antisemitism, so with that whitewash alone you only discredit yourself."
"What the hell are you even talking about?"
The fireworks were spectacular, but largely unproductive. As one Wiki editor put it: "There is no way I will get involved with working on this train wreck of an article. However, I do plan to sit back and enjoy the show."
Roozbeh Pournader, the man who'd unwittingly started the whole conflict, wasn't even following it anymore. He'd dropped out soon after Ahmadinejad's inauguration and was still trying to find a way to leave Iran.
When text vandalism or edit warring gets ugly, an administrator can protect an article by temporarily restricting access to, say, only registered Wikipedia users with confirmed accounts. In extreme circumstances, an admin will block all users. The Ahmadinejad article underwent 15 lockdowns, lasting from only a few days to two months. They were initiated or terminated by 20 different admins.
Finally, on May 20, 2007, "Pejman47," an Ahmadinejad defender, submitted an online request for help to the mediation committee. Fifteen other equally frustrated Wikipedians signed an agreement to take part. Wiki mediation is a nonbinding attempt at conflict resolution, usually conducted by e-mail or via a group talk page.
The Ahmadinejad case was assigned to Chad Horohoe, a business-math major at Virginia Commonwealth University and acting chairman of the English Wikipedia mediation committee. He had worked on a handful of earlier mediations, one of them a mixed-results marathon that involved the article about stock guru Robert Prechter and the Elliott wave principle of market forecasting. He wasn't overly optimistic about brokering an Ahmadinejad peace.
"Most mediations are not easy," Horohoe said. "Because you've got people who have their opinions for whatever reason, and, as people are, they're ingrained in their positions."
He began by asking the participants to vote on whether they wanted to proceed privately or on the public talk page. They opted for the latter. He asked each of them to post a summary of what he or she wanted to accomplish in mediation and suggestions for compromise. Then Horohoe took a leave of absence from the mediation committee. Well, what do you expect? He's a college kid, not a U.N. diplomat.
Horohoe said "a combination of things" pulled him away: other Wiki responsibilities (he helps debug and tweak the encyclopedia software), school, an internship with the city of Richmond's department of information technology.
The process started all over again in late July 2007, this time with a Glasgow, Scotland, college student named "Anthony" serving as mediator. He got everyone to agree on the main issues in search of solution: what points to cover in the Ahmadinejad article introduction, the question of whether to include an Iranian government response to the "wiped off the map" speech, alleged deviations from Neutral Point of View and the use of some questionable sources.
Then Anthony took a leave of absence from Wikipedia for undisclosed personal reasons. Mediator No. 3 picked up the baton last September. He wasn't a college student -- yet. Daniel Bryant, then 17, was a high school senior from Adelaide, Australia. He had some related experience, having successfully mediated the Wiki biography of Abu Usamah, an imam in Britain with a low tolerance for non-Muslims.
"It's more complex than the average case," Bryant said in a phone interview about the Ahmadinejad altercation. "On a scale of one to 10, it's about an eight."
The undercurrent of religion was a complicating factor, he explained. So, too, were the large number of people active in the dispute. On the other hand, a lot of those people were seasoned Wiki pros, some of them respected admins. Take "Avraham," an actuary. He'd contributed 388 edits to the Wikipedia article on circumcision, a hot-button subject.
"It was a very difficult topic," Bryant said, "and he was very calm."
AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT, there are approximately a dozen articles in various stages of mediation and arbitration on English Wikipedia. That's a pittance considering the gargantuan size of the site. One can argue that, by and large, it's a remarkably peaceful global village. But things can, and do, go wrong.
The most publicized Wikipedia system failure hinged on a solitary malicious edit. In May 2005, a Wiki contributor in Nashville sabotaged the biography of John Seigenthaler Sr., a former publisher of the Nashville Tennessean and the founding editorial director of USA Today. Four sentences of tainted text were introduced, one of which read, "For a short time, [Seigenthaler] was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby."
Seigenthaler had not only worked for Robert Kennedy, but he'd been a pallbearer at his funeral. The bogus bio remained online for four months, until someone discovered the tampering. Afterward, Seigenthaler had several conversations with Jimmy Wales about the lack of oversight and fact-checking on Wikipedia. What he heard wasn't reassuring.
"They don't want a code of ethics," says Seigenthaler, who has since started proofreading his Wikipedia entry several times a week. "It's not intellectual democracy. It's intellectual anarchy."
Like Seigenthaler, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sange also came to believe that the site's laissez-faire ethos borders on irresponsibility. Last year, Sanger started Citizendium, a free online encyclopedia that he refers to as "Wikipedia for adults." Citi's 3,000 contributors operate under their real names, and Sanger handpicks 300 editors with defined areas of expertise to ride herd on articles in development. Last month, Google unveiled a service called Knol, short for "a unit of knowledge," which will also compete with Wikipedia. People who write articles for Knol can choose whether to let others edit them, making it less collective and tamer than Wikipedia. The same is true for Citizendium.
Citizendium has a 423-word entry on Ahmadinejad that makes no reference to anti-Semitism or his speech to the World Without Zionism conference. The site has nothing to say about navel lint, exploding whales or the kitchen sink. There are only about 7,500 articles on Citizendium. That's about how many entries get purged from Wikipedia every four days for being obsolete or too off-the-wall.
IN SEPTEMBER LAST YEAR, Ahmadinejad gave a speech at Columbia University that made headlines for his take on Persian homosexuality. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he declared. "We don't have that in our country ...We don't have this phenomenon; I don't know who's told you that we have it."
That performance lit up the Ahmadinejad discussion board, right at the time young Daniel Bryant was hoping to conduct his mediation free of background noise. Some new Wiki editors appeared on the discussion page, bearing nuggets of offbeat information. "Marksspitel" wondered if there was room in the article for his contention that Iran does more sex-change operations than any other country except Thailand, and that government funding for the procedure has increased during Ahmadinejad's presidency. Another Wiki user wanted to see more on Ahmadinejad's religious beliefs, especially a dream the Iranian president supposedly had had that Armageddon would arrive "within three years."
Some people from the mediation group got sucked back into the general-discussion whirlpool. Bryant moved to stop that, posting a pointed message: "I would appreciate it if parties could comment on the two proposals currently floating around on the [mediation] page, rather than devoting their efforts into edit-warring...If any party does not wish for the mediation to continue, they can withdraw and the [mediation] will be closed." That's a 17-year-old Wikipedian with some adult backbone.
Bryant had launched his mediation effort by asking the 16 primary participants to divide into two camps, each with a designated spokesman. They declined. He then requested that every person list the sentences in the article they most objected to, and give reasons why.
Pejman47 wanted to add an update about "the media fuss" over Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University. Avraham, the circumcision authority, argued that Columbia was of fleeting significance. However, he wondered, what is Ahmadinejad's gas rationing plan doing in the article?
"We should have something in the lead about who he actually is and what he's done...and not limit it to just controversy surrounding him," explained "Omegatron."
Wikipedia business proceeds at its own quirky pace: Consensus Time. It reportedly took four years and input from 500 contributors to get the biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt into acceptable shape. "If some extra time is needed to work out a neutral version that parties can agree to, so be it," Avraham reminded everyone. "Wikipedia will be here for decades and more, we hope."
The cavalry finally arrived in the form of one lone rider. "Mcorazao" quietly joined the online mediation late last October. There was no Wikipedia profile for him. Beyond professing some familiarity with Spanish Wikipedia, he was a mysterious stranger.
"I think this issue is still being approached from the wrong perspective," Mcorazao declared in an Oct. 23 message. "Particularly in the intro, I think it is best to focus on the quotes and interpretations which are widely agreed to..." He posted a compromise rewrite of the long, thorny third paragraph that dealt with Ahmadinejad's "wiped off the map" remark and the charges of anti-Semitism. It was greeted with silence from fellow mediation participants.
Ten days later, Mcorazao took another crack at massaging the same block of Ahmadinejad text:
"He has been widely quoted as calling for the dissolution of the state of Israel and its government which he does not regard as legitimate or representative of the population. Like many in the Muslim world he has called for 'free elections' in the region giving the Palestinians a stronger voice in the region's future. One of his most notorious statements was one in which, according to some translations, he called for Israel to be 'wiped off the map,' but interpretations of this statement vary widely. He has also been condemned for describing the Holocaust as a myth to make 'the innocent nation of Palestine pay,' leading to accusations of anti-Semitism. In response to these criticisms, Ahmadinejad said, 'No, I am not anti-Jew, I respect them very much.' "
Poetry it's not. But something about that wording hit the right conciliatory note. Or maybe the combatants simply were worn out. "I like what you've done there, avoiding alarmist words and smears, while covering his rhetoric," wrote "Palestine Remembered."
Pejman47 was uncomfortable with attributing "notorious statements" to Ahmadinejad. Too judgmental. He suggested substituting "criticized statements."
Someone else homed in on the Ahmadinejad quote fragment "to make 'the innocent nation of Palestine pay.' " "Flagrant Neutral Point of View violation," he said. How about scratching that line?"
The remaining details were quickly ironed out. On Nov. 22, 2007, Bryant announced the mediation was a success and unlocked the Ahmadinejad biography, leaving a note on the discussion forum: "This page has been unprotected... Cheers."
IN THE MONTHS SINCE BRYANT UNLOCKED THE AHMADINEJAD ENTRY, there have been signs that the consensus he forged might not last. In May, "Rosywounds" griped that the article is "bloated beyond belief," while promising to take it upon himself to beef up the foreign policy section. "Shalom Freedman" wanted to revisit the threat Ahmadinejad presents to American democracy and Israel.
"Can an article lead be worked on, and argued about, and mediated, and still be written poorly and not very informative?" asked "BoogaLouie."
More experienced editors encouraged BoogaLouie to proceed with caution before doing any rewriting. On Memorial Day, Pejman47, the Ahmadinejad defender who requested a mediator, briefly returned to action. He sounded battle-fatigued.
"The current lead, although not perfect, is the result of a long 'painful mediation,' " he wrote. "Please, review the discussion .... Unfortunately, the other guys at the previous mediation and I don't have time for repeating the same reasoning again and again and again."
As for Roozbeh Pournader, he says the Ahmadinejad entry covers the politics well but fails to explore the Iranian leader's hero status in much of the Muslim world. He has no desire to edit the entry. He's just happy that he's no longer living under Ahmadinejad's rule. In February, he and his wife left Iran and moved to California, where he is working for a Silicon Valley tech company.
Pournader says he finds his adopted country "surprising" in many ways. The level of choice is daunting. In Iran, "you want to buy a car," he says, "there were only two cars you could afford, there were only three colors you could choose." In America, that most Wikipedian of nations, there are so many makes and models. So much information at your fingertips. Sometimes, he says, it's too much.
How good a job has Wikipedia done with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad...
...whose entry now hovers around 5,800 words and 151 footnotes? Why not ask Gary Sick, who, according to his Wikipedia biography, is an "American academic and analyst of Middle East affairs, with special expertise on Iran." Sick served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, has written two books on Iran and teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
"Disjointed" is his nutshell review of Wikipedia's Ahmadinejad performance. There's too much on-the-one-hand-then-the-other strained objectivity. Sick says the "wiped off the map" quote was handled well, but not enough attention is given to the political fallout. In addition, the article understates how much Ahmadinejad has beefed up the role of president and implies that his odds of getting reelected are slimmer than might actually be the case.
Still, it's the best Ahmadinejad primer around, says Sick, who then makes a confession: He's a frequent Wiki user. "For all its faults, it's a really important addition to the world of political analysis and research. It answers my question nine out of 10 times, and tells me what I want to know about rather obscure bits and pieces of information I can't find elsewhere."
Wikipedia doesn't nail Ahmadinejad, says Sick, but that's because the president and his country are in such flux. "Nobody has the final answers on this guy."