Wikipedia's monochrome interface might not be pretty, but it hides a far uglier part of the site.
The black, white and (occasional) blue pages give the impression of objectivity—of egos put aside for the sake of collaboration. But "consensus" is a fragile thing, and when a Wikipedia entry about a 3D printer with over 3,900 words and 41 citations is cut down to 283 words overnight, it's hard not to ask whether edits were made in wrath rather than in the name of open-source knowledge. It's hard not to go looking for scandal in the Talk pages.
On March 15, the Wikipedia page for the RepRap project was drastically cut in what some might call an act of vandalism. The editor claimed the article was an unsourced, overly-flattering depiction of a project that failed at its goals, while others argued that their edits were feckless and heavy-handed. This escalated into an edit war, one vicious enough to draw in even RepRap's inventor, who offered to help draft a new article only to be shut down.
The RepRap Project was one of the first 3D printers designed to democratise the medium, created with the ability to re-print itself. Every "parent" printer could produce a "child" by printing its own parts, with designs published under a free software licence. Less a product than a movement, it was created in 2004 by engineer and mathematician Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath, who describes his invention as a form of "revolutionary ownership."
Though the commercial arm of RepRap, RepRap Pro, ceased trading earlier this year, the RepRap community remains active. There is a wiki and a forum, along with multiple blogs and YouTube channels. Its enthusiasts have been evangelical, acting as custodians of its history. So when the Wikipedia article for RepRap was dramatically cut, the fans noticed.
On Wikipedia, change is necessary. No editor can be entirely pure of purpose; in order to know enough about a niche topic like a specific 3D printer, they'll likely have their own interest in it, which is why accepting further edits is part of the process.
But conjecture can proliferate far faster than 3D-printed machine parts, and on the RepRap page the editing process turned increasingly nasty. The page went through a series of dramatic revisions: section after section disappeared, apparently flawed by authorial conflicts of interest. Each new version had comments attached: In one, from March 15, a user called Captain Yuge states "take it to the talk page, RV hostile vulgarian editor." Another reads "Final warning for editing warring," referring to a battle fought between Captain Yuge and Jytdog, the editor responsible for the cuts. Jytdog had at this point watchlisted the page, a function which allows you to track changes (and potentially attack anyone who takes issue with your edits).
In a section titled "Draconian cut" on RepRap's Talk page, Jytdog made a case for his gutting of the page:
Way too much hype around [RepRap] had been pressed into WP [Wikipedia]. I'm not a crazy person and would be open to re-expansion but it needs to be enduring, encyclopedic content cited to secondary sources
The "hype" alluded to mention of the project's aspirations—talking about RepRap's symbolic value as the first of its kind, rather than what it actually went on to accomplish. Jytdog also directly accused the article's previous editors of being too close to their subject, which gets in the way of Wikipedia's "objective" house style:
3D printing remains niche-y. I know lots of people and maybe one has a 3D printer. This is what happens when people who have conflicts of interest write Wikipedia articles. Too close to the vision. Passion is a double-edged sword that way. It drives people to contribute but you only get the fans or the haters, and encyclopedic content goes out the window.
Was RepRap's article full of "promotional" hype or simply information about an open-source project which happened to sound good?
Editors with a conflict of interest (COI) can contribute suggestions to Wikipedia's Talk pages rather than contributing directly, but citing sources like a conference abstract (included in the original article) aren't enough. That said, there was no proof offered here that these initial editors had a conflict, apart from that they were inspired to write the entry in the first place.
Another user, called Mburns, countered Jytdog's argument, saying that it was unproductive to cut content which could have been reworked and improved:
Now you've created unneeded work for people to try and add that relevant content back in, knowing that someone is hovering over the revert button. Poor form.
Two experts were later drawn into this escalating edit war: Vik Olliver, a member of the core RepRap team and a RepRap Wiki admin, and later Adrian Bowyer, who was called on to defend his own invention. The argument centred on conflicts of interest: Was RepRap's article full of "promotional" hype or simply information about an open-source project which happened to sound good?
Bowyer offered to help out with a new version, but again Jytdog shot the edits down:
there is a ton of unsourced content in that draft; it fails WP:VERIFY by miles and miles. It is also still full of the "revolutionary" rhetoric and WP:CRYSTALBALL predictions that the former, bloated version was full of.
WP:VERIFY and WP:CRYSTALBALL are Wikipedia guidelines addressing verifiability and speculation, respectively.
Niche communities will inevitably rally around their own pet topics, turning Wikipedia into a site for fandom and petty grudges
Wikipedia's greatest trolls act wholly in silence: The deletion of content is an act more brutal than any Talk page slander. But was this a troll? I reached out to both Jytdog and Adrian Bowyer, who declined to comment until the storm around the page blows over. I asked Bowyer if controversies like this one are common in the field of 3D printing, which is no stranger to ideological battles (think 3D-printed guns, bioethics and wrestling the means of production from our capitalist overlords) and his reply was evasive:
As far as I am aware, controversies like this are pretty rare in 3D printing. As to Wikipedia, I don't know what would constitute a remarkable level of controversy. Clearly such a major resource must expect some.
Jytdog, meanwhile, was more forthright:
Almost all Wikipedians agree that "advocacy editing" is a really big problem. Advocacy editing is when somebody comes to Wikipedia who is, say, an ardent vegetarian (or meat-eater) and believes eating meat is evil (or awesome), or hates (or loves) some politician or company or product or video game, and adds non-neutral and often unsourced or badly sourced content reflecting whatever their passion is. Advocates tend to behave badly as well.
We spoke back and forth over a couple of emails. They (I never did find out Jytdog's gender) said they would welcome rebuilding the article along Wikipedia's principles, but as it stood it had been "full of bad content, badly sourced or unsourced." They maintained the reasonable argument, that the old paragraphs were clearly written by people "who love the RepRap Project and are devoted to it," but that their interests had overpowered Wikipedia's main mission.
Jytdog also made the point that "Pretty much every 'maker' article in Wikipedia is equally bad," as niche communities will inevitably rally around their own pet topics, turning Wikipedia into a site for fandom and petty grudges. "This is usually not done out of malice… Many (not all) of these editors don't understand what Wikipedia is about, nor do they really care." Jytdog cited Wikipedia's infamous Gamergate edit war as an example.
Jytdog was resolute.
Then, suddenly, I got a short, tersely-worded email late on Tuesday night:
Actually I have given this a bunch of more thought over the last day and here is where I am. I have restored the article to the way it was before I got involved. I have unwatched the article.
Is the conflict over now, leaving the article to evolve organically? Jytdog's opponent, Captain Yuge, meanwhile announced his retirement following the edit war, declaring that "This was a waste of time." Similarly tired of fighting, did Jytdog do the right thing in restoring the page?
I asked, and they responded:
Right or wrong I don't know. What I do know is that I don't much like working on topics where there are mostly low quality sources and active online communities; it just becomes a dramafest.
That last part, at least, we call all agree on.
Forum Cop investigates the ugliest of internet beef, getting to the heart of online squabbles and extricating facts from gossip in digital enclaves.