A look inside one of the most bizarrely contentious groups on Facbook.
The world is full of stuff, and some of that stuff is cool and freaky. Almost everything in the world has a Wikipedia page, so it stands to reason that Wikipedia is home to lot of cool and freaky tidbits. The problem is, Wikipedia's so crammed with knowledge that it's hard to get your finger on the truly good nuggets of weirdness. Or it was hard, before Cool Freaks' Wikipedia Club started doing all the digging for you.
CFWC is a 28,000-member Facebook group committed to finding every insane piece of knowledge buried in the Wiki annals. It's the only group I belong to, and for good reason: In the last few hours, the group has taught me that sleeping with an electric fan on might kill me, I learned that the lowest-grossing movie of all time, Zzyzx Road, only took in $30 at the US box office, and I absorbed more facts about paneer than I could ever possibly use or need. Beyond the esoteric factoids, however, I've learned something more fundamental: People who are into Wikipedia are incredibly pedantic and sensitive to the slightest hint of something giving offense to someone.
That paneer Wikipedia post, for instance, somehow devolved into a platform for Cool Freaks commenters to argue that the world paneer simply means cheese, so giving it a separate Wikipedia page is a blatant form of Orientalism. Anybody who commented with skepticism—or just wanted to point out that, you know, it's kind of insane to turn a Facebook post about a cheese Wiki into a stage to rail against Orientalism—were immediately banned from the group.
Make an off-color comment? Banned. Laugh at the "anthropomorphism" trigger warning? Banned. Question why a Sonic the Hedgehog video game needs a "zoophilia" warning? Well, there's a cutscene where he kisses a princess. And you're banned just for asking.
My roommate turned me onto Cool Freaks six months ago. He has since been banned from Cool Freaks for making a bad joke on Facebook. Not a joke that he made on a Cool Freaks' post. Just a joke he made on someone's Facebook wall, which one of the Cool Freaks admins happened to read. Banned.
Periodically I see outbursts from members of CFWC pop up in my feed—people driven to Network-style meltdowns about the fascist hypersensitivity of the Cool Freaks' moderators. Those tirades quickly disappear as the writer is booted and the page is scrubbed clean again.
Ex-CFWC member Christian Larson was hooked from the first moment he found the page on Facebook. "I loved the group," Larson told me. "It was a bunch of nerds sharing obscure Wikipedia stories and discussing them. It felt like what social media should be all about.
"There was an obvious atmosphere of political correctness, for lack of a better term," he added. "But I thought, What's so wrong with that?"
Then his friend posted an article on a particularly cool and freaky Revolutionary War unit, and everything changed. The comments erupted, crying "Imperialism!" and "white dominance!" and berating Larson's friend from sharing the article. The guy, a college professor and staunch liberal, was completely caught off guard. His post had become the battleground for a back-and-forth about colonialism with the trigger-happy moderators laying down bans left and right.
"The gleeful way they banned people was chilling," Larson said to me. "I know it's lame for a white straight man to accuse someone of bullying. But there's no other word for it."
The professor was banned. His posts were deleted. Cool Freaks moved on as if nothing happened.
Larson eventually fell victim to the banhammer as well. "One day, someone posted an article about the Dresden bombings, which caused quite a stir," he said. "Eventually [a commenter] made the point that, in war, there aren't any good guys. I was reminded of a famous UK comedy sketch where two Nazis sit around a campfire wondering whether or not they're bad guys."
He tossed in a funny quote from the sketch and headed to work. That night, he couldn't manage to log back onto the Cool Freaks' Wikipedia Club Facebook page. Apparently, Larson—an activist who had been part of the protest movement against the Iraq War—had ignited a firestorm. Cool Freaks' labeled him a "Nazi sympathizer" and "genocide apologist" and then brought down a ban.
He tried to return to the group under a different account to apologize for the apparently tasteless joke, but they just ran him out again. The group soldiered on, posting cool and freaky articles while ejecting anyone who questions the need for a trigger warning for "ghosts."
With the CFWC nearing 30,000 members and hundreds of banned members piling up, displaced Facebook refugees who miss the stream of strange Wikipedia pages have come up with a few ways to combat their grief. Along with 700 other ex-members, Larson has started a rival Facebook group called Cool Nerds Trivia Club. Other banned members go crawling back to the Cool Freaks mods through a rehabilitation Facebook group called the "Banned Members Reinstatement Program." There they can state the offense that got them banned, prove to a moderator that they are repentant, and be welcomed back into the Cool Freaks family.
"It's just Facebook," one Cool Freaks' member said to me in Brooklyn yesterday. (He asked to remain nameless, out of fear of the mods.) "I respect Cool Freaks' commitment to inclusion and being mindful towards a topic that could be sensitive. I respect their vision to keep things civil.
"But if Sonic the Hedgehog getting a peck on the cheek from a cartoon princess triggers someone's bestiality PTSD, the internet might not be the best place for them anyway. I just want to share strange Wikipedia articles without being afraid that my phrasing will appear offensive."
The guy paused. "I'm really going to miss the group when I get banned for talking to you."
Follow River Donaghey on Twitter.