Local "Wiki" master done in by "sock puppets" | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Local "Wiki" master done in by "sock puppets"

During the 1970s, the principal of Taylor Allderdice High School routinely used morning announcements to plead with students to "please keep the pot-smoking out of the stairwells." And the student newspaper frequently carried ads urging students to make money by selling drugs in their spare time.

Or maybe not.

A debate about the drug culture at Allderdice, arguably Pittsburgh's most celebrated high school, has been raging on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for months. As a result of that argument, one of Pittsburgh's most active Wikipedians, Chris Griswold, has stepped down amid accusations that he violated encyclopedia rules.

Griswold, who also runs the popular Web site Overheard in Pittsburgh (www.overheardinpittsburgh.com), has long been active in editing Pittsburgh-related entries on Wikipedia. A few months ago, Griswold says, he was nominated by his fellow editors to be a site administrator. Among other things, that gave Griswold the power to monitor other users, watch for false stories and vandalism and, if necessary, block disruptive users. The job is a constant challenge, he says, because Wikipedia has an open-source approach to content that allows anyone to post material.

Becoming an administrator, Griswold says, "is being handed the mop. You become a janitor." But instead of sweeping up the mess on Wikipedia's entry regarding Allderdice, Griswold got swept up in it himself.

An editor on the site, posting under the online name "000destruct0," added material suggesting that "drug culture and humor played a prominent and benign role in school life during the 1970s." 000destruct0 claimed that in the student newspaper, The Foreword, administrators "approved publishing Op-Ed's with a kindhearted view of drug use" and that, in general, "drug use was not considered a core problem of the school."

These assertions were largely based on stories reported in The Foreword itself -- a source Griswold regarded as less than authoritative.

"I went to Hillman and checked the [Foreword's] archives," Griswold says. "There wasn't anything that says teachers signed off" on the paper's content, or any other sign that the material should be taken seriously.

"You need to be able to show that [facts have] been reported on by reliable sources," he says.

Griswold deleted the references from the Wikipedia article, sarcastically explaining on a discussion page: "In the 80-year history of this school, the brief mentions of drug use in the supercool student newspaper are a blip."

But Griswold made his edits using the Wikipedia identity of "Superburgh," not his primary "ChrisGriswold" account. Such secondary accounts, known as "sock puppets," are viewed warily by many in the Wikipedia world. "People use them for vandalism, trolling, to create a false sense of consensus," Griswold explains. "They are frowned upon but they have appropriate uses as well, for purposes of anonymity."

The two separate accounts were also meant to specialize in two specific interests of Griswold's, comedy and Pittsburgh. While they were anonymous, he says he never actively tried to obscure his identity.

The edits angered 000destruct0, who complained there was "no reason for [drug references] to be removed from the article, and no amount of aggressive insult, sarcasm and prejudice can form a basis for its removal." 000destruct0 also apparently suspected that Griswold was the editor who had removed the drug material; he petitioned Wikipedia administrators to check to see if Griswold and "Superburgh" were posting from the same computer.

"He went over my head," Griswold says. During a Wikipedia dispute-arbitration process, administrators discovered that Griswold had used another secondary account, "Truth in Comedy," to delete material in other entries.

Other Wikipedians denounced Griswold's methods as "nefarious." But before a decision was made about how to handle the situation, Griswold posted his own resignation.

"With an odd sense of relief, I would like to offer to step down as an administrator," Griswold wrote.

"I hope this will be penance enough for my missteps," he added, and expressed hope that he would have a chance "to redeem myself in the future."

"I'm the one who made the decision to step down," Griswold says today. He says that if other users had asked, he would have admitted his identity. But he says he was burned out from editing anyway, and wanted to return to his non-cyber life.

Working on Wikipedia, he says, is "like editing in a mosh pit."

At press time, the article on Allderdice is drug-free.

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