Interview: The Curious Life of a Wikipedia Administrator

Riley Tawker's cat represents...
I am Riley Tawker’s Cat!! Bow before me!

Since the recent Wikiality fiasco (Stephen Colbert’s call to edit Wikipedia), the blogosphere took a renewed interest at how resilient Wikipedia was to coordinated acts of vandalism. If you look for Wikipedia articles related to elephants (esp. the African breed), you’d see that there has been no “tripling of the elephant population”.

On such pages, you might also see this header:

Because of recent vandalism or other disruption, editing of this article by anonymous or newly registered users is disabled (see semi-protection policy). Such users may discuss changes, request unprotection, or create an account.

I was curious to know more about the how Wikipedia administrators detect and prevent questionable edits, so I spoke with Tawker, who most recently blocked Stephen Colbert and his fans from wreaking havoc on Wikipedia.

Kevin: Tawker, nice to know a devoted Wikipedia admin AND Colbert fan… I know Stephen hasn’t invited you to his show, so try me as a stepping stone. Just who are you and what do you do in real life?

Tawker: Myself, I’m Homo sapien. I have a highly developed brain capable of abstract reasoning, language and introspection. Roughly I’m located at 49’20’24.28″ N 123’23.10″ W (ask Google Earth). As for work, I’m a student at an unnamed school and part time I work with VoIP communication systems, teleconferencing, IP PBX’s, and fun stuff like that.

Kevin: Hmm, what motivated you to become a Wikipedia admin?

Tawker: Wikipedia is addictive, it’s (to quote Colbert once again) like crack. That and the fact that you meet some pretty cool people online. As for why do I do what I do, well, I started out a few months ago looking up some stuff for work, then I came across a vandalized page, and figured out how to revert it – I came across a bunch of people who do the same thing en masse. Then came along the Tawkerbot’s and stuff went from there – it took a while but now I just sit and read the complaints (and fix them), the vandalism fighting is mostly hands off.

Kevin: Alrighty, so how did you get to be a Wikipedia admin?

Tawker: Here is the big page that explains how. In short, I responded to a lot of questions (I think I blew a set of keyboard batteries during that stunt) and after a lot of discussion I am an admin. Adminship on Wikipedia is basically about “are you going to break the site if we give you the tools” (or at least it’s supposed to be, it’s rather political now). There’s about 50 million pages of “blah” discussing it that I haven’t managed to find time to read.

Kevin: Fascinating, so what went through your head when you knew about Colbert’s Wikipedia edits?

Tawker: Well, to be honest, I didn’t even look at the edits. I saw the username, it was a well known personality. With the main stream media (insert Fox News joke here) being extremely gullible to stuff online (including Wikipedia), I figured it was safer to just block the account until we figure out what’s going on.

Kevin: Can you share more about that vandalism bot you mentioned on your blog?

Tawker: Vandalism bot, I have a vandalism bot? Oh yeah, the anti vandalism bot, Tawkerbot2. In short, it automatically reverts the “silly vandalism” pretty rapidly, we use it for when vandalbot’s (Ed: Evil Wikipedia bots which you can see here) attack trying to disrupt Wikipedia. Sadly it’s not the greatest at detecting “facts” that if enough people support you they become true… that’s coming in the next version (I hope).

Kevin: Has Comedy Central responded to your block on the “stephenColbert” username?

Tawker: Nope, I’ve heard nothing from Comedy whatsoever. I have a suggestion for Comedy, Try putting a phone number on your website… somewhere… (they’re not that hard to use, you can produce television (it even makes me laugh), picking up and talking on a phone should be trivial in comparison) – I shouldn’t have to dig into WHOIS (and make 50 phone calls to an operator) to try and get a contact number! As for that, if there is anyone at Comedy who wants to give me a shout, tawker (at) tawker (dot) com is about to become my new inbox, err, I mean spambox so feel free to send an email there, if you give me a phone number I might even dial it (yes, with my “highly developed brain” I am capable of pushing buttons on a telephone, and although the ability to “speak” does not mean one is intelligent (per Jar-Jar Binks in SW Ep I) I hope I’m capable of intelligent “tawking”)

Kevin: If you want a little fame and fortune, can you send me a photo of yourself?

Tawker: I’d love to, but my feline master dictates that any photographs of myself be replaced with photographs of his royal purringness.

The interview ends with Kevin’s slumped on the Macbook, drooling from his lack of sleep and dreaming of when he can ever start working for interesting companies like Yahoo!

UPDATE: Apparently Tawker is here.

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