It was the third day of what would become an infamous match in Test cricket: the second in the five-match 2007-08 Border-Gavaskar Trophy between India and Australia. Brett Lee comes up to bowl his 28th, and Australia’s 116th, over of the day. Harbhajan Singh slashes out at the third ball of the over. The ball balloons over slips and runs away for four. Singh walks up to Lee, taps him on the back with his bat and apparently says “hard luck”. At the end of the over, Andrew Symonds exchanges words with the Indian off-spinner.
Those few moments would later erupt into the most talked about international cricket controversy in recent memory.
But, at the time, far from the very public glare of the media, a silent battle was going on between Indian and Australian fans. Not on the pitch, on the stands or in the streets. But on the Internet. On Wikipedia.
Yellow Monkey: Blnguyen, who uses this toy as his avatar, edits Wiki entries for several Indian cricketers.
“Till that second Test, Harbhajan’s Wikipedia page hardly had any traffic. Perhaps 200 or so views a day. But within five days of the controversy, traffic jumped almost 100 times. On 9 January, three days after the Test, Harbhajan Singh’s page on Wikipedia had 17,600 views. And then began the vandalism,” says Blnguyen, a Wikipedia user who requested us to address him only by his online user name. Coincidentally, Blnguyen is also known among Wikipedians as “yellow monkey”, because of the stuffed toy he uses everywhere as his mascot. He never posts any photos of himself.
“Most of the vandals on Bhajji’s page were from Australia, of course. But pretty soon, the Indians got into the act as well. When things got out of hand, we had to lock articles for umpires Benson and Bucknor and (cricketers) Ponting, Symonds, Harbhajan and most of the Indian cricket team,” Blnguyen explains.
Wikipedia.com is today a bona fide Internet phenomenon. The free online encyclopaedia has more than 9.25 million articles across 253 languages. Wikipedia, in its own words, is a “free, multilingual, open content encyclopaedia”. Anybody can access it anywhere and at any time, at no cost.
But what has really made Wikipedia successful is the fact that any user, even an unregistered one, can create, enhance or edit a Wikipedia entry. This means that unlike a regular encyclopaedia, Wikipedia is updated constantly. All the time, every day. Normally, this open, no-restrictions approach to content creation is a recipe for disaster. What prevents a crazed user from vandalizing a Wikipedia entry and posting content that is wrong or offensive? In Wikipedia’s case, nothing. The entire idea of “open content” is to throw the editorial doors open to anyone. No questions asked.
So, how does Wikipedia regulate itself?
We tried to go behind Wikipedia, and specifically the India-related pages, to peer into the vast network of users, editors and arbitrators, such as Blnguyen, Vivin Suresh Paliath, Prithwindra Mukherjee and Mohammed Abbas Ali, who ensure that the pages remain updated and error-free.
Blnguyen is an unlikely specialist on, of all things, Indian cricket. He is an Australian citizen, but Vietnamese by ethnicity. “My parents moved to Australia during the large Vietnamese migrant movements in the 1980s,” Blnguyen says, on a little prodding. He doesn’t like to talk about himself too much. “I grew up with a large migrant population and even went to school with other Vietnamese kids.”
It was at school that Blnguyen’s teachers first tried to get the migrant children to learn cricket. “Most of us weren’t taught cricket by our parents, so we were not very clever. Almost every kid thought that the best way to bowl was to bowl at middle stump all the time.”
Prithwindra Mukherjee: Mukherjee started out on Wikipedia with an entry on his freedom-fighter grandfather.
Then one day, in 1993, Blnguyen switched on his TV and saw Mark Waugh score a century against New Zealand at the Bellerive Oval in Hobart. “I didn’t understand cricket and I considered it to be one of the most boring sports. Until I saw Waugh play,” says BInguyen.
His fascination for Indian cricket would pick up after watching that definitive V.V.S. Laxman innings at Eden Gardens in 2001. “Since then, I’ve been fascinated by wristy Indian batting and I love watching spin.”
Today, Blnguyen is one of the authorities on Indian cricket on Wikipedia. And it is anything but an easy job. “Sachin’s (Tendulkar) entry attracts a lot of vandals. So does (Sourav) Ganguly and (Rahul) Dravid. And a lot of it comes from India. When Dravid was made captain, many vandals, many of them Bengali, attacked his entry. Greg Chappell got a fair bit too.”
At times, maintaining your favourite Wikipedia entries can be anything but fun. Often, it’s tedious and irritating.
Paliath, a software engineer from Arizona, had to deal with an extremely insistent user. For a period of almost a fortnight, Paliath, who goes by the user name Vivin, jousted with a user who kept making the exact same change to the Adam’s Bridge entry on Wikipedia: He kept changing every incident of the phrase “Adam’s Bridge” in the entry to “Ram’s Bridge”. As per Wikipedia nomenclature norms—there is a surprisingly robust and broad set of norms to cover most disputes on Wikipedia—the name to be used is Adam’s Bridge. Eighteen changes back and forth later, the article was locked to prevent any further vandalism.
Paliath has a tendency to get into trouble. “I’ve been accused of being anything and everything, from being ‘an agent of the Indian Government’ to ‘someone with a casteist agenda’. Some of the first ‘controversial’ pages I edited was Khalistan and Operation Blue Star. I rewrote the entire article because it was full of POV. After that, I got into a dispute with a certain user who started reverting the changes and then began attacking me personally,” he says.
Paliath’s user page was attacked; so were many of the other articles he had worked on. Finally, another Wikipedian had to step in and help him fight off the intruder.
POV stands for point of view. Making sure every article has a neutral point of view (NPOV) is one of Wikipedia’s “Foundation Principles”. The ability of any user to edit any article without registering is another one.
Paliath was born in Ernakulam in Kerala but grew up in West Asia. After 17 years in Muscat, he moved to Arizona, where he enrolled at the Arizona State University. While there, he also joined the Arizona Army National Guard. In 2005, he flew into Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Paliath served for a year as an Automated Logistics Specialist. But, even when he was on tour, he kept himself active on Wikipedia. Especially on articles related to Kerala and the Nair and Ezhava castes.
Paliath aims to maintain the neutral quotient on Wikipedia. “Many caste-based articles contain text that aggrandizes the caste in question. They may also contain a lot of original research, opinions, and non-neutral statements. Most editors stay away from them because of vandals who revert your changes or attack you personally. It’s an ugly business,” he says.
Some of the “Indian” entries on Wikipedia that see the hottest debates are the ones on independence, British Raj and the freedom struggle. Mukherjee is someone who has had to bear a fair bit of heat himself: “I happened to go through a few articles brought on Wikipedia and, noticing that there was a section on India’s freedom movement, I decided to contribute an article on Bagha Jatin, in April 2006. It was received like a grasshopper in a beehive: a batch of pro-colonialist users, probably nostalgic for the good old days of John Bull in India, had a very ferocious and uncharitable way of condemning the article—the subject matter, the style, the usage and what not.”
By the way, Mukherjee, who does not use his real name on Wikipedia, is not one of your 20-something, Macbook toting Web2.0 mavens. He is a retired professor of 71 who has published more than 50 books in English, Punjabi and French.
Mohammed Abbas Ali: The medical student from Hyderabad set up the Om Shanti Om entry.
With decades of experience researching and teaching history, Mukherjee felt it was up to him to help the users on Wikipedia who were struggling with freedom struggle entries. Mukherjee explains: “When I saw that the user Burdak did not have enough data to explore such a personality as Maulavi Barakatullah, I used all my notes to make of his modest beginning a full-fledged picture of a unique and courageous patriot so little known. Another such example was the attempt of Ruebenlys to write on Vishnu Ganesh Pingley: Thanks to my archives, I could constitute the heroic profile of this emblematic San Francisco-based Gadhar (party) hero who collaborated with Rash Behari Bose.”
When I asked him why he chose to begin with Bagha Jatin, a little known Bengali revolutionary of the early 20th century, Mukherjee gave a revealing answer: “Bagha Jatin was born Jatindranath Mukherjee. He was my grandfather.”
Mukherjee has an illustrious résumé. After teaching in Puducherry for 11 years, he moved to France, where he completed his PhD. He then went to the US on a Fulbright scholarship. All the while, he wrote prolifically. And there’s more. “In Pondicherry, I composed a good deal for a full-fledged French-style orchestra (in staff notation) inspired by Indian ragas, with harmony and counterpoint.”
To know more about him, I recommend you go to his Wikipedia entry. He has one to himself!
Wikipedians such as Blnguyen, Paliath and Mukherjee contribute to the website with a missionary zeal. They take their work very seriously. Blnguyen, for instance, spends around 20 hours a week editing and tweaking. He is also part of the 15-member arbitration committee. Wikipedia has an elaborate seven-step dispute resolution process. The arbitration committee is the final step. Made up of users held in high esteem by the community, the ArbCom, as it is called, can overrule anyone on the website. Including Jimmy Wales, one of the founders.
User communities play a large role in the way Wikipedia works. Right from training new users to resolving disputes, most content decisions are taken by groups of users who have been chosen by their peers.
Mohammed Abbas Ali is an avid Wikipedian with entries such as Om Shanti Om (2007) to his credit. In fact, Abbas is big on Bollywood. But this wasn’t how he started on Wikipedia. “I began by making contributions to the entry on the Prophet Mohammed cartoons controversy. But things got extremely messy. I got banned a couple of times too.” Fortunately, Abbas was adopted by a more experienced user, who told him to stay away from the controversial stuff. “So, I picked up entertainment and Bollywood in general. And it has been great fun since. I spend around 3 hours a day on Wikipedia when I can.”
Abbas uses Wikipedia to escape from the dreariness of his daily life. He is a third-year medical student at the Deccan College of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad. “My parents are doctors and they sort of coaxed me into doing medicine. I would have done something else. Wikipedia is my way of dabbling in things non-medical!”
Abbas’ last few online battles have centred around 2007 blockbuster Om Shanti Om. “I sat right through till the end of the movie to make sure I missed nothing. But the cinema guys cut the credits just before Farah Khan made her entrance. So, I thought she never appeared in the credits. And I wrote so in my OSO entry.”
Other users, however, had seen Khan appear. And they changed Abbas’ entry. Abbas changed it back. The tussle went out of hand. “Everyone was telling me I was wrong. But nobody had citations to prove that she appeared. I refused to budge.” Finally, an admin locked the entry. It took 15 days for everyone to agree on Farah Khan’s appearance. And then when that “crisis” subsided, the OSO entry got locked again because people couldn’t agree on the list of people who appeared in the multi-starrer Deewangi song.
Vivin Suresh Paliath: Paliath continued to update Wikipedia even while serving in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom
Abbas says: “This is the sort of thing that scares away new users and makes Wikipedia increasingly difficult to manage. Yes, you get much more accurate entries because of all the attention to detail. But the process is becoming increasingly painful.”
According to the latest statistics, the typical Wikipedia entry has gone through an average of 89 edits. But even this minute, perhaps obsessive, attention to detail and neutrality is not enough to catch the enterprising vandal.
The India entry, for instance, had a well-hidden piece of “graffiti” deep inside footnote No. 14. Right in the middle of the terse footnote, about whether India shares a border with Afghanistan or not, appear the words: “Most important of all is that Mihir Bhojani is the roxstar of India”.
That error was caught when the writer of this piece was reading through the India entry but only after Mihir Bhojani had been the roxstar of India for well over four days.
“We try to do the best we can to keep a track of things. But it can be impossible to always be on our toes,” Blnguyen says. “Ideally we hate locking articles. It goes against the entire Wikipedia ethos. But some articles, especially the religious and regional ones, create a lot of passion. When things go haywire, we have no option but to lock things down.”
Given the labour it takes to write and maintain the average Wikipedia entry, it is difficult to understand what motivates these users to keep going. Abbas is a little philosophical: “Besides the release it gives me from classes, I think it’s a good thing to do. A good entry helps me to do something good for the world. I know it sounds juvenile. But I really, really feel great when a good article is done.” For Blnguyen, it’s just a pastime. “I should be studying. But I don’t. For me, Wikipedia is a hobby. Nothing more than that.”
Their effort shows. Wikipedia throws up spectacular Google search results. A simple search for the term “India” threw up the Wikipedia entry first. And then the Indian government websites. This is true for many searches.
Wikipedia servers throw up some 30,000 user queries per second. In 2007, the Supreme Court of India referred to the site in a ruling. (A computer manufacturer used Wikipedia to highlight how a laptop is different from a desktop and should bear different import duties.)
For the average user, though, none of the behind-the-scenes intrigue is visible. Browsers seldom notice the sheer quantum of labour that goes into making Wikipedia happen. It’s Wiki warriors such as Blnguyen, Paliath, Mukherjee and Abbas who toil for hours every day, for no pay, and make Wikipedia robust and dependable.
And thank god for that. That’s because right now, somewhere out there, somebody wants to be the next roxstar of India on Wikipedia.