It can take just one sentence — if not one word — to start a war on Wikipedia. One recent war of words on the "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" — known as an "edit war" in Wiki parlance — started over a few phrases about former San Francisco supervisor and mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez.
A Wikipedian named Boodlesthecat objected to this sentence by another user: "Gonzalez's critics considered him a stubborn and willful ideologue." The entry went on to state that Gonzalez had "walked out of Mayor Willie Brown's State of the City address in 2002." (For the record, Gonzalez told SF Weekly he did not walk out — he simply didn't attend because of his concerns over Brown's previous State of the City address.)
Boodlesthecat was not pleased with the Gonzalez entry, and started editing, voicing concerns about unsourced and inaccurate criticism and biased language. It's important to note that a neutral point of view is seen as a fundamental principle of Wikipedia — a principle that is absolute and non-negotiable. But the devil is often in the details, and some Wikipedians spend days (if not weeks or months) arguing what a neutral point of view in a given article even means.
Boodlesthecat's comments about Gonzalez quickly unleashed the wrath of a user known as Griot. Alas, that was a name Boodlesthecat recognized from Wiki-pedia's Ralph Nader entry — the two had just been sparring over the environmental and consumer-rights activist and former presidential candidate, particularly Nader's role in the 2000 election.
"Now you've followed me to the Matt Gonzalez article," Griot wrote Jan. 31 on Boodlesthecat's personal user page. "C'mon man, gimme a break. You don't know the City or its politics. Your editing there was strictly personal."
Boodlesthecat wasn't having it, and promptly responded: "See the talk page for discussion. Please refrain from using my talk page for your speculations and insults, and rude advice on what I can and cannot edit."
Griot seemed apologetic at first, writing "Sorry Cat." But the edit war over the Gonzalez entry heated up again. "I'm sorry, but I have to take this back to your Talk page, since your edits at this article obviously don't pertain to Matt Gonzales [sic], but to me," he wrote, adding, "Cut it out, wouldya?" Soon both Griot and Boodlesthecat were blocked from Wikipedia for 24 hours for violating the three-revert rule, meaning they made three edit reversions in a 24-hour period.
It's funny that Griot complained about getting personal, because I first learned of this particular user, who is reportedly San Francisco–based, during a conversation with my sister, Jeanne, about the plethora of anonymous online vitriol. We were discussing how many in cyberspace write things to each other — often using pseudonyms — that we couldn't imagine saying to people's faces. I mentioned that San Francisco seemed to have a lot of what some call "Internet rage."
That's when Jeanne, who is also a writer, told me of a debate over the entry about her in Wikipedia — and of one particular user, Griot, who seemed to be on a no-holds-barred campaign to delete her page after he blamed her for making dubious edits to Ralph Nader's page (which she denies). One Griot note on the talk page of a user called Calton, dated Aug. 27, 2007, reads, "Is there anything we can do about Jean [sic]? It's tiresome. Maybe we should give her back her personal page on Wikpedia so she isn't so lonely." He also accused her of creating several online identities to make a flurry of changes to the Nader entries. "Spicuzza is on the warpath again," Griot wrote to Calton, and made a snarky offer to Calton about my sister: "If you ever need help fending off this multiple personality disorder, don't hesitate to ask."
Over the months, I noticed that my sister wasn't the only person who had been taunted by Griot (for instance, Griot lectured another user, "Take your meds and shaddup"). It turned out he had made plenty of enemies on Wikipedia. One compared edit warring with this particular user to "arguing with a donut." Another even adopted a screen name riffing on his rival: "GridiotinSanFranciski."
By his own count, Griot had made more than 5,000 edits to 275 Wikipedia stories in three years. Griot seemed to take great delight in fighting with his fellow Wikipedians, as indicated by long lists of back-and-forth comments on his user talk page, which numbered 66 as of last week. (Each of Wikipedia's registered users can build a user page, which may be used to display information relating to its author as well as to hold discussions with others.)
After getting at least one user blocked from Wikipedia, Griot crowed: "The moral: Don't mess with the Griot."
I decided to ignore the warning. I decided I was going to find the Griot.
Griot (pronounced Gree-oh) is one of the 4.6 million registered users on Wikipedia's English-language site who have signed up to edit and write entries and ultimately determine what the Wiki-masses read. Wikipedia users rarely register with their real names, and Griot was (and is) no exception.
The only biographical information I found on Griot was on his or her user page, which was sketchy at best. Griot claimed to be a college professor and a record shop owner who was born and raised in San Francisco "in the Western Addition, to be exact" — and still lives here. Of course, it's difficult for another Wikipedian (or a reporter) to independently verify whether Griot is actually a record-shop-owning professor — or, for that matter, whether Griot is a man or a woman, Republican or Democrat (it's doubtful Griot is a Green Party member, considering his antipathy for Nader), and what other agendas may be at play while editing Wikipedia entries. For me, there was the practical concern of how I could track down Griot for an interview — a real in-person one, not an e-mail exchange — without a real name.