Bestiary of Bots

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Wiki wiki is the first Hawai'ian term I learned on my first visit to the islands. The airport counter agent directed me to take the wiki wiki bus between terminals. I said what? He explained that wiki wiki meant quick. I was to find the quick bus. I did pick up a book about the language before my return home. I learned many things from this but wiki wiki is the word that sticks the most. (source)
HNL Wiki Wiki Bus.jpg

Whose software are we using?

Video recording of Ward Cunningham talking about the wiki.

What is a wiki?

In 1995 Ward Cunningham described a wiki as "the simplest online database that could possibly work." The wiki was a way to share and collaborate on code and code-related ideas in a casual way. In fact, the wiki followed principles such as the collective code ownership, or code stewardship.

More design principles here.

The first ever wiki site was created for the Portland Pattern Repository in 1995 and it was called WikiWikiWeb (sometimes WardsWiki).

"Be prepared for a bit of CultureShock, though - there is no NPOV on WardsWiki and many clever people have visited with ideas that don't always play well together. The advantage of this Wiki is in the freedom, simplicity, and power it offers." 

Some of the components of this wiki were:

  • The landing page.
  • A section to welcome visitors.
  • Indexes that serve as "roadmaps".
  • A selection of pages that could serve as starting points.
  • A listing of things to think about.
  • Already back then, there was a significant number of wiki social norms:
    • The norm of norms; take everything with a grain of salt.
    • Use your real name and write in a way others will understand.
    • This wiki was created for the discussion of patterns, particularly software design patterns. Its users have chosen to broaden that focus.
    • There are two ideal forms for contributions; most pages contain a mixture of both.
    • Never intentionally misrepresent or suppress other people's opinions. Be especially careful about deletion.
    • Unless they say otherwise, don't mess with people's home pages, except to leave them notes.
    • EnglishPlease. This particular Wiki is in English, and thus non-English pages are discouraged (with a few exceptions, such as the InternationalOneMinuteWiki). However, PublicWikiForums exist in many different languages, and there even exist a few MultiLingualWiki?s.
    • If you care about literature, you can discard any of these rules to help bring down this and other base projects.
      • Huh?
  • The site is still active today.

There were many other pages where the users of the wiki tried to self-regulate dealing with conflict, for example a page on only saying things that can be heard or how to react to a flame, or letting it be.

What characteristics can you distinguish in Cunningham's wiki culture? Focus on one specific aspect of the wiki. What are the needs, language, concepts and beliefs that emerge from these pages? Take notes of your observations.

Wikipedia's Eternal September

Jimmy Wales

The person who provided the funding for the early beginnings of Wikipedia is Jimmy Wales, a libertarian entrepreneur.

In 1996, he and two partners founded Bomis, a web portal featuring entertainment and adult content.

The success of Bomis generated the income for the free peer-reviewed encyclopedia, Nupedia (2000–2003), and its successor, Wikipedia.

“As it turned out, a clear mistake of mine and others was to assume that such a complicated system would be navigated patiently by many volunteers, even if they had clear-enough instructions”. (Sanger, 2004)

The wiki was initially a secondary implementation of the Nupedia project. The Nupedia wiki was atached to the main blog to generate content from a wider audience, later to be edited by experts in their respective fields.

“Many of our first controversies were over these restrictions. At the time, I had enough influence within the community to get these policies generally accepted. And if we had not decided on these restrictions, Wikipedia might well have ended up, like many wikis, as nothing in particular. But since we insisted that it was an encyclopedia, even though it was just a blank wiki and a group of people to begin with, it became an encyclopedia.” (Sanger, 2004)

In 2001, Wikipedia is launched.

First preserved Main Page of Wikipedia.jpeg

From its early beginnings, Wikipedia has competed with the model of Encyclopedia Britannica, a monolith in the world of references, that has been built with the help of a closed circle of experts for commercial purposes. Although Wikipedia's economical value is not central to its mission, it is still present and persistent, albeit manifested through its reputation. Any digital enclave is situated within the physicality of its infrastructure manifested through servers and equipment, that need to be paid for.

Wikimedia came before Mediawiki

UseModWiki was based on the code of AtisWiki → AtisWiki was based on CvWiki → CvWiki was the first GNU-licensed wiki based on WikiBase, the wiki engine of the original WikiWikiWeb by Ward Cunningham. (source)

When Wikipedia was launched in January 2001, it ran on an existing wiki software system, UseModWiki. → Mediawiki was developed for use on Wikipedia in 2002. → The Wikimedia Foundation was announced on June 20, 2003. → In July, Wikipedia contributor Daniel Mayer, suggested the name "MediaWiki" for the software, as a play on "Wikimedia". → MediaWiki was originally developed by Magnus Manske and improved by Lee Daniel Crocker. Its development has since then been coordinated by the Wikimedia Foundation.

The software is optimized to efficiently handle large projects, which can have terabytes of content and hundreds of thousands of hits per second.


Because of its scale and longevity, Wikipedia is often presented as an analogy for systems of governance. It has been included in the discourse of collaboration, networking, transparency, knowledge production and horizontal ruling. However, as in many peer production project, there are a number of problems that Wikipedia is facing:

  • declining number of (new) users,
  • gender & race-based content and user imbalance,
  • conflicts between the Wikimedia Foundation, which owns the domain names and servers on which the Wikipedia content resides, and the community of volunteer contributors.

Wikipedia as a community has five pillars:

  • Wikipedia is an encyclopedia
  • Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view
  • Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute
  • Wikipedia's editors should treat each other with respect and civility
  • Wikipedia has no firm rules

Wikipedia is not: a paper encyclopedia, a dictionary, a publisher of original thought, a soapbox or means of promotion, a mirror or a repository of links, images or media files, a blog, a web-hosting service, a social networking, a service, a memorial site, a directory, a manual, a guidebook, a textbook, a scientific journal, a crystal ball, a newspaper, an indiscriminate collection of information, censored, an anarchy, a democracy, a bureaucracy, a battleground, and finally, it is not compulsory (Wikipedia:What Wikipedia is not). Wikipedia defines itself by establishing limitations.

What Wikipedia is not

Deletionists versus Inclusionists

Deletionists were of the opinion that in order to maintain a coherent whole, pages of the encyclopedia which were not of vital importance must be deleted.

Inclusionists, on the other hand, proclaimed that as long as the quality of the articles respected the standards of the community, an article about “a small- town elementary school is no less worthy for inclusion than an article on Stanford University”.

In 2006 the deletionists win.

From anarchy to bureaucracy. Access and decision making over what content to include determine the hierarchical status of the contributors. False representation of Wikipedia as an open system continues.

The groups of users in order of status, from lowest to highest are:

blocked users < unregistered users < new users < registered (confirmed) users < bots < administrators < bureaucrats < stewards < developers < system administrators

Pages such as Please do not bite the newcomers appeared. Vandalism started happening more often.

Let's take a break to articulate what are the differences in wiki cultures between Cuningham's wiki and Wikipedia.

Bot Bestiary

Technological systems, unlike social systems are easier to scale up. For this reason, delegating responsibility to machines is an increasing phenomenon in areas of life that affect individuals to a high degree.

The bot community has grown together with the population of Wikipedia out of necessity, taking over editor responsibilities that require repetition, such as reverting vandalism. Currently bots take up administrative or authorial roles.

There are a number of regulations that a bot must adhere to. For it to be approved, a member who is considered as being acquainted with the policies of Wikipedia needs to submit it to the Bot Approvals Group (BAG), where the bot will undergo a process of verification and will be subjected to a community discussion, it has to respect the API Etiquette (the terms of service for bots) and it has to have its own user account, which indicates the fact that it is a bot.

Bots and social infrastructure

87C6327 cc3.jpg

Some examples of bots:

HagermanBot was a seemingly harmless automatisation of a rule that requires contributors to sign comments on discussion pages. By reinforcing the signature without exception, the bot became another formulation of the rule that took away the agency of contributors to act differently than prescribed by it. The case of Hagermanbot was the first to cause debate about the normalising power that bots have. The conflict between the community and Hagermanbot's developer escalated to such a degree that it resulted in changing the rule system.

Defending openness

Policing of content is essential to create a reputation of reliability. As a result, a very important part of Wikipedia is the anti-vandalism mechanism.

There are currently three “defence lines” operating at the borders of Wikipedia.

The first removal process is done by anti-vandalism bots, followed by humans using assisted editing tools such as Huggle, Twinkle or Lupin, which provide an interface for human editors to assess edits marked as possible vandalism, and lastly, human editors looking through the recent edits.

Cluebot NG

Spirit in the blue sky.jpg

CluebotNG was approved by the BAG on December 3rd 2010, after a rather long deliberation that began on October 25th. The project is run by three operators: Christopher Breneman (Crispy1989), who was a new contributor at the time, Tim1357 and Jacobi Carter (Cobi).

Unlike other anti vandalism bots that were active at the time of its proposal, Cluebot NG does not use blacklists or heuristics. Instead, it feeds a large dataset into a neural network, together with statistics such as information on the activity on the page, user activity, and so on, that will determine a list of “word categories”.

The conversation went back and forth between Breneman, who is consistently emphasising the need for efficiency, and the community, which is largely focused on reducing interference with legitimate edits.

False positives are edits that were made in good faith, but which were ultimately misclassified as vandalism. Often the algorithm would be missing certain expressions in its database, leading to unjustified reverts when it encountered words like “gay” and “homosexual”.

Bots are executions of policies that further emphasise the distinction between coders and non coders on Wikipedia. If code is law, then the person who has the power to change the code also has the power to change the law.

The parasite, the cyborg, the bureaucrat


“The parasite invents something new. He obtains energy and pays for it in information. He obtains the roast and pays for it with stories. Two days of writing the new contract. He establishes an unjust pact; relative to the old type of balance, he builds a new one. He speaks in a logic considered irrational up to now, a new epistemology and a new theory of equilibrium. He makes the order of things as well as the states of things — solid and gas — into diagonals. He evaluates information. Even better: he discovers information in his voice and good words; he discovers the Spirit in the wind and the breath of air. He invents cybernetics.” (Serres, p. 35)
Humani Victus Instrumenta.jpg
"The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust." (Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto)

But while the cyborg may not dream of the community, the community dreams of the cyborg.

Wikipedia's system of governance is closer to what O'Neil (2009) described as online tribal bureaucracy: 'the injection of charismatic authority into bureaucratic models reestablishes the connection between roles and persons'.

Bots present many of the characteristics of charismatic bureaucrats: they are selected based on processes of anthropomorphisation, that render them likeable to the community, but in practice they are closer to classic bureaucrats: rational decision makers without regard for special circumstances. Bots are the new automatised bureaucrats. If in the past the lack of empathy and compassion of bureaucrats was seen as something to criticise, now the lack of a human bond to their subjects is praised and celebrated through symbols such as barnstars.

There are currently 2,455 bot tasks approved for use on the English Wikipedia.

"Contemporary software and web-based content projects, projects like Wikipedia, face the same political problem as that faced by the neoliberals. They contain within them novel responses to familiar political problems, problems that are fundamentally also about the nature of organization. This means that software, discussion forums, bots, article entries, policies, and guidelines, and everything else that constitutes an open project, must be addressed in relation to the history of this political thought. That is, they must be approached in relation to the problem of organization. It also means that the limits of openness are carried along, from project to project, as long as politics is conceived as the problem of closure." Nathaniel Tkacz, Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness

How is the Wikipedia community changed by the interaction between humans and bots?

How do bots articulate the 'openness' of the platform?

How are the conflicts that arise between the two types of agents being mediated?

And what role these bots have in strengthening the already existing bureaucracy?

Other wikis

Some Further Notes & References


Step 1

(30min) Please take the time to imagine a bot that could exist on this particular wiki. Think about the dynamics of this group, your research subject or imagine a different group with whom the bot is work alongside.

For some examples check out In Loving Support, page 17

Make a user account for your bot on the wiki and describe what it does. How does the bot operate? Where does it operate? Over whom does it exercise its power?

Add your bot's userpage to the page on the wiki

Step 2

(30min) Pick someone else's bot, write your name next to Then try to find ways to visually or aurally describe the bot on its user page. You can use the software you've looked into for today or html/mediawiki styling.

Step 3

(30min) We will go through all the bots one by one. The first maker of the bot describes it to everyone else who is now the Bot Approval Group. The Bot Approval Group will determine if the bot is a good fit for this group of users.