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Gary Younge
Geek nation

They call it "wiki-crack" - and in the summer of 2003 it took just one puff to change Mark Pellegrini's life. Pellegrini, a PhD student of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Delaware, was trawling the internet looking for questions and answers to a pub quiz he was preparing. He kept stumbling across Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit, and getting "quality results". But when he came to the page on Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, he noticed something missing. "I knew he wrote a sequel before he died and it wasn't on there. So I went on and edited it in. Then I was hooked."

It was his first puff of wiki-crack. "I got a real rush. People like to know that other people are reading what they wrote."

Before long the addiction had started to take over his life. He started offering new articles and editing more established ones. In December 2003 he stood to become a Wikipedian administrator (any Wikipedian with an account can vote) with access to technical features that help with maintaining the site. Since then he has climbed up the hierarchy to "bureaucrat", giving him the technical ability, among other things, to promote other users to administrator or bureaucrat status. Most recently he was elected as a member of the arbitration committee (only those who make 100 edits a week can vote), which is the highest dispute-settling body in the organisation before you get to Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales, who can deliver a fiat.

How long does Pellegrini, who is also Wikipedia's featured article director, spend doing this? "In a slow week, a low-ball number could be 20 hours," he says. And a high-ball number? His girlfriend, who is a wearing a T-shirt asking, "But what if the Okey-Kokey is what it's all about?" giggles and Pellegrini chuckles with her. "Maybe 40 ... it becomes like a full-time job." Only Pellegrini does not get paid.

To most, Wikipedia - the 17th most popular site on the internet - is a comprehensive if fallible online research tool. But to those like Pellegrini who attended last weekend's Wikimania conference at Harvard law school, it lies somewhere between a personal obsession and an entire world view.

Opening the conference, Wales referred to it at different moments as a "mission", a "movement" and a "community". It has an established hierarchy, in which Pellegrini is one of a small number of aristocrats, which enforces "community norms". Those who transgress them inhabit their own subculture populated by "vandals" (who wilfully wreck the pages) and "sock puppets" (people who create multiple online personalities to make it look as though lots of people agree with them). "A lot of them are probably the sort of people who would have social problems in real life," said one wikimaniac over lunch, as though being a "wikiholic" suggested a full and active life.

It is an easy world to ridicule. The conference is three-quarters male and 90% white, with the other 9.9% being of Asian extraction. "I got into it when my marriage collapsed," says Brian Corr, confirming the view of many that those most devoted to the internet are those with too much time on their hands. Back then he was the chairman of the mediation committee. "I used to do three or four hours a day then. But I'm in a relationship now and I have a kid. So I just do about two hours a week. I just don't have time to do more but now I've been to Wikimania, I might try and find time. It really is like a drug. It's challenging to do it moderately."

Back at the podium, Wales announced: "We come from geek culture," claiming the insult for themselves as lesbians and gays have done with "queer". But in many ways Wikipedia is both a noble and radical project. Wales's aim is to provide everyone on the planet with access to a free encyclopaedia. He is eager for the encyclopaedia to make greater strides in Bengali and Swahili. "We are still not doing much for people in developing nations," he tells the conference.

Unlike the blowhards who tend to dominate the blogosphere, this is a far more convivial group who try to govern the chaotic world they have created by consensus. "A lot of [vandals] come to the site but they tend not to stay," said one wikimaniac. "People try to give them advice about conforming to community norms."

Funded primarily by a non-profit wing and small donations, Wikipedia takes no advertising. With only five full-time staff, it is operated primarily by volunteers. Running on its own brand of libertarianism, it is difficult to categorise politically. It is not anti-capitalist. "It's not, not about making money," says Daniel Bricklin, co-creator of VisiCalc, "father of the spreadsheet" and software developer of wikiCalc. But the insistence that it should be a collectively owned and governed space renders it anti-corporate, if only by default. "You can't talk about it in terms of left and right," explains Corr. "But the whole way it is set up is about inclusivity, community and equality rather than competition and individualism."

For the most part, people at the conference didn't talk about it in these terms at all. When the wiki-crack takes over, all you are interested in is your next hit. Andrew Haggard, 20, from Cincinnati has been a user on Wikitravel, a travel site that anyone can edit, since March 2005. On Mondays and Thursdays he unloads a truck for a restaurant and on Fridays and Saturdays works in the restaurant. But somewhere along the way he has time to spend 10 hours a day contributing to the website. "I'll go outside every now and then just to make sure the sun's still there," he says.

Haggard checks to find listings for places to stay in cities he has never been to. He has called tourist offices to find out opening times to museums he will never visit. Why? Haggard shakes his head and smiles. He really doesn't know. "I like to see the things I've written up there," he says. He flew to Boston from Cincinnati on his own dime and for the duration of the conference he stayed in Everett, Massachusetts. "When I get back I'm going to write about Everett."

A wiki is a basic software device that enables collaborative writing and editing. Herein lies both the underlying appeal and unruliness of the Wikipedia experience - anyone can create a page and change anything on any page at any time. In the time it has taken me to write the first half of this sentence changes have been made to the pages regarding Hizbullah, the Israel-Lebanon conflict and the South African rand.

The key rules include that the information should contain original research - Wikipedia does not claim to be a primary source. The information has to be verifiable against a reputable source (blogs, I was told, are generally not regarded as reputable).

And it should adopt a "neutral point of view" - an attempt to root out malice and bias, which becomes difficult to police over issues such as the Middle East. To avoid "revert" wars in which one user edits the text, another changes it back and then the first changes it back again, there is the 3R rule: any user who reverts the same text more than three times in a 24-hour period is banned from editing for a day. It goes without saying that the entire process is open to abuse. Tony Blair's page was once changed to describe one of his jobs as "George Bush's bitch boy"; some BBC Radio 1 DJs spent an afternoon defacing each other's entries live on air.

But some subjects are constant targets and for them there are protected pages, which can only be changed by administrators and are often closed for days. At present these include George W Bush, Uma Thurman, Dick Cheney, transvestic fetishism, the Battle of Normandy, deconstructivism and Mexico. Others are semi-protected, which means they can only be changed by people who have registered at the site for four days or more. These include "gay", "Jew" "nigger", Halle Berry and Fidel Castro. For some reason "cheese" is a favourite with the vandals too.

Next to each protected or semi-protected subject is an explanation of what has happened, which gives a glimpse of the Wikipedia vandal and the random nature of the targets.

"Gary Lightbody: persistent addition of libel and vandalism by a horde of sockpuppets."

"Libertarianism: we have socks running amuck. Will keep this protected until the checkuser goes through."

"Uefa Champions League 2006-07: edit warring over Serbia issue."

A lot of vandals tend to be teenage boys. Rates of vandalism go up around holiday time and the weekend. Messing around with pictures on the penis page (which is semi-protected) is a favourite pastime for some. Notorious among vandals was a user who called himself Plautus Satire, who did unmentionable things to Einstein and Columbus pages to name but a few.

When Pellegrini mentioned some of Plautus Satire's antics, such as insisting that Einstein was a plagiarist, I started to laugh. "It might be funny now," says Pellegrini, who clearly didn't think it would ever be funny. "But he was the most disruptive user in the history of Wikipedia."

Usually these spoof edits are changed within days if not minutes. But occasionally they linger. In May 2005 Brian Chase, 28, created a page for John Siegenthaler, the prominent journalist and former assistant to Bobby Kennedy, in which for a prank he suggested that Siegenthaler might have been implicated in Kennedy's assassination and had lived in the Soviet Union for 13 years during the 70s and early 80s. The posting was up there for months until Siegenthaler saw it and went public with a broadside against Wikipedia. "Every biography on Wikipedia is going to be hit by this stuff," said Siegenthaler. "Think what they would do to Tom DeLay and Hillary Clinton, to mention two. My fear is that we're going to get government regulation of the internet as a result."

When Jimmy Wales was summoned before the cameras of CNN to explain, his embarrassment was tempered by news that he was not yet in a position to share. Nature magazine was about to publish a survey where they picked science entries from Encyclopaedia Britannica's online edition and Wikipedia, sent them to experts without saying which was which, and asked them to check for errors. Britannica had an average of 2.9 minor errors per article; Wikipedia had 3.9. Britannica disputed the findings; Wikipedia hailed them as a victory.

"On Wikipedia, there is a giant conspiracy attempting to have articles agree with reality," Plautus Satire once wrote. But as long as there are people like Plautus Satire, that conspiracy will be challenged. After all, even the page dedicated to the Siegenthaler controversy is under semi-protection.

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