Wikipedia’s lamest edit wars show why the site is amazing and infuriating

Yes, Wikipedia can be a battleground.
Yes, Wikipedia can be a battleground.

On Wikipedia, editors have spent countless hours arguing over how to conjugate site founder Jimmy Wales’ nickname in Latin.

That’s just one of many of Wikipedia’s “Lamest Edit Wars,” which the site has helpfully collected in one page. These edit wars occur when one Wikipedia contributor edits a page and another fights back with their own change. Because most users can edit most pages, such battles can be frequent, and frequently quite silly.

“What you’re seeing with edit wars in the early days is testing the boundaries,” says Andrew Lih, a Journalism professor who created the Lamest Edit Wars page in 2004. Lih, the author of The Wikipedia Revolution, pointed out in an interview that the conflicts can frequently be hilarious — but they also say a lot about Wikipedian culture.

The fiercest edit wars are over political trivia

Wikipedia, under the microscope
Wikipedia, under the microscope

Many of the biggest silly debates center around serious political, ethnic, and religious opinions taken to an extreme. For example, did you know that people keep trying to change the nationality of Copernicus? That results in exasperated comments like this:

That nationalism isn’t limited to the real world alone, of course. There was a contentious debate surrounding the nationality of a character in Grant Theft Auto IV, despite his consisting entirely of polygons. A sample editorial note:

(Changed text regarding Niko’s possible nationality. Whilst he speaks Serbian, his nationally in game is not specified, a fact that has been confused by someone who doesn’t know the difference between a language and a country.)

That nationalism extends, naturally, to the Middle East. If you want to write about hummus, be warned: the topic is too controversial to accept contributions, since Arab and Israeli partisans both try to claim the dish as their own. So now you’ll see a giant warning on the page:

The conflict in the Middle East (hummus edition)
The conflict in the Middle East (hummus edition)

Linguistic minutiae also sparks epic brawls

Want to debate the classic American aluminum against the British aluminium? There’s an epic argument waiting for you — and with a total page word count of more than 49,000 words, it’s longer than The Great Gatsby. Happy reading.

That echoes one of Lih’s favorite edit wars: a conflict waged over potato chips. The issue? Whether to spell “flavor” as “flavor” or “flavour” in the article, because both English and American spellers wanted to lay claim to the potato chip as their own. According to Wikipedia conventions, whichever country could “claim” the potato chip as their own could also claim the spelling of “flavor.” So how did the Wikipedians resolve the “flavor” dispute?

“The funny solution,” Lih says, “was to use ‘seasoned.'”

Longtime Wikipedia editor Bill Beutler blogs at The Wikipedian and writes a newsletter for newcomers. He has a different favorite edit war.

“There were years of negotiation about Gdańsk,” he told me, as Wikipedians disputed when to use the Polish Gdańsk or its former German name, Danzig. The debate dragged on, but ultimately a Gdańsk accord was reached (editors agreed to use Gdańsk for periods in history when the city was part of Poland, and Danzig for when it was part of Germany). In 2010, the edit war had a happy coda when the Wikimania convention was held in beautiful Gdańsk.

Why does Wikipedia have so many absurd edit wars?

Harry Styles: the only Wikipedia page that matters
Harry Styles: the only Wikipedia page that matters

The big question is why Wikipedians get involved in absurd arguments that persist for years.

A glance at the most active Wikipedians pageprovides a hint: Wikipedia is powered by incredibly dedicated super-users. As the MIT Review wrote in 2013, Wikipedia’s ranks have winnowed to a coterie of extremely dedicated contributors — this is a culture that caters to the most committed, not mere dilettantes. Editors tend to be the sort of obsessives more likely to debate every little detail.

In that way, the Lamest Edit Wars page shows what makes the site both infuriating and invaluable. “It really is a good window into the kind of disputes that animate Wikipedia editors,” Beutler says. Granted, most of us don’t care what nationality Jennifer Aniston is identified as (a lengthy debate centered on whether she should be called “Greek American” or not). But there are lots of subjects one person might find trivial that another person may find hugely important.

“You see the edit wars and how much time, and vigor, and anger there is,” Lih says, “and you get a lot more appreciation. These are not just yokels shooting from the hip who don’t care about quality. These are cream of the crop people who really care how you describe Freddie Mercury.”

Reference: Vox Media

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