The Wikipedia Cult

Interview granted to Daniel Tynan, May 2010

Q. When did the cult start?

A. I was involved with both the Wikipedia and its predecessor, the Nupedia. When the Nupedia was shelved and the Wikipedia launched, the first clusters of contributors regarded themselves as knowledge-aficionados, akin to an open-source movement. The Wikipedia did not possess the penetration and clout that it now enjoys. It was a club of gifted amateurs, to use the British expression. But as the Wikipedia expanded and attained its current status and prowess, power-hungry, narcissistic bullies leveraged it to cater to their psychological needs. Around 2003, the Wikipedia had acquired all the hallmarks of a cult: hierarchy, arcane rules, paranoid insularity, intolerance of dissent, and a cosmic grandiose mission.

Q. Approximately how many members/acolytes does it have?

A. The inner core of the English-language Wikipedia has c. 2000 members. Of these, about 200-300 members make all the important, strategic decisions. The others monitor articles and edit them, usually in order to promote and protect their own points of view and interests. This is not an informal network: it is completely rigid with a hierarchy, titles, job descriptions, remits, and responsibilities. It is a stringently edited work, not a loose forum, or a BBS. Many in the upper echelons (and in Wikimedia, the non-profit that is overseeing the whole operation) earn salaries and enjoy junkets and perks.

Q. Are there regular gatherings of the tribes? If so, when and where?  Who are its major and minor deities?

A. Wikipedia members meet regularly all over the globe, in special gatherings dedicated to the “encyclopedia”, its catechism and Weltanschauung, its regulatory (including enforcement and penal) mechanisms, and its future. Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales is invariably the star of such conclaves and fulfils the combined roles of prophet and Dear Leader. The Wikipedia’s narcissistic co-founder deserves a special analysis: he subtly misrepresents facts (claims that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, that he hold no special influence over it); Wales ignores data that conflicts with his fantasy world; he is above the law, including and especially his own laws (was caught editing his own Wikipedia entry, for instance); talks about himself in 3rd person singular; minimizes the contributions and role of others (such as the Wikipedia’s real visionary, Larry Sanger); has a messianic-cosmic vision of himself and his life; sets ever more complex rules in a convoluted world of grandiose fantasies with its own language (jargon); displays false modesty and “folksiness”; sublimates aggression and holds grudges; and, all in all, is an eternal adolescent (his choice of language, peripatetic pursuits). Wikipedia is its founder writ large: narcissistic, autistic, solipsistic, and puerile.

Q. What are its holy text(s)?

A. Authoritarian-totalitarian bureaucracies are marked by strict, rigid adherence to sacred texts – both foundational and exegetic – and by the blind and ruthless implementation of codified, arcane rules of conduct. The use of acronyms and ciphers singles out the initiated and separates them from the hoi polloi. The Wikipedia’s holy scriptures are strewn all over its Website, mainly in the Help and FAQs sections. Yet, though accessible, they are largely incomprehensible at first sight. They require months of learning and are ambiguous. This ambiguity requires frequent intervention and interpretation by a tiny self-imputed elite, equivalent to the priesthood in established religions. The decisions of these arbiters are often final and, in many cases, arbitrary. This gives them enormous power which they use intentionally to drive away competition by alienating contributors (especially experts and scholars) and intimidating newcomers (who are often regarded as potential troublemakers).

Q. Are there other cults Wikipedians share affinities with?

A. All cults are the same: they spawn a hierarchy, sport arcane rules, suffer from paranoid insularity, do not tolerate dissent, criticism, and disagreement, and ascribe to themselves a cosmic grandiose mission. No cult is benign. All cults are run by individuals with narcissistic traits and the Wikipedia is no exception.

The narcissist is the guru at the centre of a cult. Like other gurus, he demands complete obedience from his flock. He feels entitled to adulation and special treatment by his followers. He punishes the wayward and the straying lambs. He enforces discipline, adherence to his teachings and common goals. The less accomplished he is in reality – the more stringent his mastery and the more pervasive the brainwashing.

Cult leaders are narcissists who failed in their mission to “be someone”, to become famous, and to impress the world with their uniqueness, talents, traits, and skills. Such disgruntled narcissists withdraw into a “zone of comfort” (known as the “Pathological Narcissistic Space”) that assumes the hallmarks of a cult.

The narcissist’s control is based on ambiguity, unpredictability, fuzziness, and ambient abuse. His ever-shifting whims exclusively define right versus wrong, desirable and unwanted, what is to be pursued and what to be avoided. He alone determines the rights and obligations of his disciples and alters them at will.

The cult’s leader acts in a patronising and condescending manner and criticises often. He alternates between emphasising the minutest faults (devalues) and exaggerating the talents, traits, and skills (idealises) of the members of his cult. He is wildly unrealistic in his expectations – which legitimises his subsequent abusive conduct.

The narcissist claims to be infallible, superior, talented, skilful, omnipotent, and omniscient. He often lies and confabulates to support these unfounded claims. Within his cult, he expects awe, admiration, adulation, and constant attention commensurate with his outlandish stories and assertions. He reinterprets reality to fit his fantasies.

The participants in the cult are hostile to critics, the authorities, institutions, his personal enemies, or the media – if they try to uncover his actions and reveal the truth. The narcissist’s cult is “missionary” and “imperialistic”. He is always on the lookout for new recruits. He immediately attempts to “convert” them to his “creed” – to convince them how wonderful and admirable he – and, by extension, the cult – is.

Often, his behaviour on these “recruiting missions” is different to his conduct within the “cult”. In the first phases of wooing new admirers and proselytising to potential “conscripts” the narcissist is attentive, compassionate, empathic, flexible, self-effacing, and helpful. At home, among the “veterans” he is tyrannical, demanding, wilful, opinionated, aggressive, and exploitative.

As the leader of his congregation, the narcissist feels entitled to special amenities and benefits not accorded the “rank and file”. He expects to be waited on hand and foot, to make free use of everyone’s money and dispose of their assets liberally, and to be cynically exempt from the rules that he himself established (if such violation is pleasurable or gainful).

Hence the narcissist’s panicky and sometimes violent reactions to “dropouts” from his cult. There’s a lot going on that the narcissist wants kept under wraps. Moreover, the narcissist stabilises his fluctuating sense of self-worth by deriving Narcissistic Supply (adulation, admiration, attention) from his victims. Abandonment threatens the narcissist’s precariously balanced personality.

Q. Are there other ‘cults’ or splinter groups Wikipedians consider rivals (or heretics)?

A. The Internet is overflowing with stories of former Wikipedians. They all claim to have been punished and mistreated following their “heresy” and “desertion”. I can only recount my personal experience with any certainty. When I left the Wikipedia, I wrote a widely-read article titled “The Six Sins of the Wikipedia”. It provoked heated debate and I became the target of Wikipedians the world over. I was on the receiving end of threats and mail bombs; the pages of my books in Amazon were flooded with bad reviews; I was vilified and subjected to an Internet-wide smear campaign, replete with defamatory and libellous statements; my work was plagiarized in various Wikipedia articles and repeated requests to remedy the situation were denied; my entry in the Wikipedia was deleted (after I threatened Wales and his cohorts with a class-action lawsuit). I do not believe that this was a coordinated, concerted, condoned, or centrally-directed onslaught. But, it does reflect the extreme fanaticism and aggressive intolerance of the cult.

Q. How would an outsider recognize a member of this cult?

A. Easily: try to criticize the Wikipedia, question its reliability and objectivity, doubt its co-founder, disagree with the way it is authored or edited, ponder its psychopathology, muse whether it is a cult. The responses of dyed-in-the-wool Wikipedians will prove to be violent, disproportionate, fanatical, intolerant, and malevolent.

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