All posts tagged backchannel

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Troll Taunter: Emily Temple-Wood’, February 2017

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Troll Taunter

    A young Wikipedia editor withstood a decade of online abuse. Now she’s fighting back — on Wikipedia itself.

    Backchannel story: 'The Troll Taunter: Emily Temple-Wood' by Andrew McMillen, February 2017. Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

    The “fuck you” project crystallized one Friday night last year. As Emily Temple-Wood video-chatted with friends, an email pinged in her inbox:

    “There are alternate realities where I raped you and got away with it,” it read. “In those realities it’s legal for me to rape you as long as I want and as hard as I want. I am dead serious.”

    The note came from someone with a history of harassing the 22-year-old medical student. This man hates women, Temple-Wood thought to herself. Then she had another thought. What do misogynists hate more than successful women?

    Nothing.

    She’d been receiving vicious emails for a decade. Sometimes she sought solace by commiserating with friends, or by stomping off to do something else, or occasionally—after the cruelest messages—by lying on her bed and crying. Temple-Wood became a frequent target of abuse merely because she is the rare female Wikipedia editor who has been active on the site for years. She manages to let much of the harassment slide off her. But many women eventually find the bullying to be too much, and leave the site.

    Across the internet, trolls disproportionately target women and members of other underrepresented groups. On Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other open platforms, victims of harassment are forced to make a difficult choice—go silent and preserve their mental health, or try to ignore the abuse and continue expressing themselves openly online. As the wounds deepen, that latter choice becomes harder and harder to justify.

    When people get forced off the web, their voices disappear from the internet’s public squares. The ideas and memes that dominate skew even further toward a white male perspective. The web becomes less interesting, less representative, less valuable. We all lose.

    But on that Friday night, Temple-Wood had an idea. For every harassing email, death threat, or request for nude photos that she received, she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia. She thought of it as a giant “fuck you” to the anonymous idiots seeking to silence her.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

  • Backchannel story: ‘Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!’, August 2016

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!

    How the online encyclopedia manages mental illness and suicide threats in its volunteer community.

    'Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!' by Andrew McMillen for Backchannel, August 2016. Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

    One recent Tuesday night in the suburbs of Sydney, Elliott* was sitting in front of his home computer, editing Wikipedia and debating with a fellow volunteer who was continually undoing his hard work. He was devoting his weeknight hours to developing an article about Salim Mehajer, a former deputy mayor of a Sydney city council who had attracted national headlines for a variety of indiscretions, including shutting down a public street without authorization in order to film his own wedding. But as Elliott typed, his eyes intent on the screen, his mental state was deteriorating.

    Elliott, 37, knew the inner workings of the online encyclopedia better than just about anyone. Since his first edit in 2004, he had invented the popular ‘citation needed’ tag, used by editors to indicate when a statement requires more evidence. He had started the administrator’s noticeboard,where the site’s volunteer leadership could discuss inflammatory incidents. And he wrote ‘exploding whale,’ a quirky article that remains emblematic of the sparkling brilliance for which the crowdsourced encyclopedia is widely beloved. For the latter creation, which summarized how the Oregon Highway Division attached half a ton of dynamite to a beached sperm whale carcass in 1970, he was awarded Wikipedia’s first ‘oddball barnstar,’ and so another user pinned a bright green badge to his userpage to acknowledge his enterprising work.

    But on this particular night, his virtual achievements were far from his mind. With his wife and two young children occupied in another room, Elliott was locked in what’s known as an edit war, while using a different account than the one that had earned him his earlier plaudits. Elliott was convinced that his detailed account of Salim Mehajer’s traffic violations, including an occasion in 2012 when he ran over two women in his car, belonged on the site. His interlocutor, another Australian editor of prominent standing within the community, remained unconvinced. “I don’t like the guy either, but Wikipedia’s policies on undue weight, original research and biographies of living people don’t not apply because you don’t like someone,” the second editor wrote, mistaking Elliott’s industrious research for bias against Mehajer. On several occasions, this second editor had reverted these lengthy additions, before using one particular adjective to describe Elliott’s work: obsessive.

    Their bickering had been brewing for several days. The pair went back and forth in the article’s ‘talk’ page, which is linked in the top left corner of every entry on the site. Elliott argued passionately for his cause, and at one point logged out of his account to back up his own argument anonymously; these contributions were tagged with his IP address. Two days earlier, he had responded anonymously to another editor, writing, “I fart in your general direction, which is a hell of a lot more pleasant than editing Wikipedia, I can tell you!” After reviewing the conflict, a site administrator decided to ban Elliott on that Tuesday night. “Given the seriousness of this conduct, I’ve set the block duration to indefinite,” noted the admin.

    Elliott’s mind was on fire. Already short-fused from several months of unemployment and recent health and financial woes, he felt overwhelmed with stress. As he sat fuming in front of the screen, his wife approached and asked him to help put their children to bed. The request startled him, and he reacted with a flash of fury. Elliott immediately regretted his anger. Stunned and embarrassed, he grabbed his phone and keys, hopped into a white Hyundai, and sped off.

    After driving for a while, he parked outside a local school and switched off the engine. He pulled out his iPhone and started typing a lengthy email. Titled “The End” and sent to a public Wikipedia mailing list watched by thousands of people around the world, late on the evening of Tuesday, May 17, Elliott’s email begins, “I’ve just been blocked forever. I’ve been bullied, and I’m having suicidal thoughts.”

    More than 2,000 words later, after recounting the events surrounding his ban in the exhaustive manner of a man well-versed in defending his position to nitpicking online strangers, he wrote, “I know I’m not well. I have fought this feeling for a decade.” Elliott ended with this: “I sit here in my car and contemplate suicide. My despair is total. There is not a kind one amongst you.You have taken my right of appeal, my ability to protest and my dignity. You have let others mock me, and I have failed to contribute to Wikipedia’s great mission—one I feel so keenly. I failed. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I will drive, I don’t know where. I pray my family forgives me.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Heroin Heroine of Reddit’, July 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    The Heroin Heroine of Reddit

    How a former addict uses the internet to save drug users’ lives

    'The Heroin Heroine of Reddit' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, July 2015

    On a quiet night in late April, Brad Treseler slipped off to his bedroom at his family’s home in Cumberland, Virginia. His friends kept on chatting in the living room, but after a few minutes they began to wonder what Brad was up to. They found the 25-year-old slumped on the floor of his room, blue and unresponsive. He had overdosed on heroin and benzodiazepine.

    Brad’s friends cycled through the options. They could call 911, but the responders might not arrive in time and might tip off the police. Or they could run to the apartment next door and wake Treseler’s older brother, Bill. They knew that Bill had a small vial containing a clear liquid called naloxone, which can counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. In a panic, they opted to make the short sprint and bang on Bill’s door.

    Together, they carried Brad into the bathtub and cranked on the shower. Bill dipped a syringe into the vial and drew in the naloxone, then injected the the liquid into the fatty part of Brad’s thigh. Nothing happened, so Bill refilled the syringe and injected him again. Brad stirred, and opened his eyes to see his brother and terrified friends peering down at him. As he came to, he thought: This is what being dead is like.

    Brad had acquired two vials of the naloxone months earlier. Some states—including New Mexico, Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and California—allow it to be sold over the counter. But it is illegal in Virginia, so Brad received his shipment in the mail from an unlikely source: the online forum Reddit.

    Brad is an active member of the Opiates subreddit, a lively forum where queries about safe injection practices and rehabilitation are posted alongside tactics for hustling cash and coping with constipation, an unwelcome side effect of frequent opioid use. He saw a thread where a moderator known as the “mother of r/opiates,” named Tracey Helton, was offering to send clean needles to fellow Redditors. When he reached out to Tracey about the free needles, which were rare in his scene, she told him that the package included naloxone. Brad replied, “Oh man, that’s awesome! That’s a great idea!”

    Five days later, a yellow padded envelope arrived from San Francisco, where Tracey lives. Inside was a bag of clean syringes, two vials of naloxone and a post-it note with a hand-drawn smiley face. “I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ I didn’t send her any money. All I did was send her one little message,” Brad says. “Somebody out there cares that much.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • Backchannel story: ‘This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar’, May 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar

    I tried taking lessons. I tried reading guitar tabs online. The only thing that worked was Rocksmith.

    'This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, Medium.com, May 2015

    Music has long struck me as a kind of magic. In terms of my life essentials, it ranks only just below oxygen, food, water, shelter and love. For 11 years I have been attempting to conjure some of that magic myself by learning to play guitar.

    Yet for most of those years I practiced fitfully, and at some point I stopped improving. When my progress plateaued, so did my enthusiasm. Despite the pleasure I derive from watching a person with a six-string plugged into an amplifier, plucking and strumming to elicit beautiful noise, I seemed destined to never fully master this iconic instrument.

    But then I discovered a video game that rekindled my obsession. It’s calledRocksmith, and it is designed specifically to teach people to play guitar. Earlier games, namely Guitar Hero and Rock Band, had shown that tens of millions of people could become hooked on playing fake, simplified instruments while fake, simplified musical scores scrolled down their televisions. After clocking in several jam sessions, many players even began to sound competent. But that expertise evaporated the second the game shut off.

    Laurent Detoc, the North America president of Ubisoft, a game development studio, hated the gulf that separated actual and simulated musicianship. In 2011 he told the San Francisco Business Times, “I just could not believe the amount of waste that had gone in people spending so much time with plastic guitars.” His company had assigned some designers to figuring out how to make playing real guitars just as fun for gamers as jamming on a plastic replica. What they came up with is, to my mind, the purest demonstration of the power of gamification—using the principles of game play to make actual learning feel addictive. Case in point: I’ve learned to play more songs in two and a half years with Rocksmith than in the previous eight years of lackluster progress combined.

    My attempts to learn guitar followed a path familiar to many teenage rock enthusiasts. They began with an acoustic guitar my parents gave me in 2004, for my sixteenth birthday, and weekly lessons with a tutor. My teacher—a bookish, chubby, middle-aged man who looked nothing like Jimi Hendrix—was prescriptive in his instruction. He told me that my left thumb mustremain pointing skyward against the back of the neck, regardless of the notes or chord shape required. This dictum puzzled and infuriated me, as none of the popular musicians I’d seen in music videos were so staid in their playing; rather, they were fluid and catlike. I wanted to be like them.

    Learning to read music was an unwelcome chore, too, especially when my setlist consisted of nursery rhymes to be wrung out one note at a time. I wanted to learn guitar because an expert player sounded and looked cool, yet there wasn’t much that was cool about my tutor’s dry approach. So I quit lessons.

    Many of my favorite songs—from bands such as Tool, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine—sounded thin and bloodless when ineptly fretted on an acoustic guitar. Eventually, my wallet lined with money saved from my first job as a dishwasher at a Sizzler restaurant, I acquired the desired technological upgrade: an electric guitar—a handsome, dark blue copy of the classic Fender Stratocaster—and a 30-watt amp.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

    Note: I also published two outtakes from this story on Medium.com, which are essentially ‘deleted scenes’ from the longer story. The first is about Rocksmith’s origins, and the second is about the process through which Ubisoft licenses popular music to appear in Rocksmith.

  • Backchannel story: ‘How I Snuck Through Wikipedia’s Notability Test’, March 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    How I Snuck Through Wikipedia’s Notability Test

    I’m not famous. But judging by my expansive Wikipedia entry, I’m a star!

    Backchannel story: 'How I Snuck Through Wikipedia's Notability Test' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    The English-language edition of Wikipedia is composed of 4,735,036 articles at the time I write this sentence. One of those articles is a ridiculously detailed biographical summary of my career as a journalist and author. At 1,905 words in length, excluding references, it is shorter than the entries onThe Simpsons’ family dog, Santa’s Little Helper (2,908 words), spontaneous human combustion (2,347), the internet meme Rickrolling (2,307) and Barack Obama (10,302).

    The article in my name is longer, however, than the ones devoted to the Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand (1,880), The Simpsons character Barney Gumble (1,848), screenwriter and director Lena Dunham (1,480) or stand-up comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan (1,029).

    I’m not well-known by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not that journalists get some kind of special treatment on Wikipedia, either. Take Jon Ronson, a journalist who is two decades and several global bestsellers ahead of me. Casual readers of nonfiction may know him as the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Psychopath Test. His latest title is So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an excerpt of which appeared in The New York Times Magazine in February 2015.

    In a 2012 story he wrote for GQ on income inequality, Ronson, 47, declared his annual income to be in the range of $250,000, a figure that I can assure you is much greater than my own. He also co-wrote the screenplay for a 2014 feature film, Frank, starring Michael Fassbender. Yet by some strange quirk of the web, the Wikipedia summary of Ronson’s remarkable career is 1,223 words in length—precisely 682 words shorter than my article.

    The story of how my entry came to be reveals the quirks of Wikipedia’s process for determining what to keep, and what to jettison, on the encyclopedia’s servers. There’s a name for this: the ‘notability test.’ I had the rare opportunity to observe this process up close, in real time.

    As a frequent Wikipedia reader, I had long wondered about the people who studiously edit its content, writing paragraphs, creating links, sourcing citations and tweaking code behind the scenes to keep it running smoothly. As a professional writer, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the unpaid nature of this work, as I abhor the notion of writing for free.

    I wanted to know what compels a person to create—from scratch—an article on some esoteric subject, landmark or person. I needed a case study. Purely by chance, that esoteric subject turned out to be none other than me.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

    Note: since the publication of this story in March 2015, the ‘Andrew McMillen‘ article on Wikipedia has been trimmed considerably, having survived a deletion debate.

  • Backchannel story: ‘Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome’, February 2015

    My first story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome

    One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake

    'Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome: One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, February 2015

    On a Friday in July 2012, two employees of the Wikimedia Foundation gave a talk at Wikimania, their organization’s annual conference. Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling addressed a packed room as they answered a question that has likely popped into the minds of even the most casual users of Wikipedia: who the hell edits the site, and why do they do it?

    Pinchuk and Walling conducted hundreds of interviews to find out. They learned that many serious contributors have an independent streak and thrive off the opportunity to work on any topic they like. Other prolific editors highlight the encyclopedia’s huge global audience or say they derive satisfaction from feeling that their work is of use to someone, no matter how arcane their interests. Then Walling lands on a slide entitled, ‘perfectionism.’ The bespectacled young man pauses, frowning.

    “I feel sometimes that this motivation feels a little bit fuzzy, or a little bit negative in some ways… Like, one of my favorite Wikipedians of all time is this user called Giraffedata,” he says. “He has, like, 15,000 edits, and he’s done almost nothing except fix the incorrect use of ‘comprised of’ in articles.”

    A couple of audience members applaud loudly.

    “By hand, manually. No tools!” interjects Pinchuk, her green-painted fingernails fluttering as she gestures for emphasis.

    “It’s not a bot!” adds Walling. “It’s totally contextual in every article. He’s, like, my hero!”

    “If anybody knows him, get him to come to our office. We’ll give him a Barnstar in person,” says Pinchuk, referring to the coveted virtual medallion that Wikipedia editors award one another.

    Walling continues: “I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m gonna serve widows in Africa with the sum of all human knowledge.’” He begins shaking his hands in mock frustration. “He wakes up and says, ‘Those fuckers—they messed it up again!’”

    Giraffedata is something of a superstar among the tiny circle of people who closely monitor Wikipedia, one of the most popular websites in the English-speaking world. About 8 million English Wikipedia articles are visited every hour, yet only a tiny fraction of readers click the ‘edit’ button in the top right corner of every page. And only 30,000 or so people make at least five edits per month to the quickly growing site.

    Giraffedata—a 51-year-old software engineer named Bryan Henderson—is among the most prolific contributors, ranking in the top 1,000 most active editors. While some Wikipedia editors focus on adding content or vetting its accuracy, and others work to streamline the site’s grammar and style, generally few, if any, adopt Giraffedata’s approach to editing: an unrelenting, multi-year project to fix exactly one grammatical error.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.