Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!
How the online encyclopedia manages mental illness and suicide threats in its volunteer community.
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.”