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On Wikipedia, Debating 2008 Hopefuls' Every Facet

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Three weeks ago, for example, an editor going by the name of Gen Bigjegs uploaded a photo of naked black men on Sen. Barack Obama's article. Another editor, Tvoz, who happened to be on Wikipedia at the time, removed the photo two minutes later.

But at the same time, it's hard to find a more up-to-date, detailed, thorough article on Obama than Wikipedia's. As of Friday, Obama's article -- more than 22 pages long, with 15 sections covering his personal and professional life -- had a reference list of 167 sources.

"You can't stop the vandals, in real life or on the Internet," said Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder. "But . . . each of these articles are constantly evolving, constantly being edited, constantly being improved."

Wikipedia is available in 250 languages, and the English-language version has about 4.5 million registered users. The number of users most likely is vastly higher, because anyone can edit the site without registering. The site is free, and since the English-language Wikipedia was launched six years ago, it has been driven by volunteers self-policing one another's work.

Like YouTube and MySpace, Wikipedia has a distinct culture. A general hierarchy exists: Voyeurs, who mainly visit the site to read its more than 2 million pages in English, are at the bottom, and at the top are "admins," the powers-that-be who oversee the editors. The admins can close off a page from editing -- think of it as a Wiki timeout -- when disagreements flare. "Sometimes the editors just get so worked up," said Dan Rosenthal, 24, a law student at American University who is one of more than 1,250 admins.

An article's "talk page," where editing issues are often passionately addressed, is key to the site's ethos. Civility is valued. It's the kind of virtual playground where prickly wordsmiths and news junkies (editing is supposed to be based on reliable sources such as newspapers, magazines and books) write in carefully constructed sentences, waxing earnestly about fairness, accuracy and neutrality. AGF -- assume good faith -- is the guiding principle. The goal is consensus, but disagreements are inescapable.

A survey of the "talk pages" reveals the tension between candidates' supporters and detractors, who are always duking it out, often not as discreetly as they'd like to appear. Supporters pump up their candidates' qualifications. Critics pounce on any negative reports.

The spat over Thompson's name has been waged largely between Tvoz, a 56-year-old freelance publicist and mother of two whose real name is Tina Vozick, and another editor who goes only by Ferrylodge, a Republican and a Thompson supporter. (He recently gave the former Tennessee senator a $100 donation.) Ferrylodge, a 45-year-old patent lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is certain that Tvoz is a Democrat. She is, though she's not yet sure who she will support.

"I've been accused of being on the staffs of Edwards, Clinton and Obama," Vozick said.

Experts have tried to determine how reliable the information on Wikipedia is. It's difficult to know, for example, whether campaign staffers are editing articles about their candidates. But that kind of embarrassing revelation is what Virgil Griffith had in mind when he released the free WikiScanner last month.

Griffith, a visiting researcher at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and a "disruptive technologist," has caused public relations disasters for corporations and federal agencies. WikiScanner traces the millions of changes back to the editor's network.

"Campaigns are clever. If they're going to make any changes, good or bad, they'll make it from their home offices or computers, not at campaign headquarters. Or so you'd think," said Griffith, 24.

Early last week, scientists at the Augmented Social Cognition Research Group in California launched WikiDashboard, a quick way to find the most active editors of an article. On Clinton's article, Tvoz ranked third highest. On Thompson's, Ferrylodge was unmatched.

For more than a week, the two have been among the most active editors of Thompson's page.

Thompson's "talk page" is the busiest of the candidate pages, primarily because of two topics: how to address the 25-year age difference between Thompson and his wife, Jeri, and the Sept. 6 Los Angeles Times article that said Thompson's birth name was Freddie.

Tvoz insists that the article should begin with "Freddie Dalton 'Fred' Thompson." Ferrylodge argues that it should be "Fred Dalton Thompson (born Freddie Dalton Thompson)."

Ferrylodge said with a sigh: "We're still waiting for a consensus."


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