Behind the Wikipedia wars: what happened when Bradley Manning became Chelsea

Abigail Brady, who edits the site as Morwen, explains the polite notes and not-votes behind the scenes.

Shortly after Chelsea Manning's statement regarding her transition was made public, the Wikipedia page for Bradley Manning was redirected. The article now consistently refers to Chelsea by her chosen name and pronoun, showing more understanding of the issues at hand than many more traditional news sources. But the move wasn't without friction. A glance at the articles talk page, where editors discuss changes, shows an argument in full flow. "This PC-driven move lowers wikipedia's credibility even further", writes one opposing the change."A person's gender identity is their choice to make," says another, supporting the move.

Abigail Brady, who is on the site under the name Morwen, was the admin who first made the move. I spoke to her about Manning, wikipedia, and edit wars in general.

How long have you been a Wikipedia editor? What drew you to the site?

I recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of my first registered edit to Wikipedia. I started an article about the old East German Parliament, oddly enough – this was back when Wikipedia was rapidly ascending in the search rankings for lots of hits, and it was often hard to find good factual stuff on other sites. Adding things to Wikipedia that I knew about – and there was a lot of UK geography and politics that was not covered at all – was a massively exciting task. I got made an admin pretty quickly – it was a much less paranoid process back then.

Have you had experiences beforehand which prepared you for a debate this ferocious?

To some extent yes. I have stayed out of trans issues on Wikipedia for ages, but you should see the arguments we had about Star Trek ranks!

Do you get involved with trans issues on the site more generally, or is it just for this case?

My memory is a bit fuzzy, but, for example, I started the article on April Ashley, and took a relatively hard line against people mucking around with it and other such articles. I think I can claim some credit for the current "use identity" thing being the style guide. More recently, I was involved in a dispute other whether the article "cisgender" should exist.

Was your first thought upon reading Chelsea's statement to move the page? How much time passed between you finding out and you making the edit?

There's an essay on the site called WP:RECENT which cautions about being too quick to update. We are, after all, building an encyclopaedia not a news source. But as I read the statement I saw how completely unambiguous it was. There had been discussions about this before, which I was aware of but did not participate in (in fact, it was an FAQ on the talk page before yesterday). So I posted on the talk page, saw that someone else was making the same suggestion that I did, held off for a little while and a small consensus emerged, and then pressed the button. I thought I was giving it plenty of time, given how clear that release was!

Is there a culture on the site of trying to be the first to update pieces with news? Did that motivate you?

There is a bit of a friendly rivalry about being the first to update, but it's not taken too seriously, and I'd never consider putting stuff in there against my editorial judgement, such as it is, just to claim credit. I created the articles about the 7/7 bombings back in the day and, bizarrely, got a radio interview off it (I predicted twitter's role in grassroots news gathering!). I'm fairly inactive now but also took a role updating the article about the Leveson report, when that came out, and dealing with the page about a Baron McAlpine. So I came out of the woodwork, because I don't mind stepping on the landmines. Mixed metaphor there, sorry.

What's Wikipedia's policy on people transitioning? Who sets that policy?

Wikipedia's policy according to MOS:IDENTITY, and long-established practice, is to use preferred name and pronouns for the entirety of a life. I like that policy. Policies emerge through a kind of consensus-building process which would probably horrify you if you looked at it in too much detail, but generally seem to end up pretty well.

What happened immediately after you made the move?

Someone reverted it back, pretty quickly. But I left them a polite note, asking if they'd actually read the reference I'd given, and it turns out they hadn't, and they apologised. So I put it back. I've made it a policy never to actively get involved in an "edit war", after several annoying experiences in the past. So I've stayed off the page proper since then, and confined myself to talk.

After that short squabble, discussion moved to the talk page. How did that go?

Someone said I never should have done the move in the first place. We have a policy of "being bold", but they said this didn't apply here and I should have done a "requested move" first, which is a consensus-gathering approach. (Wikipedia policies are great in the same way standards are – there's one for every occasion and line of argument). So now we are having a "not vote", as we call it, where people say whether they support or oppose the move (that is, the move back), and outline their reasoning.

It seems the page is full of the professionally outraged. Do you think they really are aiming at making the best encyclopaedia possible?

I honestly don't know. Many of them are raising the same old points, over and over again, like they are novel. Yes, there's a background of transphobia to a lot of this, but I think a lot is people driving by and insisting on having their opinion on the raging topic of the day. Someone has come forward already and volunteered to look at the argument and try and determine some kind of consensus from it (hah), and they're going to have their work cut out for them, but they're supposed to look at the actual debate, rather than just weigh the number of randoms who have expressed their opinions, bigoted or not.

The page firstly got "semi-protected", then "protected". What does that mean? Will it end?

Protected means that technically nobody can edit the page apart from an admin. However, that doesn't mean admins are allowed to edit freely, they are only allowed to make clearly good edits (like typos) or ones that have requested and consented to by general users on the talk page. Semi-protection is when we lock down new accounts and people who aren't logged in from editing. Both things are done as a temporary measure while things cool down – and the few incidents where the "temporary" becomes basically permanent are considered regrettable. The traditional description of admin powers on Wikipedia is that it is a janitorial function. It doesn't give you any authority in itself, it just shows that the community has trusted you a bit more to use the software responsibly. Obviously, there's an extent to which that is an ambition rather than an absolute description of reality, and the admins do have certain amount of de facto power, but people who misuse it can and have been removed.

Chelsea Manning's Wikipedia page.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the philosophy of people-rating app Peeple is fundamentally flawed

The app claims that “character is destiny”, and that we should be constantly judged based on our past interactions with others. But do we really believe that? 

Yesterday, you were probably one of the millions around the world who recoiled from their screen in blank-eyed horror at the news: Peeple, an app to be launched in November, will let others rate you, publicly, on the internet, and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't opt out, and you don't need to join in order to be rated on a scale of one to five by colleagues, friends, and romantic partners. That boy whose girlfriend you stole? He can review you. The boss you swore at as you quit? Her, too. Those people in your life who think you're just a bit average? Expect a lukewarm three stars from them.

Of all the online rage at the app's announcement, perhaps the most was directed at the fact that you can't remove your own profile. Other users need only submit your mobile number and name to create your page, and you have no control about who posts on there. Reviews of two stars or less are invisible to the public for 48 hours, and you have the chance to review them and try to "work it out" with the rater. Once that time is up, though, the negative reviews appear for all to see. You can comment on them to defend your corner, but unless they break the app's rules, you can't delete them.

There are all kinds of problems with Peeple's premise. Despite its founders' promises that bullying and harassment won't be tolerated (helped slightly by the fact that users must be over 21 and use their full name and Facebook profile to comment), it seems impossible that they'll be able to moderate this effectively. And as we've learned from sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp, the majority of reviews are from those seeking to boost the company's reputation, rivals, or angry customers - it's rare to see one that's balanced and helpful.

Yet the biggest flaw of all is the assumption that public rating and shaming has a place, or is even acceptable, in our society. There's something fundamentally broken in the app's presmise, which is summarised in its tagline, "character is destiny".  As western society has moved on from earlier ages where people were fundamentally changed in the eyes of the law and public into "criminals" by virtue of their deeds, or a time where a woman was utterly defined by her sexual acts, we've ceased to accept this as truth. The app's whole set-up assumes that someone who has offended a co-worker is likely to do it again, or a positive review from a partner makes it likely you'll enjoy a good relationship with them. As a society, we accept that some violent criminals are likely to re-offend, but we also see the value of rehabilitation, and can accept that people make mistakes they're unlikely to repeat. 

The dark side of social media is that it moves us backwards on this front. It allows permanent imprints of our online lives to be seen by everyone, to the extent where they seem to represent us. Victims of cyberbullying terrified that naked photos of them will be released, or people who make public gaffes on social media, become reduced to and defined by single acts. The mental health deterioration (and sometimes  suicide) that follows these shamings hints at how unnatural it is for single actions to change lives in such disproportionate ways. 

Jon Ronson, author of So you've been publicly shamed, which cleverly links the current culture of internet shaming with a legal past where criminals were shamed indefinitely as criminals for a single illegal act, seems chilled by the prospect of Peeple:

As one review of Ronson's book noted:

As Ronson makes patently clear, all these people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes. In fact, having researched the history of public shaming in America in the Massachusetts Archives, he can only conclude that Lehrer, for one, was humiliated to a degree that would have been thought excessive even in the 18th century, the Puritans of New England having seemingly worked out that to ruin a person in front of his fellows is also to refuse him a second chance in life.

As Ronson explores in his book, extreme public shaming doesn't make us better people, or encourage us not to repeat offend: it shuts us down and exiles us from society in a way that benefits no one. (This makes Peeple's URL – – seem grimly ironic). What Ronson calls "chronic shame" occurs when our regretted actions harden into something far greater, something we allow to become part of ourselves. As Gershen Kaufman, a scholar of shame, notes:  "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."

We also shouldn't be forever defined by a clutch of "good" actions, or people who see some benefit in leaving us gushing reviews. Those who measure their worth through social media come to rely on the endorphins sparked by small online interactions and boosts to their confidence, at the expense of the more slow-burning satisfaction of real life. A single person's thoughts about us are relatively inconsequential, whether positive or negative - but they're given far greater weight on the internet  by virtue of their permanence and publicity.

In Mary Gordon's novella The Rest of Life, a character wishes that someone had told her earlier that "the world is large and will absorb the errors you innocently make". If we're to avoid tearing each other to pieces, we need to make sure that this remains the case. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.