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Another month, another Wikipedia prank. This time, it was chickens.

We all know Wikipedia, the user-edited compendium of facts that are probably true - but hey, who knows? - because it has become a fixture in our lives. As the site grows ever larger, Wikipedia entries pop up more prominently when we Google for things like "macrame" (the Wikipedia entry is Google result No. 4), "Ikea" (two), and "velociraptor" (one). And in truth, even the most snide columnist secretly loves it, and relies on it as a point of first - if not last - contact on most subjects.

But as Wikipedia's influence grows, the question of Wikipedia vandalism becomes more relevant. The encyclopedia has other problems, of course (among them, getting things wrong), but vandalism is a special case. Wikipedians, the volunteers who run the joint, define vandalism as any change made "in a deliberate attempt to compromise the integrity of Wikipedia." And compromising Wikipedia, for one reason or another, is something that some people love to do.

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In fact, Wikipedia even catalogues all the ways you can muck up a Wikipedia page. The list includes "attention-seeking vandalism," "silly vandalism," "childish vandalism," and "sneaky vandalism," which includes the more devious ways of sneaking misinformation past vigilant Wikipedians, like changing dates, or adding plausible-sounding misinformation.

Which brings us back to chickens: a twentysomething Torontonian named Ryan North has been attracting attention for his solution to the vandalism problem. North is a cartoonist, whose strip, Dinosaur Comics , has garnered an online following, which might help explain why his idea got the exposure it did.

In a recent cartoon strip, North pointed out that picking through the encyclopedia's million-plus articles looking for digital graffiti is terribly difficult. He had a better idea: put out an open call to all would-be vandals, asking that, instead of scattering their handiwork throughout Wikipedia, they should all vandalize the same article, so it would be easy to spot.

To get things started, he nominated the article about chickens. "Dudes already know about chickens," he rationalized, and this being the case, Wikipedia would work just fine as an encyclopedia about "every topic in the universe except chickens." Then he set up a website to promote his idea.

The upshot is that, before long, Wikipedia had locked the article about chickens so that nobody could edit it at all.

This isn't the first time this has happened. North may have taken a cue from an incident this summer, when late-night comedian Stephen Colbert asked his viewers to alter the article about elephants to state that the population of African elephants was not declining, but had, in fact, tripled. His viewers obliged, and Wikipedians, who now refer to the attack as "Colberrorism," locked that article too.

(Here, I should probably point out that my only claim to fame in this world is that my name is listed several entries below Colbert's on a Wikipedia page entitled "List of media personalities who have vandalized Wikipedia." My crime was an ill-fated attempt to inject humour into one of the site's pages.

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Wikipedians aren't always of one mind about how and when articles should be locked; however necessary it may be, barring members of the public from editing pages is seen as contrary to the project's open-doors ethos. Thanks to that same ethos, arguments between Wikipedia editors are dutifully recorded in the discussion page that's attached to every article, and in the case of the chicken attack, we can see them debating whether putting a giant padlock on the screen was appropriate or an overreaction.

It's the right question to be asking. There are lots of things that might incline people to lob a silly, sneaky, childish, attention-getting error into the encyclopedia. Chief among them, I suspect, might be the thrill of watching Wikipedians freak out and lock the page on chickens. (Ultimately, both the chicken and elephant articles were unlocked, and put under a reduced form of protection that dissuades casual vandals by insisting that the user be logged in before making changes.)

People accuse Wikipedia editors of being humourless; I've made the same mistake myself. But it seems clear that it's not humourlessness that makes the encyclopedia such fun to kick around. It's Wikipedia's utter earnestness, its conviction of its own importance, that makes people bristle. Indeed, the fact that Wikipedia has become important in our day-to-day lives makes it such an irresistible target for purple nurples. And, as always, the smart kids who run it are learning how to cope.

webseven@globeandmail.com

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