Wikipedia is highly visible on the Internet; any Google or other search engine search on a subject for which Wikipedia has an article is likely to display that article on the first page of results, and quite likely is the first or second result returned. If you edit that article, then anyone who is interested in the subject is going to be able to see what you wrote. They will also be able to track your activity across the site, in project and user pages as well as in articles. So anything you say here and anything you do here can have real-world consequences. Consider carefully what you write (or delete); keep in mind that you (and other people) can get hurt and experience real-life consequences, such as legal, employment or security issues.
Wikipedia is a public place
It is tempting to view Wikipedia as something of a private club, but it is really much more like Hyde Park. In fact, since every edit on WP is logged and time and date-stamped with your username and/or your IP address, an even more apt comparison would be talking on a megaphone in a public park while TV news cameras are recording and transmitting your statements to the world.
Anyone who abides by the rules is welcome to edit; anyone with a web browser is welcome to read. Therefore, you should consider that you have about as much privacy as you would if you got on a soapbox in the town square and used a megaphone. The whole world can hear you, including your wife/husband/significant other, your children, your boss, your neighbors, spy agencies, the police, investigative reporters, Glenn Beck, Stephen Colbert, The New York Times, and the pope. If you don't want them to read what you're saying, you shouldn't post or edit it here.
Outside readers, organizations and individuals will also read your words in the context of generally understood meanings, not Wikipedia-specific definitions. Appeals to Wikipedia rules and processes will not save you from misunderstandings or real-world consequences.
Wikipedia is not a role-playing game
Editors in Wikipedia are (hopefully) writing about real-world subjects, not creating a fantasy world. Editors are not characters in a game; they are real people. You should not be here to gain experience points, create your own reality, play mind games with others, or engage in satisfying your taste for single combat. If you say something malicious about someone, you're saying it about a real person, and that real person may well get angry with you. Don't visualize your discussion opponents as NPCs in EditQuest or World of Wikicraft or Jimbo's Call; visualize them as someone sitting across the table from you, except they're wearing a cloak, you don't know who they are, and you don't know what real world consequences there will be for your actions. After all, the Golden Rule isn't just a rule; it's a good idea.
Don't count on your anonymity
Although the true identity of Wikipedia editors is not normally revealed within the site, and efforts to "out" editors are frowned upon, it is impossible to prevent attempts at unmasking editors. From time to time editors have been the subject of such attempts. Wikipedia cannot forestall the consequences of being identified, so the best course may be to edit defensively:
- Don't edit articles on yourself, your company, or any other subject which puts you in the position of having the appearance of a conflict of interest. If you feel you must edit those articles, you should bend over backwards to prevent the appearance of bias.
- If your employer, law enforcement, academic institution, or parent forbids you from editing, the safest course is to obey them. Wikipedia cannot prevent you from being fired, arrested, expelled, or grounded (respectively) with cause.
- Don't draw attention to yourself. Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point. No climbing the Reichstag dressed as Spider-Man. You cannot turn back the Streisand effect.
Administrators and long standing members of the community, having developed a high profile, can expect inverse surveillance. If passers-by and other editors mistake the recipient of your acts for a punching bag, they'll want to know why you're doing it. And to know why, they'll want to know who you are, even if the Wikipedia culture values privacy.
Wikipedia keeps an Akashic record
All your contributions to Wikipedia, including comments in talk pages, edits to articles, comments in article for deletion discussions, etc., are kept forever by the wiki software. Even if the edits are deleted, they are visible to thousands of administrators unless suppressed by one of a very small number of people trusted with this task (for a list, see here, here, and here) and in that case, data is still visible to them. Anything that you say that has not been deleted by an administrator or suppressed will be available to anyone for research via your contributions page. The aggregation of all these contributions represents your public identity to others and can be used to make an assessment of your personal viewpoints, personality, edit patterns, and motivations.
An editor can request administrators to delete certain content the editor now regrets; an offensive speech on a controversial topic or a personal photo on their user page, or their real name. However, even if an admin deletes this content on Wikipedia, the content may remain on mirror websites that re-use WP content under license. As well, third parties who monitor Wikipedia and who have access to cached "snapshots" of the encyclopedia at various points in time may notice that some content has been deleted by admins. This attempt to suppress this content may in turn stimulate interest in this content, the so-called Streisand effect.
Real world conflicts are not different in Wikipedia
If you don't like controversy, you should stay away from editing controversial topics. And if you don't like being tagged with a position on a controversial topic, you should be very wary of editing articles on it. It's not like The Wizard of Id; if you write "The king is a fink!" here, everyone will see you doing it.
Wikipedia's visibility makes it a natural haunt of viewpoint pushers on political and social controversies. Even if you try to be scrupulously careful about avoiding POV edits, other editors working on the same topic may assume that you are a party to the dispute and assign you to one of the various camps. If this offends, annoys, or troubles you, you should consider staying out of the fray. And if being identified with one of the parties to the dispute would be difficult for you in real life, you should consider well the consequences of being identified, and refrain if you feel the stakes are too high. Engage volunteer editors agreeing to make those edits, instead.
The bottom line
Take responsibility for your actions here, and you will be less likely to be surprised by any undesirable consequences of what you say and do. Use the preview button, and think before pressing "Publish changes". You can always self-revert, but what you said may remain.
- Advice for parents
- Advice for famous people
- Don't overlook legal threats
- Don't spite your face
- Guidance for younger editors
- On privacy, confidentiality, and discretion
- Personal security practices
- Editors willing to make difficult edits
- Policies and guidelines