“All I am is a contributor. I have no title, I’m just a Joe Blow,” says Ken Mampel, a currently unemployed 56-year-old living in Ormond Beach, Florida. He’s also largely responsible for the Wikipedia article about Hurricane Sandy. If it isn’t already, that article will eventually become the single most-viewed document about the hurricane. On the entire internet.
In an unpaid but frenzied fit of news consumption, editing, correction, aggregation, and citation, Mampel has established himself as by far the most active contributor to the Wikipedia page on Hurricane Sandy, with more than twice the number of edits as the next-most-active contributor at the time this article was written.
And Mampel made sure that the Hurricane Sandy article, for four days after the hurricane made landfall in New Jersey, had no mention of “global warming” or “climate change” whatsoever.
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Late in the evening of November 1st, a new section appeared at the bottom of the Wikipedia page, titled “Connection to global warming.” It was the first mention of climate change the article had had, and laid out the response from climate scientists, mostly stating that climate scientists don’t really know if the hurricane was caused in part or whole by climate change. I emailed Ken, who goes by the name Kennvido on Wikipedia, to get a response, and he wrote back: “thanks deleted again and told them to go discuss Sandy on the global warming page.” I reloaded the page and confirmed: Ken had eliminated any discussion of climate change. A few minutes later, I reloaded and the section was back, only with a big block warning, telling me that “The neutrality of this article is disputed.” By 10:23, that warning read: “An editor has expressed a concern that this Section lends undue weight to certain ideas, incidents, controversies or matters relative to the article subject as a whole. Please help to create a more balanced presentation.”
By the morning of November 2nd, the section was gone again. The revision history shows an argument: “the existence of other views is solved by referencing them in RS, not deleting views one disagrees with,” says one contributor. Mampel continues to fight, and he’s not the only one: another user chimed in that the Hurricane Sandy page is “Not the place to push global warming when no evidence exists that this was a cause.” But by early afternoon, the article had a small paragraph in the “Meteorological history” section linking to a few articles that suggest a connection to global warming. Ken had been overruled.
“I question Kennvido’s own political motives in forcing this discussion out of the article,” said one contributor on the article’s “Talk” page, the (publicly viewable) page where contributors discuss the article’s content. Another said “There is still no mention whatsoever of climate change in this article, even though there is no doubt that it’s a systemic cause of hurricane Sandy. It’s hard to take [Wikipedia] seriously sometimes.” But mostly the argument is about “weight,” one of Wikipedia’s key guidelines. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Giving due weight and avoiding giving undue weight means that articles should not give minority views as much of, or as detailed, a description as more widely held views.” But how do you judge what’s a minority view?
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Ken Mampel does not believe in climate change. (He referred to himself as a libertarian, by my count, six separate times during one phone call. I never asked about his political leanings.) Without my prompting, Ken mentioned that New York City’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg had endorsed Obama for president based on his handling of the hurricane. This is true, and Mampel planned to add this to the Wikipedia entry. “But I don’t believe that climate change bullcrap,” he said. Bloomberg had specifically mentioned climate change in his endorsement speech, but Mampel wouldn’t add that to the Wikipedia entry. That’s despite dozens of articles pointing out the connection–not a causation, necessarily, but certainly a connection worth exploring. I myself spoke to a hurricane expert about three hours before I spoke to Mampel who told me that the roughly two-degree increase in the water temperature in the Atlantic could have had a major effect on Hurricane Sandy’s strength in the northeast. Mampel doesn’t care. He wasn’t going to mention climate change.
“Someone did put it in,” he told me via email on the night of November 1st. “I took it out stating not proven. They put it in again. This time someone else took it out before I even saw it…warned the person…and it never was put in again.” When I mentioned that many reputable scientists and publications have pointed out the connection, he said, “It’s still in debate in the world community Dan… even if EnviroGore thinks there is no need for debate.”
* * *
The Wikipedia entry for Sandy was created by the user Anonymouse321 late on October 23rd. At that time, Sandy was a tropical storm over the Caribbean; NASA’s Terra satellite had captured it, and the government of Jamaica had issued a hurricane warning, but nobody was really paying attention. The page was originally called “Tropical Storm Sandy.” By October 25th, the storm was gaining speed and looking more dangerous, and Ken had taken notice. Ken lives on the central Florida coast, on the Atlantic side north of Daytona Beach, but he’s originally from Hempstead, a town on Long Island just a bit east of Queens. The storm looked as if it would move through the Caribbean and up the east coast–past where Ken lives now, and up to his hometown. Ken took an interest.
When I talked to him, I believe he had slept for maybe 15 hours in the past five days. He spoke quickly and passionately but without any focus whatsoever, and even the simplest question could lead into a tangent from which I had significant trouble pulling him away. “Did you create the Wikipedia article originally?” I’d ask. Two sentences later, he was telling me about his son, who is about my age, who does something at George Washington University and is a veteran and received some impressive military medal and did I know that global warming is definitely not man-made?
At one point I told him I lived in Brooklyn. He paused, and then yelled “JOEY BAG-A-DONUTS!” at me in some kind of 1970s Brooklyn accent. I didn’t bother mentioning that my part of Brooklyn was mostly concerned with being able to get fresh-pressed kale juice the morning after the hurricane. (We could, too.) He kept confusing Popular Science with Popular Mechanics, which, to be fair, also happens to people who haven’t been sleeplessly editing Wikipedia articles. “I stayed up for 24 hours at one point, I don’t remember when,” he told me, “and then slept for five hours and then got up and got right back to it. I’m very much into this.”
Ken is, he says, between jobs, “because of this lousy economy and I hope we get a new president.” But Ken has actually worked in news- and media-related jobs for most of his career. He says he started writing radio copy when he was 13 years old, which would seem to violate some sort of labor law, but that’s what he says. He stayed in radio, writing copy for advertisements and doing some production work, until around 1985. Then for the next 17 years or so, he worked as a stringer for TV news stations from Jacksonville to Orlando. A stringer is a freelancer, usually for photography and video coverage, with a loose relationship to a local news station. You get paid per item, not per hour, and you have no institutional benefits. It’s a tough job. Ken took the night shift, sitting in his car in a rough part of central Florida with three police scanners on the seat next to him. Whenever something would happen–natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes, or just general crime, he’d rush off and document it, and TV news would pay him for each find.
That’s just about exactly what he did when he began editing Sandy’s Wikipedia page on the afternoon of October 25th, except without the pay, and without the original reporting. Ken now follows, he says, 66 different news organizations on Twitter, and spent that day constantly adding and narrowing until he had just the balance he wanted. That included both national and local news sources, both old-school and new–the New York Times, a local New Jersey station called NJ1, the Daily Beast. He took news from all kinds of sources, and plopped them into the Wikipedia page, in proper Wikipedia style. He edited the writing of other contributors. He created new categories and new pages–the storm’s effect on Vermont, for example (pretty much none).
One of the key differences between the Wikipedia page and any other news source is that Ken, and indeed all Wikipedia contributors, are specifically forbidden from doing any of their own reporting. “Wikipedia articles must not contain original research,” says Wikipedia, firmly. “‘No original research’ (NOR) is one of three core content policies that, along with Neutral point of view and Verifiability, determines the type and quality of material acceptable in articles.” Mampel knows people in the New York area, but unless those people are reporters who have published their own accounts, he’s forbidden from making any reference to what he’s learned from them. Wikipedia is aggressively second-hand. The other key difference is that Wikipedia has, by design, a peculiar and de-centralized editorial structure. Wikipedia pages are constructed piecemeal, by lots of contributors who theoretically have equal footing. “Wikipedia is a meritocracy,” says Jay Walsh, head of communications for the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, among other wiki-properties. “What’s beautiful is that it’s a broad, instant collaboration.”
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But that’s not how news is typically recorded and released. “You can’t look at a breaking news story in the way you look at, say, a bio of a living person,” says Walsh. That rule about no original reporting? That can be bent in the interest of having a complete and up-to-date view of a news story when verification is hard to come by. “There’s an understanding that in breaking news stories, information may be rough or raw,” says Walsh. Instead of just deleting an un-cited fact, editors may attempt to verify it, or just leave it where it is for the time being.
Any contributor can remove, add, or change elements of the article based on any of Wikipedia’s many rules, or just because they want to, like Ken and the climate-change stuff. There’s healthy back-and-forth amongst the contributors in the “Talk” pages, documented on the “revision history” page. Each Wikipedia article has both: a “Talk” page is where contributors discuss what should and should not be in the article, and “revision history” gives a timeline of edits to the page. Ken may have made the most edits to the Hurricane Sandy page, but he’s not a “lead editor” in the sense that he’s the point person for the article, able to decide single-handedly what goes into the piece. There’s nobody, really, who does that, though there are a staff of just under 1,500 “administrators” on Wikipedia–also unpaid volunteers, selected by, essentially, a survey of other Wikipedia volunteers–who have a bit more power. One of those admins put the Hurricane Sandy page under, says Jay, a semi-lock: only registered Wikipedia editors who have participated in the community before, not anonymous new folks, can edit it now. But Ken did contribute much more than any other editor–he was the most active editor, though that didn’t give him any added authority. It also doesn’t necessarily mean he wrote most of the article, though he certainly wrote much of it. An edit is an edit, whether it’s removing a comma splice or writing 2,000 words.
Ongoing news stories on Wikipedia are created in the same way as any other page there, but with a slightly different approach. On a less-breaking page–I used the page for “cornbread” as an example–the only impulse is to create the best encyclopedia-style reference page. There are arguments, of course, over the preference of yellow cornmeal verses white, or whether hushpuppies (which are fried) belong in an article about cornbread (which is baked), but the idea is to get all of the appropriate information into the article. Not so much with Hurricane Sandy, which the contributors know will evolve over time and take on a different shape in a week than it has now. Regarding the global warming issue, one contributor wrote: “With the article being edited heavily with updates at the moment, many of whom are in the storm, my view is that it can wait for a day or two.” Another said, “it sounds more like, ‘We’ll keep all mention of global warming out of the discussion until after nobody’s interested in this storm any more.'”
This isn’t so much “waiting for new information to come in.” This is “waiting for majority rule to overcome the will of the few.” The few are what kept global warming off that page for so long.
When I told Jay Walsh about the back-and-forth regarding climate change, he said, “It doesn’t surprise me to hear that. Climate change is a _bastard_–it’s one of those really complicated topics within Wikipedia, because the [editors] are so science-focused.” But he wasn’t upset that one point of view had been steamrollered on a Wikipedia page that received more than half a million hits in three days–he was intrigued about how the process went, and about how it was eventually ironed out, in a way. “The article doesn’t not do its work because of that,” he said. Walsh talked about a “good faith” versus “bad faith” edit: Ken Mampel really thinks he is improving that page by eliminating an unclear passage about climate change, so that’s a “good faith” edit. Which, for Wikipedians, means the system is working. But what about for those 500,000 readers who didn’t get the full story?
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Ken, not surprisingly, has gotten into scraps with some other editors. Despite the communal ethos, there is a distinct pecking order among Wikipedia editors, based sometimes on seniority and sometimes on sheer dickishness. Ken was chided for using “Monday” and “Tuesday” rather than “October 29th” and “October 30th.” A user going by the name United States Man threatened to block him for “changing formats, changing info, and putting stuff in the wrong place.” In an email to me, Ken called United States Man “one of those ahole members” and says this is “water off his back,” but he apologized effusively to U.S.M. in public.
United States Man is one of several hurricane-fanatic Wikipedia contributors who contributed to the Hurricane Sandy page. Another is Cyclonebiskit, who has contributed to just about every inclement-weather-related page on Wikipedia. These guys are advanced hobbyists; they are certainly knowledgeable, if not professionally trained. Ken is neither. He was just captivated by the news story, like the rest of us, spouting off about storm surges and baroclinic pressure like we had any idea what those terms meant two weeks before. And Ken was the one taking the lead on the Wikipedia page. Not because he demanded it, but just because he wanted to do it. He was obsessed. “People just have their…interests,” he said.
“Interests” are what made Ken spend five sleepless days racing to aggregate hurricane news, despite having no unusual amount of knowledge on the subject. They’re what made him race against mainstream sports sites to post the results of each inning of the ALCS games on Wikipedia first. Ken has a lot of time on his hands, and a drive to join or beat the press at their own game. “I’m in between jobs, it’s a lousy economy,” he says. “How do you think I can be on here as much as I am?” But when I asked how he thought his speed and work compared to the professionals who were doing essentially the same thing, he glowed. “That’s exactly it!” he said. “Bam! Bam! Bam! That’s what I strive for, to be as fast as major media. I wanted to be there, and I wanted to be accurate.” And Ken talks a lot about accuracy, about crafting a page that reflects the facts. But accuracy only goes so far on Wikipedia.
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If one of the weaknesses of Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it, the solution to that problem is that, well, anyone can edit it. Mampel can’t be vigilant against climate change’s mention in the Hurricane Sandy article forever. In fact, he couldn’t keep climate change off the page for an entire week–somebody else will keep adding that section until Mampel gives up. Mampel doesn’t want to risk being banned; he’s very concerned about being a good guy in the contributor community. Whenever anyone commented with any issue about his work, he immediately apologized and offered to fix it. “If you’re nice, you’ll get nice back,” he said about the community. He wants to edit in “good faith.” For posterity, this particular problem will be ironed out. But for days, the internet’s most authoritative article on a major tropical storm system in 2012 was written by a man with no meteorological training who thinks climate change is unproven and fought to remove any mention of it.