William Beutler on Wikipedia

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Mr. Robot’s Wikipedia Hoax: Right, Wrong, and Definitely Interesting

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on August 26, 2015 at 11:10 am

The first season finale of Mr. Robot airs tonight, and if you haven’t been watching already, it’s worth visiting soon. Not only is it a moody, cinematic, well-plotted, twist-springing suspense thriller, but it’s also the best depiction of hackers in popular entertainment yet.

As explained in better detail by others, Mr. Robot gets hacker subculture mostly right, and hews close enough to the technical details to be interesting where it doesn’t. Root kits are deployed, professionals use MacBooks, hackers use commodity PC hardware, Gnome and KDE desktop environments are referenced, and all of the code displayed on-screen (and there’s a lot) has at least some basis in reality. Spiking the football, two characters are seen deriding the movie Hackers for its many famous errors. The show knows what it’s doing.

This careful treatment even extends to Wikipedia, which comes up in the first half of the show’s fifth episode, eps1.4_3xpl0its.wmv (yes, that’s actually its title). In this scene, a Wikipedia hoax is used as a plot device to advance the show’s narrative, and I think it’s worth looking at closely.

Scene-level spoilers follow.

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In this episode, our troubled hero, Elliot (Rami Malek, pictured below), conspires with hacker group fsociety to infiltrate a data security firm based on the real life company Iron Mountain. To gain access, Elliot persuades a sales employee to believe that he is “Sam Sepiol”, a Zuckerbergian software tycoon (note the hoodie). Key to this scheme: a Wikipedia article purporting to verify this identity.


Unable to get past the lobby, Elliot implores the salesman to look him up. As Elliot turns to walk away, the employee taps the fictitious name into his tablet (clearly an iPad, though most devices on the show are enclosed in third-party cases to avoid unduly promoting specific brands). The first result is Wikipedia, followed by a few supporting news stories.


The sales employee clicks on Wikipedia first, and finds all the evidence he needs to decide Elliot is in fact Sam Sepiol, billionaire founder of “tech start-up company Bleetz”. The name and photo match, and this unique sales opportunity is about to walk right out the door.



Just before that happens, the employee shouts after him, and Elliot’s hack succeeds. Here the narration kicks in, as Elliot explains how an accomplice, a fellow hacker named Mobley, has pulled this off:

It’s no wonder Wikipedia is never accurate. Anyone can edit them. Well, not anyone. Nerds like Mobley built a lot of credit over the years with his 20,000 edits. And still people trust it, beholden to all the Mobleys of the world for their information.

Here’s Mobley, apparently editing the page from the van in the parking lot outside:


At this point, we are also shown two views of the edit page for the Sam Sepiol Wikipedia entry, one medium close-up and one close close-up, as Mobley prepares this Wikipedia-enabled social engineering:



I dunno about you, but I thought that was pretty cool. Some additional observations:

  • Like much else on the series that pertains to technology, Mr. Robot gets the social aspects of this correct. Despite exhortations from everyone to be careful about the information to be found on Wikipedia, the truth is we use it frequently to verify our hunches, and when the information sounds right, we go with it. Sometimes that’s a bad move! (I went several years thinking T. Boone Pickens’ real first name was “Thunder” because I’d visited the page when someone had messed with it.) Likewise, it’s much more likely that a dubious entry would be given benefit of the doubt if the creating editor has thousands of edits and years of editing history—at least long enough for the ruse to work.
  • You know what else is accurate, right? Yeah, I know plenty of Wikipedia editors who look just like Mobley.
  • I can’t tell what’s more absurd: that elements of everyday real life such as Google and Wikipedia logos cannot be used on TV without a license, or that production companies rarely if ever pay it (just like no one ever sings “Happy Birthday”). The motivations of both parties are not difficult to understand, but I fail to understand why a solution hasn’t been found. Mr. Robot is obviously not alone in this, and in fact they do a better job than most. Although Wikipedia is referenced in Elliot’s voiceover, on the page the would-be Wikipedia logo reads “The Knowledge Base” which is at least on point.
  • It’s never clarified whether Sam Sepiol is a real person in Mr. Robot‘s world whose article has been co-opted for the purposes of social engineering, or whether this page is a brand-new creation. I’m not certain the show’s producers know for sure themselves. After all, there are other news stories about Sepiol on the web, so if fsociety hacked Wikipedia, they somehow also hacked Google News or its equivalent. As suggested by the final still, Mobley’s final touch is adding Sepiol’s net worth to the introduction of the article. If Sepiol is a real entrepreneur, is it necessary for him to be one of the world’s richest men to get past security? On the other hand, it would be far easier to modify an existing entry, replace the photo, and embellish its claims. It could certainly be accomplished much faster than an all-new entry, which would require at least a couple of weeks to float to the top of Google’s search results. And in that time, you at least hope Wikipedia editors would have caught the hoax.
  • Following my comment above that the show isn’t always technically accurate, but is still interesting, the original mockup of the Sepiol page is an impressively faithful adaptation of Wikipedia’s mobile web display. The introductory paragraph reads like any one of probably hundreds of fawning biographies; the inbox contains the right information; the internal links and citations look right. Even the icons for editing the page and adding it to a watch list are where they should be. For comparison, I’ve uploaded the iPad view of actor Rami Malek’s Wikipedia bio.
  • Meanwhile, the desktop version of the edit page is pretty good, while the Wikipedia markup code depicted gets more right than not. Although most references have been reduced to what you would see on the rendered page itself—“[5]”—the double brackets around internal links is spot on. There are in fact some ref tags in evidence, the inbox template is stacked properly even if it’s missing some crucial markup, and (you have to squint) there is such thing as a “cite web” template. Whatever it gets wrong, it’s amazing how much it gets right.
  • The day the episode first aired in the U.S., July 22, a hard redirect for Sam Sepiol was created, sending anyone who searches for this article instead to—you guessed it—the Mr. Robot (TV series) Wikipedia entry.

Anything I’ve missed?

Wikipedia Didn’t Kill Britannica—It Saved the Encyclopedia

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on December 11, 2012 at 11:40 am

Mary Meeker is a venture capitalist associated with the famous Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins who is—as Wikipedia describes her—“primarily associated with the Internet”. Indeed, her annual “Internet Trends” report is highly anticipated in the Valley. Her 2012 report is no different, and it includes a couple of slides focused on Wikipedia vs. Britannica (see also: “Regarding the Uncertain Future of Encyclopædia Britannica”, March 14, 2012). Here’s the important one:

My first reaction, as I tweeted last week, was to be fairly unimpressed:

But looking at it again, it’s quite obvious that for all the discussion of Wikipedia “killing” Britannica, this is not the case at all. First of all, as Wired’s Tim Carmody correctly observed earlier this year, Britannica’s sales began to falter with the introduction of Microsoft Encarta in 1993. If Meeker’s numbers are accurate, then the debut of Wikipedia in 2001 had no impact whatsoever on Britannica’s declining fortunes. Nor does Britannica’s downward slope appear to have accelerated with the rapid adoption of the Internet from the late 1990s onward.

The y-axis of Meeker’s chart, if anything, downplays Wikipedia’s ubiquity compared to Britannica’s sales. Being logarithmic scales charting different numbers, truth be told, I think it’s kind of a terrible chart, but it’s still readily apparent that Wikipedia is vastly more accessible to readers than Britannica ever was. Anecdotal evidence obviously supports this: I’ll bet anything you look at Wikipedia more now than you ever did Britannica, and there are millions who never had access to Britannica before, but can read Wikipedia now.

One thing I would have liked to see here is Britannica.com’s online traffic; writing as one who was in college during the late 1990s and used Britannica.com when it was a free resource, I’d imagine its true relevance nosedived when the site erected a paywall sometime around the year 2000, not that this would necessarily influence print sales.

The bottom line is clear: Britannica’s failure and Wikipedia’s triumph have nothing to do with one another, apart from the inexorable migration of information from analog to digital, and from physical to cloud-based storage. And here is the vastly more interesting trend question: what will eventually replace that?

For the full Meeker report, click here.

What I Did This Summer

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on September 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm

It’s been a few weeks since I last posted on The Wikipedian—at the time I had just finished covering Wikimania right here in Washington, DC, and I had made at least one promise to write a wrap-up post. Alas, that never happened: between work and travel and other obligations, I’m afraid “August 2012″ will forever remain a blank spot in my archives. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. But there is a good reason, and one related—just a bit—to Wikipedia.

Over the last two years, and more intensively during the past two months, I have been working on a very large, personal project, and on Monday it was finally ready for release. It’s called The Infinite Atlas Project. As I’ve described it elsewhere, the goal is to identify, place, and describe every cartographic point I could find in David Foster Wallace’s iconic 1996 novel Infinite Jest—whether real, fictional, real but fictionalized, defunct or otherwise.

The project is tripartite, and the first part launched in mid-July: Infinite Boston, a photo tour hosted by Tumblr, which I’m writing daily through the end of this month. Launched just this week are two more ambitious efforts: a 24″x36″ poster called Infinite Map, plotting 250 key locations from the novel’s futuristic North America (and available for purchase, just FYI); and one not constrained by the dimensions of paper: Infinite Atlas, an interactive world map powered by Google Maps including all 600+ global locations that I was able to find with the help of my researchers (i.e. friends who had also read the novel). You can read much more about this on the Infinite Boston announcement post or on the Infinite Atlas “About” page, but here are screen shots of each:

Infinite Map     

Meanwhile, there are some aspects to the project that I think will be of interest to Wikipedians. For example, on the Infinite Atlas website, every entry that has a relevant Wikipedia article links back to it—whether to the exact location, such as the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School—or to the closest approximation, like the Neponset exit ramp, I-93 South. Among the development projects related to the online atlas, this was one of the last, but I think one of the most helpful. Yes, it’s interesting to the reader to be reminded that a key character stays at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, but it’s even more useful to confirm that McLean Hospital is a real place with more than 200 years of history. And both sites will tell you that DFW himself was a notable former patient.

Additionally, and importantly, the site is published under a Creative Commons license. For a research and art project based on a copyrighted fictional work—quoting judiciously and keeping fair use in mind, I stress—I figured it was important to disclaim any interest in preventing people from using it how they see fit—so long as they attribute and share-alike, of course. And another big reason for doing so: readers are invited to submit their own photos, so long as they are willing to approve their usage under the less-restrictive CC-BY license. If you live in one of the many locations around the world (though mostly in the U.S. and Canada) featured in the book, and now in the atlas, consider yourself invited to participate.

Live though these projects are, they are not finished and might not ever be. Which is part of the fun. And in that way like Wikipedia itself. Now maybe I’ll finally get around to fixing up the Infinite Jest Wikipedia entry and taking it to FA…

30 for 30 (Divided by Ten)

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on May 25, 2012 at 4:46 pm

In Slovenian, the traditional name for the month of May translates to “the month when plants grow”, or so Wikipedia tells me. It’s apt then—if not altogether insufferable as a metaphor—that this month three “seedlings” I recently planted have all blossomed.

Horse ebooks Wikipedia article

First up is something I am almost embarrassingly prideful about: that I will go down in history as the person who created the Horse ebooks Wikipedia article. (The what, you ask? Read the article!)

Considering the meteoric rise to Internet fame of the Horse ebooks Twitter account—without a doubt, the most followed and most beloved Twitter spam account of all time—it’s rather surprising that when I first looked in late April, no such article existed. So, I wrote it. The article debuted on May 5, and graced Wikipedia’s front page with its presence—in the “Did you know” section—on May 12.

Read the Wikipedia article, follow the Twitter account, and then buy the T-shirt (note: I have no deal with the sellers, except that I did buy the shirt). And then take sides in the debate over whether the magic is gone since its automation became a subject of disagreement.

Best of Wikipedia Sandbox Tumblr screenshot

Another fun project that has taken off this month is The Best of Wikipedia:Sandbox, a Tumblr account.

There are many Tumblrs like it, but this one is mine. In fact, there are other Tumblrs about Wikipedia, including Best of Wikipedia, [Citation Needed], and—if you know Tumblr, you know this is coming—Fuck Yeah Wikipedia!

Ostensibly Wikipedia:Sandbox is a place to test edits and check formatting, but that’s not all it gets used for. What started out as a joke among my colleagues—sharing screen caps of the ridiculous things we’d seen in the Sandbox—has transformed into a Tumblr to share these largely unknown and unappreciated comic gems with the world. The Sandbox is an unlikely repository for strange world views, faceplam-worthy test edits, and—since this is the Internet—cat pictures.

I’ve saved the biggest announcement for last… this month I launched what is essentially my second Wikipedia-related website: Beutler Wiki Relations. Yes, it’s a business website.

Although I rarely write about my consultancy much here, close readers of The Wikipedian are likely aware that one of my professional focuses (focii?) is helping brands, companies and individuals work constructively with the Wikipedia community to improve articles. I’ve never sought to draw attention to this—and indeed, when I appeared on C-SPAN this January, the subject only came up briefly. But I feel like it’s worth posting a simple website explaining myself to skeptical Wikipedians and, sure, potential clients alike. Closer readers may recall the phrase “wiki relations” from my post about the Bell Pottinger mess, and how it could have been avoided.

Although “conflict of interest” and “paid advocacy” on Wikipedia remain contentious topics, I think it’s more important than ever to make them seem less mysterious. It won’t stop the Bell Pottingers, but it may stop people from hiring them to mess with Wikipedia.

And yes, I realize I have a conflict of interest in saying that. Can’t avoid it; might as well own it. Or as Horse ebooks says: “Discover the usefulness of wax.”

No Citation Needed, Mr. Vice President

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on April 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Friend of The Wikipedian Howard Mortman points us to this laugh out loud moment from a memorial service for longtime Washington Post columnist David Broder, featuring the always hilarious Joe Biden, courtesy of Wikipedia and C-SPAN:

Although the headline says “no citation needed” in fact there is one: to a New York Times profile of the (then-future) vice president, by one John Broder (no relation).

Wikipedia is Everywhere: AT&T Edition

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on March 22, 2011 at 9:23 am

You might not have noticed, but it’s even in a recent AT&T television spot advertising the iPhone 4. Actually, let me phrase that differently. This is an iPhone 4 TV spot advertising AT&T. The point of the commercial is that one can use both voice and data simultaneously on AT&T’s network, which rival iPhone carrier Verizon presently does not.

In this case, the protagonist of our thirty-second tale is arguing about pop culture nostalgia with a friend—the release year of “Whoomp! (There It Is!)”—and you don’t need me to tell you which resource he consults to settle the question once and for all:

What I’d like to know is what browser or app he’s supposed to be using. As an iPhone user myself, I can verify that is not the Safari browser, nor is it the official Wikimedia Mobile app, nor popular alternatives Wikipanion or Articles. I suppose it could even be a made-up app, for obscure legal reasons. If you know the answer, please share in the comments.

Update: In the comments, Nihiltres has the answer: a relatively new (paid) app called iWiki. Looks nice, though I’ll probably just stick with the mobile site.