Wiki Wipeout

What will happen if a rogue piece of software attempts to delete all the content on a wiki?

That would take a very long time unless the attack was distributed amongst many IPs and coordinated. A lot of effort for nothing.

Sure, but this is a delinquent act. Just having done it is a sufficiently rewarding 'nothing' for some. Sounds like a DDOS with write permissions.

If Wiki made such enemies, would it be worth staying?

If someone decides it's a challenge, regardless of the value of the wiki... Ref the attack in July 2000 - there seemed to be no reason... "Never underestimate the power of a bored 56-year-old mother when her kids are at school..."

In the case of k5, the perpetrator was angered by the reaction of the k5 community to him/her. So, there was a reason.

On the other hand, it's impossible to not anger someone who is open to being angered, or is looking for trouble. 'We're safe because everyone likes us' is not a reliable defense against a truly malicious person. And there are truly malicious people.

And spammers. An attempt to massively delete pages doesn't concern me as much as an attempt to massively spam them - especially one by two IP addresses working in concert in order to destroy the EditCopy.

The Wiki concept is ridiculously naive. What is happening in the world is a battle of worldviews. Nuances in articles can make a big difference in promoting these worldviews. You don't expect a neo-liberal to write the same way about the IMF as an anti-globalist, do you? The possibility to change text in an anonymous way is completely wrong. Lots of people with hidden agendas out there.

Wiki is not naive; it was consciously implemented and continues even though many intelligent people have debated its drawbacks. The very fact that people have a variety of worldviews is a great reason for a Wiki; no single crazy blade of statement will stand the many sickles of editors. Changes are anonymous but public, and that is WhyWikiWorks.

Well, the point of a statement is not if there is a backup somewhere. The point may very well be that somebody either had something to disagree with what some pages said, or was in the mood for a violent strike out against something that was just plain fun. Either way, it should be taken as a statement. Not as an act.

What if a rogue piece of software makes subtle changes? Like misspelling words to break links, or inserting negative modifiers to make people say the opposite of what they originally said? You don't need an enemy for these things to happen, just a curious prankster.

You take it as an opportunity to think again. Maybe the opposite of what you said makes more sense, and you are grateful for the opportunity to reflect on what might have been nothing more than a flip or reflexive comment. You get to see what was changed in RecentChanges, and that gives you an opportunity to focus on a smaller piece of the whole that you would not otherwise have had.

I really like that attitude! Such vandalism isn't something to protect against, but something to be embraced as we re-evaluate our positions! Just think of the possibilities! By sprinkling a few "nots" here and there, KentBeck can be against ExtremeProgramming, WardCunningham can tell us how much he detests SmallTalk, SamGentle can now tell the world COM sucks, and KathyBracy can now profess to be a Satanist! -- not JohnPassaniti

Well that would definitely be a way to know something was wrong with wiki!

From above: If Wiki made such enemies, would it be worth staying?

If Wiki made no enemies, would it be worth reading?

Right! Somebody said, "You may judge a man by his enemies." I take this to mean (among other things) a powerful man (concept) will have powerful enemies.

But what does it mean if a(n implementation of a) concept like wiki doesn't have enemies of the hacking sort?

Clearly the wiki concept is not wimpy - in the same sense that a pen is not.

This page is about ready for refactoring, eh? -- RobertWilliams?

Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.

As Admiral Nimitz (the United States' Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific area during the Second World War) was fond of saying - "if you're not making waves, you're not under way" -- TomStambaugh

Does disturbance in the water indicate forward motion? I thought we were contributing to a larger community of thought. Well, at least a community of conjecture. Actually, I come here for the babes.

No, but a lack of disturbance indicates complete stillness. Babes! Funny!

I still don't get it, why hasn't all of wiki gone down? I know myself my first thought when entering this site was, 'I can delete all the content here...'. Note now I'm not going to attempt such a thing, cause this is really neat. Which just goes to prove the concept!

I think that something this powerful and easy to use has to provoke enemies, just not the usual suspects.

Keep up the good wiki. -- Namielus

In a way, the lack of protection against hackers is, itself, a protection against hackers: anyone who doesn't like something on Wiki can go ahead and change it - there's nothing to stop them, except for other Wiki members who may change it back.

It goes like this: there's almost no challenge to wiping out Wiki content, so why bother? -- JeffGrigg

Well, there's no challenge to trashing a phone box, but how many trashed phone boxes do you see? I see plenty. -- angel

There is a challenge in trashing a phone box though - not challenge in the sense of difficulty, but challenge in the sense of issuing a challenge to authority. There would be no point in issuing a challenge to wiki, because wiki doesn't claim any authority over you. (Just discovered wiki today - wow what a cool place!) -- gordoni

It's always interesting to see a computer security website defaced; I deal in the security world enough to make the Wiki concept shocking to me. But it seems that it works well, in a sort of befuddling way.

I suppose the appeal of destruction is directly proportional to amount of protection.

Good luck, all. This is a very cool concept.

-- alambert

It would be straightforward for a program to wipe out wiki. I worry about it. I say this just so nobody thinks I claim wiki is safe from such threats and sets out to prove me wrong. I owe everyone who lets wiki exist. Thanks. -- WardCunningham

Just popped in. I worry about that too... makes me wanna do the opposite... write a bot that saves a snapshot backup of all of Wiki... sort of mirror it. I wonder how many others do that... maybe have a weekly WikiZip of the whole shebang... should compress down nicely... then again how big is it really? -- SvenNeumann

I think it's neat. I like to use computers when people trust me to. I have things to say, and people who aren't interested don't have to read it. I am also gratified that it works, because it means there are a lot more people like me, who don't trash things for fun. In fact, since it only takes one, we have evidence that there are NO destructive, disrespectful people here. How did that happen? If you could bottle that, it would be a great product.

What will happen if a rogue piece of software attempts to delete all the content on a wiki?

We would write it a second time. Without all the Problems that bother us! No more WikiWikiSandbox with a capital B. (One sandbox is sufficient.)

Everyone and anyone can edit content. Nowadays, anyone, including malicious people and kids who don't know better, can be online. They can do what they want to a Wiki without being punished. But how could they be punished, when what they did wasn't wrong? It is in wiki's nature to let anyone do what they want. This is inherently flawed. Nothing else in our society or culture works like a wiki does, because nothing else would work like a wiki does. Therefore, the way a wiki works is ineffective in its goals.

This is extremely confused, innit? They have a word for it - the NaturalisticFallacy.

I just stumbled on Wiki today. It seems wonderful, in a Gandhi non-violent-protest sort of way! Have you guys thought about making people attach their names to changes that they make? There are some very strong social pressures against doing something destructive / antisocial if your peers can find out about it. -- Anca

We've thought extensively about this. See SoftSecurity.

As for Gandhi, see He was greatly influenced by Jainism.

What a curious and delightful ideal - a free open, medium, which gives everyone the freedom, to censor others, and speak freely at the same time.

It is like giving every person under the constraint of false religion the sudden ability to say, "hello, I can make good or bad choices today."

Giving someone the choice to do wrong is the greatest gift, they are truly free to do good of their own volition, and reap the benefits of that warm feeling.

I've arrived just today, and I'm terrified about the fact I can delete this ENTIRE COMMUNITY if I want to. I like so much the concept I get from Wiki (I've read about it before, but just today I got the idea) and I want to start one in my server. But I'm certain if some kids I know find it, they would delete it completely "just because I can". I've seen that before; and I can't help creating emotional ties with some things - I'm pretty sure if some kid deletes some grown Wiki of my own I would be devastated. Oh, sorry for my English.

No worries, man. English is quite handy so never apologize for using it!

Imho, the motivation for most script kiddies is that they can access/destroy something that some people actually have protected against such an act. So the wiki stuff is possibly very boring for them. This is because the information contained in the wiki itself doesn't have any value for them.

cf. LimitTemptation.

If you don't tell them how to delete it, they won't be able to. Or you could choose a safer wiki like UseModWiki which keeps enough old versions of each page that it is easy to restore them if they get vandalized (see KeptPages). The most important thing to do is FixBrokenWindows so that the vandals get tired and go away.

It may be a good idea to get to appreciate WabiSabi and stop worrying instead.

One very important data point in this whole discussion is the fact that wikis are almost never wiped. Wikis have been around for quite a few years at the time of this writing, and there have been only a couple of instances of widespread Wiki destruction. We can be afraid it will happen, but it doesn't. -- BrentNewhall

This is just plain nifty. I'm really stunned to find out that there's "easily modifiable" stuff out there that doesn't get modified (in a bad way). Again, nifty. -- Dille

It would be [?] in my opinion to ensure that proper backups of pages are kept, leaving it quite simple to bring it back. Anonymity could be considered paramount to the way it works, so logging of who did it would not be applicable. And something that logs the changes, so you can notice when it's changed. (Perhaps format RecentChanges with colored formatting, new stuff is green, old stuff is red.)

The bizarre and widespread habit of *not* destroying Wikis is the inverse of the TragedyOfTheCommons: The ComedyOfTheCommons.

In the UK, the high-street Bookseller/Newsagent W.H.Smith allows customers to express-buy their newspapers by means of (what amounts to) a tip-jar. Apparently, this goodwill is seldom (if ever) abused.

Christopher Smart said that his cat, Jeoffrey, was (amongst other things) an instrument designed to teach children compassion. Perhaps Wiki is an (increasingly rare) instrument that affords us all (yea, even down to the last script-child) the luxury of exercising responsibility.

Trust has charms to soothe the savage 14-year-old.

See TragedyOfTheCommonsCantHappenHere, WithFreedomComesResponsibility?

-- chocolateboy

It feels good to have power like this. I could destroy the entire page! But why would I do that? It's SO easy, it's like taking candy from a baby. People don't like when things come too easy. Hackers wouldn't love what they do if the payoff did not come with some significant struggle. It's the struggle that sets somebody apart from the crowd, and gives individuals a sense of superiority and uniqueness. But if we all have to equally struggle to delete or replace the entire content of this page - just a few clicks of the mouse - what makes us unique? What sets us apart? Nothing. We'd rather feel unique and superior and stand out from the crowd, which is why something as fun and tempting as destroying the work of other people, obliterating it by the touch of a finger, loses its meaning when it becomes so easy to accomplish.

Yeah, and don't forget the burly 85 kg RelationalWeenie who might object, track down your location through your IP, and ram your keyboard down your nose so far it sticks out your elbow...

The world at times certainly is a depressing place, it is so easy to be negative and cynical about other people and why they do the things they do. When you look at all of the prevalent things in the world around us, governments, businesses, relationships and communities, it is easy to see a world consumed with greed and selfishness, lust for power and its assertion. Things like Wikis and the open source movement give me a lot of hope that perhaps a better tomorrow can be built, one that is less egotistical and self serving.

Anyone could destroy the words I write here but why would they? What difference would it make. That is what makes wikis so interesting, the prospect of people collaboratively writing without a watching ringmaster with whip in hand ready to crack out at 'evil'.

What I love about wiki is that it's very much like the world we live in but with a difference: You can't really enforce laws on people, so if the community works it's not because people behave well, out of fear. I hope that eventually will make it's way into the real world :)

See: SecureWiki, PerpetualNow, IdentityCrisis

I still don't think a wiki can work when it is exposed to masses of people who do not understand the concept and/or maliciously try to sabotage it. Even if deleted pages can be restored, it would be full-time work to restore them and change back subtle changes the malicious users have made, etc.; if there are enough users who play around with a wiki, seeing if they can make it unusable, they will succeed.

Also, if controversial topics are discussed, there sure are "wars" about the content of a wiki page. This may not be the case with people who use wikis now, but if they become as common and well-known as, say Internet discussion forums, these problems sure will arise.

I can't believe Wikis can work "outside", in the big bad world of the Internet, where essentially everybody has to take precautions, because there are always people who try out everything that is possible, and may it be only because they are curious.

Two points:

It seems pointless to say something can't work when it is working. It's likely that 'good' people far outnumber 'bad' people. Therefore, as long as the 'good' people keep doing 'good' things, 'bad' behaviour is easily countered.

Take a look at MetaBaby for the worst case scenario - every day, someone uses scripts to delete everything and/or spam.

But MetaBaby doesn't have a purpose, a common topic or goal. I guess you also need one of these things to back up a wiki with. A wiki in itself is just a tool, it's the contents that enforces respect.

I was thinking that wiki is one form of expression that has certainly broken the barriers. It is like you were cramped in an airtight room full of people, it became very hot inside and suffocating... then suddenly somebody opened the door and you were led out to fresh clean and cool air. I am an instant admirer and a convert to the WikiReligion.

The theme repeated throughout this page seems to be that Wiki works because of the WikiCommunity. If someone defaces a page, the community will fix it. But how big of a community is needed? Is it appropriate to use Wiki for something that is of a limited interest? It seems like that would be more vulnerable than a more general interest Wiki where anything and everything can happen.

Then again, the WikiNature, perhaps, means that any defined interest is only a guideline. Which again brings into question if a limited interest Wiki would work when the community does not have a big following. Perhaps not so much the people who come with malicious intent, but those who come without as much interest in the subject at hand, driving it away from the community it was intended for.

You know, when I clicked on the edit link, I did it with the intention that I would delete everything here just to see how the community reacts. But, I didn't do it... why?

Perhaps because you're a civilized individual. :-) WhatIsCivilization

I'm reminded of this:

I found the above link very interesting, and sent it to a couple people I knew. They all pushed the button, which is -- in itself -- an interesting addition to this discussion. I examined the JavaScript powering the button, but never pushed it, nor requested the page that pushing it would cause a redirect to. However, because some people I knew did push the button, I was able to determine that the entire thing is a hoax and not a good comparison to the open nature of Wikis. Pushing the 'Delete This Site' red button simply sets a cookie that causes all requests from that machine to see 404s and empty directory listings. The site is not altered or harmed in any way. Therefore, all this exercise accomplishes is providing an interesting way to filter out destructive individuals from a website's community (because, after pushing the button, the site is no longer visible to that person.) Go ahead and see for yourself...Unless, perhaps, I am cleverly trying to trick someone else into destroying that site for me... -- SeanKleinjung

Public shops have windows, but very few people actually throw bricks through them. -- jcw

This may not be the best analogy (which reminds me again that analogies backfire constantly). In the case of shop windows one may fear being punished by the police. In the case of a wiki there's no police. There's nobody to come after you at all.

The main reason that nobody has obliterated the Wiki is the lack of skill involved. It's pretty hard to brag, "Yeah, I took down such-and-such Wiki" when everyone knows that any idiot can do that. -- EricKlein

To the very many people who hold up lack of challenge as discouragement to destroy or deface Wiki, I point out the counter-example of MetaBaby which is wiped several times a day. A community that actively cares about the state of the wiki gives the wiki inertia. Example: the recent systematic spamming of the A* pages led to Ward shutting down the server for a day to discourage the spammer and repair the damage. Nobody cares enough to do this on MetaBaby.

All you caring WikiZens should pat yourselves on the back for maintaining such a diverse garden. Well done!

I'm writing a paper about wiki for a graduate class in library science. I read the article in Searcher Magazine. This is really fascinating. Although I don't really understand why/how it works, it does. Ward seems irrepressibly idealistic on WhyWikiWorks, but he's right! Thanks, Ward! Though I'm wondering if wikis generally avoid the wipe out and the crank because of the intimidation factor. When faced with the ability to change something that's usually unchangeable, most people probably just WON'T. Also, reading pages of text that are quite erudite, written by seemingly educated people may keep out the crazies and the cranks. I dunno, maybe I'm wrong.

A wiki works only in a polite society where people have agreed that it is in their own best interests to get along. A society is not polite if it is ruled by those who wield power aimed at the destruction of individuality and free expression. A society is not polite if each and everyone can not have a say in how they are to behave independent of a hierarchy of privilege and position imposed without consent or by way of intimidation. We need only preserve what we have built by providing a form of multiple and and all-inclusive backups and insistence upon civility, mutual respect, and trust. -- DonaldNoyes

Most of all forms (subscriptions for web based e-mail for example) in the internet today are protected against scripts. This is usually achieved by making the user copy a string of random, obfuscated characters from an image to an input field of the form. Perhaps the submit form of a wiki could be protected in a similar way? It would still grant every human the right to modify the page.

Is it likely that a protection so small could still pose a challenge to some ScriptKiddie?

IMHO, it would appear that Wiki is only effective when there is low popularity and therefore low publicity; or perhaps a lack interest to use such mediums to express power or influence. The motivation for people to contribute might be questionable, not only to expand the knowledge base, but also to provide a stage where they can grab someone's attention (being a writer, it does have such appeal [A writer has such appeal?]). Regardless, they would need to overcome the reluctance of actually writing and putting their thoughts into a coherent order.

A comment on the statement that a Wiki is only effective when there is low popularity...How do you explain the success of Wikipedia, then? Alexa puts it at the 16th most visited site on the web as of this writing ( In addition there are numerous media references to the project, which I would call very high publicity. And there are also several studies documenting the high degree of accuracy of Wikipedia's content (see for one such piece of research). -- SeanKleinjung

Additionally, my other comment would be about simultaneous editing, especially if the thoughts and edits are long and take time to compose; there may be several users editing the same copy. What if multiple people wish to edit a large file (or even small), at different parts (or the same part) of the text? Is there a method by which to merge the edits? Perhaps others would follow up to incorporate comments that might have gotten missed in the transition.

Regarding content, it also appears that it might only be appropriate for those forums where the discussion is absent of emotion or a clash of values or world view, because it might activate those who would remove opposing statements and lines of thought from the text, rather than build upon their argument. Topics like abortion, same-sex marriage, racism, religion, war in Iraq, even politics, because it would not seem easy to maintain without significant effort to keep to the point. Readers may then not be so interested in the content, and write without reading what others have to say. While editors would be able to revert backwards, it would still be challenging to keep up with the latest valid entry and to keep a static page that most visitors would be able to see. Based on this line of thought, Wikis would be more appropriate for scientific research or for sharing personal knowledge gained from experience. The future result in the implementation of the Wikis will indicate whether it is suitable for the mass public (using the internet at least) at the least common denominator level, or at a higher level which might reduce or eliminate its reach, but not usefulness. I am also interested in knowing what are the natural predilections of human nature in a free society and within institutions (functioning within the norm of what is established as socially acceptable). -- DrJungHoe?

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