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User:TheBuddy92/Willy on Wheels: A Case Study

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(archived from the original Dcoetzee essay)

In any project that allows free editing of a work by anyone, the act that we call vandalism, the intentional destruction and/or falsification of the information or structure of that work, is bound to arise. Vandals vandalize for many reasons, many of which apply to real-world vandalism as well: testing the system, attaining a feeling of power, marking out territory, and drawing attention to themselves. Most vandals vandalize only a few times in very simple ways before they become tired of it. Some will escalate until they are banned, and then stop.

And then, there's Willy. Willy on Wheels is a persistent vandal who creates many thousands of throwaway accounts to vandalize Wikipedia in many different ways, most infamously by quickly moving large numbers of articles to new and degrading names. He sees vandalism as a competition, attempting to vandalize as many pages as possible before being banned, and participates in external communities who attempt to defeat his records. Like other vandals, he craves attention and enjoys watching the stir he creates.

Willy's methods

The first known account ever used by Willy was User:Willy on wheels, on August 20, 2004. This user did not move pages; instead, he repeatedly clicked "Random article" and replaced the contents of each article with "{{PAGENAME}} has been vandalized by the Willy on wheels", defacing dozens of articles in two minutes. This simple method already demonstrates the vandal's sophistication: the {{PAGENAME}} variable is little-known even to regular contributors, who rarely have occasion to use it except in templates. It also demonstrates his tendency for flashy, outrageous vandalism, the kind that gets noticed very quickly. Other vandals attempt to avoid detection, but Willy wants to do a lot of highly visible damage quickly and then get caught. He is not out to test the system like sneaky vandals — at this point, he knows these edits will last for only seconds.

Next, Willy vandalized Template:In the news, a template transcluded onto the Main Page, presumably to make his vandalism as highly visible as possible. Again, only a seasoned contributor would know about this template and understand how it is transcluded, and the edit was reverted nearly instantly. Two hours later, replaced the page with an image of an erect penis. We can presume that this is Willy editing anonymously - the page was reverted 3 minutes later. This is not a private IP, however, but a well-known open proxy - it seems even opening the logs would do little to reveal his identity. Then, curiously, he abruptly halted his vandalism. This user never edited anything again except his talk page, and was never banned until much later, when his later incarnations made his name infamous.

Why did Willy stop? It seems that he was flustered at the futility of his vandalism and he was contemplating more effective methods, for five days later emerged User:The Willy on Wheels. This new incarnation of Willy proceeded to move random articles to random names, usually by adding "on wheels" or incorporating "Willy", drawing attention to himself, as can be seen on one of his sock's contributions. These changes were just as obvious as his previous changes, but at the time they were impossible for anyone but administrators to reverse, because moving a page leaves a redirect at the previous name, and the page could not be moved back without first deleting that redirect. This technique, called high-speed page move vandalism, strained the relatively small number of administrators who cleaned up vandalism and increased revert times. The account was banned almost instantly, but the damage was done.

Because page moving is not available to anonymous users, he had to create another account to repeat the trick, and then another and another, one for each attack. Most of these accounts had names that were a variation on the original "Willy on Wheels", although some were totally different. The attacks came sporadically, sometimes minutes apart, sometimes weeks. He began to demonstrate his awareness of Wikipedia culture and processes, choosing names that played off the names of well-known contributors in the community, vandalizing the user pages of well-known users, moving Wikipedia:Votes for deletion and Wikipedia:Community Portal, and so on. At one point he edited a MediaWiki message to attempt to hide RecentChanges in order to make it more difficult to detect his changes. He also began stealing user pages of reputable Wikipedians to attempt to legitimize his edits.

One of our best sources of information on Willy is an old revision of User:WoW. This shows that Willy's ultimate goal is to vandalize as many pages as he possibly can before being banned. He is constantly attempting to innovate new techniques toward this end, and sees it as a competition. He claims affiliation with troll groups like the GNAA and the "anti-cabal" movement against the leadership of Wikipedia. There may even be multiple Willies competing for this "honor", as suggested by his proposal for a competition.

This page was reposted on subsequent user pages, along with addendums referring to popular theories about Willy such as the concept that he might be an alter ego of an active administrator (a conclusion based on his intimate knowledge of Wikipedia).

It seems that others took Willy's competition seriously. User:A ding ding ding ding..., with a clearly different writing style, brags that he has beaten Willy's record of 175 edits before being blocked with 200 edits. This competition just fuels Willy's efforts.

A profile based on edits

  • He is deeply familiar with the software and the culture. He knows rarely-used features, notable members of the community not known outside of the community, and appears to be experimenting with his methods offline (due to a lack of test edits with his vandalizing users).
  • He likes Firefox and had a 64-bit machine, later upgrading to a Mac Mini, and claims affiliation with long-time troll groups.
  • He despises the power structure of Wikipedia, as evidenced by his proclaimed affiliation with anti-cabal groups - this strongly suggests that he is not in fact an admin at all, but may have been a registered user.
  • From the creation of User:John Kerry's Willy on Wheels!, we get the idea that he dislikes John Kerry and may be a Republican.
  • His references to the people who discuss and block his vandalism show that he watches them and revels in the attention, enjoys taunting them.