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Rogue Editors Started a Competing Wikipedia That’s Only About Roads

For 20 years, a loosely organized group of Wikipedia editors toiled away curating a collection of 15,000 articles on a single subject: the roads and highways of the United States. Despite minor disagreements, the US Roads Project mostly worked in harmony, but recently, a long-simmering debate over the website’s rules drove this community to the brink. Efforts at compromise fell apart. There was a schism, and in the fall of 2023, the editors packed up their articles and moved over to a website dedicated to roads and roads alone. It’s called AARoads, a promised land where the editors hope, at last, that they can find peace.

“Roads are a background piece. People drive on them every day, but they don’t give them much attention,” said editor Michael Gronseth, who goes by Imzadi1979 on Wikipedia, where he dedicated his work to Michigan highways, specifically. But a road has so much to offer if you look beyond the asphalt. It’s the nexus of history, geography, travel, and government, a seemingly perfect subject for the hyper-fixations of Wikipedia. “But there was a shift about a year ago,” Gronseth said. “More editors started telling us that what we’re doing isn’t important enough, and we should go work on more significant topics.”

The dispute came down to some of Wikipedia’s most sacred tenants. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but that doesn’t mean you can write whatever you want. For one, a subject has to be notable. Your grandma’s “famous” cookie recipe can’t have an article unless it’s actually famous. The site isn’t a place for personal opinions, either. Original research is forbidden. In general, articles are expected to have multiple sources, and there are rules about what qualifies as a citation. Primary sources, where a person or an organization talks about themselves, are viewed with skepticism. Secondary sources, written by someone unrelated to the topic, are the gold standard. For some roads, these rules get complicated

“The New York Times isn’t going to write an article about maintenance on highways in the middle-of-nowhere Texas or Colorado,” said Ben M., a roads editor known as BMACS001 on Wikipedia, who asked to withhold their full name. “Sometimes a primary source is all you have.”

Wikipedia is a fragile ecosystem. The Wikimedia Foundation pays for the website’s operating costs and handles administrative issues, but no one is in charge of the platform itself. Wikipedia is a democracy, a self-governing experiment built on decades of arguing, compromise, and rabbinical debate. That communal decision-making is what binds Wikipedia together, but here, it’s what drove it apart.

There are whole books about Route 66 and even minor roads in metropolitan areas get coverage in the local papers. But you may have trouble finding secondary sources about the Cherokee Hills Scenic Byway in Oklahoma. So, if you want to write that the byway starts in Tahlequah and ends at West Siloam Springs, can you cite a map published by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation? You can see that with your own eyes, but the map doesn’t say it in words. After years of permissiveness, a growing contingent of Wikipedia editors started to argue that such a scenario counts as an interpretation of the map, and therefore, it’s illegitimate original research. What’s more, that’s technically a primary source, because the Oklahoma Department of Transportation builds and maintains the road. And without secondary sources, maybe the Byway isn’t notable enough for a dedicated article in the first place.

There’s an irony to disagreements about what is and isn’t noteworthy on a website like Wikipedia. In some respects, that’s the point. The platform is home to over 6 million articles on everything from the Peloponnesian War to the paperclip, every one of them written by unpaid volunteers who do their meticulous work just because they care.

“For me it’s the autism. You settle on a thing and then you’re like, ‘well, this is my thing now,’” Ben said. “But people get really into all kinds of stuff, and just because it’s not the thing you’re into doesn’t mean it’s not important. We do it because we love it and we can create community around it.”

The Roads Project had a number of adversaries, but the chief rival is a group known as the New Page Patrol, or the NPP for short. The NPP has a singular mission. When a new page goes up on Wikipedia, it gets reviewed by the NPP. The Patrol has special editing privileges and if a new article doesn’t meet the website’s standards, the NPP takes it down.

“There’s a faction of people who feel that basically anything is valid to be published on Wikipedia. They say, ‘Hey, just throw it out there! Anything goes.’ That’s not where I come down.” said Bil Zeleny, a former member of the NPP who goes by onel5969 on Wikipedia, a reference to the unusual spelling of his first name.

At his peak, Zeleny said he was reviewing upwards of 100,000 articles a year, and he rejected a lot of articles about roads during his time. After years of frustration, Zeleny felt he was seeing too many new road articles that weren’t following the rules—entire articles that cited nothing other than Google Maps, he said. Enough was enough. Zeleny decided it was time to bring the subject to the council.

“I don’t have a problem with roads,” Zeleny said. “There are lots of obscure subjects on Wikipedia, but you have to follow the guidelines. People see Wikipedia as a joke. They think it’s not serious. I’ve taken great, great pains to make sure articles are well written, well researched, and well cited.”

Zeleny brought up the problem on the NPP discussion forum, sparking months of heated debate. Eventually, the issue became so serious that some editors proposed an official policy change on the use of maps as a source. Rule changes require a process called “Request for Comment,” where everyone is invited to share their thoughts on the issue. Over the course of a month, Wikipedia users had written more than 56,000 words on the subject. For reference, that’s about twice as long as Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea.

In the end, the roads project was successful. The vote was decisive, and Wikipedia updated its “No Original Research” policy to clarify that it’s ok to cite maps and other visual sources. But this, ultimately, was a victory with no winners.

“Some of us felt attacked,” Gronseth said. On the US Roads Project’s Discord channel, a different debate was brewing. The website didn’t feel safe anymore. What would happen at the next request for comment? The community decided it was time to fork. “We don’t want our articles deleted. It didn’t feel like we had a choice,” he said.

The Wikipedia platform is designed for interoperability. If you want to start your own Wiki, you can split off and take your Wikipedia work with you, a process known as “forking.” It’s happened before for similar reasons. One of the more significant forks was a Pokémon battle. Pikachu and Squirtle are culture icons, and they get their own pages. But by 2005, Wikipedia had amassed articles about lesser characters, and the website came together and decided that only the best and brightest Pokémon warrant a dedicated article. Faced with a mass deletion of their hagiographies on Dragonite and Garchomp, the Pokémon editors forked their articles over to a new website, Bulbapedia, where their work continues.

Over the course of several months, the US Roads Project did the same. Leaving Wikipedia was painful, but the fight that drove the roads editors away was just as difficult for people on the other side. Some editors embroiled in the roads fights deleted their accounts, though none of these ex-Wikipedian’s responded to Gizmodo’s requests for comment.

Bil Zeleny was among the casualties. After almost six years of hard work on the New Post Patrol, he reached the breaking point. The controversy had pushed him too far, and Zeleny resigned from the NPP.

“I realized that there was a large portion of very vocal people on Wikipedia who just really didn’t care about quality,” Zeleny said. “I just got tired of it.” He thought about leaving Wikipedia altogether, but his son convinced him to keep working. For now, Zeleny’s staying in the backseat and working on articles like a regular editor rather than dedicating his time to policing new posts.

AARoads actually predates Wikipedia, tracing its origins all the way back to the prehistoric internet days of the year 2000, complete with articles, maps, forums, and a collection of over 10,000 photos of highway signs and markers. When the US Roads Project needed a new home, AARoads was happy to oblige. It’s a beautiful resource. It even has backlinks to relevant non-roads articles on the regular Wikipedia. But for some, it isn’t home.

“There are members who disagree with me, but my ultimate goal is to fork back,” said Gronseth. “We made our articles license-compatible, so they can be exported back to Wikipedia someday if that becomes an option. I don’t want to stay separate. I want to be part of the Wikipedia community. But we don’t know where things will land, and for now, we’ve struck out on our own.”

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