In 2006, Tom Fucoloro ‘08 met Jimmy Wales, the creator of Wikipedia, when he came to Knox’s commencement to receive an honorary degree. Despite his love for the website and the freedom it granted visitors, all he could think to say was “I like your website.”
The next year, Fucoloro used Wikipedia as the basis for his own Knox-specific wiki, the WikiFire.
“I was obsessed with Wikipedia and the idea of wisdom of the crowd and the concept of universal editing of content. … Wikipedia is this global entity but was achieving so much more than any other publishing endeavor had ever achieved,” he said.
The WikiFire, which most students know as a place for annual Flunk Day predictions, was created by Fucoloro in the spring of 2007. However, The WikiFire features more than the Flunk Day page; it’s the home to hundreds upon hundreds of pages detailing students’ lives, everything from descriptions of different restaurants in town to detailed accounts of the shenanigans that students got into while living in certain dorm buildings.
For a group project in a graphic design class, Fucoloro and his group decided to make and design a “Disorientation Guide” for the freshman class, a guide that would tell incoming students everything that Admissions didn’t want them to know. Fucoloro suggested that the group format the guide as a Wiki, so other students could add to it.
“Everybody looked at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ and I was like, “Wikipedia … We won’t have to write the content that way, we can just create the form for other people to write the content.’ … They didn’t get it at all. So that didn’t fly,” he said.
Fucoloro decided to do it himself, but still wanted class credit.
He began an independent study with former Professor of Journalism Mark Ridolfi, whose investigative journalism class Fucoloro was taking at the time. He applied for a Richter grant for $120 to cover buying the domain for thewikifire.org. Using an open-source software that is used to replicate the format of Wikipedia, he got the WikiFire started in the spring of 2007.
According to the website, “The site will run on an annual $120 in donations.” To date, Fucoloro has “donated” that $120 every year.
“It’s like my donation to the college,” he said.
After the website launched, it was spread around through people AOL IM-ing the link to each other, according to Fucoloro. Within a week, the website had blown up.
People started editing the pages, including the Disorientation Guide, which remains the longest Non-Flunk Day page on the website.
“It was a blank slate and there’s a lot of desire for people who live in a place to define that place. It being blank is why it got so much energy, and in a weird way once a lot of things got filled up, the energy died down, because the place had already been defined,” he said.
Since all posts are anonymous, and it’s hard to tell if pages are written by multiple authors or by one single author, Fucoloro was a little worried about the website being used for negative purposes. Since a lot of people made pages for their friends, adding photos, information and simply funny anecdotes, he was afraid that people would just as easily make pages for people they don’t like to write bad things about them.
“It’s powerful. It can be used for good, it can be used for evil,” he said.
Fucoloro never saw any negativity on the site during his time at Knox, but a few years after graduating, he noticed a lot of negative activity happening at once on the website. Often, the poster was logged into an account linked to a Knox e-mail. Fucoloro contacted them and called them on the phone.
“They had to listen to me lecture them about using the power of the internet for good instead of evil … It was cool. That person actually stayed active on the WikiFire, but just cut out the negativity, which was kind of an interesting lesson about internet trolls for me. We can approach people as humans, and remind people that the internet is not this imaginary space, it’s people’s real life,” he said.
The year after Fucoloro graduated, the Flunk Day page took off, with students constantly chiming into the page to discuss predictions, evidence and to even throw other students off. One Flunk Day planner would post misleading clues on the page when the students were too close to figuring out the actual date of Flunk Day.
“People were like following her around so they could report to the WikiFire about her movements to figure out clues as to when Flunk Day was gonna be. She said she had to stay in the night before Flunk Day, just so people wouldn’t know it was the next day. It made the Flunk Day people’s jobs a lot harder,” he said.
The WikiFire has accounts of several different events in Knox history, including the 2007 Flunk Day Issue of TKS, featuring a controversial headline that Fucoloro admits to writing. However, the page about that issue and its subsequent controversies was never touched by Fucoloro.
“It was kind of interesting timing because TKS was the only media on campus, and at the time it was print only anyway, and the scandal broke. It was about TKS, and it was hard for TKS to write about it. Suddenly there was this weird … outlet where anybody could write and it’s totally anonymous. But I started it, and I was the one who wrote the headline, so it was kind of this awkward position. I actually got fired as editor.”
Fucoloro explained the situation to the administration and clarified that he was not the one who wrote the page on the WikiFire about the issue, nor did he edit the page at all. He got his job at TKS back and was editor-in-chief for the 2007-08 school year.
Fucoloro currently lives in Seattle, and runs a blog called “Seattle Bike Blog.” He makes enough revenue through advertising and sponsorship to make a living off of the site.
“The skills I learned making the WikiFire were directly relevant to when I went to launch an independent blog. That’s how I learned how to do it. In fact, that blog was originally posted on the same hosting service as the WikiFire, but it outgrew that,” he said.
Currently, there is nobody who still attends Knox with administrative or moderator privileges on the website. Fucoloro asks anybody who would be interested in taking on some of the responsibilities to contact him.
“It’s been really interesting to watch it … it goes in waves, there’s a couple years where almost nothing happens except the Flunk Day page, and every once in awhile there’s someone who finds it and gets obsessed with it and starts editing tons of stuff and it’s really interesting to observe,” he said.