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Help us solve an internet mystery involving porn and Wikipedia

The XHamster Wikipedia page is suddenly immensely popular, and no one knows why.

Porn

300000
The number of people who visit the XHamster Wikipedia page every day, as of the beginning of June — a massive increase for no apparent reason
Porn

Help us solve an internet mystery involving porn and Wikipedia

The XHamster Wikipedia page is suddenly immensely popular, and no one knows why.

Every day, top.hatnote.com compiles a list of the most viewed English language Wikipedia pages. I like to browse it first thing in the morning because it’s an innocent way to get a sense of what’s going on in the world without all the anxiety that comes with actually reading the news. “Hmm, Mika Brzezinski is trending today,” I thought to myself recently. “Good for her!”

At the beginning of June I started to notice that XHamster, the third most popular adult website after Pornhub and XVideos, had one of the most viewed Wikipedia pages. On May 29, XHamster’s Wikipedia page went from receiving around 100,000 views to 200,000. By June 1, it was getting more than 300,000 views a day for no apparent reason.

There haven’t been any viral stories about XHamster lately. There are no controversies about the page itself that would have prompted sustained attention or an edit war. The page itself is relatively short.

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It’s not uncommon for a Wikipedia page to receive a spike in traffic, but there’s usually a simple explanation for why, and the pageviews eventually level out. For example, on June 21, the Wikipedia page for Daniel Day-Lewis was among the most viewed, because he had announced the day before that he was retiring from acting. Within a day or two, the page had returned to its normal levels of traffic.

Pageviews on XHamster’s Wikipedia page, however, has been bonkers throughout the month of June for no obvious reason. That’s according to a pageview analysis tool from Wikimedia Labs, and confirmed by a Wikipedia spokesperson. The Wikipedia pages for its competitors — Pornhub, XVideos, RedTube, and others — have had normal traffic.

I reached out to Wikipedia to see if it could shed some light on this puzzle. In an email, a spokesperson verified that the pageviews were accurate but that they didn’t know what was causing the surge. Wikipedia’s spokesperson pointed out that the edit activity, unlike its pageviews, has remained steady. The last edit was on June 3, when user Nuttyskin changed a "that" to a "than.”

The sudden rise of XHamster was a mystery. I decided to dig into it.

We dove into this mystery on our daily podcast, The Outline World Dispatch. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you listen.

EXPLANATION #1: SOMETHING HAPPENED IN CHINA

Mike Stabile, a spokesperson for XHamster, said traffic to the site itself has been normal. He had no idea what would cause a sudden spike to the Wikipedia page. His best guess was that the page was linked in a popular article somewhere in the foreign press when an author didn’t want to link to XHamster.com. “It’s possible the link has been put into an article in China or India or wherever there are so many more users,” he said.

That would explain why I wasn’t able to find any sign of a viral news story, but you’d still expect the page views to level out. This traffic looked more like what you would see if a new viral story in the foreign press linked to XHamster’s Wikipedia page every day for a month, which seemed unlikely.

EXPLANATION #2: SOMETHING HAPPENED IN YOUR SEARCH ENGINE

One possible explanation is that the Wikipedia page has somehow started surfacing more prominently in search engine results, which would theoretically send a sudden but steady flood of traffic.

If a habitual XHamster user visits XHamster.com by clicking on the first Google result, a reshuffling of the list of links might dupe them into clicking on the Wikipedia page.

However, a Google search of “XHmaster” ranks the Wikipedia page at the bottom of the first page of results. Similarly, Spotlight in iOS returns an unrelated page if you search for “XHamster”. Theory busted.

EXPLANATION #3: THE PAGEVIEWS ARE COMING FROM INSIDE THE BUILDING

Wikipedia user Iridescent, a recent editor of XHamster’s Wikipedia page, offered me the most cynical take: “The reason for the article's apparent popularity isn't actually that it's particularly popular,” they said. “The ‘view’ count is artificially inflated by bots.”

Mahmoud Hashemi, the co-developer of top.hatnote.com, the website that publishes the list of the most viewed Wikipedia pages each day, pointed to XHamster itself as the source of the fake traffic. “XHamster spams Wikipedia to get on the top list, plain and simple,” he said.

It’s not uncommon for a Wikipedia page to receive a spike in traffic, but there’s usually a simple explanation for why

Hashemi thinks XHamster is using a network of bots to drive traffic to their own Wikipedia page as a roundabout way of positioning XHasmter.com higher on search engine results. The idea being that if XHamster has a more popular Wikipedia page relative to its competitors, XHamster.com may rank higher in Google search results for porn.

Although he couldn’t offer any definitive proof, Hashemi believes it’s the most likely scenario. When I asked why he thinks it’s XHamster and not some third party employing the bots, Hashemi said XHamster is the only one who stands to gain from the increased visibility.

Mike Stabile, XHamster’s spokesperson, denied Hashemi’s SEO conspiracy theory. “It's not something that I would think would even work,” Stabile wrote. As for his own theory, in the same email, Stabile echoed his earlier statement. “We're as flummoxed as you.”

EXPLANATION #4: I’VE RUN OUT OF IDEAS, DO YOU HAVE ANY?

There’s one additional clue. Over 95 percent of the views to XHamster’s Wikipedia page are coming from mobile devices.

This actually works against the bot theory, since bots usually, but not always, come from desktop web browsers. According to an FAQ on Wikimedia Lab’s pageview analysis tool, a Wikipedia page with low mobile totals and high desktop views is likely being targeted by a web scraper.

At this point, I’m appealing to the wisdom of the crowd. If you have information that would help solve this mystery, I would like to know. Is it an XHamster guerilla marketing scheme? Did someone launch an unofficial XHamster iPhone app? Are people trying to search for hamsters and hitting the “x” by mistake? Send me a DM on Twitter: @0wenPhillips.

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