By Timothy Noah
Pardon me if I seem a little blue. My Wikipedia bio is about to disappear
because I fail to satisfy the "notability guideline."
Wikipedia, as you probably know, is an online multilingual encyclopedia
whose entries are written and edited by readers around the world. What you
may not know is that this ongoing experiment in Web-based collaboration
maintains volunteer gatekeepers, and one of them has whisked me (or
rather, the entry describing me) under the insulting rubric, "Wikipedia
articles with topics of unclear importance." I share this digital limbo
with Anthony Stevens ("internationally respected Jungian analyst,
psychiatrist, and author"), "Final Approach" ("romantic comedy anime
series"), Secproof ("well-known security consulting company in Finland"),
and about 400 other topics tagged during the past calendar month. There we
languish, awaiting "deletion review," which I will surely flunk.
Wikipedia's notability policy resembles US immigration policy before 9/11:
stringent rules, spotty enforcement. To be notable, a Wikipedia topic must
be "the subject of multiple non-trivial published works from sources that
are reliable and independent of the subject and of each other." Although I
have written or been quoted in such works, I can't say I've ever been the
subject of any. And wouldn't you know, some notability cop cruised past my
bio and pulled me over. Unless I get notable in a hurry--win the Nobel
Peace Prize? Prove I sired Anna Nicole Smith's baby daughter?--a "sysop"
(volunteer techie) will wipe my Wikipedia page clean.
My career as an encyclopedia entry began on Sept. 6, 2005, when (according
to Wikipedia's "history" tab) an anonymous user posted a three-sentence
bio noting that I write the Chatterbox column in Slate; that previously
I'd been a Washington-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal; and that
my wife, "fellow journalist Marjorie Williams," had died the previous
January. I've since discovered through some Web sleuthing that my Boswell
was a student at Reed College named Ethan Epstein. Subsequent reader edits
added to Epstein's original a few more professional and personal items
from my resume that, like the earlier details, were readily available online.
I can't say that I'd ever harbored an ambition to be listed in Wikipedia,
but when I tripped over my bio three months after it appeared, I felt
mildly flattered. Exercising my wiki rights, I corrected my city of
residence, which was off by a few blocks, and added that I'd published a
posthumous anthology of Marjorie's writing under the title, "The Woman at
the Washington Zoo."
Various items got added to and subtracted from my bio over the next year
and a half, and every now and then I would check for errors (there were
surprisingly few). It was on one such foray that I discovered I'd been
designated for wiki oblivion, like a dead tree marked with orange spray
paint for the city arborist to uproot.
Talk about humiliating! Wikipedia does not, it assures readers, measure
notability "by Wikipedia editors' own subjective judgments." In other
words, it was nothing personal. But to be told that one has been found
objectively unworthy hardly softens the blow. "Think of all your friends
and colleagues who've never been listed," a pal consoled. Cold comfort. If
you've never been listed in Wikipedia you can always argue that your
omission is an oversight. Not me. I've been placed under a microscope and,
on the basis of careful and dispassionate analysis, excluded from the most
comprehensive encyclopedia ever devised. Ouch!
But the terms of eviction from Wikipedia raise a larger issue than the
bruised ego of one scribbler (or Jungian analyst or anime artist or
Finnish security consultant). Why does Wikipedia have a "notability"
We know why other encyclopedias need to limit the topics they cover. If
they're on paper, they're confined by space. If they're on the Web,
they're confined by staff size. But Wikipedia commands what is, for all
practical purposes, infinite space and infinite manpower. The drawback to
Wikipedia's ongoing collaboration with readers is that entries are
vulnerable to error, clumsy writing and sabotage. The advantage is that
Wikipedia can draw on the collective interests and knowledge of its
hundreds of thousands of daily visitors to cover, well, anything. To limit
that scope based on notions of importance and notability seems
self-defeating. If Wikipedia publishes a bio of my cleaning lady, that
won't make it any harder to field experts to write and edit Wikipedia's
bio of Albert Einstein. So why not let her in?
Granted, there are a few practical limits to covering any and all topics,
"important" or not. One is privacy. Assuming that my cleaning lady were
neither a public figure nor part of any larger story, it would be
difficult to justify posting her bio against her will. Another limit is
accuracy. The bio's assertions about my cleaning lady would have to be
independently verifiable from trustworthy sources made available to
readers. Otherwise Wikipedia's vast army of volunteer fact-checkers would
be unable to find out whether the bio was truthful.
But Wikipedia already maintains rules concerning verifiability and
privacy. Why does it need separate rules governing "notability"?
Wikipedia's attempt to define who or what is notable is so rococo that it
even has elaborate notability criteria for porn stars. A former Playboy
Playmate of the Month is notable; a hot girlfriend to a famous rock star
is not. Inside the permanent town meeting that is Wikipedia's governing
structure--a New Yorker article about Wikipedia last year reported that 25
percent of Wikipedia is devoted to governance of the site--the notability
standard is a topic of constant dispute.
When people go to this much trouble to maintain a distinction rendered
irrelevant by technological change, the search for an explanation usually
leads to Thorstein Veblen's 1899 book, "The Theory of the Leisure Class."
This extended sociological essay argues that the pursuit of status based
on outmoded social codes takes precedence over, and frequently undermines,
the rational pursuit of wealth and, more broadly, common sense.
Hierarchical distinctions among people and things remain in force not
because they retain practical value, but because they have become
pleasurable in themselves. Wikipedia's stubborn enforcement of its
notability standard suggests that Veblen was right. We limit entry to the
club not because we need to, but because we want to.
The Washington Post
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