I'm on Wikipedia, get me out of here
Thursday September 28, 2006
GuardianWikipedia describes itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit". With some minor exceptions, anyone can change any article - for good or ill. While the benefits of such a low barrier for participation have been widely touted, the concomitant problems are less well known. Such as, what if you find yourself in it, but don't want to be?
Wikipedia has a short biography of me, originally added in February 2004, mostly concerned with my internet civil liberties achievements. After discovering in May 2006 that it had been vandalised in March, possibly by a long-time opponent, and that the attack had been subsequently propagated to many other sites which (legally) repackage Wikipedia's content, the article's existence seemed to me overall to be harmful rather than helpful.
For people who are not very prominent, Wikipedia biographies can be an "attractive nuisance". It says, to every troll, vandal, and score-settler: "Here's an article about a person where you can, with no accountability whatsoever, write any libel, defamation, or smear. It won't be a marginal comment with the social status of an inconsequential rant, but rather will be made prominent about the person, and reputation-laundered with the institutional status of an encyclopedia."
Where living people are concerned, there is a cost-shifting aspect: instead of falling on Wikipedia's poor quality control, any negative effects are usually borne by the aggrieved party, except in the very rare case where he or she has enough power to publicise Wikipedia's failings.
John Seigenthaler's experience concerning a false statement inserted into his Wikipedia biography became widely known (tinyurl.com/cyogx). But he had the ability to make it a public issue; that of the activist Daniel Brandt provides many contrasts - see wikipedia-watch. org. I made no legal threats. But in July, when another person publicly proposed that I might in fact not be notable enough to be the subject of a Wikipedia article (tinyurl.com/qnqjp), I agreed - and strongly argued the case against myself.
At Wikipedia, contentious decisions are made by a process of elaborate discussion culminating in administrative fiat. Deletions go through a comment period. The process is not a vote, but the result forms a recommendation to the administrators. In my case, there was no consensus, leading to the article being kept.
From my point of view, these debates illustrate some of the beliefs that drive Wikipedia. I'm intrigued by Wikipedia, not from any utopian view, but rather by how it manages to induce people to work for free, and how the project has evolved elaborate rhetorical responses to criticism. Since it's alleged to be an encyclopedia, active participants often want the prestige and imputed influence which comes from such intellectual endeavors. This desire leads to minimising and trivialising of failures in quality control.
Institutionally, Wikipedia has a difficult problem: to allow anyone to decline to be a subject of an article would be an admission that the supposed collective editing process is deeply flawed.
As Angela Beesley, previously a prominent member of the foundation which runs Wikipedia, wrote in an unsuccessful attempt to have her own page removed (at tinyurl.com/n5ly5): "I'm sick of this article being trolled. It's full of lies and nonsense. My justification for making a third nomination [for deletion] is that my circumstances have changed significantly since the last [request for deletion]".
That was a pretty stunning vote of no-confidence. Me? My article is still there, at the moment. But I wish it weren't.
· Seth Finkelstein is a consulting programmer, and a winner of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award for his efforts in fighting censorware.