on being notable in Wikipedia
Back in July, Justin Hall created a Wikipedia entry for me. I found this very peculiar. I was also mildly intrigued by how i was described in such a setting. Since then, some of my colleagues have edited the entry and my advisors have taunted me continuously. The most that i could say was weird weird weird.
A month ago, a discussion emerged in the Talk section about whether or not i was notable and then i was nominated for deletion. My colleagues (who are also dear friends) were accused of crafting a vanity page. People wanted “proof” that i was notable; they wanted proof of every aspect of my profile. Then, when people in my field stood up for my entry in the discussion for deletion, they were attacked for not being Wikipedians. This was really intriguing to me, especially when Barry Wellman (who is an expert on social networks and online interaction) stood up for me. (I was completely honored.) Wikipedia is not prepared to handle domain experts. Of course, this is a difficult issue – how do you know someone is a domain expert? Still, something felt strange about the whole thing.
As the conversation progressed, people started editing my profile. While the earlier profile felt weird, the current profile is downright problematic. There are little mistakes (examples: my name is capitalized; there is an extra ‘l’ in my middle name; i was born in 1977; my blog is called Apophenia). There are other mistakes because mainstream media wrote something inaccurate and Wikipedia is unable to correct it (examples: i was on Epix not Compuserv and my mother didn’t have an account; i was not associated with the people at Friendster; i didn’t take the name Boyd immediately after Mattas and it didn’t happen right after my mother’s divorce; i didn’t transfer to MIT – i went to grad school at the MIT Media Lab; i’m not a cultural anthropologist). Then there are also disconcerting framing issues – apparently my notability rests on my presence in mainstream media and i’m a cultural anthropologist because it said so on TV. Good grief.
Why does mainstream media play such a significant role in the Wikipedia validation process? We know damn well that mainstream media is often wrong. In the midst of this, the reference to my fuzzy hat had to be removed because it couldn’t be substantiated by the press and because i didn’t wear it on O’Reilly. Of course i didn’t wear it on Fox – i was trying to get across to parents, not be myself. As much as i don’t think of the hat as core to my identity, i’m very well aware that others do. Hell, just last week, John Seely Brown decided to start his keynote wearing my hat, talking about how the hat is the source of all of my brilliance while i turned beet red and scrunched down in my seat. As embarrassing as that was, it’s more embarrassing that Wikipedia is relying on Fox over JSB for authority.
What really weirds me out about all of this is that everyone acts like i’m dead and incapable of speaking for myself. It is culturally inappropriate for me to edit my entry, even when there are parts of it that are dead wrong. No one asks me to fact check – journalists matter more than me. I understand why i shouldn’t have the right to get rid of negative commentary about me, but wouldn’t it make sense to allow living “notables” correct facts? Am i not the leading expert on the biographical facts of my life? I wonder who else is looking at their entry and shaking their head at the biographical inaccuracies.
I can’t fully put my finger on why the media-centric thing bugs me, but it does. The media has decided that i’m an expert because of my knowledge in a specific domain; Wikipedia has decided that i’m notable because i’m on TV. Why is Wikipedia not using transitivity and saying that i’m notable because of my knowledge in a specific domain? Why does it matter more that i’m on TV than why i’m on TV?
Now, i love Wikipedia. But i think that there’s something broken here. Personally, i would rather my entry been deleted than have this very inaccurate and media-centric entry written. (Deletion would’ve been far more entertaining.) I think that this approach to notability makes Wikipedia look downright foolish. Personally, i’m embarrassed by this public representation full of mistakes. There has to be a better way to handle living people. The “no original research” approach is really not working here.
I’m posting this both because it’s interesting and because i can’t fully get a handle on why this situation is really bugging me (other than the fact that it’s weird to be an object of inspection). Anyone have any thoughts?
(Here’s a proactive thank you to those who are inevitably going to correct my entry because of this blog post. For those who are looking at the entry after this correction, look at the April 13 version to see what i’m talking about here.)