My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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For the record: I do not go to UCLA…. or to CalTech

In trying to layout arguments for educators about why Wikipedia is exceedingly important, I often have to hold my breathe when it comes to the policies and dynamics that really get my goat. I try to avoid my own Wikipedia entry because it makes me want to pull my hair out. It’s been made very clear to me that I’m not allowed to be an expert on myself, but oh do I get annoyed when people use that as my bio (my bio is here). My favorite line from my discussion page:

Personally, I’m inclined to take anything from Boyd’s website with a grain of salt, as Boyd’s area of research is social networking, and for all we know this is some grand experiment on how the rules can be pushed.

Throughout the discussion, there’s ongoing references to the ways in which mass media are credible and authoritative. In the last month, I’ve been cited in the press as being a student at both UCLA and CalTech. I’d like to state for the record that, while I respect both of those institutions, I’ve never been associated with either (although I’ve attended parties at both). I’ve also been referenced as an anthropologist, a sociologist, and a professor. My apologies to academics who get annoyed at me about these labels – I know that I am none of the above, but I don’t know how to stop them from perpetuating. I’ve also been cited as working for companies I used to work at. I am not working at any company right now. (I also did not recently release a full report on a study of class dynamics in America.)

I’m trying really hard to figure out ways in which we can get youth to think critically about the construction and production of information. I believe that Wikipedia is a great source for working through and thinking about these issues, but I’m extremely worried about the ways in which Wikipedians fetishize mass media as ideal sources. Hell, I’m worried about the ways in which my own industry sees mass media as proof that the sky is falling. Media is often very useful for citations, but to assume that it is always right seems to be extremely dangerous, especially for a community that’s fighting an image issue concerning the ease with which things can be edited and published. I also think it’s dangerous for Wikipedia to perpetuate inaccuracies in mass media just cuz mass media said so.

To those Wikipedians out there who happen to read my blog – is there any conversation amongst Wikipedians about how to deal with mass media coverage? Is there any conversation about how mass media coverage is often biased or inaccurate? Why is mass media coverage so valued? (And why on earth am I notable because I’m profiled in mass media instead of because of why mass media was covering me?)

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19 comments to For the record: I do not go to UCLA…. or to CalTech

  • That wikipedia discussion is… terrifying. Anyone who’s ever typeset a reference list knows that names are completely idiosyncratic: you have to wonder if they’ve ever come across names that start with von or de, to dip just one toe into those waters. Not to mention the whole NYT as bastion of truth and integrity thing. FWIW, I find your website and essays far more interesting than most wiki articles.

  • It’s been bothering me a lot lately, how much of a conformist you often have to be in order to become “recognised”. Makes me wonder why would the exceptionally talented and original folks among us really strive for recognition? When you find fulfillment in what you’re doing, external validation, like having a Wikipedia entry or a profile in mainstream media, just doesn’t add much to your self-worth, anyway. Or does it?

  • sally

    >

    i read your blog, because of your solid Ani lyric database & your social networking discussions. good luck w/media fame, its a bitch.

  • You’re one of the first people I’ve seen to point out that Wikipedia’s reliability problem is actually a mainstream media reliability problem that Wikipedia is simply making really obvious.

    No one ever realizes how often news reports are inaccurate until they are the subject of them. All kinds of small facts get messed up.. very few organizations do fact checking any more.

  • I would call my self an on again off again wikipedia editor. I’m less of a writer though and instead like to slog through dead links and update links to wrong places.

    I feel like the conversation you want is in fact going on at a high level of wikipedia. At a high level is the understanding that wikipedians need to site good sources.

    The current culture at wikipedia seems to simple be “no original research”. Entries are regularly deleted that do not cite sources.

    This, in turn, encourages people to find any source.

    I truly think our school system is so screwed up that the average person has a hard time thinking of any main stream media source isn’t 100% credible. Even the people who can see through the bullshit don’t learn how until college.

    Until most schools stop fetishizing mass media I don’t see how the average person will.

    From an administrative point of view I think the high up wikipedians are happy people are referencing anything.

    Even the whole editing your own article is an ongoing debate. I mean even Jimmy Wales got in trouble for it.

  • For what it’s worth, a new web-based newspaper here doesn’t quote anymore: they include the recording within the article.
    I think Wikipedia & others triggered a very public debate, loud enough for some journalists to finally have accepted they are not god. The announced Comments in Google News might help too.

    Oh: and for the “de” and “Von” thing, it depends on which European country the name is from – but you will offend some whatever you try. You are on the safe side by considering the name starts at the capital letter (the one you generally use an upper-case to right).

  • Kat

    I guess I count as being involved with Wikipedia. OK, really involved, though more with the Foundation now than the projects themselves. If you’ve ever dug into the Wikipedia mailing lists, you can see some of the intensity of discussion about this very topic. People picture “Wikipedia” as a monolith or a monoculture, where if a policy says one thing or an argument goes one way that’s what “Wikipedia” thinks — where it’s very much not the case.

    Most Wikipedia editors know that mass media is often unreliable… but it’s all we can agree on. “What is a reliable source” has occupied literally tens of thousands of messages. What the policy should say and when to make exceptions on it start flamewars of legendary intensity; I think some often forget that Wikipedians made the policies and thus can change them if they’re bad.

    If you’re interested in the specifics, I can dig up specific threads; the English Wikipedia list, where most of the related discussion occurs, is pretty high-traffic.

    There’s not one sort of Wikipedia editor, any more than there’s one sort of blogger. Some people place more importance on some things than others: effect on the subject, reliability of sources, proper procedures for verification, etc.; with people it is more difficult to come to agreement, because there’s more importance on getting it right *now* as opposed to something where the subject isn’t herself affected.

    And then some people are really just, well, jerks; you can discipline the jerks, warn them, kick them out, but you can’t take back the effect one jerk — that most of the Wikipedia community probably didn’t like anyway — has on an outside person who is left with that impression of the whole project. As a community Wikipedia tends to err on the side of inclusiveness; one of the community values is that the work is valued over the person, and then some take that to an extreme and say we should tolerate all sorts of real crap from people if they are contributing anything of value to the work. And I’m a softy; to a large extent I agree with giving people chances if they’re just socially clueless rather than malicious, but to those on the receiving end of their remarks, it hardly seems like a kindness.

    Bouncing around some more — I was recently at a meeting with several “outsiders” to Wikipedia, web and media professionals, brainstorming about ways to improve Wikipedia’s quality; one of the first suggestions was simply education about critical thinking, about Wikipedia and about all media: blogs, newspapers, magazines, traditional reference books. But that’s hard, and not quick, and to accomplish it effectively requires a huge effort; it’s worth doing and people are doing it, but it doesn’t happen fast enough and then more people come in who don’t know what it’s about.

    I don’t think anyone expected Wikipedia to become so popular so quickly; many joke–half seriously!–that it needs a big honking early-90s-style “under construction” sign (an animated .gif, even!) to let people know they shouldn’t treat it as authoritative, people are still working on it, stuff may be wrong, use this at your own risk. Some people still don’t think, when they write, that there’s someone on the other end who’s going to be affected by it; so many people have this conception of it being “just the internet” or “just a web site” where things don’t matter as much, and especially on living subjects this is a problem, that huge difference in mindset.

    In the short term, I don’t know how to stop the misinformation from perpetuating; even when the current group of people working on an article has come to accept one version, a new editor who has just read the old news story may still want to add the “missing” information. Though there are technical measures (“stable versions”) due to be rolled out soon that may help with this issue, for a stable version to be better there has to be a version that is accepted in the first place.

    Aside from asking for special attention on one article or another, which doesn’t scale, I’d say the only solution I know of is training everyone in media literacy and general clue, and for the group of people who do care and who do get it to keep pounding on the important ideas.

    Hm, sorry for taking over your comments section with a rambling comment! It’s an interesting and complicated topic; I’m trying not to be too much of an apologist, though I am still very much a fan of Wikipedia, warts and all.

  • Bertil: von/de/etc: the way a person spells their own name is always going to be the authoritative source. There are even individual variations in how people contract “Junior”, and individual people will prefer one way. I’d go so far as to say that in a literature search you may not even find someone if you don’t use the version that they use.

    Kat: I’d suggest that “well, that comment is by someone claiming to be danah, but why should we believe her and what does it matter anyway?” is not a useful attitude.

  • I assume there is a relationship between the preference for mass media and its accessibility. Ditto for why people tend to believe these sources are authoritative, i.e. reliable resources that might be used for fact-checking are often inaccessible. Scholarly works are mostly locked-up in journals or behind subscription firewalls.

    This doesn’t explain your bio on wikipedia, the authoritative source is clearly accessible on your website. This can be explained by apathy, which is another reason to fight for open access to scholarly literature…any barriers that are placed between people and good information quickly leads to people being satisfied with bad information. The quick fix mentality rules information seeking behavior as it does many other aspects of our lives.

  • There were some uncivil words exchanged when author Fred Saberhagen died and a Wikipedia editor refused to accept Harlan Ellison as a reliable source. It was the first time I became aware of how heavily (blindly?) Wikipedia relies on mass media. Link goes to John Scalzi’s blog.

    Fred Saberhagen is Dead, But Not On Wikipedia

  • James Bennett

    Oh, dear.

    First, let me apologize if the increased traffic on the discussion page for that article has caused you any distress, because it’s largely my fault for having been naive enough to wander in, wonder why they were capitalizing your name, and try to argue for the change.

    The past month or so has been an “interesting” experience for me, let’s put it that way. I understand where Kat’s coming from, but after being on the receiving end of the 9-on-1 “all hail the holy NYT” gangbang that was the discussion of whether the article on danah should capitalize her name, I hope I’ll be forgiven for being somewhat disillusioned.

    The good news is that nothing’s ever final on Wikipedia, that articles can be edited (most of the time, by most people) and that there are processes in place for amending the policies and guidelines; in fact, I posted a proposal recently to amend the style guide to explicitly allow lower-case names, since there’s more than one article where that’s a problem.

    But the bad news is that Wikipedia is extremely friendly to cliques and echo chambers and makes it easy for them to obtain disproportionate levels of power: relatively small groups of like-minded people can declare themselves to be a “consensus”, and God help whoever gets in their way (I lost track of how many times I was threatened by one Wikipedia admin during that debate).

    And really, I think that’s more problematic than fetishizing mainstream media; it’s usually possible to cite sources with more authority than general media, and typically those sources will “win” a given debate, but against a determined clique with strong opinions, there’s little to no hope; there will inevitably be a moment where there are enough of them arguing the same thing at the same time to get it declared a “consensus” and shut down any opposition.

    I’m still trying valiantly to employ the principle of charity, though…

  • “Personally, I’m inclined to take anything from Boyd’s website with a grain of salt, as Boyd’s area of research is social networking, and for all we know this is some grand experiment on how the rules can be pushed.”

    Okay, the first part is empty-headed prejudice, but the second part is not a bad description, in some ways, of at least an aspect of social networking. :)

  • Steve

    “Trouble rather the tiger in his lair than the sage amongst his books. For to you Kingdoms and armies are things mighty and enduring, but to him they are but toys of the moment, to be overturned by the flicking of a finger …�

    This quote originally appeared in Gordon R. Dickson’s novel Tactics of Mistake (Gordie apparently preferred his name to be conventionally capitalized, and when writing professionally, included his middle initial, followed by a period.)

    To my mind, the sentiment applies well to the present conflict. To users and creators of sites which feature socially created content, they indeed appear “mighty and enduring”. But danah, and others of her ilk are truly the “sage amongst [her] books”. Viewed analytically, Wikipedia is merely one experiment among many which litter the modern Internet landscape. If they do not find a way to repair the flaws in their process, they will end up in the dumpster of history. But perhaps others will have learned from their mistakes.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

  • Steve

    Correction – I now find that this was apparently not Gordie’s original quote, as there is a slightly different version attributed to Rudyard Kipling.

    -Steve

  • Larry

    From Reign of Error [slate.com]:

    “The average newspaper should expand by a factor of 50 the amount of space given to corrections if Scott R. Maier’s research is any guide.

    Maier, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, describes in a forthcoming research paper his findings that fewer than 2 percent of factually flawed articles are corrected at dailies.”

    Maybe if these papers incorporated some sort of wiki….

  • I briefly contributed to Wikipedia but found the whole process so absurd that I quickly withdrew. And that’s after years of DMOZ editing and those folks are a real pain!

    I recently completed a Masters of Library Science via Texas Womans University. Folks in Library & Information Science have produced a lot of great resources including really excellent guides to evaluating web resources.

    What I found disturbing was that even some of the faculty treated the Web as inherently untrustworthy until evaluated while treating traditional print resources as inherently trustworthy.

    The Web’s giving us an opportunity to forefront how we evaluate resources but I’m generally surprised at how folks don’t make the connections back to evaluating print or other resources associated with mainstream media. I’m especially disappointed that this moment in which problems with verifying online information are in the forefront is not being used as a larger teaching opportunity regarding resource evaluation.

    I dig the NY Times but take any topic you know well and follow it there regularly and it’s amazing how much nonsense makes it into that resource.

    On that note, I worked with an educator who was surprised at some news I shared and asked me where I got it. When I said “on the Internet”, she went “Ohhhh” in a knowing way as if that explained why it sounded so nuts. When I followed with, “on the NY Times website,” she just got quiet.

    Both responses were rather sad.

  • Steve

    Just an intuition. I think we may see an explosion of high quality content on websites associated with the “traditional” media. Junior staffers assigned to the Web operation will be working twice as hard to prove that the internet medium can equal or surpass the traditional media – judged by traditional standards. And some of what will be produced in that mode will be truly extraordinary.

    -Steve

  • Just an intuition. I think we may see an explosion of high quality content on websites associated with the “traditional” media. Junior staffers assigned to the Web operation will be working twice as hard to prove that the internet medium can equal or surpass the traditional media – judged by traditional standards. And some of what will be produced in that mode will be truly extraordinary.

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