Tag Archives: wikipedia

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?)

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.)

Jimmy Wales speaking at Berkeley tomorrow

Who: Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia)
Where: School of Information, South Hall, UC-Berkeley, Room 110
When: November 3, 4-5:30

For those who love Wikipedia, i’m hosting Jimmy Wales to speak at my department tomorrow about Wikipedia’s culture. It is free and open to the public. It should be a fun talk and question/answer discussion.