July 09, 2006

Wikipedia Biography, I'm Not Worthy

In the past week, in the reverse of vanity, I've been arguing strenuously that I'm not notable for Wikipedia. That is, while some people may think it's cool, I don't *want* to have an entry devoted to me in Wikipedia. It's not a honor, it's a burden:

... Wikipedia biographies can be an "attractive nuisance". It says to every troll, flamer, and grudge-holder, "Here's a page about a person where you can, with no accountability whatsoever, write any libel, defamation, or smear, and 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.".

To the frequently asserted quarrel that one can't control what a newspaper or print encyclopedia writes about oneself, I've said:

Neither a newspaper nor a printed encyclopedia allows random flamers to anonymously insert libel/defamation/smears into its articles, at any moment. That aspect puts Wikipedia in a class by itself. Appeals to the norms governing articles which have a process of accountability and responsibility are inappropriate for a context where that very lack of accountability and responsibility is the problem at issue.

This has led to some amusing exchanges where participants in the discussion compliment me, and I keep saying aw, shucks, that's nothing. More significantly, there's a troublesome "cost-shifting" aspect, where a large potential personal negative is imposed on me, for the very small positive benefit to Wikipedia.

I didn't want to write about this until the discussion was over, as that's sometimes viewed as bad faith. Though I did sway a few people to my view, I appear not to have prevailed completely: "The result of the discussion was No consensus."

[Update: See "Death By Wikipedia" for a small example of the problem (this particular article doesn't matter too much, since the person was both notorious and dead, but the issue is real): "But here's the dread fear with Wikipedia: It combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers."]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on July 09, 2006 05:38 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Seth, I think you are notable enough for Wikipedia. I feel that the problem is more one of setting user expectations of articles rather than allowing subjects to opt-out.

Posted by: Kingsley Joseph at July 10, 2006 02:56 PM

As a person who has suffered multiple online defamations (some of which I have taken sucessful legal action against) I agree entirely with your post.

Wikipedia benefits from pages written about a person, but the person themselves suffers an imposed negative cost in worry, stress and constant vigilance.

Perhaps in the future everyone will be libeled, slandered and smeared for 15 minutes. The question is: do we have enough tools to counter it?

Posted by: Mark Devlin at July 10, 2006 07:27 PM

If you feel strongly about this, the way to do it might be by exploiting Wikipedia's openness and editing the article rather than asking for it to be deleted. You could simply replace the entire text with "Seth Finkelstein does not wish for a Wikipedia biography entry", for example. It'd get reverted, obviously, but if you (and a couple of helpers?) stuck it out through the edit wars for a week or two I think the message would get across.

Posted by: Phil at July 11, 2006 05:22 AM

As a postscript to the above: that would be a pretty horrible hack - applied vandalism, really - but I think it would be justifiable; more to the point, I can't see any alternative that would be more effective. I'm curious as to what a Wikipedian counter-argument would be. I suppose it could be argued that dead-tree encyclopedias aren't bound to remove content which displeases the people written about - but then, isn't openness & responsiveness part of what makes Wikipedia different?

Posted by: Phil at July 11, 2006 05:27 AM

(Blatant plug)

My thoughts of vandalism and wikipedia's version control system...


Posted by: Bill P. Godfrey at July 11, 2006 08:00 AM

Mr Finkelstein,

While the problem reported in those articles are real, you have to remember that there are many thousands of biographies on Wikipedia, and the vast majority have not had undetected vandalism persist for long periods. Because of these issues, Wikipedia's administrators and regular contributors are particularly sensitive to monitoring articles about living people, and have become increasingly strict about detailed sourcing for the contents of articles about them.

I have added your article to my "watchlist". Every time I visit Wikipedia, if the article has been changed, I will be notified.

Oh, and Phil's tactics are likely to get you and any comrades banned from editing Wikipedia, and the article protected from changes.

Posted by: Robert Merkel at July 11, 2006 07:23 PM

Robert - that's pretty much what I thought.

The question is, why is this a good thing? Why would you make a virtue of ignoring the wishes of the actual subject of an entry? I'm genuinely curious.

Posted by: Phil at July 12, 2006 07:33 AM


The reason you would get banned is because you would be acting like a dick on computers that don't belong to you. That's not an appropriate way to deal with WP having policies that you don't like: don't disrupt Wikipedia to make a point.

Of course, that leaves open your other question, as to why WP has the policies that it does have, and whether it should have those policies or not. I think the short answer is that WikiPedia, like any other encyclopedia or print source, aims at providing information to its users, not at making the lives of its subjects easier. "Openness and responsiveness" are virtues insofar as they make it so that the stuff WikiPedia says can be audited by readers. They have nothing to do with giving some special control to the subject over what other people say about her or him.

Posted by: Rad Geek at July 13, 2006 02:30 PM