You do not begrudge the pages of the obviously prominent, the notorious or the unknowns who have nevertheless contributed so much to our society. (I'm looking at you, George de Mestral, the inventor of Velcro.) But when you start to notice your colleagues have pages, and you don't - pages you know full well were submitted by their spouses or mothers, as Wikipedia prohibits you from writing your own - you begin to get a little bitter. And by "you," I mean me.
On the December morning I checked, there were 4,399,610 articles on various subjects and people on Wikipedia. I was determined to make it 4,399,611.
(Incidentally, that's only in English. In other languages there are millions and millions more. In Farsi alone, for example, there are more than 100,000 pages.)
Anyway, I had a plan. My office-mate, Lewis, a huge fan of my work, had been begging to write a Wikipedia page about me. Maybe not begging. Offering. Maybe he said, "Fine, I'll do it, just stop leaving Post-it reminders all over my screen." Whatever. The point is, he said yes.
I assured him that I would supply all of the information he would need and wouldn't interfere with his process. (Until I discovered that he'd left out a review for a book I'd ghostwritten that called it "the most important and valuable book for the century so far." "C'mon, Judith," he explained.) I mean, how hard could this be? I'd written for a lot of places, I'd had some nice reviews. I'd won a bunch of awards. Some awards. Two, if you count the FiFi I'd gotten from the Fragrance Foundation for writing what it deemed 1993's best article about perfume.
Shut up. The FiFi is the Man Booker Prize of fragrance journalism.
So maybe I told Lewis I won the Booker Prize. We could cross the t's and dot the i's later.
And that's the wonderful, and nightmarish, thing about Wikipedia: It teaches that truth is always a work in progress. The idea was nothing if not Utopian when Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales introduced it in 2001. He envisioned a living, breathing information bank where anyone with knowledge could contribute, and where a passion for a particular subject was reason enough to start an entry. (Though perhaps he wasn't envisioning a world where passions would run so high that there would be whole pages devoted to individual episodes of "Battlestar Galactica.") Your erudite granny, your esteemed academic, the 16-year-old holed up in your basement: doesn't matter. Show us what you know - and then prove it.
The three tenets of Wikipedia articles are "No Original Research," "Neutral Point of View" and "Verifiability" - terms that, in and of themselves, are open to debate. At any rate, Wales wanted to make real the words of Charles Van Doren, one of the editors of the Encylopedia Brittanica, who wrote in an essay in 1962: "Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical, too. It should stop being safe - in politics, in philosophy, in science." (He was also at the center of the quiz-show scandal in the late 1950s. It's in Wikipedia; look it up.)
And Wikipedia is not safe, as anyone who has ever gotten into a war of facts with Wikipedians (numbering about 160,000 around the world, said Jay Walsh, a Wikipedia spokesman) can attest. One of their victims, a prominent publishing executive, glumly recalls: "I can't participate by name in any article involving Wikipedia. I have a long and somewhat fractious history with them, dating back to when a page in my name mysteriously appeared filled with mistakes. I then attempted to rewrite it and insert a little humor, which I guess is a crime punishable by digital death."
Casual users don't realize that behind the sober fact-filled entries the carnage is there for all to see: All you have to do is click on the tab that says "View history" to see every single change to a page. Better yet, the "Talk" tab clues you in to everyone's thinking. The most entertainment value is reserved, of course, for subjects like "climate change" and "Scientology" (a Wikipedia arbitration committee ultimately had to ban both Church lobbyists and critics) - and also for individuals who incite controversy. For example, an explanation of an edit on Ann Coulter's page: "Ann Coulter does NOT support 'torture' but does support what many have been called 'enhanced interrogation techniques.'"
Wikipedia is very keen on maintaining a culture of respect and decorum, but you can sense the effort is often through gritted teeth. And when decorum breaks down, there's always passive-aggressiveness to fall back on. My favorite comment on a page about Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, where the editors are viciously fighting about whether Cruz's Canadian birth prohibits him from running for the presidency: "Oops ... I forgot you were off your rocker. Sorry to agitate you again."
But perhaps the biggest Wikipedia battle of all is not about niggling facts, but simply over the ultimate question: Am I worthy? Who gets to decide? And am I presenting myself in the best possible light for Internet posterity?
Even those who tell themselves they are above the silliness find that they are not immune to Wikixiety, as I think of it (I've already submitted it to Wiktionary, so back off!). One notable writer whose recent book has placed her on numerous "Best of 2013" lists (including this newspaper's) spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I'm afraid I'll sound mean," she explained. "But I'm puzzled by how I have no page and one of my students, with a very similar name to mine, has his own. And basically what he's done is write a blog and appear once on 'The Colbert Report.'"
Laura Lemay is even more nettled by her inability to prevent her page, created by a fan, from being "delisted."
"The hoard of insignificant guys with Web pages makes me extra bitter about being deleted," said Lemay, who was a huge star in Internet circles in the 1990s when she started her "Teach Yourself" series of Web-publishing books, which showed "civilians" how to create their own Web pages. "I don't think I was deleted because I'm female, but I do think that women have to do a lot more in order to merit 'notability' in the eyes of the young nerdy male cohort of Wikipedia editors."
Many of the male editors and administrators are not what you'd call Sensitive New Age Guys. Virtually everyone I talked with for this article noted that Wikipedians are the kind of people who devote themselves to repetitive tasks, who have an aggressive and relentless fascination with minutiae and idiosyncratic pursuits. (Skeptical? Check out the number of pages devoted to trains.)
It's hardly a surprise, then, that a cottage industry has sprung up: the Wikipedia Whisperers, individuals and companies who, for several hundred to several thousand dollars, will create and manage (read: guard like a Rottweiler from unwelcome changes) Wikipedia pages. Before I decided I was too cheap to pay someone for what I should be able to strong-arm a friend into doing, I talked with several consultants about my chances of making the cut. To their credit, none grabbed for my wallet before spending time talking - and none were wildly encouraging.
"Don't take this personally," said Michael French, the chief executive of Wiki-PR, a company devoted to creating and managing pages, "but you may not have enough of a media footprint to get in. It's not enough to have written lots of stories and several books. You have to be the subject of independent third-party sources."
So, wait, reviews don't count? Gossip column items in which famous people shouted at me don't count? The coveted FiFi doesn't count?
"Um, I haven't looked that carefully yet," French said, "so the answer is - maybe."
French and his company have been in the news lately, accused of "sock-puppeting," which Wikipedia defines as creating online identities for the purposes of deception. Essentially he uses a lot of people, with different identities, to edit pages for paying customers and to manage those pages. The paid sock puppets are ready to pounce on edits that don't adhere to the client's vision. But if a customer wants his or her page not to be deep-sixed by Wikipedia's page patrollers, who are on the lookout not only for outright lies but also egregious spin, that customer will listen to French and adhere to the guidelines.
So, why did his company get in trouble?
"Wikipedia is historically very anti-commercial, and we're the biggest company being paid for consulting, so we became the target," French said. "There is not an official policy against it, but the idea of having paid editors is very divisive within the Wikipedia ranks. If you think of it, it's not surprising: there are thousands and thousands of people volunteering to do these pages. But many have an agenda, whether they are paid or not."
I asked French to supply a couple of his clients to talk to me, and at press time he was still trying to find some.
"They're afraid," he said. "They know that admitting they had paid help - well, one client said to me that dealing with the Wikipedians is like walking into a mental hospital: The floors are carpeted, the walls are nicely padded, but you know there's a pretty good chance at any given moment one of the inmates will pick up a knife."
As someone whose preferred method of tackling any problem is to throw money at it, I'm actually very glad there are Wikipedia consultants. They may hype things? Oh, boohoo. I see how friends who stay under the radar are constantly burnishing their reputations in ways large and small. And all it takes is a couple of unpaid but Internet-savvy interns to do the spin doctoring that has become so common among politicians. Moreover, many pages have such an odd or inaccurate beginning that you have to be truly famous or notorious for that page to have enough devotees to massage it into usefulness.
The fact is that ultimately I don't know what will happen to my proposed page. I do know Lewis included a few things I would rather not have in there - I mean, do I really want my anonymous writing for Penthouse in the first paragraph? And trying to slip in that I'd won the Man Booker Prize is a little too easy to check. (Wikipedia notes that as a U.S. citizen I'm not even eligible.) But I love the idea of crowdsourcing; I love the notion that amid the jokesters and provocateurs, there are thousands of dedicated souls trying their best to arrive at some semblance of truth, even if that truth involves, say, the varieties of historical Christian hairstyles. (The marauding barbarians? Mullets?)
On Tuesday night, I discovered that, despite my being used as a reference eight times on Wikipedia, my own proposed page had been declined by someone whose username is StarryGrandma. He or she admonishes lazy Lewis for "providing no references to support the statements in the article," then goes on to gratuitously require him to "show the author is notable." Really? I'm not as notable as Edward the Blue Engine - part of Thomas the Tank Engine's supporting cast - who has his own page? How many books has that anthropomorphic locomotive written? How many FiFi's has he won? And you know what really rankles? He doesn't even have his own show.
Lewis has resigned as my biographer/publicist, so I'm reaching out to others to help petition the Wikipedia Politburo to include me among the elite 4 million or so. Find my page-in-waiting at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:Articles_for_creation/Judith_Newman to provide references, make whatever additions or deletions that seem right, and layer on some evidence of my "notability." Thank you, my sock puppets; I'll be curious to see who I am when you're done.
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