Evicted from Wikipedia.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 24 2007 7:02 AM

Evicted From Wikipedia

Why the online encyclopedia won't let just anyone in.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Pass me that whiskey bottle. My Wikipedia bio is about to disappear because I fail to satisfy the "notability guideline."

Wikipedia, as you probably know, is an online, multilingual encyclopedia whose entries are written and edited by readers around the world. What you may not know is that this ongoing experiment in Web-based collaboration maintains volunteer gatekeepers, and one of them has whisked me (or, rather, the entry describing me) under the insulting rubric, "Wikipedia articles with topics of unclear importance." I share this digital limbo with Anthony Stevens ("internationally respected Jungian analyst, psychiatrist, and author"), Final Approach("romantic comedy anime series"), Secproof ("well known security consulting company in Finland"), and about 400 other topics tagged during the past calendar month. There we languish, awaiting "deletion review," which I will surely flunk.

Advertisement

Wikipedia's notability policy resembles U.S. immigration policy before 9/11: stringent rules, spotty enforcement. To be notable, a Wikipedia topic must be "the subject of multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject and of each other." Although I have written or been quoted in such works, I can't say I've ever been the subject of any. And wouldn't you know, some notability cop cruised past my bio and pulled me over. Unless I get notable in a hurry—win the Nobel Peace Prize? Prove I sired Anna Nicole Smith's baby daughter?—a "sysop" (volunteer techie) will wipe my Wikipedia page clean. It's straight out of Philip K. Dick.

My career as an encyclopedia entry began on Sept. 6, 2005, when (according to Wikipedia's "history" tab) an anonymous user posted a three-sentence bio noting that I wrote the Chatterbox column in Slate; that previously I'd been a Washington-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal; and that my wife, "fellow journalist Marjorie Williams," had died the previous January. I've since discovered through some Web sleuthing that my Boswell was a student at Reed College named Ethan Epstein. Subsequent reader edits added to Epstein's original a few more professional and personal items from my résumé that, like the earlier details, were readily available online.

I can't say that I'd ever harbored an ambition to be listed in Wikipedia, but when I tripped over my bio three months after it appeared, I felt mildly flattered. Exercising my Wiki rights, I corrected my city of residence, which was off by a few blocks, and added that I'd published a posthumous anthology of Marjorie's writing under the title The Woman at the Washington Zoo. Various items got added to and subtracted from my bio over the next year and a half, and every now and then I myself would check for errors (there were surprisingly few). It was on one such foray that I discovered I'd been designated for Wiki oblivion, like a dead tree marked with orange spray paint for the city arborist to uproot.

Talk about humiliating! Wikipedia does not, it assures readers, measure notability "by Wikipedia editors' own subjective judgments." In other words, it was nothing personal. But to be told one has been found objectively unworthy hardly softens the blow. "Think of all your friends and colleagues who've never been listed," a pal consoled. Cold comfort. If you've never been listed in Wikipedia, you can always argue that your omission is an oversight. Not me. I've been placed under a microscope and, on the basis of careful and dispassionate analysis, excluded from the most comprehensive encyclopedia ever devised. Ouch!

But the terms of eviction from Wikipedia raise a larger issue than the bruised ego of one scribbler (or Jungian analyst or anime artist or Finnish security consultant). Why does Wikipedia have a "notability" standard at all?

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 9:22 AM The Most Populist Campaign of 2014
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 9:13 AM Clive James, Terminally Ill, Has Written an Exquisitely Resigned Farewell Poem
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.