Evicted From Wikipedia
Why the online encyclopedia won't let just anyone in.
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.
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?
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.