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June 6-12, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Wikipedia Activism

By Annalee Newitz


WHEN I EDIT Wikipedia, I am fighting for the future. There are certain things and people whose memories I want preserved for generations to come, so that curious searchers a century from now will know the full story. Via Wikipedia, they will get more than stories of "great politicians" and "giant corporations" from glossy histories. I want this user-edited, online encyclopedia to tell tales of the brave and marginal, as well as the notorious and powerful. That's why I've become a Wikipedia activist.

For years, I was a passive reader of Wikipedia, particularly entries on obscure technology and pop culture. I think of Wikipedia as the first place to go when I'm researching something off the beaten track, like early episodes of Doctor Who or technical specs for the outputs on DVR players.

Last week, however, I finally had to shed my Wikipedia passivity and start editing entries myself. I hit a personal tipping point. I was writing a profile about a novelist for an online magazine and discovered that this novelist's Wikipedia biography page had been summarily deleted the week before on the grounds that it wasn't "notable" enough.

I had previously visited his entry early in my research because it contained a fairly complete list of everything he had written. To make matters worse, when I read the history of the deletion, it turned out to have been done by a guy who knew absolutely nothing about this novelist's areas of expertise. The deleter was a big contributor to Wikipedia, it's true, but only in the areas of religion, particularly Lutheranism. How could that background possibly grant him the authority to determine whether a postmodern novelist and video-game designer was "notable" or not?

So I signed up for a Wikipedia account and re-created this novelist's entry from Google cache and sources that I had gathered while writing a profile about him. I also wrote an explanation to the deleter, requesting that he not do it again.

And then, while I was at it, I re-created another entry recently deleted for not being "notable" enough—that of Sonia Greene, a pulp–fiction writer and publisher of the 1920s who was briefly married to H.P. Lovecraft. Of all the insulting things to have happen, her entry had been erased and people searching for her were redirected to an entry on H.P. Lovecraft. How's that for you, future scholars? Looking for information about a minor pulp fiction writer? Too bad she's not notable—but we can redirect you to an entry on a guy she married for two years. (A guy, I might add, who pissed her off so much that she burned all his letters when they divorced.) Yuck.

My experiences have made me strongly question the idea of "notableness" on Wikipedia. I am genuinely offended by the notion that obscure authors, technologies, ideas and events should be deleted from what's supposed to be a vast compendium of knowledge. It's not as if Wikipedia is running out of disk space and needs to delete stuff to keep going. And it's not as if an entry on an obscure writer will somehow undermine somebody's ability to search for less obscure ones.

Besides, who is to say what is "notable" or not? Lutheran ministers? Bisexual Marxists? Hopefully, both. For me, the Utopianism of Wikipedia comes from its status as a truly Democratic people's encyclopedia—nothing is too minor to be in it. Everything should noteworthy, as long as it is true and primary sources are listed. If we take this position, we avoid the pitfalls of 19th-century chroniclers, who kept little information about women and people of color in archives because of course those groups were hardly "notable." Yet now historians and curious people bang their heads against walls because so much history was lost via those "deletions."

If the goal is to preserve knowledge, we shouldn't be wasting our time determining what's "notable" enough to stay in Wikipedia. Instead, we should be preserving everything truthful we can in a searchable form, so the culture and history of the minor and obscure can be remembered just as easily as those of the famous and mighty.


Annalee Newitz (annalee@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who is going to re-create danah boyd's entry if you delete it, you bastards.


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