By Michael S. Malone
Several years ago, I embarked on a social experiment – and it has already taught me much about the Web, the eccentricities of social networks, and about the likelihood of my own historic legacy.
And it’s all come from Wikipedia.
I’ve followed the social encyclopedia almost from the beginning. And, in fact, early on I wrote one of these columns in support of the value of Wikipedia in the face of claims about its trustworthiness from the likes of Encyclopedia Britannica. What I said at the time was that at least you could see Wikipedia’s biases, and there were transparent processes to correct them . . .something that wasn’t true at the time for the venerable EB.
I’ve noted with satisfaction in the years since that, for all of its complaints, Britannica has come to look a lot more like Wikipedia. By the same token, while I still consider Wikipedia to be the most useful and accessible encyclopedia ever created – and one that becomes more of both by the year – I also must admit that the site has lost some of my early trust. I hesitate now to ever use Wikipedia as a source for an article or book, but only as a portal to other primary sources. And, of course, this is especially true when the topic has anything to do with politics and polarizing recent news events.
My relationship with Wikipedia might have remained just that . . .until a few years ago, when I was surprised to discover that I had my own Wikipedia entry. That’s when my experiment began.
To say that I was ‘surprised’ to see my entry doesn’t quite capture the sensation. When you are a kid, with a slightly unusual name, you figure you are probably the only person who wears that particular moniker. Growing up, especially in the Internet Age, quickly disabuses you of that notion. There are literally tons of ‘Michael Malones’ in America (especially young men in their 30s, who were born when ‘Michael’ was the most popular name to give to baby boys). But my awakening came even earlier when, writing my first book, I received a call from an old buddy who said he’d seen my new novel at the bookstore.
A quick drive down to A Clean,Well-Lighted Place for Books gave me the depressing news that there was already a Michael Malone, writer, who was a couple years older than me. If you are mystery novel or daytime soap fan, you probably know of this Michael Malone – and though we inhabit very different literary worlds, our records are forever being confused. Hence my use of Michael S(hawn) Malone in all of my by-lines, a name that mortified me as a kid, instead of the Mike Malone by which my friends have always known me.
So, when I first saw the entry for “Michael S. Malone” in Wikipedia, I momentarily thought it was about the other guy. And when, at last, I realized it was about me, my first question was: “Why?” I mean, it’s not like I am a celebrity, or even that well known outside the confines of Silicon Valley and the electronics industry. But that itself may have been the explanation: with Wikipedia based in Silicon Valley, and many of its contributors being computer geeks, there was a much better chance of me earning an entry on the site than had I been, say, an agricultural columnist in Topeka.
That ‘why’ has defined my relationship with my Wiki entry ever since. On that day, I decided to never touch that entry myself, and just see what would happen to it over time. One reason was curiosity; the other was that I had seen too many entries that had obviously been edited by the subject – mid-market TV anchors who listed every stupid award they’d ever earned, whitewashes in the biographies of controversial figures, and endless inserts of self-congratulation and/or self-justification.
Not being famous, my entry normally only changes about twice per year, which means I don’t have to check it out for months at a time – and then can be surprised when I do.
For example, for the first year or so, my entry was about a paragraph long – and though it got the overall description of my work correct, it got almost all of the facts wrong: still listing me as working for Forbes two years after I left, crediting me with writing three books when I’d written a dozen by then, etc. Also interesting was that the sole entry is the ‘Notes” section was an interview I had done a decade before – and which even I barely remembered.
This initial entry stayed pretty well untouched until mid-2007, when suddenly I caught the attention of one or more Wikipedia contributors. The occasion was a now-forgotten scandal involving a Web site publishing the proprietary encryption code for DVDs. I took the position (which I haven’t changed) that if individuals wanted to do this, they had the right to do so – but for a web site to join in was a violation of journalistic ethics.
Suddenly, a mention of my ‘pro-copyright stance’ appeared in my Wikipedia entry – no doubt by an angry contributor. It has been there ever since . . .long after that tempest-in-a-teapot is forgotten. That attention, in turn, seemed to kick of a burst of new additions to my entry. Suddenly, my bibliography grew – up to five books now, out of a total of fifteen. There was more detail about my professional career (though there is still yet to be anything about my education or personal life, and very little about my career as a television host and producer). And, after nine years of writing this column, and despite the fact that it is listed in the Notes section, it has still never been mentioned in the entry itself.
A few months after my ‘copyright’ addition, the publication of my book about Hewlett and Packard seemed to provoke some interest, because – lo and behold! – a photograph of me appeared. It showed me giving a speech about the book. I don’t know who took the picture.
And so it goes. In late October of last year, the most recent entries to my Wikipedia were made. I know why this one happened: the publication of my hugely controversial column on media bias in the election. Various entries popped up on the page in the days that followed, calling me a ‘neo-con columnist’ and other epithets, only to be quickly removed. All that remains of that flurry of activity are three new notes at the bottom of the entry, two of them mentioning past ABC columns of mine.
But even that’s problematic. Over the near-decade I’ve had this job, I’ve probably written five columns that drew major national attention: calling for Dan Rather’s firing, declaring the decline of Microsoft, predicting the death of newspapers, naming Matt Drudge the most influential journalist in America, and media bias in the recent presidential election. By which columns has Wikipedia chosen to define me? A piece on patent law in the Internet Age, and another on why older rockers sound so good these days.
So what lessons can I draw from this little experiment in letting my Wiki garden go unattended and filled with weeds?
Well, first and foremost, I’m still doubtful that I even deserve a Wikipedia entry. Second, I think the old Pareto 80:20 Rule obtains as much in the Wiki world as anywhere else: some small fraction of Wikipedia’s nearly 3 million entries get most of the attention, updates and details. Unfortunately, I suspect, many of those are also the entries that you can’t trust because of the push and pull of opposing contributors.
As for the rest, it is catch as catch can. If you’re lucky, the entry you are looking for will have been filled in by some expert or serious fan. If not, as in the case of my entry, what you’ll get is likely to be both incomplete and the product of an accumulation of occasional drive-by entries. The result isn’t bad – putting ego aside, I can say that my entry gives you a basic understanding of my biography – but there is probably just enough missing or wrong in these entries that you should never use them as a sole source.
After my little experiment, has my opinion changed about Wikipedia? A little. Certainly I’m more skeptical about its contents. But then again, it is precisely because of its underlying social networking model that Wikipedia’s entry on me has slowly grown more accurate, complete and timely as the year’s have passed – and I have no doubt it will be even better five years from now.
And besides, what are the chances of me ever getting an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica?