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?
We know why other encyclopedias need to limit the topics they cover. If they’re on paper, they’re confined by space. If they’re on the Web, they’re confined by staff size. But Wikipedia commands what is, for all practical purposes, infinite space and infinite manpower. The drawback to Wikipedia’s ongoing collaboration with readers is that entries are vulnerable to error, clumsy writing, and sabotage. The advantage is that Wikipedia can draw on the collective interests and knowledge of its hundreds of thousands of daily visitors to cover, well, anything. To limit that scope based on notions of importance and notability seems self-defeating. If Wikipedia publishes a bio of my cleaning lady, that won’t make it any harder to field experts to write and edit Wikipedia’s bio of Albert Einstein. So, why not let her in?
Granted, there are a few practical limits to covering any and all topics, “important” or not. One is privacy. Assuming that my cleaning lady were neither a public figure nor part of any larger story, it would be difficult to justify posting her bio against her will. Another limit is accuracy. The bio’s assertions about my cleaning lady would have to be independently verifiable from trustworthy sources made available to readers. Otherwise, Wikipedia’s vast army of volunteer fact-checkers would be unable to find out whether the bio was truthful.
But Wikipedia already maintains rules concerning verifiability and privacy. Why does it need separate rules governing “notability”? Wikipedia’s attempt to define who or what is notable is so rococo that it even has elaborate notability criteria for porn stars. (A former Playboy Playmate of the Month is notable; a hot girlfriend to a famous rock star is not.) Inside the permanent town meeting that is Wikipedia’s governing structure—a New Yorker article about Wikipedia last year reported that fully 25 percent of Wikipedia is now devoted to governance of the site itself—the notability standard is a topic of constant dispute.
When people go to this much trouble to maintain a distinction rendered irrelevant by technological change, the search for an explanation usually leads to Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 book, TheTheory of the Leisure Class. (Click here to read it.) This extended sociological essay argues that the pursuit of status based on outmoded social codes takes precedence over, and frequently undermines, the rational pursuit of wealth and, more broadly, common sense. Hierarchical distinctions among people and things remain in force not because they retain practical value, but because they have become pleasurable in themselves. Wikipedia’s stubborn enforcement of its notability standard suggests Veblen was right. We limit entry to the club not because we need to, but because we want to.
[Update, Feb. 24, 2007, 11:40 a.m.: I didn’t bargain on Wikipedia being such a highly sensitive instrument. Immediately after this article was posted (and therefore well before most people had a chance to read it), a Wikipedia sysop granted my entry a stay of execution with respect to “notability.” Delighted as I am to be elevated once again to the company of Nicolaus Copernicus, Igor Stravinsky, and Melvin “Slappy” White, can the dividing line between eminence and obscurity really be the authorship of a single magazine article about Wikipedia? I note with interest that Stacy Schiff, author of the excellent New Yorker article cited above, failed to impress Wikipedia’s arbiters of notability by winning the Pulitzer Prize in biography, writing several other well-regarded books, and receiving fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It wasn’t until she wrote her Wikipedia piece that she became sufficiently notable to be written up in Wikipedia.
I presume the Wikipedia sysops will debate this point and others with respect to my entry, and that I can expect to be re-tagged for removal and un-tagged ad infinitum over the coming days as they hash it out. I’ll follow future developments (click here to keep track of them) with interest. In the meantime, I hope it isn’t lost on readers that my aim was not to reinstate myself but rather to argue against Wikipedia’s “notability” standard itself and to use it as a newfangled illustration of our society’s love affair with invidious distinction.]
A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.