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Wikipedia and Philip Roth

I linked a few days back to the Wikipedia discussion of Philip Roth's novel, The Human Stain - in summary, Roth objected to an inaccurate statement about which of his acquaintances he had based the main character on, found it difficult to get the change he wanted made, and went ballistic all over the media. I'm not a fan of Wikipedia's technocratic and dehumanised internal culture, and this seemed to me worth noting but no more.

However I came across this piece by the Wikimedia Foundation's Oliver Keyes yesterday, in which Keyes lays into Roth and into the mainstream media for believing Roth uncritically. The fact is that this has been a media disaster for Wikipedia, and it's just possible that Wikipiedia could have handled it better. I posted this comment on Keyes' piece, but I do not know if he will publish it.
I realise of course that the fuss is entirely Roth’s fault for failing to read up properly on Wikipedia’s policy and procedures, and writing about them only from the perspective of a grumpy old man who found it difficult to make the improvement he wanted to an article which he thought he was in a good position to know about.

However, the fact is that Wikipedia does not, anywhere, offer an answer to the question, How do I fix inaccurate information about me and/or my organisation on Wikipedia? In fact, Wikipedia’s answer to that question is, basically, “You can’t.”

So what do people do in that situation? Those with time and inclination will set up sock-puppet accounts to make the change anyway. The socially powerful will reach out to the media and demand that the change be made, as Roth has done. Those without time or power will shrug and walk away, determining that they won't bother to interact with Wikipedia in the future. Those behaviours are actually encouraged by the way Wikipedia works.

That's one thing. The other is that this affair has been a complete media win for Roth and a serious hit to Wikipedia's reputation. It is true that almost all the media coverage took Roth at his word and failed to give Wikipedia's side to the story. Whose fault is that? Perhaps there is nobody at Wikipedia charged with dealing with the press, and/or with with digging into the details of public disputes to ensure that Wikipedia's side of the story is given. Certainly a journalist wanting to call Wikipedia to get their side of the story would probably stop looking for a phone number or email contact after a few minutes of frustrated poking around the site. So since nobody is the press contact for Wikipedia, it is nobody's fault, I suppose.

Choices have consequences. Wikipedia has chosen to make it difficult for people to change inaccurate information about themselves, and that choice has the consequence that grumpy old men like Philip Roth will complain in public that his word isn't good enough, and that smarter people will undermine your system and use pseudonyms to make the changes they want anyway. Wikipedia has chosen not to bother engaging with the media on the assumption that any interested party can easily review the changelogs and the talk page discussions, and that has consequences when a journalist is writing to a deadline, and finds that one side of the story has provided them with a good narrative and the other hasn't.
Edited to add rosefox, below, and Keyes on his blog, point out that I am completly wrong about Wikipedia's lack of visible press contacts. Note also a response from "A Wikipedia admin" making it clear that it is all the outside world's fault and that Wikipedia is right.

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pwilkinson
Sep. 16th, 2012 10:35 am (UTC)
The real problem is that, as a coherent decision-making entity, Wikipedia almost doesn't exist. The Wikimedia Foundation is in nominal control of at least several dozen, and probably several hundred, wikis of which English Wikipedia (what we think of simply as Wikipedia) is by some distance the largest. However, from what I can make out without having looked carefully, the Wikimedia Foundation's immediate human resources consist of a few paid staff and a rather larger number of volunteers - perhaps a few dozen serious regulars and others popping in on a casual basis. Basically, with regard to Wikipedia, they are in the position of the British Colonial Office of a hundred years ago trying to control India - they can make whatever high-sounding policies they like but, on the ground, these are firstly interpreted, reworded, expanded, contracted and whatever by the (still rather few - perhaps a few hundred) official local administrators to fit what they see as local conditions. and then again by the people, licenced or freelance, who usually implement them - or rather a much modified digest of them together with some of their own personal prejudices.

With over four million articles on Wikipedia, it is probably not surprising that the result is chaotic and, very often, either based on a highly garbled version of often old Wikimedia policies and sometimes right out of line with them. The problem is often made worse because the relevant Wikimedia policies were often created in rapid reaction to past incidents, and what were intended to be tentative suggestions have evolved into fundamental rules, what were intended to be fundamental rules have evolved into tentative suggestions or even been discarded altogether, and so on,

Having said that, the resolution of the Roth case which you quoted in an earlier post struck me as a good example of Wikipedia processes acting as they are supposed to. The trouble is that examples that good are also rare - there are hundreds of similar but less high-profile (and often less significant) disputes taking place on Wikipedia each day, and while most of them probably come to more or less the right conclusion, many will not and most of the rest will have turned on the instant opinions of a self-selected more or less random collection of those of Wikipedia's more regular editors who take a more or less frequent interest in such disputes. And such resolutions will in practice only stick if interested regular Wikipedia editors agree with them - otherwise they will be quietly changed back when Wikimedia Foundation and high-level Wikipedia administrator attention switches elsewhere.

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