An Interview With My Wikipedian

In the process of promoting a book some years back, I gave a short talk at Google’s office in Boston. One attendee was George Ruban, a programmer there who — on his own personal time, completely separate from his day job — also happens to be an active Wikipedia editor.

He asked if he could take my picture — and add it to my Wikipedia entry.

I wasn’t crazy about the resulting snapshot. He told me I could upload one of my choosing instead, or send one to him and he’d do it. I tried to convince him that nobody really cared what I look like. He was unpersuaded. So I don’t remember the precise details, but I basically indicated I would get him a picture.

And then … I didn’t. Because I didn’t really want my picture on Wikipedia.

Years went by. I heard from George a couple of times, and even though he helped me with a separate Wikipedia issue at one point, I never followed through on my promise. Eventually, I forgot about it, and assumed he had, too.

Just recently, however, I heard from George again — and he politely but firmly reminded of my promise, suggesting perhaps I’d prefer he use the 2008 snapshot after all. I found this irritating. I occasionally check my Wikipedia entry, and knew that by then it had fallen embarrassingly out of date. What was the point of adding a picture? Who would care?

On the other hand, I was curious: What was this guy’s motive, anyway? Soon I found myself ruminating about the pros and cons of Wikipedia, and of a mid-level writer like me having an entry at all. So I promised that one way or another I would resolve this issue — if he would agree to let me interview him.

I’ve made some minor trims to the following transcript of that conversation (with George’s input), but in general I decided it’s more interesting to let this sometimes-testy back and forth between two people with very different perspectives run long — and, among other things, let you draw your own conclusions about which one of us is crazier.

1. NOT ABOUT ME

Rob Walker: We met in 2008, I believe. I was promoting a book called Buying In, and I visited your offices. Right?

George Ruban: That’s absolutely true, yes.

You took a picture of me, and what you remember is that you said “Can I put this on Wikipedia?” And I said yes — and later I changed my mind or something. Basically, I got in your way.

Something like that, yes. This is not meant to torture you. If you really don’t want to do it, that’s fine.

I’ve told you like a hundred times I don’t want my picture on Wikipedia, yet here we are. So here’s what I want to know. You sent me a link about this: You are a pretty active Wikipedia user, and I guess a believer —

[Laughs] I have drunk the Kool-Aid!

— in the value of Wikipedia. And I believe in the value of Wikipedia.

Good!

But I don’t know that I think the value of Wikipedia applies so much to this situation. Anyway, what I’m trying to figure out is — Well, for starters, what brought you there that day? Were you there to take a picture of me? Were you there because of the book?

Both reasons. I was there to listen to an interesting speaker. Google brings in authors, interesting authors, and you had an interesting book.

Did you read the book?

I believe so. Though actually it was 2008, so I don’t quite remember. [Laughs.] It’s been a while. I wish I could say it changed my life and stamped itself on my consciousness forever, but I can’t. [Laughs]

[Laughs] I appreciate the candor. So what brought this up again within the last few weeks?

I don’t exactly recall. I was either going through my records — things that I need to catch up on — or possibly I saw your link somewhere. You do have this column for The New York Times, which I do occasionally glance over. I may have seen your name and said: “I remember this person. Didn’t he promise to upload a better image?”

[Laughs] Okay, so I think we’ve established you’re not some dedicated fan of my work who thinks it’s important for the world to be aware of what I’m doing or whatever.

I think I’m a pretty minor guy at the end of the day. The picture you have that you want to upload is from 2008. So why is it important, in your view, for someone to see what I looked like standing in a room in 2008? How does that really add to the idea of Wikipedia — this grand encyclopedia of knowledge?

Okay. So you’re a minor guy compared to what, Barack Obama? Possibly. Compared to —

[Interrupting] I just randomly started searching for authors and it seems there are lots and lots of people that there are no Wikipedia pictures of who are much better known than I am, more public than I am.

Mm-hm. So —

[Interrupting again] And I would add: My Wikipedia page is inaccurate.

Perfect. Tell me how it’s inaccurate, and ideally if you can tell me where [the accurate information] is written down somewhere, in a newspaper article, or if necessary your Web page, and I will do my best to fix it.

[Laughs] But this is ridiculous! I have to personally tell a Wikipedian —

We don’t have psychic powers, you know. All we can do is — there are thousands of us, but all we can do is write down what we read in places. So if we read something that’s incorrect —

I’ll give you the main example. The second sentence says something like “is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.” That hasn’t been true for two years, three years, something like that. And the column you just mentioned: I am a columnist for the Times’ Sunday Business section, but that column isn’t mentioned. So you told me [in an earlier email exchange] that 500 people visited my Wikipedia page last month. That’s a nightmare to me —

[Laughs.] Okay, so —

— because I want those people to go to my site, which I control, and is thus accurate and up to date. It tells people what column I’m writing now, not what I was doing two years ago.

The bigger point is, I think Wikipedia is great for subjects where there’s a critical mass of public interest. But it’s terrible [as a source of reliable information on] a subject like me.

I’m looking at your site, and it does not in fact say “here is when I left The New York Times.” Or you went from one place at The New York Times to another, or whatever. If you can point to a place on your site where it says that, I would love to put that in your article.

Why is the burden on me?

It’s not. This is just a site, that people write. Okay? It’s an encyclopedia. I don’t know if you’ve had an encyclopedia in your home?

Sure.

I still have one, somewhere deep in my basement. And it says that there are 48 states. I’m not angry at the encyclopedia because it didn’t update in real time. [Laughs.] Which you seem to be.

No, I’m not angry at anything. I’m questioning how it’s helpful to add a picture of me next to inaccurate information.

We’re back to the picture.

Yeah, that’s what this is about.

Okay. [Laughs.] Well, we’d love to correct the information, that’s what we thousands of volunteers love to do. Why is it on you? Well, it’s not on you, but it has to be on someone, and we don’t have psychic powers. I’m sure if you get written about somewhere, and someone sees it, it’ll be updated. But this is just a web site, the same way that an encyclopedia is just an encyclopedia. And this one is a lot better than the one I have in my basement gathering mold, because someone can update it.

Again, I don’t question the value of Wikipedia. But I think the value of Wikipedia tails off on lower-interest subjects (like me).

And you might remember — I tried to fix something once, and it got flagged. I made a user name that was honest and transparent saying “I am the subject of this entry.” Then someone flagged it as a biased entry and said it should be deleted!

I think you’re exaggerating. It wasn’t flagged as an entry that should be deleted. It was flagged as an entry that had been edited by the subject of the article.

Okay, but for a third party to say, “This guy is editing his own Wikipedia page” makes it sound like I’m using Wikipedia to promote myself, which I would view as a corruption of what’s great about Wikipedia. I don’t think people should write their own entries. Although I know that people do.

Here’s what you can do. Since you have a web site, robwalker.net — nobody questions that it’s yours. You can make a page and say “These are the facts that I want known about me.” A biography page.

I have a biography page.

I can’t find it. But you can point me or another Wikipedia editor to it, and we’ll use it as a sufficiently reliable source for most things. If it said you won the Nobel Prize, we’d probably want some other confirmation. But for general things you’ll be a perfectly reliable source on your own work, and we’ll be happy to update your page on that. I’ll be happy to do that for you. And there are a thousand other volunteers who would be happy to do the same.

Okay, well, you can scroll down on my site and it says “read more,” click on that. I’ll send you the link. But anyway let me get back to —

The picture.

I’m gonna get to that. But one other thing. I want to tell you the history of my Wikipedia page.

2. THE BRIEF HISTORY OF MY WIKIPEDIA ENTRY

It was created by a friend of mine.

Oh, dear.

He created it without my knowledge, and told me after the fact.

Okay.

So he happens to be interested in comics. And that’s the reason my Wikipedia page spends so much time on a comic book that I was involved in 15 years ago.

Okay so —

Wait, I’m not finished. That early version of the entry is the one I tried to fix, and you helped me, thanks again for that. It got better as a result.

But over time it was out of date, and just a weird entry. So later, randomly, a reader of mine turned out to be someone who knows someone who edited Wikipedia pages for a living — like a guy who got hired by authors and others to make or edit their Wikipedia pages. So this reader said, “Tell me what’s wrong with your Wikipedia page and I’ll have my friend who does this for a living take care of it.” For nothing.

Oh dear.

And he did. And that was, if not great, at least an improvement. But no one has really updated that page in any substantial way since.

I’m embarrassed about all that. But I mean — I know this page is the first thing a lot of people see, and I would love it to be accurate and current. So what do I do about it? I don’t really want to have these proxies go in, or create an alias —

Okay, don’t go crazy. Just ping me or someone else. People complain about these things, and for people who don’t have a personal web site, it’s harder. Because we do need to have information cited to a reliable source. But for you: just update your bio, and when something happens, ping me and within a relatively short period of time I’ll update it.

But doesn’t that seem weird? To “ping” someone to update my Wikipedia page?

I don’t know a better solution. If you can think of one, please say.

Here’s the thing. You can do it yourself. That brings up the issue you talked about: If a person edits their own Wikipedia page, there is a certain implication that they’re going to be biased.

Sure.

Same thing if you’re hiring someone.

So you want someone who has a neutral point of view. Someone like me. We don’t particularly owe anything to each other. Except for one personal photo [coughs theatrically].

Yeah. I’ll get to that.

I’ll be perfectly happy to update it with the facts you put on your bio. And again, if you think of a better idea — this is a volunteer project, which means that the rules are made up as we go along. But Wikipedia has been a volunteer project for a decade now, so the rules have been made up for a while. But there’s still room to think of something better, so if you think of something better, please say.

I know it’s a volunteer project, and I’ve told you several times now that by and large I think Wikipedia is great. However, if someone comes up to my sidewalk in front of my house, screws it up, and then says, “Well, you can’t criticize me, it was a volunteer project” — there’s no logic to that. If my Wikipedia entry is inaccurate, that’s a problem that affects me, and it makes no difference that it’s a volunteer project.

Sure.

You could take me off Wikipedia for all I care. Because then people would end up on my site — which is accurate. But the “volunteer” thing doesn’t give a free pass —

No, no, I’m not bringing it up as a free pass. I’m bringing it up to explain how we make rules. We made rules by volunteers coming up with them, which is why I’m saying: “If you have a better idea….” Unlike, say, Encyclopedia Britannica. Here, if you come up with a better idea, we’ll actually do it. That’s why I’m saying it’s a volunteer project. I’m not giving you an excuse, I’m giving you an opportunity.

Well, it’s an “opportunity” that’s been imposed on me.

[Laughs.] Okay.

Let’s get to the photo thing. Now, knowing that what’s on Wikipedia about me isn’t really accurate, why is it valuable to have a picture of me next to that? What’s good about that?

It’s quite easy to fix the inaccurate information. I’m sure you’ve had inaccurate newspaper articles written —

[Exasperated] It’s “easy to fix” because I’ve got you on the phone! If I’m not in this unique position –

It’s not a unique position. You just update your bio. And whoever next reads your bio will happily update your page. The only thing unusual is you have an email address where you can write me and say “Hey, I updated my bio, please pay attention to paragraph four, where it’s different from what it says on my Wikipedia page, in paragraph six.”

So this is basically a responsibility that I have.

Nooo. It’s not a responsibility; it’s an opportunity. We’ll do the best we can with the page. This is an encyclopedia. So compare it to the print book that it’s trying to be superior to. It’s not perfect. I’m not trying to say it is. I’m just saying that it’s better. You’re trying to say that despite the fact that it’s better, it has flaws. I will not argue. It definitely does have flaws. But I’m saying: “Look, it’s so much better than the alternative.”

I’m not objecting to Wikipedia. I’m objecting to the idea that it’s somehow informationally important to have my image next to an inaccurate entry.

Okay, let’s get back to the image. We’re sort of stuck on the “inaccurate” information, and I really do want to fix it. It’s not in anyone’s interest to have things inaccurate.

3. THE PICTURE ISSUE

The picture — it’s an extra bit of information. The classic weight of a picture is a thousand words, right? I don’t know about your book, but a noticeable fraction of books do in fact have pictures of their authors on the jacket, is that not correct?

Yeah, that’s correct. Mine doesn’t. [PHONE CALL BREAKS UP. WE RECONNECT.] You were saying most book jackets have an author photo.

I’m saying some do. But yours doesn’t. I guess the point is, we’re writing an article about you. We’re writing down what the world knows about Rob Walker. And that includes things like: these are the books you’ve written, these are the columns you’ve worked on. And what you look like is also something that people can know about you. And it’s useful to the reader pretty much in the same way as knowing that you graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, and you’ve written these books, and you’ve written those columns.

It would be interesting if people saw you on the street, or at a party. [Pause.] It’s not vital information. Your article would be still quite useful without it. But it’s clearly worth the amount of space it would take on the page. It would help when people think of you — honestly when I think of a person, it really helps to see what they look like.

I think it would improve the article, which is my goal, right? Pretty much for the same reason I’d like it to have the correct information. I’d like to put a picture of you on it, because it would improve the article.

Okay. [Pause.] I guess — you don’t have to respond to this, but I have a personal thing — the reason my picture is not on that book jacket is that I actually completely disagree with the idea that people need to know what a writer looks like. I also think it’s a much heavier statement than you realize to say “Oh, it’ll be neat if people recognize you at a party.” I really have no interest in being recognized.

And when I first met you, in 2008, I was still fighting that fight. I actually had to argue with the publisher about whether my picture would be on the jacket. In my opinion, it changes the way people read, it doesn’t add any information, and it’s not necessary.

Now, since then, I have given up that fight.

[Laughs.]

The way it works these days, I routinely have to sign contracts — even when I do radio work — where I agree for my likeness to be used. That’s just how it is now. But at the time we met, I felt: I was not trying to be a public figure. I’m not saying a journalist shouldn’t be accountable, but I don’t think that requires anyone to know what I look like, and I find it distracting from the work. I’m pretty sure that in 2008 you couldn’t have found my picture online.

Again, I have long since given up on that. Today, I don’t know if you searched, but it’s certainly not hard to find images of me anymore.

That’s true. I just went to Google Image Search and searched for Rob Walker —

I’ve done a lot of public stuff since then. So —

— and your picture comes up, but so does this guy with the glasses, and a different Rob Walker who seems to be some sort of BBC guy?

The snooker announcer, probably.

So I imagine it would be quite useful to make sure you’re this guy, as opposed to that guy.

[Laughs] Useful to who? I couldn’t care less!

What? Useful to someone — for the same reason that — there is an argument that any given bit of Wikipedia knowledge can be replaced by a Google search. Still, I think there’s something to be said for a human-curated compendium of knowledge, instead of a just a machine-curated compendium of knowledge. Not that I have anything against machines. But humans are good, too.

Can’t you just use one of the images of me found through Google? Something on Flickr under the right Creative Commons license?

I haven’t found one.

I’ll find one.

I’d prefer one you’re happy with. Not torturing you is preferable to torturing you.

I think you love torturing me. I think that’s why you’re doing this.

Okay —

I’m kidding!

Okay, but there have been cases — if you’re really desperately unhappy with your Wikipedia article, we can try and get it removed. It’s not easy. But there have been cases. But as long as you’re not a governor or a senator or similar level of notability — it is possible to get someone, of I guess your level of notability, removed. If you’re dead set on it. If you really want, we can try.

I can’t guarantee it, because you are the author of a noticeable number of books. You are fairly notable. [Laughs.] I should tell you that.

4. RESOLUTION!

Here’s what I really want to say, and I don’t know if you’re going to understand this. One of the reasons I’ve been so resistant to this is that I don’t want to be perceived as using Wikipedia to promote myself. So if I upload a picture of myself to my own Wikipedia page — one of the things you’ve suggested I do — it looks like I’m using Wikipedia as a promotional tool.

And that’s really bad, from my point of view, if it’s connected to something that is factually wrong. I would look like I’m trying to propagate not only a self-image, but a false self-image. Thus I’m knowingly participating in bad information — which as a professional journalist is not something I’d do. So that’s why I wanted to do this interview, because I imagine people thinking, “That Rob Walker, what a fucking asshole, he’s so self-promotional, he’s uploading pictures of himself to Wikipedia, and his entry isn’t even accurate!”

[Laughs.]

So I don’t need the page removed. I mean, it’s true that I tell people not to look at my Wikipedia entry, to look at my site — that’s where the work is. But that’s why uploading a picture felt to me like I was endorsing the page in a way that made me uncomfortable.

But I’m going to get you multiple photo options, so you’ll get what you want. I don’t care anymore. When we first met, this was an argument I wasn’t giving up on, but now I will give up. I know that even though I am not famous, there is an expectation that people can take my picture and put it online, just like anybody else. I wish you got something in exchange for that —

I’m sorry, when you say “you,” you mean the person who becomes notable —

I mean me. But I’m not really complaining —

But you kinda do get something. You do get a few people who are interested in your work. I mean, there’s a reason why it would be bad to edit your own Wikipedia page: Because it’s self-promotional. Well, the reason why anyone would even think of doing it is because the page is promotional, right?

The difference is a proper Wikipedia entry is not self-promotional. If it has a link to your site, and lists your books, and says here are the reviews the books got, then it is promotional. So that’s what you get. It’s not the purpose of the page, but that’s unavoidable, right?

Yeah. And a lot of people treat it that way only. Which is why someone can apparently make a living making Wikipedia pages for authors.

There aren’t that many of them, and they have regular trouble.

There don’t need to be many.

[Laughs] Yes.

It was an eye-opener to hear whose pages this guy who cleaned up my entry had supposedly done for hire.

There are a couple of Wikipedia pages discussing such things. MyWikiBiz — look for that. There are some others — advertising agencies as well. It’s a regular conflict, between those who want to use this for promotion, and those who think that’s not a good idea.

People have asked me: “How did you get a Wikipedia page?” [Laughs.]

Well, you can tell them, it was a friend or —

I do tell them!

— or it was an acquaintance who made a lot of Wikimedia contributions, and you were one of them.

Yeah, that’s accurate.

And you can say: There’s this guy I ran into while I giving a talk who says that he’ll be happy to maintain the page, as long as I update my bio and tell him every so often: “Oh by the way I’ve updated my bio.”

You have my bio now, right?

I have a link. I will go through it, and some time over the next days or weeks I will see what’s different. The thing that mostly bothers you about it is it says you are now an editor, and it’s more accurate to say you were an editor, a New York Times person, a couple of years ago.

No. These details may not mean much to you but they matter in the profession: It identifies me as a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine

Which you are no longer.

Which I am not.

I can probably fix that today.

I’m a columnist for the Sunday Business section.

Okay, let me write this down.

It’s all on that bio. I just don’t want people to think that I’m trying to pass myself off as something I’m not —

Yes, I can feel your concern for your journalistic integrity, that’s a good thing.

— and putting my own picture on the page seemed like a tacit endorsement of it.

You know what you can do to avoid giving your personal endorsement — you can send me 10 photos, and I’ll get to choose one.

I’ll send you some choices.

They should be accompanied by a release.

I’ll just send you stuff on Flickr that has the right license. And if nothing I send works, I have a backup plan. I was in the documentary Objectified, and I’m in touch with the director, and I’m pretty sure I could get a screen shot he would sign off on. That might take a week or so — but I’d be comfortable with that because it’s public anyway.

Now that I think back on meeting you — your spouse is a photographer. [Laughs]

Yeah, I’m less interested in using one of her pictures than in using something that is indisputably public. I’ll give you some choices. I’m going to solve this problem for you.

Thank you. And I hope I’ve been at least somewhat helpful to you.

I find it fascinating. Again I want to emphasize: I’m not against Wikipedia, I’m not against you. I just tend to ask questions about — why is it just an axiom that a picture is better, or whatever? I want to know how people think, and you’ve given me a very clear sense. So I appreciate that.

I’ll look at your bio, but do send me an email when you want attention drawn to specific issues. Since I’m not a journalist, to me the fact that you are a columnist and not a contributing writer — if you hadn’t pointed that out, I might not have even noticed.

Well, the Times Magazine is a simply a different entity than Sunday Business. There’s no inside baseball on that.

I understand. I’m sure if I explained to you the differences between Java and C++ you would find it similarly weird and arcane.

I would defer to you. And I would assume that anybody who knew what they were talking about would notice if someone got it wrong.

Sure. All right, if you have any other questions I’ll be glad to answer.

Thanks so much for taking the time — and sorry this ran a little over.

I’m fine. Thank you, this was fun.

CODA

He’s right, it was fun.

But I should clarify three minor things in closing. First: I hope I did not imply any complaint about the friend who created my original Wikipedia entry, or the reader who helped me update it later. Second: while we didn’t get into this, other Wikipedia editors unknown to me did of course contribute to the entry at various times (constructively and otherwise), so the “history” I gave George consisted only of the developments I thought he’d find significant to the conversation. Third and finally: I hope my mention of readers potentially thinking I’m “trying to pass myself off as something I’m not” did not obscure the deeper point: I am extremely happy to be doing the work I am doing now — and I want people to know about it.

As promised, George has updated the opening sentences of my Wikipedia entry, and deleted a couple of other bits that were out of date and thus no longer accurate.

And I got someone I know who’d photographed me at an event to change the permission settings for three images on Flickr, so that George could add one of his choosing to Wikipedia. (Which he has done.)

So everybody’s happy. And yet … you may have noticed that I don’t actually link to my Wikipedia entry anywhere in this piece. What can I say? Of course I still think that RobWalker.net offers a better overview of what I’m doing, and what I’ve done. (George did not choose to add any reference to a more recent book I co-edited, for instance. But that’s his call!) And at the same time, I’m still not sure it makes sense for me to be on Wikipedia at all.

Either way, the obvious reason that I think my site is still better is that I totally control it. But I’ve come to realize, through this exercise, that I will probably never be happy with the Wikipedia entry for as long as it exists — and that maybe that is both inevitable, and for the best. So thanks again, George, for your dedication to the Wikipedia idea … and your considerable patience with me.