How I Snuck Through Wikipedia’s
I’m not famous. But judging by my expansive Wikipedia entry, I’m a star!
The English-language edition of Wikipedia is composed of 4,735,036 articles at the time I write this sentence. One of those articles is a ridiculously detailed biographical summary of my career as a journalist and author. At 1,905 words in length, excluding references, it is shorter than the entries on The Simpsons’ family dog, Santa’s Little Helper (2,908 words), spontaneous human combustion (2,347), the internet meme Rickrolling (2,307) and Barack Obama (10,302).
The article in my name is longer, however, than the ones devoted to the Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand (1,880), The Simpsons character Barney Gumble (1,848), screenwriter and director Lena Dunham (1,480) or stand-up comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan (1,029).
I’m not well-known by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not that journalists get some kind of special treatment on Wikipedia, either. Take Jon Ronson, a journalist who is two decades and several global bestsellers ahead of me. Casual readers of nonfiction may know him as the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Psychopath Test. His latest title is So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an excerpt of which appeared in The New York Times Magazine in February 2015.
In a 2012 story he wrote for GQ on income inequality, Ronson, 47, declared his annual income to be in the range of $250,000, a figure that I can assure you is much greater than my own. He also co-wrote the screenplay for a 2014 feature film, Frank, starring Michael Fassbender. Yet by some strange quirk of the web, the Wikipedia summary of Ronson’s remarkable career is 1,223 words in length—precisely 682 words shorter than my article.
The story of how my entry came to be reveals the quirks of Wikipedia’s process for determining what to keep, and what to jettison, on the encyclopedia’s servers. There’s a name for this: the ‘notability test.’ I had the rare opportunity to observe this process up close, in real time.
As a frequent Wikipedia reader, I had long wondered about the people who studiously edit its content, writing paragraphs, creating links, sourcing citations and tweaking code behind the scenes to keep it running smoothly. As a professional writer, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the unpaid nature of this work, as I abhor the notion of writing for free.
I wanted to know what compels a person to create—from scratch—an article on some esoteric subject, landmark or person. I needed a case study. Purely by chance, that esoteric subject turned out to be none other than me.
I first began interacting with members of the Wikipedia community in March 2014. I had become curious about a particularly pedantic editor called ‘Giraffedata,’ whom I recently profiled for Backchannel. I asked him to point me to other ‘WikiGnomes,’ the moniker affectionately awarded to those within the editorial community who tirelessly fix minor technical and grammatical errors.
He pointed me straight to ‘JHunterJ.’
‘JHunterJ’ has been an active editor since January 2006 and has amassed more than 66,000 edits, placing him well inside the top 1,000 most prolific contributors. He works as a database programmer, but the 46-year-old is also a freelance game designer and author with a unique claim among Wikipedians: he is one of the rare few to have a Wikipedia article listed in his name. Its existence is an ongoing point of contention among the community. The ‘J. Hunter Johnson’ article has been marked for deletion three times between 2006 and 2014; it has survived a voting process on each occasion.
I spoke with Johnson the following week over Skype. He explained how the editors debate over which articles to keep and which ones to remove. “Deletions happen all the time,” he said. “I know it’s sometimes hard to believe, when you’re looking at all these lists of things that other people find very interesting,” he said, “because we’re all geeks on this thing.” Even the individuals seemingly most invested in the minutiae of the universe (toilet paper orientation: 5,147 words; list of sexually active popes: 1,738 words) have standards.
He’s a seasoned spotter of self-promotional articles on the site, with small-town pop bands and their associates as prime offenders. “If it’s written like a PR piece, it’s probably a PR piece,” he said. “The converse is also true: sometimes people will have an axe to grind, and their username will be created just for some vandalism edits.”
Yet he concedes that Wikipedia’s filters for spurious content are imperfect. “If I wanted to go out and write a puff piece on you before this story came out, nobody would know that we were connected in any way,” he said. “As long as I don’t write things in too glowing a fashion, there would be no easy way to tell.”
And that gave him an idea.
Our Skype interview ended abruptly after I noticed my apartment roof leaking above my computer. Over email not long after, he proposed that we watch the process unfold ourselves, with a short article that he would create in my name.
“I can stub out an article on you and we can see what happens,” he wrote.
Deep within a labyrinthine series of prescriptive, encyclopedia-wide guidelines is a page entitled ‘What Wikipedia is not.’ Among other things, it is not a dictionary, nor a soapbox, nor a crystal ball, nor an indiscriminate collection of information. This last point is sometimes cited during discussions around article deletions, as a reminder that the site represents a summary of accepted knowledge on a subject, rather than a complete exposition of all possible details.
The guidelines for entries on people suggest that a person should be “worthy of note or notice; remarkable.” Notability “in the sense of being ‘famous’ or ‘popular’—although not irrelevant—is secondary.” I presume this is why the article in my name is allowed, as I am neither of those two adjectives.
A week later, I got another email from Johnson. “The Wikipedia article about you is up, with no raised eyebrows, so you might not get to see the deletion discussion process up close,” he wrote. I checked. There was my name, along with four sentences he had written about my career, live on the site, with nine cited references to my work and a link to my official website. I felt a perverse thrill—as if I’d found a cheat code that shot me straight to fame, without having to write a single bestseller or big-budget screenplay.
When we reconnected via Skype again, I thanked him for his efforts. “Sure,” he replied, explaining that he’d probably gotten lucky with his timing. At the moment when Johnson clicked ‘save,’ his addition did not raise any alarms with the other logged-in editors, some of whom carefully watch the log of recent changes. “I happened not to create any ripples when I created the page,” he said.
I asked whether someone might yet stumble across it and question why this barely known Australian journalist deserves a Wikipedia stub. “Yeah, it’s always possible,” he said. “For journalists, it’s less likely than if I created one about a band in your neighborhood.” It turns out that as a profession, we reporters are a lot less self-promotional than aspiring small-town bands. Who knew?
As I was poking around in the engine of Wikipedia, I discovered another prolific editor, this one a frequent contributor to Australian music articles, an area of my expertise. On several occasions his edits had included references to and quotes from interviews I’d conducted with musicians over the last few years. I reached out to this editor through his ‘Talk’ page. (Every editor and article on Wikipedia has a corresponding ‘Talk’ page that serves as a forum for discussion.)
When we spoke in early May, this editor had recently expanded the article for Violent Soho, a rock band based in Brisbane, Australia, the city where I live. “That page really needed an overhaul,” he said. (He has since asked that I leave his Wikipedia username out of this story.) Throughout our conversation, I was struck by how his words could apply just as well to professional journalists. “One of the foundational elements of being a writer is to be constantly curious, engaged and interested in the world around you,” he said. “If you lack that, you’re better off going in another direction.”
Following our Skype interview, this editor joined my weekly email list, and we corresponded infrequently about several aspects of my published work. In early July, two months after our Skype interview, I was sitting at my partner’s parents’ computer, aimlessly browsing Wikipedia. A memory emerged in sharp focus: oh, yeah—I’m the subject of an article on this site. How’s my page doing? It had been months since I’d checked.
I typed my name into the search box in the top right corner and pressed ‘enter.’ As the page loaded and the vertical scrollbar extended, my eyebrows shot skyward. That editor, the Australian music enthusiast, had expanded my page significantly, far beyond the initial stub created by ‘JHunterJ’ in April. This new version of the page contained a table of contents with six headings, including my ‘early life and education’ as well as my ‘charity work,’ which mentioned the occasion in 2012 when I had shaved off my seven-year-old dreadlocks while fundraising for cancer research.
Scrolling down the page and reading this editor’s words, I felt a peculiar mix of astonishment and pride. He had clearly spent hours researching my work, as the reference list had expanded to 17 different sources, including comments I’d made in a lengthy podcast interview that was released in May.
At this point, I had been a freelance journalist for over five years. My writing had been published hundreds of times across dozens of magazines, newspapers and websites. Yet scrolling through that article was among the most thrilling experiences of my life. It gave me a buzz to see my career laid out in the familiar, neutral white-and-black of Wikipedia, and phrased in dry, encyclopedic tones such as, “McMillen grew up in the southern Queensland, Australia city of Bundaberg with a father who remains a librarian-teacher in May 2014.”
I sat there grinning to myself as my heart rate rose several beats above baseline. A flush of embarrassment hit me when I realized that this article was now likely to be among the most comprehensive of the 660-odd Australian journalists listed on the site, although the names of dozens of more experienced and deserving writers came to mind immediately. I wondered whether any colleagues or commissioning editors stumbling across the article would assume that I’d written it myself, or hired someone to do so. I worried whether such an assumption might paint a target on my back: ‘I’m an egomaniac — don’t hire me.’ There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and becoming the subject of an overly comprehensive Wikipedia article might tip the scales toward the latter.
I also realized that my well-sourced biography can be attributed, in part, to the fact that every word I’ve published is available online, and thus easily cited as a reference. In the eyes of Wikipedia editors, my being a digital native appears to be a distinct advantage: it’s much easier to link to existing online sources than to visit libraries and dig through decades-old physical media, such as books and newspapers.
One could argue that an article’s length is a misleading measure of noteworthiness. Consider, for example, the case of the German actress Sibel Kekilli, best known for her role as Shae in the HBO series Game Of Thrones. Kekilli’s entry is 599 words long, and it includes brief mention of her past work in adult films. I bring that up because her article’s ‘Talk’ page contains 7,402 words of passionate bickering between dozens of editors, dating back to 2010, regarding how extensively her background in pornography should be documented.
In 2012, after a Wikipedian with administrator privileges had once again stripped Kekilli’s page of any porn-related content, a contributor named Tullius2 conceded that “right now the issue is probably a lost cause.”
“Every attempt [to revert the changes] would require massively more effort than it is worth,” Tullius2 added. “Wikipedia is an opaque thicket of power structures, nearly unnavigable for the occasional Wikipedian like you and me.”
It’s well known that around 90 percent of Wikipedia editors are male, so the edits and discussions skew toward male interests. Many contributors are working to expand the encyclopedia’s scope in positive directions: rather than creating yet another article devoted to trivial aspects of Pokémon or The X-Files, groups of contributors work together on ‘WikiProjects’ to improve the coverage of, say, ‘LGBT studies’ or ‘women’s history’. (It has to be said, though, that on the most recent list of WikiProjects ranked by popularity, these two subject areas rank well below such primarily male-driven subjects as ‘military history’ and ‘professional wrestling’).
Given that Wikipedia is a project driven by the hyper-specific interests of thousands of human volunteers, it is far from a meritocracy. It is a venture driven by human interest, intrinsically linked to the individual quirks of its editors. Through sheer dumb luck, I had found something unique and unexpected: a person who became a generous champion for my cause, as it were. Someone who enjoyed spending his free time improving the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and who had taken enough interest in my journalistic work to channel that curiosity into a well-written article. In his mind, it seemed, I had passed Wikipedia’s notability test with flying colors, and none of his volunteer peers had yet challenged this assessment. (That may change after the publication of this story, of course. And I’m okay with that.)
I emailed him immediately after I’d finished basking in the monitor’s white glow. “Holy shit, dude, I just saw what you did to my Wiki page,” I wrote. “You’re a madman! I am ridiculously flattered that you took the time. Thank you.”
The pedant in me couldn’t help pointing out one inaccuracy, the claim that Bad Brains was one of my favorite bands, the result of a comment made by a writer who had interviewed me in 2011. “I will correct the mistake tonight,” he replied.
Earlier I’d told him that I was thinking of doing a story on the notability test. In this conversation he impressed on me that his edits had nothing to do with the article. “Please don’t think I have any expectations—I just saw your page and thought, ‘This needs work,’ so I did it.”