Meet the woman who deleted Marissa Mayer’s five children

Or, how a piece of misinformation winks in and out of existence on Wikipedia.

This is a story about Marissa Mayer’s five children.

And the woman who deleted them.

In a deeper sense, it’s about how collaborative knowledge evolves online — and why it’s crucial to have lots of small, diverse contributors to places like Wikipedia.

But let’s start off with the story I promised in the headline! This is the person I’m talking about—Sumeera Younis:

A photo of Sumeera Younis, courtesy herself

The tale begins two years ago, on July 16, 2012, when Marissa Mayer was appointed CEO of Yahoo! It was about 8:40 pm in New York when I heard the news. I realized I didn’t know a lot about Mayer and thought I should learn more. So I went to Wikipedia, figuring that—with its nerd-heavy base—it’d have a big article on her.

I was wrong. The article wasn’t very long at all. This is all they had:

The Wikipedia entry for Marissa Mayer on July 16, 2012, at 8:44 pm ET.

One fact that caught my eye was in a personal detail towards the end of the entry:

Marissa Mayer was married in 2009 and has five biological children.

Five biological children? Man alive—color me impressed. I figured Mayer was a hard-driving, take-charge character; you don’t rise that far in a company like Google if you’re not crazy organized and work like a maniac. But how in heck did she find time to have five children on top of that? She was only 39 years old! I know she’s wealthy enough to have all manner of child care, but still. I yelled this interesting factoid across the room to my wife and then went on surfing other news.

About an hour later I saw a piece about Mayer’s new job at the New York Times. This story also discussed Mayer’s background—but said she was expecting her “first child”.

What the heck?

I zipped back over to the Wikipedia page and saw that indeed, the page no longer listed five children. Instead, the bio note read solely …

Forehead slap: I’d been duped by Wikipedia fakery. Some troublemaker had put in false info about mythical children. It had been cleaned up rapidly — but during the period the misinfo had been live, I’d been gulled.

I also can’t spell “Situationist” correctly.

I should point out that I am one of the most gullible people on the Internet. I routinely get excited by hoax web sites and post them on Twitter, going all “zomg check this out!!! BREAKING,” only to have friends and helpful strangers politely point out that I am a total idiot. So this is kind of a pattern with me. You would think I’d have been more alert to the possibility of fakery, particularly with regard to bio details on Mayer’s page—because her appointment was precisely the sort of news that provokes the set of tech guys who get weird whenever women advance in the field. But like I said: I’m gullible.

I forgot about the incident for some months. Then one day I began to wonder, who had posted the fake info? And more importantly, who had cleaned it up?

So I did some forensic work, crawling through the history of the page. And it turns out that the story of Mayer’s fictional five children was a fascinating example of the Wikipedia ecosystem at work: how misinformation is created, evolves, and gets deleted.

Here it is blow-by-blow:

1) On July 16, 2012 at 8:44 pm—shortly before I first looked at the page—the entry didn’t mention children at all:

2) Five minutes later—at 8:49 pm—an anonymous contributor swooped in and added the original bit of fiction:

“Also has 5 kids, of her own. Which were not adopted.” Nice prose, friend.

3) Then other folks chimed in. Four minutes later, at 8:53 pm, an editor named “Capjones” cleaned up the grammar, editing it to read:

4) Three minutes later, at 8:56 pm, a user with the screenname Sumeerayounis tweaked the language some more. It now read:

5) A minute later, another anonymous contributor came and—like the previous two—slightly changed the wordage:

“ERROR” by Sisssou, Flickr CC

Now, notice: It had been eight minutes since the original wrong info had been posted, and three people had edited that sentence. But nobody had checked the facts and fixed the problem. This was the Reign of Error—the period during which I, and presumably dozens or hundreds or even thousands of other people, stumbled by and read the page. (It would be cool to have a long German word for this informational interregnum.)

But then finally …

6) … a minute later, at 8:59 pm, “Sumeerayounis” came back—and deleted the reference to five children. In its place, she mentioned Mayer’s marital status:

The window of error closed.

“TV Error” by Sibe Kokke, Flickr CC

Of course, this back-and-forth of fakery and correction happens all day long on Wikipedia. Pages are constantly being vandalized and defaced in small and big ways, but most defacements are fixed pretty quickly (a median of four minutes, as Tim Farley once calculated). But one rarely sees the process by which things get fixed. Because I’d been suckered by the error, I had a personal interest here. I wanted to talk to all the people involved in this wikidrama!

Alas, I couldn’t locate the original vandaleer, who edited anonymously, leaving behind only the IP address of Weill Cornell Medical College. Meanwhile, the user “capjones” had since resigned his or her account.

But frankly, the most intriguing part of the equation for me wasn’t the original vandalism anyway. The motivations of trolls are, sadly, well known. I was much more curious about the motivations of the person who fixed it, the user “Sumeerayounis.” What makes someone want to chip in and get things right?

Fortunately, Younis’ handle was her actual name, so a quick bit of Googling led me to her blog, and soon we were talking on Skype.

Younis, it turns out, is a lawyer working in D.C. I asked her how she’d come to edit the Marissa Mayer page. Younis explained that she’d only had a short career as a Wikipedia editor. Back in law school, she and her fellow students would occasionally horse around on the site around by writing pages about themselves, or tweaking the pages of their professors, but these would quickly get deleted. “It’d be gone in ten seconds,” she laughs.

Wikimania, Washington DC, 2012

She used Wikipedia all the time at work but never did any other editing. That changed when, in the weeks before Mayer’s appointment to Yahoo!, her husband (a librarian) went to a local Wikimania conference.

“He had attended a panel on how women don’t edit Wikipedia, and it’s actually like a huge issue,” Younis told me.

She was thinking about the issue when, like me, she read the news about Mayer’s appointment as Yahoo! CEO on July 16.

“I think I had gotten there the same way you did. I had just seen the press release come out, and I was like ‘Oh, I wanna learn—who is this lady? How did she get here?’ I had just had that conversation with [my husband], and I saw the press release, and saw it had five kids, and knowing what it entails to have five kids from my friends, I was like, there is no way this woman had five kids. So I did some quick fact checking and was like, yeah, no, she doesn’t. And so I just fixed it.”

My savior.

Younis intended to continue in a glorious career as a Wikipedia contributor. She’d been fired up by the news that the site wanted more women to get involved. “I was highly motivated! I was like, ‘I’m going to be all over Wikipedia, I’m going to be editing everything!’” But, as she chuckles, her ardor didn’t last. “I really think I did like five edits total.”

There are some intriguing lessons here about the nature of collaborative projects.

One is that it participating in Wikipedia, even in a tiny way, is enormously educational. As Younis found, you get a glimpse of how the Wikipedia sausage gets made. This is precisely what David Weinberger pointed out years ago in Everything Is Miscellaneous: Part of what makes collaboratively-generated information so different from traditional, old-school media is how you can (often) see the process of creation, warts and all. It gives you a deeper sense of its strengths and weaknesses, as Younis found. You learn that the highly-trafficked pages are more likely to be correct, because so many people are scrutinizing them, and that the converse is true—article “stubs” and mostly-neglected pages are where the gremlins of unfactuality lurk. You learn that peeking at the “talk” section—the discussion thread appended to a Wikipedia page—can tell you a lot.

“As a reference tool, Wikipedia still works,” Younis tells me. “Errors are fixed so quickly — it is monitored so rigorously — that I feel really comfortable relying on the information.”

From the perspective of dopes like me, who are prone to believe erroneous info—and who rely on the beneficence of people like Younis to fix mistakes — there’s another lesson in this tale: The value of “microcontributions,” as the author Michael Neilsen calls them in his book Reinventing Discovery. If you want to have diverse input into a big collaborative project, you want to encourage tons of people to pitch in, even if only for a teensy bit of labor, as with Younis. The broader the base of people pitching in, the better. If a billion people each bring a grain of sand, you can build a beach in minutes. In fact, the single most common edit on all Wikipedia pages is a grain of sand—someone changing a single word, phrase, or fact. A microcontribution. Now, most microcontributors probably behave the way Younis did; they get intrigued by the collaborative project, intrigued by Wikipedia, excitedly do a bit of work, then drift away. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s the nature of microcontributions.

Of course, in an ideal world you want to diversify not just the population of microcontributors, but the heavily-involved pool of “active editors”. These are the 31,000 Wikipedia volunteers who do more sustained work on a weekly, daily or even hourly basis. That group, and the even more rarified coterie of volunteer “administrators” (there are only just over 600 now), have even more influence on what happens at Wikipedia. But the thing is, heavy contributors begin life as microcontributors, too. That’s the gateway in: noticing an erroneous fact, fixing it, and feeling awesome about contributing to world knowledge. The more often people can easily walk in the door and quickly do something fun and useful, the more likely it’ll be they hang around.

This, really, is one of Wikipedia’s big challenges. As a report last year noted, the site appears to have actually become worse in recent years at incorporating newcomers. The number of active editors peaked in 2007 and has declined since. Why? A big part was that “desirable newcomers are more likely to have their work rejected since 2007,” because automated anti-vandalism bots were undoing small good-faith edits of precisely of the sort that Younis produced. Also, as a story in Technology Review reports, the culture of Wikipedia’s longstanding users can be impenetrable for newcomers, and the community has gone back and forth over how to make the site’s interface more easy to use.

Many Wikipedians and employees at the Wikimedia Foundation have long been trying to improve the situation. Nearly four years ago I spoke to Sue Gardner—at the time, the Foundation’s executive director—and she had outlined the need for more diversity: More women, other cultures and languages and global regions. “I go to find an article about Swedish feminism because I’m reading Stieg Larsson, and it doesn’t exist,” she told me. Gardner and others began organizing campaigns and “editathons” to encourage more women and nonwesterners to add to Wikipedia. And frankly, as this whole story shows, those campaigns are valuable! That’s how Younis got involved. She’d personally heard about the push to get more women participating.

I’m glad she showed up.

(The top picture of Marissa Mayer courtesy Techcrunch’s Flickr CC image stream.)