How to (try to) Lie With Wikipedia

The manufactured history of neckbeard-shaming


Neckbeards. A fashion choice. An internet insult. Has the term been used as a pejorative since Colonial times? The internet says so. I looked into it.

The Insult

I got into one of those internet discussions about whether the word neckbeard is a slur. I don’t have skin in the game. I like necks with beards on them just fine, and I don’t tend to insult people via their grooming choices. But I love etymological quicksand. People in this particular discussion commented using typical I statements about the word and their opinions of its relative level of badness. We weren’t really getting anywhere.

“I’m fine with neckbeard. But I really do hate facial hair.”
“I feel denigrated and offended by it.”
“I am disgusted with humanity.”

But then… someone upped the ante by citing historical sources!

Louisa May Alcott reportedly mentioned to Emerson that Thoreau’s neckbeard “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.”
HDT, original neckbeard. Virgin.

Oh snap! Really? Neckbeards historically recognized as active lady-repellent. I never knew!

The somewhat-random blog where the quotation was from cited the Wikipedia article on Henry David Thoreau. If there’s one thing a librarian loves, it’s a citation. We’re also pretty into Wikipedia. In addition to awesome features like authority control, places like the Wikipedia Library and projects like the GLAM-WIKI initiative, Wikipedia also has citations, lots of them. It’s the encyclopedia anyone can edit!

At the same time “anyone” means about 1,500 dudes, sort of. As a longtime editor there, I’ve seen a lot of “test” edits, vandalism and outright making shit up, so I’m often skeptical of what I read. On the other hand, Wikipedia’s full of good information and is often more current and more thorough than a lot of news reporting. So I approach it with curiosity; trust but verify.

The Investigation

The neckbeard discussion had reached the usual Internet Argument Wikipedia Citation Impasse. This could go one of three ways.

  1. The references link to a reliable, linked original source. Case closed. You win.
  2. The citations direct the reader towards print material. Case open, possibly cold.
  3. The information cited was in the article but isn’t anymore. Game afoot, further digging required.

Wikipedia tracks changes made to Wikipedia. The neckbeard quotation originally found there, had been added in 2007 and removed in 2014. During those seven years it zipped around the internet with a veneer of authenticity, getting cited as fact everywhere: XOXO talks; Medium articles; quizbowl questions; Louisa May Alcott tumblblogs. This is a true fact about neckbeard history, a quote from a woman of some reknown. Perhaps.

Further study required.

With a little bit of digging in Wikipedia we learned more about the user who originally added the Alcott quotation to the article. A comment by Roger Bellin a MetaFilter user who just happened to have a PhD in 19th-Century America strongly implied something was fishy.

The user who inserted the line made at least one other clear prank/joke edit in their brief time editing… and never responded to an immediate request for a real, specific citation.

The original vague citation was to a sixteen volume set of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notebooks. Five to six hundred pages each. No page number given. No volume number given. The end, right?

The Smoking Gun

It might have been the end, in 2007. Anyone fact-checking that citation would have their work cut out for them and would pray for a thorough index. Not the sort of work you’d do to settle a bar bet. But! By 2o15 we have Google Books, newly lawsuit-free, where you can keyword search up to thirty million books. Hathi Trust also has ten million volumes, full-text searchable thanks to their own lawsuit victory and, unlike Google, their advanced search options are robust and appealing.

So, instead of flipping pages deep within a distant library, a researcher could toss queries at these databases, things like “Has Emerson ever used the word perpetuity in his notebooks or journals?” and “Do the words neck and beard ever show up next to each other in any book written by Thoreau, Alcott or Emerson?”

Yes, but not often.

The answer, as they say, might surprise you: no. Didn’t happen. Made up. Wikipedia’s record has been corrected, the secondary Wikipedia-citers’ have not.

Just to be on the safe side, since it’s tough to prove a negative, I contacted my friend John Overholt, Curator of Early Modern Books & Manuscripts at Houghton Library at Harvard. They had the digitized version of the cited Emerson notebooks with more trustworthy optical character recognition than Google’s. Could he confirm what I was seeing? He could.

There are five “perpetuity”s in the 15 volumes, and definitely none of them are that quote. There are no instances in which “Thoreau” and “beard” appear together, nor any variation of neckbeard. There are only a handful of references to Louisa May Alcott in the set, and none of them are that anecdote. So I think you can consider it conclusively debunked.

So whatever your opinion of bearded necks, neckbeard wearers, Louisa May Alcott or Thoreau’s fashion sense I hope we’ve all learned something about the nature of online citation and that if you really need to know something for certain, ask a librarian.

Amusingly, a search for Google books for “neck beard” turns up Walden by Thoreau, quite possibly because the Wikipedia page originally contained that fake quote.

I am the first user to use the term neckbeard in a comment on MetaFilter back in 2004. Not sorry.