Wikipedia and the Making of a (Wo)Man: biographical construction in the digital age.


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Did you know that according to their Wikipedia biography entries, Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd both died on January, 20, 2009? In reality, neither Senator died on that date. Robert Byrd is still very much alive and Edward Kennedy lived through August of last year. In a few short years, Wikipedia has come to dominate the field of easy-to-access information on just about any topic. Due to prominent placing in search engine results, the first stop for biographical information is often Wikipedia. Since Wikipedia entries are user-generated, errors and blatant smear campaigns are commonplace. Political hopefuls now carefully craft and continually monitor their web presence including their Wikipedia biographies. Scholars can be found on Wikipedia waging epic, never-ending battles of edits over contentious biographical points.

In this presentation I propose to examine the role of the Wikipedia biography in popular culture. How has Wikipedia affected the political landscape? How have Wikipedia editing guidelines evolved as a result of problems with high-profile biographies? What does the rise of Wikipedia mean for traditional sources of biographical information? My presentation will include real-time analysis of Wikipedia entries as well as some short video clips.

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Wikipedia and the Making of a (Wo)Man: biographical construction in the digital age.

  1. 1. Wikipedia and the Making of a (Wo)Man: Biographical Construction in the Digital Age<br />Chris Sweet<br />Illinois Wesleyan University<br />PCA / ACA Annual Conference<br />St. Louis<br />4/2/2010<br />
  2. 2. “I’d be happy to have, in theory, a good, neutral biography of every single person on the planet. I mean why not, right?”<br />-Wikipedia Founder, Jimmy Wales.<br />Wall Street Journal, Aug. 8, 2008<br />
  3. 3. 15 years ago, where do you go for biographical information?<br /><ul><li>American National Biography
  4. 4. Who’s Who? Series
  5. 5. Regular Encyclopedia (major figures)
  6. 6. Reader’s Guide</li></li></ul><li>Enter Wikipedia!<br /><ul><li>3 million+ articles
  7. 7. 6th most popular internet site (behind Google, Facebook, Youtube)
  8. 8. Jan. 2010, 365 million unique users! 11.1 billion page requests.
  9. 9. Majority of Wikipedia hits come from Google searches</li></ul><br /><br />
  10. 10. How has Wikipedia changed biography?<br /><ul><li>Consider this:
  11. 11. Michael Jackson’s Wikipedia article was viewed 30 million times in the 2 months following his death (6 million of these in the first 24 hours).
  12. 12. The day Sarah Palin was announced as McCain’s running mate her Wikipedia page had 2.4 million views (after a rash of edits the night before).
  13. 13. Wikipedia also has bios for all 493 Pokemon characters!</li></ul>NY Times, Sept. 1, 2008 and Aug. 25, 2009<br />
  14. 14. Wikipedia is far and away the most consulted source for biographical information.<br />Biographies of living people have been the most controversial aspect of the rise of Wikipedia.<br />
  15. 15. John Seigenthaler, 2005<br /><ul><li>Retired journalist and USA Today editor
  16. 16. Wikipedia bio: “John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.“
  17. 17. This was part of his bio for 132 days
  18. 18. Ran a major story in the USA Today that began to uncover some of the problems with Wikipedia and Bios of living persons.</li></li></ul><li>“Death by Wikipedia”<br />According to Wikipedia: "Death by Wikipedia" is a phenomenon in which a person is erroneously proclaimed dead through vandalism. <br />The most high-profile cases of “Death by Wikipedia” are senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd.<br />
  19. 19. Kennedy and Byrd<br /><ul><li>Post-Inaugural Luncheon, Jan. 20, 2009.
  20. 20. Kennedy, who was being treated for brain cancer, had a minor seizure at the luncheon and was taken to a local hospital.
  21. 21. He recovered from the incident, but a Wikipedia contributor named Gfdjklsdgiojksdkf wrote: "Kennedy suffered a seizure at a luncheon following the Barack Obama Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2009. He was removed in a wheelchair, and died shortly after."</li></li></ul><li>Kennedy and Byrd<br />At the same luncheon, Senator Robert Byrd was upset by Kennedy’s seizure and left the luncheon.<br />His Wikipedia bio stated that he had collapsed at the luncheon and a death date of January 20, 2009 was added.<br />Created increased scrutiny on Wikipedia’s editorial practices.<br />
  22. 22. French Composer Maurice Jarre<br /><ul><li>Maurice Jarre really did die on March 28, 2009.
  23. 23. As an experiment, Shane Fitzgerald, a student at University College, Dublin, inserted this fake, undocumented quote into Jarre’s bio:
  24. 24. “One could say my life has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear.”</li></ul><br />
  25. 25. Jarre Hoax<br /><ul><li>The quote was lifted and used by many large, reputable papers like The Guardian and BBC Music Magazine.
  26. 26. Fitzgerald: “I am 100 percent convinced that if I hadn’t come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up. It would have become another example where, once anything is printed enough times in the media without challenge, it becomes fact.”</li></li></ul><li>Wikipedia Editorial Policies<br /><ul><li>Because of public scrutiny and potential legal liability, the Wikipedia editorial policies surrounding bios of living persons have become quite strong.
  27. 27. Editors must take particular care adding information about living persons to any Wikipedia page. Such material requires a high degree of sensitivity, and must adhere strictly to all applicable laws in the United States, to this policy, and to our three core content policies:
  28. 28. Neutral point of view (NPOV)
  29. 29. Verifiability (V)
  30. 30. No original research (NOR)
  31. 31. Autobiography policy: “Writing an autobiography on Wikipedia is strongly discouraged.”</li></ul><br />
  32. 32. Interesting, But So What?<br />
  33. 33. Biography and Objectivity<br /><ul><li>“Objective biography is logically and artistically impossible. ‘Observation is always selective’ as Karl Popper reminds us. Every observation, he explains, requires ‘a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem’ otherwise it is valueless”(10).
  34. 34. “Belief in the authority of biography results from continual correction and comparison, through new evidence or interpretation, of the biographer’s account with those of others.”(3).
  35. 35. Ira Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form. 1984</li></li></ul><li>Biography and Objectivity<br /><ul><li>Despite the factual errors and vandalism, could Wikipedia bios edited by hundreds of non-professionals exhibit less bias than a biography written by a single author?
  36. 36. Should the idea of “communal biography” be recognized as an entirely new genre?
  37. 37. Is this not an example of “peer-review,” the cornerstone of scholarly publishing played out in real time?
  38. 38. What about the uproar over James Frey’s, A Million Little Pieces? Could that much autobiographical fiction pass for truth on Wikipedia?</li></li></ul><li>Open Source Scholarship?<br />“But a much broader question about academic culture is whether the methods and approaches that have proven so successful in Wikipedia can also affect how scholarly work is produced, shared, and debated. Wikipedia embodies an optimistic view of community and collaboration that already informs the best of the academic enterprise”(143).<br />Roy Rosenzweig. Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past. Journal of American History.<br />
  39. 39. Impact Factor<br /><ul><li>We’ve already consider one pillar of scholarly publishing, so what about Impact Factor?
  40. 40. Rosenzweig again: “American National Biography Online may be a significantly better historical resource than Wikipedia, but its impact is much smaller because it is available to so few people.”
  41. 41. As a librarian, I’d be willing to bet that the Wikipedia Michael Jackson article gets more hits in a year than all the American National Biography Online combined.
  42. 42. Critical thinking and evaluation is essential! We can’t have journalists lifting undocumented quotes from Wikipedia.</li></li></ul><li>The Next Puzzle Piece<br />The role of autobiography in pop culture.<br />Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are all manifestations of a new type of autobiography.<br />Many Reality TV shows are intimately biographical.<br />
  43. 43. “It is said that Zaphod Beeblebrox's birth was marked by earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, firestorms, the explosion of three neighbouring stars, and, shortly afterwards, by the issuing of over six and three quarter million writs for damages from all of the major landowners in his Galactic sector. However, the only person by whom this is said is Beeblebrox himself, and there are several possible theories to explain this.”<br />– The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Fit the Ninth<br />