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Not on Wikipedia? You may not exist...

Robert Weedon | Internet | Wednesday 2nd November 2011

Once upon a time, if you wanted to look something or somebody up quickly (and, like most people you couldn't afford a full Encyclopedia Britannica), you probably looked it up in a tome like Pears' Cyclopedia.

Likewise, if you wanted to look a living person up, you may have used a book like Who's Who. If you couldn't afford that, I'm not quite sure where you would have gone. A local library, I suppose? Unless they've all been closed these days?

In slightly more modern times, I remember as a schoolboy circa 1998 when tasked to look up, for example, the canvas splodger Rembrandt, most urchins turned to Microsoft's now-discontinued Encarta digital encyclopedia, whereupon everybody would produce a piece of facsimile research derived from that program with a few superficial changes, or sometimes not at all. Journalists still do much the same sort of things with press releases today.

Nowadays, all that messing about with books and other print sources has gone out of the window. For a quick reference to answer, for example that eternal question "where did Richard Briers go to school" you just look them up using Google. Expanding on that point, almost always the first or second result on Google will be Wikipedia. This has created a situation where, in my head, you don't exist unless you're on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia isn't Who's Who or Britannica. In many ways, it's a bit more special than that, as it features biographies of both the living and dead, the famous and the infamous, and features biographies of people who are often rather specialist in their fields.

Many of the people are very obscure, and would never have appeared in Britannica, Pears or Encarta; Australian fighter pilots, a man who jumped off the Acropolis, the head of an Arabian TV station and professional medieval farters. In fact, the only criteria for inclusion is that they have to be 'notable' in some way. 'Notable' is a rather subjective term, and as long as it can be sufficiently argued that somebody is worthy of their own page, it is likely that they will stay.

The other thing that makes it special is that it's free. There is no charge for viewing Wikipedia, and there are no promises that there is a better premium version available at extra cost. As is stated ad infinitum by commentators, Wikipedia is written by volunteers, and therefore reflects peoples' interests. This is undoubtedly true.

Some people think that's a bad thing, such as this article in the Daily Telegraph (as if a right-wing broadsheet newspaper never focuses on things its interested in), but in reality it means that it's constantly changing and updating itself. Mistakes inevitably occur, but over time they can be ironed out; unlike print, or even a proprietary online encyclopedia (such as BFI's Lottery-funded Screenonline), it can update itself within days, hours or even minutes of something new happening.

This has also led to a rather morbid little game that some Wikipedia editors play to be the first to report that somebody has died, like a sort of obituary vulture; thanks to rolling news the recently deceased are sometimes still warm to the touch when Wikipedia slaps a big "recently died" template on their page and starts writing about them in the past tense. However, again, this is an advantage of having a floating, non-printed format.

Come away, come away death, and in Wiki past tense let me be laid.

For example, when the TV sitcom writer John Sullivan died, it was updated within seconds of his death being announced on News 24; Screenonline took almost a month to get around to it, and still refers to him in the present tense because the article is written by one credited author, who presumably has a clause that states that his/her work cannot be changed without their permission.

Wikipedia also has the advantage that if somebody suddenly becomes famous, there will almost certainly be an article written about them as soon as they are commented on in external publications. This is generally an advantage, although it does lead to a problem where people who really aren't worthy of a mention get their own articles. Reality TV contestants are the worst offenders. Just generally, really.

Getting back to my thesis that nowadays you don't exist unless you're on Wikipedia, it is undoubtedly true that, because Wikipedia is a user-contributed encyclopedia, it should mean that if people want to advertise themselves, their product or their company, it's quite easy to start a Wikipedia article about themselves. Unfortunately for them, it really isn't. Only about 5% of newly started articles make it through the first day.

I've spent a few hours in the past going through new submissions, and it's a dispiriting business. Quite a few new articles are vandalism. The rest tend to be articles that people have written about themselves, thinking that Wikipedia is a bit like Facebook.

Some are about MySpace-only heavy metal garage bands or people who have made a few YouTube videos which have had 'over 10,000 views', usually because they just posted up clips of Top Gear or Family Guy with a Windows Movie Maker template on the beginning. Others are about cranky products, pure postings of press releases or just articles about people who have no claim to any form of 'notability'.

Interestingly, what a lot of people don't realise is that many entries in Who's Who are written by its subjects, which is why Dame Barbara Cartland's entry used to take up about a quarter of the book.

Wikipedia biographies tend not to be written by their subjects, or at least if they are they are usually heavily rewritten. You can spot self-penned articles a mile off.

Firstly, the article will be by a newly-registered account, quite often under the same name as the article title, and thus will stand out like a finger appendage which has recently been pulverised by a hammer. This is because people don't know how to write a Wikipedia article; they get the formatting wrong, the look wrong, the tone wrong.

For a start, unless somebody is noteworthy enough to have a published auto/biography or a specialist newspaper article, it's unlikely that there is very much detail about their early life. So, if a biography starts by going on about their parents and how they "first acted in The Great Gatsby at school" you know they wrote it themselves.

Secondly, most human beings are self-publicists and tend to write about themselves as if they are writing a CV. Interestingly, the best, most believable-looking Wikipedia articles are actually the ones that don't look like a CV or press release, because the facts and information tend to speak for themselves when presented factually rather than with lots of hype.

One Wikipedia trend I heard about recently is so-called 'paid editing'. A big discussion took place that stated that it wasn't quite right that an editor was paid by a company to write an article about them, particularly when in most cases these vanity articles turn out to be really rubbish.

It's an interesting question, though - if somebody can write an article in the "house style" and is able to find enough about a company, website or person to make it sound notable, there's nothing to stop them. After all, unless you're stupid enough to advertise your services on an online classified ads website, as at least one Wikipedia editor has been, then nobody would be any wiser.

With this in mind, I do wonder why more big corporations and even governments haven't started employing people specifically to edit Wikipedia as part of their job; perhaps they already do? After all, the Daily Telegraph and other newspapers have their own journalists who are specifically employed to hang around Twitter all day in search of stories. Why shouldn't they also want to employ somebody to write articles about them as well?

By the way, Richard Briers went to Rokeby Prep School in Wimbledon, apparently.[citation needed]



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