Wikipedia Activism

When I edit Wikipedia, I am fighting for the future. There are certain things and people whose memories I want preserved for generations to come so that curious searchers a century from now will know the full story. Via Wikipedia, they will get more than stories of great politicians and giant corporations from glossy histories. I want this user-edited, online encyclopedia to tell tales of the brave and the marginal as well as the notorious and the powerful. That's why I've become a Wikipedia activist.

For years I was a passive reader of Wikipedia, particularly entries on obscure technology and pop culture. I think of Wikipedia as the first place to go when I'm researching something off the beaten track, like early episodes of Doctor Who or technical specs for the outputs on DVR players.

Last week, however, I finally shed my Wikipedia passivity and started editing entries myself. I hit a personal tipping point.

I was writing a profile about a novelist for an online magazine and discovered that this author's Wikipedia biography page had been summarily deleted the week before on the grounds that it wasn't notable enough. I had previously visited his entry early in my research because it contained a fairly complete list of everything he'd written. To make matters worse, when I read the history of the deletion, it turned out to have been done by a guy who knew absolutely nothing about this novelist's areas of expertise. The deleter was a big contributor to Wikipedia, it's true -- but only on the topic of religion, particularly Lutheranism. How could that background possibly grant him the authority to determine whether a postmodern novelist and video game designer was notable or not?

So I signed up for a Wikipedia account and re-created this novelist's entry from the Google cache and sources I'd gathered while writing the profile. I also wrote an explanation to the deleter, requesting that he not do it again.

And then, while I was at it, I re-created another entry recently deleted for not being notable enough -- that of Sonia Greene, a pulp fiction writer and publisher of the 1920s who was briefly married to H.P. Lovecraft. Of all the insulting things to have happen, her entry had been erased, and people searching for her were redirected to an entry on Lovecraft. How's that for you, future scholars? Looking for information about a minor pulp fiction writer? Too bad she's not notable -- but we can redirect you to an entry on a guy she was married to for two years. (A guy, I might add, who pissed her off so much that she burned all his letters when they divorced.) Yuck.

My experiences have made me strongly question the idea of "notableness" on Wikipedia. I am genuinely offended by the notion that obscure authors, technologies, ideas and events should be deleted from what's supposed to be a vast compendium of knowledge. It's not as if Wikipedia is running out of disk space and needs to delete stuff to keep going. And it's not as if an entry on an obscure writer will somehow undermine somebody's ability to search for less obscure ones.

Besides, who is to say what is notable or not? Lutheran ministers? Bisexual Marxists? Hopefully both. For me, the utopianism of Wikipedia comes from its status as a truly democratic people's encyclopedia -- nothing is too minor to be in it. Everything should be noteworthy, as long as it is true and primary sources are listed. If we take this position, we avoid the mistakes of 19th-century chroniclers, who kept little information about women and people of color in archives because, of course, those groups were hardly notable. Yet now historians and curious people bang their heads against walls because so much history was lost to those deletions.

If the goal is to preserve knowledge, we shouldn't be wasting our time determining what's notable enough to stay in Wikipedia. Instead, we should be preserving in a searchable form everything that’s truthful, so the culture and history of the minor and the obscure can be remembered just as easily as those of the famous and the mighty.

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