Thursday, March 6, 2014

Wikipedia I

I recently had a run-in with Wikipedia, and it isn't surprising or interesting, but I thought I should recount it to my readers.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Lorrie Moore released a new book. I had already read most of it much earlier, because five out of eight stories had been published online over a period of several years. Needless to say, I don't like her writing anymore. However, I did notice that for the first time accurate reviews were coming out from a wide range of sources. Overall, I think the reviews were still slightly positive. I had made a small edit to an unrelated article on Wikipedia in 2007 and still had an account there, so I decided to add quotes from the reviews that I thought were best to Lorrie Moore's Wikipedia page. I didn't think anyone would have a problem with Michiko Kakutani, since she is one of the better known reviewers in the country. The other two were lesser known, but I think their reviews were actually more to the point.

When I posted these reviews, I thought there might be repercussions. Practically anyone can challenge Wikipedia content. This is one of the basic limitations of the site. On purely factual matters, misinformation can appropriately be removed over time, but on aesthetic matters, Wikipedia is a disaster. Whoever shouts the loudest may be able to get his way by following the appeal process. The end result on artistic opinion is probably somewhere between a whitewash and homogenization. Most of the time fans are more vocal than detractors. To test this theory, I just checked Mein Kampf on, and it gets four stars.

A few days after I made these posts, I noticed that they had been removed. They had been replaced with three favorable reviews. Further investigation showed that I had been blocked permanently from making edits on Wikipedia. I inquired at Wikipedia and came into contact with an administrator named Guy Chapman, who lives in England. His attitude was dismissive, arrogant and insulting. He clearly had made up his mind that I was a troublemaker and took no interest in anything that I had to say. I won't quote the entire exchange, in which I remained civil, but here are some of the things he wrote:
Wikipedia finds itself critically short of givable fucks.
Me, I am a rude obnoxious bastard Englishman and I don't make any secret of it.
No need to reply, your email address is now in my spam bin.
As my mother would say, "Charming."

I had the option of appealing this decision at Wikipedia, but since I have no desire to edit their articles and don't care that Lorrie Moore's page is inaccurate hagiography, I am letting it go. There is really no way anyone can control the media, of which Wikipedia is just a small part. However, this was my first exposure to the ugly underbelly of Wikipedia. I previously had a somewhat positive attitude toward it and donated $100 per year. That ends now. I don't know much about its founder, Jimmy Wales, but apparently he is an entrepreneur and an admirer of Ayn Rand, which are two strikes against him as far as I'm concerned. I use Wikipedia only because it's there, and I don't think much would be lost if it wasn't.

There remain questions about aesthetic judgment, which is a much larger topic in itself and is beyond the scope of this post. It is very difficult to fight consensus even when you are certain that it is wrong. I think the U.S. has always been an aesthetically backward country, groupthink is rampant, and there is little to keep weak opinions at bay. Readers think that they have a right to say that something is very good even when more knowledgeable people say it isn't. Picking books to read based on consensus, customer reviews, for example, would be a nightmare. Unfortunately, I don't think the results would be all that much better if you restricted yourself to books that are studied by students in American creative writing programs.


  1. The fact that the reviews you added were not only removed, but replaced with three positive reviews is profoundly disturbing. Since I haven't seen the entire correspondence between you and Mr. Chapman, I'd be interested to know if he offered any justification for this decision before descending into outright insults. Is there any way to bring visibility to your exchange with him internally, within Wikipedia? Perhaps that would entail the appeal process that you mentioned. It's hard to believe that anyone would find his manner of addressing you professional or acceptable.

  2. No, he didn't offer any justification at all. He just claimed to have a great deal of experience in these matters and labeled me a "monomaniac." It is true that over the years I have made several critical posts about Lorrie Moore. It appears that someone saw the quotations I put in and disliked them. Since my Wikipedia username is my actual name, they recognized me as the person who had made critical comments previously and sent Guy Chapman some links.

    As I said, I'm not going to pursue this, because I don't care about it. However, I did communicate with someone else at Wikipedia just to let them know about Guy Chapman's behavior. I suspect that bullies are attracted to jobs like that, because they work without pay and are probably less accountable for their actions. In a normal job he would be fired.

    Whether it was from my Wikipedia editing or somewhere else, word is out on the unfavorable reviews. I have seen them mentioned elsewhere.

  3. Well, I just went and did a little editing myself. We'll see if my edits last.


  4. That's a good edit, John. If they delete that, the playing field obviously isn't level. However, if they link you to this blog, you may become implicated in my vast Lorrie Moore defamation conspiracy. According to Guy Chapman, "... you may well find yourself answering awkward questions from people in uniform."

  5. In case you're interested, "Bark" appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list under Hardcover Fiction for just one week (on March 16), and it now seems to be headed for oblivion. Also, the re-editing of the Wikipedia page is intact as of now.