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Wikipedia Cuts on the Bias

Posted: 10/10/2012 12:29 pm

They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. What this quip fails to acknowledge, however, is just what an achievement the camel is. No mean feat to design one.

Wikipedia is a camel.

I've always been a fan of Wikipedia. Detractors argue that you have to double-check everything you encounter there. I see this as an argument in its favor: you should double-check any fact, encountered anywhere, but only Wikipedia comes with this useful caveat branded on its communal forehead. Britannica's been proven only a touch more accurate than Wikipedia, but credulous students rarely question what they find in her sacred text.

That said, the committee bit is not irrelevant. This camel-generator is much greater than the sum of its parts. My recent encounter with the Wikipedia process reveals that a few of those parts are little better than vestigial hemorrhoids. If they contribute anything to the camel, it's the tendency to spit.

Here's an instructive anecdote. My girlfriend occasionally does vanity searches on my name, in order to entertain me: Google often produces truly hysterical results. A recent search was a touch depressing, however. Wikipedia has long had an article about me, semi-accurate, and this also strokes my vanity, despite my repeated efforts to have it removed. (It's been an invitation to vandals). My girlfriend had to report, sadly, that it had been tagged for deletion. Seems my "notability" was in question.

Ah well. Sic transit gloria. (Which means, roughly: "You will vomit on a Streetcar Named Glory.")

Just for the hell of it, I decided to look into the identity of the editor who had discovered my unimportance. You see, I've been involved in a highly controversial project, here on the Huffington Post, to promote the No Kill movement -- a bid to reform animal shelters -- and this has earned me more than a few enemies: mostly supporters of PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, who are bitter opponents of No Kill. (Doesn't help that I've eviscerated PETA over the course of many articles, and have loudly announced that I'm about to launch a similar series about the HSUS.)

So who is this serious-minded encyclopedia editor, rigorously neutral, who disagrees with my mother (a lovely woman, who has never questioned my notability)? Seems it's one "JohnDopp."

For the further hell of it, I queried the No Kill community on Facebook: anyone heard of this guy?

The response could have been measured on the Richter Scale. Yes, the response flattened favelas in Brazil. It triggered avalanches in Nepal. It caused kangaroo stampedes in the Outback.

Have they heard of JohnDopp? Why yes, they howled, we have.

"JohnDopp" is a transparent pseudonym: hardly a pseudonym at all. (I won't publish his real name. You can look it up for yourself -- easy enough to do, even though none of the Wikipedia editors bothered.) Seems that JohnDopp, neutral arbiter of all things me-related, is the webmaster of the single most prominent website devoted to discrediting enemies of the Humane Society: Humanewatch Info. If the world offered a prize -- something like the Nobel, or an Oscar, for conflict of interest -- JohnDopp would be Mr. Conflict of Interest 2012. He's the Michael Phelps of bias.

Now, my notability (despite my mother's protestations) is very much a matter of opinion. JohnDopp's neutrality is not.

Here's where Wikipedia itself is put to the test. I admire the project -- always have -- but how do the official gardeners at Wikipedia respond when they have a snake in their grass?

Wikipedia's first response was to ban me from commenting. I pointed out that I was happy to have the article about me removed -- that I'd in fact tried to have it removed, myself, a number of times -- but that there was no way in hell I was going to have it deep-sixed by the likes of JohnDopp, or any other enemy of No Kill.

Okay, I said a few other things. (Yeah, I deserved to be banned.) Specifically, I told Herr Dopp that what I found especially nauseating about him was not his sneaky behaviour, not his egregious conflict of interest, not even his attempts to slander me. What nauseated me most was that he refused, even when caught red-handed, to admit his flagrant guilt.

I made it clear, basically, that he nauseated me. So I'm banned. Sic transit Wikipedia.

Still, what's truly amusing about this incident is that JohnDopp insisted that he was the victim here. His privacy was being invaded. Now, privacy is indeed sacrosanct in the Wikipedia community; but it's awful hard to prove conflict of interest if you're not allowed to identify the clown in question.

A couple of members of the No Kill community tried valiantly. After fully disclosing her own allegiance (which is what you're supposed to do when you have a bias), one wrote:

Let's say there are these two writers named Woodward and Bernstein, and there's a Wikipedia article about them. An editor comes along whose name is RichNix, and he flags these writers as "not notable," and tries to delete the article. So these writers protest that RichNix is in fact a man named Richard Nixon, and that they're in the middle of exposing him and his friends as really awful people. RichNix screams that his privacy is being infringed on, so all of the complaints and information about him really being Richard Nixon are erased.

This does, yes, seem to point to a real flaw in the Wikipedia process, which they steadfastly refuse to recognize. Watching the editors circle the wagons around John "Neutrality" Dopp was really quite something:

"I'm not seeing any malicious intent on JohnDopp's part," quoth one genius. "JohnDopp's first edit was a simple notability tag. Nothing more. It doesn't seem like a far stretch to beleive (sic) that a person trying to build an encyclopedia would perform an act that would further the project."

No, not a stretch unless the editor's demonstrated purpose in life is to attack people like the guy he's trying to erase from Wikipedia.

The Nixon argument was no more successful than this one, also made by a self-identified proponent of No Kill:

JohnDopp squawked that his privacy was being compromised. So, let me give you an example without blowing JohnDopp's cover.


Douglas Anthony Cooper has recently written a series of essays supporting "apples." These essays have been published in a high-profile news site. JohnDopp is notorious in this community for his obstreperous attacks on "apples".

Now Cooper has announced that he's about to write a series of scathing articles about "oranges".

JohnDopp is outrageous in his constant trolling in support of "oranges". He's perhaps the most pernicious "oranges" shill on the web. In fact, some people say you can't talk about "oranges" without JohnDopp showing up to spout the party line.

The woman who made this argument has been banned from Wikipedia for life.

Now, I come not to bury Wikipedia, but to praise it. The truth is that the notability issue was decided unanimously in my favor. Full disclosure: most of those votes were made by my mother, using dozens of sock puppet accounts. But still, I'm feeling all warm and notable.

The further truth is that the entry was improved radically through this process: because JohnDopp questioned the legitimacy of everything concerning me (including the respectability of rags like Publishers Weekly, and the notability of an O-1 Visa from the U.S. government), the article is now so rigorously footnoted that it looks like David Foster Wallace. The neutrality of the language has been improved dramatically. (It used to read a bit like a fan page, since it had in fact been written by a fan).

In short: the process worked. The article is more encyclopedia-like, my mother's outrage has been assuaged, and all is right with the world.

All except one thing: JohnDopp is still an editor in good standing. He is thought to be just the kind of unbiased guy they want editing articles about animal welfare; his neutrality is valued in discussions of the HSUS and No Kill. The people who pointed out his fraudulence have been mostly banned. (One of them has been sentenced to reeducation, in a way nicely reminiscent of Mao's Cultural Revolution: she's been assigned a Wikipedia "mentor.")

Oh, and all of my remarks regarding JohnDopp's upstanding character have been permanently erased from discussions. It takes a lot to get things removed from Wikipedia's talk pages. The esteemed JohnDopp has considerable heft, it seems. He is a cherished citizen.

Now, you might argue that this whole business is just too trivial to get worked up about. So let me quote from the woman who made the Nixon analogy: "We're not dealing with presidential politics here, but we're dealing with a pretty important political matter nevertheless. It involves over 100 million dollars, and the lives of millions of animals, each year."

So. Not trivial. Unless it simply doesn't bother you that millions of perfectly healthy dogs and cats are slaughtered annually.

Can Wikipedia continue to produce elegant camels, when it insists upon purging honest editors and coddling the likes of JohnDopp? Can it remain a legitimate project, despite harboring and protecting swiftboaters? Can this kind of deeply flawed polity -- riddled with bias and crippled by anonymity -- remain a successful breeder of camels, in a world deeply camel-deprived?

Oddly enough, I suspect it can. This anecdote, while sufficient to install a permanent and debilitating phobia into any rigorous academic, does in fact suggest that it can. Wikipedia may be a wacky camel-breeding orchard, yes (a metaphor that thrills me), but there's something in the process that compensates for the rotten apples.

And rotten apples, let us remember, make superb fertilizer.

 

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