Some fellow residents of my town have recently noticed, and pointed out to me, that I’m listed in Wikipedia as a notable inhabitant of Keene, NH. They’re more impressed than they should be. All forms of notability are subject to bias, but Internet notability is subject to a different kind of bias than most people realize.
For example, friends and family used to be impressed by the fact that I was the top result in Google for my first name — and then second to Jon Stewart for a long while, until I had to reboot my InfoWorld archive. Why? Just because I’ve projected a large surface area of searchable documents whose titles include the trigram jon.
An example of a far more notable person than me is Glenn Fine, who was in my grade in junior high school and is now Inspector General for the Department of Justice. You won’t find him anywhere near the top of a search for his first name because Inspectors General don’t (yet) project a large surface area of documents onto the web.
To place my newfound Wikipedia notability into a similar context, I wanted to show people how these lists of notable inhabitants are made. I figured the person who made the change is somebody who knows of my work, because I’ve written about it so much online, and who is inclined to edit Wikipedia, which correlates with an interest in my work.
I wanted to illustrate exactly who, when, and how, so I went to Wikipedia with the confident expectation that it would be easy to answer those questions.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t. I guess I haven’t really tried searching revision histories in Wikipedia before, but in this case and a few others I’ve tried lately, it seems quite difficult to pinpoint the author of a change.
For example, on Twitter I asked:
Wikipedia: “The term ‘Web 2.0’ was coined by Darcy DiNucci in 1999.” Added when, by whom? WikiBlame seems an ineffective way to find out.
@bazzargh replied: Robert Gehl. http://bit.ly/46r1a
Thanks. By the way, how’d you do that?
switch to 500 view in history, then rough bisection from oldest. Couple of minutes; used this a lot to find long-lived vandalism.
if older, I progressively back off 2..4..8… pages through this. In this case though, there was a clueful log message!
That’s pretty much what I’ve found myself doing when trying to track down changes, so I was glad to know it wasn’t just me. But this highlights an important point about transparency: It’s all relative.
One of the reasons we think of government as opaque is that while records may be notionally public, it takes time, effort, and skill to visit city hall, dig through them, and find what you’re looking for.
I have always regarded Wikipedia as an extreme counter-example. And that’s true. It is radically transparent. You can ultimately find out exactly how any statement in any article came to be. You may not be able to correlate the author’s pseudonym to a real-world identity, but you can evaluate that author’s corpus and reputation within the context of Wikipedia.
And yet, the ability to do this spelunking requires more time, effort, and skill than most people possess. Although I’m reluctant to deflate my status as a notable inhabitant of Keene, I wish it were easier for people who read that to also find out what it does — and doesn’t — mean.