When wikipedia began, I was sceptical. How trustworthy could it be – an encyclopedia that we all made up as we went along? I had read about crowds, and how they can smooth out the rashness, impulsiveness and idiosyncracies of individuals, but still I wondered how we’d act as a planet of experts, all with a say.
My confession is not that I’m a convert, a sucker for wikipedia, though I pretty much am. I’m there a lot, looking up all kinds of thing, and it’s not perfect but it’s often as right as anything else and, as Jimmy Wales has often said, no encyclopedia is perfect. And I admire him for making it freely available and for not building it with ‘monetisation’ in mind. I’ve come to like wikipedia a lot.
My own entry varies in accuracy, but for a while now it’s been very close to right, though with a few omissions. There’s the Nick Hornby comparison that I’ve learned to live with and a surprising number of my old anthology appearances, but no mention of Solo un Padre, the Italian film adapted from Perfect Skin. I guess that’s not a shock – it’s not really been on the radar in the Anglosphere, even if it pulled maybe the biggest audience of my career to date.
The thing I like most about wikipedia, though, is the entry for Newtownards, the town in Northern Ireland where I was born. Someone thought to include me there, in the People section, and it felt nice to be claimed. I never actually lived in Newtownards, but it was the nearest hospital to our farm. Once, on a visit to see a sick relative as a three-year-old, someone pointed to the maternity wing and told me it was where I was born. But I was convinced they were pointing to the fire escape, which I thought was a brilliant idea. Much better than being born in a building. Ever since that day, if someone asks me where I was born, the picture that first comes to mind is the fire escape outside Newtownards hospital.
I told my father I was part of the Newtownards entry, thinking he’d like the idea, and his only response was to say, ‘But you’re nowhere near as famous as Blair Mayne. He was born in Newtownards and he won the Military Cross four times. He once ran into a building just as Rommel was running out the back.’ Because that’s what parents do, isn’t it? They run their own race, and it’s nowhere near the point. And they want to make sure your feet stay on the ground. Okay, so, since I’m decades too late to play chasey with Rommel, I’ll just have to win a bunch of MCs some other way – or maybe one or two VCs would do – and my father might accept that I can legitimately keep my spot among the Newtownards-born.
But what I have to confess is this: one time, years ago, I CHANGED MY OWN WIKIPEDIA ENTRY. There, I’ve said it.
It felt like a wrong thing to do at the time, and I wanted to do it sneakily and get away with it unwitnessed. It’s as though you should leave wikipedia to nature and not interfere, as though tampering is somehow an act of propaganda. But someone had posted something that was not merely inaccurate – I can and do live with that, on wikipedia, in articles, most times people introduce me to an audience – but it could have had implications. So, I edited it out. And, in the hole I created, I pasted an innocuous piece of bio that didn’t feel at all self-promotional. Just the facts.
And by the next day, it had been removed. For plagiarism. Because it looked very like the bio on my website. Which of course it was, since I was responsible for both of them.
So I retreated, red-faced. Because you can’t stick up your hand and say, ‘That was me. Tampering with my own wikipedia entry. And pasting in bio.’ Because it doesn’t look very, well, classy, does it?
So, now I don’t touch. I glance only occasionally, in case there’s any error that might do me harm, but that hasn’t happened. Its back in the hands of the universe, and so far the universe is doing a pretty good job.