My Wikipedia Confession

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.

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16 Responses to My Wikipedia Confession

  1. Jenny says:

    I”m sorry you were …removed for plagiarism :-)) While laughing at your reaction to being caught changing, I was also amused to find that when this blog opened in my gmail, there was a list of ads down the side and the first one was for choosing hotels in Northern Ireland… ‘Book now, pay at the hotel’. Do the ad people read the blog? Or do you get an email, ‘excuse me, Mr Nick Earls, what will your key words be today?’

    • Nick Earls says:

      What a paradigm we live in. Surely I should be monetising that somehow. I can imagine hotels throughout Northern Ireland booking solid at the thought that I was born in Newtownards. I expect someone’s making money out of fire escape tours (with chips at my preferred Cafola’s cafe afterwards).

  2. Kym says:

    I work at a school. Our students edit our Wikipedia entry all the time. Quite funny at times, but obviously has to be changed back.

  3. Rob says:

    Can you plagiarise yourself? Interesting and amusing!

  4. Wickedly amusing Nick. Wise choice to not to tamper with the mechanics of the greater being. Lesson learnt, best move on to best way to appropriate some of that fire escape tour money. Sounds potentially more lucrative than writing and plagiarising oneself.

    • nickearls says:

      The moment the career tanks, that’s where I’ll be – at the foot of the fire escape charging 20p a time for a tour through the earliest highlight of the life of Newtownards’s least-famous famous person.

  5. Kate says:

    What happens if someone else sensationalises your entry for you? Obviously with your authorisation if not a directly dictated entry…is that as sad as doing a self-edit?

    What I like about wikipedia is that it gives people who believe they themselves are always right a forum to frolic in. I feel that since the inception of wikipedia, there is less verbal contradiction happening and when there is, someone just pulls up wiki and the argument is over.

    I’m still a bit of a wiki hater though… life would be easier if i weren’t.

    • nickearls says:

      That sounds like self-edit by proxy. Or maybe I’m being too harsh, as a one-time self-editor. But my rule now is that I can clip out anything outrageously wrong, and add nothing. Although, if the outrageously wrong thing was also outrageously flattering – and nothing at all to do with me – how would I respond? I can’t say I’d be certain of staking a claim to the high ground there.

  6. Kate says:

    Look if someone wants to be outrageously flattering and also wrong in a public forum, they’re going to have to deal with the consequences aren’t they? As long you had no part in the fabrication itself, it’s almost as though you are a victim of circumstances…

  7. christine davie says:

    Dear Nick I would like to thank you very much for my copy of The Fix, that you sent me in honour of your having a character named after FB fans competition etc…. It was a great thrill to get it. I was so engrossed in the book that I forgot all about looking out for Christine at a BBQ, when the BBQ scene arose I was still engrossed that a character was introduced as Christine I nearly fell out of bed with excitement! Anyway, it was thrilling, and I enjoyed your book as always, even more so for the fabulous Christine (ok she was a bit bland and a bit part) – getting my book club onto it now….not just to gloat. Always sorry to see the last page and say goodbye to all the characters.

    Thanks again

    PS Funnily enough i finally got hold of my distant friend Catherine Harris’s book Like a Wife….and who has written the “you should read this” bit on the back (I forget the name of that…) Small world!

  8. nickearls says:

    I see that my wikipedia entry now finishes with the sentence ‘He has admitted to once editing his own Wikipedia page’. It doesn’t feel quite the same to me when it’s paraphrased, but clearly I’m not going to go back to tamper a second time by pasting in some of this blog, since we know the unhappy place that would take me to all too quickly.

    • ‘He has admitted to once editing his own Wikipedia page’ now really needs to be followed up with “Earls acknowledged Wikipedia’s record of the self-editing incident on November 19, 2011 via his blog.” Just to make sure Wikipedia is keeping it real in terms of accuracy and quality.

      Seriously, I love Wikipedia. I want to have Wikipedia’s babies, especially now that the accuracy is generally (word tentatively added) there. If I stumble across a topic of interest and spot an inaccuracy, I’m on the edit button as quickly as a Trekkie who’s found a misplaced episode listing.

      That reminds me, I better go and, ahem, update an entry I made a while ago regarding Wiki’s take on “Red Hill”…. wait, looks like the admins finally got around to it. For those who are currently extremely bored, the original entry looked like this for a good year or so:

      PS the line “Red Hill has been dubbed “Party Central” by locals, an apparently ironic moniker given the suburb’s lack of night life” is an admirable addition but represents the last line before my own helpful contribution.

      • PS Am I the only person feeling slightly creeped out by Wiki founder Jimmy Wales’ face personally appealing to you from the page banner? HIs face is unusually expressive, like he’s saying, “Come on, guys. You owe me.”

      • nickearls says:

        Hmmm. The entry is lacking something without your detailed input concerning that intersection. I mean, it’s fine that we’re told that Red Hill sort of has three schools, and five buses go through it, but it seemed a lot more interesting when it might have been home to some kind of doom portal.

  9. Agreed. Imagine my shock when the Council installed a fish-eye (?) mirror at Lemming Point, displacing the portal and possibly offsetting future car accidents. I then had to face up to the fact that this is the first time I’ve complained to the Council about anything, meaning I’ve automatically added about 30 years to my age. My grandmother (a shut-in but still a constant force on Waterworks Road) was a major letter-writer to the Council about any obscure matter. What’s next for me? A complaint that no. 52’s dog is barking too often? The footpaths aren’t wide enough? I’m tentatively alarmed. PS They finally shut down Carl Schultz’s gun shop. It is whispered that this is where the true doom portal lies. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person walk in or out of that place in my entire life, and as a child going to Sunday Lunch With Gran I was driven past that place every weekend. It’s also adjacent to the burnt-out iceskating rink. This intersection is 2/3 of the way towards becoming the Bermuda Triangle of Red Hill. (Wikipedia entry: pending)

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