Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Writer's "Revenge Edits" on Wikipedia

We know that technology has both enriched and invaded many parts of our lives; it has affected the world of literature as well. I don’t just mean e-readers and online publishing; I just read a fascinating article, titled “Revenge, Ego, and the Corruption of Wikipedia,” by Andrew Leonard in Salon (5/17/13), about a novelist who secretly (under a pseudonym), over a period of years, negatively edited the Wikipedia pages of several writers with whom he was feuding, and positively edited his own page. Apparently writer Robert Clark Young, under the name “Qworty” (and occasionally under other false names – which are apparently in the Wikipedia world called “sock puppets”) changed, for example, the late writer Barry Hannah’s page, making 14 edits, including one deleting his reputation as a good mentor, and one changing the cause of death from “natural causes” to “alcoholism” (although, Leonard says, Hannah had been sober for years). Leonard, through his investigation, was able to show strong evidence that Young was in fact “Qworty,” and after initially denying it, Young finally admitted it, but claimed that all the editing had been done within Wikipedia’s rules. It turned out that Young had been at one of Hannah's workshops and felt he hadn't been well treated. Young has now been banned by Wikipedia from editing biographical pages of living persons. The reason Leonard finds this case so disturbing is that it undermines the idea of Wikipedia's being a great living mechanism in which many readers/writers can update and share knowledge, and that inaccuracies are corrected by other Wikipedia patrons. The idea of contributors secretly using Wikipedia to carry out feuds, in what some label “revenge edits,” compromises the lofty goals of the online encyclopedia. It is perhaps particularly disturbing for those of us interested in the world of literature to hear of this behavior, behavior that can erode or destroy reputations with false “information.” I am guessing that Young is not the only one to carry out these reprehensible actions, and perhaps readers who don’t expect it are naïve. Still, it is disappointing and disturbing, and I hope Wikipedia will find better ways to prevent such behavior.

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