Wikipedia, Porn and the Airbrushing of History

An intriguing part of the story about Wikipedia and John Seigenthaler, the maligned journalist who found his Wikipedia biography had him as a JFK assassination suspect, is that the savvy folk obsessively monitor their own Wikipedia biographies, including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales himself

who has edited it frequently, removing references to a credited “co-founder” of the encyclopedia and obscuring the nature of a pornographic web site he once published. Though some Wikipedia editors believe that it’s always wrong to edit subjects in which you are involved, this idea is clearly not shared by Wales. The edit history of his biography reveals that he’s made 18 changes with the account Jimbo Wales, most recently on Dec. 2.

The alleged co-founder in question is Larry Sanger, who coincidentally is setting up a ‘rival’ to Wikipedia, called Digital Universe which

aims to build on the model of free online encyclopedia Wikipedia by inviting acknowledged experts in a range of subjects to review material contributed by the general public. Called Digital Universe, the project is the brainchild of, among others, USWeb founder Joe Firmage and Larry Sanger, one of Wikipedia’s earliest creators.

By providing a service they’re calling “the PBS of the Web,” the Digital Universe team hopes to create a new era of free and open access to wide swaths of information on virtually any topic.

According to Roger Cadenhead’s piece, Jimmy Wales is energetic in refuting any role for Sanger in the emergence of Wikipedia:

On seven different occasions, Wales has altered sentences that gave Larry Sanger credit for cofounding Wikipedia. Sanger, a former employee of Wales whose job was eliminated in 2002, led the project as “chief organizer” from its January 2001 launch and gave the site its name. He described himself as Wikipedia’s cofounder in a 2004 Kuro5hin article. Wales does not share this view. On Oct. 28, 2005, he changed the text “Wales and Sanger set up Wikipedia” to “Wales set up Wikipedia.” He made the change again later that day and repeated it on Nov. 9 and Dec. 1 — other editors kept putting language back in that credited Sanger.

It’s an interesting conundrum. Of course, Wales is not alone in monitoring his biography, and I’m sure if I had one, I would monitor it obsessively too. But when does ensuring that you’re not being accused of masterminding the assassination of presidents become Stalinesque airbrushing of history? And the logical result of this is that every biography on Wikipedia becomes an autobiography, which may keep the subjects happy, but may mark the end of Wikipedia as a useful tool.

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