“He commutes to Boston daily by single-engine aircraft from the Provincetown, Massachusetts home he shares with his partner, a novelist.” –From the “Michael Graham” article on Wikipedia.org
Wikipedia is, according to the New York Times, a “spectacular success … the biggest encyclopedia in the world.” Bleary-eyed students putting finishing touches on term papers at 4 a.m. cite it as a reference. Co-workers use it to settle bets.
With nearly two million articles and 2.5 billion page views a month, no topic is too minute, obscure, or insignificant for the web pages of Wikipedia. Not even me.
What makes Wikipedia.org a phenomenon is that anybody with access to the internet can post just about anything they want on any subject. What makes Wikipedia so frustrating is that anybody can post anything they want. And I mean anything, including the intimate details of my life: My plane. My home in gay-friendly Provincetown, Mass. My novelist “partner.” It’s all there. It’s all available for citation in news stories and class projects around the globe.
And it’s all baloney.
Alas, I have never flown in a single-engine plane, much less piloted one. I’ve never been to Provincetown, though I hear you can get some excellent advice on window treatments there. And while my lovely bride, The Warden, is an excellent writer, our four kids have dramatically slowed the progress on her first novel, tentatively titled No Gay Man Is Dumb Enough To Date My Husband.
It could be worse. Former editor of The (Nashville) Tennessean, John Seigenthaler Sr., was linked to the assassinations of JFK and Bobby Kennedy by an anonymous Wikipedian. Like me, Mr. Seigenthaler didn’t even know he was part of the Wiki world until months after the demonstrably false information was posted.
The “magic” of Wikipedia is that it is supposed to use the ultimate power of freedom — the free exchange of ideas — to create the ultimate authoritative source. Interested in “hyperdontia” (the condition of having supernumerary teeth)? You can do more than just read about it at Wikipedia. You can add your own orthodontic observations to the official record.
Folks fascinated by the Perth Mint Swindle (it’s an Australian robbery, not a alt-rock band, by the way) can post their favorite details from the scene of the crime.
The flaw in that formula is that freedom and authority are always in conflict. As soon as Authority speaks the “final word,” Freedom flippantly replies “Oh, yeah? Says who?”
If everybody’s final Jeopardy answer is right, then nobody’s is.
I would dismiss this all as mere screwball comedy, except my Wikipedia profile — posted by persons unknown in October 2004 — contains more than merely the details of my secret life as a gay, writer-loving pilot. The narrative of my life has become a battlefield for anonymous people with competing political agendas, each fighting over the final rewrite.
My Wikipedia-worthy life began very modestly on October 11, 2004: Michael Graham is an American author, columnist, and talk radio host. He is a contributor to National Review Online.
That’s it. An entire man’s life, loves, hopes, and dreams reduced to a single sentence and available around the world. As a firm believer in shameless self-promotion, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t find out I was in Wikipedia until September 21, almost a year — and 29 entry changes — later.
On February 7, somebody changed my description to “conservative talk show host.” In May, an anonymous poster posted the details of my visit to a pro-illegal immigration rally wearing an “INS” T-shirt. A funny story, but hardly history in the making.
Then the story changed again. The rally opposing the Real ID Act (fact) suddenly became merely a “rally supporting area immigrants.” Reports that I was detained by the police but eventually allowed to enter the rally because of First Amendment issues were deleted, then replaced by claims that I was banned by the cops entirely and threatened with arrest.
Then came July and my infamous “Islam” imbroglio. A brief posting featuring a pointedly anti-Graham slant on my suspension by ABC radio over comments linking Islam and terrorism (what a novel idea!) appeared on July 29. On August 12, the Islam portion of the article disappeared entirely. On August 23, a more pro-Graham version was posted, along with links to friendly media coverage of the story.
Seven hours later, the pro-Graham post was replaced by yet another anti-Graham article. The battle was on: 10 different versions of the “truth” of my life were posted in 24 hours. In some versions, I’m a martyr for free speech whose firing inspired a storm of protest from an outraged public. In others, I’m a bigot whose firing (“after careful review of the incident” by ABC Radio) was received by an evenly-divided public.
Finally, a friend called me and said, “Say, have you seen what they’re doing to you on Wikipedia?”
On December 2, my life as a Provincetown playboy began.
Last time I checked, my Wikipedia article was still filled with mistakes, errors, and out-and-out lies, available for viewing by millions. I have asked Wikipedia to simply delete the article altogether. They have thus far declined, no doubt fearing the tremendous blow to academia such a loss would represent.
But what good would it do for them to remove the posting, anyway? Because Wikipedia has virtually no controls, another posting — “Michael Graham and Bestiality In 21st Century America” — could be up five minutes later.
I certainly don’t want to shut Wikipedia down, any more than I want to shut down CBS News or the New York Times — both of which have knowingly given their customers false information. I just want to make sure we all realize that — as with the newspapers and the network news we once relied on for facts — you can no longer use Wikipedia as a definitive source.
I sure don’t. And neither does a certain Provincetown novelist I happened to run into over the skies of Boston.