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February 11, 2007

My Wikipedia Article is Perfectly Cromulent, Thank You Very Much

Some editor at Wikipedia has posted the following notice up on the Wikipedia article about me:

This article or section needs sources or references that appear in credible, third-party publications. Alone, primary sources and sources affiliated with the subject of the article are not sufficient for an accurate encyclopedia article. Please include more appropriate citations from reliable sources.

As it happens, I can attest that as of 4:28 pm EST, February 11, 2007, every bit of fact in the Wikipedia entry about me is correct. I should know, because I'm me. According to this note, however, I am apparently not a credible source for my own life, which is an assertion that I can't decide whether to be amused or offended by. Bear in mind that the vast majority of third party sources (i.e., those Wikipedia would apparently deem as providing "appropriate citations") get their information about me from me. Referencing third party sources won't make the article any more accurate when those sources are all relying on me for their information.

Maybe, just to confuse Wikipedia, I'll start lying to all my interviewers, while keeping perfectly accurate information here on my personal site. I suspect the heads of certain editors at Wikipedia would pop right off. How do you like your officious love of pointless bureaucracy now?!? Bwa ha ha ha hah ha!

In any event: No, in fact, my Wikipedia article doesn't need additional sources or references. It's accurate. Or was, the moment I wrote this. Someone should put in the "Trivia" section of my article that I find pointlessly fussy Wikipedia editors highly annoying. Because that would be accurate, too.

Posted by john at February 11, 2007 04:29 PM

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Justine Larbalestier | February 11, 2007 05:00 PM

That is very silly. Especially as working with primary sources is the backbone of sound historical work. It's much more dangerous if an article only cites secondary material.

Back in the days when I was an academic I would frequently come across errors that resulted from someone citing a secondary source and not checking the primary stuff. The same error would be repeated from article to book to article to student's essay. All because none of them had bothered to check the primary material.

John Scalzi | February 11, 2007 05:03 PM

Precisely so, Justine. The idea that a secondary/third-party source is more accurate/trustworthy than a primary source is just pretty damn stupid.

mythago | February 11, 2007 05:04 PM

To be fair to Wikipedia, the idea here is not to simply take everybody's word for it. I could easily put up an article about myself recounting my exploits climbing Everest, building an orphanage in war-torn Liberia and turning water into wine, but biographers would probably be safest checking up on some of that.

More realistically, business and public figures may well be inclined to shade the truth in ways that would become apparent if more objective sources were relied upon.

So it's not that they don't trust you, John; it's everybody else.

Justine Larbalestier | February 11, 2007 05:07 PM

But surely John has done all those things? He told me he did!

Tim Walker | February 11, 2007 05:08 PM

Maybe you could secretly convene a panel of your farflung professional friends to found The Journal of Scalzi Studies (which has the nice acronym of JOSS). All via e-mail, you could dole out classic or especially informative entries from Whatever, they could repackage them slighlty as original articles on you, your oeuvre, your obsessions, etc., and then they could publish the thing in a visually simple online format, like First Monday.

*Then* one of your industrious readers could just go back through your Wikipedia entry, merrily adding citations for JOSS at every turn.

Thus could you, with maybe fifteen e-mails, subvert the bureaucratic silliness of Wikipedia. Heck, you might win yourself some heavy press coverage, in a post-Frey, fact vs. fiction, "what qualifies as plagiarism?" kind of way. Couldn't hurt book sales, know what I'm sayin'?

*evil laughter*
*rubbing hands like Ming the Merciless*

John Scalzi | February 11, 2007 05:10 PM

I understand why Wikipedia does it, Mythago: I applaud the desire to have information as accurate as possible. Be that as it may, a declaration that secondary sources are more somehow more authoritative than primary sources is, well, a bit silly. By all means, let's verify information, but let's not also declare an entire class of information as suspect a priori.

Jim Winter | February 11, 2007 05:13 PM

Personally, I think they're upset because someone mentioned taping bacon to your cat. That is not consistent with the formal tone of an encyclopedia article.

Never mind their Ritchie Blackmore article is written by a complete fan boy.

Justine Larbalestier | February 11, 2007 05:16 PM

Mythago: More seriously, the way to verify most of those sort of claims would be to check primary sources. I'd want to talk to eyewitnesses, check up on letters, local newspaper reports, talk to the reporters involved etc. If someone claims to have had an amazing uni record you get copies of their transcripts.

LIke John, it's the nuttiness of discounting the importance of primary sources that's bothering me. I mean they're called "primary" for a reason.

Kyle Maxwell | February 11, 2007 05:23 PM

I'm thinking that an overzealous editor may be interpreting policy with a far too narrow eye. From the page on Biographies of Living Persons, section Reliable Sources, subheading Using the Subject as a Source:

In some cases the subject may become involved in editing an article. They may edit it themselves or have a representative of theirs edit it. They may contact Wikipedians either through the article's talk page or via email. Or, they may provide information through press releases, a personal website or blog, or an autobiography. When information supplied by the subject conflicts with unsourced statements in the article, the unsourced statements should be removed.

Information supplied by the subject may be added to the article if:

  • It meets verifiability, NPOV, and no original research policies.

  • It is relevant to the person's notability;

  • It is not contentious;

  • It is not unduly self-serving;

  • There is no reasonable doubt that it was provided by the subject.

A blog or personal website written by the subject may be listed in the external links/further reading section, even if the subject is not used as a source.

Looks okay to me.

Justine Larbalestier | February 11, 2007 05:28 PM

Jim Winter: Never mind their Ritchie Blackmore article is written by a complete fan boy.

Aren't most of the articles written by fans? I know the one about me was written by fans of my books. It's how wikipedia works, doesn't it? Enthusiasts and fans writing up their passions. That's a good thing. I mean that's how most volunteer sources of info works.

And paid articles and books too. Yeah, there are some people who write non-fic just for the money and not for love. But a great many books about stuff were written because the author loved that particular stuff.

Nick Stump | February 11, 2007 05:41 PM

John, I think it was the parts you left out. The episode with mangoes and and the young Burmese... well...I should say no more.

Tim | February 11, 2007 05:44 PM

I think others have nailed it. A bit overcareful on the part of the editors. Better that than the reverse.

Not counting the mountain of grammar and spelling errors, how accurate would George W. Bush's Wikipedia entry be if he wrote it himself?

JC | February 11, 2007 05:45 PM

Kathryn Kramer blogged at the end of January about her experiences with Wikipedia. This led to me to a Jed Hartman blog entry about Wikipedia and sf. If I read the entry correctly, Wikipedia strives to be a decent tertiary source.

In any case, it clears up a misconception I've had about Wikipedia. I had always thought that it strove to be truthful. Nope. Apparently, it strives mainly to be verifiable.

Justine Larbalestier | February 11, 2007 06:01 PM

JC: Thanks for the Jed Hartman link. That explains a lot. I had the same misconception as you.

Dan | February 11, 2007 06:15 PM

John? I feel like I hardly know you anymore. Where did we go so wrong?

On the other hand, you have to wonder what that Wikipedia editor is like on a date, eh?
"So, tell me about yourself, but please use third-party published sources."

KevinQ | February 11, 2007 06:17 PM

As of 22:43, 11 February 2007, user Cohort had added to the trivia:

Scalzi finds pointlessly fussy Wikipedia editors highly annoying. [6]

See here.

Ah, truthiness...


Jeff Hentosz | February 11, 2007 06:19 PM

Coincidentally, the entry on "cromulent" is flagged with the same reference warning. Personally, I think this kind of diligence embiggens the whole enterprise.

John Scalzi | February 11, 2007 06:22 PM



Al | February 11, 2007 07:32 PM

Carlos Castaneda was notorious for having given different people contrary information about his past, even for encyclopedias and such. To this day,I'm not sure if the details and date of his birth (amongst the different stories that he told) have been confirmed.

CaptainBooshi | February 11, 2007 09:56 PM

Actually, more and more often lately, that verifiable thing makes sense. I'm into webcomics, and I know there's been a big controversy about Wikipedia because they keep deleting entries about webcomics that are hugely influential, but not always the most popular (one of those things where everybody who makes webcomics read them, but not everybody who reads webcomics). I guess this is because you can point directly to how many people went to the page daily, but not at how many people this webcomic influenced.

John | February 11, 2007 09:59 PM

On a site that can be edited by anybody analytic truth is not achievable, since it is subjective. What you'll end up with is entries with twenty different possible interpretations.

Not necessarily bad, but focusing on information where the source can be cited (i.e. verifiable) addresses one of the more popular attacks on Wikipedia -- that the information can't be trusted.

An article in any encyclopedia is as good as its sources.

Lis Riba | February 11, 2007 10:10 PM

Apparently, danah boyd -- whose name legally has no upper-case characters -- can't get Wikipedia to use her proper name. Wikipedia insists upon improperly capitalizing her name.

As a Wikipedia editor told her,

In a nutshell: Wikipedia is not for placing "the truth", it is for placing summaries of information that is already published in other credible news sources.
More @ http://weblog.burningbird.net/2006/04/18/pedia-again/

Christian | February 11, 2007 10:21 PM

Wiki is a double edged sword .

It would be great to have more people contribute (and more do every day), but at the same time - we need a more strident level of qualification/stratification for the reviewers.

//Long time Wikipedian

GSLamb | February 11, 2007 10:47 PM

I have seen much of this recently. It seems as if some of the editors are feeling like they just aren't doing anything unless they threaten stuff with removal.

Chris DiBona | February 11, 2007 10:52 PM

You and me John, the barely worth it (from a wikipedia point of view) :-)

Michele Lee | February 11, 2007 11:00 PM

You're not the only one. Lots of smaller horror writers are hearing similar stories or having their entries deleted all together. One friend had a reviewer say all her publications were vanity (Three Apex Publications pubs and one Insidious Publications. Small sure, vanity? No way in hell.) When she fought it she was told that friends of authors and authors are strongly discouraged (and outright disallowed) to make Wiki entries because then it's not neutral information it's self promotion, and that's not allowed. They say in a the author guidelines that if you are important enough to be in Wikipedia someone unattached to you will write your entry.
If it's informative and neutral and true, who cares who put it up there? They also tried to say she didn't own the copyright on her own bio.

John Scalzi | February 11, 2007 11:04 PM

I suspect I should be immune to deletion because of the Campbell Award if nothing else (i.e., I am referenced elsewhere in Wikipedia), but, yes, the overly officious will be the end of all of us.

Personally, I don't want Wikipedia to be the Encyclopedia Britannica. I want it to be the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Tim Walker | February 11, 2007 11:35 PM

Personally, I don't want Wikipedia to be the Encyclopedia Britannica. I want it to be the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Bingo. Verifiability is good, but when the officious take over, official verifiability and practical bullshit often go hand in hand. It's like what you often get in the "better" newspapers and magazines: yeah, what's there is factual, but it's bullshit in terms of what it really tells you about the topic at hand. (Brad DeLong has basically given himself the open-ended job of pointing this out with his "Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps" posts.)

Meanwhile, in a really good insider-style guidebook -- the best Lonely Planet guides and Rough Guides, or, in our dreams, the Hitchhiker's Guide -- the authors get to skip the bullshit and tell you what you *actually* want or need to know.

Karen Funk Blocher | February 12, 2007 12:11 AM

The person who suggested that someone was unamused by the bacon cat reference is probably correct. The only possible source of a "non-encyclopedic tone" objection, as far as I can see, is that at least one sentence is actually funny. Since that's perfectly consistent with the subject matter, and stated in a neutral way, it should stand. (Like it or not, the bacon cat incident is a legitimate source of notability.)

As you may or may not know, I spent months in wrangles over whether it's legitimate to cite a blog (primarily Making Light) about Barbara Bauer and the internet moderation technique Disemvoweling. Wikipedia refusing to acknowledge that something happened unless it was reported outside blogdom and forums (fora?) still seems a mite silly to me. But as one admin explained it, a notable person stating online that he did something (e.g. baked a pie) can be legitimately mentioned if it is notable, the person's own reporting is generally considered credible and there is no evidence to the contrary from other sources. If the New York Times Book Review were to state that you never taped bacon to a cat, then there would be a problem, but how likely is that unless you tell them that and they believe it?

And the restriction isn't entirely foolish. The concept is that Wikipedia is more reliable if its information can be verified. Otherwise, a Barbara Bauer can turn her article into a puff piece about how wonderful she is and how evil Victoria Strauss, TNH et al. are out to get her (and Bauer has tried to do so, repeatedly). A mild amount of skepticism and the citing of scources are reasonable tools for fighting such problems, even if they do leave Wikipedia open to charges of Wikiality.

As for your article itself, it does indeed seem pretty cromulent. There are no unsourced claims, except perhaps the fact that you have a wife and kid, which would most likely be considered to be common knowledge and thus require no citation. There is a push on for better use of incline citations and a reference section, which someone ought to tackle soon to overcome the third party complaint, preferably adding more outside citations. After all, you, John Scalzi, are not Subterranian Press or Tor Books. And a citation to The New York Times or somesuch, if it's not already there, would stifle all but the most obstreporously hidebound Wikieditors.

Scott | February 12, 2007 01:46 AM

I for one, strongly object to phrasing of the bacon/cat reference!

The proper English for that should be, "Mr. Scalzi taped bacon to his cat." With optional uses of the past particple, and the adverb 'once.' The 'has been known to' + present simple creates a strong impression of ongoing habit.

Whoever wrote that wikipedia article is an amateur! (intentional)

Karen Funk Blocher | February 12, 2007 02:01 AM

Ah, but can a reliable source verify that Scalzi has only taped bacon to his cat once? Perhaps Athena should give an interview to the Los Angeles Times clearing up this important matter. Or some intrepid investigative reporter from Dayton could look into whether Scalzi secretly has developed a habit of affixing foods to animals, whether it constitutes animal abuse or is indeed enjoyable to the pets in question. I smell Pulitzer!

hugh57 | February 12, 2007 02:27 AM

Ah, but can a reliable source verify that Scalzi has only taped bacon to his cat once?

The article only claims that "He has also been known to tape bacon to his cat" and provides a link to the original Bacon Cat post, which provides photographic evidence of one occurrence of porcine/feline tomfoolery. It doesn't speculate on the number of times Scalzi has engaged in this sort of animal abuse.

(/pointless fussiness)

Karen Funk Blocher | February 12, 2007 02:36 AM

The photographic evidence could have been faked, however. If we were to count that photo as a reliable source for the claim of cat-taping, then we would have to concede there is also evidence that Scalzi is both a zombie and a devil, and has a misshapen clone and a vampire daughter.

Steve Buchheit | February 12, 2007 07:45 AM

Here's hoping, that even if wrong, Wikki will be definatively wrong about the subject. But this will only happen once they work out that sub-mason ethernet thingie. And then, not only will they be definatively wrong, it will be verifiably wrong. Or something like that.

Steve Buchheit | February 12, 2007 08:04 AM

Whoops, wrong does not equal inaccurate. I meant to say they hope to be verifiably definitively inaccurate. But only by third source material.

That's what I get for posting before becoming fully caffeinated.

Tim Walker | February 12, 2007 08:07 AM

The photographic evidence could have been faked, however.

It's happened before.

WizarDru | February 12, 2007 08:29 AM

More and more events are occurring like this and the Evil, Inc./Ugly Hill situation. Wikipedia's utility is rapidly being undermined by the death of a thousand edits.

I like that Wikipedia is trying to remain neutral and verifiable. But I think that they're also becoming a parody of the Vogons from Hitchiker's...so involved with their process that they're busy self-congratulating on that they've in danger of losing sight of what they're doing.

And, of course, wikipedia shouldn't be the Guide. We've already got that. ;)


fishbane | February 12, 2007 09:46 AM

We should get our (fictional) story straight and provide third party references.

I'll start.

Clad only in a wizard's cape and slippers, Scalzi once interrupted a ponzi scheme convention to announce that Cthulu liked their work.

He was a collaborator in the original design of Quicken, but got sick of software development because it lacked soul.

In 1994, he once woke up inside a shipping container in Vermont, dressed in a Tuxedo with a copy of Black's Law dictionary, and had no idea how he got there.

Lis Riba | February 12, 2007 09:51 AM

Hey, just checking, but I submitted a comment last night (about danah boyd's battles with Wikipedia) which was deferred for moderation and hasn't been approved.
Was it rejected or is it still in queue?

John Scalzi | February 12, 2007 10:02 AM

Released it, Lis.

Steve Buchheit | February 12, 2007 10:08 AM

And I see nothing in the article about John's curious ability to attract fuzzies. And the constant backlighting of his head. It's like a halo, only in real light, not gold leaf. Really, you can find him in the crowd at conventions that way.

jeff | February 12, 2007 11:43 AM

I can verify John's ability to dance. I personally vitnessed it, and I had only dwo alcoholic beverages (hick) at that time.

mythago | February 12, 2007 11:59 AM

Be that as it may, a declaration that secondary sources are more somehow more authoritative than primary sources is, well, a bit silly.

Oh, absolutely. I suspect, as others have pointed out, that whoever made the note thinks "primary sources" means "the person about whom the article is written".

But relying solely on secondary and tertiary sources is a Grand Old Tradition of the Internet. "I read about it on Slashdot. No, I didn't bother to look up the original study, why would I do that?"

And Scalzi's a fucking liar, Justine. He climbed Kilimanjaro. NOT Everest.

John Scalzi | February 12, 2007 12:02 PM

I did climb K2, though. Which as everyone knows is the greater technical challenge. And I did it with a panda on my back.

Todd Stull | February 12, 2007 12:26 PM

I'd love to believe you about the panda, Scalzi, but unfortunately, you forgot to bring along a reporter and photographer so that you could have secondary verification. So, ha! No Wiki for you!

I must agree with some of the above comments - I am not using Wikipedia very much anymore because of the constant editorial nitpicking. The whole reason I used to use it was as a starting point to find information, not as an end point. I would judge whether I found the information interesting, and then follow up on it with journal and newspaper articles. Oh, also, they blocked my IP address at work due to some reason or another, so I cannot edit work. And if I can't post fake information about my favorite sci-fi authors, then what's the point?

Steve Buchheit | February 12, 2007 12:38 PM

That wasn't a Panda, John. Fuzzied again.

John Scalzi | February 12, 2007 12:40 PM

Steve Buchheit, your karma is calling. It's asking what you think about coming back as a pillbug.

Steve Buchheit | February 12, 2007 12:51 PM

Been there, done that. :)

Or are you saying I'm a pill? For some reason, I don't think so.

(sniff sniff) Is that bacon I smell. Ayieee!

Steve Buchheit | February 12, 2007 01:22 PM

Besides, I'm an elected politician (second job). Pillbug is a step up, you know. We usually come back as ameba. So, multi-celled differentiated creature, big improvement.

Now, Grasshopper, we will contemplate the bodies of our previous lives as insects. What a mighty mound they make.

Wait a sec, how did my karma get your number?

(yes, I'm now fully caffeinated, why do you ask?)

hugh57 | February 12, 2007 02:25 PM

jeff: I, too, can attest to Scalzi's dancing abilities. I wandered into the dance at ConFusion last month and saw Scalzi out on the dance floor, dancing to the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Hell". And I haven't had an alcoholic beverage in almost ten years.

Watch it, John. In the afterlife, you could be headed for the serious strife. Now you make the scene all day, but tomorrow there'll be HELL to pay! :)

Cthulhu | February 12, 2007 04:02 PM

Clad only in a wizard's cape and slippers, Scalzi once interrupted a ponzi scheme convention to announce that Cthulu liked their work.
You're doing it again, humans. I like pyramids, not pyramid schemes. Get these things right if you want to be on my good side when we descend on your silly little planet. Oh, right, I don't have a good side.

And why don't I have a Wikipedia page? Someone's going to suffer for a few million years for that!

Anne | February 12, 2007 04:24 PM

Of course nobody is an accurate source on his or her own life. That is why we have publicists, mothers, and Page Six.

Karen Funk Blocher | February 12, 2007 04:36 PM

Look under "Cthulhu Mythos" and "Cthulhu in popular culture." Sadly, the latter makes no reference to Athena Scalzi's alliance with the elder god in passionately defending the planet Pluto.

hugh57 | February 12, 2007 04:41 PM

And why don't I have a Wikipedia page? Someone's going to suffer for a few million years for that!

You do. :)


htom | February 12, 2007 06:57 PM

Wikipedia doesn't try to be correct, as I've been told -so- many times, they try to be verifiable. If the verifiable is wrong, that's ok with a bunch of folk. Things published on-line are frequently deleted as being either "blogs" or "original research". Sometimes I put a "It is alleged that this information is inaccurate, see Talk Page" reference, but frequently even those are deleted.

Michael Rawdon | February 13, 2007 02:24 AM

My experience with Wikipedia editors is that they are (1) glacially slow; (2) unimaginative, and (3) unassertive. The end result being that anyone who is reasonably assertive can tie up otherwise productive writers in pointless edit wars for months, because the Powers That Be at Wikipedia have very little interest in actually using their powers constructively.

Which is the main reason I don't contribute to Wikipedia anymore.

Karen Funk Blocher | February 13, 2007 04:48 PM

Let me just get pedantic, glacial and fussy for a moment. As accurate as the article is, there actually are a few ways in which the article currently deviates from an enclyclopedic style. I just removed an item about what kind of cereal you prefer. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but surely the issue of what you eat for breakfast is not an important part of your life. If that's notable, so are the models of your computers, whether you like cake as much as pie, your attitudes about cell phones, and hundreds of other tiny details you've written amusingly about. Please, folks, even if you have reservations about the workings of Wikipedia, don't compromise it further by adding truly trivial trivia. It doesn't help. Thanks!

John Scalzi | February 13, 2007 04:54 PM

I have to agree with Karen on the cereal issue, actually.

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