By Andreas Kolbe
Wikipedia contains over half a million biographies of living persons, for people ranging from Barack Obama to local shopkeepers. Yet the core editors whose job it is to ensure that all of these biographies comply with Wikipedia policies number only a few thousand. And while the number of biographies rises daily, editor retention rates in Wikipedia are currently plummeting. (The slide showing editor retention data is known within the Wikimedia Foundation as the “Holy Shit slide”.)
Biographies of major figures like a US President are usually fairly well watched over, and in quite good shape. But for little watched biographies at the other end of the notability spectrum covered by Wikipedia, things look very different.
What happens with minor biographies is that they are often only frequented by anonymous people who have a dislike for the biography subject, or at any rate have neither the interest nor the writing skills to produce a balanced biography. Such contributors will typically add derogatory information – sometimes true, sometimes not – or random stuff they read and found “interesting”.
The results are not pretty – 50 per cent of a journalist’s biography about an argument he had with Mitt Romney? Or take this addition to the “free encyclopedia”, made by an anonymous person wishing to be known as just “Shylocksboy”: “Jayne Middlemiss called Titmuss ‘a big, fat slag’ because of her flirting with Sharpe, whom Middlemiss had an eye on.”
These examples are typical of the anonymous dirt accretion method (ADAM) of biography writing. It results in biographies whose actual biographical content becomes overwhelmed by tangential material inserted by anonymous people with a grudge against the biography subject, or an interest in random trivia.
Here is another example, turning a sexual harassment accusation, denied by the accused and a high-profile eye-witness (okay, we’ll name-drop: George Clooney), into established fact. Even the tabloid sources the snippet was based on did not assert that the claim was true, and the court case seems to have sunk without trace; but in the court of Wikipedia, an accusation is enough to convict.
Wikipedia has traditionally defended the existence of unbalanced and slanted articles by putting forward the concept of “eventualism”. According to this philosophy, articles will often start out as an unbalanced mess of loosely connected information, but “eventually” “someone” will come along and put all of it together in a way that makes beautiful sense. In essence, this treats a Wikipedia biography as a scratch pad, to record things that might or might not come in useful when someone gets round to writing a “real” biography.
This may have been a workable, even sensible, concept in the encyclopedia’s early days, when Wikipedia biographies came on page 50 in Google search listings, and Wikipedia editors were happy to have any information at all on any given page. But today, over a decade later, with Wikipedia ranking as the number one Google link for almost anybody who is in the public eye, it is no longer an acceptable way of working. A Wikipedia biography needs to be balanced, and fair to its subject.
Wikipedia needs to abandon ADAM.
See also the essay at Wikipedia, WP:ADAM.