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Portrait of a Wikipedian: Philipp Lenssen

by Eric Barbour

As a well-known supporter of Google and the publisher of a major blog that discusses Google in depth, Philipp Lenssen has some political capital in the world of search engines. On Wikipedia, though, Lenssen’s legacy may prove to be one of self-aggrandizing manipulation of Wikipedia’s content, plus a heaping dose of Lenssen’s contempt for critics of Wikipedia. In sum, his exploitation of Wikipedia for his own agenda is little different than the Wikipedia activities of a number of other “digerati”. In one of his most obviously biased gestures, Lenssen admitted trying to recreate a Wikipedia biography of Google and Wikipedia critic Daniel Brandt, against Brandt’s vociferous wishes, even though Brandt’s notorious public opposition to Google would clearly make Lenssen a less than objective author on the subject. It would be akin to Glenn Beck writing the “official” biography of Nancy Pelosi.

Lenssen’s background

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Lenssen hails from Stuttgart, Germany. Quoting from O’Reilly’s website: ‘”Born in 1977, Philipp Lenssen is a web developer, blogger and author from Germany. Since 2003, Philipp has run Google Blogoscoped at blogoscoped.com, a daily news source started in Malaysia covering all things Google, from Gmail, Orkut and web search to Google Docs, usability issues, YouTube and everything in-between. The blog also spawned a book called 55 Ways to Have Fun With Google. Philipp likes to tinker with programming, drawing, writing and game design, and has a special interest in the intersections among those areas.”‘

Activity on Wikipedia

There is some remaining evidence that not only did Lenssen document Brandt where he didn’t want to be, but that Lenssen attempted to create a biography about himself, too. Additionally, in 2004, he worked on articles about Google projects and other companies, like Findforward, with which he was involved. Quoting the Article for Deletion discussion for the Lenssen biography, it is quite clear that Lenssen did wrong, because all of the (few) Wikipedians who commented bluntly called for the deletion of Lenssen’s articles:

: ””Vanity. — Graham ☺ | Talk 13:47, 4 Sep 2004 (UTC)””
*””Also included are Google Web API and Findforward by the same anon ip. — Graham ☺ | Talk 13:53, 4 Sep 2004 (UTC)””
*””Delete: Philipp Lenssen (vanity), Findforward (Alexa rating currently 151,532, Wikipedia is not a web directory). Google Web API: weak keep, a valid subject, thought I think it’s more technical than encylopedic. –Ianb 15:18, 4 Sep 2004 (UTC)””
*””Delete Philipp Lenssen, Findforward (not a web guide), and, IMO, Google Web API. The latter is technical information, unverifiable, pretty much. Geogre 16:18, 4 Sep 2004 (UTC)””
*””Delete Philipp Lenssen, delete Findforward, merge Google Web API into Google, Web service or Simple Object Access Protocol and redirect. —Rory ☺ 17:16, Sep 4, 2004 (UTC)””
*””Delete Philipp Lenssen and Findforward: advertising. Keep Google Web API: significant technical topic. Wile E. Heresiarch 17:56, 4 Sep 2004 (UTC)””
*””Delete. Pitchka 02:00, Sep 7, 2004 (UTC)””
*””Delete – vanity – Tεxτurε 23:54, 8 Sep 2004 (UTC)””

To this day, the Wikipedia article about Lenssen’s blog still exists and serves as the redirect page for people searching Wikipedia for Philipp Lenssen’s name. Note that Findforward, a Google-scraping search engine started by Lenssen in 2004, was finally taken off the Web in July 2012. From a 2004 archive of the “about” page: “I’m Philipp Lenssen, full time web developer from Germany, and created this search engine. Search results are delivered with the help of the Google Web API. Thumbnails are from Thumbshots.org.”‘ Evidently Findforward was a failure, despite having been kept online for 8 years. Both his knock-off “search engine” and the Wikipedia article about his “search engine” went down in flames.

Lenssen’s “official” Wikipedia user account, Philwiki, has been used blatantly to edit Google-related articles. Example edits are here and here, and the user account is still active as of 2012. Thus, Lenssen acts as an unofficial and undocumented “advocacy editor”, protecting Google’s reputation on Wikipedia. This fact apparently has not been reported anywhere before.

English-language Wikipedia also currently contains sixteen references pointing to Lenssen’s blog, even though, according to Wikipedia’s own policy, Lenssen’s blog may not be a “reliable source”, since it is not checked by an editor or organization, and it clearly has a pro-Google bias. These references are plugged into various articles dealing with Google and other web companies, such as  Google Chrome and  Uclue.

Attacking his enemy

As detailed in this Lenssen blog entry from October 2005, Lenssen readily admits recreating Google-critic Daniel Brandt’s Wikipedia biography, even after it had been deleted at Brandt’s request. Note Lenssen’s failure to conform to Wikipedia’s supposed “neutrality” policy when choosing language to describe Brandt: “While his criticism is often harsh in style and some think Daniel’s content is close to conspiracy theories, the articles also often focus on issues worth (sic) of discussion.” As Brandt commented, “Does Philipp Lenssen have a right to start an entry on Daniel Brandt that is merely about him and Google Watch, when he knows nothing about my 38-year history of social activism? That’s the problem with Wikipedia — too many amateurs thinking that they have the right to describe things that they know little about.”

Note that the comments on Lenssen’s blog entries tended to be anonymous and blindly supportive of Wikipedia, even when it defamed people.

Lenssen followed up with this post the next month.

So now a user by the name of Rd232 (who has subsequently “lost enthusiasm for Wikipedia” and is “taking a wikibreak of indefinite duration”, as he says on his talk page) on the Wikipedia discussion page multiple times accuses me of having made a change from “what looks like a reasonable draft to something quite different,” asking the page be reverted to its original version, and asking me “not to make similarly large edits to this and related articles again without prior discussion.” Other Wikipedia users endorsed Rd232’s approach, so the article was reverted. In the meantime, I filed this revision history display bug on the Wikipedia bug report page.

Ironically, Rd232 recovered from his “Wikibreak” and is now one of the most powerful administrators on Wikimedia Commons, the free image dumpsite for Wikipedia. The comments contain a number of angry dismissals of Brandt by Chris Sherlock (User:Ta bu shi da yu, on Wikipedia).

Another follow-up post, 10 November 2005, was a formal and reasoned response by Brandt. It was followed by the usual blindly pro-Wikipedia comments. Perhaps not surprisingly, many were badly written or incoherent.

Thereafter, Lenssen returned to blogging about the mighty Google. Occasionally he mentioned Wikipedia goings-on in the years that followed — always from the standpoint that Wikipedia was “good” and its critics were “wrong”.

Finally, it may be safe to say that it appears Lenssen has abandoned his Google glorification, since his most recent blog entry dates from August 26, 2011.

Other links

Image credits – Flickr/@gueamu, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), Henning Schuerig

2 comments to Portrait of a Wikipedian: Philipp Lenssen

  • I support mostly any effort to shine light on this world, and believe it’s with good intentions, including yours, Eric. Let’s not blindly follow any website, person, or idea, including, of course, Wikipedia. In fact, I have quite a bit of criticism myself towards Wikipedia, and often voiced it in my blog (the specific handling of rel nofollow was one issue, the way Wikipedia Germany handles anonymity another).

    As with most things I covered in my blog, I tried to be neutral and see the good and bad sides of something. Oh, a hard goal to achieve for any journalist or blogger, perhaps even impossible, but the community and feedback from people is crucial and will help it! In fact, I asked Daniel Brandt to write a follow-up blog post on Blogoscoped, as guest editor, because I believe he deserved the same attention that my point had received (for reference: http://blogoscoped.com/archive/2005-11-10-n36.html).

    Beyond humanity’s effort to shine light on the world, I’m also happy that it’s a free world here online, where people can post their own opinions, even if they may differ from mine. Needless to say, that would be the case for many parts of this article, but the discussion we’d get into might turn out to be endless (http://xkcd.com/386/).

    PS: Yes, I openly admit to have been a comic book collector. Darn great medium for communication and art… I kindly suggest Scott McCloud’s terrific, mind-opening “Understanding Comics”!