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Jared Owens, God of Wikipedia

By Mason

Jared Owens may no longer be a god according to Wikipedia, but he has at least earned some Internet immortality as the subject of the longest-lived Wikipedia hoax discovered to date.[1]

.

On May 29, 2005, an anonymous editor using an Australian IP address added “Jar’Edo Wens” (an exotically punctuated “Jared Owens”) to Wikipedia’s Australian Aboriginal mythology article. Ten minutes later, the same editor created a brief article for Jar’Edo Wens: “In Australian Aboriginal mythology, Jar’Edo Wens is a god of earthly knowledge and physical might, created by Altjira to oversee that the people did not get too big-headed, associated with victory and intelligence.”

To ensure that there was no doubt that this was someone having a little Internet fun, rather than a serious attempt to catalog obscure Aboriginal deities, the same editor also added your mom (“Yohrmum”) to the list of Aboriginal mythological figures.

Both “Jar’Edo Wens” and “Yohrmum” remained in the Australian Aboriginal mythology article for over a year, until an administrator removed Yohrmum (but not Jar’Edo Wens) as “suspected old vandalism.” It wasn’t until December of 2007 that Jar’Edo Wens was removed from the article, when the entire list of mythological figures was deleted in an overhaul of the page.[2]

But the “Jar’Edo Wens” article itself remained. And was polished by “WikiGnomes” and bots.[3] First, on the same day the “article” was created, an editor “wikified” it by adding links to the “Australia”, “Aboriginal mythology”, “god” and “Altjira” pages. The editor also added the article to the “Aboriginal gods” category, and added maintenance tags identifying the article as a “stub” in need of expansion, and one that “needs additional citations for verification.”

WikiGnomes and bots polish the Jar’Edo Wens article

Next, an editor made the “stub” tag more specific, changing {{myth-stub}} to {{Oceania-myth-stub}}. Another editor refined it further to {{australia-myth-stub}}. Then a copyeditor came along and changed “big-headed” to “arrogant or self-conceited”. Another editor added “Category:Knowledge gods.”

Then came the parade of bots. Bots adding “orphan” tags. Bots requesting more references. Bots pointlessly changing the capitalization of the markup and adding sort keys to ensure the article would be sorted by “Jar” and not “Wens” in the category views. Bots changing the types of maintenance templates and moving whitespace around.

It wasn’t until November 2014 that an anonymous editor suspected something was up, and tagged the article as a possible hoax. Three months later, it was finally nominated for deletion.

Deletion discussions normally last seven days, but when longtime administrator Vejvančický noted the hoax on the Wikipediocracy forums, the deletion discussion was given an expedited close by Newyorkbrad, recently retired “chief justice” of Wikipedia’s “supreme court” and regular Wikipediocracy reader.[4]

Newyorkbrad wrote:
The result was Speedied as a blatant and indisputable hoax (not to mention an embarrassment that it lasted this long). My thanks to those who caught it. Newyorkbrad (talk) 08:42, 3 March 2015 (UTC)

“The name seems to be inconsistent with naming and linguistic conventions in Australia. Significantly, the page List of Australian Aboriginal mythological figures includes this entry with the note that Jar’Edo Wens is an ‘Arrernte god of earthly knowledge and physical might.’ It appears, however, that the letters D, J, O, and S are not used in the Arrernte language. (See Omniglot and UCLA.)

This could be the longest-lived hoax on Wikipedia, perhaps derived from the actual English name Jared Owens with punctuation and spacing changed. Food for thought. Calamondin12 (talk) 21:35, 1 March 2015 (UTC)”

from the deletion discussion

Meanwhile, references to Jar’Edo Wens have made their way into other language Wikipedias. As of today, both Russian and Polish Wikipedias list Jar’Edo Wens in their articles on Aboriginal mythology.

The French and Turkish Wikipedias one-up them and list both Jar’Edo Wens and Yohrmum in their Aboriginal mythology articles.[5] (French Wikipedia also included its own Jar’Edo Wens article, but it was deleted shortly after the English version was deleted.)

Jar’Edo Wens also had a page on sister project Wikidata. There are fewer editors there to polish pages, but a Dutch robot did stop by in 2013 to do a little gnoming.

As with any longstanding Wikipedia content, though, the hoax was not confined to Wikipedia and its sister sites. Mirror sites, as always, copied Wikipedia’s references to both Jar’Edo Wens and “Yohrmum” far and wide, but the longevity of this particular reference has led to its inclusion in actual books, and not just the worthless “buy a paper copy of a Wikipedia article” print-on-demand books you can buy for a low, low price of $25 plus shipping and handling. The 2012 Matthew S. Mccormick book “Atheism And The Case Against Christ” (Prometheus Press) has a chapter dedicated to “gods and religions in history that have fallen out of favor”, and there in the list is our friend Jar’Edo. (Yohrmum didn’t make the cut.) A self-published science fiction novel from 2013 also includes a character named “Jar’Edo Wens”; whether that’s a coincidence, a knowing wink, or an attempt to reuse the name of a genuine Aboriginal mythological figure for dramatic purpose is an open question.

Vandalism and hoaxes get added into Wikipedia every day, of course, but Jar’Edo Wens represents an exceptionally enduring example[6]. Ten years is an eternity in “Internet time”; at the time the Jar’Edo article was created, Twitter did not exist. It’s almost incredible to believe that one 15-minute session of Internet silliness in 2005 could become immortalized in literature (such that it is) as well as hundreds of web pages, but anyone familiar with Wikipedia’s powers of amplification understands the effect quite well.

The altruistic instinct that compels us to pick up a piece of litter in our path is equally powerful in compelling well-meaning WikiGnomes to “improve” content by adding links and categories. (I know: I do it myself.) But in the case of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) vandalism and hoaxes, the effect is nonetheless to put lipstick on a pig, or, as Dilbert’s Scott Adams often puts it, to “polish a turd.” There is, in fact, a great deal of turd-polishing done on Wikipedia, for well-intentioned reasons: Wikipedia channels the innate human desire to improve things, but can do so in a way that produces absurd, if not harmful, results. In this case, a completely made-up “fact” was prettified into a plausible-looking encyclopedia article with proper formatting and copyediting, helpful links to other articles, and relevant categorization, and was considered credible enough that other websites and even books uncritically referenced it. So why wouldn’t someone take it at face value?


Footnotes:
[1] Since Wikipedia has been around since 2001, it’s likely even longer-lasting hoaxes have yet to be discovered. Fifteen of the top sixteen entries in Wikipedia’s list of hoaxes were found within the last year. All sixteen lasted more than seven years before being discovered.

[2] During that time, a vandal deleted chunks of the article text, including the Jar’Edo reference. They were reverted, and Jar’Edo restored to the article, with the edit summary “reverting back to good edit due to vandalism.” Reverting from one vandalized version to a different vandalized version (perhaps a more subtly vandalized version) is fairly common on Wikipedia; I’ve inadvertently done it myself. In one case, a bot I ran got into an edit war with another bot over two vandalized versions of an article, because each bot recognized a different flavor of vandalism and thought the other bot was therefore a vandal. Bots, for the uninitiated, are computer programs that automatically make certain edits to an article by following certain rules. One of the most active bots is one that goes around removing links to YouTube videos that have been added to articles by new editors.

[3] “WikiGnomes” are editors who specialize in small edits such as grammar fixes or formatting changes. Famous “WikiGnomes” include the guy who goes around removing “comprised of” from articles. As with bot battles, gnome battles are not uncommon; there have been arbitration cases filed to settle the battle between the gnomes who change hyphens to dashes and the gnomes who change dashes to hyphens.

[4] not that there’s anything wrong with that.

[5] Jar’Edo Wens has since been removed from the French Wikipedia article, but Yohrmum remains.

[6] And long-lasting hoaxes are not just limited to esoteric or little-watched topics. A prankster added his (or a friend’s) name into the songwriting credits for Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, a million-selling pop song and top-ten hit in over a dozen countries. The fake credits remained in the article for 20 months, despite the article being on over 50 Wikipedians’ watchlists. Similarly, on Wikidata the not-at-all obscure American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was “also known as” Adolf Hitler for nearly five months despite the page being edited dozens of times during that period.

Image credits: Flickr/new 1lluminati, Wikimedia ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

5 comments to Jared Owens, God of Wikipedia

  • “Jar’Edo Wens is a god of earthly knowledge and physical might, created by Altjira to oversee that the people did not get too big-headed, associated with victory and intelligence.”

    Pity he doesn’t exist then. He sounds like the guardian deity Wikipedia needs.

  • metasonix

    Jeez, Mason just revealed one of the most blinding-stupid hoaxes in WP history, and no one notices. Your mum is a hag.

  • […] blog Wikipediocracy recounts the genesis of a wholly fictional Aboriginal deity, created by an anonymous Australian prankster—presumably […]

  • Small Gods

    What category does the entry on Imelda Marcos fall into? It reads as hoax or parody, but appears to be written by human beings without a sense of humour. (Hoaxers of course do have a sense of humour).

    I would fix it but I gave up editing wikipedia when they had one of their regular policy pogroms and it became less interesting and far less fun.

  • Mike

    I don’t see the problem. Articles on Wikipedia are basically as authoritative as their verifiable citations and sources. It was tagged as needing citations, which means that it was basically flagged as not having any authoritative information until those were added. What more do you want?