Jan 132011

This has parallels with my earlier comment, “don’t spam Wikipedia“. Writing an autobiography on Wikipedia is even more spectaculalrly ill-judged than writing an article on your company. Please, just never do that. Don’t write about yourself or (if you are a PR or agent) your clients. It is asking for trouble. Not even Jimbo can get away with it.

As I might have mentioned, I am a member of the Wikipedia volunteer email response team (WP:OTRS). We pick up the emails sent to the Wikimedia Foundation and try to help people to resolve issues they might have. In most cases this comes down to telling them how to use Wikipedia’s processes properly, because as Wikipedia has grown and matured, the process of codifying rules and processes has become a major part of the social activity in the project. I suspect that by now more time and effort is expended in debating user conduct and “rulecruft” (see cruft) than on debating substantive improvements to content, but that might just be me being cynical.

David Gerard has written persuasively about how many newbies a project can or should bite, and the email response team particularly concerns itself with one kind of newbie: the article subject who suddenly realises thei biography on Wikipedia is (a) shit or (b) being abused by someone for nefarious purposes.

We on the email response team make extensive use of biolerplate responses, though we usually tailor these to the specific case and will often mix and match multiple responses. There’s a good reason for using boilerplate: it ensures that we give information which is both complete and consistent. One which I wrote and use quite frequently is the general advice to article subjects. I’m told by some of those to whom I have sent it, that is is helpful.  Before I copy it to WP:MYBIO I will share it here.

Advice to Wikipedia article subjects

Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia written by its readers. The project is a “wiki”, which means that anyone visiting the site can edit or add to pages. There is a general introduction to Wikipedia here: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About>.

One of our most important policies is that on biographies of living individuals: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Biographies_of_living_persons>. We also require that all articles adhere to the neutral point of view: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view>.

As the subject of one of our articles, we encourage you to create an account. This is free and helps members of the Wikipedia community to communicate with you. You can create an account here: <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Userlogin>. If you are having problems creating an account, you may request an account be created for you at: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Request_an_account>

Each article has an associated “discussion page” or “talk page”; you can access this by clicking the “discussion” link at the top of the article. You can then ask a question by selecting the “new section” link in the tabs at the top of the page. You will see two text boxes for you to write in: one for a title for your question and one for the question itself. At the top of each page is an “edit” tab, and clicking this tab allows readers to edit the page. To find the specific authors of a page, you can click on the “history” link at the top of the article.

Each Wikipedia editor has a personal user page that you can reach by clicking on their name; that user page has an associated “discussion page” where you can leave them messages. These users’ discussion pages can be edited in the same way as article discussion pages.

We would encourage you (or your representatives) to use the article’s talk page rather than edit the article directly. This is to protect your own reputation against possible adverse publicity caused by editing your own Wikipedia biography, something that has caused adverse comment in the past and we’ve formulated a guideline here: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Autobiography>. The community’s views on edits by subjects and those working for them can be seen at: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Conflict_of_interest>. Obviously we make an exception for fixing obvious vandalism.

It is very important to avoid the use of legal language and threats. We have an absolute prohibition on this: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:No_legal_threats>. In order to maintain an orderly atmosphere we also prohibit personal attacks: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:No_personal_attacks>, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Civility>. If you feel attacked or threatened then please ask for help.

Wikipedia policy is that all articles should remain open for editing by our users as a process of continuous improvement. Though in extreme cases we may “lock” pages from receiving edits for a short time, pages are then reopened for editing, as most edits we receive improve our articles. Because of this, we do not lock articles on request. However, we strive to keep articles free of vandalism and inaccurate material. There is a noticeboard specifically for biographical issues at: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Biographies_of_living_persons/Noticeboard>, this is widely watched and is a good place to ask for help. For more general assistance you can use the help desk, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Helpdesk>, or add the text {{helpme}} (including the curly braces) on your talk page.

In some cases an article may be deleted, either due to unfixable problems or because of lack of reliable independent sources, as noted in our guideline on inclusion of biographies: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Criteria_for_Inclusion_of_Biographies> and <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Importance>. This is absolutely not a judgment on the individual themselves, only on whether there are sufficient sources of a quality that allows us to compile a biography which meets objective standards of fairness and accuracy.

  5 Responses to “Advice to subjects of Wikipedia biographies”

  1. “… the email response team particularly concerns itself with one kind of newbie: the article subject who suddenly realises thei biography on Wikipedia is (a) shit or (b) being abused by someone for nefarious purposes.”

    And may I say THANK YOU. So many times I do press and the person interviewing me asks “By the way, what can we do about our crappy Wikipedia articles?”

    My standard answer is: “If there’s a serious problem, email [email protected] – an experienced volunteer WILL review it. I can’t promise a particular outcome, but it WILL be taken seriously. Tell your colleagues!”

    Does that work for you lot? I may make a blog post to this effect.

    • It’s easy to underestimate the extent to which people simply don’t understand Wikipedia. They don’t understand that anyone can edit, or if they do they don’t understand /why/ anyone can edit. The important rules are simple, the simple rules are important. In an ideal world it would not be necessary to teach people how to deal with fools who revert removal of badly-sourced material from their article, but of course the world is not ideal.

      The weakness of a wiki is that your working always shows. We get to see people learning the rules the hard way (by breaking them and being corrected). Back-channels hopefully remove some of the clueless newbie errors that people might otherwise make, and move them to a position of understanding without the often unhelpful input of the peanut gallery. The move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence is the vital first step, and that is what I am trying to do with this reply and the people I discuss it with.

      You don’t need to know everything about Wikipedia in order to fix a bad bio, but you do need to know enough about it to get your edits to stick. I know I am excessively verbose, which is why I encouraged others on OTRS to review the text as well; the aim is to cover the important points, to move the resolution back to Wikipedia and off backchannels (due to issues of scale) and hopefully to do this in a way that will avoid bad publicity for the individual concerned.

      There is something technical we need to do, though. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Village_pump_%28technical%29/Archive_83#Deletion_logs for a recurring issue.

      • Mmmm. My one-liner is for cases where the bio is really quite bad and the subject doesn’t have the time/resources/patience to embark upon engaging with Wikipedia. Where they don’t like actually famous but unsavoury incidents being documented, or just don’t get Wikipedia, your form letter looks about right; where there’s something really problematic, that’s a different matter, and I think assuring them we take these things seriously (and we do) would be excellent PR. If feasible.

        I agree on collapsing the deletion notices, at least for anons. That would help a lot.

        I may write something up and email it to you and Scott MacDonald for review before posting, so I don’t make your lives crappier.

        • I agree, and if there is something big and wrong I will of course fix it first; the long version goes after that. So: I fixed that; it might come back with better sources, here’s why and also what you can do about that.

          OTRS is absolutely the right first point of contact for anyone who has a bad problem with a biography.

  2. And I didn’t think my post was intrinsically very persuasive … it was a rambling email I sent someone a year ago, slightly rewritten and posted as-was. Though it does seem to have resonated strongly. (The discussions on internal-l are interesting too, and that the n00b-hostility of en:wp is being discussed on wikitech-l as a reason some devs are unmotivated to fix some stuff. That’s the point at which the other two-thirds of Wikimedia has to tell the big one-third that this has seriously got to be dealt with.)

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