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Saturday 24 March 2007

The case for Wikipedia

There's been quite a bit of anti-Wikipedia articles in the media of late, perhaps sparked by the arrival of an anti-Wikipedia movement — led by right-wing American evangelicals. Then there was the Editor exposed as a fraudster. Then they've been the culture and other wars (sometimes echoing real wars) ranging through it's pages and the 'professionals' who just instinctively hate it.

I've always thought that Wikipedia is, and will continue to be, one of the building blocks, a major gain from the Internet, something which couldn't otherwise exist. It's world-changing. It's notable that academics don't universally dislike it. It's also looking like the first stage in a truly big-scale open source project - Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales now wants to build search.wikia.

"Search is a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the Internet and therefore human society as a whole," he added. "The main idea will be to change the competitive landscape of search and encourage global innovation."

However, it's not perfect, the model isn't perfect and sometimes they've got it wrong. Teething pains I say and this amazingly positive (and I'd say illustrative) story shows why.

The day I downloaded myself

When Mike Scott of the Waterboys looked at the Wikipedia entry on himself, he got quite a shock

Friday March 23, 2007
The Guardian

I started playing music not to become famous, but to make great work. I wanted to feel what the Beatles felt when they recorded the vocals on Eleanor Rigby. I wanted to experience what Bob Dylan or Van Morrison did when the first glimpses of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall or Madame George started to shimmer through their imaginations. How can I say this? I wanted to be inside songs. And to varying degrees I've experienced this; I've made contact with my own wells of inspiration, and have maintained it, sometimes faintly, sometimes intensely, since I formed the Waterboys in the early 1980s.

Fame also is part of the artistic desire, in so far as an artist, having made their work, wants the public to experience and respond to it; and the need for recognition is important, especially as a spur to further creative acts. But if it replaces creativity as the "prime directive", the connection to inspiration is in trouble. The words "cart" and "horse" come to mind, in the wrong order.

So fame and I have circled each other warily for the past two decades. We've come to an accommodation, of sorts: fame knows I won't tart for her, and I know that fame, monster that she can be, requires careful handling and respect.

What further complicates our relationship is that I'm a private person. I love being on stage before an audience, but I like to walk the streets anonymously. And while I welcome criticism of my work, I object to being defined; if false ideas, motives or deeds are attributed to me, I bristle.

At times my actions have encouraged the spread of misconceptions about me. I did no interviews for four years at the height of the Waterboys' late 1980s popularity. Without my voice to set the story straight, all manner of entertaining but untrue stories flourished (my favourite: "He was in a hotel room with Bob Dylan when he was meant to be in the Top of the Pops studio").

Compounding this have been my allegedly unorthodox "career" decisions. These have included absorbing myself in folk music when I was expected to ascend to the rock stadia of the world, and making a one-man album in a spiritual community when a rollicking band tour would have done more for my profile. I took these actions because I was following where my inspiration led me, but they have often been banally misrepresented as "he's running away from fame/success/the world".

With some apprehension I noted the emergence of the rock encyclopedia books over the past 15 years, like the hideously titled Guinness Book of Rock Stars. Anytime I looked myself up in such books I found error after error. These ranged from outrageous fictions (that I was a heroin addict; I have never touched the satanic stuff), to common misconceptions (I'm often stated to be Irish, though I'm from Edinburgh). But having no means of redress, I had to like it or lump it.

These tomes are now superseded by the birth of a new beast: the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, which, unlike a book, can be edited by anyone. I'd been wondering what the Wikipedia entries on the Waterboys and myself were like. A while back I had a look.

I was pleasantly surprised. The entries were well-written and thorough, clearly the work of many dedicated authors and editors. There were excellent pictures I'd never seen before and broad histories of the band and myself, with intelligent reference to our musical, spiritual and literary influences.

Inevitably there were errors, including the confusion of my song Old England with the Clash's This Is England, and the scurrilous assertion that Christianity has influenced my lyrics (it hasn't). So I registered with Wikipedia under a pseudonym, and went in to fix them. An "edit" page popped up, with the text of the Waterboys entry displayed. The power of it! My own story before me, and the ability to change its telling was mine!

I took care to preserve the integrity of the article, and not remove anything I disliked (such as the daft old cliche that I'm "a madman or a genius depending on your point of view") if it wasn't a specific factual error. Yet I was so intoxicated by being able to correct the misconceptions that I ploughed right ahead without reading any of the Wikipedia editing guidelines.

Then a box appeared telling me someone else was editing the material simultaneously. I checked my changes and found, to my dismay, they were being unedited as I sat there. Some goblin of the web, some fiend, was undoing my correcting of my own story.

What did I do? I damn well went back in there, retyped my edits and pressed "save changes". And I won. After a couple of to-ings and fro-ings my competitor gave up, and my changes remained.

A couple of mornings later I read in the Guardian about a man who had been caught getting his PR to flatteringly alter his Wikipedia entry. I wondered if what I had done was similar and felt a qualm of guilt. I hadn't flattered myself, I had only corrected errors, yet my conscience said gently: is the subject of an entry the best and most objective person to unconditionally correct it?

So I rather sheepishly logged on and went to have a look at my changes and re-assess them. And they were gone. My competitor had outwitted me and gone in later to change it all back. I also noticed that a Wikipedia user had sent me a message: "Hi. Please make sure, especially when editing a featured article, to meticulously cite your sources for any changes or additions. Thanks."

A glance at the "history" box of the Waterboys page revealed that the sender was the same person who had undone my edits. Reading his clear and unaccusatory note, it was blindingly obvious to me that, of course, without proper references anyone could write anything in Wikipedia; and that however correct my changes were, my way of inserting them was naive, and hopelessly incongruent with the Wikipedia system and ideals.

Wondering whether other publicly-known individuals had experienced this, I delved deeper and found that a few hundred people register on Wikipedia as themselves and openly correct their own pages. This commits them to a process of public dialogue with other editors, and with people who may disagree with what they write about their own lives. I could do that, but, like writing letters to rock encyclopedias, it didn't appeal to me.

So I decided to leave the page to my courteous correspondent and others like him, and to complete the experience I wrote a short blog about it on the Waterboys' MySpace page.

Then a friend emailed to say I'd been outed. He gave me a link to a page called "discussion", appended to the Waterboys Wikipedia entry, where I found that two editors, including my correspondent, had read my blog and realised the rogue editor was me. Instead of denouncing me (which I expected), they were discussing how what I'd written in my blog had allowed them to substantiate some of my changes, which they'd reinserted into the article.

I contacted my correspondent and apologised for my bull-in-a-china-shop behaviour. He replied, welcoming my input if backed up by sources, and offered to make the changes for me if I supplied him with documentation. This I've done, finding published references to the facts and sending them to him, to see them appear in what is becoming an increasingly accurate and substantial history of the Waterboys - probably the best there is, at least until I write my own book.

As for fame, we continue to circle each other, but perhaps a little less warily after this episode.

· The Waterboys' new album, Book of Lightning, is released on April 2 on W14

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