Correcting the Record: Wikipedia vs The Register

When editing my own Wikipedia entry got me smeared in the pages of The Register, the irony was too delicious. Andrew Orlowski's account of my editing of my Wikipedia entry was founded on a factual error, and it appeared in an editorial about how Wikipedia is untrustworthy because Wikipedia contained just that sort of factual error.

What's easier: correcting a malicious Wikipedia entry about you or correcting a malicious news-story about you? In the past year, I've had the opportunity to do both, and for me, it's clear that if you're going to have your name dragged through the mud, it's a better deal if it comes at the hand of an anonymous Wikipedia troll than from a paid journalist in a mainstream news-source.

Mainstream News-Source
In December 2005, while I was away on holidays, I got an email to tell me that Andrew Orlowski had published an article in The Register in which he said unflattering things about me. This is par for the course. Andrew often writes gratuitously unkind things about me (for example, describing computer-generated text as "grammatically correct but meaningless: much like … a Cory Doctorow novel") and my former employer (saying, under a funny by-line, that the EFF loses all its cases and then citing a bunch of cases that we won, cases that weren't EFF cases, and things that weren't cases periodsee update below; a writer at The Register denies that Orlowlski wrote this piece).

I'm not in any position to speculate on why EFF, which wins regular, substantial victories in the same causes he often espouses has drawn so much of Orlowski's The Register's ire, but when your detractors have to stoop to confabulation, you're no longer having anything like a discussion. Generally speaking, I ignore Orlowski's attacks, because there's no sense in asking to have the record corrected when it's clearly a work of fiction.

But the December article was different. In the wake of John Seigenthaler's denunciation of Wikipedia for a malicious edit to his bio that falsely associated him with the assassination of JFK, Orlowski published an article about people who edit their own Wikipedia entries. His thesis, near as I can work it out, is that Wikipedia is bad because it makes mistakes, and when people correct their own Wikipedia entries, they end up looking "vain and foolish" or they are prevented from doing so altogether.

Orlowski put me in the vain and foolish camp because I had taken part in a discussion of my entry in which I spoke of myself in the third person, e.g. "'Since these issues are inextricably linked to the way Doctorow has chosen to present his books to the world, I do think it is at least somewhat appropriate,' Doctorow adds." He also implied that this somehow tricked Wikipedia's volunteer moderators into letting me correct the record where others had been denied.

He's at least part right — people who talk about themselves in the third person do look pretty foolish. But he was completely wrong on the factual assertion that I had talked about myself in the third person, and so his speculation that this was the magic trick necessary to allow people to edit their own entries was invalid.

I had indeed taken part in the message-board for my Wikipedia entry, and some months later, a Wikipedia editor reorganized the page, grouping the discussions by topic. To an untrained eye it was unclear who had written what, and if you hold the kind of low opinion of me that Orlowski clearly has, it might be possible to believe that the entire message board had been written by me alone.

But this time, Orlowski wasn't inventing sins from the whole cloth. He had made a factual mistake, and it was one that was easy to verify: just go through the edit-history of the discuss page, and in a minute or two, it would be clear just who had written what.

I emailed Orlowski during Christmas week with simple corrections to the piece, but I didn't hear from him. More than a week later, on January 5, I called his editor, Joe Fay, and let him know. He told me that Orlowski was on holidays and he was reluctant to edit the piece without his consent, but that he was happy to have a look at the material if I sent him the specifics. I did, and three days later, he emailed me with some further queries — he was evidently unfamiliar with Wikipedia and needed a pointer to get to the history log for that page to determine who had written what. The next day, the article was corrected — all the falsely attributed quotes were excised, without any record of them having been there.

In November, 2004, a friend emailed me to let me know that my Wikipedia entry had been edited with a great deal of unflattering an untrue statements; the anonymous editor wrote that sales of books subsequent to my first novel had been sub-par and attributed this to my use of Creative Commons licenses that allow readers to copy and redistribute the books for free. This isn't true: the sales of my all my books have been healthy and vigorous. It was clear to me that the person doing the editing had a beef with my political stand on copyright and wanted to discredit Creative Commons, and had invented a bunch of fantasies about my sales to prove his point.

Easy to fix. I just created a Wikipedia account and changed the entry (previous to this, I'd read my entry a couple of times, and seen that it was basically a skeleton bio). The classic Wikipedia dynamic followed: my troll came back and edited the post to make it even more unflattering and I changed it again. We went back and forth and back and forth, hammer and tongs, in both the Wikipedia entry and the discuss board.

After a month or so of this, a Wikipedia moderator intervened, and my troll and I came up with a version of my bio that we could both live with (the solution was to move the discussion of copyleft licenses to a separate entry on copyleft). During that period, the entry spent most of the time in a state I could live with, though now and again, my troll came back to repeat his assertions. On the whole, I was happy with things.

That's what it was like when someone maligned me on Wikipedia: within five minutes of discovering it, I was able to correct it, and subsequently I had a public discussion with the guy, hammering out a consensus. The record of our discussion is kept by Wikipedia, so others can see how the entry got the way it is.

Orlowski has been known to rail at Wikipedia's immorality in allowing lies to flourish there, but his own "ready, fire, aim" approach to critical journalism is guilty of just the same sins he lays at Wikipedia's feet (for example, he once claimed that Garry Trudeau had written a series of Doonesbury strips to mock the Creative Commons project, and failed to correct himself when it was pointed out that the strips had been written before the Creative Commons project launched).

It's clear that intellectual honesty and freedom from bias are not inherent traits of journalism or of Wikipedia entries. The interesting thing about systems is never how they perform when they work as they're intended to — it's what happens when they fail (David Weinberger sums this up neatly: "[Wikipedia] has handled inaccuracies not defensively but with the humble understanding that of course Wikipedia articles will have mistakes, so let's get on with the unending task of improving them. Wikipedia's ambitions are immodest, but Wikipedia is not.")

Wikipedia failed in September 2004, when a troll changed my entry to say untruthful things about me. I corrected the record five minutes after I noticed the change, and subsequently spent a couple hours over the following weeks coming to a consensus with the various parties in the dispute, ending up with an entry that is fair and factual.

The Register failed in December 2005, when a reporter with a quizzical history of personal attacks on people who share his political views published a factually incorrect account of my deeds. But when I noticed that the record had been muddied, I wasn't able to fix it in a few minutes. Instead, more than a week ticked by, and it wasn't until I'd sent four emails and placed a phone-call that it was set straight.

With Wikipedia, anyone can roll back the clock and see what was published, when, and by whom: Wikipedia's History and Discuss pages are palimpsests recording the process by which the truth was eventually negotiated.

With The Register, the negotiation of the truth took place behind closed doors. I never got a response to my emails to Orlowski nor was I informed when the article was corrected. No retraction notice was published, and there's no way for a reader of the article to discover how it was edited, by whom, and when.

There's no absolute truth, but some things are more truthful than others. In the Internet Age, we can no longer rely on publishers or other gatekeepers to put their imprimatur on The Truth. Instead, each of us must navigate our own way to truthfulness.

In July of 2005, Orlowski ran a smear on Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble. The key piece of evidence for his attack was an email purportedly sent by Scoble, but Scoble claimed it was a fake (neutral third parties agreed). Orlowski left the assertion hanging on his piece, only correcting the record in October, some three months later.

Wikipedia's transparent approach to the truth lays out all sides of the debate where all can see them and judge for themselves what the fact of the matter is. The Register's approach hides the negotiation of truth behind invisible, silent edits, and behind the whims of writers who are free to correct, (or not correct) the record as they see fit.

The Reg is the Wikipedia vandal you can't revert.

(This is the first of the series of longer posts I promised in my I quit my day-job post on New Year's Day)

Update: An anonymous writer from The Register writes to say that Andrew Orlowski was not the pseudonymous author of an article that attacked EFF by erroneously alleging that EFF loses the bulk of its cases. Though my source at The Register declined to identify the anonymous author, she did say that he had been writing for The Register for quite some time, as can be seen by this search for his byline.

I previously wrote an article describing Orlowski's unwillingness to correct himself when he has taken pot-shots at people and organizations he holds in low regard (for example, taking three months to acknowledge that a tipster had forged an email from Robert Scoble), in which I cited the EFF-attacking article as an example of this. However, according to the source at The Register, the person who made the factually incorrect statements in that particular article was a different regular contributor to The Register.

There's no indication of whether The Register will correct the inaccuracies in its piece on Electronic Frontier Foundation.