A column about Wikipedia

I’ve been fascinated to read that John Howard’s ministerial staff have been caught modifying entries on Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit. They were caught out by a new site called Wikiscanner site, which found that on June 28, someone from the Prime Minister’s Department modified Peter Costello’s entry to remove a reference to his nickname, “Captain Smirk”, which was very surprising, and not just because this seems improper behaviour for a public servant. I’d have thought someone working for John Howard would have wanted to add insulting material to Costello’s Wikipedia entry, not delete it.

But that’s not the most shocking thing about this news. Given John Howard’s general level of technological literacy, I’m surprised anyone in his office has heard of Wikipedia at all.

Some of the modifications were more overtly political, such as the softening of claims that the mandatory detention regime helped Howard win the 2001 election. These are the moments when Wikipedia can uncomfortably resemble George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, where the past is constantly being rewritten to suit the political purposes of the present. But fortunately, Wikipedia is truly democratic, and for every one government drone trying to spin their employers’ history, there are dozens of other committed users who can reverse the damage.

One of the best things about the encyclopedia is that it keeps a record of everything, so you can tell exactly what was done. At which point I should mention, in the interests of bipartisanship, that some of Morris Iemma’s ministerial staff have done the same thing, deleting the mention of an incident where he called the CEO of the Cross-City Tunnel a f***wit on a microphone which had accidentally been left on. I’m surprised his flunkies bothered to do this – surely the comment would only have endeared him to voters?

Now the comment is intact, with a reference to the attempt to delete it – which, of course, makes him look even worse.

More amusing, though, were some of the ways the staff found to waste time at work. One tried to diss the Sydney Roosters by claiming that they “base their pride on things such as stealing players from other clubs and calling them their own, and cheating the NRL salary cap.

Thanks to Wikiscanner, we can look forward to many an egomaniac being caught out modifying their biographies to present themselves in a more favourable light. And it’ll be fantastic entertainment. Can you imagine, for instance, how many times Kevin Rudd must have changed his page? Or Kyle Sandilands? Stay tuned for more amusing revelations.

Th I myself (cough, cough) have been affected by Wikipedia vandalism. Yes, I am in possession of perhaps the briefest and dullest entry of the 100,000+ on the site. Which might suggest to some that my fame isn’t exactly considerable. Whereas I choose to believe that my legions fans are so devoted that they’d rather consult a more reliable source.

The only interesting thing that has ever happened to my Wikipedia entry was on 16 May this year, though, when someone actually bothered to vandalise it. Here’s what they inserted:

His childhood was particularly difficult. Born in 1937, Dom was born genetically female. At the young age of 11, he decided that he wanted to be male, and so had his name changed via deed poll from “Dominique Samantha” to “Dominic Sebastian”. He was ostracised from his peers, and never attended high school as a result. After many years (largely spent goat-herding in Mongolia), he underwent sex-change surgery in 1984.

Mongolian goat-herding! Yep, pretty wacky stuff. But in all honestly, I’ve never been so flattered as when someone took five minutes out of their day to vandalise my page. I had expected that no-one would even notice, but amazingly, some other Wikipedian had reversed the edit a mere four hours later. And I expect no-one but me has looked at the page since.

Which reminds me – I must make a few edits. If you by any chance visit the page and see mentions of my “hilariously devastating wit” and “remarkable sexual prowess”, let them be, would you? Go vandalise John Howard’s page instead.

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