An author improves his Wikipedia bio

Photo CC BY-SA 2.0, Randy Stewart

“I am the subject of this Wikipedia entry. The service says that details in the entry require sources. … What to do?” — Stephen Baker in unanswered talk page note, October 2008.
Photo CC BY-SA 2.0, Randy Stewart.

This spring, we worked with bestselling author Stephen Baker, who had a longstanding — but easily corrected — Wikipedia problem. We guided him in adding citations and making some updates to his biography, which had been flagged for insufficient citations since 2008.

Prior to working with us, Baker assiduously followed the unofficial advice often given by Wikipedia editors, including founder Jimmy Wales: when you have a conflict of interest, limit your efforts to discussion about the article; don’t edit the article yourself. Some Wikipedia editors go further, suggesting that it’s impossible for somebody in a conflict of interest to make worthwhile contributions.

But for more than six years, Baker’s hands-off approach completely failed; while a handful of citations were added by others in that span, they fell far short of being the best references for the biography. So, with our guidance, he took a more direct approach, and simply improved the biography.

Baker reflected on this project in a blog post, “Editing my Wikipedia bio.”

Baker is like many of our clients. As his blog post makes clear, he respects Wikipedia as a place for neutral information, not self-promotion: “I thought to fiddle with your own page was a bit pathetic, the ultimate selfie,” he says. His inclination to abide by Wikipedia’s rules, both written and unwritten, is  reflected in the short note he left on the biography’s talk page in 2008, and in the 6+ years he patiently waited for a response, making no further edits.

And yet, the changes he wanted were not promotional. His primary goal was to directly address the request for better reference sources. With our guidance, he ultimately added more than 10 citations to a biography that had previously contained only five; his additions included sources like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Times — far more substantial than the initial five links. How long should the subject of an article wait for a response to a talk page inquiry, before taking a more direct approach? We would say: not six years. In a case like this, a week or so would have been plenty.

Often, prominent people approach Wikipedia as a platform to promote their own interests, with little regard for its editorial policies and practices — for instance, author Philip Roth. But many others approach Wikipedia with respect and admiration. We admire Stephen Baker’s dedication to Wikipedia’s rules and spirit. His heart was in the right place all along; all he needed was a little guidance in how to navigate Wikipedia’s social and technical labyrinth. With that guidance, he was able to make a few improvements that satisfy the site’s exacting standards, and also satisfy his own wishes for the article.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
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