One Man's Experiment With Wikipedia

Several years ago, I embarked on a social experiment -- and it has already taught me much about the Web, the eccentricities of social networks and about the likelihood of my own historic legacy.

And it's all come from Wikipedia.

I've followed the social encyclopedia almost from the beginning. And, in fact, early on I wrote one of these columns in support of the value of Wikipedia in the face of claims about its trustworthiness from the likes of Encyclopedia Britannica. What I said at the time was that at least you could see Wikipedia's biases, and there were transparent procedures for correcting them, something that wasn't true at the time for the venerable EB.

I've noted with satisfaction in the years since that, for all of its complaints, Britannica has come to look a lot more like Wikipedia. By the same token, while I still consider Wikipedia to be the most useful and accessible encyclopedia ever created -- and one that becomes more of both by the year -- I also must admit that the site has lost some of my early trust. I hesitate now to ever use Wikipedia as a source for an article or book, but only as a portal to other primary sources. And, of course, this is especially true when the topic has anything to do with politics and polarizing recent news events.

My relationship with Wikipedia might have remained just that until a few years ago, when I was surprised to discover that I had my own Wikipedia entry. That's when my experiment began.

To say that I was surprised to see my entry doesn't quite capture the sensation. When you are a kid, with a slightly unusual name, you figure you are probably the only person who wears that particular moniker. Growing up, especially in the Internet age, quickly disabuses you of that notion.

There are literally tons of Michael Malones in America (especially young men in their 30s, who were born when Michael was the most popular name to give to baby boys). But my awakening came even earlier when, writing my first book, I received a call from an old buddy who said he'd seen my new novel at the bookstore.

A quick drive down to A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books gave me the depressing news that there was already a Michael Malone, a writer, who was a couple of years older than me. If you are mystery novel or daytime soap fan, you probably know of this Michael Malone -- and though we inhabit very different literary worlds, our records are forever being confused. Hence my use of Michael S(hawn) Malone in all of my b-lines, a name that mortified me as a kid, instead of the Mike Malone by which my friends have always known me.

So, when I first saw the entry for "Michael S. Malone" in Wikipedia, I momentarily thought it was about the other guy. And when, at last, I realized it was about me, my first question was: "Why?" I mean, it's not like I am a celebrity, or even that well known outside the confines of Silicon Valley and the electronics industry. But that itself may have been the explanation: With Wikipedia based in Silicon Valley, and many of its contributors being computer geeks, there was a much better chance of me earning an entry on the site than had I been, say, an agricultural columnist in Topeka.

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