So what does it take to become the subject of a Wikipedia biography?

screenshot-en-wikipedia-org-2018-08-27-19-53-44I was just scoping out Category:Living people, and noticed there are about 870,000 entries. So, given a world population of 7.6 billion, roughly 1 in 8,700 people alive on the earth today has a Wikipedia biography about them.

Many people have tried to get a Wikipedia biography. A few have tried to get their biography deleted. It’s not really the biography itself that matters so much, as what it represents, which is that there was something about you that was considered notable (whatever that means).

Hopefully you use your fame for some useful purpose, to inspire or inform others who admire you. Celebrities are always weighing in on various political and cultural matters, and even though we know there are probably people a lot more qualified than them to give opinions on such stuff, they have an influence anyway because people assume, “They wouldn’t throw away their reputation to voice an opinion unless they had looked into it and made sure there was a sound basis for doing so.” Plus the halo effect makes people assume, if they were good at being a movie star or whatever, they must also know what they’re talking about when it comes to politics, economics, etc.

Notability is actually kind of a slippery concept; it’s really whatever a handful of wiki editors decided to say is notable. They’re having to make a prediction about whether you’ll be of ongoing notability, or whether your 15 minutes of fame, having come, is about to go just as quickly.

It’s kind of like court precedents, actually. Some cases are published, and others aren’t. I’ve been to court many times, and appealed several cases, but none of the rulings have been chosen for publication, because the issues weren’t novel. The courts say, just because your case isn’t chosen for publication, doesn’t mean the issues raised aren’t important. It just means that the case doesn’t provide a useful example to use in deciding other cases.

I think, though, that certain high-profile cases do end up being more likely to become precedents. For example, Timothy McVeigh’s case got published. So did Joseph Nacchio’s.

It almost seems like, the way it works is that Wikipedia is very wary about being used as a tool for publicity; but if you’ve already generated publicity, then they want to get in on the action. They want to use an article about you as a way of enhancing their own reputation as an information resource. )(It’s like the old saying, that what’s impressive isn’t when you brag about the school you went to, but rather when the school you went to brags about you.

The courts seem to be the same way, with their desire to publish rulings in high-profile cases. And so are the politicians; if you start some grassroots organization that’s attracting a lot of attention, the politicians want to show up and be part of it, so they don’t get left out of anything important. Of course, Wikipedia, and the courts, and the politicians also indulge their whims sometimes by promoting their own pet subjects, causes, etc. which they find interesting or important. So ideally, you’re both important and intriguing.

So, the question arises, what makes any given person notable? There’s James Harrison, the man with the golden arm, who saved 2.4 million unborn babies from death. He was biologically unusual in a way that enabled him to make his mark on the world, even though all he really had to do was just sit there and get stuck with a needle 1,000 times. The poor guy’s arm must have looked like a pin cushion. (I guess it’s nothing worse than what drug addicts have to put up with though; and hey, at least he didn’t have to worry about contracting hepatitis.)

And that’s the thing. Notability tends to involve being extraordinary, in such a way that you can make your mark (whether for good or bad), which often involves enduring some pain. Now maybe there were some, like Jimmy Wales, who didn’t have to deal with a lot of pain. I haven’t heard him describe his life as being all that painful. Same deal with Bill Gates. Those guys got to be rich, and probably didn’t have all that much harder of a life, on their way to notability, than anyone else. They just happened to have with it took to implement the right ideas, and implement those ideas, at the right time, to acquire a bunch of wealth and fame.

But, not everyone falls into that category. We don’t all have that same calling; we don’t have the same motivation, the same talent, etc. So, some of us are gonna have to make some personal sacrifices, and maybe even compromise our ethical code, because we need that force-multiplier.

If you’re Lance Armstrong or Mark McGwire, you’re not going to be able to win honestly, you’re going to have to cheat. Or if you’re a politician, you’re probably going to have to do some sleazy stuff to get in good with the donors, party bosses, special interests, etc. and win elections. Most people don’t have the Machiavellian skill that would enable them to succeed even if they were willing to be that corrupt; we hear all the time about how stupid criminals got caught because even though they wanted to be big time gangstas and thugz, they just didn’t have the right kind of intellect to be the next Pablo Escobar or Larry Hoover.

What I notice too is, if you’re going to be notable, at some point, you need to go big. If you’re going to go into crime, for instance, you might as well commit a big crime rather than a little crime, because the bigger the crime, the more return you get for the amount of time you served. For example, Dylann Roof is probably going to serve only slightly more time for killing nine people as someone else will serve for killing one person. Heck, he might even get executed, and get spared having to serve as much time as the next guy.

It’s the same way with politics. If you’re going to run for some office you don’t have a chance of winning, you may as well run for a high office; it’s the only way to get any notability. But even that might not be enough. You have to do something else unusual, like threaten to kill the President, and marry a suicidal transgender prostitute, and lose your kid to CPS because you wrote in your blog you wanted to have sex with her, and start an incel forum of guys who want to make jailbaits their rape-slaves, and praise Joseph Smith and Adolf Hitler as white supremacist heroes. Of course, all that involves personal sacrifice, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

I notice, by the way, that sometimes people will bomb a building or shoot up a school, and Wikipedia will have an article about the incident but not about the person. Somehow, the event is notable, but the person responsible isn’t. That would be like if we said that Oracle is notable, but Larry Ellison isn’t; or that MediaWiki is notable, but Lee Daniel Crocker isn’t. How would it be, that people would feel curious about a creation but not the creator? But I guess it happens sometimes; the creator gets dehumanized as having been merely the means to an end, or maybe not much is known about him because he shunned the spotlight.

But actually it’s yet another case of Wikipedia being wary about being used by people, as opposed to being the one using people. They will say, no one really cares about Elliot Rodger, or that at any rate we don’t know a lot about him; what’s significant is that in the 2014 Isla Vista killings, six people got killed and 14 got injured. Well, I would argue those victims targets aren’t actually all that significant in the big scheme; nobody even really cares that much who they are, aside from their friends and relatives. Like Alek Minassians targets, they seemed to be picked kinda randomly. The motivations and the life story of Rodger, on the other hand, are highly important, from the point of view of understanding how he came to be and how it happened.

Be that as it may, it’s interesting to see who does, and who doesn’t, get an article. John Patrick Bedell doesn’t get an article; they were even going to delete the article about the 2010 Pentagon shooting because ultimately, nobody cared much about anarcho-capitalist terrorism or whatever it was. He left behind writings, and he had kind of an interesting life, and some interesting ideas, but people were like, “Whatever, he’s just another autist.” For that matter, Alek Minassian doesn’t get his own article either, because hardly anything is known about him, other than that he was involved (allegedly) in the Toronto van attack.

However, Luka Magnotta gets his own article because of his campaign of behavior (even though he didn’t kill a lot of people), as does Ted Kaczynski as does Luke Helder.

James Holmes, Seung-Hui Cho, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Anders Behring Breivik, Stephen Paddock, and Jared Lee Loughner get articles, even though they’re only known for one incident. Adam Lanza doesn’t get his own article, I guess because we don’t really know as much about him as we know about, say, Cho.

I’m starting to think there’s some lookism involved in all this; if Lanza had been better-looking, maybe the press would’ve dug into his history more and people would’ve been more fascinated with him. But it could also be they just couldn’t find out much about him, plus since he didn’t survive, he didn’t get put on trial. William Atchison didn’t get an article either; maybe the issue there was that the mainstream media (and its audience) didn’t really understand his online activity, plus he wasn’t a spectacularly crazy dude or a Machiavellian narcissistic sociopath or any of those other archetypes that the public loves.

Well, anyway — if you’re hoping to attain Wikipedia notability, it helps to either have a life where you’re doing stuff over time that makes for a compelling story and builds up to the culmination; or you achieve something that’s so big that fascination gets fixed on you, rather than just on a one-off incident. On a related note, it helps if a lot is known about you, so that there’s enough information to write a biography. It probably helps too if they think you’re going to continue being in the news for doing more stuff, so that your biography will have enduring interest.

If you can’t achieve biographical-level notability, the next-best option is to achieve incident-level notability. Most people, though, will look at the sacrifices required and say, “It’s not worth it.” You, on the other hand, don’t have much to lose. Think of it this way — if you’re already miserable, is it really going to make you that much worse off if you spend the rest of your life in prison or get the lethal injection? Not really.

Alternatively, you can plod along, and try to make some difference in the world, Tim Starling- or Brion Vibber- or Andy Hollis– or Gary Martin-style (yeah, those are programmers who don’t have Wikipedia biographies, but they’re mentioned in the pages about their products). That’s what most people do. But if you don’t really get much reward for your work, and you don’t feel like you’re accomplishing all that much anyway, then hey, might as well shoot up a school or something (metaphorically).

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