Wikipedia as cultural history


Last week I clicked on a link in a Candleblog entry and read this Wikipedia article about what Bill Simmon called “the infamous Goatse image”. Infamous it may be, but I had never heard of it before — or, thank Peep, seen it. After I nearly herniated myself laughing, I commented that I thought this was a perfect example of the type of thing you would never find in Encyclopaedia Britannica. I am not joking when I say that’s a reference gap, and that this information is worthwhile culturally, no matter how disgusting or trivial traditional historians might find it.

Today I logged in to Wikipedia to check up on my pet pages. I am a Wikipedia author (user name JLeland), and I’ve edited, and even created, a few pages in my time. Not long ago, I added a page for my high school, Kimball Union Academy. I didn’t have much inspiration or information, so it was pretty bare bones. To my surprise, when I loaded the page today I saw that it was a lot longer. A quick once-over led me to think a staff member at the school had cut and pasted most of the text straight out of some informational brochures. Strange. The admissions office either hadn’t known or hadn’t cared enough about Wikipedia to even have an entry six months ago. What gives? I wondered.

So I used the history tab. That’s when I struck pure gold.Earlier versions of the page included passages like these:

Senior Pranks

By far, the greatest (or most deplorable) and most ambitions senior prank ever attempted was that of the class of 2004. In a large, organized conspiracy, members of 04 stockpiled gallons of vegetable oil and on a given night, spread it all over the floors of the Flickinger art center and the math department building, essentially turning them into skating rinks. Meanwhile, a second group of conspirators was hard at work, filling every square inch of the Baxter building with all sorts of string and yarn. The conspirators then put multiple locks on the outside doors of all the buildings and boarded up all the ground floor doors and windows.

The aftermath of the prank was shocking. School had to be cancelled, and many of the faculty members were furious, believing the class of 04 had “gone too far.” An emergency meeting was held in the Miller student center, where the faculty explained that one person trying to clean the mess up was injured when he fell. The faculty then announced that every single member of the class of 2004 would be put on probation if the Conspirators didnt step foreward. Of course, they stepped foreward, but there was always some suspicion that there were many more involved in the plot than stepped foreward, due to the huge amount of manpower needed to pull such a stunt.

On November 24th, the following italicized text was inserted in the last paragraph:

Of course, they stepped foreward including Evan Decker-Spence. EDS was one of the most notable and flameboyant homosexuals to ever attend this institution. He was gayer than the color pink. Nonetheless, there was always some suspicion that there were many more involved in the plot […]

On November 28th, this was added:

(sheesh guys wtf, I smoke a LITTLE pole and I never hear the end of it…..-Evan).

I have a special affection for the next edit, dated later that same day:

As a result of the strong faculty outcry against the prank of 2004, the prank of 2005 was relatively weak. The students arrayed 9000 plastic forks, which were bought the previous night at BJ’s Wholefood Warehouse. The purchasers then urinated on the rear side of Staples. Also, that night a banner was placed on the tower of Flickenger, geniously quoting math teacher and student favorite, Mr Taupier: “Kimball Union Academy- An experience never to be missed, but never to be repeated”.

Mike Taupier has been at KUA so long, he was one of MY teachers back in the mid-1980s. I actually saw him last fall at a Meriden town corn roast. He had recently gotten a promotion just for hanging on longer than anyone else. Unfortunately it was all title and no pay. He seemed just as laid back and slightly toasted as ever. I like to imagine his reaction to reading this stuff.

What followed on Wikipedia over the next few days was a war of alternate edits and rollbacks to earlier versions, including a brief spat over whether Evan Decker-Spence could truthfully be said to be “gayer than aids” or was really just “gayer than the color pink”. A favorite of mine is this ephemeral passage that lasted less than hour:

All in all KUA is pretty lousy except for two or three cool faculty members. I mean, KUA accepted kids who didn’t even get into Proctor. That’s not an admission fact they like to throw around often. If you want a faculty made up of wildly liberal, brown-nosing, yes men who bad mouth your friends when they’re in Spain then sign up. Otherwise save your parents the $30,000, do better in middle school and go to St. Paul’s or Exeter or something.

It looks like the word got to the administration sometime in early December. On the 2nd, all the student-generated text was replaced with marketing copy. Is this any more worthy a use of disk space than the ranting of disaffected teenagers? Hm…

I like that the versioning system lets me choose. On Wikipedia, history isn’t (over)written by the winners.

About the author

Janice Dawley

Outdoorsy TV addict, artistic computer geek, loner who loves people.

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By Janice Dawley


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