Wikipedia Doesn’t Know What to Do With Almost-Famous People

An arcane moderation process leaves public-ish individuals in a lurch when articles get too personal

Eric Ravenscraft
OneZero
Published in
8 min readJul 23, 2019

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Photo: picture alliance/Getty Images

WWikipedia bills itself as the encyclopedia “anyone can edit.” It’s a phrase that gives the impression of an online Wild West, but layers of intricate systems and rules are in place to make sure everything stays on track.

Sometimes, though, things go wrong. Rules are bent or used to justify bad behavior. The Wikipedia platform is leveraged as a tool for abuse.

Take the case of Jenny Nicholson. She makes videos for YouTube about theme parks, bad books, and porgs — the rotund, squawking bird creatures from Star Wars. She’s not an elected official, and she doesn’t run a Fortune 500 company. Yet, for a time, her Wikipedia page included deeply personal information, like names of old pets and when she got a certain job. It was stuff that went well beyond simple biography.

Deciding what goes on Wikipedia — in terms of who or what gets an article and what information should be included — is a complicated affair. The online encyclopedia has massive documents detailing criteria like notability of subjects, what sources of information are reliable, and how to write biographies of living people. For subjects that obviously merit inclusion, like the president or the CEO of a major tech company, the system is supposed to keep information accurate, neutral, and respectful. In edge cases like the one Nicholson faces, however, there’s a lot more room to fail.

The result was an article that felt less like an encyclopedia entry and more like a report from a stalker.

As Nicholson explained earlier this month in a thread on Twitter, an old version of her Wikipedia page contained detailed personal information that was sourced from a backlog of thousands of tweets, many of which were made long before she began her YouTube career in earnest. While the tweets were technically public, they were also part of that vast digital archive that most of us have but rarely think about — and certainly never expect someone to comb through and mine for minor details. The result was an article that felt…

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Eric Ravenscraft
OneZero

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.