A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
The productivity article that helped start these commentaries is published. It's trimmed a bit, but Frank J. Oteri and Molly Sheridan at New Music Box did a great job fitting into their virtual space. They took a risk. Though both knew me, they also knew me to have strong opinions, and agreed to publish the article long before they received it. So bravo to them for publishing Composers & Productivity: The Embodiment of Discomfort -- and with any luck, folks will enjoy reading it. A full version will be announced here as soon as the virtual version drops down into the New Music Box archives.
AfD and Auf'd
Last week something happened that bothered me in a confused way. In June, I had been deleted from Wikipedia.
It had passed me by, but my colleague Javier Ruiz in the Canary Islands noticed it at the end of August, and wrote to Wikipedia and to me. Not having a high profile and also being known differently in different fields, I wasn't surprised. But I really didn't know about the bizarre workings of Wikipedia's vigilante editorial approach, which has strong biases against nonpop composers, where 'notability' -- a basic Wikipedia criterion -- is based on popularity or printed academic references. Being a minor character on a soap opera or having a couple of unread academic publications gets you in; being a widely performed nonpop composer, especially outside academia, keeps you out. (If you're a composer reading this, that probably means you. Cue night terrors.)
If those are the rules, then I'm satisfied with the admitted biases. But in practice, those aren't the rules.
In the "Article for Deletion" (AfD) discussion, I discovered a recurrent theme: the Wikipedia vigilantes wander around the virtual space randomly looking for articles to delete without making an effort to verify the content. As a regular though skeptical Wikipedia user, I was surprised at the extremity of this behavior.
The note sent by Javier (a composer and engraver who also publishes the work of Tom Johnson) had sparked a deletion review. I decided to peek into the review process. The vigilante editors are anonymous, and their interaction is a study in rivalry and dysfunction -- and some are outright lazy. For example, "Zoe" is a sniper, writing "Keep deleted until such time as independent third party sources are provided. The maltedmedia site is not impartial, and neither are links to his publisher and his recording company. Are there any reviews published in well-known media outlets? I find none in the first few Google pages."
That was interesting. "Zoe" had googled my name, but had not examined any of the 'reviews published in well-known media outlets' both linked to my site and referenced to pre-web publications, including the Village Voice and New York Times. "Mailer Diablo" is a deletion troller, and votes reflexively to delete articles; my guess is this vigilante, who has no biography or references him/herself, is a power broker. On the other hand, three other vigilantes followed some of the references, and then stopped. Just one ("Antandrus") actually took the time to go further, talking about Kalvos & Damian.
I crossed messages with "Antandrus" by posting a note to the original deletion vigilante in June, who then posted it in the deletion review. My mail provided 21 online links to external sites -- the above-mentioned Voice and Times and other reviews, plus Amazon (where three books can still be found, albeit all out of print), and numerous other references that met the criteria for verifiable sources -- and three pre-web resources.
Subsequent discussion was brief and continued as if the references hadn't been provided. A few days later, without comment, the deletion was endorsed and discussion closed.
There are certainly lessons here for all of us nonpop composers outside of academia (note least of which are the dozens of Wikipedia guidelines that crisscross on validity and notability, apparently invoked at random), and the main lesson is that a stronger support structure is needed to document and cross-reference the work of independent artists by authors within academia. In other words, make sure an influential friend mentions you in a book. Sound familiar?
The strange nature of Wikipedia's 'laid back' (read: butt-achingly slothful) approach to research was new to me. Throughout the years, source verification has been very important to the credibility of those of us who are authors. Most writers fall in the verification trap now and then, as did A. N. Wilson with a false letter whose sentences' first letters were an insult to the biographer. But I think we're generally pretty good at using cues and clues.
We all really do depend on research clues, not face-on physical reality. The 'web' of information about someone like me should be sufficient for anyone putting in some research time beyond hunting for 'hits'. I knew nothing about how Wikipedia folks worked until this strange experience, but it is unlike the research I've been familiar with for forty years, where facts are verified until a satisfactory and defensible point of validation is reached. Of course, I'm paid to write, meaning I don't have a choice of merely eliminating what it isn't convenient to research, as apparently "Zoe" and "Mailer Diablo" do.
(Wikipedia vigilante editors are also venal. Their personality disputes roll over content, and you can hear the residue of past conflicts inside their written words.)
I think the laziness and venality bothered me most. My name turns up as erased because none of the research clues have been followed. If my résumé is unreliable by default, why not follow its links to outside sources? Those sources individually might be questionable (perhaps a hijacked domain for the day), but in toto they provide a good body of information, enough of which can be itself validated to subsequently validate a biography -- not to mention that a phone call or email to a person in question or to non-web authorities can be invaluable. Library research turns up books and papers, and there are even Amazon references to out-of-print books such as mine. (Library? What's a library?)
And I was certainly offended by the vigilante who said he'd been director of bigger organizations than the one I lead -- heck, the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores is the largest retail 'chain' (even if it's not really a chain) in Vermont. To dismiss it is flat-out ignorance combined with geographical bigotry -- and clearly another piece of research not done to answer the question of why the store alliance was worthy of a New York Times feature, a five-minute feature on NBC Nightly News, and a five-minute feature on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight? All of these were available at the country stores website itself, or by calling the Times, NBC or CNN. Wouldn't those have been the proper questions for any editor or researcher to ask?
Admittedly, my case is likely a bit unusual for the Wikipedia monoculture, because I have had separate visibility in several fields, all chosen carefully to be outside academia -- with the collateral result of no academic documentation. So I can't complain from that perspective. On the other hand, Wikipedia is full of minor personalities and products and programs with lives a fraction of that lived by K&D.
It's also fascinating to watch Wikipedia, itself arising from the online world, be quite biased and even hostile against the online world, where I've made my home in one form or another since 1981. My musical scores, for example, largely do not exist in printed editions (unless my distributor Frog Peak Music gets an order and one-off prints and binds copies for sale). But no old-line publisher would work that way, so I began my own company (Westleaf Edition) and now publish the work of four composers ... all entirely virtual. One of my co-authored books (The Middle-Aged Hiker) is only online. These kinds of sources will only increase, and paper sources decrease. How will that affect Wikipedia verification and notability policies over time? Will it keep seeking a diminishing stream of sources, or will it revise its guidelines?
Right now, Wikipedia is actively competing with Britannica for credibility, but its bias against primary sources that are online seems to me to be more an inability to come to grips with how to treat online sources rather than its claimed one of verification. Wikipedia is caught between two worlds, able to devote swaths of hard drive space to individual episodes of Star Trek, but unable to find much to say about contemporary composers, so many of whom have moved wholesale online.
A few days later, Javier put it succinctly: "I can't understand what these people want. Funny thing is that the notability page excludes mostly all composers that you know. And clearly they should delete the Tom Johnson's page. Boy, this makes me sick. Gotta open a beer..."
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