How an amateur historian rescued D.C.'s Wikipedia page

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Friday, October 23, 2009

The historian largely responsible for summing up Washington, D.C., for millions of Wikipedia readers digs for facts from his tiny bedroom in Dupont Circle. He sits on a chair borrowed from his four-piece dinette set at a desk he bought from Target, footnoting away on an old Dell computer. He is 24 years old. Sometimes he makes his bed.

His name is Adam Lewis -- a fact sure to surprise his closest friends and even his parents, who are unaware that, for a year or so, Lewis has been staying up late to rescue the District's Wikipedia page from vandals and mediocrity. Having grown up in the area, Lewis felt an obligation to do the work but not to brag about it.

"I just really don't think anyone would care," Lewis said.

Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian. It's easy: Most pages are edited just by clicking on a button that says "edit this page."

More than 150,000 users made changes in the past 30 days, according to the site. Some, like Lewis, have user names and Wikipedia profiles. He goes by EpicAdam. Others are anonymous. Almost everyone has a specialty. There are editors who just fix punctuation. Some defend content against vandals. Others, like Lewis, pull the content together. It is an assembly line of nobodies.

"One of the things Wikipedia does really well is allow people to do distributed work," said Fernanda ViƩgas, a former MIT Media Lab researcher who studies digital information. "You can just go in and fix small things. But then you can really get hooked and get into ever more complex work as well."

Getting sucked in

That's what happened to Lewis. In spring 2008, he checked to see how his home town was presented to the world. This is a common way Wikipedia editors get sucked in. They look for topics they know about to judge whether the information is dependable.

Lewis didn't like what he found. There was misinformation and missing information, and the page had been demoted from "good article" status, meaning a group of experienced Wikipedia editors thought the page was shoddy.

"The page had really fallen by the wayside," said Lewis, who was born in the District and grew up in Potomac. "But this is my home town. I felt like it should be presented well."

His first edit was tiny. He thought a Washington Post article shouldn't be the source of information about the District's population, so he changed the citation to the U.S. Census. (Every change can be viewed through a search feature.)

During the next few days, he made other seemingly trivial edits, which led to larger changes about, among other things, how much money the city gets from the federal government.

In May, Lewis left a note on the discussion portion of the D.C. page, telling other editors that he was overhauling the entry. "Hi all," he wrote. "I'm sure you've noticed many changes to the page over the last few days. Hopefully these changes are for the better and will help the article regain it's 'good' rating."

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