Amateur historian rescues 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."

Lewis wanted the D.C. page to present the city as a city, not just the U.S. capital, a goal in line with the wishes of many Washingtonians.

To that end, Lewis has made sure the page includes a good deal of information about the city's demographics. The page notes: "Unique among cities with a high percentage of African Americans, Washington has had a significant black population since the city's creation. This is a result of the manumission of slaves in the Upper South after the American Revolutionary War."

Some information about the city is not pretty: "A report in the year 2007 found that about one-third of District residents are functionally illiterate, compared to a national rate of about one in five."

But on culture: "Washington is also an important center for indie culture and music in the United States. The label Dischord Records, formed by Ian MacKaye, was one of the most crucial independent labels in the genesis of 1980s punk and eventually indie rock in the 1990s."

To be included on the page, Lewis said, events and people must have a close relationship to life in the District. So, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln doesn't make the cut. But the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (in Memphis) does because of the ensuing riots in the city.

Praised and panned

Other editors on the D.C. page have been pleased with Lewis's leadership. Josh Howell, whose user name is (because, he says, it's true) AgnosticPreachersKid, said Lewis is "very, very courteous" when it comes to making changes.

But Lewis can also come down hard on what he considers silliness. Another editor recently wrote: "I think we should split this article into two pages: Washington (City) and District of Columbia, as they are not the same thing. The District of Columbia is a separate thing from the city, as Washington, D.C. is only a part of the federal district."

Lewis's reply: "The argument that the District of Columbia is a separate entity from Washington, D.C. is erroneous and perpetuates a misconception of the uninformed."

Lewis has been on the other side of such criticism. Zachary Schrag, a George Mason University historian who studies the District, reviewed the page and found a blunder: the assertion that building heights in the city were limited to the height of the Capitol. Wrong, Schrag said. (The information was attributed to a Washington Post article. Oops.)

Lewis, alerted to the error, quickly made a fix. "That's the problem/success with Wikipedia," he said in an e-mail. "You may have a reliable source that's still wrong. It's hard to weed that stuff out until you have an expert (like Dr. Schrag) take a look at it. But, unfortunately, there are many like him who don't bother with Wikipedia."

There are historians who embrace Wikipedia. Last year, after using the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., as a resource, Lewis began volunteering there. Now he is membership coordinator. One day, he asked special collections librarian Colleen McKnight where she sent callers for information on the District. She said the D.C. Wikipedia page. Lewis was tickled. He revealed his editor identity to her.

McKnight remembers telling him, "Well, you did a good job."

And his work has paid off. The D.C. article not only regained "good article" status, but it also became a "featured article," the Web site's highest ranking.

"Oh, I was really pleased at that," Lewis said. "It was like getting a first-place ribbon at the state fair."

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