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The Wikipedia Edit Wars Begin on Ryan's Page The Wikipedia Edit Wars Begin on Ryan's Page

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Election 2012 / Commentary

The Wikipedia Edit Wars Begin on Ryan's Page

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

August 11, 2012

In high school, Paul Ryan's classmates voted him as his class's "biggest 'brown noser.'" This little tidbit is a source of delight for political opponents of the Wisconsin representative-turned-Romney-running mate; to his supporters, in general, it's an irrelevant piece of youthful trivia.

But it's also a tension that will play out, repeatedly, in the most comprehensive narrative we have about Paul Ryan as a person and a politician and a policy-maker: his Wikipedia page. Late last night, Politico reports -- just as news of the Ryan choice leaked in the political press -- the first substantial edit to that page removed an extant "brown noser" mention:

removing prom king and brown noser from article --see discussion on "talk" page
 

But then another user put the "brown noser" mention back in. Because: relevant!

And then another user removed it again, explaining:

Removed unnecessary statement from Early Life about ... "Brown Noser." This is not needed in article is not common in such brief survey sections.

As of this writing, "brown noser" stands. As does a maybe-mitigating piece of Ryan-as-high-schooler trivia: that he was also voted prom king. But that equilibrium could change, again, in an instant.

Now that Ryan's confirmed, a flurry of such Wikipedia edits is to be expected as campaign operatives both professional and amateur try to define Paul Ryan through their preferred prisms. But today! Today is the glory day for the Paul Ryan Wikipedia page. It'll get tons of attention. It'll be totally popular. It'll be, in its way, prom king. Take the page's previous edit tally: On August 8, the Ryan entry saw just over 30 revisions. On August 9, it saw just under 30. Yesterday, it saw just 10. Today, however -- early on a Saturday morning, East Coast time -- it's already received hundreds of revisions. And the official news of the Ryan selection, of course, is just over an hour old.

Some of those edits, in different circumstances, might have been made much earlier. Traditionally -- which is to say, in the past two cycles -- the precarious stretch of time between Veepstakes and Veep Announcement would find campaign staffers cleaning up their choice's Wikipedia presence, ensuring that "the sum of all knowledge" is adequately celebratory of that choice.

As Micah Sifry recently noted:

Sarah Palin's Wikipedia page was updated at least 68 times the day before John McCain announced her selection, with another 54 changes made in the five previous days previous. Tim Pawlenty, another leading contender for McCain's favor, had 54 edits on August 28th, with just 12 in the five previous days. By contrast, the other likely picks -- Romney, Kay Bailey Hutchison -- saw far fewer changes.

This might have meant that Wikipedia's edit page would have made a good resource for campaign reporters and curious citizens who wanted to get early news of Romney's running mate choice. (And who didn't count a message from the "Mitt's VP" smartphone app as "early news.") But Wikipedia made all that edit-gaming a moot point. After Stephen Colbert mentioned the Sifry's edit edict in Tuesday night's show -- recommending that people "go on Wikipedia, and make as many edits as possible to your favorite VP contender!" -- Wikipedia locked down the pages of some of the most talked-about VP contenders. As Sifry put it: Game over.

Now, though, as one of those contenders has been confirmed as a candidate, the pages are unlocked again -- and ready to host debates about biographical details and their epistemological relevance. Ryan's Wikipedia page, like so many before it, will be a place of debate and dissent and derision. But it will also be a place where people can come together to discuss information and policy and the intersection between the two -- a town square for the digital age.



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