Amelia Bedelia’s Hats Are Not the Problem

So there’s been an Ameila Bedelia Wikipedia hoax. We learn that Amelia was not inspired by a maid from Cameroon who wore sensational hats, a “fact” cited in a vandalism which survived on the site since 2009.

Yawn.

First, let me say in a world where Elsevier was recently discovered to have published half a dozen fake journals for drug companies, a world where more recently 60 articles were retracted from the Journal of Vibration and Control due to a “citation ring”, and a world where med research postdocs are faking anti-cancer trials and still working, I’m not sure to what we’re comparing this “hoax”.

But, more importantly, the main problem with Wikipedia is not about error.  The problem is more subtle than that, and it’s not something that the Daily Dot is going to cover anytime soon.

Here, for example, is a segment introduced on the Amelia Bedelia Wikipedia page in Spring of 2007, and existing through the end of that year:

The name “Bedelia” is a derivation of the common Irish name Bridget. Irish maids were portrayed as being comically inept in the vaudeville theaters of New England in the late19th century. A popular joke of the period has a maid instructed to “Serve the tomatoes undressed”; she brings the dish to the dining room, wearing only her underclothes, saying, “I won’t take off another stitch- not if I lose my place, Maam”.

Interesting, right?

vaudeville

In January 2008, that edit disappears.

bedelia

As far as I can tell, the redaction never is discussed, and the vaudeville connection never returns.

Is the beloved Amelia Bedelia a protracted Irish Maid joke? A sanitized relic of a previous age when the Irish weren’t yet considered “white”?  That seems a rather important question for a scholarly work. And after reading  about the potential vaudeville connection, it’s hard to un-see:

tumblr_l5fdweyUDY1qzjiplo1_r1_500[1]

At the same time, that’s a pretty hefty accusation to make on something that is supposed to be the reference page on Amelia Bedelia.

It’s important to note that, unlike uncaught hoaxes, this sort of thing happens on Wikipedia all the time.

And the problem here is not that the Wikipedia community allowed such a paragraph initially, or that it eventually deleted it. People can have honest disagreements about such things.

The problem here is the centralization. Someone removed the edit, no one in the community noticed or defended it, and the information disappeared for good. For all intents and purposes, it vanished from the face of the earth.

So while EJ Dickson runs down the number of places the Cameroon hoax showed up, somewhat harmlessly, in news copy and book reports, it’s more interesting to me to think how many of those people doing web research on Amelia Bedelia may have, in fact, been spared considering some of the more difficult and interesting questions Amelia Bedelia raises.

irish-african

We need to have authoritative networks to turn to when trying to answer questions. There’s a place for things like Wikipedia, which pushes groups toward consensus. But when those networks are too centralized, or hold a monopoly on truth, minority concerns get lost, deleted, and overuled. Controversy gets papered over. Difficult questions get sanded down smooth. Life gets easier, but at a substantial cost.

This is the issue that federation as an alternative model of networked community is meant to solve, and one of the issues Smallest Federated Wiki is meant to address.  I’ve talked about that before here, but the point I want to make in this post is even more basic. In short, we are not living in a 2008 Jay Leno monologue. It’s time to stop pretending that error and overload are the web’s biggest issues, and time to start looking at the vast variety of voices and bodies of knowledge that still have no home on the web, and no easy entry into the discussions that define our culture.

That’s a less amusing story than stoned kids vandalizing Wikipedia pages, but it’s the one that actually matters.

 

 

[Images are linked through to sources. Click for source.]

 

 

 

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One Comment on “Amelia Bedelia’s Hats Are Not the Problem”

  1. Maha Bali says:

    Do I understand correctly that your point is that some controversies need to be out in the open, rather than ignored? Or that people need to know there are different versions/perspectives on something (which smallest federated wiki allows for?). But then your point that wikipedia still has a place is a valid one: encyclopedias are not meant to provide the space for those diff perspectives, and wikipedia does have a discussion space for them, except not visible to the usual user.
    I am just thinking of what it means to the “casual” web surfer (not the deeply versted researcher) to get confused by all the versions? There are already multiple websites for every web search we make, and we’re just usually using one search engine not a metacrawler or whatever.
    I like the idea of smallest federated wiki for collaborative work I am doing with others online… Not sure what you mean by your post above… But i may be misunderstanding the post and the power of smallest federated wiki…


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