February 12, 1809, and Wikipedia’s Evolution

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on February 12, 1809, and this odd fact used to be featured at the top of their Wikipedia entries. As Roy Rosenzweig noted 15 years ago in his groundbreaking essay “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” this “affection for surprising, amusing, or curious details” was a key marker separating popular and academic history. At the time, Wikipedia was firmly on the popular side of that line.

Whereas history professors highlighted larger historical themes and the broad context of an individual’s life—placing the arc of one person’s existence within the complex patterns of historiography—the editors of Wikipedia often obsessed about single points and unusual coincidences, such as Al Jolson and Mary Pickford being in the same Ohio town during the 1920 presidential campaign, or Woodrow Wilson having written his initials on the underside of a table in the Johns Hopkins University history department.

Since Roy wrote that essay, I’ve kept an informal log of the lifespan of historical oddities on Wikipedia, which acts as an anecdotal measure of the online encyclopedia’s evolution, or perhaps convergence, with more “serious” history. When Roy gave Wikipedia that serious look in the pages of the Journal of American History—at a time when there was still furious opposition to its use in academic settings, with dire warnings from faculty to undergraduates who relied on it—the Lincoln/Darwin factoid had been on Darwin’s page for over a year, since July 18, 2004. It was placed there by an enthusiastic early Wikipedian with the handle Brutannica. (As Brutannica’s user page on Wikipedia helpfully notes, their handle was “an apparent misunderstanding of a character in the much-missed 18th episode of Pokemon, not from the world’s most renowned encyclopaedia.”)

The line about Charles Darwin having the exact same birthday as Abraham Lincoln lasted almost six years, until June 15, 2010, when Wikipedian Intelligentsium ruthlessly removed it over the objections of Playdagame6991. (Intelligentsium to Playdagame6991: “I don’t see how the bit about Lincoln is relevant.”)

Wikipedia’s early, long-lasting, and more shameful historical problems were of course massive omissions rather than trivial additions like the shared Lincoln/Darwin birthday. The lack of entries for many important women, the overemphasis on Pokemon and Star Wars over entire genres of culture, have been far more problematic than the appearance of Woodrow Wilson’s graffiti, and critical efforts have arisen to correct these imbalances.

But the slow-burn effort to correct the nature of historical writing on Wikipedia has been more subtle but still discernible over the last decade, evident in countless small contests like the one between Intelligentsium and Playdagame6991. It would be interesting to do a more systematic analysis of such battles to see how historical writing on Wikipedia has evolved into a form that seems today more recognizable and acceptable to those in the academy.

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