Meta Enough for You?

For the Annals of Recursion.

1. In The Information (pages 408–409, for those who wish to follow along) I mention a poet named Thomas Freeman, who lived from approximately 1590 to 1630. I say he is “utterly forgotten” and add that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

I would never have heard of Thomas Freeman myself, if Anthony Lane hadn’t happened to discover him in the course of reviewing Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healy’s English Poetry Full-Text Database for The New Yorker. That was seventeen years ago, in 1995. (I couldn’t read Lane’s hilarious piece on line when I was working on the book, but you can now, here:  “Byte Verse.”)

Lane was making the point that the opportunity to read 165,000 poems by 1,250 poets spanning thirteen centuries on four compact discs priced at $51,000 might be considered a mixed blessing. He quoted this couplet by the aforementioned Freeman:

Whoop, whoop, me thinkes I heare my Reader cry,
Here is rime doggrell: I confesse it I.

2. From time to time, since the book was published, I’ve had the opportunity to speak about it or read bits of it to live audiences. For example, I did this on Tuesday at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. I’ve had to mention, though, that “utterly forgotten” no longer applies: Freeman now has a Wikipedia entry, thanks to Lane—and thanks also (if you’re so inclined) to Sir Charles. The entry was created by a Wikipedia user called Tom Reedy on September 17, 2010.

As he was listening to my talk, my host at Berkman, Jonathan Zittrain, was apparently multitasking, because as soon as I finished he offered an update on the Wikipedia situation. The Thomas Freeman entry now refers back to The Information. Professor Zittrain read this aloud:

This incident was described by James Gleick as an example of how unprepared people were for the WWW to bring all of human literature to the tips of their fingers.

He continued (and by now people were laughing):

Gleick mistakenly states that Freeman is not mentioned on Wikipedia, although it’s possible that this very page was added as a response to Gleick’s anecdote.

To which I can only say, yes, that’s possible.

3. It seems that this reference to me was added last summer—to be exact, on July 24, 2011, at 2:31 in the morning—by a user called Alf.laylah.wa.laylah. The last, extra-recursive phrase (“although it’s possible that this very page was added as a response to Gleick’s anecdote”) appears to have been an afterthought, added at 2:32.

This is the sort of thing one can learn by studying Wikipedia’s readily accessible histories of the editing of its entries. Another thing I learned is that on March 7 of this year a user expanded the Thomas Freeman entry by adding the sentence, “He liked men.” Seconds later, a vigilant Wikipedia entity called Cluebot NG removed the new sentence on grounds of “possible vandalism.”

4. So now I’ve blogged about Jonathan Zittrain’s quoting Wikipedia’s mention of my book’s comment that Thomas Freeman lacked a Wikipedia entry.

Perhaps the loop ends here. Somehow I doubt it.

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One Response to Meta Enough for You?

  1. Tal K says:

    Nice touch – “Alf.laylah.wa.laylah” is Arabic for 1001 Nights (Arabian Nights).

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