Wikipedia vs. Joe the Plumber

Wikipedia users debate Wurzelbacher's newsworthiness and notability

If John McCain and Barack Obama’s invocation of “Joe the Plumber” twenty-odd times in their final debate wasn’t enough to vault the Ohioan into national prominence, subsequent newspaper articles and interviews from far and wide certainly did the trick. But over at Wikipedia, the question of Samuel J. Wurzelbacher’s notability has created a real mess.

Since John McCain first mentioned Wurzelbacher on Wednesday night, a page dedicated to him was created, deleted, frozen, created, and relegated to a section in another article. It was redirected and locked. For a time, the way his name was spelled in search queries influenced the landing page. Then the page was reinstated, and it remains that way now, protected against editing by unregistered and newly registered users.

Many of Wikipedia’s most fervent users are adamant that the site is an encyclopedia, not a news source. But the site is used as a resource by any number of people looking for information about topics in the news—including many reporters for whom Wikipedia is a default research tool. As Wikipedia becomes mainstreamed, this disconnect between original intention and public perception sparks a debate over its role and responsibility as an all-purpose knowledge base and research tool.

Wikipedia’s users—who are fully responsible for writing and organizing the online encyclopedia—choose, as a group, whether any given article is worthy of inclusion. And while the site contains any number of entries on subcharacters in various fantasy universes, its users were torn over whether the very real Wurzelbacher deserved an entry of his own.

The two camps in this tug-of-war over Joe the Plumber are the two basic camps often arrayed against each other in Wikipedia’s notability wars. Some users, known on the site as conservatives, want Wikipedia to resemble more traditional encyclopedias.

“They resent fads, reality TV celebrities, obscure Internet cartoon characters, garage bands, and local businesses,” Ben Lowe, a site administrator, said. “To Wikipedia’s conservatives, it’s an affront to the seriousness of the project.”

But if there are conservatives, so must there be liberals, who argue for inclusion. “It’s not up to Wikipedia to determine whether something is notable,” the gold standard for an article’s existence, Lowe said. “Establishing that something is true and citing it in a secondary source makes it good enough to include.”

The kind of back-and-forth discussion, meting out the applicability of each argument, took place on a page dedicated to whether Joseph Wurzelbacher’s entry should be deleted.

“It is overwhelmingly clear,” wrote one Wikipedia user called Tarc, “that this person’s notoriety is only based upon a single event, and the guidelines for handling such cases are crystal-clear. Not a single one of the ‘keep’ votes legitimately addresses this point, and thus should be disregarded in the final considerations.” Tarc’s comment, whose combative tone is par for the course, draws on the conservative ideology and points to a Wikipedia standard to ground his argument.

Wikipedia has a guideline pertaining to “articles about people notable for only one event,” referred to as the BLP1E , and it encourages its users to “cover the event, not the person.” Most of the users arguing against an article dedicated to Wurzelbacher point to this guideline, which says, “We should generally avoid having an article” on an essentially “low-profile individual…mentioned by name in a Wikipedia article about a larger subject.”

Still, Sage Ross, another Wikipedia administrator, argued, “We shouldn’t let our fairly straightforward notability and sourcing policies, which this article clearly meets the letter of, get shoved aside because of some vague feeling that this person isn’t the type of person who deserves a Wikipedia article.” As any good liberal might, Sage is relying more heavily on “sourcing policies,” essentially claiming that, if something can be linked to, it’s good enough for Wikipedia.

A third argument split the difference between the two traditional camps. Let the guy have his own page, the argument went, but drop his real name and label the entry “Joe the Plumber”, so that it fits better within the context of the campaign and recent presidential debate.

“As a current events reference,” veteran editor Dtobias wrote, “it’s a useful article to have.” But “as an actual person…he’s probably not sufficiently notable for a bio, meaning that the article would perhaps be better placed under “Joe the Plumber” rather than his real name.” User Cube lurker made the point succinctly: “Cover the meme not the man.”

This compromise scenario ultimately won out. Wikipedia’s page on Joe Wurzelbacher—found at—discusses his encounter with Barack Obama, his appearances in the press, and his status as a plumber. Joe also has spawned a subsection of Wikipedia’s page on the presidential debates of 2008.

The article appears safe—for now. “Redirecting his article now would only cause needless drama, from both experienced editors who think he should have an article and new editors who can’t understand why we don’t have an article on such a “notable” subject,” wrote Bjweeks, the administrator who ultimately decided that Wurzelbacher’s entry merited inclusion. “In a few days or weeks after the spotlight has moved to another political talking point, this should be revisited with a new AfD. I realize this means that Wikipedia will be a news site for a short period of time but I don’t see any real harm in that.”

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Joshua Young blogs on new media at Networked News.