I have only made one edit on Wikipedia since I made a big brouhaha about the site several months ago. I ran across a page titled “Cultural depictions of George Armstrong Custer,” and noticed a subsection on musical references to Custer. Human nature being what it is, I rather thought a citation of my music theater work Custer and Sitting Bull might be appropriate there, and added it. It was immediately deleted, as violating the rules against self-promotion. I said “Hmph,” or words to that effect, cursed myself for deigning to pay attention to that benighted web site, and moved on.

Weeks later I get a note from the person responsible for the deletion. He (or she) has restored the reference, explaining that it is better for someone besides the composer to have added it in. He had also supplied, in his text, the helpful fact that Custer and Sitting Bull was premiered in New York in 2000, and asked me to verify the accuracy of what he had written.

Now, given Wikipedia’s philosophy, I am rather affronted to be appealed to to verify facts about my own career. Silly me, I had rather thought I premiered Custer and Sitting Bull in 1999 in Los Angeles, but clearly that impression is too subjective to be trusted. I have no printed reference work to footnote for the information, only my own resumé, which I could have all kinds of self-serving reasons to falsify. Perhaps I am trying to claim credit for having achieved in the 20th century innovations that didn’t really occur until the 21st. And so if Wikipedia’s stance is that information added by an objective party is always better than that added by a self-interested expert, then in the Wikipedia universe, Custer and Sitting Bull will have to have been premiered in New York in 2000. To ask my opinion in the matter seems like hypocrisy.


  1. says

    The difference, I think, is one of roles.
    A person performing the role of an “editor” at Wikipedia is required not to engage in self-promotion, and not to publish original research. On the other hand, Original Sources are generally accepted as legit. Interviews with individuals are frequently cited in biographies about those people (including in your own biography). In this case, it was inappropriate for you to enter your own information because it crosses the line of self promotion. Somebody else, however, can reasonably treat you as an original source. Now it may be a problem that the premier date lacks a citation, but changing the entry to make clear that “the composer’s CV states that the work was premiered in 1999” could solve that problem.
    Any editor of any article is responible for attempting to make a reasonable judgement about the reliability of a source, which is precisely why original research and self promotion aren’t allowed — the conflict of interest jeopardizes the reasonableness of the judgment. In this case, an unbiased editor is serving as an arbiter of whether you seem like a reliable source. Furthermore, that you and the editor have both respected the policies further enhances both the credibility of the editor and your credibility as an original source.
    But suppose you don’t buy this argument–it’s certainly far from bombproof. It’s still not true that “in the Wikipedia universe, Custer and Sitting Bull will have to have been premiered in New York in 2000.” The review in the Times doesn’t claim that the Dec 2000 performance was a premiere, and so it would be incorrect for the Wikipedia article to claim that it was.
    None of this is to say that Wikipedia doesn’t have problems–it has many, and the bias toward what has been published over what “experts” have to say is certainly a significant issue.
    KG replies: Theoretically that would be a good point, Galen, but I found them inimical to original sources as well. Faced with a question about Mikel Rouse’s Schillinger teacher, I emailed Mikel and got the facts from him. Some at Wikipedia felt that that was “original research” on my part, and resisted including it. They’d literally rather have the facts wrong than include information that only first-hand expertise could provide. And I’m happy for them to have the facts wrong.

  2. Dean Rosenthal says

    Galen, I disagree. The addition of “Custer” is not self-promotion by any stretch of the imagination. You must consider Kyle’s role in music history.

    In Kyle’s role as a musician integral to the musical life of America, and to the classical music world – postminimalist, totalist, postclassical, or otherwise – his music has the character of history simply because the creator is an established historical entity – self-promotion could be the furthest stab at the truth. And my relativism isn’t helping out any, either.

    While I may seem harsh now Galen, the music composed under question is more than the notice of American culture extant, even though that is enough for our discussion. To anyone interested in our culture, the music Kyle writes is permanent in the way characteristic of history. Canons exist, for example, and Kyle’s music is an established entity of our canon.

    I’m apologize in advance if this post puts Kyle in the unusual place of editing his own history by posting this comment.

    As Wikipedia is more a phenomenon than a source of knowledge or resource of competency – see the many trendy discussions popping up throughout the culture (included here on “Post Classic”). The best way to deny legitimacy to misguided adventures into universalized, specious examples of not-for-profit do-gooding is to ignore them. I encourage others to do their own research. Jimmy Wales never had it so good.

    I hope this puts to rest the controversy over Wikipedia, but if no believes this point of view that I express, check out the history books in twenty years. There just isn’t a place for his type of project in the overall trajectory of our culture, I’m sorry.
    KG replies: Flatteringly put, Dean. I would have more modestly said that, for me to say that Custer and Sitting Bull was an important or groundbreaking work would have been self-promotion; for me to state that I wrote and performed it is simply a fact. Since that fact can be found elsewhere in Wikipedia, I don’t see how it matters who transfers it to the Custer page. But I’ve even given up updating my Wikipedia work list.

  3. mclaren says

    “Wikipedia just keeps getting better.” — “Musings From the Windowsill,” May 2005

    I quickly became very impressed with Wikipedia to the point where I found myself searching Google for specific information within Wikipedia. For example if I needed to know how people in the world spoke French as their native language I would type into Google ” World number of French speakers” and follow it by the word “wikipedia” and invariably Google would take me straight to a Wikepedia article containing the answer to this question. From here I could then jump to related articles within Wikipedia such as “French dialects” or “Countries spoken.” etc.
    (..) The principle as I see it is that all of the answers to every question are out there and there will always be someone who will know the answer to a specific request no matter how obscure it is.”
    — Wikipedia — The Knowledge Of the World At Your Fingertips!

    “Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.” — The Borg
    “Impossible! My culture is based on freedom and self-determination!” — Captain Picard
    “Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.” — The Borg

    Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Best of Both Worlds,” 1990

    They saw it coming, didn’t they?