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Feature | Utah’s Own Busy Wikipediots


Just imagine the challenge of walking in Mitt Romney’s shiny leather Oxfords. The Utah folk hero and former Massachusetts governor failed in his presidential bid. Besides that, in the world of Wikipedia, Romney qualifies as a “BLP,” which has generated all sorts of controversy over how to write and manage his entry on the free, online encyclopedia.

Being a fully functioning subculture, Wikipedia has its own distinctive jargon. “BLP” stands for “biography of a living person,” and those entries demand the highest standards of research, writing and accuracy, says Frank Bednarz, a Utah native and longtime volunteer contributor to the site.

“Romney has been really controversial because his entry has religion and politics mixed together,” Bednarz says. Whether to address polygamy in the Romney entry, for instance, led to heated discussion among Wikipedians. “It was felt that polygamy is a synthesis of religion and politics,” Bednarz says, “so it wasn’t included.”

Online searchers hungry for Romney information, however, will find a section within his entry titled “Religious Background.” A link there will take the user to “The Issue of Mitt Romney’s Mormons during the 2008 presidential primary,” where, bingo!—you hit the polygamy information jackpot.

Bednarz, 26, is a University of Utah graduate and a second-year law student at the University of Chicago. His interests range wildly, but it was a fondness for newspapers that helped turn him into a Wikipedia contributor in February 2004.

He was the first contributor to the Salt Lake City Weekly entry. Considering several have edited the entry in four years, it is surprisingly accurate.

“At the time, there weren’t many good articles on newspapers in the United States,” Bednarz says. “So I did one on City Weekly. A friend of mine, Jon Moore, started one on The Salt Lake Tribune, and Deseret [Morning] News, too. It’s how Wiki communities get started. It’s how the Utah Wiki Project got started.”

Bednarz uses the Wikipedia name “Cool Hand Luke,” after the 1967 Paul Newman film. One of his Utah colleagues, a 29-year-old Utah County resident, goes by the name “Atropos.” He took the name from the Stephen King novel Insomnia. But that’s about the only information he’ll offer a nosy reporter. He won’t reveal his real name or his full-time job, or sit for a photograph.

Where his Wiki activity is concerned, he lives in chosen obscurity. “I have the kind of job where I don’t discuss politics or any of my work on Wikipedia. It could cause problems for me.”

So, Atropos labors contentedly in his free time as the main man over the Radio From Hell Wikipedia entry. That’s the X96 weekday radio show. Like Wikipedia, the show has garnered its own cult following and airs weekdays from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Given the democratic roots of Wikipedia, it isn’t surprising that Atropos quickly corrects any reference to him as a “main man.”

He responded three years ago to an invitation from show co-host Bill Allred for listener assistance on the show’s blog. He remains one of the main editors of the program’s Wikipedia entry and watches over any changes to it through an RSS feed on his computer. But, Atropos emphasizes, “there is no main man who has power over any particular article. There are friends of the program all over who do it. There’s a guy, ‘Andy from New York,’ who’s made a lot of edits to the page.”

Both Bednarz and Atropos depend on Wikipedia for quick educational snapshots and facts that can’t be argued. As for the other stuff—politics, religion, any subject that can be reasonably disputed—they advise healthy skepticism.

“Wikipedia often offers disclaimers for things most people would agree are controversial,” Atropos says. “With something like abortion, people are going to disagree. But, some facts are simply indisputable. I mean, who’s going to argue over mating habits of the walrus or sperm whale?”