The moving finger writes; and, having writ...
The cover of this month's Harper's Magazine shows a computer screen with a Wikipedia page (complete with the trademarked puzzle globe) with the headline "Wikipedia and the assault on history" and the byline "By Ben Lerner ". But that article is fictitious, our encyclopedia does not have an article with that name, not yet anyway. But first a warning: to address the serious questions raised by the Harper's article (more properly titled The Hofmann Wobble – Wikipedia and the problem of historical memory), which is a combination of fact and fiction in the form known as autofiction, I try my hand for the first time at literary criticism.
Ben Lerner's 8,700-word short story centers on a description by the author-protagonist-narrator of their editing of Wikipedia. Lerner, or his protagonist-narrator, describes in detail how he established a network of hundreds of sockpuppets and meatpuppets, and not one, but two, administrators under his thumb. His employers were a non-profit institute of linguistics in Berkeley, California, and a young West Coast tech billionaire who wants to save sea turtles. The institute and the love of sea turtles may well be fictional, but Berkeley and the billionaire may be relevant facts.
Lerner is a bright star in the U.S. literary world. Pay close attention to the details of his life. You will see them again. He was born in Topeka, Kansas, where his parents were psychologists at the Menninger Institute. His mother, Harriet Lerner, is a well known feminist psychologist. He graduated from Topeka High School where he led the debate team. At Brown University, he graduated with a BA in political science, then a masters of fine art in creative writing, becoming a poet in the process.
He was awarded a Fulbright fellowship (2004) to research and write about Spanish Civil War poetry in Madrid. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2013, and in 2015 a prestigious MacArthur fellowship, which is sometimes called a "genius grant". He is a Distinguished Professor at CUNY's Brooklyn College, and has been called "the most distinguished autofictionist in America".
He's written three award winning books of poetry, and is the first poetry editor in Harper's 173-year history. His novels include Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), 10:04 (2014), and The Topeka School (2019).
His novels are written as autofiction, which combines the two formats of factual autobiography and fiction. Of course, these two have been combined for as long as they have existed, but as Lerner practices the form, autofiction has a very specific meaning. The structure of the story appears to be the main known facts of his life over a given period. The details are likely fictional, as he reimagines what happened during that time, reliving what could have happened, or what should have happened.
For example, his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, follows a young Kansas poet named Adam Gordon in Madrid 2004, on a grant to write about Spanish poetry. These facts are consistent with what we know about Lerner's life. Adam, his narrator, drinks, smokes weed, chases women and explains this life in ways that could be fact or fiction. Then a terrorist bomb explodes in Atocha Station — a historical fact — and Adam reacts to it in ways that might be entirely fictitious.
His third novel, The Topeka School, was one of three finalists for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Adam Gordon is one of three narrators in this autofiction prequel to his other two novels. Adam again lives the same life as Lerner. He is a student at Topeka High School leading the debate team, his parents are psychologists at a prestigious foundation, his mother is a famous feminist. The structural elements of the novel are given by Lerner's life, only the details may be fiction.
The Hofmann Wobble
Lerner's new short story about Wikipedia is not very short. It is not divided into sections, but I'll analyze it in three: introduction, body, and request and replies.
The narrator is unnamed, only occasionally called "New Media Fellow" or "NMF". He is traveling from the U.S. East Coast to Berkeley, California, in 2006, a trip that likely echoes a trip Lerner must have taken in 2005 or 2006 to Berkeley, where he lived for about a year while teaching at the California College of the Arts. NMF was a new media fellow at an unnamed linguistic institute in Berkeley for about a year. Oddly, this period of Lerner's life is seldom mentioned in short biographies, but it was mentioned in the first version of the article Ben Lerner in early 2006 and it stuck there for 18 months, until Lerner accepted a position at the University of Pittsburgh.
On NMF's drive through Utah he runs over a swarm of Mormon crickets. Did Lerner run over a similar swarm on his way to Berkeley? I suspect not. The swarm is useful to Lerner as a metaphor throughout the story, perhaps referring to Wikipedia's editors and readers. By the third sentence of the story NMF is telling the reader that the facts as given are not necessarily true. NMF tells us "I remember, wrongly, that I was listening to a book on tape, a work by a prominent linguist ..." and then continues describing the tape he wasn't listening to as if he had. This telling us that he is not telling us the truth is a tic that is repeated throughout the story. Clearly, The Hofmann Wobble is Lerner's usual autofiction mix of truth and fiction. The main events are true, the details may not be.
After arriving in Berkeley, the NMF starts at the institute without really knowing what a new media fellow does, but that's OK — neither do the people at the institute. He meets a new girlfriend — a high school teacher — and she introduces him to Wikipedia, and how her students use and abuse it. As she lies in his bed, he spends the rest of the night in his underwear typing, and learns most of what he needs to edit Wikipedia (clearly fiction).
Body of the story
NMF practices his new skills on articles about the institute and its director, Dr. Hofmann, as well as her favorite bugbear, "tax relief". He creates a PowerPoint and presents it to the director and new colleagues, concluding:
What we need, what I'm going to establish, is an ever-expanding phalanx of Wikipedia editors to create, reframe, and defend these pages, which are treated by more and more of the human population as both encyclopedia and news source.
Throughout this section, NMF displays a very good knowledge of how Wikipedia works. He characterizes its writing style as "suspiciously coherent if not particularly well-written", but "so easy to edit that a failing student in summer school could do it." He knows about redirects, disambiguation pages, and the steps needed to win an argument on talk pages. He knows the importance of building an account's reputation:
So I started building up an identity and edit history for MormonCricket, who I decided would have little in common with me (this is a fake version of the fake identities I actually made in the real version of the project I'm fictionalizing).
NMF then builds his phalanx of sockpuppets, creating distinct identities for each, and editing from distinct locations around Berkeley so that they do not all have the same identifying IP addresses. (This sockpuppeting technique is somewhat old-fashioned, but still in use even though it is now almost certain to end in the sockpuppets being caught). That method doesn't scale very well, so he recruits friends who don't live in Berkeley as meatpuppets, instructing them on how to edit and !vote in RfCs and even RfAs (to select two administrators). Lerner even goes so far in his fiction as to create opposing editors complete with user names that veteran editors might think they recognize. For example I thought I recognized User:ProudMarine, but there is no editor with that exact name. NMF also refers to specific controversial articles, writing that they contributed to the controversy.
NMF is eventually hired away from the institute by "one true billionaire — a 97 percent fictional man." About this time NMF's perception of facts, of truth itself, begins to shift back and forth, a "cognitive fragmentation". He creates a name for this phenomenon, "the Hofmann wobble". He outlines the strategy he'd use to write a Wikipedia article on the concept and make it stick.
Under the billionaire's generous patronage, NMF's editing empire and influence grows, but he notices that he is not alone in his practice of these dark arts. In fact, the field is becoming overcrowded — and he loses his enthusiasm. The billionaire's interest also fades, and NMF moves on to get a job in the real world.
This is the key section to understand how much Lerner knows about Wikipedia. User:MormonCricket was no newbie. Lerner knows Wikipedia in detail. While the names have been changed, much of the detail rings true. I only wonder how much editing time it took him to gather this knowledge.
A request and two replies
On the final page, Lerner changes the narrator, writing under his initials "bl" (presumably as Lerner himself). He starts with what appears to be a confession.
bl: I've written a short story—or a kind of fictional essay (it's based on a real project of mine but all the facts have been altered)—about a young man's efforts to manipulate Wikipedia for the good (so he thinks) through the construction of multiple online identities.
Perhaps he's just trying to fool us again, but if this statement is not sincere, then nothing in the story is true.
He quickly summarizes his story and requests ChatGPT to give it meaning "because you represent the end of Wikipedia, I want to give you the last word."
ChatGPT's reply is Lerner's final fiction. The silk purse of Lerner's flashy prose cannot be transformed into the sow's ear of ChatGPT prose. Artificial Intelligence's major weakness is its complete ignorance of meaning, so it cannot be expected to give meaning to Lerner's story. So I interpret the reply from "ChatGPT" as a dumbed down version of Lerner's own proposed meaning.
The young man realized that, like the swarming crickets, the vastness of information was beyond any individual's control….
He had fought passionately for his cause, attempting to counter right-wing frameworks and promote suppressed truths. But in his quest, he had lost sight of the fundamental nature of information—the essence of knowledge itself. It was not about dominating or manipulating, but about empowering and illuminating.
My reply to Lerner is that this conclusion looks self-serving, casting himself as an idealistic searcher for the truth about truth. Running a phalanx of sockpuppets damages Wikipedia and our empowering of editors to help illuminate the truth for our readers.
Lerner's use of the literary form of autofiction makes it easy to see that the general outline of his story is true, even though the details may not be. Veteran editors who may have been directly hurt by his sockpuppets are inevitably planning their response, either off-Wiki or on-Wiki.
If, indeed, Lerner did run a sockfarm, there's not much that we can do about it now, other than accept that large sockfarms have been around a long time on Wikipedia, and vow that we'll stop others in the future. If we were to dedicate a large task force to investigate Lerner's possible sockfarm, we might be able to determine whether it really existed or how much damage it did. But what then? There would be no point in blocking socks that are by now over a decade old. Any damage to the text of our articles should have long since been corrected.
Instead, we should thank Lerner for (almost) being honest with us. For demonstrating once again that large sockfarms exist, and are dangerous, and that we have to do something about it. He might help us now by coming forward and telling the unadulterated truth about what he has done. We could ask him to write an article for The Signpost addressed directly to Wikipedians. Or perhaps ask him to make the keynote address at the next Wikimania.
But let's not let it happen again.