Sarah Palin’s Wikipedia Story – reputation management or a fluid defination of one's identity?

Online reputation and identity are getting harder to define – to say what they really are at any one moment.  Just as in quantum physics, when particles display both a Wave-Particle duality at the same moment , an online identity or biography, in some notable cases, such as with Sarah Palin, becomes much more “fluid”.

For details, take the New York Times article  titled – Don’t Like Palin’s Wikipedia Story? Change It that tells a story of how a Wikipedia Editor named “YoungTrigg” subtly changed several details listed on Sarah Palin’s Wikipedia page.

But here’s the thing – after reading the NYT article and hearing others around me discuss this situation – I wondered if what I was looking at here is really really something else than “online reputation management” on steroids (according to the NYT article, Henrik Abelsson, who tracks the traffic of Wikipedia pages, said that on Friday (August 29th) there were 2.4 million page views for Gov. Palin’s Wikipedia article while for the entire month of June 2008 the John McCain article had 645,000 page views while the Barack Obama page had 1.35 million page views).

Actually, a few days ago, I wrote two posts about this phenomena at The Analytics Guru – Being Uncritically your own best friend and More on our own nariation where I  described a process which I called “self narration“.   In “self narration” the story we tell about ourselves (to our selves) defines what we end up displaying to the world.   To take my two posts a little further – I’d say the process of is really more like “metadata” that surrounds events that are, in themselves, unmeasurable (similar to “Rich Media” files, Flash and AJAX parts of websites).

What if we could take self narration to a point where critical events of online identity are subtlety changed by editing the “metadata” around them?  Is that really just online reputation management or a “fluid definition” of identity akin to Wave-Particle duality?

It’s not even clear if “YoungTrigg” did anything wrong – yet, the traceable fact (30 edits that happend on the night before the announcement, by YoungTrigg) – suggests a need to morph Sarah Palin’s online identity to fit a sudden political need (I won’t say, by who, since it’s obvious).

In other words, and according to my definition of self narration, someone decided to describe Sarah Palin differently (than how she was described before) – as if the story of one’s life can be molded like  silly puddy.  According to the New York Times article:

“… In total, YoungTrigg — whose user name is a reference to Ms. Palin’s infant son, Trig — made 30 “edits” to the article, all positive and largely unnoticed, since they came at a time when few were discussing her as a possible running mate of Senator John McCain’s.

The coincidence of the user’s name, and the sudden spurt of activity just before news broke of Mr. McCain’s choice, has raised suspicions that YoungTrigg was a campaign operative tasked to make sure that her Wikipedia article was ready for prime time, much as handlers have been assigned to do the same for the candidate.”

“…. Also, YoungTrigg reached out to an anonymous editor who had changed the Palin article on Thursday night, without any evidence, to say that she was Mr. McCain’s choice. In a public note to the anonymous editor, YoungTrigg wrote: “Where did you hear that Palin was the VP nominee? I can’t find anything online.”

Whether this pokes a hole in the idea that YoungTrigg had inside information, or rather confirms that the user had an unusually acute interest in whether the news had leaked out, is hard to tell.”

The NYT article goes on to explain how taking charge of the self narration process has become a necessary part of politics:

“…In modern politics, where the struggle is to “define” yourself before your opponent “defines” you, Wikipedia has become an important part of political strategy. When news breaks, and people plug a name into a search engine to find out more, invariably Wikipedia is the first result they click through to; it is where first impressions are made.”

But I’d like to suggest this whole process, which I call “self narration”, has much wider applications beyond the political sphere (unless you want to call everything, politics – which some people do).

I like to think the way we describe ourselves, becomes our reality – as much as the way others describe us – or an event – also becomes, to a large extent, our reality of it.

For example, the famous Hindenburg disaster, according to Wikipedia, displays some of the same qualities as

“… the Hindenburg caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flames. Where the fire started is controversial; witnesses on the port side saw yellow, red flames first just forward of the top fin, around the vent of cell 4. One, with views of the starboard side, saw flames beginning lower and farther aft, near cell 1. No. 2 Helmsman Helmut Lau also testified seeing the flames spreading from cell 4 into starboard. (Although there were four newsreel cameramen and at least one spectator known to be filming the landing, they were all recording the actions of the ground crew when the fire started and therefore there is no motion picture record of where it first broke out at the instant of ignition.)

Wherever it started, the flames quickly spread forward. Almost instantly, a water tank and a fuel tank burst out of the hull. At the same time, a crack appeared behind the passenger decks. The airship’s back broke, and the section from the nose to the aft engine cars lurched upwards, while the stern stayed in trim.”

No one really knows for sure what the caused the Hindenburg to explode, weather it was sabotage, electric sparks, lightening, engine exhaust, incendiary paint, hydrogen fuel exploding for some unknown reason, or any other reasons – because it’s not really important what the real reason was – because we’ll never know for sure.  What is clear to me, however, that our understanding of an event like the Hindenburg disaster or the Sarah Palin (…disaster – if so, for who?) is more than just manipulating facts for online reputation management – it’s more like Wave-Particle duality applied to self indentity.

I suppose you can say  9/11 is the same thing – the facts are somewhat “fluid” and leading to multiple interpretations of what actually happened;for example,  9/11 conspiracy theories abound, and some of them are quite plausible.

What I tried to say in my original The Analytics Guru post More on our own narration – is that as we have evolved our means of communications to be much more complex and widespread, we’ve become more self aware – to the extent that, up to a point, we are what we describe ourselves to be – and what other people describe us to be – and that becomes reality – our reality.

If that’s the case, as I believe it is, “self narration” might actually be a positive thing – it may give us all a way out of some very difficult circumstances (but with everything – there are limits to how much one can “shape shift” events .

Lately, I have known several people in my life that are having difficult times – and honestly, some of it is almost beyond an ability for me to see a way out for them – but I’ve also noticed, as I listen to one my friends, as I did today, that they harp back on their story of why life is so difficult for them.

And then I go back and think about “self narration”, or as someone else said once  – “you are what you think you are” (or did they say, “as a man thinkith, so be he” or something like that).

While self narration, as I called it, might not be such a great thing for politicians to do, especially those running for Presidential office, suddenly, it very well may be a good thing for people, in general, to do when they’re stuck in a part of their lives where they can’t see a solution.

Perhaps, in difficult life situations, how we describe our stories, to ourselves, primarily, leads to the perception of reality by ourselves and others.

And as far as the Sarah Palin thing – well, it was obvious that YoungTrigg probably knew an announcement would be made shortly – and edited, or prettied up, aspects of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin’s life, so that we, the readers of Wikipedia, would see her in a more favorable light.

But the whole thing that got me started into “self narration” was painting – because in nature, there really is not light and shadow – these sensations are interpreted by the mind, by our brains.

I think I’ve said enough here – my point was that we can alter our lives by how we describe ourselves – and are somewhat circumscribed by how others describe us (but we can influence how others describe us by how we describe ourselves).

Will it help my friends?  I don’t know – but you have to start somewhere.

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