I created the Wikipedia entry for Daniel M. Sherenton as a joke. It would be months before I realized the full, unhappy consequences of this decision.
I was scheduled to visit my family in the northern suburb of Detroit where I’m from, and I had planned to boast, at some point during the trip, that I knew I was famous because someone had made a Wikipedia entry for me. Anyone who comes from a large, competitive family will understand this move.
Creating your own Wikipedia entry is, of course, very bad form — highly solipsistic. I needed to be sure that no one could trace this entry back to me, so I made a new Wikipedia account using a new email address that was not associated with my real name.
The Wikipedia entry I composed for myself was purposely very brief. It cited my two academic books, which focused on the ways emergent technologies were increasingly allowing us to communicate “multimodally” — i.e., via combinations of words, images, and sounds. I added my birthday (January 29, 1967), my hometown, my alma mater (Go blue!), and a few other basic items. The implicit message of the entry was that I was an important scholar of the early twenty-first century doing significant work in the field of communication science. This was more of an exaggeration than an outright lie.
It turns out that a regular user like me can’t automatically publish a new Wikipedia entry. Reviewers need to verify that new entries meet “notability requirements”; they need to ascertain that the new topic is important enough to occupy space in Wikipedia. I did not meet the notability requirements on my first attempt. The reviewers wrote back via the Talk page: Does Sherenton really deserve his own entry? Wikipedia is not a place to record the names of every contemporary scholar. What has Sherenton done that is so special?
It was a fair question, but academics are trained to boast about the importance of our work. The Wikipedia reviewers were no match for my self-aggrandizement skills. I tracked down a review of my first book and cherry-picked a juicy quote: “Sherenton makes essential contributions to our understanding of medial simultaneity — a crucial dimension of digital semiosis.” I observed that my “seminal article” in Textual Dilemmas Quarterly is often credited as launching the 3M (multimedial, multichannel, multiliteracy) approach to digitality. (A random dissertation had attached this label to my work a few years back.) I certified all of this information with abundant footnotes.
My entry was ultimately approved by Wikipedia, but in the end I didn’t bring it up at the Sherenton family gathering. Whenever the thought occurred to me, it felt like a weak move. I decided to delete the entry as soon as I got back home. One thing led to another, however, and I never got around to the task.
But then the entry came up while I was doing a little routine vanity searching on Google. I clicked the link absentmindedly and was surprised to discover there were many new details: the year that I was awarded tenure, the classes I routinely taught, even the address of my campus office. I wondered if the new content had somehow been generated by a bot. The information was mostly of the innocuous variety found on the surface layer of the internet: the university’s course catalogs, PDFs of conference programs, and the short articles occasionally written about me by the undergraduate interns who work on the departmental newsletter. It was an awkward collage of disparate fragments: D. M. Sherenton is an avid drummer and studies the power of digital communication. He investigates the way technologies of distribution empower citizens of all stripes. You can find him hanging out at the Screech Owl Café on Foster St.
Rather than simply deleting the entry, I found myself clicking the edit tab and smoothing things out a bit. I separated the academic stuff from the personal stuff, replaced the newsletterese with the colorless prose preferred by encyclopedias. Truth be told, I hate the word “avid.”
Once again, I forgot about the entry, and nearly a year went by before I returned to it. A student visiting during office hours announced conspiratorially: “Edwin Mullhouse is my favorite writer too.” I was caught off guard since I hadn’t mentioned that author to anyone in quite some time, and “my favorite writer” sounded a bit childish.
The student explained that he had gotten this information from the Wikipedia entry for Daniel M. Sherenton. I pulled up the entry on my office computer as soon as the student left and discovered an assortment of new facts: Dan has a weakness for gourmet ice cream. Dan has a funny story about Rueben sandwiches. Dan considers Edwin Mullhouse a genius for his childlike inventiveness. But what grabbed my attention was a photograph which — following the Wikipedia template used for celebrities — appeared in the upper-right corner of the screen, over the caption: Dan Sherenton, Pictured Rocks, 1994.
Pictured Rocks is a series of cliffs on the northern shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I had indeed visited this spot in June of 1994, in the early years of my marriage, before Tori and I had kids. This photo, however, was a mystery. It resembled me in terms of build and general features, but it was the kind of photo you would expect on the cover of a hiking magazine: a young man — sporting a fancy backpack and a pair of trekking poles — stood on the edge of a rocky outcropping. The face of the cliff was visible below him, revealing the colorful mineral stains that give Pictured Rocks their name. The only way the photo could have been taken is from the surface of the Lake below. That may seem unremarkable, but the base of the cliffs is only reachable by boat and no one in my hiking party had been on a boat that day. Moreover, I have never been more than a casual hiker. I’ve never owned a fancy backpack, let alone trekking poles. The photo was clearly a fake.
The funny thing is, the outcropping where the figure is standing is actually a famous geological formation that has a name — Miner’s Castle — and I vividly remember standing there back in 1994, looking out at the vastness of Lake Superior. I found the photo’s half-truthfulness irksome, even disconcerting. Why would someone go to the trouble of finding a convincing fake? Who would have known what “convincing” meant to begin with? My traveling party had consisted of my (now ex-) wife Tori, my friend Thomas (killed in a motorcycle accident two years later), and his girlfriend Janine (who broke up with Thomas soon after the trip and was never heard from again). There were precisely two living people who would have known what kind of photo to post, and I was certain neither of them were responsible.