Delegate's obsession a benefit to the Net

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland lawmakers are among the most thoroughly documented politicians on Wikipedia, the hugely popular Web encyclopedia compiled by tens of thousands of users around the world.

And it's in large part because of one Internet-obsessed pol from Baltimore: Del. Curtis S. Anderson.

Under the monikers "Marylandstater," "1msulax" and "67knight," the 58-year-old Democrat and former television reporter has spent countless hours researching and creating detailed profiles of fellow members of the General Assembly. He also takes their pictures and uploads them to the site.

It is, by Anderson's own admission, a lonely and sedentary habit.

"I don't drink, I'm not married and I don't have a girlfriend," he says. "But this releases something from my brain and into my bloodstream that makes me feel good."

He adds: "I think I've gained about 10 pounds."

There are more than 9 million articles on Wikipedia in more than 250 languages, and the site's entries are read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world every day. With few exceptions, anyone can create or edit Wikipedia pages, and the only guarantee of the accuracy of the information is that if it's wrong, somebody can change it.

That means, on average, most things are true, but it also means that a biased or misinformed contributor can hijack a Wikipedia page, at least for a time.

As Wikipedia has surged in popularity and respectability since coming online in 2001, so too has concern about meddling by elected officials and political operatives. In 2006, Wikipedia temporarily blocked some Capitol Hill Internet addresses because of frequent "vandalism" by congressional aides on the profiles of political opponents.

There seems little danger of such drastic action in Annapolis. The profiles of Maryland legislators, created and updated mostly by Anderson and a handful of anonymous Wikipedians, tend to be bland and perfunctory.

The nonprofit association that loosely oversees the sprawling site discourages users "from writing about themselves, their businesses or anything that might constitute a conflict of interest," said Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the California-based WikiMedia Foundation.

Tom Fitzwater, a University of Maryland, College Park senior and prolific Wikipedia editor who initiated entries for much of the state's congressional delegation to Washington, said Anderson's involvement treads a "very thin line" of appropriateness.

But Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist and a Wikipedia fan, called Anderson's General Assembly initiative "an extraordinarily noble goal and one definitely worth encouraging."

As a former journalist, Anderson says he well understands the importance of objectivity. But he argues that the public benefit of having easily accessible information about lawmakers outweighs the risk that his involvement taints the site's neutrality.

"I'm not a totally neutral editor," Anderson concedes. But that doesn't mean he necessarily shies away from posting unflattering content about fellow Democrats.

Last year, Anderson said he ran afoul of House Speaker Michael E. Busch's office when he documented a pro-slots shift in the presiding officer's policy position. Anderson is opposed to legalized slot machine gambling in Maryland.

He said someone from Busch's office "took out" his slots passage on the speaker's page. Anderson could have put the passage back in, but he decided not to, he said.

For his part, Busch says he was unaware he even had a Wikipedia profile. Viewing his page for the first time last week, Busch said he was not interested in beefing up his own page, which remains considerably less detailed than Anderson's.

That's not an atypical reaction from Annapolis lawmakers, many of whom greet Anderson's project with bemusement.

"I'm on Wikipedia?" said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Woohoo."

Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican who regularly debates with Anderson on a morning television show, joked that he would have to be more vigilant about changes to his Wikipedia profile.

"I have been hitting him pretty hard these last few weeks," McDonough said. "He may have some evil things up there now."

No, the only change Anderson has made to McDonough's page recently is adding a head shot in November. Anderson's goal for the remaining days in the current session is to photograph and post pictures of all legislators to Wikipedia. He has about 20 senators remaining, he said.

Now that virtually all the players in the General Assembly have Wikipedia homes, Anderson said he is spending less time as an editor and more as a reader.

"Like any new toy it kind of loses its shine after a while," he said.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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