Want a Wikipedia Entry? Be Born in Boston

An economist found that baby boomers born in Suffolk County had the highest probability of achieving notability, at least as measured by Wikipedia.


Source: Wikipedia

Want to be notable enough to have a Wikipedia entry written about you someday (without doing something infamous to merit it)? If you were born in Boston, you’re off to a good start.

In a New York Times story this weekend, Harvard-trained economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz studied the birthplaces of baby boomers with Wikipedia entries. He found that Suffolk County had the highest proportion of boomers who became notable, with 1 in 748 people eventually earning a Wikipedia mention. For reference, the probability for those born in New York was a (still high) 1 in 1,035.

Wikipedia, Stephens-Davidowitz notes, is a biased sample set when it comes to defining “notability,” and not just because it includes articles the infamous. (He excluded criminals from his tallies.) The website is subject to the whims of the Wikipedia editor community, which skews male, educated, and tech-savvy. He points to the concerns of M.I.T.’s Pantheon project, which itself uses Wikipedia as a shorthand for popularity, but worries about “the notoriety criteria in Wikipedia being more lax for individuals in some categories than others.” They point out that Spanish Wikipedia has entries for 78 percent of players from “a second division team in Chile” and just 5.5 percent of MIT faculty. It suggests that the “notoriety” bar is higher for leading academics than for middling professional athletes.

No doubt, there are vastly more baby boomers with Wikipedia entries achieved for accomplishments in sports or entertainment, than for science, technology, business, or politics. So admit it: you’re a little surprised to see Boston atop the list. We’re great and all, but why not Los Angeles or New York or a place that produces more actors and artists?

For that, you have to consider the factors Stephens-Davidowitz found predicted a high probability of Wiki-fame. First, many of the top counties, particularly the less well-known, contained a college town. Why? We can only guess, but perhaps it’s that kids of professors are smart. Also, college towns provide “early exposure to innovation,” Stephens-Davidowitz postulated. Second, counties that contain big cities had an advantage, perhaps because they offer children proximity to models of success and notoriety. Third, a high proportion of immigrants often suggested a high proportion of Wikipedia entries.

Take in those factors, and suddenly it’s no wonder that Boston, the union of big city and college town, tops the list, even over New York, L.A., or San Francisco. We hit all three of the most apparent factors in predicting whether you end up with a Wikipedia page. Now it’ll be interesting to see whether the pattern holds across generations. Will Wikipedia smile upon Boston’s Generation Xers as it did their boomers? So long as big city college towns keep churning out America’s notables, you have to imagine there are some future celebrities in our midst.