A Mistaken Identity on the Internet

Rose Agree was a librarian most of her life. But a Wikipedia entry had conflated some of Ms. Agree’s biography with that of an aging pornographic movie star with the same name:

Mistaken identity is an occupational hazard for people who are mentioned even fleetingly on the Internet. Still, consider Peter Agree’s shock when he searched the Web for references to his mother.

“The references I turned up were to ‘Rose Agree, geriatric porn star,’ ” said Mr. Agree, the editor in chief of the University of Pennsylvania Press. “Wikipedia had a biographical entry for this person, and to my horror it fused elements of my mother’s biography, including her having been a librarian on Long Island.”

Mr. Agree’s wife, Kathy Peiss, who headed the history department at Penn, contacted Wikipedia, the self-policing open source encyclopedia, which dutifully removed the entry along with a photograph. But it was too late. The Long Island librarian and the geriatric porn star had been irreversibly conflated. The librarian turned pornographic movie star took on a life of her own.

Two years ago, a Columbia undergraduate wrote to Professor Peiss about a book that she had edited. It was titled “Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality” and was dedicated to her mother-in-law. In retrospect, Rose Agree’s experience with the Internet might have merited a whole chapter.

The story is certainly not unique, but it is interesting how one’s biography can take a life of its own on the internet.

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