“If you don’t take time to define yourself, you’re vulnerable to the definition that others give you.”
Shawnee State University sociology professor Sean Dunne realizes how influential the narrative of a small town is to outsiders as well as individuals residing in that town.
With a quick Google search, anyone around the world can learn about the small town of Portsmouth, Ohio. One of the first results that would appear via the largest online search engine is Wikipedia.
Many people view this source as reliable, which is why Dunne of has worked hard to ensure Portsmouth’s Wikipedia page properly reflects what the town has to offer.
“My first experience with the Wikipedia page was when I first was coming to Shawnee State University for an interview,” Dunne said. “When I did a google search for where I was going to, the Wikipedia page is one of the first things I found. The headings read, ‘(1) History, (1.1) Foundation, (1.2) Growth, (1.3) Decline, (1.31) Prescription Drug Epidemic’ and that was it. I remember reading it thinking that it sounded far worse than it actually was, even before getting to this place. It sounded horrible.”
This first glimpse of Portsmouth did not seem promising. Dunne, originally from the east coast, was constantly reminded by his friends what the online world said about the town he now resided in.
“They would read what was on the Wikipedia page and ask what in the (heck) was going on over there,” Dunne said. “I’m living here, and they’re reading stories from here, and the two are very different. I’m not saying the Wikipedia page was a complete falsehood, but it was totally disproportionate and so biased and in many ways misinformed.”
Thanks to a lot of persistent work, many changes have been made to the page to give a more accurate picture of Portsmouth. In order to do this, a group of people spearheaded by Dunne, had to change the language used in the topic headings. They wanted to write about the revitalization that was happening, but it wouldn’t fit into the most recent category of “Decline”. They believed it would be more neutral to use time periods. This way, if something happens in the 21st century, good or bad, it can be included in this section and it doesn’t contradict the subject label.
Dunne stressed that he did not fight for these changes by himself. Many people in the community contributed to create changes on the page. Cody Smith, a Shawnee State University student, wrote a paper that inspired new ideas of how the city could be rebranded through Wikipedia and how they could more accurately present the information. He recommended creating a subsection about healthcare that could cover the drug problem, instead of making it a main point. Jason Kester and Adam Phillips of the Southern Ohio Port Authority played a role in the discussions for the 21st century.
They still hope to make even more improvements in the future.
“We still have things to add,” Dunne said. “We can improve the 20th century section. We can add discussion for the 19th century, and other parts of the page can be improved, adding a lot to culture. There should be a section on cuisine and climate as well.”
There has already been work put in by individuals to make this happen. Geography Professor Anthony Dzik has been helpful with climate. History professor Andrew Feight is adding to a series of parts of the page with history. Some journalists have contributed toward the section dedicated to Culture.
Dunne has called for more action to be taken by Portsmouth’s local government.
“In many ways, this is online vandalism,” Dunne said. “Trolling is something that represents a failure of the local government, specifically the city council for allowing this to happen. This (overwhelming negativity about Portsmouth) has been on there for six years …We have a horrid Wikipedia page. It keeps residents from moving here, keeps students from coming to our university, and it keeps businesses from coming to the area. I think it’s really unfortunate that the city council has not acted on this. It should have been done years ago. It takes others to do it if they’re not going to do it.”
This group of people who have fought for these changes are convinced that Portsmouth has a story to tell, and when people hear it, it will influence the way they think. Being a sociology professor helps Dunne understand the way people think.
“These stories and narratives certainly have influence,” Dunne said. “They can coordinate a variety of different actions. So, if we look at something like the Wikipedia page, that helps to influence action that might keep people away from the area, or produce negative feelings about this town. It might shut out the positive things that people are doing. That is why I think we should pay close attention to the language we use and the stories we tell.”
Many people think there is an importance to people having the full story of Portsmouth. The goal of this project was just that.
“I’m glad to have done it, because now people are reading about the 21st century and all of the good things that are being done. We want to make sure people know that. Not just outsiders, but we should remind ourselves as well.”
People in Portsmouth are working to change the narrative, not only for others, but for themselves.
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