Monday, June 12, 2006

Wikipedia a Collective?

I usually don't have the time of day for white guys in dreadlocks. But somebody named Jaron Lanier penned an attack on Wikipedia over at, and a quick search indicates that he is a prominent personage in the digital revolution. Also, I see he's a columnist at Discover magazine, which is one of my favorites, so I guess I should have heard of him before now. Still, I don't follow his argument, and frankly wonder what he's got against Wikipedia. I think of it as an example of aggregate knowledge, rather than a stereotypical collective anthill. The contributors are individuals, co-operating (or competing) with other individuals--not worker bees. Everybody is smarter than anybody, as someone once said.

Disclosure: I contribute to Wikipedia on occasion. It's usually pedantic stuff, minor typos and grammar. I dole out bits of trivia from my store of general knowledge here and there. Probably the most substantial contribution I've made was to start an article stub on a topic related to climatology, which was then developed by more knowledgeable contributors.

Lanier decries the flensing of a writerly or editorial personality from Wikipedia:

When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more than when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia. The question isn't just one of authentication and accountability, though those are important, but something more subtle. A voice should be sensed as a whole. You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning. Personal Web pages do that, as do journals and books. Even Britannica has an editorial voice, which some people have criticized as being vaguely too "Dead White Men."

Well, if it's personality you want, you can always click on the "Discuss" tab. There, under the hood, you will often see the contributors kicking issues of content and POV around, sometimes quite heatedly. Maybe it's just me, but I don't at all think of this as "speaking to us as a supernatural oracle." This to me is the opposite of what Lanier calls "Digital Maoism", if by Maoism you mean the forced imposition of a coercive society in fulfillment of an ultra-communist ideology. (Yes, I know it's intended metaphorically.) No one is forced to participate. In most cases the benchmark is quality, not conformity. And in those cases where consensus can't be reached, whether because of vandals or honest differences of opinion, the articles are duly spoilered. The hundred flowers are really blooming here, unlike in the depths of Maoist China.

Speaking of Mao, I found one Wikipedia article tangentially connected with him, penned by a sympathizer. I lit into it, adding a heapin' helpin' of counterclaims and rebuttals. The author, a British pinko, was gallant enough not to delete my additions, but to consign them to a newly created separate paragraph. I left a note on the talk page, saying that this was an agreeable arrangement.

This, too, is A Good Thing, thanks to the internet age. This, too, would never have happened under Mao.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't used Wikipedia in some time, so my criticisms probably have been addressed.

    I consulted Wiki on a subject which is familiar to me--the aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman, and found the entry illiterate and misleading. I rewrote it, and I believe my article might still be there. Everything was anonymous then. I understand this has changed.

    I too feel uneasy if I don't know the provenance of an article--what are the writer's bono fides, how does he know, etc.?

    Anyone who writes biography knows that it is so easy to oversimplify and thus distort to the point of being (unwillingly) deceptive and outright wrong.

    Wikipedia is a good resource, but I like to consult a number of sources if the topic is important to me.


Thanks for stopping by! Please keep your comments civil and on-topic. Spammage will be cheerfully removed.