Make Way for the Wikipedians

It’s not surprising Jimmy Wales is selling encyclopedias. He’s good at it. Convincing. Inspired. Looks sharp in a sports coat. A sober purveyor of the world’s collective knowledge, offered in the Web’s diverse languages. His audience invariably walks out buoyant. Such a resource! And it's free!

I remember the Britannica and World Book salesmen of my youth, hawking compendia of knowledge door-to-door. Who could say no to knowledge? Who would allow their children to suffer the ravages of ignorance? Who would choose to schlep these same beloved children to the library to do their homework? Their arguments were compelling, those encyclopedia salesmen. And their product? Convenient. Authoritative. Leather-bound. From aardvarks to zebras: one-stop knowing. What more could you want from a reference?

My parents wouldn’t let me consult the encyclopedia. Not at home. Not at the library. You could buy dime bags of pot at the library. The folks made no legislation about buying dime bags of pot at the library; just don’t use the encyclopedias they told me. They wanted to ensure I’d go straight to primary sources to find opinions less denatured and homogenized, to seek information that was more complete, more thoroughgoing. They admonished me not to trust the authority of encyclopedias with a zeal usually reserved for warnings about accepting rides from strangers in panel vans.

How many years of therapy does it take to get over this kind of upbringing? Fifty, I’d imagine. Perhaps more, but one does not want to contemplate a talking cure that lasts well into one’s dotage. Surely there’s a pharmaceutical product that addresses information anxiety.

My friends all had the homework advantage of the encyclopedia. “Write a report about yaks,” our teacher would say. And everyone else would go straight to volume Y. The good students would paraphrase; the poor would transcribe. Then they’d be done in plenty of time to watch Gilligan’s Island. Me, I’d be at the library triangulating sources, trying to reproduce and annotate a drawing of the yak digestive system using colored pencils.

I remember all too vividly a model of an Elizabethan Crumster (a merchant ship, smaller than a galleon) built from found shirt cardboard and spaghetti; I’d done extensive research in the library before I settled on the Crumster, which had an appealing name and sleek lines. For my efforts I received a D. Not even a gentleman’s C. I got a D. My classmates who built pyramids from expensive raw materials (i.e. multiple boxes of Domino sugar cubes) after a quick glance at the P volume of their home Brittanicas got As. I couldn’t help but feel that my virtuous research habits were going unrewarded.

I was a latecomer to Wikipedia then, possibly owing to my eccentric upbringing. But once I discovered it, I began to use it – casually, just to look up this and that. To read an extended etymology of the word information; to find out when Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was due to be released from prison. And just to browse. Did you know that Jell-O is the official state snack food of Utah, which is reported to have the highest per capita sales of green gelatin dessert of any US state? Neither did I, but it says so right there in Wikipedia. And there have been at least 500 well-documented edits to this entry to guarantee its correctness, completeness, and freshness. A neutral stance has been adopted. No preference for a particular brand has been expressed; nor have vegans voiced their general disgust with gelatin’s source.

Of course, I noticed the odd nature of Wikipedia’s coverage. Hobbyist preoccupations, pop culture, and fandom are over-represented. But never mind. It’s more fun to write about topics you truly care about. If you want to document all of the episodes of Buffy, be my guest; go right ahead. The world will be the richer for it. And I too am preoccupied with pop culture. Wasn’t I looking up Squeaky Fromme just a minute ago?

I felt no qualms about using Wikipedia until I heard Jimmy Wales give his spiel at University of North Carolina’s iBiblio. Earnest salesmanship – especially earnest salesmanship with a PowerPoint backdrop of graphs and pie charts – always makes me suspicious. Something about it moves me to kick the tires, wind it up to 17,000 RPM, put the pedal to the metal. But unlike many of the project’s detractors, it wasn’t the quality issue that so bothered me on that sunny fall afternoon, there in the Manning Hall lecture room, the air warm and stuffy with student enthusiasm.

Many years ago, a close friend told me that Tricia Nixon confided to Johnny Carson – and thus to the many viewers of the Tonight Show – that she’d never farted. It was a much simpler world then, a time when the networks still mattered, when my father still railed on and on about something he referred to as “pay TV”. Many people would’ve been tuned in to the Tonight Show watching the nation’s first daughter confess her personal unfamiliarity with flatulence. I believed my friend, even though I’d neither seen the episode nor heard that particular anecdote from anyone else. I repeated the story he told me; I repeated it many times. I may have even embellished it slightly to keep my audience interested. Recently he revealed to me that he’d made up the entire incident. At first I was taken aback. “You mean I’ve been telling that story all these years and it wasn’t even true?” But then I got a grip. Of course I’d repeated it. I’d done it often, and with conviction and twists and flairs, so now it is true. Tricia Nixon never farted – pass it on.

You can see why the accuracy of Wikipedia doesn’t scare me, not in the least. Not even when I find the most egregious errors of fact. Which I don’t correct because even though I know they’re wrong, I’d need to do the footwork to find out what’s right. And I’m a busy girl. If I’d wanted to grade papers tonight, I would’ve assigned an essay. No, I ignore those simple errors of fact – birth dates, death dates, geographical niceties – and let them propagate. After all, it’s no worse than misreporting Tricia Nixon’s digestive anomalies. Consensus is a democratic value, and one I prize. Wikipedia is thus a compendium of all we agree to know; it seems that correctness need not enter into our friendly discussion.

Now that I’ve laid to rest this bugaboo of inaccuracy and revealed my carefully nurtured taboo against encyclopedias, as well as my natural fetish to use them, we can move forward. We’ve already agreed that the desire to harness passionate interest outstrips the old-fashioned notion of coverage. Let’s leave it to the dictionary to be complete, to be a closed circle where you can look up any element in a definition and find another definition. Let’s leave all that well-formed structure to the skilled lexicographers like my colleague Geoff Nunberg, chair of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel, who tells us why something as deceptively simple as writing good definitions is hard work indeed. Wiktionary is ample evidence of that.

If it isn’t correctness and it isn’t coverage, it’ll take some detective work to find out why I left Jimmy Wales’s talk with such a feeling of unease. “Ah,” I mused. “It’s sustainability. Surely such an effort isn’t sustainable. The person who carefully improves that page about Nickelback will eventually get on with his or her life – there’ll be the kids, the career, other interests and obsessions.” Certainly peoples’ fetishes change, grow odder and more specific with age – ask any sex worker.

But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that questions of sustainability couldn’t possibly be the source of my unease. Yes, Wikipedia is more fluid, especially when you consider it as a collection, but if we can take the liberty of saying that every delta produces a whole new edition, and we freeze a particular edition, it’s no worse than the Childcraft 15 Volume Encyclopedia, dated 1961, offered on eBay right now for $61.00. The 1961 Childcraft looks to be in very fine condition, but Nikita Khrushchev will never be the demonic force he was in 1961. Encyclopedias by their very nature go bad with time – they become collectibles and curiosities. Even format sustainability is not likely to be an intractable problem for a work that suffers through Wikipedia’s endless editing process. No benign neglect here; no bit of trivia is so small that it will gather dust, neglected, untouched in its Wiki-World. No doubt about it; sustainability seems to be the wrong question here.

So what is it that has me in such a lather? That people can write biographies of themselves ala Who’s Who in America? That anyone can be famous without even being in the least bit fabulous? I’m not Truman Capote. I don’t need to draw up the guest list or hire bouncers for this party. But still, it bothers me a little bit. In an old-fashioned encyclopedia, who isn’t included between the covers speaks volumes. It’s perhaps even more telling than who is.

Picture this: our encyclopedia includes a biography of every Nobel Prize-winning writer except Knut Hamsun. Ha! That’d show him. We’d even have entries for terminal bores and pedants like Sinclair Lewis and George Bernard Shaw. But we’d leave out Knut Hamsun. See what I mean? Aren’t you dying to know why Knut Hamsun (Nobelist, 1920), inspiration to L.A. writers like John Fante and Charles Bukowski, wasn’t invited to our party?

No-one gets intentionally snubbed by Wikipedia. It’s like that awful birthday party in second grade when your mother made you invite the entire class and the whole affair was endless and dreadful; even the extra toys were no consolation. Because you know what? Loser kids bring loser presents to birthday parties. Loser kids walk around with cake and ice cream on their loser faces, ruining even the robust enjoyment of the party’s bounteous junk food. Loser kids don’t understand the subtle point of party games – to reinforce social order – not to be fair. I should know; I suspect I was one of those loser kids. After all, I wrote my elementary school reports at the library and built an Elizabethan Crumster out of cardboard and spaghetti.

I think we’ve finally gotten to the source of my unease. Somewhere deep in the lizard brains of these utopian Wikipedians, there’s a very simple assumption that may prove to be wrong. That assumption is that the whole mess converges: as time goes forward, the Wikipedia becomes more correct, more complete, more comprehensive, and – most importantly – more useful to all those who seek the knowledge that’s held within. Does that seem right to you? It doesn’t to me. Rather, the only trend that seems inevitable is that it’ll keep growing. There’ll be an endless march of new topics, for every season sees the introduction of one or two TV series that are suitable for cultish adoration and obsessive list-making. Agreement on the incremental improvements to the quality of individual articles seem far less inevitable. Error correction is a fully reversible process, as reversible as mischief; corrections may be withdrawn and new errors introduced. I’m hoping my more scholarly colleague Paul Duguid will write about this phenomenon, since he’s made an ill-fated attempt to correct a biography of Daniel Defoe (corrections which I see eventually took, after Paul’s redoubled efforts). Let it suffice to say that the peregrinations of Mr. Defoe are well matched by the peregrinations of his Wikipedia entry.

If Wikipedia just keeps getting larger and larger, will its utility increase with its size? Utility for what? I’ve found Wikipedia useful, although I’m already stunned by the accumulated trivia offered by most entries. It’s a Borgesian enterprise that’s approaching The Library of Babel.

I’d suggest that we think about it this way: Wikipedia will consume more and more effort as it grows, because existing entries will need to be maintained even as new entries continue to be added. At some point, this effort will be greater than the effort the collective Wikipedians can possibly expend, since we’ll assume that some new Wikipedians will be added to the ranks, some old ones will get bored and move on, and there’ll continue to be vandals, miscreants, and the surly ignorant who wish to modify pages in a semi-destructive way.

In fact, if we borrow the respectable concepts we tried very hard to learn in freshman physics, entropy seems to provide the rubric for thinking about this system. To a physics simpleton like me, entropy is related to the number of states available to a system at a given time . Let’s now look at the “edition” we postulated earlier. Each time a change is made to an entry, a new available state is added. Because corrections might or might not be actual improvements, and they can be policed and reversed, these new states don’t replace the old ones; they just add to our universe of possibilities. Combine this with the idea that the number of Wikipedia entries will surely increase; it’s an expanding universe of knowledge. The combinatorics of this situation are intuitive and breathless.

So you see where I’m going with this: the fundamental and the trivial will swirl together; the correct and the incorrect will hold hands; everything under the sun of possible interest to human beings will find its way between the expanding covers of the infinite book – from Ralph (an Australian “lad’s magazine”) to Lumpy (a young Wookiee) .

What happens then? I know; I peeked at the ending. Jimmy Wales will hire editors, review panels, and professional catalogers and indexers. After all, there’s some good stuff in there. Shame to lose it.

I love a happy ending.

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copyright 2005 Catherine C. Marshall