Monday, March 10, 2008

The Wikipedia Fight Club

Those who followed Mary Spicuzza's SF Weekly article about Wikipedia, my commentary on that article, and any accounts of the smoke blown over whether or not the article should be taken as an authoritative source, might be interested in Nicholson Baker's article in the latest The New York Review, whose title makes his own position perfectly clear: "The Charms of Wikipedia." I know Baker best from his book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, and the basic argument from that book that appeared in The New York Review. As an accomplished author of fiction, as well as non-fiction, he has the sort of resume that might easily intimidate Spicuzza; but the two articles complement each other nicely, not because they embody the opposition of two sides of a coin but because they basically view the same side from different angles.

Baker's light is the more positive one. He makes this clear with his opening sentences:

Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It's fact-encirclingly huge, and it's idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies—and it's free, and it's fast.

This is the sort of breathless prose one might expect to encounter in a novel, rather than a review; but it is also an excellent way to set the reader up for the attributes of Wikipedia that most interest him.

The first attribute is actually captured in a quotation from Jimmy Wales himself:

The main thing about Wikipedia is that it is fun and addictive.

Baker then offers his own riff on that second adjective:

All big Internet successes—e-mail, AOL chat, Facebook, Gawker, Second Life, YouTube, Daily Kos, World of Warcraft—have a more or less addictive component—they hook you because they are solitary ways to be social: you keep checking in, peeking in, as you would to some noisy party going on downstairs in a house while you're trying to sleep.

It is only later that he lets us in on the nature of his own addiction, which is actually the second of his two attributes. The addictive nature of Wikipedia is not with its encyclopedic content, such as the way one can get "hooked" by reading an article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, follow up by reading related articles, then reading articles related to those articles, until you realize that it is 1 AM and you didn't even take a break for dinner. Rather, what is addictive is the "social" approach to editing. So, while I had intended a negative connotation when I interpreted Spicuzza as characterizing Wikipedia as having "assumed all the personality traits of WWE Friday Night Smackdown!," Nicholson sees the fights that break out over what gets inserted and what gets deleted as Wikipedia's primary "charm" (in the language of the title he selected). Indeed, he goes even further and argues that, without those fights, Wikipedia would not be the valuable resource it has become.

In terms of my critique of Spicuzza's analysis, this is, to say the least, an interesting take on that "wisdom of crowds" question. This is not to imply that knowledge has no room for adversity. The Socrates we know from reading Plato believed that all knowledge emerged from taking an adversarial position and putting it to the test; and, in The Sociology of Philosophies, Randall Collins provides a history of world philosophy in which adversarial relations play a key role in the development of ideas. Still, a Platonic dialogue rarely involves more than half a dozen conversants, which is a far cry from what Baker calls "the elite top 1,200 of all editors" of Wikipedia. Furthermore, Baker's own addiction narrowed in on the very specific task of saving articles from deletion by other editors, with apparently little concern for the domain of those articles. Indeed, within his account there lurks a general suspicion of experts in the Wikipedia culture, since those experts tend to write complex webs of jargon that most readers would not understand (that being the Wikipedia argument, rather than my own).

The problem with Baker's approach, however, is not the "wisdom of crowds" question but its neglect of my other key point, which is the matter of anonymity. Consider, for example, his take on one of the more aggressive editorial acts:

This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who knows whether, when you look up Harvard's one-time-warrior-president, James Bryant Conant, you're going to get a bland, evenhanded article about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen minutes on April 26, 2006): "HE'S A BIG STUPID HEAD." James Conant was, after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously anti-Semitic, a strong believe in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it's a fast-paced game of paintball.

That last sentence poses an interesting metaphor. Paintball is often played among friends; but "real" combat (that is, with weapons that kill people) tends to sustain much of its energy from the anonymity of the enemy. That is what makes the climax of Wilfred Owen's poem, "Strange Meeting," so harrowing: "I am the enemy you killed, my friend." Anonymity is the shield that cloaks us should we decide to "go nasty;" and the underlying problem is the prevailing opinion that, if you can "go nasty," you may as well get a kick out of doing so.

As an aside it is interesting to consider the role of anonymity in Fight Club, particularly when you review the cast listing and see how few of the characters have names. By contrast consider the impact of the very name "Omar Little" in the full narrative of The Wire, not to mention how Marlo Stanfield is ultimately undone by his personal frustration that his own name lacks that impact. Both of these characters are frightening for the way in which they flaunt their identity in the defiance of the anonymity of soldiers in battle or the Fight Club competitors.

I suspect the most effective metaphor for Wikipedia is the large metropolis, like, for example, the Baltimore of The Wire. There are safe parts of town; and then there are the "other" parts of town. It helps to be smart enough to know where those "other" parts are, particularly if you just want to stay out of trouble. Fortunately, the kind of music information I need seems to reside in a pretty safe (if not quiet and sleepy) part of town; and, if I am feeling contentious, I would rather look for my trouble on The Huffington Post or Truthdig, where there is a mix of actual names and "handles." Those environments make for better conversation, even if it is not always civil. Also, from the other point of view, I am not particularly interested in being an anonymous contributor to Wikipedia. If I am going to put all that work into what I write, then I want my name on the resulting text!

No comments: