Reflections on Wikipedia

September 4th, 2007

I love reading Wikipedia, and I’ve learned a lot from doing so. I’m not, in other words, rabidly anti-Wikipedia. But I do have a few serious concerns about it.

It seems to me that Wikipedia is, in effect whether or not in intent, pushing the Web in exactly the direction it isn’t best suited for: namely, centralization of information. Mailing list posts and IRC channels are full of links to Wikipedia articles, on everything from… well, on lots of things. It seems that the standard way of saying, “If you’re not familiar with the term I just used, here’s how to learn about it” is to provide a Wikipedia link.

I strongly suspect that this is automatic on the part of the people doing it—automatic, that is, rather than based on a thorough search of all the resources available on a given topic and a reasoned decision about which is best-written and/or most informative. That’s the thing: Wikipedia provides something close to one-stop shopping. You’ll find something on almost anything.

Furthermore, Wikipedia itself seems to buy into and cultivate the image of itself as a centralized, objective source of information about everything. One symptom of this is the fact that links within Wikipedia articles are always, or very nearly always, links to other Wikipedia articles. In spite of how open it is, in terms of contributions, it’s ultimately a closed system.

Yes, external sources are indicated at the bottom of articles. But the providing of sources, while important in terms of academic honesty and paper-trailing, never stopped scholarly publications from taking something very close to a “voice of God” position with regard to their subject matter. And it doesn’t stop Wikipedia from doing the same thing. How often have you bothered to go look up all the books and articles listed at the bottom of a Wikipedia article, and carefully analyzed how the information was gleaned and pieced together?

The editorial emphasis on balance and completeness and objectivity is another troubling sign. What’s wrong with balance? What’s wrong with it is that it’s a mirage. Any undergraduate who’s taken a reasonably decent mass communication course knows that what the news media call “balance” is simply an editorial or presentational style. And it requires constant reinforcement. “We report; you decide,” says Fox. “We’ll give you the world,” says at least one radio station (or conglomerate, probably, at this point). The idea is that the discouse provides a perfect substitute for the reality, so you can consider yourself to have been served the reality when you consume the discourse.

Wikipedia operates, I believe, in exponentially greater faith than the news media. But the philosophy of representation is the same, and it’s very old-school. An article is a simulacrum of a discrete, finite reality, and an article’s suitability for publication can be measured by how closely it has cloned that reality. While there’s often room for improvement, every article has the noble goal of achieving a perfect fit with its subject matter, and the potential to do so.

The fact, however, is that it’s not in the nature of written discourse to be a perfect fit with some arbitrary slice of reality. It doesn’t work that way. There’s no shame in acknowledging this, but Wikipedia battles against it.

What troubles me is not just that it’s child’s play to debunk the “voice of God” philosophy of discourse, but that I’d thought the Web was doing a pretty good job teaching people that reality and discourse actually map to each other sloppily, crazily, contradictorily, and ironically. Measured both by its editorial policies and by its wide, eager adoption as a centralized authority, Wikipedia unfortunately pushes against this more intriguing and, I would argue, more balanced take on things.

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