by the stormy present
Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 06:00:46 AM EST
The NY Times Magazine this week has a long article on Wikipedia that I thought was really interesting, even though it didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know.
It starts off with your standard "so-and-so spent all day refining and editing a page on a breaking story and then the next day went back to his junior year of high school." Yeah, yeah. And yet... it's still an interesting article.
Wikipedia's goal is to make the sum of human knowledge available to everyone on the planet at no cost. Depending on your lights, it is either one of the noblest experiments of the Internet age or a nightmare embodiment of relativism and the withering of intellectual standards.
Love it or hate it, though, its success is past denying -- 6.8 million registered users worldwide, at last count, and 1.8 million separate articles in the English-language Wikipedia alone -- and that success has borne an interesting side effect. Just as the Internet has accelerated most incarnations of what we mean by the word "information," so it has sped up what we mean when we employ the very term "encyclopedia." For centuries, an encyclopedia was synonymous with a fixed, archival idea about the retrievability of information from the past. But Wikipedia's notion of the past has enlarged to include things that haven't even stopped happening yet. Increasingly, it has become a go-to source not just for reference material but for real-time breaking news -- to the point where, following the mass murder at Virginia Tech, one newspaper in Virginia praised Wikipedia as a crucial source of detailed information.
By popular demand, DoDo's been working on a wiki macro for ET, which I think will be quite useful.
The NYTM story got me thinking, though... how do you use wiki?
For me, it depends on what I'm looking for. There are issues I know a lot about, and for those Wikipedia isn't much help. I might glance at the page out of curiosity, but it's not usually terribly helpful, and sometimes I find the information really lacking or woefully out-of-date. (I know, I know, I could improve it myself, but do I have the time to write encyclopedia entries? No.)
Then there are things I know next to nothing about, and for those I will often pull up a Wiki page to give me some idea of what someone else is talking about. In that case, Wikipedia is my first and, usually, last stop.
Most often, it's stuff I know something about but want more information. In that case, the Wiki page might be a starting point, but it's rarely where I stop. I might use it to figure out how to refine my search terms, or to point toward primary sources that will tell me more.
But if I'm diarying something or commenting here and need a quick link, it's easy shorthand. Authoritative? Not always, and if I'm writing on a controversial subject here at ET I'll try not to default to Wikipedia to back me up; I look for more.
So that's using Wikipedia... what about editing and adding to the content? I myself have rarely actually edited a Wiki article. I don't have tons of spare time, and I tend to spend most of the spare time I do have here at ET. I made my first Wiki edit a few months ago, when I found a page with a list of things, and I immediately recognized that one of the list items didn't belong. Hmmm, someone should delete that, I thought. And then I thought of Migeru's past admonishments to other ET-ers who've complained about mistakes on Wiki, and I decided to fix it myself. One, two, three. It was easy. I left a note saying what I'd done, and that was it.
So that's my new way of dealing with Wiki. I don't feel like I've got the time to troll the pages looking for things to improve, but I'll fix mistakes if I see them.
So that's me. How do you use Wiki? Anybody here a regular Wikipedia editor? How well does the free encyclopedia handle the subjects you know well? And what do you think it all means?
One final quote from the NYT Magazine article, food for thought:
Wikipedia may not exactly be a font of truth, but it does go against the current of what has happened to the notion of truth. The easy global dissemination of, well, everything has generated a D.I.Y. culture of proud subjectivity, a culture that has spread even to relatively traditional forms like television -- as in the ascent of advocates like Lou Dobbs or Bill O'Reilly, whose appeal lies precisely in their subjectivity even as they name-check "neutrality" to cover all sorts of journalistic sins. But the Wikipedians, most of them born in the information age, have tasked themselves with weeding that subjectivity not just out of one another's discourse but also out of their own. They may not be able to do any actual reporting from their bedrooms or dorm rooms or hotel rooms, but they can police bias, and they do it with a passion that's no less impressive for its occasional excess of piety. Who taught them this? It's a mystery; but they are teaching it to one another.