Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

A more critical appraisal of the Wikipedia

The New Yorker Magazine ran a story about the Wikipedia this week. It was, on the whole, a much more critical appraisal of the online contributor-run encyclopedia than I was used to encountering. Usually the criticism of the Wikipedia is either of the light-hearted variety (witness the recent headline in the Onion: "Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence") or of the blatantly self-important and self-interested kind (like Britannica's visceral response to a study in the journal Nature that favorably compared Wikipedia to Britannica.) This was the first time I found an even remotely even-handed, thoughtful attempt to recognize both the virtues and the limitations of the Wikipedia.

I think some of the criticisms were deserved, especially concerning the stylistic limitations of the Wikipedia articles. The articles might be surprisingly accurate, but they are not always well-written, often lacking conciseness or even a consistent tone. But, to be fair, that is also consistent with the way people read material on the web in general. As most good web designers know, people don't read the web so much as scan it. The Wikipedia lacks style, not so much because the writers aren't capable of it, but because they really don't care that much about it.

The New Yorker article also spent quite a bit of time focusing on the Wikipedians' vehement disregard for expertise -- nobody's opinion is held in higher esteem because they are "an expert" in the particular field, which no doubt cheeses off the experts at every turn. I have yet to meet an expert who had positive things to say about any treatment of their field in popular media; there are almost no scholastic philosophers who enjoyed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Part of that is just the subtlety of their understanding; the "errors" that they find most galling not only could not be understood by most people, but even if they did understand them they wouldn't even know why the expert cared so much about it. I am very sympathetic to that point of view -- most intelligent people feel like they are constantly beset by idiots. But I also hear the rumblings of an entrenched intelligentsia that feels its legitimacy being challenged. And, on the whole, I am more sympathetic to the other side: intelligent, knowledgeable people sick and tired of scholastic condescension.

The best analogy I have for the Wikipedia is the stock market. The stock market is often wrong, often manipulated or deceived, with certain biases built into its estimation of companies . . . and yet, the open market is vastly superior to finding accurate valuations than any other centralized system you could imagine.


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