I drew a range of reactions with my recent post “A World Without Wikipedia: Not Such a Bad Idea,” in which I said “I don’t know a single serious researcher who considers it anything other than a joke.”
That isn’t precisely true. Most of the scholars, historians and academics I have met do think Wikipedia is a joke — except for the ones who find it an incredibly frustrating cesspool of misinformation. And I don’t know of any college professors who allow students to use it in term papers. That should tell you something about the caliber of its information. In fact, I recently had a conversation with Suzanne Stone, senior researcher for “Jeopardy,” and she, too, said Wikipedia is literally not ready for prime time. (And for the record, the L.A. Daily Mirror is designated a Wikipedia-free zone).
Despite the hype, and its top ranking in Google search results, Wikipedia is nothing more than the fan boys’ brain dump: a magnet for coding tweakers, factoid zealots and crackpots. No detail is too trivial to be overlooked — or to ignite a flame war.
To be sure, Wikipedia has its uses. If you want to know “When was the War of 1812?” or “What color was the old gray mare?” you’ll find an answer that has a 99% probability of being accurate.
And then there’s the entry on the benefits of tin foil hats.
Here’s my own experience:
I was an early adopter of Wikipedia in its idealistic infancy and contributed several dozen entries. A few fragments have somehow survived, at least they were still there the last time I checked, although they were barely recognizable.
One of these entries involved the well-known (at least in Los Angeles) street Normandie Avenue, a north-south artery that figured in the Los Angeles Riots, when truck driver Reginald Denny was beaten at Florence Avenue and Normandie.
Within hours of writing “Normandie Avenue,” some Wikipediot had changed it to “Normandy Avenue.” I went through the entry’s history, tracked down the culprit (who did not live in Los Angeles and was utterly unfamiliar with the city) and wrote a nasty email saying that “mistakes are bad and ought to be taken out of Wikipedia rather than put in.”
His defense was that fixing entries was his hobby and that Normandie “looked wrong.” Did he check first? Of course not! Welcome to Twikipedia, where items can be corrected and then UN-corrected again and again.
Veteran Wiki contributors will know that being uncivil (i.e. snotty) to other Wikians is a violation of what is laughingly referred to as the “rules of behavior.” Wiki writers are supposed so use netiquette with one another. And of course, nobody takes that rule seriously. I had already learned, even then, that the only way people pay attention to you on Wikipedia is if you hit them with a brick — as hard as possible.
In truth, freed from the social inhibitions of dealing face to face, Wiki contributors engage in name-calling worthy of an elementary school playground and wage malicious “revert wars” in which the offending entry is returned to a previous version, back and forth until a babysitter locks the entry and ends the tantrum.
And then there are the times when some kid will blank an entry and replace a day’s work with “JASON IS GAY HA HA.”
But there’s a much larger flaw that’s obscured by all the infantile fury.
By itself, “Normandie vs. Normandy” is a trivial issue that was easily (and permanently, I hope) corrected. Multiply “Normandie vs. Normandy” by 3.8 million articles and the problem takes on a much greater magnitude.
And here’s where Wikipedia goes off the rails. It is, to be sure, an idealistic — even Utopian — concept: That informed people around the world can pool their expertise and create a free, online encyclopedia.
That, at least, is the theory. Unfortunately, Wiki has become something far different and falls far, far short of the ideal, and for this we have to blame human nature, which drags Wikipedia down to the lowest common denominator, where it rests on the ocean floor next to the Titanic.
In practice, Wiki has evolved to embrace the concept that truth is a democracy and facts can be put to a popular vote. All writers are equal and all statements, even those diametrically opposed to one another, are equally valid. In the world of Wiki, “Normandie” can be “Normandy” — and should be “Normandy” — if it “looks right.”
My biggest and most prolonged Wiki battle was over the Black Dahlia case, a fight that eventually convinced me to abandon the entry — and Wikipedia. Having spent years tracking down the 1947 news stories, examining public records and interviewing original participants, I considered myself able to write a concise entry summarizing the known details and eliminating (or so I foolishly assumed) the nonsense put forth by several books on the case.
One of the raging battles in the early days of the Black Dahlia entry dealt with whether it should be titled “Black Dahlia” or “The Black Dahlia,” a burning issue that sailed back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball among the BD and TBD factions. The fight over what appeared to be an incredibly inconsequential matter was an omen of the culture of Wikitopia: There is no hair so fine that it can’t be split – and it’s a hair trigger on a flame war.
For a time, the Black Dahlia entry stayed relatively unchanged as I attempted to deflate the more elementary published errors, like weeding a garden every day – or every hour. But soon enough, I ran into the trolls who had adopted the page.
One of the more common mistakes about the Black Dahlia case is that the victim was named Elizabeth Ann Short. This error can be traced to the introduction to a March 28, 1971, article in the Los Angeles Times titled “Farewell, My Black Dahlia” and has gone viral, even appearing in the FBI file, giving the mistake an air of authority. In truth, her name was Elizabeth Short. As her mother testified under oath at the inquest: She had no middle name.
Time and again, the corrected entry was deleted and the incorrect middle name was restored (welcome to the “revert wars.”) To settle the question once and for all, I uploaded a scan of the inquest page giving Phoebe Short’s testimony. Understand that under California law, this is a public record. This time, the trolls decided that I had violated Wiki’s copyright rules and continually deleted the scan. Besides, who could verify that it was a scan of a real document and not some fabricated nonsense, ala Donald Wolfe?
Ignorance 1, Sanity 0.
As I said, the only thing more amusing than citizen journalists is citizen scholars.
And so I gave up on Wikipedia, abandoning the Black Dahlia entry to all the trolls who lurk under the information highway. There are legions of them, with apparently nothing else to do with their lives but destroy a day’s work in a matter of minutes with a revert, all the while braying about their superior knowledge and insistence on “neutral POV (point of view).”
I concede that Wikipedia has its uses, such as a quick reference to the score of the 1939 Blue-Gray Game. And it offers amusement, like the aesthetics of Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy” and a biography of Vanilla Ice.
Did I mention the entry on tin foil hats?
The notion that a tin foil hat can significantly reduce the intensity of incident radio frequency radiation on the wearer’s brain has some scientific validity, as the effect of strong radio waves has been documented for quite some time.
You won’t find that in the Britannica.
To date, there’s nothing about “A World Without Wikipedia,” but I’m hopeful someone from the tin foil hat crowd will get one started. That’s one entry I look forward to reading.