Friday, September 4, 2009

The Wikipedia groupthink

[Left] The first result on Google Images for "wikipedia monster." Thanks to this site for providing it.

Over the years, Wikipedia has morphed from a quirky, somewhat-encyclopedic place that I could find out everything I ever wanted to know about Top Chef, Top Cat and Topps baseball cards to some weird organization paralyzed by a collective mind. Just in case you can't tell from the wording I've used, and the title of this entry, I'm somewhat against this shift.

Slate reporter Chris Wilson has done a couple good articles, here and here, which show that a small percentage of Wikipedia users are responsible for the vast majority of the edits to the site. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing – The accuracy of Wikipedia has improved as a result, and silly (but funny) things like Stephen Colbert getting everyone to change the elephant page are edited out pretty quickly.

The downside has been an adherence to some destructive policies, namely, the elimination of trivia and fancruft from articles. Maybe it is just because I have a journalism degree, but I think this is the new weak spot of Wiki's collective editing mind. While trivia sections, by their definition, are not important information, they are interesting. I like reading quirky little facts in articles about obscure subjects; they help flesh out characters, whether you're reading a novel or an encyclopedia entry. I understand that the editors are shooting for a collection of objective fact, but why not shoot a little higher and go for a collection of interesting, objective fact? It seemed to work out quite well for Hemingway, when he was a journalist, and George Plimpton.

Because the groupthink has been given the edict to cut down on the trivia, Wikipedia is now a less interesting place for me to visit. Oh, sure – When I want to read up on a certain subject, it and Google are still the two sites I consult first. But it has traded the sheer, utter depth it used to possess for a sort of quasi-professionalism. There didn't seem to be much thought given to the idea of integrating tidbits, regardless of how small they were, instead of making “yes no” value judgments.

And getting personal for a second, looking at some of the edit histories for Wiki's most active editors can be downright scary, in terms of the time devoted. While there should be some praise given for what is an altruistic deed – contributing to a common encyclopedia for all of the Internet to use – I feel that the personality type of such an editor is showing through in the writing. If you have the time, and more importantly the drive, to do so much editing, then creativity and art are probably secondary concerns, and I definitely think this is reflected in the current quality of articles.

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