Poking around on Wikipedia can be a blast and a half. As a form of procrastination, it makes people feel a lot less guilty than, say, Halo, or Beirut, or staring at the ceiling. There’s something very apropos about avoiding homework intended to improve one’s erudition by improving one’s erudition.
Most of its users see the flaws of their beloved as negligible at worst, endearing at best. Sure, Wikipedia values consensus over expertise. Some of the entries appear to have been transcribed from the crayon scrawlings of a toddler, or penned by those whose English lacks a certain something (like syntax, or a brain stem). But the sacrifice of depth results in an astounding amount of breadth. Want to know about extinct German principalities? The history of the ampersand? Which of Pavement’s albums was most lauded by critics? Wikipedia has it all. It may be confusing, it may even be wrong, but hey — them’s just growing pains.
Not everything has been well in this beloved little free city, though. Lately Wikipedia has gone from being a Florence to a Danzig; a groundbreaking intellectual commons to an ugly, intractable flashpoint. Wars between editors have raged over topics from the obvious (the article on “Israel”) to the sublime (“Truth”) to the bizarre (“County Londonderry”). With this many flame wars going on for so long, the web’s most revolutionary site is turning into a late 1980s BBS.
Dissent, of course, is the price of such an egalitarian endeavor, and may very well be its greatest asset. The People’s Republic of China has banned access to all Wikimedia content, which has inspired equal amounts of dread and democratic glee.
Unfortunately, our own government can be trusted nary a smidgen more. Congressional staffers have lately been turning the articles on their employers into little more than propaganda. Massachusetts Congressman Marty Meehan’s article has been turned into something Pravda would praise for its lack of … well … Pravda. Balanced criticism of the representative’s views was replaced by material one step above partisan hackery. Although the incident has been dealt with, Wikipedia has responded by tightening its observation of users’ IP addresses — a sad retrenchment for the supposedly “free” encyclopedia.
Even when no one is maliciously trying to undermine the vanguard of human communication, Wikipedia still slips into Pogoesque self-destruction. As Matthew White, an internet political science wonk who runs the site “Wikiwatch,” has pointed out, when Wikipedia gets something wrong, everyone else eventually gets it wrong, too. Until last year, Wikipedia misstated Vietnamese casualties in the Vietnam War by a factor of two. This mistake was corrected after almost three years … and not before the faulty information had spread to hundred of other sites.
Though letting everyone play in the sandbox has drawbacks, it certainly relieves the frustration of conventional reference sources like the 40-volume set in your high school library that contains ample information on the 11th Earl of Beaconsfield but neglects to mention Kevin Smith. The loss of this sort of academic polish is bitter, though. All in all, Wikipedia is what you get when the dilettantes overthrow the philosopher kings.