I Wikipedia, Therefore I Am: The Transitory Nature of Truth
“The cultivated person's first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopedia.” - Umberto Eco
Wikipedian Bread Crumbs
Of all the time I waste fiddling around on my phone, I'd say the largest portion is spent skimming through the vast archives of Wikipedia entries to find mostly useless minutia. It's a great place to find general information extremely quickly about nearly any topic imaginable. The problem is that, occasionally, the "facts" presented are either contentious or blatantly false (at least based on traditional conceptions of truth).
An individual's search history on Wikipedia is representative of who they are as a person. So much so that it's entirely possible that, 500 years from now, if someone were to discover my phone and access the user history, a rough sketch of my persona could be gleaned.
For instance, lately, I've searched for a bevy of seemingly random and unrelated topics such as Waterworld, retroactive continuity, General Motors, Saturnalia, diaspora, and even Wikipedia itself. Once a Wikipedian understanding of these topics has been established and pieced together according to my reasons for investigating them (admittedly, a difficult and unverifiable task), a broader understanding of my character could be ascertained:
- Waterworld - I am a Kevin Costner fan, as well as a fan of post-apocalyptic films with bloated budgets.
- Retroactive Continuity - Revisionist history in fictional plotlines frustrates me.
- General Motors - I live in a community and region that has been largely influenced by the American automotive industry.
- Saturnalia - I'm interested in the origins of religious movements.
- Diaspora - Post-colonial literature largely informs my views on globalization.
- Wikipedia - I used Wikipedia to write a blog about the fallibility of Wikipedia.
Crafting a Narrative
Granted, it would take a mighty leap to arrive at some of the conclusions listed above, but regardless of the accuracy of a future human's attempts at discerning my character, they could probably develop a few "truths" about me. Perhaps these truths could even be fleshed out to develop a 26th century encyclopedic entry on 21st century homo sapiens. Through the supposition of an all-inclusive council of editors, maybe mankind could be understood... Not probable, but still possible.
Or they could miss the boat entirely and assume I was a misplaced Hurricane Katrina survivor who developed an unhealthy fascination with Dennis Hopper films and loved to reread choose-your-own-adventure books. Maybe in my free time I cruised around in a GM Beaumont, studied Roman mythology, and based 99% of my worldly knowledge on an informative medium predicated on public knowledge sharing. Unfortunately the the last part of this analysis would actually be true, and that is what troubles me. No one should gain 99% of their knowledge from any one source, especially not Wikipedia.
The Essjay Scandal
So, Wikipedia's great, even if it's fallible. We all use it (some of us more frequently than others), and it has served to enhance the experience of learning. It's expedient and accessible, but it's also largely ungovernable. The actual work force employed by Wikipedia is shockingly small. This allows for them to maintain their independent credibility, but it also makes for oversights in their ability to effectively edit submissions. Sometimes, they simply can't keep up with the oversight required to monitor the volume of work being contributed and altered by volunteers around the globe.
Although it's estimated that there are nearly 300,000 active accounts (i.e. with editing capabilities), not everyone with access to certain pages is able to maintain their objectivity, or, in some cases, even a modicum of honesty. In 2007, a scandal broke out after an expert editor was hired as a paid staff member by the founders of Wikipedia. The man, known only as Essjay to the Wikipedia community at large, presented himself as a tenured professor of theology at a major university with degrees in Religious Studies (B.A.), Religion (M.A.R.), Theology (Ph.D.), and Canon Law (JCD). In February of that year, it was revealed that Essjay was really Ryan Jordan, a 24-year old college dropout from Kentucky who had never taught professionally a day in his life.
One of the two primary founders of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, who knew full well Jordan's real identity when he hired him, dismissed the story saying, "I regard it as a pseudonym, and I don't really have a problem with it." He quickly retracted his statement and forced Jordan to resign. However, shortly after he did so, Larry Sanger, Wales' co-founder of Wikipedia, resigned himself, stating, "It seems Jimmy finds nothing wrong, nothing trust-violating with the act itself of openly and falsely touting many advanced degrees on Wikipedia... it's just as disturbing for Wikipedia's head to fail to see anything wrong with it."
Sanger went on to create Citizendium, a separate free internet encyclopedia that he touts as being superior in reliability and credibility. In order to create a user account on Citzendium, an individual must provide their real name. To further enforce the credibility of the site, the company employs expert contributors and editors who have the final say on all relevant content. Unfortunately, this takes away from the usability of the site, and Citizendium continues to stand in the massive shadow of Wikipedia.
Don't Believe Everything You Read
Regardless of any measures that Wikipedia or Citizendium take, online encyclopedias will always be vulnerable to character assassination, the distortion of established historical facts, slanted exaggeration, as well as individual, corporate, and government bias. There's simply no way around this when the entire world is granted free and easy access to the posting and sharing of information. The trend is toward a freer, more user-friendly learning environment, but this also allows for what Oliver Kamm referred to as the "dumbness of the crowds." Kamm makes the argument that, with online encyclopedias, "participation is prized more than competence." If he's right, that means that our society is willingly dumbing ourselves down just to fit in to a larger social clique.
Here, it's important to remember that evolution doesn't always equate to progress; a more interconnected world doesn't always mean a more informed or honorable society. Just because an article can be continually updated, doesn't necessarily mean that those updates will further elucidate the truth of the subject. Wikipedia might allow for more voices to be heard, but those voices will become the muffled squeals the masses, and whomever shouts loud enough will be the prevailing standard. In the end, the white noise of the masses will continue to make the truth even more elusive than it was in the pre-Internet era.
The counter-argument, of course, is that it's entirely possible that Wikipedia is just as reliable, if not more so, than traditional textbooks or encyclopedias. There has not been a sentence written or word uttered in the history of mankind entirely void of subjectivity. Who decides what is truth and what is opinion; what is fact and what is supposition; what is explication and what is distortion? Who crafts the history of recorded time? Ultimately, no one should be the unilateral arbiter of knowledge and truth, and that is the beauty of Wikipedia and other sites like it. They stress this in a way that has never been possible. Unfortunately, the opposite theory also applies as the "fact" remains that it's nearly impossible to determine the absolute essence of anything when the masses clamor for their opinions to be made truth.
Wikipedia is winning the battle of knowledge distribution, and future generations will reap the rewards of a carefully constructed "truth," just as they always have. The only difference will be the author(s) of that truth. Case in point: I did 90% of my research for this blog from Wikipedia. Translation: Don't cite this blog.
Kamm, Oliver. "Wisdom? More like dumbness of the crowds." Typepad. 16 Aug. 2007. Web. 19 Dec. 2012.