Friday, May 14, 2010

Dear Wikipedia: Get Over Yourself

If you read the webcomic XKCD, you might have seen Wednesday's installment. It featured a fake Wikipedia page on the word "malamanteau," a word made up just for the occasion. The comic was a simple way to poke fun at the obtuse prose and sheer bad writing of many Wikipedia articles.

Naturally, Wikipedia went apeshit.

As of the time I am writing this on Friday morning, there are over 24,000 words worth of discussion by Wikipedia editors as to whether or not the word "malamanteau" deserves its own page. Keep in mind this is a word used a single time by a single webcomic. You can attempt to follow the discussion here, if you're proficient at wading through the arcane lingo and complicated by-laws of the Wikipedia project. It also sums up everything that is wrong with the "Free Encyclopedia" - the strange pseudo-democratic rules, the tendency to make an article for every obscure facet of nerd culture, and the editors' attempts to justify their own existence by engaging in petty and ultimately meaningless squabbles.

"Malamanteau" - Yea or Nay?

The fight over "malamanteau" hasn't ended yet. The pro-malamanteau supporters are arguing that other fictional words, like "Muggle," have their own article, so there's precedent. One editor goes so far to mention that he Googled the word and there's "about a dozen" references to it on the Internet already. Surely the ability to score twelve hits on Google speaks to the article's relevance!

Those who are anti-malamanteau argue that it's just one word used as a throwaway joke in a webcomic that's not that well-known in the grand scheme of things. As one editor gripes, "It makes the article on 'pigs in popular culture' look reasonable. It has no business being here." Others cite the official Wikipedia rules as to when it is appropriate to reference XKCD.

Yes. That's right. The Wikipedia project is so amazing complex and in love with its own bizarre rules and guidelines that someone took the time to type up the regulations as to when it is or is not appropriate to talk about XKCD on Wikipedia. Apparently these fights about XKCD references happen often enough on Wikipedia to merit this sort of discussion.

I always considered myself a nerd, but spending even just a few minutes browsing the editors' discussions on Wikipedia does wonders for my self-esteem. I never realized how cool I was until I became aware of these people.

The Free Encyclopedia for Pop Cultural Arcana

Admittedly, I have a bit of an agenda. Back in college, I had my own Wikipedia article that got deleted. I'm still not sure why. I followed all the rules - my article talked about a notable event (I was on a national television show). It wasn't written by me (my friends wrote it as a joke). It even cited outside references (my college newspaper). But some Wikipedia editor decided that I was not important enough to merit a few kilobytes worth of space on "the free encyclopedia everyone can edit" and out I went.

I wouldn't be so upset except everytime I see any article that's still on Wikipedia, I think to myself, "The editors decided this subject is more important than me." Every fictional character with a Wikipedia article is more important than me. Sherlock Holmes has a Wikipedia page. Fine - he's a well-known staple in popular culture. But is Admiral Ackbar really more important than me? Maybe I don't want to know the answer to that question, but it can't be good for my self-esteem.

It wouldn't be so bad if we just admitted that Wikipedia is an excellent repository for popular culture knowledge. While many of the Wikipedia articles I've read on literature, history and philosophy are incomplete, poorly written and factually questionable, the articles on movies and TV shows are always top-notch. Back in my younger and more reckless days, I used to roam Wikipedia editing articles and inserting errors - the articles on pop culture were always the first ones to fix themselves, usually within minutes. Wikipedia is written by nerds for nerds, and as a result it is an excellent source for all things nerdy, from characters in the Lord of the Rings movies who don't appear in the books to an excursus on the mind of the Tommy Westphall character on St. Elsewhere.

Here's a fun game: pick a subject that exists both as a real life field of knowledge and a pop culture reference. See which Wikipedia article is more detailed. For example:

Firefly (the insect): 1,719 words
Firefly (the TV show): 10,224 words

Thor (norse God): 5,428 words
Thor (comic book character): 7,026 words

R.E.M. (stage of sleep): 2,703 words
R.E.M. (musical group): 7,592 words

And, as anyone with a passing familiarity with Wikipedia knows, every article is resplendent with the infamous "In Popular Culture" section, that parses out every time said subject has been mentioned on The Simpsons. For example, "Thomas Edison in Popular Culture" merits its own page.

The Wikipedia Project - Strengths and Weaknesses

I like Wikipedia. I think it's a good place to go and gets the basic facts about any number of subjects, and I once spent a few hazy days link-hopping from article to article after discovering the article on Unusual Wikipedia Articles. But at some point the editors of Wikipedia convinced themselves that they're more than a bunch of nerds on the Internet pulling together basic factual information - they think they're the repository of all Knowledge and Truth in the world.

This is where the problem with "malamanteau" comes in. Don't get me wrong - the word does not deserve its own article, and anyone who thinks it is actually a notable word needs to get off the Internet for a few hours and go outside to breathe some fresh air. But who cares if someone wants to make an article for it? Do the editors really need to throw a hissy fit? Just leave it up for a few weeks and quietly kill it once everyone has forgotten it existed. A goofy article on an Internet meme is a waste of time, but it's hardly an affront to knowledge and learning. The serious self-righteous tone of Wikipedia editors is half the fun in vandalizing the site (I once got called a "monster" after a joke edit on the Backdraft article).

The Current Wikipedia Scandal

This brings me to the second Wikipedia item that has been in the news lately - Wikipedians have been turning on their founder, Jimmy Wales, in a soap-opera worthy saga. Larry Sanger is co-founder of Wikipedia, and a few years ago he and Wales had a falling out (Wales has been caught editing Wikipedia to change his moniker from "co-founder" to "founder" several times). So what did Sanger do to get revenge on Wales? He reported him to the FBI for pornography. Apparently there were several questionable pictures that have been uploaded onto Wikipedia.

Wales responded by using his co-founder privileges to delete these questionable pictures. The controversy went a step further when other Wikipedia editors asserted that Wales had not gone through the proper channels in order to delete the photos on the website he created. Being the rational people that they are, did they give him a gentle reprimand, as might be warranted for deleting a few pictures from a website?

No, they went apeshit again, and made enough noise that Wales eventually had to give up his rights to unilaterally edit articles. "There is no royal road to knowledge, and no place for imperial privilege in a community dedicated to academic discourse, freedom, and values. Mr. Wales continues to comport himself in a discourteous and disruptive manner that interferes with both the calling of teaching and the desire to learn," writes one livid editor. Another, simpler, explanation comes from an editor who writes, "If someone goes looking for 'Penis' on Wikipedia, they should find a photo." How do you argue with that kind of impeccable logic?

Conclusion: Lighten Up

Again, this sort of reaction might be understandable if we were living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and Wales had deleted the last known picture of a penis. But he hasn't, and Wikipedia editors need to get over themselves and realize that their website is not nearly as serious or scholarly as they seem to think it is. It has its good points. But it also has a bunch of holier-than-thou prickly editors who take offense at every minor edit, and are fighting to protect the small turf of Wikipedia they've mapped out as their own private domain. Wikipedia is not the sole repository of knowledge in the world. It's not even the best repository of knowledge. But Wikipedia editors routinely have heated debates about rules and regulations that would make even the stodgiest, most elitist academic roll his or her eyes. If Wikipedia continues to take itself so seriously, no one else is going to take them seriously at all.

"The amount of human effort that has gone into this discussion page would have been better spent on more productive and important activities," writes one rare far-sighted editor in the "malamanteau" discussion. That sums up my argument quite well. Wikipedia editors seem to be obsessed with their own lingo, rules and bylaws. But none of that is what is really important as to what they claim that they're trying to achieve. Instead of arguing over the specifics of Wikipedia's policy on referencing webcomics, why not go out and edit the millions of articles with biased perspectives and turgid prose? You might not gain fame and prestige on your obscure corner of the Internet, but you might at least help somebody learn a thing or two.