Saturday, June 4, 2016

Misplaced Emphasis

I have frequently discussed my objections to Wikipedia*. Mostly, my early objections centered around the fact that, even if it were self-correcting, at any given moment, it was impossible to tell if a page had been vandalized or hijacked by someone with a non-standard take on a topic. And as far as factual significance goes, that is pretty much the only objection one needs.

However, there are other problems with Wikipedia, that even some sort of review and lock down process would not resolve. For example, as I described in "The Taxonomy of Trivia", Wikipedia tends to become a list of minutiae, an endless catalog of pointless data, making it hard to find important matters, or tell the important from the trivial. I also discussed in "Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!", the tendency for "scholarly consensus" in Wikipedia to reflect minority, trendy, revisionist positions, even when the conventional view was accepted by an overwhelming majority. And, finally, in discussing the Mixed Drinks Wiki in "Proof Positive" I pointed out how, because of the demographics of contributors, that more significance is given to the most recent version of things, regardless of relative significance.

If you were to combine all of those objections, I think overall, the main point would be that, given the mechanisms existing in Wikipedia, the demographics, the emphasis on avoiding "original research", and the desire of individuals to appear to be experts, and thus post on whatever topics they know best, regardless of importance, Wikipedia has become a dumping ground of data, with the amount of information in no way corresponding to the importance of the subject. In short, it has a problem with misplaced emphasis. It will have five thousand lines on the career of the latest music sensation, and four lines on the Mexican American War. Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true in essence. Wikipedia has become a marketplace for misplaced pseudoexpertise, with extensive articles on anime shows and minor celebrities, dubious fields of study and debates over what to call the English Civil War**, while major topics are treated in a much more cursory way, unless they have become battlegrounds for extremist positions, in which case they become simply unintelligible. And all of it is couched in more jargon than your average marketing presentation or doctoral thesis in computer science. I looked up topics about which I am fairly knowledgeable in, say, physics or chemistry, and found myself having to follow links to various definitions, as the jargon was just too thick to understand.

But I think I did not truly understand how significant this could be until one day when I decided to look up some old friends on line.

When I was a teenager, I was a silly punk rocker, and a number of friends were in various bands. While looking up various names, I also typed into some search engines the names of a few of those bands, hoping to find a few songs uploaded onto Youtube or elsewhere. Instead, I found page after page on various music Wikis, describing bands that lasted maybe two years and played perhaps a half dozen shows, none to more than thirty people, being described in terms usually reserved for Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. I know everyone who writes about music is notorious for thinking they are writing liner notes for Hendrix or Dylan, but this was just absurd. And once again full of jargon. Flash in the pan Annapolis bands were described as being significant in the birth of "emocore", bands even locals I know can barely recall were treated as if they formed the foundation for all modern music. It is just absurd.

But then again, in a way, that is the logical outcome of Wikipedia. In "The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories", I mentioned that conspiracy theories appeal, at least in part, because it allows one to become an expert, and in the internet age it is getting harder and harder to be "the expert" on something, since every bit of trivia and pop culture is being dissected by five dozen blogs. So, to make a name, to become the preeminent scholar in a field, Wikipedia encourages writers and would be pedants, to find ever more trivial and unimportant topics to elevate to the subject of scholarly dissertations. And thus, Wikipedia, and its sibling wikis of all descriptions, are being filled with ever more pointless nonsense. And, not just nonsense, but nonsense elevated to an inappropriate level of importance, making it ever harder not only to even find what is and is not important, but once you find a topic, to tell what links in the article are important and which simply exist to lead on to someone's favorite hobby horse.

Of course, as I said at the start, objectively, there are even better grounds for dismissing Wikipedia out of hand as a reliable source of information, so that is not my point here. Instead, I want to point out that not only is it valueless as a source of information, but in its own way it is helping to lower the entire intellectual level of the internet, elevating absolutely worthless topics, while obscuring those of general significance.


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* See  "A Wikipedia Amusement", "Revisionism Strikes Again", "The Failure of Wikipedia", "Final Comment on Wikipedia (For Now, Anyway)", "Wikipedia?", "Now I know Why", "One More Wikipedia Problem","Very Short Digression On Wikipedia", "Wikipedia Absurdity, Or How To Create Your Own Citation", "Wikipedia Syndrome", "Wikipedia Absurdities ", "Stop Confusing Me With The Facts!", "Mystery Quotes", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "Funny Numbers", "Endangered Species", "Sterility of Formal Economics", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "Proof Positive", "Revealing Too Much", "Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously", "Deceiving Themselves?", "A Question About Language", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn Piece of Paper'", "Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!", "The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Vindication", "Life is Strange", "Why I Won't Be Contributing to Wikipedia", "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "A Near Perfect Definition", "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast" and "Wikipedia, Beggars, Stray Dogs and Prostitutes". (NOTE: As some have not yet been moved to this blog, not all have links. That will be corrected as articles are reproduced.)

** See "Revisionism Strikes Again".

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POSTSCRIPT

Before anyone attacks me using an obvious straw man, I do not object to those who want to analyze pop culture. In some ways I find it a sterile, navel gazing activity, as pop culture is both too current, and too diffuse for us to tell now what will be considered of value int he future, what will survive and what won't. As with history of contemporary events, it just seems a bad idea, as we are too close to the subject to see it with clear vision.

But that is not my objection to Wikipedia. Even traditional encyclopedias included contemporary topics. No, my objection is to the assembling of article after article about, say, a specific bar in Detroit, an accent spoken by four dozen people, a student film no one saw outside of the maker's classmates and similar topics. Oh, sometimes one will get removed when an editor gets annoyed and invokes the rules about significance, but, face it, Wikipedia is too big, and too weakly policed for that to happen often. And so, despite the rules nominally forcing writers to stick to topics of general interest, Wikipedia is still full of nonsense. And nonsense being treated as learning.



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