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Wikiocracy, or We're All Doomed... Citation Needed

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Wednesday, Jun 1, 2011
Forget trying to read Wikipedia for the articles. The real story of the human condition is found in their behind-the-scenes creation.

I should establish right up front that it’s not that I don’t seriously value Wikipedia. Quite the contrary.


Those that do not—I suspect—are mostly people not old enough (or perhaps not trivia-loving enough) to remember back when gathering info on the most picayune of subjects involved a race to see if you could get to the library card-file drawers before the mice did. At least, you hoped it was mice.


If you didn’t actually feel like playing “name that mystery stain” that day, and you wanted more than the most cursory People profile on your latest pop-cult obsession, you had to go inquire of a person whose body language totally blared “I just got out of the convent, and what do you want?!” in giant neon letters. Then, of course, it turned out—once the first computerized catalogues sputtered into greenish pixilated life—that the convent had not offered IS courses.


Trust me, kiddies, it was awful.
  
So, I cannot be other than profoundly grateful for a globe-spanning effort to collate the world’s knowledge that involves nothing more than a comfy chair, my laptop, and the “Unusual Articles” listing, the only cost being the accompanying snacks. Even should the entries be a trifle ahem incomplete, at least I have the correct spelling for a Google search. Usually.


My skepticism concerns the larger concept animating all this. I do not think that I am a cynic exactly, but I do firmly believe that watching human beings collaborating on anything altruistic provides a great deal of potential entertainment value. (Yes, even more than the “List of Cryptids” and its Mongolian Death Worm. Although it’s a close-run thing.).


The fun and excitement is only heightened by the fact that, by giving anyone the chance to contribute, Wikipedia is essentially trying to work against itself. It is in violation of the Internet’s first and greatest contribution to sociology: the human need to be right trumps self-awareness every damn time.


The theoretically disinterested transmission of useful information in cyberspace must in eventual practice resemble an attempt to herd particularly skittish cats. Thus, snarky students of the human condition, rejoice: it now requires a vast Wikiocracy—with an entertainment value rivalling any Mike Judge film or Scott Adams parody—just to keep people from killing each other over comma placement.


It all starts off intuitively enough with discussion. Discussion in turn achieves consensus… at least among those people who care. And/or know how to find the discussion. And/or have clicked the wrong link on the way to complain about the proper transliteration of Leisure Suit Larry‘s cutscenes into Estonian. If you are currently nodding and thinking “Ooh, how nice and civilized…”, y’know what? Just cancel your Internet account now and save yourself a world of hurt. But first, stop over to the “Lamest Edit Wars” Wikipage, which itself has been nominated for deletion seven times on the grounds that people just aren’t taking this project seriously enough, damnit!


Not surprisingly, all this has given rise to “Wikilawyering”, a sort of recursive loss of perspective spoken largely in acronyms along with Wikilinking to lengthy, complex policy explanations, which are subdivided by topic and bolstered by lengthy, complex guidelines on how to Wiki-argue them properly. Sit back, grab some popcorn, and head over to the “Articles [Proposed] for Deletion”, at which the author of “Some Random Band That Almost Played the Safeway Opening Last Week” is ridiculed for trying to apply the Notability guidelines for Nu Metal when he should’ve gone for Alternative Emo! 


... okay, kidding. But not much. In another cute parallel with politically democratic theory, Wiki-altruism tends to require in practice ways to keep the peasants from revolting without actually mentioning that they are. This has led to a sort of hilariously just-barely-this-side-of-losing-it sarcasm in the tutorial pages (“List of Really, Really, Really Stupid Article Titles That You Really, Really, Really Should Not Create”, et seq.)


The people who do read the policy links unironically tend to fall into “deletionist” or “inclusionist” camps, each based on their vision of how the other side is completely destroying all that is noble and righteous in Wikiparadise (see also: “No Climbing the Reichstag Dressed as Spider-Man”).


I’m kinda torn, as the deletionists tend to have a much better line in sarcastic snark, while the inclusionists make the best arguments re: how little it will all matter in a hundred years. Somewhere in the middle lies no less than an epic struggle to prorate the entire human experience—yes, including Pokemon—in the age of on-demand communication.


Has anybody else cared about this topic before now? And if so, has anybody cared about them before now? Should authority be based solely on traditionally respected sources, or can exceptions be made for general awesomeness? Well, OK, but what about Xkcd then? Should “famous” trump “worthwhile”? Oh yes, there are guidelines for porn-star notability. Do the feelings of living article subjects matter vs. our duty to the Truth? How about justice, and/or the American Way? Does maintaining neutrality mean we have to give equal space to, say, Holocaust deniers? Is it or is it not relevant that the media is totally biased in favour of liberals/ conservatives/ straights/ gays/ whites/ blacks/ the Western world/ the Third World/ atheists/ right-wing Christians/ people who want the toilet paper to roll from the top?


If you can’t find a Wiki-loophole in some combination of the above, you’re just not trying hard enough. Or, y’know, you don’t care anyway because you’re a vandal. The hoaxers get the most press, of course, but there’s a whole weird Silent Hill-esque subculture of people who obsessively repost their own autobiography, find creative excuses for massive plagiarism, or create fake Disney specials. Then there’s the (apparently) autistic kid who’s just fascinated with creating new usernames, dozens and dozens at a time…


... then there are the very few Wikieditors who survive all of the above with their humour, perspective, and good sense intact and against all odds demonstrate that the real potential of the form is inherent in humanity’s eccentricities, not its nobility. Just when you’re about to throw up your hands and give up on the whole mess, they start elucidating the latest research on the “Voynich Manuscript” or the progress of the Centralia, PA mine fire or exactly what happened to “S.A. Andree’s Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897”... and the human adventure continues anew.


 

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