Wikipedian Utterances of the Gawping Soul

by Henry Farrell on April 24, 2006

Two opinions on wikis last weekend.

From the former editor of _Encyclopedia Britannica_, quoted in the “Economist”: (sub required).

bq. Contrast that with the joyful reaction of Wikipedia’s detractors to Brian Chase, the dodgy biographer (whose article was literally one in a million). Somebody who reads Wikipedia is “rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom,” says Mr McHenry, Britannica’s former editor. “It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.”

From an aside in “John Clute’s review”: of Theodora Goss’s new book of short stories.

bq. It is something that may derive from the tendency of mutants to emit blog gas, for the net culture they live in has no internal or external censors, no _captaining_ of the unsorted untested wikipedian utterances of the gawping soul, no place for the buck to stop.

Something I’ve been musing about for a while … the intellectual roots of the hostility to unmoderated forms of publishing like blogs and wikis. Clearly there are a lot of economic interests at stake for the publishers of _Britannica_ and others, but it seems to be more than that. I imagine that there’s a genuine indignation buried between the roots of Clute’s prosy efflorescences, which is perhaps a little surprising, as Clute has in the past (quite justifiably) complained about the unjust hierarchies of the academic publishing industry. Clute’s remark about there being no place for the buck to stop seems to me to be at the heart of the complaint. Conventional forms of publishing have an aura of finality about them – the published piece has received the approbation of a board of editors, and been published. If it’s an academic book, it has perhaps undergone peer review. Someone authoritative has uttered a final judgement, and found the book, encyclopedia entry, article, or whatever it is not wanting. But this is exactly what blogs and wikis don’t offer and can’t offer, since it’s at the heart of their competitive advantage. They’re never final. Blog entries are more like conversational gambits than finalized articles, and indeed, they’re frequently updated as new information or viewpoints come to light. Wiki entries are even more tentative in nature; perpetually subject to revision.

Still, this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. The stark contrast between the two rests, at least to some extent on a misunderstanding of the processes at work. Peer review works reasonably well as a filter – but no-one with first hand experience imagines it to be a neutral process of distilling academic wisdom. Editors do a very valuable job in improving prose style, resolving internal contradictions etc, but their ability to check facts is necessarily pretty limited; they do what they can, but they face clear limits of knowledge, time and resources. Published encyclopedias can be spoofed too – as the Wikipedia notes, there is a long and honorable tradition of “spoofing traditional reference works”: by trying to sneak articles on imaginary people or things past the editors. That books, encyclopedias etc look to be finished products doesn’t mean that they are necessarily so, and with wikipedia you can at least take a quick peek to see what the toilet cleaners have been doing. It sometimes seems to me that the biggest problem faced by various efforts under way to revitalize academic publishing by using these decentralized technologies of review is a version of the Wizard of Oz problem. While raditional academic review covers over the sometimes-grubby realities of review and improvement with a concealing veil, with wikipedia-type processes, you can see the guy behind the curtain all too clearly. None of which is to say that wikipedia and blogs don’t have problems, but it seems to me that the case that they’re _necessarily worse_ than existing forms of knowledge review is, at best, far from proven.



John Emerson 04.24.06 at 2:10 pm

The internet has enormously reduced the power of gatekeepers of all kinds, and has enormously reduced the power and influence deriving from the holding of official positions in established opinionmaking bureaucracies. The weaker Times and Post columnists, for example, are now primarily laughingstocks.

Resentment inevitably ensues.

For non-controversial questions I go to Wiki first. But I wouldn’t dream of relying on Wiki on any national question, for example, and this includes such obscure topics as the Caucasian Albanians –were they really Azeris? (Come to think of it, even an updated Brittanica wouldn’t be 100% reliable either.)

And even so, Wiki often flags the controversial pages and sometimes tries to present both points of view.


Jackmormon 04.24.06 at 2:16 pm

Eventually, though, the net will set up new gatekeepers. New power structures are already starting to coalesce. Who gets linked by the big bloggers, who’s registered, who’s a trusted user, who’s been established, who can disseminate a single post to multiple sources, who can live off their advertising, who is sponsored by an institution: all of these are new forms of status, and more will show up.


Lee A. Arnold 04.24.06 at 2:31 pm

The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg is one of no doubt thousands of book-publishing counterexamples. Has anyone found the inside story of how this passed scientific review?


neil 04.24.06 at 2:32 pm

John, I’m not so sure. It seems to me that, counterintuitively, the Wikipedia articles on topics where controversy exists are of higher quality, rather than lower. Once you’ve figured it out, it’s easy to see why: Controversy generates edits, and the quality of an article is almost always proportional to the number of edits it’s had. (Otherwise the encyclopedia would be getting worse over time rather than better.)

Although you do bring up one of the main exceptions: Nationalist debates often have one side with such an advantage, either in numbers or simply in wealth (and thus, English and computing skills), that one side gets left out altogether. But this problem is almost always worse in ‘traditional’ sources where by necessity one side of many or most controversies is left out. On Wikipedia you’re much more likely to learn about minority points of view, why they believe what they do and why they’re believed to be wrong.


perianwyr 04.24.06 at 4:13 pm

What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.

The utter hilarity of this is that there’s a whole list of changes- one critical wiki feature (one which is useful even outside Wikipedia and its like) is the fact that there is indeed a changelog, so you know what changed. That is just as good as knowing who did it, in the context of what you want to know.


etat 04.24.06 at 4:15 pm

The struggles over controversial entries is one of the interesting points in Jason Scott’s

Clute’s prosy flatulences serve mainly to indicate that he has little or no appreciation of collectivity, and that a decisive group is at least as effective as an individual. His comment therefore is waste of column space.

Chase’s analogy with a public toilet is not much better, because, with Wikipedia, one does have a pretty clear idea of who was there before. Not that one knows a person’s bona fide credential etc, but that one can look at the edits themselves before extrending credibility to a given passage. With traditional media it just ain’t so. We don’t know which parts were written by whom.

The upshot is that neither of these gents has done much other than miss the urinal. Finding critics with better aim might be a good start. If there are any.


joel turnipseed 04.24.06 at 4:47 pm

Neil, I don’t know… an article I enjoy watching switch back and forth between versions is the Wikipedia entry on the American Legion. It’s either scrubbed of the actual controversial moments in the Legion’s history–or is rife with the worst sort of paranoid speculation (e.g., that the Legion had anything to do with the supposed “Wall Street Plot”–whose own entry is inspired lunacy at best). It’s certainly not a high-point of Wikipedia.

That said, as a ratio of volume/accuracy, Wikipedia beats anything else on the ‘Net hands-down & is a fascinating experiment: I think it’s much too early to tell.

What would be an interesting compliment, however, would be a shorter, refereed academic site that gathered/reviewed best of various disciplines & their debates (and published it). As a non-academic (read: no JSTOR access), it really sucks to lack access to this stuff, and I think it would fill in a nice gap between, say, the middle-to-middle-high brow essays in LRB/NYRB/Nation/TNR & actual “thought-required; evidence- & arguments-provided” discussions in academic journals.


des von bladet 04.24.06 at 6:00 pm

Have there been many Guilds in history that have observed without rancour or ostensibly well-meant concern as their privileges were stripped from them? The Worshipful Company of Triviologues and Pedants doesn’t strike me — in my glorious ignorance of history and everything else — as deviating very far from the established playbook (the rights to which, sadly, are wholly owned by Jaap Elsevier and Sons and only available for consultation on showing a certificate of authorisation and handing over a rather surprising quantity of undebased gold coinage).


DonBoy 04.24.06 at 6:38 pm

I think one reason Wikipedia, in particular, gets a lot of criticism is simply the name, in so far as it spins off from “encyclopeida”, which has a connotation of precisely the careful editing that Wikipedia is so proud that it lacks. If you’re going to pretend that you’re just like an encyclopedia, except that any article might be completely wrong at any given moment, but it might be fixed tomorrow, you’d better be prepared for people to wonder where you get the nerve.


Tracy W 04.24.06 at 7:13 pm

Something I’ve been musing about for a while … the intellectual roots of the hostility to unmoderated forms of publishing like blogs and wikis.

As far as I know, every single new innovation in communications has come with hostility to it. Theatre, computer games, novels, SF, comic books, TV, radio, the Internet, movies, etc, etc. I am firmly convinced that in the distant past the mere act of writing was deplored as a monstrous corruption of the young (though the deplorers of course wouldn’t write down their condemnations, so this is hard to prove).

Consequently I would be amazed if there wasn’t any hostility to blogs. I don’t know what drives this hostility to any new media, but there appears to be nothing special about blogs that would make them exempt.


Jon H 04.24.06 at 7:45 pm

What’s kinda amusing is that Britannica is sort of like the privately funded Wikipedia of its owner, billionaire Jacqui Safra. I’m sure he’s lost millions and millions on it. But then, he has also funded Woody Allen movies.


rollo 04.24.06 at 8:16 pm

Thomas Paine, in Common Sense:

The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested. The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure, is the AUTHOR.

Published in a pamphlet with no “internal or external censors, no captaining of the unsorted untested” whatsoever.


Matt Weiner 04.24.06 at 8:17 pm

as a ratio of volume/accuracy

Surely you mean product? </nitpick>

Seriously, I agree with your first paragraph and with John Emerson’s comment. On controversial entries, even if you look at the changelog there’s no a priori way to tell who actually has the facts on their side. I just checked the history for the American Legion page — apparently it used to say that the head of the A.L. endorsed fascism in the 1920s, now it doesn’t. Is this true? I can’t tell from Wikipedia.

And anyway, when will a casual user look at the history? So, McHenry is right that the casual user doesn’t know who’s used the restroom before.

Not to say that Wikipedia isn’t a useful resource; on noncontroversial topics it’s probably more likely to be accurate than not, and errors can slip in other places (and as has been pointed out be hard to correct). But suspicion of Wikipedia doesn’t need to be entirely based on jealousy.

As Jackmormon points out there are going to be new forms of status springing up. Unfortunately many of those don’t seem to be based on your chance of getting the truth, or Instapundit wouldn’t be able to confer status. But neither are old-style status marks connected to the truth; Fox and Regnery may look just as mainstream as any other network or publishing house, and even the best reporters seem to shy away from saying “This man is a professional liar and has no credibility.”


Seth Finkelstein 04.24.06 at 8:52 pm

“the intellectual roots of the hostility to unmoderated forms of publishing like blogs and wikis.”

There’s a heavy component of they-hate-us-for-our-freedoms in some of the explanations. But, as many commenters certainly know, in academia there’s always been a strain of disapproval of popular writing. Moreover, this is exacerbated by the populist demagoguery and anti-intellectual posturing which is frequently seen in blog triumphalism and wikimania.

I would also assert that short shrift is being given to the problem that while nothing is perfect, much of blogging and wiki-ing celebrates what’s popular over what’s accurate (per above, see Pundit,Insta). If one does care about accuracy as a value, that cavalier attitude can be very off-putting.


T. Scrivener 04.24.06 at 10:25 pm

I hate to be so blunt but anyone who thinks that wikipedia is competently written need only read the philosophy articles to see this is not the case.


Kenny Easwaran 04.24.06 at 11:25 pm

Re: 15 – This just means that we need to get more philosophers interested in keeping things up!

Re: 7 – Try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – much more constantly updated than any paper encyclopedia, and probably with some more specialized articles too. But with an editorial process, unlike Wikipedia. It’s definitely very far from the Wikipedia size and speed ideal, but I can’t imagine using any other encyclopedia rather than it. And it’s got some good coverage of a few topics in mathematics and other related areas.


joel turnipseed 04.25.06 at 12:35 am

Matt —

The idea would have been more appropriately expressed as a product (so much for numeracy in my haste). As to the American Legion, I’ll try to keep this short, but long enough to point up some obvious faults with Wikipedia (which may, for all that, be shared by any encyclopedia as such).

Alvin Owsley, National Commander for 1922-1923, did in fact make the quote praising Mussolini. But it’s important to note that his remarks were quite specifically anti-communist & spoken in the context of a situation in which communists might have taken over the U.S. government (the U.S. had only pulled it’s forces out of Siberia in 1920 & domestically there were the Palmer Raids, etc.). In the Wikipedia article they are given without any context whatsoever, including that they stirred up significant debate within a more-or-less strongly anti-communist Legion (they were thought un-American by some) and that, for all this, the allegations at the time that the Legion was anti-union/anti-labor were strongly over-stated. In fact, the Legion encouraged union-members to join and was explicitly labor-neutral in its platform. All this aside from the fact that, especially early in his rule, Mussolini was widely-admired across the center-right spectrum (see Diggins’ Mussolini and Fascism) until he started rattling sabres at Ethiopia. To imply, therefore, that the American Legion was somehow “fascist” in character would be deeply misleading: a more appropriate characterization would be “populist conservative,” and though there were moments of reactionary behavior during the 20s and 30s, there was never anything on the nature/degree of activity like that practiced by the European fascist movements.

As to the “Business Plot,” section of that article, the McCormack-Dickstein Committee did not confirm that Irenee DuPont was behind a coup attempt (and he was also not the bankroller of the Legion–in fact, the terms of their original note from Morgan Trust were retired in 1920 & thus they were self-funding from their first year). The investigation only showed that it was likely that Gerald MacGuire, a Legionnaire of middling prominence, approached Smedley Butler with a hair-brained idea to create an American Croix de Feu–an organization of even stronger fascist leanings & around which there are still vigorous debates as to whether or not even it was fascist (see Kevin Passmore, From Liberalism to Fascism: The Right in a French Province, 1928-1939). As to the expiration of the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, its failure to “further investigate” had nothing to do with pressure from industrialists or bankers (who had, in any case, been under constant grilling from 1930-1936 under three successive Senate Investigations–the first of which, the 1930-1932 War Policies Commission was chartered to investigate war-profiteering at the behest of… the American Legion, and the most famous of which was the Nye Committee–which was in session at the same time as the 1934-1935 McCormack-Dickstein investigations), but because their charter/funding had run out.

But then… this is as I was saying: you tend to get a mixed product on Wikipedia & you have no idea, outside some special expertise (I happen to be writing a book on 1930s veterans’ movements and isolationism), how harebrained they are unless the article is useless to you anyway. Certainly there’s a great deal of ideologically-biased scrubbing going on (in addition to much incompetent authorship)–but then, with that, we enter another area of debate altogether.

#15,#16–yes, I was actually thinking of the Stanford Encyclopedia when I made mention of “but you can’t beat Wikipedia for…” in the sense of “But I could be wrong here, if you could aggregate things like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Tufts Perseus Project…”


Andrew Brown 04.25.06 at 1:35 am

And, in Britain, if you live in the right place, you can now get access to OUP reference works online through local library membership. Free. From home. Stuff wikipedia.

It’s all very well to say that you can look up the history of an article — most public lavatories now have a list of people who have cleaned them. But this rather defeats the purpose of going to an encyclopaedia in the first place. Nor is it helpful to say that you can’t trust entries on nationalism. The entries on religion are just as bad, or worse.

It really isn’t fair to assume that critics of wikipaedia and of blogging are the same people, complaining about the same things. My objection to wikipaedia isn’t that it’s produced by amateurs, but that it is not as useful or as accurate as the stuff produced by professionals. We can all thing of some blogs which are more useful and more accurate than the stuff produced by professionals.


John Quiggin 04.25.06 at 2:37 am

What would a trustworthy entry on a nationalist or religious dispute be like? In most cases you could probably write “All claims about this issue, including the appropriate terms in which to describe it, are disputed” and leave it that.

Even then, I suspect the extreme partisans on both sides would be attacking you for suggesting that their claims are disputed (other than by evil lunatics).

As Joel suggests, any encyclopedia entry on a topic like this is bound to be problematic.

Wikipedia entries of this kind mostly seem to reach an eventual equilibrium that’s about as good as any other encyclopedia.


agm 04.25.06 at 3:08 am

Re 13 and 17, I disagree. What matters is not whether a product or a ratio is better but rather the interpretation of changes in the number you pick and run with.


trialsanderrors 04.25.06 at 3:58 am

I don’t know. I spent the last couple of days engaged in the editing wars over the Mary McCarthy entry. (For the most part I clean the outer reaches of the Wikipedia lavatory, so this was a new experience for me.) Despite strongly held contrasting viewpoints between editors, a fair amount of drive-by editing and at least one uncooperative hard case I think we quickly assembled a pretty good brief on the leak case, heavily annotated and sourced. This isn’t necessarily the result of a shared NPOV (neutral point of view) but of a watchfulness among editors who try to make sure that their POV gets equal billing and a set of ingenious devices like the 3-reverts rule (which I ran afoul of) that force you to push the entry rather than just kick off other’s contributions. It is nice to see that once an entry is properly phrased and sourced, attempts to remove are usually quickly reverted. I would recommend the critics of Wikipedia immerse themselves in such an editing war before they claim there is no censoring or captaining.


David Moles 04.25.06 at 4:50 am

As one of Clute’s 21st century mutants, I think the next line after the quote you pulled is the important one in getting what he’s getting at: “So mutants tend to publish too much.” That’s the heart of the complaint, not that there’s no place for the buck to stop.

Dora’s book, published by a small press (and one with an established habit of publishing first collections by new writers), looks like a creature from the old, moderated world of publishing: pages, spine, cover, dustjacket. But it comes from a different primordial soup than, say, Werewolves in their Youth or Interpreter of Maladies; it comes from the unmoderated new world of blogs, wikis, and chapbooks.

Good editors encourage a writer to put his or her best foot forward; bad editors (or no editors) make it too easy for the writer to stumble. And while Dora’s a friend of mine and I bow to no one in my appreciation of her genius, I understand Clute’s frustration — which is what it is, frustration — with stories that “should not have been assembled here … because some of them are quite seriously less good than her best work.”


Alex Gregory 04.25.06 at 6:22 am

No 15. “I hate to be so blunt but anyone who thinks that wikipedia is competently written need only read the philosophy articles to see this is not the case.”

I think the philosophy examples are a very poor test case for wikipedia. Philosophy is just not the kind of subject where you can reel out a long paragraph of accepted truths and falsehoods. Thats not to say that it can’t be done, only that its understandable that the philosophy articles are of a poorer quality than much of the rest of the stuff on there.


soru 04.25.06 at 7:00 am
claims that 50% of all wiki admin time is spent on issues related to Indo-pakistani rivalry.


DS 04.25.06 at 7:39 am

If that pickled politics link was a wiki page, Soru, I’d have to tag it {{citeneeded}} because I don’t see any evidence at all for the claim that half of all admin time goes there.


Matt Weiner 04.25.06 at 8:33 am

John Q wrote:

What would a trustworthy entry on a nationalist or religious dispute be like? In most cases you could probably write “All claims about this issue, including the appropriate terms in which to describe it, are disputed” and leave it that.

But surely there will be cases where one side of the dispute is right and the neutral POV suppresses facts. I just looked at the “Serbia” page and the description of Serbia’s involvement in the post-Yugoslav wars is awfully bland.


Walt 04.25.06 at 9:55 am

Last time I looked, most of the edit wars happened over the George W. Bush web page. What’s interesting about Wikipedia edit wars is how many of them are hard to guess. For example, the disputes over string theory versus loop quantum gravity were astonishing in their viciousness.


Tim 04.25.06 at 10:38 am

When you go to a reference work, you don’t want to have to worry about whether it’s right or not; you want to be able to rely on it. A cynic might reply with a snarky comment about “avoiding the real labor of thinking”, but that misses the point of a reference work. Perhaps wikipedia would do well to signal the reliability of their pieces: provide information about number of views and edits (and the ratio), the volatility of the entry, etc.


joel turnipseed 04.25.06 at 11:58 am

To John and Matt’s point: “Objectivity” in a field like history is notoriously difficult (see Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession for a fascinating discussion). Now, that’s not to say that one can’t approach objectivity, or that some accounts aren’t obviously bullshit of one flavor or another (whether from ideological bias or sloppiness or both)–just that, as John says, “In most cases you could probably write “All claims about this issue, including the appropriate terms in which to describe it, are disputed””–and then go on to put your cards/evidence on the table. But then, you can’t very well do that in an encyclopedia (and, without introducing a mind-numbing turgidity/vertiginous recursion to terms/contexts, maybe not even in a book [and here we get to the Godel analogy–imperfect as it is: what would a book look like that guaranteed its own objectivity?]).

Tim: Yes, I’ve always thought that such a thing would be a good idea, if hard to implement well. An especial problem with self-organizing trust networks is the “rich-get-richer” problem of initial seeding & their liability to spoofing by sufficiently large bodies corrupters (Ayn Randians, say, or Larouche quacks or Scientologists or…). So, if Wikipedia could somehow garner the committment of a sufficiently-large body of known experts (already problematic on two levels: “Who says?” and “How many would?”), and could track/reverse outlying trends… then it seems like it could make a lot of progress. But then: wouldn’t that veer from it’s own ideology (not to say that it shouldn’t)?


abb1 04.25.06 at 12:37 pm

I am curious if anyone thought of comparing same entires written in different languages. There might a dissertation in it for someone, no?


des von bladet 04.25.06 at 3:09 pm

Abb1: I very often switch langwidges on the ‘Pedia, for all sorts of reasons, but I tend to avoid flame-bait entries because life is short. (And I, for one, would ‘ve anticipated some string-theory vs. loop quantum gravity smackdownage. Was Lubos Motl (sp?) in the thick of it, by any chance?)


abb1 04.25.06 at 3:50 pm

No, I don’t mean just switching to get a better idea about the subject, but to actually do sociological reseach on how the same subjects (not necessarily controversial ones) are perceived by, say, francophone wiki-enthusiasts vs. anglophone wiki-enthusiasts. It could be an interesting project, I think.


trialsanderrors 04.25.06 at 5:32 pm

Actually, once we’ve all gotten over the yuck factor of McHenry’s analogy, I wonder what his alternative to public lavatories might be. Towing a portapotty around wherever you go? Crapping in the river?


soru 04.25.06 at 6:24 pm

The usual conservative answer to such questions is moral fibre.


digamma 04.25.06 at 6:27 pm

I agree with Neil – I like the controversial articles a lot. In any dispute, there is a set of facts that both sides will grudgingly agree to. Beyond that there’s a pile of lame arguments built on those facts. I go to Wikipedia when I want those base facts.

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