All Roads Lead to Wikipedia

Have you seen that episode of 30 Rock where Jenna bases her big screen portrayal of Janis Joplin on what she reads on Wikipedia? She’s power walking around the office, intent to lunch on felines, when Frank confesses. He edited the Joplin page as a prank. Is it funny because Jenna is so gullible? Or is it more accurate to say that Frank’s subtle blend of fact and fiction is a given for modern Internet users?

Trusting in the fundamental nature of information is a personal trait that signifies a belief in the validity of a factual, knowable universe. However, the form that the Internet takes today requires a mindset more along the lines of doublethink. In Orwell’s dystopian universe, 2+2=5 but sometimes it also equals 4. Doublethink is in the back of our minds, not yet conscious but functioning on a daily basis in a way that distorts our perception not only of information but also of reality itself. Any institution that requires doublethink should set off red flags.

I like imagining what the world will be like in a few hundred years. Will it become Idiocracy or 1984? If the powers that be have a sense of humor, I hope it will be the former. And if Wikipedia is going to play a role in the development of a whole generation of thinkers, it’s my inclination to predict that popular culture is getting dumber. Culture critics already claim that our modern world bears resemblance to Orwell’s Oceania, and his book is a great resource for thinking points on fabricating knowledge. Winston’s job is the job of all Wikipedians: taking a piece of memory, a newspaper article, for example, and embedding your rewrite into the database.

You want to believe the Wikipedia. You want to wrap yourself up in the folds of its all-encompassing knowledge. You want to trust that it is all true. At the same time you have this nagging urge to edit it. You also want the knowledge to conform to your own understanding. How can Wikipedia be everything to everyone?

Wikipedia, a repository of all information in the universe, sounds strangely similar to the fictitious Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The online, collectively edited encyclopedia plays a part in constructing users’ perception of meaning and truth, but it also constructs a sense of what is real: wikiality. It’s based on a consensus model; if enough people agree that something is true, then it becomes real. I love Jaron Lanier’s anecdote about his own Wikipedia article; he just can’t convince people that he is not a filmmaker (Digital Maoism). I can’t help but bring up the embarrassing case of John Seigenthaler, a journalist who, despite what it said on his Wikipedia page, had not been a suspect in the Kennedy assassination. The motives in a defamation of this sort can easily be blamed on the Michael Bay mentality “it’s just fun.” The Seigenthaler incident has been referred to as “sneaky vandalism,” as opposed to the otherwise outright harassment that takes place on the site. How many people have been killed by Wikipedia? Sneaky vandalism is the new form of doublethink. Verisimilitude wins. Just as in the 30 Rock anecdote, if it fits, you will believe it. No matter if the information is true and verifiable. It looks like it could be true and if it’s findable it becomes integrated into the worldwide knowledge base.

Denial forces fiction to replace fact. I’d like to be one of those morons who can cite the research studies that show that vandalism and errors are fixed within minutes–most notably the 2005 articles in Nature and The Guardian. The problem isn’t so much about accuracy than about veracity. In this respect, the major qualms about Wikipedia revolve around the nature of its collective information and how users internalize that knowledge. The question for me isn’t so much how accurate the information is but how Wikipedians construct collective wisdom by revisioning truth.

Wikipedia is a digital palimpsest; it’s sneaky compared to its historical cousin. The medieval palimpsest shows the marks of history on its face–written, erased, and rewritten. The digital one conceals those marks. While any Wikipedian can revert an article to a previous state, the traces of that act are not immediately visible. You have to be an active analyst to see what’s going on behind the scenes, and I don’t believe that casual browsers look that far into the information they’re soaking up. Wikiality finds its best representation in these casual searches, and Frank’s Alf-Joplin mashup is both the best example and the worst consequence. What comes to light on the face of the digital palimpsest is a truth by consensus, a truth whose objective meaning is masked–perhaps even irrelevant.

The very nature of truth takes a spin. The gullible and the iconoclasts stand on either side of the war front; it’s a battle between popular consensus and expert opinion. The effects of this war reach beyond the limits of the Web. The state of Texas, proud to be the second largest textbook market in the US, is working on rewrites to history, and this change will impact the way social studies is taught in American high schools. Comparing the school textbook to Wikipedia in this case ranks the experts along side the Wikipedians—that is, as far as objective truth is concerned. Doesn’t this remind you of Big Brother?

Opponents to Wikipedia, for example Robert McHenry, the former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, would like information to be controlled by a panel of experts who peer review information to verify its credibility and accuracy. The other camp wants information to be free, readily accessible, and collaborative. This argument goes back to the foundation of language. People create consensus in language; it’s a basic cultural truth. The dictionary is the central tome in which language is compiled. Consensus is what makes words real. What happens to culture, in this case, when the deletion of a word like “dime store” makes room for “chillax”? Language evolves along with culture. No doubt, mashups like wikiality and absotively will one day find their way into the dictionary. Does this phenomenon imply that there is also a natural lifecycle to knowledge?

Misinformation kills. Knowledge needs to be protected like an endangered species. Contrary to expert opinion, it does not find its best habitat in universities or in Wikipedia but in the threads of history. What we need are conscientious citizens to advocate for truth. If there is such a thing as objective truth, you won’t be able to find it in textbooks or on the Internet.

All roads lead to Wikipedia. So, how do you undergo Internet research about Wikipedia when search engines repeatedly return you to that same encyclopedia’s pages? Funny enough, it’s remarkably difficult finding information about Wikipedia on the Web. A search engine performs poorly in this case, because Google ranks Wikipedia’s own pages highly. What could be more meta than Wikipedia’s page on itself? A search for “Wikipedia surveys” pulls up the Wikipedia page describing a survey. I find it ironic that when searching for information about the reliability of Wikipedia, I end up using this page as the springboard.

Nicholas Carr’s assessment of Web 2.0 and his “Is Google Making Us Stupid” provide the foundation found of a rich, insightful argument against passive browsing. Now, with Google’s autocomplete algorithm, the search engine finishes your query for you. One of the last responsibilities of the user has evaporated into the Cloud. When 92% of New Yorkers can’t name a browser, what percentage will cite Wikipedia with conviction? I’m not saying we all have to be experts. We just have to be intelligent and informed. Does there have to be a division between conscientious and educated? I know the statistics. 85% of Americans survive with only a high school diploma. Judging on the benchmarks for public education in this country, high school graduates are ill equipped to deal with the information explosion, much less to engage in critical analysis of information available on the Web.

I like to think that an objective reality exists, but it’s hard to believe that these days. Popular cultural consensus is much stronger than objective truth, and you have to convince people of the latter. Some information is just true, whether it’s fact or fiction. Popular culture is a belief system, and to an extent a secular religion, where wars are fought and truth concocted on the battlefields of Wikipedia.

Ivy Roberts