Encyclopaedia Idiotica

Wikipedia is created mostly by teenage male computer nerds, so Martin Cohen worries about its growing clout among 'scholars'

August 28, 2008

What is it about Wikipedia? It didn't exist in 2001. Not so long ago, it was just an obscure website full of biographies of sports figures and esoteric details about TV shows such as Star Trek.

But now it is big business. Wikipedia has unexpectedly become the most dominant "scholarly" source on the web. Now its aim is no less than "to become a complete record of human knowledge".

It is regularly in the top ten of sites visited. No matter what inquiry you put into Google, by curious alchemy up pops a Wikipedia page to answer it. This in large part explains why last year the online "encyclopaedia" was consulted 700 million times.

If it once was easy to dismiss, it isn't any more. Journalists doing research turn to Wikipedia. Students write essays based on its entries. Professors grab lecture notes from it.

But it's still a funny mix. Of the two and a half million articles in English, nearly half are in the "entertainment category", with science and the arts a miserly 6 per cent and 2 per cent respectively. But, significantly, the category "politics and history" is the second most popular (15 per cent).

According to a study by Anselm Spoerri, an academic at Rutgers University, statistics suggest that readers favour a diet of the Wikipedia introductory pages followed by entries for "the United States", "World War Two", "sex", "Naruto", "list of sex positions" and "PlayStation 3". You won't get all those in your dusty Britannica, and you might not want to. But now what you want is not important. Wikipedia's version of reality has already become a monopoly. And all the prejudices and ignorance of its creators are imposed too.

To control the reference sources that people use is to control the way people comprehend the world. Wikipedia may have a benign, even trivial face, but underneath may lie a more sinister and subtle threat to freedom of thought.

Thus on Wikipedia we must learn that Mao's political philosophy is essentially the use of violence to suppress dissent, that Socrates was "Plato's teacher" who left behind "not very many" writings, and that Hitler greatly admired Russian Communism, saying: "The whole of National Socialism is based on it."

Wikipedia itself began as "Nupedia" in 2000 as a conventional encyclopaedia to be written and peer-reviewed by "experts".

But experts take an awfully long time to produce very little. Hence Wikipedia, an offshoot in which articles could be written by anyone. That certainly got the numbers up, but did it risk losing reference value? Would knowledge emerge from "the wisdom of the crowds", as the "wiki" model assures us, or does it necessarily have to be painstakingly gathered by a scholarly elite?

Wikipedia itself gives a clue. Articles considered approved for being accurate, neutral, complete and stylish are given a bronze (although it looks like a gold) star.

Of the 2,453,541 pages in English to date, some 2,130 articles have earned a bronze star - apparently cause to congratulate the monkeys at their virtual typewriters! On the other hand, 99.9 per cent of articles failed to make the grade. Evidently they're inaccurate, unstylish, biased and a mishmash.

So why should we want to read them? It is because what matters on Wikipedia is not your sources but the "support of the community". The Wikipedia community that is, within which there is much talk about consensus, civility and reliable sources. Yet on closer examination, Wikipedians seem an unappealing bunch - computer fanatics, generally male, usually teenagers. They see the world only from a youthful cab driver's perspective. If anyone disagrees with the Wikipedian consensus, their edits are "reverted" and they can be banned - "indefinitely".

And now it is these "editors" who are regularly trumping the fuddy-duddy professors in their ivory towers, plodding patiently through dusty books to produce yet more ... dusty books. Books! Because, on Wikipedia, knowledge is tracked instantly via Google searches, online newspapers and other internet encyclopaedias, not so much by consulting primary sources as "tertiary sources" - other internet sites.

But since it is free and has vastly more topics, Wikipedia tends to steamroller other conventional encyclopaedias into the ground. Britannica hoped to charge for access to its pages and soon had to abandon that idea.

Even the popular French encyclopaedia Larousse, for which every topic has to be rewritten to feature the pre-eminence of French thinkers, is attempting to supplement its old, staid pages with new ones submitted by users. As Mr Spock might say, at least on Wikipedia: "It's knowledge, Jim. But not as we know it ... ".

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