Where fans put Franz before the archduke

Wikipedia reveals not the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ but the rule of the mob, argues Tara Brabazon

March 20, 2008

There is an addictive quality to Wikipedia. After a few minutes of clicking between Peter Andre, spray-on tan, Jordan (sorry Katie Price) and breast implants, I no longer feel the need to read Heat magazine. A world of sleaze, crime, sex and violence is revealed, and that is just the page on Heather Mills. From Mucca to Macca, the most Ritalin-starved nine-year-old could fill hours of fun bouncing from link to link and search to search.

The Wikipedian pretence for “neutrality” of approach not only blocks originality from scholarship and research but features a high proportion of journalistic articles as references. This shifting mode of citation is no surprise. In a Web 2.0 age, bloggers are the new journalists, and journalists are the new academics. In Wikipedia-land, scholarly, original research is redundant, inconvenient and deleted as unsubstantiated content.

I realised – suddenly – how theories of originality, scholarship and argument were subtly marginalised through Wikipedia. During my research for a book chapter, I visited Wiki-world to see how the collaborative encyclopaedia presented the “Virginia Tech shootings” compared with peer-reviewed analysis. Significantly, I was redirected from the “Virginia Tech shootings” to the “Virginia Tech massacre”. “Shooting” and “massacre” do not hold the same connotation, but they do capture the fickle nature of Wikipedia’s supposed neutrality.

In a Guardian article (journalists are the new academics, remember) Gary Younge described Wikipedia as “a comprehensive if fallible online research tool”. “Comprehensive” and “fallible” are two odd words to use in relation to research, or indeed in relation to each other. There are many critiques of Wikipedia, including the vandalism that is possible when using a software application where “anyone” can edit text. However, adding BUMTITBOTTOM to Katie Price’s entry is not serious and easy to correct, probably easier to correct than her BUMTITBOTTOM cosmetic surgery. More insidious is the “consensus” approach that is presented as a truth, with collaboration valued over expertise.

My greatest concern with Wikipedia is the lack of control over significance and substance. Occasionally, articles are deleted for their profound stupidity, but the problem is that “editing” in Wiki-world means addition rather than reduction of entries. So as a scholarly experiment, I assembled ten topics to compare – not vandalism, factual errors, interpretation or originality – but internal credibility and capacity to rank and judge relevance and importance. Or put another way, I probed why information is not the same as knowledge and why we need to sometimes question “the wisdom of crowds”.

Here are ten Wikipedia searches, and their results:

• The entry for Franz Ferdinand the band is longer than the entry for Franz Ferdinand, the man whose assassination started the First World War

• The entry on Obi-Wan Kenobi (Jedi Knight) is nearly double the length of the entry on E.?P. Thompson (historian and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activist)

• The entry on Elvis Presley is longer than the entry on Karl Marx

• Dolly Parton’s entry is twice as long as Lead Belly’s

• Abba’s entry is longer than Woody Guthrie’s

• The Eurovision Song Contest has a longer entry than Rock ’n’ Roll

• The entry for “Klingon” is longer than the one for “Latin”

• “Wikipedia” has a longer entry than “library”

• The entry for “user-generated content” is longer than the entry for “codex”

• The entry titled “Criticisms of Wikipedia” is longer than the entry for “terrorism”.

Wikipedia is like a digital circus where the clowns are in charge of feeding the lions. If we are to move, as Daniel Pink suggests in his recent book A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, then Wiki-world must be recognised as the king of the former and the fool of the latter.

This Wiki-probe is not a Daily Mail-fuelled attack on popular culture, shrilly defending the value of national testing of all eight-year-olds on their knowledge of ancient civilisations. In fact, I am a huge Star Trek fan, maintaining a slightly obsessional relationship with Captain Kathryn Janeway from Voyager. But even with this love of the programme there is no way to justify why the entry for Klingon should be longer than the one for Latin. This is not a question of fact but one of emphasis. What I call “the Google effect” constructs a culture of equivalence, where all Klingons and Romans are equal but only Wikipedian Lord Jimmy Wales is more equal than others.

I teach popular culture. But it is not helping the study of the subject to allow fandom to be confused with academic expertise, or populism to overwrite an intricate discussion of popular cultural studies. Fan knowledge is distinct from academic knowledge. Wikipedia blurs these categories, so that Elvis is granted a greater prominence than Marx. Seemingly, the King rules over all modes of production. But even within popular culture, there is a skewed emphasis on the present, rather than the past. Dolly Parton is a good country singer, but she will never be as influential as a songwriter, guitarist or vocalist as Lead Belly.

The Wikipedia discourse is also inward and self-referential. Yes, the entry for “Wikipedia” (which started in 2001) is longer than the entry for “library”, an institution that can be conservatively dated from the Library of Alexandria in 3BC. Yes, “user-generated content” offers a longer entry than “codex”, and, perhaps most disturbingly, the page for “Criticisms of Wikipedia” is longer than the entry for “terrorism”.

This final paradox captures the deep flaw in the diamond potential of collaborative media. By example, Wikipedia – and even criticisms of it – is simply not as important as understanding the world outside of the “edit this page” culture. We overvalue the movement of data and the editing of words at the same time that we undervalue the movement of migrants and the editing of history.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.