William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for March 2010

What Do David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Wikipedia Have in Common?

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on March 22, 2010 at 5:35 am

Here’s a fun passage from a forthcoming collection of essays, “Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays”, edited by David Hering and based on a conference for DFW scholars held in Liverpool last summer:

I want to suggest that modern conception of the encyclopedia, particularly Wikipedia, challenges earlier arboreal models. It is possible for the encyclopedia to no longer imply totalization and containment, but release and an enlargement of possibilities. Structurally, both Wikipedia and Infinite Jest are always threatening to overspill, to negate the purpose of their organizing principles, if indeed they ever really had any. At any moment, the encyclopedia may become the anti-encyclopedia, an infinite procession, similar, I would argue, to the “infinite”-ness of Infinite Jest. As always when one reaches the end of a novel of such magnitude, one asks, “Why did it stop exactly where it did?” and “Could it have continued for another thousand pages?”

infinite_jest_coverGranted, it’s just a tiny snippet sent to me by my friend and fellow DFW enthusiast Matt Bucher, who is also working on the book, but there are a few points worth considering here.

Although perhaps a bit superficial, I like the comparison between Wikipedia and Infinite Jest, a book whose description usually includes terms such as “sprawling” and “doorstop” and often contains references to its 1,079 pages and 388 endnotes. Not for nothing has Infinite Jest been considered an “encyclopedic novel“.

What’s more, the notion that “the encylopedia no longer impl[ies] totalization and containment” is mighty scary to those who grew up with (or work for) Britannica. It’s a paradigm shift which has already begat a philosophical divide frequently discussed here at The Wikipedian, although some nostalgists are changing their minds.

Infinite Jest surely could have kept on telling stories about the Incandenza family, the students at Enfield Tennis Academy, residents of the Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic] and geopolitical turmoil surrounding the Great Concavity for as long as Wallace liked. So too could many Wikipedia articles continue onward, except that their contributors decided they had said their piece. A casual connection to be sure, but a fun one to think about.

Infinite Jest dust jacket courtesy Wikipedia.

John Patrick Bedell: Pentagon Shooter, Wikipedian

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on March 5, 2010 at 10:32 am

jpatrickbedell_wikipedia

Last evening, about two miles south of the office building where I work, a crazy guy named John Patrick Bedell opened fire at the Pentagon Metro station, wounding two officers before being killed by return fire. While police are still sorting through his motives, bloggers are combing through the trail of his Internet activity. One thing we know already: Bedell was a contributor to Wikipedia.

The website Media Elites was the first to locate his user account, which has since been suspended (reason given: “User is deceased”). The user page for Bedell’s account has been shielded from public viewing; no public explanation was given, but this is almost certainly to prevent Wikipedia from becoming a posthumous soapbox for Bedell’s views (Wikipedia tolerates unorthodox beliefs, but not when they become the impetus for attempted murder). However, Media Elites thought to copy and republish the full text before Wikipedia’s administrators stepped in. Here is an excerpt:

I apologize for the graphic content of some of my contributions, but detailed evidence is sometimes necessary to address important matters. I am very disturbed by the fact that Col. Sabow’s civilian superiors and their successors have been able to continue their narco-mercantilism. For historical comparison, I might resemble the odd German still complaining about the murders of the Night of the Long Knives in 1938(?). Of course, Wikipedia didn’t exist in 1938!

While his User page is gone, Bedell’s Talk page and Edit history remain. From these vestiges of his editing activity, we can learn much about his interests and some about his personality:

While political bloggers argue over whether Bedell was a member of the far-left or the far-right, such arguments are really less about Bedell and more about the participants. As Gawker put it, Bedell was “clearly intelligent” but “nonetheless a certifiable wackjob”.

Likewise, I can imagine some who would depict Bedell as a typically obsessive Wikipedian, although as Media Elites notes, his Internet activity included Facebook, YouTube and Amazon, although it seems not Twitter. Believe me, I have known obsessive Wikipedians, just as I have known people on the far-left and far-right, and they haven’t shot anybody. Bedell’s participation in Wikipedia was as incidental as his politics; the content of his madness and platform for its expression are less important than the fact of it.

Update: It should come as no surprise, now John Patrick Bedell is the subject of a Wikipedia article himself.

Google’s Gift to Wikipedia Probably Not Evil

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on March 3, 2010 at 11:29 pm

This is a few days old now, but if you haven’t already heard, Google gave Wikipedia $2 million dollars to help with its never-sated appetite for bandwidth and “increasing … multimedia needs.” Here are two of the Internet’s most important websites getting together, and I’d have thought it would’ve been worth more than a small roundup on Techmeme.

Reported the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 18:

Google Inc., the Internet’s most profitable company, is giving $2 million to support Wikipedia, a volunteer-driven reference tool that has emerged as one of the Web’s most-read sites.

Good.

Wikimedia Foundation, owner of Wikipedia, said Wednesday that Google has donated $2 million to further develop the popular encyclopedia and other projects.

Awesome. Right.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, broke the news on Twitter on Tuesday, followed by a formal announcement from the nonprofit organization.

Twitter, well played.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, in a statement, called Wikipedia “one of the greatest triumphs of the Internet…this vast repository of community-generated content is an invaluable resource to anyone who is online.”

You bet. Of course. But why now?

To some this raises the question of what Wikipedia might do for Google; after all, a sizable donation could be said to create the possibility of a Conflict of Interest. Previous donations, such as that from a conspicuous Silicon Valley VC and partner of Elevation Partners (not Bono), have raised eyebrows. And everyone knows about Jimmy Wales’ occasional willingness to cut special someones (and Google is) a break — at least until the community gets involved.

But this question is probably backward. Wikipedia already helps Google, and by helping Wikipedia, Google helps itself.

Google depends on Wikipedia to provide topical, authoritative results at the top of its search results pages (SERPs, in SEO-speak) on more subjects than any other website. One occasionally-discussed, conspiracy-tinged theory has Google purposefully privileging Wikipedia precisely because it “cleans up” their search results. That’s possible.

But that isn’t needed to explain Wikipedia’s prominence on Google. It guarantees, for a range of topics functionally as vast as Google searches are regularly performed, an end result that is usually informative, free (as in beer, but liberty too) and not-for-profit, “not evil” and reliably neutral in a Switzerland kind of way. From what we know about Google’s recommendations for webmasters, no website is so organized as well around the Google algorithm as Wikipedia, whether we’re talking about software, community or purpose. It’s basically Google’s perfect website.

Yeah, I would give Wikipedia $2 million, too. And even though it’s positively swimming in cash, I’d probably give it some more.

Four Thousand Editors in Real Lancashire

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on March 1, 2010 at 7:11 am

wikipedia-lancashireA unifying theme of The Wikipedian in the first year of its existence — and will be again now that its unscheduled hiatus comes to an end today — has been the lag between the public’s recognition of Wikipedia as an important if imperfect information resource and the public’s understanding of how Wikipedia works.

Illustrating the point perfectly is a clumsy news item in a small UK newspaper, the Southport Visiter, highlighting local complaints in late February about a perceived error concerning the boundaries of Lancashire. According to the Visiter, the following text from Wikipedia (still present at this writing) is the matter of some dispute:

The county was subject to a significant boundary reform in 1974, which removed Liverpool and Manchester with most of their surrounding conurbations to form part of the metropolitan counties of Merseyside and Greater Manchester. Today the county borders Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and North and West Yorkshire.

I say “some dispute” in part because I’m not quite clear on what the issue is. According to a group called the Friends of Real Lancashire, Wikipedia “leaves Southport off the … map.” But as far as I can tell, Wikipedia has already absorbed this perspective and includes the following sentence later in the article:

Pressure groups, including Friends of Real Lancashire and the Association of British Counties advocate the use of the historical boundaries of Lancashire for ceremonial and cultural purposes.

So it appears to me that Friends of Real Lancashire are unhappy with the representation of Lancashire’s borders on Wikipedia, and have gone to the press with their concerns. This is not such a crazy idea: oftentimes ensuring placement of a particular fact or viewpoint in Wikipedia requires validation in a newspaper or magazine article before Wikipedia editors are likely to agree the fact or viewpoint is true or significant enough for inclusion. Because their viewpoint is presented, at least in summary, this must be a dispute over facts.

Now, let’s say I am a Wikipedia editor who lives thousands of miles away from Lancashire and have no special knowledge of the area’s boundaries (which is in fact the case). A newspaper article pointing out a supposed error could be useful to me. Perhaps I’m inclined to update the article based on what I have learned. Except the article does not explain the dispute carefully enough for me to make a judgment; the impression I am left with is that some people are unhappy with the designated boundary and wish for Wikipedia to elevate their views over existing reality. In which case I will ignore them as soon as I figure this out. Or maybe I write this blog post.

That Friends of Real Lancashire and the Southport Visiter have little idea how Wikipedia works is also quite evident:

[Friends of Real Lancashire] has contacted the website on several occasions, are concerned that those wanting to learn about Lancashire will be given the wrong information. … Although comments and letters have been sent to the editor of Wikipedia, Mr Dawson said that no action has since been taken.

Letters to the editor? The editor? There is a fundamental disconnect here, one in fact so stark that one wonders whether Wikipedia’s structures are so vanguard as to be incomprehensible to the average user, or whether the Real Lancashirites are hopelessly behind the times. It’s one thing for people who don’t think much about Wikipedia to misunderstand it; it is quite another for an organized interest group to care what Wikipedia says but not take the time to understand why it says what it does.

This phenomenon is bigger than Wikipedia. From where I live and work in Washington, DC, I often see advocacy organizations that are so focused on advancing their viewpoint using a manner and technique which is advantageous to them in one venue (newspapers, radio, television) that they cannot adjust their approach to advance their viewpoint in another (weblogs, social networks, Wikipedia). Sometimes, this adjustment undermines their original point, in which case they were destined to lose, anyway. This happens all the time.

So Friends of Real Lancashire may lose no matter what; if I am correctly interpreting their case, they will. Even so, it does not appear they have even tried to make their case in the proper manner. At least they have not engaged the one forum in which they might make their case directly to Wikipedia’s contributors: the Talk page associated with the Lancashire article. It’s there for a reason, and if you don’t use it, those who do will probably have themselves a laugh at your expense and go right back to editing Wikipedia.

Lancashire map via Wikipedia.