William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Infinite Jest’

What I Did This Summer

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on September 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm

It’s been a few weeks since I last posted on The Wikipedian—at the time I had just finished covering Wikimania right here in Washington, DC, and I had made at least one promise to write a wrap-up post. Alas, that never happened: between work and travel and other obligations, I’m afraid “August 2012″ will forever remain a blank spot in my archives. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. But there is a good reason, and one related—just a bit—to Wikipedia.

Over the last two years, and more intensively during the past two months, I have been working on a very large, personal project, and on Monday it was finally ready for release. It’s called The Infinite Atlas Project. As I’ve described it elsewhere, the goal is to identify, place, and describe every cartographic point I could find in David Foster Wallace’s iconic 1996 novel Infinite Jest—whether real, fictional, real but fictionalized, defunct or otherwise.

The project is tripartite, and the first part launched in mid-July: Infinite Boston, a photo tour hosted by Tumblr, which I’m writing daily through the end of this month. Launched just this week are two more ambitious efforts: a 24″x36″ poster called Infinite Map, plotting 250 key locations from the novel’s futuristic North America (and available for purchase, just FYI); and one not constrained by the dimensions of paper: Infinite Atlas, an interactive world map powered by Google Maps including all 600+ global locations that I was able to find with the help of my researchers (i.e. friends who had also read the novel). You can read much more about this on the Infinite Boston announcement post or on the Infinite Atlas “About” page, but here are screen shots of each:

Infinite Map     

Meanwhile, there are some aspects to the project that I think will be of interest to Wikipedians. For example, on the Infinite Atlas website, every entry that has a relevant Wikipedia article links back to it—whether to the exact location, such as the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School—or to the closest approximation, like the Neponset exit ramp, I-93 South. Among the development projects related to the online atlas, this was one of the last, but I think one of the most helpful. Yes, it’s interesting to the reader to be reminded that a key character stays at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, but it’s even more useful to confirm that McLean Hospital is a real place with more than 200 years of history. And both sites will tell you that DFW himself was a notable former patient.

Additionally, and importantly, the site is published under a Creative Commons license. For a research and art project based on a copyrighted fictional work—quoting judiciously and keeping fair use in mind, I stress—I figured it was important to disclaim any interest in preventing people from using it how they see fit—so long as they attribute and share-alike, of course. And another big reason for doing so: readers are invited to submit their own photos, so long as they are willing to approve their usage under the less-restrictive CC-BY license. If you live in one of the many locations around the world (though mostly in the U.S. and Canada) featured in the book, and now in the atlas, consider yourself invited to participate.

Live though these projects are, they are not finished and might not ever be. Which is part of the fun. And in that way like Wikipedia itself. Now maybe I’ll finally get around to fixing up the Infinite Jest Wikipedia entry and taking it to FA…

Edit Wikipedia on Facebook? Now You Can

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on April 22, 2010 at 10:19 am

This week Facebook is holding a developers’ conference, F8, in San Francisco, and they are using the occasion to announce some big changes. Now, Facebook is well known for being in a constant state of development, not just adding new features but also removing older ones that have become obsolete or undesirable. One of the big announcements is that Facebook is launching a feature called Community Pages — all of those TV shows, movies, books, bands and brands now have their own pages, kind of like the Fan Pages which have largely replaced Groups in recent years.*

This new feature has already been compared to Wikipedia, and with very good reason: Facebook has tried to answer the “empty room” problem by pre-populating the Community Pages with Wikipedia entries. Let’s turn to the 1996 David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest again for illustrative purposes — click the link following to visit the Facebook Community Page for Infinite Jest, or see below:

facebook-wikipedia-infinite-jest-75pct

That one can now read Wikipedia on Facebook is quite a big deal. Wikipedia is already one of the world’s top 10 websites (between fifth and eighth, depending) and now its content is being made available on the world’s single-most visited website. Needless to say, the Wikimedia Foundation is quite happy to dispel any reporters’ suspicions that they are unhappy with this development.

But that’s just part of the story. Look up to the right-hand corner for another potentially very significant aspect of this — here, let me zoom in and draw a little red box for you:

facebook-wikipedia-infinite-jest-detail

That’s right — as the headline on this blog post already gave away — you can now edit Wikipedia directly through Facebook. Or to be more accurate, one can easily access Wikipedia’s editing page through Facebook. Amidst all of the recent discussion of Wikipedia’s alleged participatory decline (very much disputed by Wikimedia) this could be a good thing: Facebook has just created a brand new channel for absolutely anyone who is a member of Facebook (that’s more than 400 million worldwide) to edit Wikipedia. At the very least, it is likely to have more impact on Wikipedia than just its increased visibility on Facebook. Most of these editors are likely to be unregistered “IP editors” — meaning they are identified by their IP address, because they have no user account — and the question of whether IP editors are beneficial to Wikipedia is open to debate. Perhaps the present number of unregistered editors is just fine now, but a new influx of amateur editors (some of whom are surely vandals) could tip the balance. Time will tell.

Time will also bring us a key aspect of the Community Page feature, announced but not yet available:

facebook-wikipedia-infinite-jest-community

That is the chance to edit / curate Community Pages themselves. In fact, right now each Community Page features Wikipedia in two tabs: Info and Wikipedia. While the Wikipedia tab appears set to mirror Wikipedia (and this is where the above-highlighted Edit button lives) the Info tab merely uses Wikipedia as a starting point. And this may end up mitigating the impact of Facebook’s direct line to Wikipedia edit pages: the option to edit Facebook will be more prominent, and one expects, less likely to be phased out in future development.

Facebook hasn’t offered many details, and I think they may be in for a nasty surprise. Wikipedia stays as clean as it does in part due to the tireless efforts of the volunteer Recent changes patrol (i.e. vandal patrol) but Facebook is unlikely to gather such a community of watchers. Instead they will have to rely upon individuals who are members of those Community Pages. Yeah, if anyone messes with Back to the Future (or Infinite Jest) I’ll kick their teeth in, but I’m not like most. I’m guessing Facebook hasn’t yet figured out how to make this work without it becoming anarchy — not only is the Wikipedia community a unique thing, the site’s policies and guidelines were not written overnight. Facebook should emulate Wikipedia where they can, and they should probably impose strict controls where they can’t, lest they become a repository for threats, libel and bitter acrimony. It may well become that in any case.

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.