I was amused to see this pop up when I clicked on the Google link to Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder Wiki page. There they go again, begging for money. A lot like my old community radio days when we used to do fund drives every Spring and every Fall. Except I like to think those old community stations provided a heck of a lot more real-world value.
So, why I never give Wikipedia any of my money:
1) Inconsistent quality from one article to the next.
2) Politically-charged articles are forever hockey-pucked from one side to the other, and back again.
3) Anyone can add, edit, or delete information for any reason — or no reason at all — from anywhere on the planet.
4) Who are the would-be editors, and to whom are they accountable?
5) Having seen false information about me tucked into politically-charged articles, while true information about me is removed from articles which ought to not be politically-charged, why would I financially support a service which doesn’t seem to have any way of keeping partisans from the levers of control?
I mean, I get it. It was an interesting idea when it first began. Open-source was all the rage coming out of the 1990s. With the Cold War over, everyone was basking in this kind of heady notion of spontaneous abundance, where the knowledge workers of the world were going to revolutionize our lives for the betterment of mankind, and why would anyone willing to donate their time to enriching the internet with information do so with false or specious or plainly stupid motives?
And I am sure at the start things were fine. This was after all an experiment, the likes of which had not been attempted before: a completely public-access, publicly-edited encyclopedia dedicated to building the most comprehensive knowledge repository the world had ever seen.
What’s not to like about that?
As with almost everything about the internet since the turn of 2010, Wikipedia has been a victim of its own success. Once Wikipedia links began to populate the top searchers on anything and everything through Google, Wikipedia became a site to watch. And once it became a site to watch, that’s when the slide began.
Wikipedia’s flaws and sins have been well-discussed elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating that when articles on relatively unimportant pop culture phenomenon run for page after page, while articles on, say, your local state bird or state fish can barely manage a few paragraphs, the myopia of the editors becomes plain. For example, this is an editor pool which will devote over 17,000 words to the main article about Minecraft — and that’s just the main article, there are others — while the article for the Bonneville Cutthroat Trout manages just a bit over 700 words.
Now, you might argue that precious few people ever bother to Google a Mountain West salmonid, but millions of people daily Google Minecraft. But I am old enough to remember when one of the joys of picking up a paper encyclopedia was paging through the entries learning things about the world which I’d not necessarily go out of my way to research, but which proved fascinating anyway precisely because the entrie(s) were sequenced together such that I could begin at a topic I was curious about, then spend hours reading all the adjacent entries, and the entries adjacent to those entries, and so forth.
And all of it was very textbook-astute in tone, content, and quality.
Which Wikipedia often . . . is not. I personally was so annoyed with the Utah state fish Wiki I spent a week last year teaching myself the fundamentals of how to edit that article, and added some photos which I’d taken of local specimens I’d personally caught at local reservoirs — and that’s when it dawned on me that nobody was watching the watchers. Since the Bonneville Cutthroat is not a charged nor contested topic, nor a pop culture pillar, almost nobody’s keeping an eye on that page. I realized I could add whatever I wanted, change anything I cared to change, and it was unlikely anybody was going to give a damn. And that bothered me. It still bothers me. Because if the integrity of a small, benign page cannot be verified nor maintained, what’s protecting any of the other pages? Especially heated topics for which there are numerous competing interpretations and opinons?
The answer is: nothing.
Oh, I know defenders will insist that the aggregate of experienced Wiki editors is a default bulwark against bullshit finding its way into Wiki entries. But there have been so many times I’ve looked at Wiki pages and thought to myself, “How in the hell did this end up in here?” or similarly, “Why in the hell did this plainly-known fact not make it into this article?” I’ve concluded the entire project is almost fatally done in by the same factor which made it big: there are no leaders, no oversight boards of trusted individuals with good credentials who can eject the chaff and insert the wheat, and there is no final authority to whom an appeal for correction can be made. Just self-assigned editors editing on top of other self-assigned editors who edit on top of other self-assigned editors. A shifting Tetris of information which has a gargantuan asterisk next to it: trust this Wiki page if you feel like it.
But then, the whole internet’s like that. Right?
I mean, how do we know what we know? The oldest of all epistemological questions, and more relevant today than ever before. Because the internet — amazing tool that it is — has allowed countless people across the world to slowly create what can only be called a shadow reality. Where if a thing is created and proffered on the internet, it must be true. Even when it’s not. Likewise, true things can be suppressed, or even contradicted, even when they’re plain.
Case in point. In the wake of the 2016 American election there was much hand-wringing and clutching at pearls over the fact the internet had greatly influenced voter choices in a way many individuals did not like. To include claims that partly or wholly false information — born on the internet — had “hacked” the results. And again in 2020 there was much a-do about the internet fomenting various flavors of political skullduggery, all of which caused great and sundry authorities to gasp, and ask, “How did so many people come to believe things which we, the authorities, never vetted, never approved, and never supported as fact?”
(ahem) Like the hangman’s meme says: First time?
Congratulations! This is the world you created. Where what’s “real” on-line is more real for more people than the physical world in which they dwell. To include the way people work, make their living, form their relationships, and establish the basic foundations of their lives. To include pushing such notions into realms — like politics, like medicine, like academics — which ought to be smart enough to know that just because a bunch of nuts on-line are insisting a thing ought to be true, does that make it true?
After all, 57 genders didn’t come from medical schools. 57 genders came from people who live most of their lives and spend most of their time on the internet, forming “communities” which get very loud, very obnoxious, and which are daily trying to force their shadow reality onto the country at large — with ideas which are often false, contradict each other, and in many cases prove actively harmful.
Ask yourself: how many times have you found yourself cursing vaccine conspiracy theorists, since March of 2020?
Ask yourself again: what’s the primary vehicle for these conspiracy theories, and who gets to decide if there’s any merit to what’s being claimed?
And ask yourself once more: If enough people believe a thing, does it make the thing valid?
The scientific and logical answer to the last question is, no. But our entire culture is now at the mercy of consensus fallacy. To quote Twain:
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
And this is where, again, I think Wikipedia falls down on the job. Because if enough editors insist a false thing is valid, and can produce reams of verbage to that effect, for millions of other people that thing will become valid. And what is it the Wiki editors all rely on? Mere links to other internet sources, of course. So a Wiki page can become a ouroboros of information, with citations connecting to other internet pages or articles which simply connect to other pages, which themselves may or may not have any factual, scientific, nor rational underpinning. But for many Wiki editors the fact that a web citation — any web citation — has been made, is good enough. The Wiki is declared “good” because it’s got a tiny army of links at its bottom, almost none of which any busy person will ever bother to go and check.
So, people are just trusting that Wikipedia is legit.
But how many times in the past dozen years have we as a society been badly burned for trusting people to get it right?
Want proof? There’s a political, military, and humanitarian disaster going down in Afghanistan as I write this, because America and the other NATO nations trusted people in positions of authority to a) know their stuff, and b) not get it craptastically wrong.
Except they did get it wrong. The so-called “experts” have been hoisted by their own petards hourly for two weeks. And the sad part is real people in the real world are paying a real price. With their lives.
Twain was seldom ever more right, than he was about what’s happening in Afghanistan.
So, again, Wikipedia, why would I donate? I don’t trust you. You may be the top link on almost any Google search, but like Google itself, I’ve learned you aren’t neutral. You can hide true things which ought to not be hidden, and state as fact things which are provably false. You are not a benign repository of salient information because your editors are too often not plain dealers. Especially when it comes to (again) politically-charged or otherwise “hot” topics.
And please note this important caveat: I know several people who work on Wiki articles, to include putting in many hours a week. They are trying. Honestly trying. My indictment of Wikipedia as a concept is not an indictment of these editors per se. They work as hard as they can with the system they’ve got, and I think they’re making the best of a poor situation. This is not a vain effort, any more than the effort of many VA workers is in vain — despite the fact almost all veterans tell bad stories about poor VA service, mostly because the VA is a mammoth bureaucracy which long ago fell to Pournelle’s Iron Law of same. So don’t think I am jamming a thumb in the eye of those Wiki editors who try to do it right. I am not. I just know they’re climbing a steep hill, against the odds.