The Charms of Wikipedia

Linked with Nicholson Baker – USA

Published on The New York Review of Books, by Nicholson Baker, March 20, 2008.

Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It’s fact-encirclingly huge, and it’s idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies—and it’s free, and it’s fast. In a few seconds you can look up, for instance, “Diogenes of Sinope,” or “turnip,” or “Crazy Eddie,” or “Bagoas,” or “quadratic formula,” or “Bristol Beaufighter,” or “squeegee,” or “Sanford B. Dole,” and you’ll have knowledge you didn’t have before. It’s like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks.

More people use Wikipedia than Amazon or eBay – in fact it’s up there in the top-ten Alexa rankings with those moneyed funhouses MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. Why? Because it has 2.2 million articles, and because it’s very often the first hit in a Google search, and because it just feels good to find something there – even, or especially, when the article you find is maybe a little clumsily written. Any inelegance, or typo, or relic of vandalism reminds you that this gigantic encyclopedia isn’t a commercial product. There are no banners for E*Trade or Classmates.com, no side sprinklings of AdSense …

… When, last year, some computer scientists at the University of Minnesota studied millions of Wikipedia edits, they found that most of the good ones – those whose words persisted intact through many later viewings – were made by a tiny percentage of contributors. Enormous numbers of users have added the occasional enriching morsel to Wikipedia – and without this bystander’s knowledge the encyclopedia would have gone nowhere – but relatively few users know how to frame their contribution in a form that lasts.

So how do you become one of Wikipedia’s upper crust – one of the several thousand whose words will live on for a little while, before later verbal fumarolings erode what you wrote? It’s not easy. You have to have a cool head, so that you don’t get drawn into soul-destroying disputes, and you need some practical writing ability, and a quick eye, and a knack for synthesis. And you need lots of free time – time to master the odd conventions and the unfamiliar vocabulary (words like “smerge,” “POV warrior,” “forum shopping,” “hatnote,” “meat puppet,” “fancruft,” and “transclusion”), and time to read through guidelines and policy pages and essays and the endless records of old skirmishes – and time to have been gently but firmly, or perhaps rather sharply, reminded by other editors how you should behave. There’s a long apprenticeship of trial and error …

… My advice to anyone who is curious about becoming a contributor – and who is better than I am at keeping his or her contributional compulsions under control – is to get Broughton’s Missing Manual and start adding, creating, rescuing. I think I’m done for the time being. But I have a secret hope. Someone recently proposed a Wikimorgue – a bin of broken dreams where all rejects could still be read, as long as they weren’t libelous or otherwise illegal. Like other middens, it would have much to tell us over time. We could call it the Deletopedia. (full text).

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