Sand Castles of Knowledge

I’ve seen the light on Wikipedia, and I feel like a fool. I’ve used it, praised it, and, determined populist that I am, extolled it here as a model. I’m probably one of the few professors who has talked it up to his students and allowed them to cite it as a reference – carefully, with outside confirmation if possible, and judging the quality of an entry carefully. I started contributing to Wikipedia as a kind of spare-moment hobby, and I guess I was lulled into complacency by the fact that most of the entries I worked on were obscure ones, not likely to attract attention. But I had the temerity to do a little badly-needed clean-up on the dismally confused “Minimalism” entry, and learned more than I wanted to know about how the site operates. The articles that a lot of people think they know something about, it turns out, are a nightmare. I take back everything: Wikipedia is a playground for belligerent adolescents.

What pushed me over the edge was that a kindly editor finally directed me to a policy page called Expert retention. (One thing you’ve got to hand the Wikipedia community: they take self-analysis and self-examination to levels Socrates would have envied, and the site’s every foible is analyzed to within an inch of its life.) It turns out that Wikipedia has a difficult time holding on to experts to edit their articles. The site, with its ever-present Wikimania for lists, lists many scholars who have given up on the site, many more who are discontented, and only two who are happy with the status quo. The vandalism problem has received a lot of publicity, but that one’s actually fairly minor, or at least relatively fixable. More aggravating is “edit creep,” the gradual deterioration of a polished article by well-meaning but careless edits, and, even worse, “cranks,” which are classified with typical Wiki-precision as “parasites, scofflaws or insane.” And a crank can single-handedly destroy an article’s usefulness.

The problem is that Wikipedia forces its contributors to come to a consensus, and building consensus with a crank is a fool’s errand. Many of the departing scholars note the incident that finally brought them to leave; mine was a truculent teenager who refused to acknowledge that minimalist music was considered classical, because, as he put it, “it sounds more like Britney Spears than like Merzbow.” Let that sink in a minute. A person who insists that Einstein on the Beach, or Phill Niblock’s Four Full Flutes, or Tom Johnson’s Chord Catalogue cannot be considered classical because it sounds like Britney Spears is not a person one can seek consensus with. Because of that and his flippant rudeness I refused to argue directly with him, and appealed to the Wiki editors. Yet because of the Wikipedia policy about consensus, I couldn’t get around him, either. And when I checked the “Expert retention” page, I realized that this was not an isolated bit of bad luck, but that this recurring problem bars the dissemination of knowledge throughout Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is amateur-friendly, and that’s what I liked about it. Too many print reference works are hobbled by the exclusion of scholars and thinkers who are ahead of the curve, whose ideas (and even entire categories of knowledge) are not countenanced in the stodgier university departments whence many reference works depend. But Wikipedia is not only amateur-friendly, but expert-unfriendly. They pretend not to be, and give lip service to the importance of expert editors. But when you put the rules together, you realize that people who are actually authorities on a subject are forced to argue with one hand tied behind their backs.

For instance, there’s an “original research” rule: original research, i.e. facts you’ve dug up or deduced yourself but that are not verifiable in the scholarly literature, are not allowed. Well, I can see that. You don’t want every unpublished crank using Wikipedia to propagate his crackpot views. Most of what I do is original research, since I rarely write about things other scholars have already covered, but that’s all right, since I’ve published most of my research, and all I have to do is footnote my own books. Ah! but there’s another rule called “Conflict of Interest,” which disallows quoting yourself for the purpose of bringing public attention to your writings. Which means that any other person on the planet can write something in Wikipedia and quote me as an authority, but if I do it myself, that’s suspect. I have done it myself, and the citations stand if no one objects, but if a crank wants to contradict me, all he has to do is yell “Conflict of interest!,” and delete whatever he wants. After all, who knows what scruffy, fly-by-night vanity presses my books might be issued by (Cambridge University Press, Schirmer Books, University of California Press)? Editors are sympathetic – everyone agreed with what I was saying except this post-pubescent parasite – but rules are rules, and nothing could be done. There’s even an official “Ignore all credentials” policy, which explicitly disallows a writer’s credentials from being taken into account. I thought I was egalitarian enough not to mind. Turns out I’m not.

So the “Minimalism” article is wretched, and so it will remain. When I came to it, one of the definitions given was “From hippie to yuppie[,] minimalism is a drip-feed pseudo-art for cultural bottle-babies.” That no one objected to. I removed Petr Kotik from the list of minimalist composers, for the minor reason that there is nothing minimalist about his music, and there was a vehement protest. I removed a statement that minimalist pieces are known for their brevity, and there was a protest. Then I ran into the moronic crank, who wouldn’t agree that minimalism was the most controversial movement in recent classical music on the grounds that it wasn’t classical. He stonewalled. How can one verify that minimalism is part of classical music? No reference work will state as much, because everyone with an above-80 I.Q. simply knows it. I could have overlooked that and gone on, but the “Expert retention” page informed me that such problems are endemic throughout Wikipedia’s warp and woof. There is an apparently famous case in which one amateur crank defeated a group of professional scientists trying to describe facts about uranium trioxide. It’s kind of an intellectual’s worst nightmare: you find out your new editor is the dumb bully who used to beat up on you in seventh grade – and he hasn’t changed in any respect! He’s still in seventh grade, and imagines you are too.

And so I’m off Wikipedia. What’s more, now that I know how the background process chases away experts, I can no longer allow students to cite it. I’m holding out some hope for Digital Universe, which has been designed to elicit expert writing in order to circumvent such difficulties. Meanwhile, I have actual books to write, with adult editors willing to take my word for something. Between my Simpsons videos and The Comics Curmudgeon, I don’t need to spend my spare moments building sand castles of knowledge on a heavily-trafficked beach.

UPDATE: Forgive me for turning off the comments here, but some Wikipedians (Wikipediots?) are beginning to come here to continue arguments started over there, and, not having any earthly idea who’s right and who’s wrong, I don’t want to get stuck refereeing. The site clearly stirs violent emotions, sufficient reason for me to keep well away from it.


  1. says

    Your take on this issue is really right on the money, but you’re missing an important theory which explains everything about Wikipedia:
    Wikipedia isn’t an online encyclopedia. It’s a very elaborate roleplaying game about trying manipulate knowledge according to one’s own biases.
    Please come visit and tell us more about your story. We’d love to hear more!

  2. says

    One of the more pernicious features of the software that Wikipedia uses is the ability that it gives Wikipediots to re-write history in ways that are far from transparent and even wholly untraceable. For instance, the pseudo-policy page on “Expert Retention” that you mention actually began as a discussion among a growing number of more experienced scholars, who created a page called “Expert Rebellion”, which was quickly hijacked by the Usual Suspects and converted into its own antithesis.
    Some traces of the original history can be found in the thread on Editile Dysfunction at The Wikipedia Review.

  3. John A says

    I would expect Prof Gann, that there will be a sense of loss, symptoms of withdrawal from an activity that in its early stages seemed boundless with possibilities. Rather like a drug or cult experience, in other words.

    Wikipedia is a social experiment in the same way that Communism was a social experiment (and they have very similar characteristics including the overarching vision of improving the lot of the downpressed masses).

    It is also a failed experiment.

    If you really want to know what you were actually involved with, read Chapter 4 of 1984 by George Orwell.

    I applaud your honesty and integrity in coming out and admitting that your were duped. Many just slink away, never to return.

  4. Bruce M. Foster says

    What’s the old story? The tragedy of the Commons? Ever seen the inside of a Port-a-Potty?

  5. says

    Welcome to the reality of it, Prof. Gann. Here was my own experience of trying to enter the community as an “expert” business historian:

    I second this motion that you take a look at Wikipedia Review. It’s sometimes a hodgepodge of angry critics, but overall, it’s well worth participating, as that particular forum is usually on the pulse of the most pertinent flaws of Wikipedia — oftentimes flaws that the “internal” Wikipedia community is deliberately trying to sweep under the rug.

  6. Brandon says

    First of all, i would like to say thank you. I just discovered your music and your blog and both are good :)
    Reading this post i think you might be interested in the citizendium project, a public compendium of knowledge based on the wikipedia model but with an emphasis on expert oversight. (See the sections “regarding individual editors” etc.) It was originally a fork of wikipedia but has decided to start off more from scratch. They do, however, still allow the copying of wikipedia articles as long as they are significantly improved versions.

  7. Brian Duguid says

    Crikey, one bad experience with one person and you give up so easily? Sure, you have better ways to spend your time, ones where you can publish your views without the difficulty of having to seek consensus. But presenting this as a battle of the experts against the amateurs is ridiculous – you’re not the only expert contributing to the minimalist music article and you’d undoubtedly have found that perseverence would have gotten you further than your petulant withdrawal back to the ivory tower. This whole thing is a storm in a teapot – you couldn’t get your way over a single sentence (that’s all it was), so you took your ball home.
    KG replies:
    1. This was not only one bad experience, but the worst of several – plus the lack of fairness in the implementation of rules, which seem to apply to some and not others. I’ve quit jobs at paying publications for less provocation.
    2. Perseverence would have gotten me further where? What was I trying to achieve? I was doing Wikipedia favors. How many bad experiences should it have taken me to no longer want to do things for them?
    3. If there is a permanent structural problem in using my own research and expertise, what possible incentive could I have to continue? What would I want to write about except my own areas of expertise?
    4. When I see such abundant evidence from the people who have posted here and all those experts who have left Wikipedia that the problems will certainly continue and there is no structural process for avoiding them, why would I volunteer to continue fighting fights in which I have nothing whatever to gain?

  8. Joseph Zitt says

    My rule of thumb is that Wikipedia is a pretty good first source of information on subjects that someone has cared enough about to write an entry and that aren’t controversial. I wouldn’t use it authoritative, though,
    The expert problem is significant, as well as the difficulty of using one’s own research.
    I think Wikipedia will evolve into something more useful. But it’s very early in its life, and having a lot of growing pains.

  9. says

    “Then I ran into the moronic crank, who wouldn’t agree that minimalism was the most controversial movement in recent classical music on the grounds that it wasn’t classical. He stonewalled. How can one verify that minimalism is part of classical music? No reference work will state as much, because everyone with an above-80 I.Q. simply knows it.”
    Ultimately, I agree with you rather than with your nemesis T-1, but I think you may have misinterpreted the argument he was making.
    I think he was arguing not that “minimalism is not classical” but that other genres which he sees as more (or comparably) controversial than minimalism are not “pop music.” The Minimalism/Britney Spears/Merzbow remark was actually intended to mean not that “because minimalism sounds more like Britney it must be pop” but rather that the three groups can be put into a spectrum and minimalism is in the middle, so it’s unreasonable for you to call Merzbow “pop music.” It’s not a completely unreasonably point, but it relies on a categorization that ignores the evolutionary origins of a genre.
    I think what’s really going on is that T-1 is an art-music chauvinist and thinks you’re a classical music chauvinist. In his model there’s art music and pop music, art music is better than pop music, and classical music is a subset of art music. In other words, his system divides things up first according to his assessment of their value or merit. From this perspective, he interprets you to be saying that the controversial music he loves and thinks is great is “merely pop.” The issue of controversiality is incedental–he’s defending the artistic validity of the music he loves. But of course you aren’t trying to say what he thinks you’re trying to say. And of course I don’t like his categorization system since it’s premised on chauvinism.
    I think he’s also using a faulty definition of “most controversial” — it sounds like he means that a given person is more likely to be appalled by Venetian Snares than by Philip Glass, and he may be right, but “most controversial” more correctly refers to the quantity of controversy.
    Anyway, I bother to explain this because the mistaken assumptions and premises I think he’s actually using are a lot more common and insidious than the notions you thought he had. A crackpot (and I have no doubt that there are plenty of crackpots on Wikipedia, as elsewhere) can safely be written off, but if I’m right this guy is part of a fairly common strain.
    KG replies: You may be right, and thanks for the analysis. But there’s nothing controversial about Merzbow, whom I do *not* consider pop music – you either like abrasive noise music or you don’t, and no one who doesn’t is ever forced to listen to a concert of his music, which is not the case with minimalist music played by orchestras. Look at Merzbow’s Wikipedia talk page and judge whether there’s any controversy: “What’s his wife’s name?” is about the most hard-hitting question there. (Not to mention that Merzbow hardly constitutes a movement.) More pertinently, T-1, who’s some anonymous guy, was extremely rude and broke the rules by deleting my work, and given carte blanche to do it. If I were paid to work in such an environment, that would be bad enough, but to do it for free is ridiculous.

  10. Gnetwerker says

    I like the sand castle metaphor. My view is that Wikipedia is the failure mode of the aphorism that they best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to post a question, but rather to post the wrong answer.

  11. says

    Well, like any new technology, it’ll probably take Wikipedia a few more years before it reaches its full potential. Was anybody around when it first opened in 2001? Considering it’s been only used for six years or so, the progress it made is fairly remarkable, if you ask me.

    Intelligent readers will already know to take its articles with a grain of salt — if you know how to read critically, it’s quite obvious when something is fairly factual and when something is controversial. There tends to be less controversy in the scientific articles (whos process, interestingly enough, runs on the idea of consensus) but as you move toward the humanities there tends to be more disputes due to its subjective nature. It is, though, always useful as a way to get additional references and source materials on the particular subject, so I think that alone justifies Wiki’s usefulness.

    Wikipedia functions exactly as it was intended to do — to provide an alternative mode of information access outside of the sources. There’s a lot of bad information floating around on that site and on the internet in general, but then again, there are a lot of garbage being printed in traditional media as well, so I don’t know why people seem to hold higher standards toward a medium like Wiki, considering that it’s still very much in its developmental stages. The whole point of it is that it allows you to change things within it, and this act functions as a form of discourse which would otherwise take years and years in the realm of traditional publications.

  12. says

    Rereading my comment, I discovered a careless typo that dramatically changes the meaning of one thing I was saying. What I meant to say was “In his model there’s art music and pop music, art music is better than pop music, and classical music is a subset of ART music.” Sorry if that confused anybody.
    I agree that (at least as far as I know) IDM has never been particularly “controversial,” and minimalism was a huge cultural phenomenon that was controversial in academia, the media, the public mind, etc. And obviously you should channel your energies into places where you feel you can be the most productive. How’s that book coming, anyway?
    KG replies: Thanks for the clarification, for which I made the alteration above – I actually woke up thinking I should e-mail you to explain that to me. I’m thinking now that the postminimalism book should have a hefty opening section on minimalism, since there’s evidently so much confusion about it.

  13. says

    On to the bigger picture. I spent a year of my life working on Wikipedia and another 6 months working on the Digital Universe, Textop, Citizendium complex of projects. It’s fair to give Jimbo Wales and Larry Sanger credit for their skills in advertising, fund-raising, and PR. But it’s also fair to say that these strife-born twins have all but killed the dream that many once had that Wikis would be the place where genuine learning communities might spring up on the Web. The flaws in Wikipedia and Citizendium are deep and beyond repair. They go right to the bedrock of the philosophical foundation that Sanger and Wales jointly poured. As fortune would have it, there is not enough space in this margin for a full discussion, so I will simply refer you to the marginalized crew at The Wikipedia Review for the possibility of more relaxed dialogue on the host of issues involved.

  14. DV82XL says

    As one of the principles in the Uranium trioxide farce, and an early contributor to the Expert retention page, I couldn’t agree with your take on Wikipedia more. I, myself came to the conclusion that I was wasting my time contributing to this project, and although I found it hard in the first few weeks to stay away, I am now glad that I made the decision to leave.
    In my opinion Wikipedia is failing because it failed to evolve as it grew. The body of rules that served it well in the beginning no longer serve it now. Ossified into what is now interpreted as a body of privileges, they cannot be changed except by fiat from the top, and for reasons that I cannot fathom, this has not come to pass.
    It really is too bad. It was something special for a while there.

  15. Milton Parker says

    this is a great post, and all your points are well taken. though wikipedia has its uses, especially as a compendium of links & ideas with breaking news stories (it’s been interesting watching the ‘colony collapse disorder’ entry evolve over the past few weeks, for instance). certain subjects benefit from living, breathing, shifting entries — with others, it’s like trying to live with madness.
    for what it’s worth — although the entry on ‘minimalist music’ could be better, I find lots to like about it. that sentence on the contributions of Oliveros / Amacher / Radigue / Spiegel is not only absolutely valid, but the sort of comment you’re unlikely to find in single-author entries. the page on Minimalism is weighted towards Minimal Techno, which rather than annoying is an interesting sign — I know many people under 35 who only came to Reich / Glass / Riley / Young through the series of Basic Channel 12″ vinyl singles from Berlin. They’re valued records that form a part of the picture, though the person who’s in a position to summarize the value of those records is not likely to be the same person who’s able to concisely sum up the development of early minimalism.
    The patience it requires to sort through such articles is nothing compared to the patience needed to negotiate consensus & contribute, certainly. But there really are many points of view — Merzbow actually is considered to constitute a movement to many fans of Japanese Noise, Masami Akita is virtually the godfather of an entire genre and his band’s name has become a music critic’s adjective to describe certain sounds. It’s all where you stand.
    KG replies: The sentence on the contributions
    of Oliveros / Amacher / Radigue / Spiegel would be entirely valid if Maryanne Amacher and Laurie Spiegel, aside from their earliest works, wrote minimalist music. It is not at all what they are known for. Amacher’s well-known music is about as maximalist as it gets.

  16. gkb says

    The most astonishing thing I’ve seen so far on Wikipedia? Every single pricing game on The Price is Right (even the defunct ones) has its own separate entry.

  17. mclare says

    Sad to have to say you’re right about Wikipedia, but there it is — not only is Wikipedia thoroughly unreliable, as Jaron Lanier points out in his classic essay “Digital Maoism,” Wikipedia is unreliable in peculiarly sinister ways.
    It’s unreliable in important details that are hard to verify within the site because quotations are often unsourced or simply made up, and scholarly journal articles are almost never referenced by volume number, issue number, page number, or year; Wikipedia is unreliable in the overall general impression it gives about a given subject, creating an illusion of authority for some flagrant bias when it’s actually just some know-nothing dilettante’s baseless perjudice; and Wikipedia is unreliable even in basic facts. (Example of this latter: try finding Alexander Hamilton’s birth date in Wikipedia. What is it? Can you explain the problem there? Does Wikipedia ever bother even to acknowledge that there IS a problem with Hamilton’s birth date?)
    Case in point: just take a quick look at the Wikipedia entry on the Chicago School of Economics. There’s no indication in that Wikipedia articles that the presscriptions of the CSE were put into practice in Chile and failed catastrophically. There’s no indication in Wikipedia that the CSE luminaries then lied about that huge failure and cooked the books on the Chilean economic stats to try to make it look like a success. There’s no indication in Wikipedia that the consensus on Milton Friedman and the monetarists is that they’re cranks and crackpots whose theories systematically violate observed reality. And lastly, there’s no hint in Wikipedia of the fact that the Swedish Academy prize for economics isn’t actually a Nobel, that Alfred Nobel never established a prize for economics, or that the crop of Swedish Academcy economics prize winners are actually the beneficiaries of a phoney process which has been captured by intensely politicized far-right fanatics, and has nothing to do with the much more reliable process of awarding Nobel prizes (the Swedish Academy econonmics prize is _not_ a Nobel prize).
    If you study typical Wikipedia music theory articles, you quickly descend into even deeper sub-basements of superstition and just-so stories and mindless twaddle.
    Consider the Wikipedia entry on mathematics and music: can you find any hint of all the hundreds of psychoacoustic experiments which have systematically debunked all the claims made by the pervasively uninformed Wikipedia dilettantes who wrote that article?
    Of course not.
    Inconvenient facts and inappropriate logic have been carefully removed from most of the Wikipedia articles on music in order to prevent people who getting an accurate picture of the verifiable facts. This is done by Wikipedia authors who are not musicians and typically cannot play a musical instrument.
    Typically, a Wikipedia music theory author is a programmer or a mathematician who can’t play a musical instrument and whose “knowledge” of music theory comes from reading just-so stories about Pythagoras and the hammers in the blacksmith’s shop (a story provably false, since hammers do not exhibit the linear relationship of guitar strings, but instead obey an inverse square law of pitch).
    What’s really sad about Wikipedia is the extent to which the articles consist of regurgitated canards long since disproven. You don’t even get the pure version of the just-so stories…instead, you get garbled half-understood versions of the musical old wives’ tales, poorly written, wrapped in bow-legged spavined prose and slathered about with a leaden grammar that sticks to your ears like congealed bacon fat.
    Saddest of all? The fact that Wikipedia actually looks _good_ compared to the provably false claims you find about music and perception and mathematics in most online “new music discussion” sites.
    Now that’s scary!

  18. malamar says

    Wikipedia is useless as a source of information for the simple reason that its articles are unsigned. No signature equals no responsibility. No reputable researcher would use Wikipedia as a source.
    However, some of the better Wikipedia articles cite their sources. So it is a good “directory of sources” and is valuable in that limited capacity.
    The other aspect of the WIkipedia experience is that it is a social networking community, and that is a distraction and part of the amateur nature of the project.
    However, Wikipedia Review, which I see is self-promoted here, seems to consist largely of personal bashing and contains very little serious criticism and critiquing of Wikipedia. It is operated by people who failed to fit in with the social network of Wikipedia.
    Wikipedia could use a good peer review mechanism and critiquing site. That has not yet been founded.

  19. Anthony Nassar says

    I sent this permalink to several colleagues (I’m a software engineer), and was subjected to a hailstorm of contempt. I like computer science, and I like my colleagues in this field far more than I would like the Lacanians or whatever that I’d be hanging out with if I were still in academia, but there’s a fundamental contradiction in the “Wikipedia as open-source utopia” argument: namely that Wikipedians don’t really have any respect for or interest in any area of knowledge that’s hard to come by, and, conversely, consider someone such as Kyle Gann to have an obligation to waste hours of his time bickering with idiots over content that he was willing to *donate to the site for free.* In other words, Kyle’s first obligation has to be to Wikipedia itself! Otherwise, he’s an elitist.
    Sheesh, my wife has to tell her high-school students that they can’t use the entry on Jane Austen. They don’t *want* to be discriminating. They *definitely* aren’t allowed to use the entry on Iannis Xennakis!

  20. says

    Mclare’s comments about the validity and verifiability of sourcing in Wikipedia point to a can of worms that is once again far too big to get into here. When I fell down the Wikipedia rabbit hole late in 2005, Wikipedia’s Big Three content-ruling policies would have made rough sense to most folks who are accustomed to the practices of sourced research. Three or four gyres of devolution later, that is no longer the case. Wikipediots are actually discouraged from consulting primary sources, the main way of correcting the all too familiar cargo cult mythologies that the pop faces of most any field will accrue over time. See My Wikipedia Year for some account of my personal trials and tribunations with this issue.

  21. Durova says

    As a Wikipedia administrator I hope you give the site another chance. First, a correction: Ignore All Credentials is a proposal rather than an actual Wikipedia policy.
    I was active in the Expert Rebellion movement last fall and cowrote one of its most productive outgrowths: the site’s Disruptive Editing guideline. Its aim is to streamline the very type of situation you encountered and it works pretty well.
    Recently I also started a project that could be of interest to you and your students: WikiProject Classroom coordination.
    Some of the negative comments here come from editors who’ve been legitimately sitebanned, such as the following:
    I hope you’ll give Wikipedia another try. Feel free to contact me through my user page onsite.

  22. Left and Good Riddance says

    Professor Gann,
    Your story is all too familiar.
    What the “kids” (and 90% of them are kids) working as admins and furiously-busy editors don’t “get” is that on cutting edge research and publications, synthesis is the *norm*, and if you’ve done something interesting, that there usually isn’t publications other than your own.
    The bullying they resort to is beneath grade school level.
    I looked at your history, and admire that you kept your cool with them. You must really have been fed up by the time you bailed out of that sinking boat.
    But hey, its nice out in the water. :)

  23. says

    Unfortunately, the best way to edit on Wikipedia is through a veil of complete anonymity, and by giving away nothing directly of ‘yourself’. That is, saying your an expert in field X, and even demonstrating it, will grant you nothing. The only way to get a leg up on trolls, sycophants, and general troublemakers is to beat them at their own game with “bulletproof” sourcing. If you (theoretically) had the ability to primarily publish material that met the threshold of “reliable sourcing” for your given field or topic of expertise, you could then ‘anonymously’ source back to it. It’s rather unfortunate, however, that it would have to come to this to ‘beat’ overgrown children at a game.
    Especially, y’know, as it’s not a game. It’s supposed to be an encyclopedia…

  24. Mike says

    You might also enjoy viewing the site by one Parker Peters, a former wikipedia administrator who tried to fix wikipedia from the inside, but got “the treatment” (same as you got) and worse from the entrenched narcissistic bullies that make up the administration of wikipedia.
    He’s exposed many of the core practices, especially how these bullies go around trying to control all the content.