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.