by Lore Sjöberg
What is Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is a new paradigm in human discourse. It’s a place where anyone with a browser can go, pick a subject that interests them, and without even logging in, start an argument. In fact, Wikipedia is the largest and most comprehensive collection of arguments in human history, incorporating spats and vendettas on subjects ranging from Suleiman the Magnificent to Dan the Automator. As an unexpected side effect of being the perfect argument space, it’s also a pretty good place to find information about all the characters from Battlestar: Galactica.
Why do people talk about Wikipedia so much?
Wikipedia is such a powerful argument engine that it actually leaks out to the rest of the web, spontaneously forming meta-arguments about itself on any open message board.
Yes, but what is there to argue about?
Well, Wikipedia exists in a state of quantum significance flux. It’s simultaneously a shining, flawless collection of incontrovertible information, and a debased pile of meaningless words thrown together by uneducated lemurs with political agendas. It simply cannot exist in any state between these two extremes. You can test this yourself by expressing a reasonable opinion about the site in any public space. Whatever words you type, they will be interpreted by readers as supporting one of these two opposing views.
What should I know if I want to contribute to an argument nexus (or “article”) on Wikipedia?
It will help to familiarize yourself with some of the common terms used on Wikipedia:
- meat puppet: A person who disagrees with you.
- non-notable: A subject you’re not interested in.
- vandalism: An edit you didn’t make.
- neutral point of view: Your point of view.
- consensus: A mythical state of utopian human evolution. Many scholars of Wikipedian theology theorize that if consensus is ever reached, Wikipedia will spontaneously disappear.
Is it true that anyone can contribute?
Sure, Wikipedia is absolutely open to absolutely anyone contributing to absolutely anything! As long as you haven’t been banned, or the article you’re contributing to hasn’t been locked, or there isn’t a group of people waiting to delete anything you write, or you don’t make the same change more than three times in one day, or the subject of the article hasn’t decided to send scary lawyer letters to Wikipedia, or you haven’t pissed Jimbo Wales off real bad. It’s all about freedom.
But why should I contribute to an article? I’m no expert.
That’s fine. The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up thusly: “Experts are scum.” For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War — and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge — get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved. And they get downright irate when asked politely to engage in discourse with Randy until the sword-skeleton theory can be incorporated into the article without passing judgment.
What’s this is I hear about Wikipedia saying some guy shot Kennedy?
That was actually a misunderstanding. The person who was accused of murdering Kennedy didn’t realize that it’s his job to monitor his own Wikipedia entry at all times and fix mistakes. By not doing so, by allowing his entry to contain libelous information, he was in essence accusing himself of murdering Kennedy. The Wikipedia board of directors is hoping that the courts will accept this as a confession and convict him of assassination. At that point, his Wikipedia entry will be 100 percent true, proving that the system works.
An article about me is up for deletion! What can I do to keep this from happening?
Well, you could try building a strong case using documented evidence from outside Wikipedia to bring people around to your well-researched and well-founded point of view, but honestly your best bet is to get a role on Battlestar: Galactica.
This commentary appeared originally on the Wired website. It is re-posted here with permission of the author.
Image credit: Flickr/ketrin1407 ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic