Montag’s Grin: A Look at Wikipedia

“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”  

— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Internet culture seems to want to promote two values that, when combined, cannot help but produce some mischief.  How much mischief remains to be seen, but the values to which I refer are anonymity and the wisdom of crowds (a term coined by James Surowiecki).  Both of these principles are central to the design and maintenance of that populist repository of all knowledge known as Wikipedia, which is the sixth most-visited site on the web.  It is rare to conjure a search term that does not produce a Wikipedia link among the top few results; and the site is presumably a first source for most of us and the ultimate source for a lot of us despite the fact that, for instance, biographical information is frequently disputed by many a horse’s mouth.

Wikipedia is egalitarian, not-for-profit, and all-volunteer. Anyone can be an editor (usually under a pseudonym), but it isn’t meant to be a free-for-all.  There are rules and guidelines that are supposed to be maintained by self-governance within the collective, fulfilling the theory that the crowd will, on the whole, produce better work than an elite minority. Nevertheless, the potential for individual actors, shrouded in anonymity, to wreak havoc should not be underestimated, as will become clear if you read this excellent piece of investigative reporting by Andrew Leonard for Salon.com.  In the article, Leonard describes motives and methods behind the antics of a vengeful author named Robert Clark Young, who as Wikipedia editor “Qworty” set about maliciously revising the biographies of literary figures with whom he had a beef while tending to the stewardship and embellishment of Robert Clark Young’s own curriculum wiki.

All in, Qworty claimed to be responsible for some 13,000 edits to the online encyclopedia, and as Leonard rightly points out, he was just one of thousands of editors who work on the site every day.  Although the Wikipedia community seems finally to have put an end to Young/Qworty’s shenanigans, it must be very difficult to mitigate this kind of behavior in an environment comprising anonymous editors with no required credentials.  Certainly the mission of the group Wikipediocracy “to shine the light of scrutiny into the dark crevices of Wikipedia . . .” suggests that Qworty may not be an anomaly so much as representative of some systemic problems within the Encyclopedia Publica.

I’ll be honest. I generally don’t get the anonymity thing when it comes to free expression in the digital age. I think of anonymity as a tactic for dissident poets in dangerously oppressive countries and total wusses, bullies, trolls, and hackers in free societies.  In fact, I’ll argue that the overvaluation of anonymity in the digital age moves us free societies a step closer toward the not-so-free ones, a sentiment echoed in this weekend’s OpEd by Julian Assange when he refers to the degradation of privacy as a segue to authoritarianism. Presumably, it is the abandonment of privacy that spawns the need, or perceived need, for individuals to assume alternate identities in cyberspace, but it’s easy to see how anonymity through avatar can catalyze an authoritarian society which needs mob rule like fire needs oxygen. Anonymity on the web has fostered the ugliest of mob (i.e. unwise crowd) behaviors where death threats and misogyny seem to flow all too easily from the keyboards of self-righteous young men.  Even the generally well-meaning society of Redditors managed to form a virtual posse that harassed the family of an innocent and troubled young man immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Why anonymity would be necessary for the composition or editing of encyclopedic work is a mystery, but I suspect it has little to do with practicality and everything to do with ideology.  After all to add the imprimatur of a name would only lead to the conclusion that some editors might be perceived as more valuable than others because they are associated with specific expertise or experience in a given area, and this only results in the kind of elitism of experts Wikipedia is disposed to reject as substandard. In theory, all voices are equal, and if we let the process run its course, balance, truth, and fairness will prevail over the occasional malicious actor like a Qworty.  In theory.

But if we look at Wikipedia as a social experiment that represents the larger promise of the Information Age, it’s entirely possible that we may never know if it succeeds or fails. After all, there must be a tipping point when too much mischief by individual, corporate, or state actors can corrupt enough data that it becomes the new reality upon which subsequent generations then build.  It is, of course, possible that in practical terms it may not look all that different from the pre-digital era.  “History,” as Mr. Churchill teaches us, “is written by the victors,” and thus what we think we know is never exactly what is or was. Ask most Americans about our colonial origins, and they’re likely to say something about the English (victors) and very little about the Dutch (losers), despite the fact that much of our culture begins in the heart of Amsterdam. Still the potential for round-the-clock, revisionist history is food for thought.

On the one hand, Wikipedia projects the hopeful conclusion of Fahrenheit 451, in which man subordinates a bit of his identity to become knowledge itself in order to preserve and pass down that knowledge. But at the same time, Wikipedia’s subordination of the individual to the crowd also allows the victorious author of history to be any anonymous hack and his army of sock puppets, teaching us that there is more than one way to burn a few books.

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