Friday, September 18, 2009

Wikipediagilisticexpialidocious, part 2 of 2

As a writer, I’ve found Wikipedia to be invaluable in research, despite some editorial backlash and if used in a certain way. Reasons 1 through 3 are here, and reasons 4 through 6½ are here:

Contributor motivation

Writers and editors who contribute to Wikipedia don't earn money or widespread recognition. Unmotivated by these corruptible catalysts, their output shoots up the integrity scale. They’re wikifying out of love for whatever subject they’re writing about, and people are often experts on what they love.

Immediate sourcing

Given longstanding industry protocol, not to mention space limitation, print articles almost never cite sources. Wikipedia articles do, or if they don’t, they’re flagged so researchers know to proceed with caution.

If a fact on Wikipedia lacks citation, I don’t use it unless I can back (front?) it up with a reliable source elsewhere. Weaker Wikipedia articles may not help in and of themselves, but they can set you down multiple paths to better info. And that's a strength—Wikipedia has become the essential orientation point on most any topic.

Detail magnet—but especially “modern” details

I couldn’t resist titling this post the way I did (though I did first try “Supercalifragilisticexwikipedia”). However, Wikipedia is actually not “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” According to the film Mary Poppins, that word is all you can say when there’s nothing to say.

Wikipedia is about saying it all. Sort of.

It’s the first major fact repository to incorporate information in real-time. Yet this creates an imbalance, giving a texture to “current” subjects that past subjects don’t have.

Take the Kanye West/Taylor Swift incident during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. It was promptly added to both of their Wikipedia entries, plus the entry for the VMAs. Will it end up being a defining moment for either artist? It’s too early to tell, but probably not. A Hollywood “controversy” like it happens several times each week, making many previous ones insignificant.

To contrast, the people who wrote the Wikipedia entry on pre-Wikipedia subject Huey Lewis and the News did not (according to the references cited) go back through period articles from Rolling Stone, People, Musician, Seventeen, and other magazines (whether extant or defunct) that covered the band during their 1980s heyday. Most of those articles are not online, and therefore understandably beyond the reach—or at least the commitment level—of the average Wikipedia researcher.

Yet if someone were to dig up such articles, they would surely provide the kind of nuances that a Wikipedia contributor documenting a contemporary topic often includes.

In other words, the entry for Kanye West will have lots more anecdotal info than the one for Huey Lewis and the News.

I do long for a Wikipedia that more deeply mines the recent past for “forgotten” facts, but that’s an immense expectation. Hopefully, as more publications digitize their archives, that will enhance Wikipedia's scope. Yet what about the magazines like Musician that don’t exist anymore? Who owns that content? Will it ever be digitized? What irresistible HLATN factoid is there and only there and will be lost to most of us for all time unless some enterprising Wikipedian unearths and shares it?

In the end, this imbalance between current and past topics is not a negative. To criticize Wikipedia for being more thorough about certain contemporary subjects than certain past subjects misses the point. The fact that it’s detailed about any subjects is a good thing.

The half-reason

A year ago, some kind soul gave my book Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman the Wikipedia treatment. You don’t need to investigate the IP addresses to learn that it was not me. The proof is simpler. Just look at my name within the article: not hyperlinked. Though I write about myself here, I, like most writers, know it’s bad form to do so on Wikipedia.

I’ve never written a Wikipedia article about anyone or anything else, either. Several years ago, I did lightly edit a couple. (One was on Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of Batman. I don’t remember the other but do remember that my tweak was only grammatical.)

And though I don’t plan to write or edit other Wikipedia articles, this is one writer who is grateful for the people who do.


Boni Ashburn said...

Nice assessment, Marc. As someone who has heard all the Wikipedia cautions and dutifully parroted them to my kids doing homework-related research, I love hearing that another author uses it as much as I do :) It is usually more of a jumping-off place, and I always find other resources that concur, but to my knowledge it has never steered me wrong and is far more helpful than not. It is just too thorough and concise to ignore- glad to see I'm not the only one!

debbie said...

This is really interesting, Marc. Like Boni, I remind my kids not to depend on Wikipedia too much, but I like to use it too (especially for the links), and hearing this argument from an official nonfiction guy makes me feel a lot better about that!