Wikipedia: big idea or yesterdays' news? A historian's quandary
In The Atlantic, historian Marshall Poerecounted his experiences in attempting to pitch, write and sell an overarching "book of ideas" with Wikipedia as its central focus. After stumbling across Wikipedia whilst pursuing an interest in reader-contributed informational resources, Poe was struck by a citation to his work on an obscure Austrian diplomat. He became fascinated by the sheer depth of the project, its radical transparency in providing page histories of each change to an article, and the emergent social order of its a-hierarchical community of contributors. In September 2005, his autobiographical article was nominated for deletion a week after he created it (as MarshallPoe). His curiosity piqued by these encounters, Poe writes that he delved further into the intricacies of the nascent website, and wrote for the editors of The Atlantic Monthly – for whom he had been working as a researcher – a vivid and short-form history of the founding of the project and its early leaders: "The Hive" (September 2006). This was followed – within a month – by two additional Wikipedia-centric articles for the magazine: "A Closer Look at the Neutral Point of View (NPOV)", a case study of the encyclopaedia's handling of controversial content focusing on the Abortion entry, and "Common Knowledge", a personal history of the historian's experiences with the burgeoning project.
Around this time, Poe describes how Wikipedia had become a hot topic in the thinking press, and that he saw an opportunity to author the "book of ideas" he had long dreamt of. Poe recounts how, having found himself a literary agent who had read his piece with enthusiasm to score him a book deal, he was told he had the requisite stature (as an academic and contributor to a respected intellectual periodical) but needed a hook, a captivating and counterintuitive thesis that would serve as the book's "big idea" and catchy title, and thus, it was hoped, propel it and Poe into the bestselling ranks of instant classics such as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, and James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Poe chose "Wikipedia changed everything". A New York publisher duly took the bait (and offered considerable remuneration). Given six months to capture Wikipedia right in the spotlights of the zeitgeist, Poe writes about how he began researching in earnest, but quickly ran into a stumbling block: Wikipedia did not change everything – the thesis did not hold. "The truth about Wikipedia", Poe recalls, "was messy", and his manuscript a "convoluted story involving evolution, human nature, media technologies, and their effects on human society and thought." Poe's historians' nous could not countenance Wikipedia-as-big-idea – instead finding it to be a phenomenon of "irreducible complexity" that defied any attempt at breezy reductionism. By the time he had reworked the manuscript into a difficult "book of ideas", Wikipedia's moment had deemed to have passed, and the publisher had lost interest, Poe writes. The modest impact of subsequent book-length studies of Wikipedia-style collaboration, such as Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody (2008), Andrew Lih's The Wikipedia Revolution (2009), and Joseph Reagle's Good Faith Collaboration (2010), may well bear Poe's insight out.
Sue Gardner on the gender gap: Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner was interviewed by CBC Radio's Nora Young on September 12. During the "Spark" program, Gardner discussed the gender gap and efforts to encourage female contributors.
Antarctica and the 21st century: The floatingsheep collective released their report Geographies of the World's Knowledge (pdf), which included a segment on the distribution of Wikipedia articles geographically and temporally. Drawing from roughly 1.5 million articles in a 2010 database download, the report revealed among other findings that more articles had been written about Antarctica (7,800) than any South American or African nation, that the country with the most internet users (China) accounted for barely 1% of articles, that its biographical articles overwhelmingly geolocate to Western Europe and, from the 18th century on, North America, and that vastly more biographies per year were written for the 20th and particularly the 21st century compared to preceding time periods.
Calls for medical contributors: In the UBC [University of British Columbia] Medical Journal, Wikipedian James Heilman, MD (Doc James) explained to his colleagues "Why we should all edit Wikipedia": "The next printed article your patient comes in with may be yours." Heilman is on the board of directors of Wikimedia Canada, which is currently offering a C$1000 scholarship to the Canadian student who makes "the most significant contribution to Wikipedia’s medical content."
Wikipedia and the media wasteland: In 1961, Newton N. Minow, the then Chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), criticized the quality of US commercial TV programming, in his famous Wasteland Speech (so named after his challenge to broadcasters to watch their own TV station for a day, predicting that "what you will observe is a vast wasteland"). Last week, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Minow's speech with a forum about "News and Entertainment in the Digital Age", with many prominent panelists from US media and academia answering Minow’s challenge to the media to "do better", in a contemporary context. The most memorable answer (as cited by Wikimedia Foundation advisory board member Ethan Zuckerman) came from The New York Times columnist Virginia Heffernan: "Register as a Wikipedia editor today. Twice, if you’re a woman." According toO'Reilly Radar, "the audience greeted this exhortation with much acclaim. Hefferman directed her request particularly at renowned historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was sitting right in front of her. And Goodwin expressed some surprise at the idea that she too could edit Wikipedia. But she admitted to being intrigued at the idea and willing to consider doing it."
Defending Wikipedia: "The Bell Ringer", a student newspaper at Augusta State University (a public university in the US), published an opinion piece entitled "In the defense of Wikipedia", lauding its breadth and depth of coverage whilst acknowledging the weakness of the anyone-can-edit model for quality control and concluding by restating his case that those articles which are carefully researched and dense with citations more than compensate for the occasional vandalised entry.
New Yorker cartoon: The New Yorker published a cartoon about Wikipedia, making light of the vanity of the subject of a stub-length BLP.