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Wikipedia and Encyclopedic Anxiety

Joseph Reagle Jr.

A simple proposition

Reference works can embody and provoke larger social anxieties.

We can see this in Wikipedia criticism such as:

...[Wikipedians] continue to add to, and the intellectually lazy to use, the fundamentally flawed resource, much to the chagrin of many professors and schoolteachers. Many professors have forbidden its use in papers. A professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything. (Gorman2007jer1:5)

But before we get to Wikipedia, some historical caveats...

Conservative intentions

While reference works often thought to be inherently progressive, this need not always be the case.

Subjective and relative ...

More importantly the understanding of progressive and conservative is influenced by the intention of the compilers, contemporaneous reception, subsequent interpretation, and the muddle of people in time.

... and a matter of interpretation

Foster Stockwell argues the Encyclopédie's treatment of crafts was liberatory in that it:

Diderot helped set in motion the '''downfall''' of the royal family and the rigid class system.

but Cynthia Koep argues it was an attempt:

on the part of the dominant, elite culture to control language and discourse: in our case, the editors of the Encyclopédie '''expropriating''' and transforming work techniques.

Therefore we might understand debate about reference works to be as telling about the larger society as the work itself. As Harvey Einbinder (1964:3) writes in the introduction to his critique of EB:

since an encyclopedia is a mirror of contemporary learning, it offers a valuable opportunity to examine prevailing attitudes and beliefs in a variety of fields.

Webster's Third: Philip Gove's controversial dictionary and its critics

Herbert Morton makes a specific form of this argument with respect to Webster's Third, published in 1961, and the alleged "social permissiveness" of society then.

This then prompted me to make sense of all the readings I done on the history of the reference work via the general proposition that they embody and provoke larger social anxieties, and an understanding Wikipedia criticism today

Three Wikipedia Qualifications

  1. Web 2.0 = user generated content.
  2. I am focusing on Wikipedia as an exemplar; not on mean spirited trolls
  3. We need to appreciate one reason reference works are controversial: a presumption of normative force. But this is in part a material constraint (e.g. selecting one materials merit inclusion), and a market construct (e.g. advertising).


britannica love

Wikipedia's Critics

In trying to make sense of Wikipedia criticism, I thought to organize it by way of four themes found throughout the dissertation:

I will focus on the technological aspect.

Rip, Mix, Burn

Otlet's Monographic Principle

The ... is to detach what the book amalgamates, to reduce all that is complex to its elements and to devote a page [or index card] to each" (Otlet 1990tba:149).

The Liquid Library

The real magic ... [is] as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages At the same time, once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. (Kelly 2006stb:2-3)

Gorman's criticism: “The books in great libraries are much more than the sum of their parts.” A snippet of information might be useful from Page 142, but knowledge requires an understanding of Pages 1-141 “or the text was not worth writing and publishing in the first place” (Gorman 2004).

So here we see a concern over the integrity of knowledge (as in not falling apart) and sanctity of the author

Hyperbole and Punditry:

Gorman calls all of this:

a wonderfully modern manifestation of the triumph of hope and boosterism over reality (Gorman 2005:1).

Other critics chime in that: Wikipedians are making grand claims, they are apologists for "the collective mediocritization of culture," and the problem is "how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly.”

But most Wikipedia supporters aren't making these claims: rather Wikipedia is amazing for what it is.

Orlowski (2005wfa) writes such sentiments are akin to saying: "Yes it's garbage, but it's delivered so much faster!"

Is this a case of: a glass half empty, half full? A problem of punditry?

Jeremy Wagstaff (2005) notes that comparing something to Wikipedia is “The New Cliche”: "You know something has arrived when it's used to describe a phenomenon. Or what people hope will be a phenomenon."

Generational Differences

Gorman (2007jer) manages to sound like an old man shaking his fist when he complains that:

The fact is that today's young, as do the young in every age, need to learn from those who are older and wiser "

Clay Shirky (2007org) responds:

according to Gorman, the shift to digital and network reproduction of information will fail unless it recapitulates the institutions and habits that have grown up around print.

Scott McLemee (2007:4) more amusingly notes that:

The tone of Gorman's remedial lecture implies that educators now devote the better part of their day to teaching students to shove pencils up their nose while Googling for pornography. I do not believe this to be the case. (It would be bad, of course, if it were.)”

In Closing

What “prevailing attitudes and beliefs” (as Einbinder wrote) can we then discern if it is true that: reference works embody and provoke larger social anxieties

With respect to the theme of technological inspiration I find a concern for the integrity of knowledge, the sanctity of the author, of hype and punditry, and a generational gap insecurity.