Edit Thy Neighbor

[x-posted at Gelf]

In the August 4 issue of the New Yorker, Ben McGrath tells the story of Alan Rogers, a talented and thoughtful Army lifer who died in Iraq. McGrath’s essay explores whether the military and media intentionally covered up Rogers’s identity as “the first known gay casualty of the Iraq war,” and it makes for fascinating reading. But I was drawn to several lively paragraphs in the middle of McGrath’s essay. There, he describes the “edit war” over Rogers’s posthumous Wikipedia entry, a war fought over phrases like “he was gay and worked to end ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell'” and a picture of Rogers holding hands with another man.

I’ll admit that this conflict forms an arresting image — like a protester whose sandwich boards can dry-erase. But in choosing to focus on it (and this is his only mention of Wikipedia), McGrath follows a recent trend in the coverage of the online encyclopedia — toward overplaying the aggression of its “talk” and “history” pages. This is different than starting with the idea that Wikipedia is flawed or amateur or clumsy. This is brushing aside those ideas to focus on the Wikidrama, ignoring the ends in order to wallow in the means.

Another example of this trend is Eve Fairbanks’s recent essay in the New Republic, on the Wikipedia entries of presidential candidates. Fairbanks’s examples fall into two groups: vandalism (“An editor replaced a photo of Hillary on her Wikipedia page with a picture of a walrus”) and interpretation (“. . . whether to describe Clinton as ‘a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination’ or just ‘a candidate'”). By the end of the essay, though, her emphasis falls on interpretation.

Maybe that’s because vandalism is so 2005. While early critics keyed on Wikipedia’s vandalism, the encyclopedia has slowly found acceptance — not as The Perfect Tool, but as a solid, self-policing source of information. Now, it seems, reporters like McGrath and Fairbanks must turn to the scandal of interpretation.

You’d think institutions like the New Yorker and the New Republic would remain above this kind of sensationalism. Indeed, the entire situation feels strange, a media mashup where two of the toughest places to write for rub elbows with the easiest. Nevertheless, these elite media organs seem more interested in Wikipedia’s interpretations than just about anyone else, even if their goals remain unclear. Perhaps this is related to the innovative WikiScanner, which traces anonymous edits back to their sources. Perhaps it has something to do with the New Yorker’s previous run-in with Wikipedia, the 2006 “Essjay controversy.”

Whatever the cause, I can imagine plenty of effects. Let’s pick two. First, tracking these debates serves roughly the same purpose as using color quotes (which, if you believe Gelf, means they don’t serve any purpose at all). Ultimately, we’re talking about the shock value of online graffiti. Second, and more important, a focus on interpretation can obscure everything Wikipedia has going for it. If you visit Hillary’s entry now, you won’t find anyone arguing whether Clinton is “a leading candidate” or “a candidate” — the way they did in April, when Fairbanks turned in her essay. Because Wikipedia can instantly evolve and self-edit, Hillary is now merely a “former candidate.”

This ability to adapt — to add, say, a new entry when someone like Alan Rogers becomes newsworthy — is a big part of Wikipedia’s value. And twisting this merit into a behind-the-scenes spat is simply a new way to discriminate against Wikipedia —- not for its content, but for its conflict.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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