This week’s New Yorker looks at the wiki-state of Wikipedia, the online participatory encyclopedia that recently hit its millionth entry. A project that started out as an example of unfettered democracy, it turns out, has become a near-bureaucracy of rules and regulations. There are now administrators, who didn’t exist the beginning, and mediation and arbitration committees to work on the most contentious edits.
The article both glorifies this most successful of open source publishing experiments and anticipates a dark cloud on the horizon. “Wikipedia remains a lumpy work in progress,” writes Stacy Schiff, the article’s author. Some entries “read as though they had been written by a seventh grader: clarity and concision are lacking; the facts may be sturdy, but the connective tissue is either anemic or absent; and citation is hit or miss.”
The problem seems to be the thousands of contributors, or Wikipedians, described here as “computer programmers, academics, graduate students, game-show contestants, news junkies, the unemployed, the soon-to-be unemployed and, in general, people with multiple interests and good memories.” Since the site does away with any hierarchy of expertise — “a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read fifteen-year-old,” as Schiff puts it — it often teeters on the edge of anarchy. The average profile of one of these WikiTrolls or WikiGnomes, according to the piece, is someone who is “fundamentally suspicious of experts and unjustly confident of [his] own opinions.” Not the best recipe for accuracy.
Schiff asked Encyclopedia Britannica president Jorge Cauz and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to each come up with a metaphor for the distinction between the two, and their answers are instructive. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School,” says Cauz. Wales answers thusly: “Wikipedia is to Britannica as rock and roll is to easy listening. It may not be as smooth, but it scares the parents and is a lot smarter in the end.” On this, these two might be on the same page.
Speaking of rock and roll, the magazine report would not be complete without a reference to the situation in Israel and Lebanon, over which much ink (not to mention blood) has been spilled this week. The best big-picture analysis we’ve seen lately is that by Dennis Ross in an essay in the latest issue of The New Republic.
Ross views the conflict as a proxy war between Iran and the United States, a perspective seldom heard from daily commentators. Iran, in this account, nervous that nuclear inspections were forthcoming, staged a major distraction. It’s an ironic reading of events, since, as Ross writes, “It is fashionable in some quarters to say that U.S. identification with Israel produces hostility against us in the Islamic world. But, in actuality, Israel may be paying a price for the U.S.-led effort to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear aspirations.”
But he also sees this war as an opportunity to turn the tables on Iran. Since Hezbollah’s actions, according to Ross, have made clear to many leaders, including a few in the Arab world, that Iran has big ambitions, this is a chance to show Iran that it can be shot down if it flies too high. This does mean, however, that “Israel needs to walk a fine line: to inflict a devastating blow against Hezbollah’s infrastructure without so substantially damaging Lebanese infrastructure and killing Lebanese civilians that it diverts attention from Hezbollah and onto itself. This is easier to say than to do, especially when Hezbollah rockets are hidden in the basements of apartment buildings and continue to kill Israeli civilians.”