Thursday, March 06, 2008

Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia

Nicholson Baker,who criticized librarians in his controversial book Double Fold, discusses Wikipedia in his lively review of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, by John Broughton. The always irreverent Baker gives a brief history of the open-source encyclopedia, which he describes as being "like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks." Baker reminded me of something I had forgotten: When Wikipedia began, it "absorbed articles from the celebrated 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is in the public domain." It also pulled in a number of other reference sources, all of which were in the public domain. The effect of all this erudition was to "elevate[] Wikipedia's tone." At least for awhile. Baker recounts how Wikipedia "editors" made revisions and even vandalized some entries. As Baker says, "Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it's a fast-paced game of paintball."

Baker describes the process of becoming a member of the Wikipedia "upper crust--one of the several thousand whose words will live on for a little while, before later verbal fumarolings erode what [they] wrote." According to Baker, these individuals need to "have a cool head, so that [they] don't get drawn into soul-destroying disputes...and some practical writing ability, and a quick eye, and a knack for synthesis." Most important is enough free time for "a long apprenticeship of trial and error." Baker says that the apprenticeship can be shortened considerably by taking advantage of the advice contained in John Broughton's new book, which "may mark a new, middle-aged phase in Wikipedia's history." Although Broughton sometimes "sounds like a freshman English comp teacher," he can help would-be Wikipedia editors achieve the self-confidence needed to "start adding, creating, rescuing."

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