I wish I’d said that

Those of you who read Cites & Insights–and if you don’t, you really should–know that I’ve looked at Wikipedia off and on, from a number of angles.

One aspect of Wikipedia that’s always bothered me is, I believe, built into the model: The more important the entry, the less likely that it will have a coherent voice. From what I’m seeing, the situation at Wikipedia is getting worse as there are more efforts to assure that everything is properly footnoted. I was hoping Citizendium would be different–that requiring signed contributions would encourage coherent essays–but even Citizendium has procedures that work against editorial coherence to some extent, as I discussed in “Citizendium and the Writer’s Voice,” in the May 2008 issue. The essay starts on page 10, but the relevant discussion starts on page 17: “The writer’s voice, the expert’s mind.”

For a one-paragraph factoid, it doesn’t much matter. But for anything much more significant, I’d really like an encyclopedia article to be an essay, something that leads me to an understanding of the subject. My belief is that Wikipedia’s methodology pushes in the other direction, as it discourages commentary and encourages strings of documentable statements. Instead of essays, you get big long sets of sentences and paragraphs with little coherence or narrative flow.

But there you go: I’ve used two paragraphs and not really gotten at what I mean to say.

Then I read Tim Spalding’s post today at Thingology: “Wikimania 2008 (Alexandria, Egypt).” And this comment on an article that requires more than a factual paragraph (in this case, “Alexander the Great”):

It’s lumpy, unbalanced, poorly written and poorly sourced—a bright fourteen year-old child sitting next to you on a bus, telling you everything he knows.* Parts are good. Parts are bad. Parts are just off somehow—their correction requiring un-Wikipedia-esque virtues like restraint, proportionality and style.

“A bright fourteen-year-old child sitting next to you on a bus, telling you everything he knows.” That’s just about perfect.

I’ll add to “restraint, proportionality and style,” one more virtue that may be covered in “style”: narrative coherence.

An encyclopedia article on Alexander the Great should be a story. It should have voice, coherence, style, narrative flow. When I’m done reading it, I should understand something about Alexander the Great. I don’t believe you can get there from a series of factual sentences and paragraphs–and I believe it’s a lot harder when commentary is disallowed and writers are anonymous.

This doesn’t suggest that Wikipedia’s useless–and I’d guess the vast majority of its uses are for quick lookups anyway, where the lack of narrative coherence doesn’t much matter. It does suggest that Wikipedia has real limits and that, in some ways, it will never be as good as traditional encyclopedias, even if it may exceed them in other ways.

Thanks, Tim. I’ll use that elsewhere, and try to remember to give you credit.

7 Responses to “I wish I’d said that”

  1. Steve Lawson says:

    What you say is true enough, but I enjoy the opposite effect that sometimes occurs: when there is a Wikipedia entry on something that no “real” encyclopedia would cover, but it has that semi-anonymous, blandly competent tone. Like the article on the Chewbacca Defense.

  2. walt says:

    Well, yes. For pop culture, technotrivia, and lots of stuff like that, the only way to beat Wikipedia might be one of the specialized wikis that goes into even more detail. And the Wikipedia approach does add a certain, um, tang to the trivia.

  3. Iris says:

    I’ve been thinking about this because, while I mostly agree with you, I think I would be rather horrified if Wikipedia did a “better” job of having Encyclopedia-like essays rather than the sting of facts that it currently has. Here’s why I say that.

    Wikipedia has many potential shortcomings, and these potential shortcomings become more worrisome if people go to Wikipedia to Learn What They Need To Know rather than going there to get an overview of a topic and a list of sources or links. It’s this list of sources that I find to be the true value of Wikipedia. In effect, they’ve become the directory equivalent of Google (rather like Yahoo was at one point, and to some extent still is). I know that my students will go to Wikipedia, and I can’t tell them not to. But what I can do is teach them to use it as a jumping-off place to find more authoritative sources simply by following the links in Wikipedia. And that’s how I use it, myself.

    As you say, the factoid writing style is probably a necessary companion to multi-author articles having no editorial oversight. But if the goal is to become a Directory With Context, this style doesn’t actually bother me and, in fact, helps to reduce emphasis on the tool as an end in itself.

  4. walt says:

    If that’s the goal, I don’t disagree–but seems to me the Wikipedians are selling it as The Ultimate Encyclopedia, and that a great many people use it as an end in itself.

    This, I suspect, is a situation, not a problem (that is: problems have solutions; situations don’t). And it’s certainly the case that many of those who set about shouting down Citizendium before it really even began did so on the basis that Wikipedia is all we need, and nothing can compete with it.

  5. Iris says:

    I’d agree that this is, as you say, a situation. A few years ago it was a problem and everyone spent long hours trying to figure out what they could do about it. Now it’s a situation, and so we’re shifting toward figuring out how to get the most out of it.

  6. Tim says:

    I mostly agree with you on the narrative coherence. Coherence of any kind—narrative, stylistic or analytical—are un-Wikipedia-esque virtues.

    That said, as a historian of sorts, I am suspicious of narrative. I like to see the bones of history. For something like Alexander, narrative too often smoothes over difficulties of sources or interpretation, so to the extent that Wikipedia’s fragmented production can voice these issues, I cheer it.

    On balance, however, I think the loss is greater than the gain.

  7. walt says:

    I guess the question there would be whether an encyclopedia should be the place to go for the source material–and whether, if it is, Wikipedia’s other policies are serving history well.

    I’m not a historian (although some of my other writing starts to resemble history), but remembering a series of civil war lectures by the new breed of historians (returning to source data), I’ d say “no” on both counts. To serve as a repository for source data, Wikipedia would have to abandon the “notability rule” altogether–after all, for new civil war history work, the historians are looking at the letters and journals of the “everyday” people involved in the war, not just the Notable Figures.

    But that’s already saying more than I really know. As a reader, I want narrative. As a sometimes-investigator and frequent writer, I want both narrative and access to source material.