There was a thoughtful piece by Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times about the Web. It touches on subjects that I have lately written about too, and Appleyard kindly quotes my criticisms of political blogging from The Guardian. He makes a particularly acute point about the principle of Wikipedia, where anyone may edit entries and whose ubiquity is in my view a threat to the quality of public discourse. (My touchstone for this infiltration is how often The Guardian's "Comment is Free" site introduces links to Wikipedia despite having available an archive of first-rate journalism by Guardian writers that it could use instead. In my latest piece for the site, CIF's editors unerringly linked to Wikipedia when I referred to, respectively, the African Union and Chapter VII of the UN Charter. There doesn't appear anything I can do about this except assure my readers that I didn't and wouldn't put such links in myself, and that I wish no one would do it on my behalf.) Appleyard says, of Wikipedia's philosophy:
It is predicated not just on the wisdom of the crowd, but on its power. So, Wikipedia can be written and rewritten by everybody who uses it. Applying [James] Surowiecki’s argument, this should mean it is the most accurate encyclopedia in the world.
But, of course, it isn’t, because, in this case, the wisdom of the crowd fails utterly. Wikipedia fails because, though the crowd guessed the weight of the ox [in the celebrated example of Francis Galton], it didn’t make the ox weigh that much. Its weight was a fact out there in the world. An elite — scale-makers and compilers of measuring systems — were the judges of this, not the masses.
Wikipedia has a dodgy relationship with any kind of elite. “Ess-jay”, a prolific contributor who was said to be a professor with degrees in theology and canon law, turned out to be Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old college dropout from Kentucky. Jordan exploited the trust structure of the internet technology to pretend he was somebody else, to steal the authority of academia.
But it's worse than stealing authority. See this interesting comment by one blogger (and be sure to follow the priceless link, invoking a previously unknown principle of public education, immediately before the second block quotation). There is the tacit assumption that editing Wikipedia - "with its arcane language, titles, and rules and its multitude of clans" - yields a different route to authority, shorn of the burden of earning it by more conventional routes. Wikipedia doesn't discriminate between different types of contribution; from the standpoint of a Wikipedia contributor, that's the point and the attraction of it. By design, the most popular reference source on the Web operates by consensus rather than by discriminating between fact and error.
Here is a small example concerning my family, and that I cite because I therefore know the subject and it illustrates what I'm talking about. It would be difficult to name an African country that has suffered war in the last 40 years and whose travails have not been reported by Martin Bell for the BBC. One of those countries, however, is Rwanda. Wikipedia's entry for Martin, sure enough, cites prominently his journalism from that country - a body of work that no one has seen because it doesn't exist. It's the type of small error - something that might have happened, but didn't - that no amateur editor would feel sufficiently strongly about to check, or sure about to delete. Inevitably, given Wikipedia's reach and unwarranted use even by serious newspapers, that factoid will make its way into profiles and, one day, obituaries of the man. It's not important; it doesn't affect his professional reputation one way or the other; it's just wrong. By not discriminating between fact and error, the Web and specifically Wikipedia increasingly blur the distinction between them.