You can listen here to a moderately interesting Radio 4 programme, broadcast yesterday, under the self-explanatory title "The Wikipedia Story". The presenter, Clive Anderson, speaks to a fair range of people, including Andrew Keen, whose book The Cult of the Amateur I've commended on this blog. But I don't feel the programme properly identified the objection of us sceptics to the Wikipedia venture and to the culture of user-generated content. Andrew has a nice quotation in his book (p. 45):
So what do we get in exchange for free amateur content? We get, of course, what we pay for. We get what the great thinker and writer Lewis Mumford called "a state of intellectual enervation and depletion hardly to be distinguished from massive ignorance".
(Mumford is little read now, which is surprising given the popularity of anti-capitalist sentiment. His principal subject was architecture, which he taught in the 1920s at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. His critiques of market forces and in particular of their effect on the environment are far more prescient than those of more recent Green theorists.)
Occasionally I've commented here on an especially gross error or tendentious political message I've come across on Wikipedia, but none of these is an important point and my objection to Wikipedia is not that it gets things wrong. Errors can be corrected; political grandstanding is not hard to spot. (Mind you, here's an example of the latter – and bear in mind that Wikipedia is intended as a reference source. I recently, on the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, turned to Wikipedia to see what it made of that terrible subject. I have to acknowledge that, other than its final section, the article isn't bad. I then turned to a linked Wikipedia article on Genocide denial, and was stupefied by what I found. There, reasonably enough, were the names of David Irving and - someone not widely known now, but a deceased pro-Nazi fraud masquerading as a historian - David Hoggan. And alongside them was Shimon Peres. The cited source for the Israeli President's entry into this unworthy pantheon was, of all things, an op-ed article by Robert Fisk. But at least the Wikipedia editor making that transparently polemical interpolation had thought to provide some sort of source. Elsewhere in the article, there is a long passage studded throughout with the label "citation needed" – which is to understate the problem, because the passage is unalloyed fabrication.)
My objection is rather that Wikipedia is by design an anti-intellectual exercise. Anyone can be an editor, and consequently the Wikipedia "community" recognises no intrinsic value in competence and knowledge. If you listen to Clive Anderson's programme, you'll notice a striking omission in this respect. There is no reference to the "Essjay scandal", revealed earlier this year. A prominent member of the Wikipedia "community" and of its arbitration committee turned out to be not, as he had claimed, a tenured professor of religion but a 24 year-old college drop-out called Ryan Jordan. More notable than the young man's fraud was Wikipedia's response, quoted in this article:
On his own Wikipedia "user talk" page, Mr. Jordan apologized, but said he created the false identity to protect him from critics who make a point to publicize the names of Wikipedia contributors. Some Wikipedians were quick to offer support to Essjay, but others were harshly critical. A few people even suggested Mr. Jordan be banned from posting to the encyclopedia.
But Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedian whose opinion matters the most, strongly defended the beleaguered editor. "EssJay has always been, and still is, a fantastic editor and trusted member of the community," wrote Wikipedia's chief. "He has been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter, and I consider it settled."
So Jordan claimed expertise he did not possess; and according to Wikipedia's founder and intellectual progenitor, that didn't matter. Wikipedia's absence of standards could scarcely be more blatant. It has consequences too. Consider this item by the Tory blogger Iain Dale (whom ironically I debated recently on television about the merits of the "blogosphere") a few months ago:
Conservative MP James Duddridge has discovered that Robert Mugabe's daughter Bona is studying at the LSE. He asked Ian McCartney about it in the House of Commons earlier having alerted him to the issue this morning. Bearing in mind McCartney had several hours to look into the issue, his responses were less than illuminating. When asked if the British taxpayer was paying any of the cost of her education he said "I don't know". James Duddridge has now written to McCartney asking five key questions...
The "discovery" was no such thing. The story was rubbish, and the LSE denied that any relative of Mugabe was registered as a student there. There is strong circumstantial evidence, set out by one editor of the site, that the bogus claim in fact originated with Wikipedia, and that the Tory MP James Duddridge had taken this “information” directly from the site. (I have taken the link from a useful "Wikipedia Watch" site.) Owing to the unfortunate accident that the minister in question, Ian McCartney, is not a man noted for mastery of any brief, this factoid was then confirmed in Parliament – giving a straight propaganda victory to Robert Mugabe, who habitually claims that he is the victim of lies told by the British government. It’s almost incredible to relate, but even after the story had been debunked, the Tory MP James Duddridge – having been grievously at fault in the first place by acting on what he’d read in Wikipedia – returned to the subject. He issued a statement declaring:
James has received confirmation from the Foreign Affairs Minister that Robert Mugabe's daughter is not currently studying at the London School of Economics. However, James remains concerned that Bona Mugabe and other members of the family are legally able to study in the UK and will be meeting the Minister on Monday 16th April to get to the bottom of the link between the dictator's family and the UK education system.
There was no link. The direct fault here was with a preternaturally dim Tory MP and an incompetent minister, but we shouldn’t lose sight of their inspiration. When false stories are not merely retailed and fanned by Wikipedia but also created by it, with no inherent check on its accuracy, and where "user-generated content" is treated as just another form of information, then our civic culture is in difficulty.