Thonemann notes that printed concordances for classical Greek and Latin literature—"lists of all the words appearing in a given text" that were "the products of years of human drudgery"—have been "entirely superseded by two or three online databases", even though the latter are still imperfect enough (for now ...) to warrant an occasional consultation of their printed predecessors.
And in the course of his review of Lynch's book, he adds some comments of his own about Wikipedia, partly informed by his correspondence with Wikipedian Rich Farmbrough:
One of the most common gripes about Wikipedia is that it pays far more attention to Pokémon and Game of Thrones than it does to, say, sub-Saharan Africa or female novelists. Well, perhaps; the most widely repeated variants of "Wikipedia has more information on x than y" are in fact largely fictitious (Wikipedia:Wikipedia_has_more...). Given the manner of its compilation, the accursed thing really is a whole lot more reliable than it has any right to be. ...
As Lynch rightly notes, the problem with Wikipedia is not so much its reliability—which is, for most purposes, perfectly OK—as its increasing ubiquity as a source of information. "Wikipedia, despite being non-commercial, still poses many of the dangers of a traditional monopoly, and we run the risk of living in an information monoculture." Large parts of the media demonstrably use Wikipedia as their major or sole source of factual data; as a result, false or half-true claims (such as are found in any encyclopedia) can spread and take root with extraordinary speed.
Thonemann then proceeds to give an example of the adverse effects of Wikipedia's monopoly: the answer to the question, "which English-language novel has sold the most copies?"
The short answer is that nobody knows: we have no remotely reliable sales figures for books published more than a couple of decades ago, and books that are out of copyright might exist in literally hundreds of different editions and translations. Nonetheless, between April 24, 2008 and January 30, 2016, Wikipedia had the answer: it was Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, with an estimated 200 million copies sold, a third as many again as the next bestselling book, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
This figure of 200 million is—to state the obvious—pure fiction. Its ultimate source is unknown: perhaps a hyperbolic 2005 press release for a Broadway musical adaptation of Dickens's novel. But the presence of this canard on Wikipedia had, and continues to have, a startling influence.
Thonemann cites numerous mainstream media articles that appear to have lifted the information from Wikipedia—"the BBC as well as ... the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Guardian and the Independent, none of which have cited Wikipedia as a source", noting that the factoid has even entered popular history books.
Getting the genie back in the bottle has not been easy. The figure of 200 million was first queried on the Wikipedia talk pages in May 2009, and was deleted from the site on December 4, 2014 by Richard Farmbrough, one of the most prolific British Wikipedians. (He also provided much of the factual data in this paragraph; Wiki-editors are, in my experience, an exceptionally friendly and helpful bunch.) On December 5, the claim was reinserted, re-removed, and reinserted again. Farmbrough took it down it again on February 4, 2015; on March 1, it was reinstated and promptly re-removed; it appeared again on April 23, and survived for another nine months before the indefatigable Farmbrough deleted it yet again on January 30, 2016. Why has the claim proved so difficult to kill? No doubt part of the reason is that it has now accumulated a lengthy and, by Wiki-standards, respectable paper trail: a long article on historical fiction by the novelist David Mitchell in the Telegraph; Stephen Clarke’s 1,000 Years of Annoying the French; and so forth. (Wikipedians have their own word for malignant and self-sustaining cycles of this kind: citogenesis.)
Thonemann concedes that this individual case may not be particularly important, but asserts that it illustrates both the benefits and perils of Wikipedia.
One of the main worries about Wikipedia is not that its content does not improve over time (it clearly does), but that it gets better so much more slowly than anyone would have predicted back in 2006 or 2007. It is here—sneers the academic—that the project really feels the lack of expert editors. Wikipedia does just fine at uncontroversial factual information, but as soon as a topic demands critical discrimination or a bit of intelligent digging, its quality control goes completely haywire.
Yet it's impossible to turn back time, Thonemann argues, finishing his piece with the suggestion that academics should bite the bullet and "spend a bit more time editing Wikipedia ourselves."
Mic (May 18) and Motherboard (May 17) discuss the recent email by a Wikipedian, sent to the Wikimedia-l mailing list, stating that his recent interactions on Wikipedia had left him contemplating suicide.
The editor's letter details his attempts to write articles for Wikipedia and the obstruction he felt he faced in doing so. After a disagreement with Wikipedia administrators that resulted in name calling, the editor was ultimately blocked from the site. At the end of the letter he says his experience has him considering suicide.
"I spent hours of my time researching the article, trying to do a good job. But in an instant the material was ripped away, and I was called obsessed," he wrote.
The editor in question is said to be OK, according to follow-up emails on the chain. While it's difficult to ascertain the validity of this editor's complaints, his words do appear to have struck a chord with others on the email chain.
In the wake of the editor's email, other contributors to Wikimedia's site piped up to say they too had felt obstructed or bullied on the platform.
"I've been called names, articles have been deleted, I've been told by many people that, sure, were it any other person they'd be banned," one contributor recounted, adding, "It's very, very toxic at times. And nobody really cares."
Ruth Reader, writing in Mic, quotes MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle:
... without in-person interaction, it can be more difficult for people to figure out how to know what common ground they share. Online, it's easier to dehumanize other people. When we meet online it's harder to know who we're talking to.
In a discussion in the Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group, one Wikimedian asserted that "Wikipedia is particularly attractive to people who deal with a mental issue", arguing that for many, it has a restorative effect and brings "a sense of self-worth". This is undoubtedly true in many cases, yet it is surely a two-edged sword: the fact that contributors dealing with mental issues may lack empathy can only contribute to a climate that many perceive as toxic, while the effects of this climate are bound to be felt most acutely by those who are already struggling with a propensity for depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviour and similar challenges in their lives.
The people contributing to Wikipedia are its most precious asset.
Note: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is toll-free in the US and available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. suicide.org has a list of international suicide hotlines, including Australia, Canada, the UK and many other countries across the world. To report any threats of harm or self-harm on Wikipedia, contact emergencywikimedia.org.
I still love reading utterly baffled questions on Wikipedia talk pages, IMDB message boards, Facebook groups, and random YouTube commenters from desperate people trying to track down "the one with the girl Street Shark."
Rob Zombie, who recently played "Wikipedia: Fact or Fiction?"
Thumbnails for Wikipedia food results: The SEM Postnotes that Google has added thumbnail graphics for food-related Wikipedia results. (May 27)
North Korea: CNN among others reports that according to activists, helicopter drones have been delivering SD cards and flash drives containing "Western and South Korean films, TV shows, music and internet-free access to Wikipedia" to North Koreans—"media that will help get outside information to North Koreans, who are kept behind an invisible wall that cuts them off from outside influence." (May 25)
Wikipedia quoted in IRS hearing: The Washington Postreports that a Republican congressman quoted Wikipedia during an IRS hearing. (May 25)
The misspelled encyclopedia: German Stern magazine profiles Wikipedia parody site Wikipeetia, "the misspelled encyclopedia", noting that Wikipedia itself contains its fair share of mistakes as well ... and had "best not be visited at all if you really want to know something for sure". (May 18)
No Obama assassination plot on Wikipedia: Gawker's Ashley Feinberg has penned another round-up of deleted Wikipedia articles. (May 18)
WISE Women: The UIC News Center reports on WISE WIKI, a project managed by UIC's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program and designed to bridge Wikipedia's gender gap. (May 17)
#WikiTIM: Telecompaper.com, la Repubblica and universita.it report on a joint project by Telecom Italia and the University of Urbino "aimed at writing and rewriting Wikipedia entries with the help of the University of Urbino Carlo Bo. The project, dubbed #WikiTIM, will see the partners collaborate with various Italian universities to boost the development of digital literacy in Italy." (May 16/19)