Its titular appositive is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” and its mission statement says it exists “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.” The plea for donations on the Wikimedia’s Foundation’s homepage implores potential givers to “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of human knowledge.”
But, what is Wikipedia? To most, this question seems unnecessarily pedantic. After all, everybody knows what Wikipedia is. It is the sixth most visited website in the world and has become the starting point for all general knowledge, a fact the academic world will have to contend with in the near future.
While Wikipedia’s role in the improvement or degradation of academic knowledge is certainly worth considering, that is not the topic about the encyclopedic service that has occupied my mind of late. Rather, my train of thought has revolved around what the Wikipedia community and its quasi-tribal rule of law will allow as contributions to the “sum of human knowledge.”
About a month ago, online conservatives and liberals fought a turf war over the Republican vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan. The battle was fought in the domain of Ryan’s high school years, when he was, at various times, labeled “biggest ‘brown noser’” and “prom king.” Each sobriquet was removed, reinstated, re-removed, and so forth. At the end of the day, the conservatives won out, with “prom king” surviving the carnage evident on the “talk page.
The Great Paul Ryan War of 2012 did not slow down in September, however, as competing edits raised the stakes to whether the nominee’s RNC acceptance speech contained factual inaccuracies. At some point, an armistice was reached, as the white flag on the top of the page boldly declares: “This page is currently protected from editing until disputes have been resolved.” The treaty does not signal the fighting’s end, as the banner also directs interested parties to “discuss any changes on the talk page” and makes sure to note that the “protection is not an endorsement of the current version” (which does not mention controversy over the speech’s veracity).
At first glance, this does not seem too portentous. This election has important issues, like invisible presidents in visible chairs and acutely meditated party platforms, to grapple with. But like Twitter and, at least for President Obama, Reddit, Wikipedia has become a legitimate political battleground. Wikipedia is the first destination for any inquiring mind, and opponents have every incentive to control what a voter sees when researching a potentially contentious topic. This is similar to earned media strategies of getting favorable op-eds placed in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, although, if the bloodshed in the Paul Ryan field is any indication, much more vicious. The “sum of human knowledge,” as it turns out, is required to take up only a limited amount of space.
Edit wars, as—according to a Wikipedia page on the very topic—the feuds are officially called, ensnare more than just political victims. Recently, prize-winning author Philip Roth entered the fray, when he petitioned the keepers of his page to change the story of his inspiration for the novel “The Human Strain” to one that was, well, actually true. Roth was not arguing that his piece should be interpreted a specific way but simply wanted to accurately equip human knowledge with the truth about the book’s origin. Much to his dismay, his request for modification to the page was denied. His request was rejected with the following retort from the Wikipedia administrator: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work but we require secondary sources.” Roth resorted to penning an open letter about his predicament in the New Yorker, which ended his traumatic experience with a powerful institution—an institution that somehow found itself with the legitimate authority to promulgate an inaccurate story about the goings-on of Roth’s mind.
The frightening part is that we are the ones who bestowed this authority upon Wikipedia. We entered dangerous terrain by relying on Wikipedia for information in its infant years, but refrains to beware its dubious encyclopedic values eventually led to dramatically strengthened standards. For the most part, we have ditched skepticism and now rely wholly on Wikipedia’s truthfulness. Yet, just because we believe everything on the site, does not mean we should forget what it really is. Everyone may contribute, but someone controls what contributions remain. Some topics are off the table entirely. Apparently I missed it, but at some point, we ceded control over what we allow ourselves to know.