The Magazine

Wacky Wiki

The "people's encyclopedia" strives to be doofus-free.

Oct 26, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 06 • By JOE QUEENAN
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In heartrending news for fans of half-baked information everywhere, the top guns at Wikipedia have announced that they will no longer allow the Great Unwashed to go online and add or delete material from Wikipedia entries. From now on, any changes will have to be approved by an editorial review board. And so, the great experiment with a rambunctious, grassroots, spontaneous, online, interactive, thoroughly unreliable encyclopedia has come to an end.

The mature, sophisticated approach being taken by Wikipedia is particularly distressing for aficionados of amateurishness. Since its inception eight years ago, Wikipedia's great strength was that it was a "people's encyclopedia," where in theory anyone could alter an entry if they thought it needed modification, amplification, or excision. This meant that the official verdict on people and events was no longer in the hands of evenhanded, dispassionate professionals but in the hands of plain folks who actually had strong feelings about the subject.

It also meant that no one had to take Wikipedia seriously, because so many of the contributors were doofuses.

As collegiate plagiarists learned to their distress, Wikipedia entries varied in quality and objectivity. Dates, numbers, and spellings were sometimes wrong. Baseball players who made their name with the Chicago White Sox were sometimes listed as Cleveland Indians. And critical judgments about celebrities were often deliberately suppressed. That's because the entries tended to be written by contributors who did not have the proper emotional distance from their subjects-and sometimes by the subjects themselves. As a result, -unflattering opinions were often ignored or quickly removed from the site.

Wikipedia's new policy is devastating news to those of us who revel in the anonymous malice of our fellow Internet users. Frankly, I used to love it when I gave a book a bad review and the victim got his mommy to go online and report that I was evil incarnate. This was exhilarating, not only because it let me know that I had drawn blood, but because it was flattering that there was somebody out there who would take time out of his busy life to update my Wikipedia entry. Even if it was only to say that I was the scum of the earth.

Once somebody wrote that I was a "schoolyard bully" and "a self-described hatchet-man" whose last book didn't sell because of "poor writing." Shortly afterward, at a pro bono speaking engagement, the toastmaster, culling this material from Wikipedia, introduced me as a self-described hatchet man and schoolyard bully. Then he asked the audience to put their hands together and give it up for me. A good time was had by all.

The only thing that ever upset me was Wikipedia's insistence that I lived in Sleepy Hollow, New York. No, that was Ichabod Crane. I would rather have my pancreas gnawed on by meningitis-plagued ferrets than live in a town with a name like Sleepy Hollow. At least once a year I write an article somewhere ridiculing the name "Sleepy Hollow." Occasionally, my son would go online and change "Sleepy Hollow" to the accurate, and immensely less fey, "Tarrytown." But he would also insert something puckish, such as a note that I had fought on Xerxes' side at Thermopylae, or that I had played some role in the destruction of the Death Star. These entries would remain online for an hour or so, then be deleted. But so would the data that I live in Tarrytown.

Seemingly, someone out there was monitoring my entry, ensuring that it continued to contain the personally offensive information that I lived in a twee, absurd locality called Sleepy Hollow.

Those in the know had long been aware that things were not going smoothly in the World of Wiki. Some time ago, the top guns made it impossible to vandalize sites dealing with subjects like the Holocaust or Britney Spears. Stephen Colbert got banned from the site when he added all sorts of ridiculous material to his entry and encouraged TV viewers to do likewise. (This factoid is not included in his Wikipedia entry.) One famous incident involved a fabricated quote planted in the composer Maurice Jarre's biography-which was then dutifully included in numerous obituaries after he died in March. This made reporters look stupid, quite a change from the norm.

The most embarrassing scandal was when John Seigenthaler, a friend of the Kennedy family and former official in the Kennedy Justice Department, found that his Wikipedia biography linked him to the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy. Admittedly, this was deeply unfair to Seigenthaler; but it was not as if things like this occurred every day. And to many of us, a bit of factual inaccuracy and occasional character defamation seemed like a small price to pay for a few rousing chuckles.

Now, those days are past. The era when a thousand-nay, a million-half-truths bloomed, is over. The days when college kids could hand in papers on Japanese history containing Wikipedia data lifted from James Clavell's Shogun are gone. The days of the Citizen Eulogist, the Obituarist in the Street, are over for good.
This is a tragedy. As long as Wikipedia entries were routinely altered by bozos, neo-Nazis, and Stephen Colbert, Wikipedia had no claim to legitimacy. But with the new policy, the encyclopedia for the masses can now purport to be professional, authoritative, and scrupulously fair, the sort of wise, mature, responsible entity grown-ups would produce.