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Monday, March 03, 2008

James Bryant Conant is a Big Stupid Head

Novelist and foul-rag-and-bone-collector Nicholson Baker has a lovely article in the NYRB on The Charms of Wikipedia.  It is especially fascinating on the debate between "deletionists" and "inclusionists" on Wikipedia -- those who favor trimming "stubs" and "non-notable" entries and those who take the view that, "if people want an article about every Pokemon character, then hey, let it happen."  He also writes amusingly about the collective editing process and the role of "vandals" in that process:

Some articles are so out of the way that they get very little vandalism. (Although I once fixed a tiny page about a plant fungus, Colletotrichum trichellum, that infects English ivy; somebody before me had claimed that 40 percent of the humans who got it died.) Some articles are vandalized a lot. On January 11, 2008, the entire fascinating entry on the aardvark was replaced with "one ugly animal"; in February the aardvark was briefly described as a "medium-sized inflatable banana." . . . . .

The Pop-Tarts page is often aflutter. Pop-Tarts, it says as of today (February 8, 2008), were discontinued in Australia in 2005. Maybe that's true. Before that it said that Pop-Tarts were discontinued in Korea. Before that Australia. Several days ago it said: "Pop-Tarts is german for Little Iced Pastry O' Germany." Other things I learned from earlier versions: More than two trillion Pop-Tarts are sold each year. George Washington invented them. They were developed in the early 1960s in China. Popular flavors are "frosted strawberry, frosted brown sugar cinnamon, and semen." Pop-Tarts are a "flat Cookie." No: "Pop-Tarts are a flat Pastry, KEVIN MCCORMICK is a FRIGGIN LOSER notto mention a queer inch." No: "A Pop-Tart is a flat condom." Once last fall the whole page was replaced with "NIPPLES AND BROCCOLI!!!!!"

This sounds chaotic, but even the Pop-Tarts page is under control most of the time. The "unhelpful" or "inappropriate"—sometimes stoned, racist, violent, metalheaded—changes are quickly fixed by human stompers and algorithmicized helper bots. It's a game. Wikipedians see vandalism as a problem, and it certainly can be, but a Diogenes-minded observer would submit that Wikipedia would never have been the prodigious success it has been without its demons.

This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who knows whether, when you look up Harvard's one-time warrior-president, James Bryant Conant, you're going to get a bland, evenhanded article about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen minutes on April 26, 2006): "HES A BIG STUPID HEAD."

A very enjoyable article.   In reading it, I'm reminded of Brian Leiter's strongly stated view that legal scholars who cite Wikipedia "should presumably be blacklisted from scholarly careers."  (But see Mike Dorf.)  Do these anecdotes support his point?  I think not.  Although it would be useful to know more about the aardvark, and the unadulterated entry was probably better on this score, most people would still agree that it is indeed one ugly animal.  And many people -- fewer, perhaps, than would take the "ugly animal" position, but many nonetheless (and I am one of them) -- would also agree that the aardvark is a medium-sized inflatable banana.  So, as I see it, no harm done.

Dan Solove might want to add actual legal wisdom on the issue over at Co-Op.  He's welcome to, although really, what more can one add than this: "Bedbugs are generally active only at dawn, with a peak attack period about an hour before dawn, though given the opportunity, they may attempt to feed at your brain at other times."       

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 3, 2008 at 05:16 PM in Blogging | Permalink


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I'm a huge Nicholson Baker fan. He has a great essay somewhere on compound punctuation.

He got a bit obsessed with old newspapers for a while.

Posted by: KeithT | Mar 3, 2008 11:03:04 PM

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