A List Apart

Author David Weinberger, who wrote the recently-released Everything is Miscellaneous which sits this very moment on my to-read shelf, points to an interesting debate happening within Wikipedia. Someone wanted to include on the site a list of songs with people’s names in the titles. Amins deleted the list, and the debate began.

Should Wikipedia host indiscriminate lists like that one and others? Or should the site maintain a level of academic seriousness and ban that kind of article?

It’s a tough call. The list would be a very good example of the kind of organization that is possible online and not on paper. No publisher in her right mind would allow that kind of list into an ink and paper encyclopedia. With Wikipedia, it’s not an issue of wasted space or money. They’re silly with hard drive space over there (just like we all are these days). So, economically, it doesn’t harm anything to keep the lists–the site does, after all, keep histories of all its pages back to the beginning of time when those aren’t ever viewed by the public, for the most part).

Another argument against the lists is that they make Wikipedia seem less professional, more amateur. I hate to say it, but despite that landmark Nature study, Wikipedia is rife with inaccuracy in some areas that are very hard for most people to spot. When I taught writing, I did not allow my students to use Wikipedia as a source, partly because of that inaccuracy and partly because of the research-laziness inspired by their total faith in the site. Will adding lists to this site really harm its reputation among people in the know? I don’t think so. Academics are already wisely wary of the ‘pedia. Adding lists will not change their view, and it will likely benefit the casual reader who stumbled upon them.

There is a reason why I think we should allow the Wikipedia lists, and the Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus Blog put it well earlier today: “Academics who aren’t fond of Wikipedia sometimes criticize the site for its apparent frivolity: The collectively created encyclopedia’s articles about Pokemon, for example, seem rather more authoritative than its entries on poststructuralism.”

In this quotation, we see the strength of the Wikipedia. It is not in high-quality articles about academic or philosophic or even scientific subjects. It is in the encyclopedia’s broad coverage. No print encyclopedia has the depth of coverage of popular culture that Wikipedia has. So long as the Wikipedia exists, it will be a repository for all knowledge, especially that eschewed by other, more selective references. If I want to know about “The Real Ghostbusters” or “Crystal Pepsi,” I can learn about them on the Wikipedia, not in Britannica.

Does that make it academically useful? Absolutely. It also makes it highly diplomatic and puts it in the very spirit of hypertext that online collaboration allows. Hypertext, true hypertext, is about organizing and linking information in new and unforeseen ways. If we begin to censor what kind of information is allowed onto a free-use site like Wikipedia, then we begin to apply hierarchy to one of the last bastions of democracy online. Hypertext and hierarchy do not mix.

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