Archive for March 2nd, 2008

Wikipedia, its prodigious success and its demons

March 2, 2008

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.” James Conant was, after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it’s a fast-paced game of paintball.Not only does Wikipedia need its vandals—up to a point—the vandals need an orderly Wikipedia, too. Without order, their culture-jamming lacks a context. If Wikipedia were rendered entirely chaotic and obscene, there would be no joy in, for example, replacing some of the article on Archimedes with this:

Archimedes is dead.

He died.

Other people will also die.

All hail chickens.

The Power Rangers say “Hi”

The End.

Even the interesting article on culture jamming has been hit a few times: “Culture jamming,” it said in May 2007, “is the act of jamming tons of cultures into 1 extremely hot room.”

From this wonderful piece by Nicholson Baker in New York Review of Books (link via Jenny). Baker goes on to list the requirements to become a top wiki contributor:

So how do you become one of Wikipedia’s upper crust—one of the several thousand whose words will live on for a little while, before later verbal fumarolings erode what you wrote? It’s not easy. You have to have a cool head, so that you don’t get drawn into soul-destroying disputes, and you need some practical writing ability, and a quick eye, and a knack for synthesis. And you need lots of free time—time to master the odd conventions and the unfamiliar vocabulary (words like “smerge,” “POV warrior,” “forum shopping,” “hatnote,” “meat puppet,” “fancruft,” and “transclusion”), and time to read through guidelines and policy pages and essays and the endless records of old skirmishes—and time to have been gently but firmly, or perhaps rather sharply, reminded by other editors how you should behave. There’s a long apprenticeship of trial and error.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Now there’s a quicker path to proficiency: John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, part of the Missing Manual series, overseen by The New York Times‘s cheery electronics expert, David Pogue. “This Missing Manual helps you avoid beginners’ blunders and gets you sounding like a pro from your first edit,” the book says on the back. In his introduction, Broughton, who has himself made more than 15,000 Wikipedia edits, putting him in the elite top 1,200 of all editors—promises “the information you absolutely need to avoid running afoul of the rules.” And it’s true: this manual is enlightening, well organized, and full of good sense. Its arrival may mark a new, middle-aged phase in Wikipedia’s history; some who read it will probably have wistful longings for the crazy do-it-yourself days when the whole proj-ect was just getting going. In October 2001, the first Wikipedian rule appeared. It was:

Ignore all rules: If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business.

The “ignore all rules” rule was written by co-founder Larry Sanger and signed by co-founder Jimbo Wales, along with WojPob, AyeSpy, OprgaG, Invictus, Koyaanis Qatsi, Pinkunicorn, sjc, mike dill, Taw, GWO, and Enchanter. There were two dissenters listed, tbc and AxelBoldt.

Nowadays there are rules and policy banners at every turn—there are strongly urged warnings and required tasks and normal procedures and notability guidelines and complex criteria for various decisions—a symptom of something called instruction creep: defined in Wikipedia as something that happens “when instructions increase in number and size over time until they are unmanageable.” John Broughton’s book, at a mere 477 pages, cuts through the creep. He’s got a whole chapter on how to make better articles (“Don’t Suppress or Separate Controversy”) and one on “Handling Incivility and Personal Attacks.”

Broughton advises that you shouldn’t write a Wikipedia article about some idea or invention that you’ve personally come up with; that you should stay away from articles about things or people you really love or really hate; and that you shouldn’t use the encyclopedia as a PR vehicle—for a new rock band, say, or an aspiring actress. Sometimes Broughton sounds like a freshman English comp teacher, a little too sure that there is one right and wrong way to do things: Strunk without White. But honestly, Wikipedia can be confusing, and you need that kind of confidence coming from a user’s guide.

I loved the last paragraph about Deletopedia a lot too! Have fun!

Fecundity of Freud’s writing on literature and critical theory

March 2, 2008

Jacob Russell rereads Freud’s Interpretation of dreams (one of my father’s favourite books too), and writes about the multi-facetedness of the work and his surprise at the frequency with which Freud takes recourse to literature to support his theories:

The Interpretation of Dreams is a multi-faceted work: a record of the early development of psychoanalytic theory, a fascinating glimpse of late 19th Century Viennese middle class culture and intellectual life, a study in the transformation of traditions from their diverse contexts of origin: mythological, aesthetic, classical–recasting them within a new, over-arching ideological framework.


I am struck on this reading of how often Freud turns to literature, how profoundly important these literary sources are for the formation of his ideas, how–unlike his treatment of scholarly and scientific predecessors–literature stands for Freud as ready confirmation of his theories, as examples (properly interpreted, of course), of latent meanings made manifest. Even when he strikingly over-determines his analysis, say, of Lear in the Three Caskets, there is something of his treatment that releases it from claims of ownership, that, paradoxically–in the very act of making the Lear of his essay so entirely his own, he leaves us the Lear that remained beyond him, the Lear that came from the mind of its mysterious and unknowable creator. What more could you ask from a critic? Through the concentrated power of a strictly limited interpretation, reveal the unlimited depths that remain beyond those limits. No wonder, then, the fecundity of Freud’s writing on literature and critical theory.

Link via MetaxuCafe.

A Hemingway story

March 2, 2008

That involves Wallace Stevens too, at Baroque in Hackney:

 Stevens says: “By God, I wish I had that Hemingway here now, I’d knock him out with a single punch!”

Hemingway’s sister is at the party, and forcefully tries to convince Stevens, through her tears, what a sap her brother is – he’s no man, etc. Hemingway, drinking quietly at home,is sent for, and meets the very drunk Stevens coming out of the party into the rain. Stevens swings the promised punch, but misses, and Hemingway punches Stevens three times, “and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating.” Into a puddle, apparently.

Someone suggests that Hemingway take off his glasses: whereupon – according to Hemingway’s account in a letter – “Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him.”

This happened in 1935: Hemingway was 36, Stevens was 56.