Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Copy Editing: Wiki World

As a copy editor, I find myself torn on Wikipedia. I emphasize again and again that it cannot be trusted, going back to when I found the old New York Herald Tribune described on Wikipedia as a "Canadian farm implement." And yet if you are trying to determine the name of the father of Ima Hogg, there is no quicker way when you are sitting at your computer. Wikipedia can't be trusted, but you have to use it if only to find out what not to trust it on.

In the March 20 issue of the New York Review of Books, the author Nicholson Baker reviewed "Wikipedia: The Missing Manual" by John Broughton. It's a wonderfully written piece, with phrases such as:

"It asked for help, and when it did, it used a particularly affecting word: 'stub.' At the bottom of a short article about something, it would say, 'This article about X is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.' And you'd think: That poor sad stub: I will help. Not right now, because I'm writing a book, but someday, yes, I will try to help."

(Segue: In this article he also states, in the most lucid manner I have seen, the essential pull of the Web, and why it interferes with what we used to call the newspaper "habit": "All big Internet successes—e-mail, AOL chat, Facebook, Gawker, Second Life, YouTube, Daily Kos, World of Warcraft—have a more or less addictive component—they hook you because they are solitary ways to be social: you keep checking in, peeking in, as you would to some noisy party going on downstairs in a house while you're trying to sleep." -- It's not that anything is really happening, you know, but it might. Sort of what a blog author hopes for.)

In any event, the point of the book, and the article, is how to be a better Wikipedian -- how to make sure your entry, your contributions, make it through what is seen as an increasingly hard filter. This is also, therefore, how to game Wikipedia, but whatever. It's a fascinating article and for copy editors, who often see little alternative on deadline to a quick Wiki check, almost like a look inside how the New York Times Best-Sellers List really is crafted.

But after reading the article I was left with this feeling: The best way to use Wikipedia is to already know the answer, or most of it. If you are reading something about Indianapolis and it says it was founded in the early 19th century, and you go to Wikipedia and find that its site was selected in 1820 and the capital was moved from Corydon in 1825, well, you still don't know the right answer -- which is was that it was founded in 1821. But if you think you knew it was founded in 1821, and you just wanted to double-check, you can say, OK, it was founded in the 1820s, I'm probably right. If you didn't think you knew it was founded in 1821 you might say from Wikipedia that it was founded in 1820, which is close, but, also, wrong. (I don't have some weird thing about city foundings; my family has lived in Indianapolis since the 1830s, so we almost have an institutional memory of the surveyor putting down stakes.)

If you know where you're going, Wikipedia can help you get there even by putting up something you know is wrong. Beyond that, you're on faith, and Wikipedia should not be your god.

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