Writing in this week’s New Yorker, Stacy Schiff takes a look at the Wikipedia phenomenon. One sign that she did well: The inevitable response page at Wikipedia is almost entirely positive. Schiff’s writing is typical of what makes the New Yorker great. It has rich historical context, apt portrayals of the key characters involved in the story, and a liberal sprinkling of humor, bons mots and surprising factual nuggets. It is also, as all New Yorker pieces are, rigorously fact-checked and ably edited.
Normally, I wouldn’t use FTT as a forum to “talk shop” about a piece of journalism. But in this case, the medium really is the message – the New Yorker’s coverage of Wikipedia is itself a showcase for some of the things old-line publications still do best. As soon as I saw Schiff’s article in my New Yorker table of contents (yes, I still read it in hard copy, and yes, I splurge on getting it mailed abroad to Oxford) I knew it would be a great test case. On the one hand, Wikipedia is the preeminent example of community-driven, user-generated content. Any coverage of Wikipedia, particularly any critical coverage, is guaranteed to be the target of harsh, well-informed scrutiny by the proud community of Wikipedians. On the other, The New Yorker’s writing is, indisputably, among the best out there, and its fact checking department is widely thought to be the strongest in the business.
When reading Wikipedia, one has to react to surprising claims by entertaining the possibility that they might not be true. The less plausible a claim sounds, the more skepticism one must have when considering it. In some cases, a glance at the relevant Talk page helps, since this can at least indicate whether or not the claim has been vetted by other Wikipedians. But not every surprising claim has backstory available on the relevant talk page, and not every reader has the time or inclination to go to that level of trouble for every dubious claim she encounters in Wikipedia. The upshot is that implausible or surprising claims in Wikipedia often get taken with a grain or more of salt, and not believed – and on the other hand, plausible-sounding falsehoods are, as a result of their seeming plausibility, less likely to be detected.
On the other hand, rigorous fact-checking (at least in the magazine context where I have done it and seen it) does not simply mean that someone is trying hard to get things right: It means that someone’s job depends on their being right, and it means that the particularly surprising claims in the fact-checked content in particular can be counted on to be well documented by the intense, aspiring, nervous young person at the fact checker’s desk. At TIME, for example, every single word that goes in to the magazine physically gets a check mark, on the fact-checkers’ copy, once its factual content has been verified, with the documentation of the fact’s truth filed away in an appropriate folder (the folders, in a holdover from an earlier era, are still called “carbons”). It is every bit as grueling as it sounds, and entirely worthwhile. The same system is in use across most of the Time, Inc. magazine publishing empire, which includes People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated and represents a quarter of the U.S. consumer magazine market. It’s not perfect of course – reports of what someone said in a one-on-one interview, for example, can only ever be as good as the reporter’s notes or tape recording. But it is very, very good. In my own case, knowing what goes in to the fact-checking process at places like TIME and The New Yorker gives me a much higher level of confidence in their accuracy than I have when, as I often do, I learn something new from Wikipedia.
The guarantee of truth that backs up New Yorker copy gives its content a much deeper impact. Consider these four paragraphs from Schiff’s story:
The encyclopedic impulse dates back more than two thousand years and has rarely balked at national borders. Among the first general reference works was Emperor’s Mirror, commissioned in 220 A.D. by a Chinese emperor, for use by civil servants. The quest to catalogue all human knowledge accelerated in the eighteenth century. In the seventeen-seventies, the Germans, champions of thoroughness, began assembling a two-hundred-and-forty-two-volume masterwork. A few decades earlier, Johann Heinrich Zedler, a Leipzig bookseller, had alarmed local competitors when he solicited articles for his Universal-Lexicon. His rivals, fearing that the work would put them out of business by rendering all other books obsolete, tried unsuccessfully to sabotage the project.
It took a devious Frenchman, Pierre Bayle, to conceive of an encyclopedia composed solely of errors. After the idea failed to generate much enthusiasm among potential readers, he instead compiled a â€œDictionnaire Historique et Critique,â€ which consisted almost entirely of footnotes, many highlighting flaws of earlier scholarship. Bayle taught readers to doubt, a lesson in subversion that Diderot and d’Alembert, the authors of the EncyclopÃ©die (1751-80), learned well. Their thirty-five-volume work preached rationalism at the expense of church and state. The more stolid Britannica was born of cross-channel rivalry and an Anglo-Saxon passion for utility.
Wales’s first encyclopedia was the World Book, which his parents acquired after dinner one evening in 1969, from a door-to-door salesman. Wales—who resembles a young Billy Crystal with the neuroses neatly tucked in—recalls the enchantment of pasting in update stickers that cross-referenced older entries to the annual supplements. Wales’s mother and grandmother ran a private school in Huntsville, Alabama, which he attended from the age of three. He graduated from Auburn University with a degree in finance and began a Ph.D. in the subject, enrolling first at the University of Alabama and later at Indiana University. In 1994, he decided to take a job trading options in Chicago rather than write his dissertation. Four years later, he moved to San Diego, where he used his savings to found an Internet portal. Its audience was mostly men; pornography—videos and blogs—accounted for about a tenth of its revenues. Meanwhile, Wales was cogitating. In his view, misinformation, propaganda, and ignorance are responsible for many of the world’s ills. â€œI’m very much an Enlightenment kind of guy,â€ Wales told me. The promise of the Internet is free knowledge for everyone, he recalls thinking. How do we make that happen?
As an undergraduate, he had read Friedrich Hayek’s 1945 free-market manifesto, â€œThe Use of Knowledge in Society,â€ which argues that a person’s knowledge is by definition partial, and that truth is established only when people pool their wisdom. Wales thought of the essay again in the nineteen-nineties, when he began reading about the open-source movement, a group of programmers who believed that software should be free and distributed in such a way that anyone could modify the code. He was particularly impressed by â€œThe Cathedral and the Bazaar,â€ an essay, later expanded into a book, by Eric Raymond, one of the movement’s founders. â€œIt opened my eyes to the possibility of mass collaboration,â€ Wales said.
After reading this copy, and knowing how The New Yorker works, one can be confident that a devious Frenchman named Pierre Bayle once really did propose an encyclopedia comprised entirely of errors. The narrative is put together well. It will keep people reading and will not cause confusion. Interested readers can follow up on a nugget like Wales’ exposure to the Hayek essay by reading it themselves (it’s online here).
I am not a Wikipedia denialist. It is, and will continue to be, an important and valuable resource. But the expensive, arguably old fashioned approach of The New Yorker and other magazines still delivers a level of quality I haven’t found, and do not expect to find, in the world of community-created content.