Jonathan Lethem’s Wikipedia critique is high on flavor, low on substance
Jonathan Lethem is a writer who penned an unfocused essay on why he hates Wikipedia (to the right is my portrait of him, found on his Wikipedia article, although I’ve never touched the article’s text).
The writing is bland, says Lethem; it’s ruled by a secret, powerful group of people (completely different from what you experience with the media and book reviewers); it’s pedantic and mediocre; it’s infused with ideology.
I call it death by pedantry. Question: hadn’t we more or less come to understand that no piece of extended description of reality is free of agendas or ideologies? This lie, which any Encyclopedia implicitly tells, is cubed by the infinite regress of Wikepedia tinkering-unto-mediocrity.
Leave aside that Wikipedia’s pedantry can be one of its strengths, it is true that attempts to document reality are almost always infused with an agenda or a perspective. This is an issue in any ontological effort, crowdsourced or not, but few of Lethem’s gripes originated with Wikipedia.
That does not matter to Lethem because he liked the problems as they existed before:
In many ways Wikipedia has narrowed the vibrant chaos of the internet just as badly as Google or Facebook could ever be accused of doing…. I liked the internet better before. The mistakes had flavor, passion, transparent purpose. You could see the drips and brushstrokes of the drying paint.
A passionate mistake with a transparent purpose? It’s difficult to conceptualize such a mistake, but it’s not what comes to mind when I think of the Tripod days.
Those “many ways” are never articulated by Lethem, but he reminds me of people who grouse that New York is not as “real” as it was in the 1980′s when it was vibrant and chaotic. Never were these nostalgic-for-the-bad-ole-days white folks one of the people who was raped, murdered, robbed or addicted to crack. Nobody but Jonathan Lethem wants to go back to the 1999 worldwide web.
More than half of Lethem’s ‘essay’ is a TLDR passage from Wikipedia about the plot of a 1968 Blake Edwards film that evidences “deflavored ice cream” writing. There are reasons for such deflavoring: People often edit a Wikipedia article because they have only one piece of information that they want to add, which is why the sentences are so heavily laden with “also” as people tack on whatever trivial tidbit. Adding a sentence here and there does nothing to form a narrative.
The second reason for the deflavoring is that the more florid the writing, the more infused it becomes with perspective and agenda. The site is not a creative writing project.
Lethem’s is not a fair criticism; blandness is an antidote to point-of-view. Often an editor tries to tie all the information together in a coherent narrative, but of larger concern is the information’s accuracy.
What stuck out was the high opinion Lethem has of himself:
Go ahead, hordes, intricately mutilate the Lethem entry now, while lecturing me on the noble and objective temper of the great project.
Hordes? Here are the November 2010 article reads for various authors on Wikipedia:
I don’t see the hordes reading your article, Jonathan, but I’m sure your essay was read by some Wikipedia editors. It was high on flavor and low on substance. There was little take away in terms of how to improve. The only purpose I gleaned from the self-aggrandizing piece was to say Wikipedia sucks and to deride disparate amateurs for not meeting your own lofty standards. Mazel tov.