The Truth According to Wikipedia

02/06/2011 07:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A few months ago, my friend was cited on the German Wikipedia entry for The Social Network. This was exciting, because I had just seen Das Social Network at a German cinema in Germany, where I live. This was also worrying, because although my friend is certainly a skilled journalist, it made me question Wikipedia's sourcing protocols, since it selected a fresh-out-of-college kid as a fountain of truth.

Of course, enlightened creatures tend not to consider Wikipedia the best researched and reliable of references. That's its whole shtick. A Wikipedia entry need only be cited from "credible" media sources, like interviews, blogs, or Wikipedia. It lacks any formal vetting process and is by definition unstable. But however unsound these foundations, Wikipedia is now the most cited document of our times, coming up first on almost any Google search, luring you into its hyperlinked labyrinth, and transporting me, at least, time and time again to the land of religious cults, megafauna and racist Disney cartoons.

Although Wikipedia is still, for the most part, scoffed by the Academy, more and more journals are referencing it. Several scholars have even cited the website, who themselves are subjects of Wikipedia articles, including Gayatri Spivak, Lawrence Buell and Donna Haraway.

A couple years ago, two artist activists, Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern, decided to prod at these quirks through a piece of collaborative art, in the form of a Wikipedia page.

In order for Wikipedia Art to qualify as a Wikipedia entry to begin with, it had to be discussed on some of the sources Wikipedia considers citation worthy. So Wikipedia Art was blogged about. The artists were interviewed. And then, on Valentine's Day 2009, Kildall and Stern launched the Wikipedia Art page, citing the blogs that had mused on it and the interviews they gave, and inviting edits. In doing so, Kidall and Stern made Wikipedia Art exist.

Wikipedia Art is what J.L. Austin called a "performative utterance" -- an expression that is also an action, like saying "I do" at your wedding or a declaration of war. The words transform reality, bringing a thing into existence by saying it.

Kildall and Stern's "collaborative performance" and "public intervention" was a feedback loop, existing only through its documentation, and so called to attention the cracks and short-circuits in Wikipedia's totalizing claims to knowledge.

Within 16 hours the page was deleted. A month later the Wikipedia Foundation sued the artists, who had established to archive their project, for trademark infringement.

With their project, Kildall and Stern proved the vulnerability of Wikipedia to the comic or malicious machinations of vandals or fools. But more dangerously, the artists showed how Wikipedia is in the business of truth-making, influencing the reality it tries to record.

This happened when artist David Horvitz edited the Wikipedia entry on Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, claiming that the singer glanced at one of Horvitz's photographs in the moments before his suicide. Before this nugget was finally found and deleted, it landed on several Curtis fan sites, and became an enduring part of Curtis lore.

Wikipedia is a generator of conventional wisdom, in the original pejorative sense of the phrase:
Untruths that stick because they're widely believed and oft repeated -- like the earth being flat and the universe geocentric or, these days, that swallowed gum takes seven years to digest.

But Wikipedia feels trustworthier than old truth-making systems. It is, after all, not-for-profit and democratic, stitched together and amended by the masses. It escapes the static, top-down authority of print encyclopedias; the institutionalized biases of old knowledge factories; and the dusty elitism of academic peer-review. It seems like Wikipedia, with a postmodern pirouette, had soared above the Marxist, feminist, minority and post-colonial critiques that have been stabbing at old narratives for decades.

But when this populist patina was peeled back last week, it revealed a scarily hierarchical and gender-skewed structure. Only 13% of Wikipedia's contributors are women, 2% of users perform 75% of edits, and the average age is in the mid-20s. The architects of today's conventional wisdom are by and large young and male.

Having broken away from the institutions of old, Wiki's peer-to-peer playground has actually re-constituted itself in their image, reflecting once again the inequalities of the society it seeks to document. Most obviously, the four billion people without access to the Internet cannot edit the Wikipedia entries on their own cultures. And among the wired, it is the male techy community that has established a monopoly on truth.

Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikipedia Foundation, wants to increase female contribution to 25% by 2015. It's a noble goal on paper, but such an intervention goes against the techno-libertarianism of the hacker ethos, and fails to address the underlying cause of Wikipedia's gaping gender cleft.

Science and tech are still considered un-feminine pursuits, and the very fact of male dominance perpetuates itself; without role models in the field, girls are less likely to imagine themselves as welcome in it. The women who end up entering the computer club can feel like ambassadors for their gender, laboring under a scalding spotlight, afraid to speak out or mess up.

The digital artist Stefanie Wuschitz, speaking at Berlin's Transmediale festival, defended the hacker community as inclusive, in principle. "But they develop these very masculine codes," she said, referring to hackerspaces, and clicking to a slide with doodles of pornography, junk food, and testicles. "I wish they didn't make me feel so exotic and just gave me the space to work."

No doubt more women will geek out in the future, and spend their leisure time editing Wiki. But the wild skew in the website's demographics is a reminder that epistemology can be as illusive as art. Today's most prolific truth-makers might be vandals and fools, and are definitely, for the most part, young, male and probably bored.

Footnote: This post links to Wikipedia nine times.

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