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Posted at 6:10 PM ET, 01/13/2011

Wikipedia and the demise of the dilettante

By Alexandra Petri


Wikipedia, light of my life, fire of my loins. Five syllables, trippingly off the tongue. Wee. Kee. Pedia.

Thursday was Wikipedia's tenth birthday. According to the About Wikipedia page, it contains 3,528,071 articles and 22,902,598 pages in total. "There have been 437,949,295 edits. There are 848,821 uploaded files. There are 13,754,496 registered users, including 1,769 administrators."

What have we wrought?

Most importantly, are we allowed to cite it now? It's ten years old. True, it's not infallible. To demonstrate this, I recently added myself to the Alexandra page as an "Eminent Victorian" and embedded the name of my friend Becca in the Beccas section under the listing "American Petros." I feel terrible for any third-graders currently embarked on a Famous Names project. Note to third-graders currently reading: If this describes you, please get in touch, and I'll buy you some silly bandz to atone.

So, we are Wikipedia.

What does that say about us? What does anything on the Internet say about us? says we are terrible at art. Facebook says we are stalkers and narcissists. Google says we have forgotten the name of that one song on the B-side of the White Album.

Wikipedia is more subtle than that. Like much of Internet culture, it can best be described in two words: oddly specific.

As it reveals us, we are obsessed, one-upping, and confined in the ice cube trays of particular fixations.

Witness this piece on "The 8 Most Needlessly Detailed Wikipedia Entries." For better or for worse, this shows us who we are. It's a mirror. You learn about yourself from your passions. Our passions are apparently Megan Fox, pig-faced women (no connection), and British spree killer John Martin Scripps.

Congratulations, us.

Sure, it's the Internet dream: where all of us, combined, have more information than one of us. But does it really make us more informed?

What Wikipedia truly represents is the demise of the dilettante. Want to dabble? Don't try it here. This is a place for self-proclaimed experts. Some would argue that this is nice -- all of us can know more because each of us is no longer trying to know it all. Why force a natural engineer to fixate on the classics of English literature? Leave that to the Anglicists. It's specialization applied to knowledge.

But something is missing. When you lose generalists, you lose a certain ability to call out obvious bull. Hence the unhappy feedback loop -- someone finds an unverified fact on Wikipedia and incorporates it into an article, which Wikipedia then cites to verify the fact, creating a reinforcing pattern of inaccuracy that is insidious and difficult to account for.

And it's not only what we say, but how. Wikipedia lacks a certain color and vigor. This is no surprise. The Internet tends to produce prose that lacks either spelling or flair. It's the lowest common denominator of style, where "requires citation" can suck the wind out of the sails of any jaunty assertion.

I happen to value flair, so as a birthday gift to Wikipedia, I set out to rectify this. I altered the Death Star page to say that Luke uses his power in the Force to help him destroy the station "in a fiery blaze of color." I'm not sure how much it added, but it seemed worth a shot.

But I couldn't stop. I ran around sprinkling words like "flaxen" and "voluble" into entries seemingly at random. At the time of writing, Skeena, BC, was the "voluble northwest corner" of British Columbia.

While Wikipedia represents a great deal of what is good about the Internet -- the possibility of unlimited knowledge, community, self-policing, information at the touch of a key -- it also reveals a certain narrowing. Flair is impossible when you write things by committee. If Flaubert had to bring the mot juste to a vote, Madame Bovary would have all the stylistic interest of the Wikipedia entry on Madame Bovary.

But Wikipedia, the great white hope, is also the end of an era.

Instead of buying encyclopedias, we buy computers. Instead of buying books, we buy kindles. We are becoming our devices -- little cups who can hold only so much and no more. We buy into the possibility of knowledge rather than the assured possession of it. It's convenient, we insist. So's a superhighway through your living room, but is it worth it?

So Happy Birthday, Wikipedia. You're as boring as all of us and as unreliable as one of us. You're broad and deep and undiscriminating. You're a breadcrumb trail of information that seems to vanish as soon as you consume it and leads nowhere in particular.

Many happy returns.

By Alexandra Petri  | January 13, 2011; 6:10 PM ET
Categories:  Only on the Internet, Petri, Worst Things Ever  | Tags:  Google, kids these days, the power of myth, wikipedia  
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Next: Miracles, beatification, and Gabrielle Giffords


They already scrubbed you, and your friend.


Posted by: trident420 | January 14, 2011 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Even a featured article about a person or whatever doesn't compare to a real book about a person. There's still a place for books.

Posted by: Simon23p | January 14, 2011 3:31 PM | Report abuse

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