Documentary Review: The Anonymous Truth of Wikipedia

Howard Zinn (1927-2010)

Howard Zinn (1927-2010)

About half way through the 2010 documentary Truth in Numbers? Everything According to Wikipedia, historian Howard Zinn says “All history is a matter of  selecting out of an infinite number of facts, and the selection itself is inevitably biased.” For example, in the traditional accounts of Christopher Columbus, the Progressive Era and the Civil War, historians routinely fail to mention, respectively, Columbus’ slaughter of native populations; the widespread lynching throughout America in the early 20th Century; and the massive amount of Indian land grabbing during the 1860s. All these examples, Zinn argues, show how in historical writing omission can be just as subversive as factual inaccuracies. Zinn believes this inherent bias can lead to a distortion of “the truth,” especially when amateur historians write on Wikipedia. As CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer adds “What’s worse, telling a bold-face lie, or just part of the truth?”

As its title indicates, Truth in Numbers? is concerned with how Wikipedia explores the “truth.”Interviewing dozens of Wikipedians as well as authors, journalists and critics such as Zinn, Schieffer, former CIA Director James Woolsey, Lawrence Lessig (who sadly only appears briefly at the beginning), and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, the film focuses on the rise of Wikipedia in modern internet culture, and how it is shaping human knowledge.

Unfortunately, directors Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill mirror Wikipedia’s “Npov” policy, as the film itself doesn’t take sides. (To get even more meta, the “reception” section of the film’s Wikipedia page shows that almost all sides have a different interpretation of the film’s message.) Furthermore, there is very little narration, and in fact not much of an overarching narrative to the film. Instead, Glosserman and Hill jump from one interview to another, almost like the “Wikipedia wormhole” I mentioned two weeks ago.

The majority of the interviews revolve around how Wikipedia’s anonymity affects its accuracy and credibility. The first criticism is that it’s too easy to create inaccurate information. (As Stephen Colbert jokes in an interview with Wales, Wikipedia is the “First place I go when I want some knowledge, or want to create some.”) Wales’s brushes these aside, since unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia can easily change any error.

A lot of the critics also complain that the site lacks credibility since the editors are anonymous; one points out that traditionally people who wrote anonymously wrote things like ransom letters, poison pen letters and graffiti. This line of thought is pretty ridiculous, and in fact the next interviewee immediately points out that much of the early political writing in this country was done anonymously (such as the Federalist Papers). Regardless, Wales also brushes this aside. He thinks that by editing under established pseudonyms, Wikipedians are practicing “pseudonymity” not anonymity, and take pride in their pseudonym just like they would their real name.

The last major attack on Wikipedia’s credibility I think is the most valid: that its current system scorns “experts.” Wales states that his goal is for Wikipedia to be a meritocracy. But for it to be a true meritocracy, wouldn’t professors and experts rise to the top? Instead, as interviewee after interviewee lament, Wikipedians often look down on elitism, and thus there are few so-called experts on the site. Writer Simon Winchester concedes that having just experts is not ideal, since “experts” often include old white men, and that is a problem. (Of note, the actual Wikipedians interviewed are extremely diverse, whereas all but one of the “critics” are men, with most old and white.) Still, as Zinn notes, having some experts would be helpful, since everyone carries biases. So experts are needed to provide the right context.

Overall, I do think some of the interviewee complaints are valid. To avoid the issue of anonymously editing without repercussions, requiring everyone to register makes sense. And possibly it would be helpful to have experts at the top of the food chain to review articles, as Winchester says. Perhaps the best analogy of Wikipedia is one of the last comments. The head of the Biblioteche Alexandria in Egypt says that prior to the emergence of Wikipedia and the internet as a whole, the global fountain of knowledge was a very slow drip, and that most people in the would couldn’t “drink” from it. Now with Wikipedia providing free and open access to everyone in the world, it’s like opening a fire hose. However,  you still can’t drink from that either. So the goal should be finding the perfect middle.

(I have a lot more to say about this documentary, especially about Wales. But it’s not as germane to digital scholarship, so I”ll write a separate post.)

(3/25/14 UPDATE: here’s a second blog post on Truth in Numbers, focusing on Wales.)

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About Zach Klitzman

A History Grad student at American University

2 responses to “Documentary Review: The Anonymous Truth of Wikipedia”

  1. drdankerr says :

    Your review is thoughtful and nuanced. It’s somewhat intriguing the Zinn would be arguing on behalf of experts. I highly doubt the academics would even have the capacity to review the proliferation of articles on Wikipedia. I wonder if you took all the articles on Wikipedia and divided it by all the academics in the world what the figure would be that we would each be responsible for. With that said, I have no doubt that Zinn has influenced Wikipedia indirectly through his own work. I can only imagine that thousands of articles most likely cite his work. While I may not like the guy, I think the tool is one of the most successful public history projects in the twenty-first century.

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