Wikipedia, the Last Bastion of Shared Reality

The culture wars are coming for the best utopian project of the early internet. Can it survive the informational anarchy that’s disrupted the rest of media?

Wikipedia / The Atlantic

The ever-widening maelstrom surrounding tweets by Sarah Jeong, the latest hire by the New York Times editorial board, may consume all the atoms in the known universe, and as Wikipedia is of this world, it, too, must be a place to immortalize (or attempt to immortalize) Jeong as racist.

Over the years, Jeong has angrily and colorfully tweeted hundreds of times about her frustrations with white people (“Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins”; “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy i get out of being cruel to old white men”). After her hiring, these tweets were picked up by right-wing media as proof of her “racism.” The battle over including these tweets in her Wikipedia bio has been the subject of a brutal edit war, which is like a grim national-politics-level recapitulation of the old, funny Wikipedia wars about cow-tipping, hummus, and Nikola Tesla.

Wikipedia’s internal rules guide debates about what content belongs in articles, and how events can be described. These rules are arcane and quite specific to Wikipedia. For example, Wikipedians maintain that they must maintain an NPOV, or Neutral Point of View. They value certain sources over others. They try to stay away from “presentism.” They’ve tried to create objective standards (of importance, say) for including facts about people.

As in a formal debate, all these rules can be marshaled to support a variety of conclusions about what should or should not be in an article about Sweden or donuts or somebody’s biography. In this case, the warring over Jeong became a proxy battle over the inclusion of any mention of the tweets.

Some editors argued that Wikipedia should not act like a news site, trying to include up-to-the-minute updates. Others pointed out that dozens of news organizations, including gold-standard ones in the Wikipedia community like the BBC, had covered her tweets. Debate about the noteworthiness of the topic went on for days and thousands of words. Editors also discussed whether to flat-out call the tweets racist or to adopt some other adjective (inflammatory, perhaps). Eventually, hundreds of messages and proposals later, a temporary conclusion was reached, and the following text was added to Jeong’s biography:

In August 2018, Jeong was hired by The New York Times to join its editorial board as lead writer on technology, commencing in September. The hiring sparked a strongly negative reaction in conservative media and social media, which highlighted derogatory tweets about white people that Jeong had posted mostly in 2013 and 2014. Critics characterized her tweets as being racist; Jeong said that the posts were “counter-trolling” in reaction to harassment she had experienced, and that she regretted adopting that tactic. The Times stated that it had reviewed her social media history before hiring her, and that it did not condone the posts.

While Wikipedians were able to contain this particular explosion of the culture wars into a milquetoast paragraph, Wikipedia finds itself in a strange place these days. Founded amid the throbbing excitement of the first dot-com boom, it’s a shard of the utopian internet now embedded in the informational dystopia of present-day America.

Wikipedia came of a time when the web was new and its importance was still very much in doubt. The very idea that a bunch of randos on the internet could create a better encyclopedia than a team of professionals was mildly ludicrous, and yet the project went on, fueled by a faith in “the wisdom of crowds,” a phrase which no one has uttered about the internet for at least two years. And then, wouldn’t you know it, the damn thing worked! Tens of thousands of editors contributed. Articles became authoritative. Google and Google users began to prefer the Wikipedia link to any other source. Wikipedia is and was the living proof that an entirely new type of intellectual project could be created through decentralized, peer-to-peer organizing and good-faith individual effort. This was a cathedral of internet.

In other words, it was built on principles that have given way to the ephemeral, centralized, troll-rich internet it is not. Yet it endures, not withering, but becoming ever more central to people’s understanding of just about everything.

Largely through its high ranking in almost every web search, Wikipedia became the default location for finding a set of shared facts about reality. To win the Wikipedia edit war is to define the stub of future history. To get Jeong’s tweets mentioned is to tag her with them for the rest of her career. To get them called racist is to tag her with that epithet in her most widely distributed biography.

Edit wars—about everything from Roseanne Barr to the Minneapolis suburb of Edina to the Death Star’s size to whether tigers are in fact “the most powerful living cat”—have been part of Wikipedia since its beginning. But they were less consequential in the past. As the rest of the media has lost its power as something like a neutral arbiter of reality, Wikipedia’s grip on that center has tightened. In the current conspiracy-obsessed world, where real structural divisions, technological change, and racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts have created deep polarization, Wikipedia’s importance is recognized by (basically) all.

And right as Wikipedia’s position as arbiter of truth has become most important, the dystopian forces that have laid waste to the rest of the informational landscape threaten the last, best utopian project of the first internet boom.

It’s easy to imagine that the tools they developed for settling disputes about Star Wars won’t be up to the challenge of saving some informational commonweal, but then again, what does modern politics resemble more than a vicious fandom at war with itself? Maybe only a system that can contain the deep enmity between people who spell the metal aluminum and those who spell it aluminium is up to the task of preserving our fragile democratic institutions. Absurd times call for absurd measures.