Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Elections and Wikipedia: Siegenthaler wrong, as expected

So, I was narcissistically browsing my archives today, and came across my old entry on Wikipedia and trust. If you recall, John Seigenthaler, Sr. was raising hell a year ago because he got pranked by a random joker on the Internet (Seigenthaler's Wikipedia biography was defaced by a vandal).

Now, if you and I were to get pranked by random jokers on the Internet, we'd probably laugh, or roll our eyes, or get irritated; but in any case we'd deal with it, fix what we could, and move on, because we realize that there's an endless supply of assholes on the Internet and you can never stop them all. However, John Seigenthaler, Sr., has an inflated sense of self-importance and an easily punctured sense of dignity. Therefore, instead of just fixing his biography, he got Op-Eds published in USA Today and The Tennessean about being pranked by a random joker on the Internet and how bad it made him feel and how dangerous Wikipedia was to society.

Of course, the grave threat to civilization represented by Wikipedia's peer-production model was forgotten by those somber stewards of truth in the "respectable" print media as soon as that news cycle wound down. But now that the 2006 election's over, I want to recall one of the absurd things that Seigenthaler said in a CNN interview following his Op-Ed pieces:

Can I just say where I'm worried about this leading. Next year we go into an election year. Every politician is going to find himself or herself subjected to the same sort of outrageous commentary that hit me, and hits others. I'm afraid we're going to get regulated media as a result of that. And I, I tell you, I think if you can't fix it, both fix the history as well as the biography pages, I think it's going to be in real trouble, and we're going to have to be fighting to keep the government from regulating you.

Did this happen in the 2006 election? No, of course not. Of course, nobody with half an ounce of sense would have predicted that it would happen, because Wikipedia was around in 2004, and it didn't happen then either. But John Seigenthaler, Sr., is one of those narcissists who believes that if something bad happens to him, the end of the world is imminent.

Why were this narcissist's baseless observations and predictions amplified and taken seriously by the mainstream media? Why were none of the people who actually understand Wikipedia and peer production --- my personal pick would be Clay Shirky --- given as loud a voice?

As usual, I believe the answer's simple. Seigenthaler is an old white guy who's plugged into the social network of senior newspaper editors. Therefore, regardless of how clueless or thoughtless his ravings are, they will get play in the media; they will not be critically and skeptically analyzed, debunked, or even investigated. His predictions will not be revisited after the fact. Followup analysis stories will not be published. And in spite of being wrong repeatedly, he will remain a "respectable" figure --- because of his class, personal demeanor, and social connections --- whereas the rabble on Wikipedia, which produces work of far greater value and accuracy, remains the object of derision.

Much the same phenomenon's responsible for the fact that pundits like Thomas Friedman remain employed. He's an old white guy with a moustache and the right social connections. Never mind how many times and how seriously he's been wrong, never mind that his thinking's about as precise and insightful as that of your average teenage anarchist punk on the street. His buddies will never, ever, ever call him out as the supreme jackass that he is.

1 comment:

  1. I won't deny that class and connections played a part here. However, I would suggest another factor - commercial interests.

    When a public figure gets on a high horse and announces the fall of civilization, it makes a good story. It takes no investigation and costs nothing to report. It doesn't matter if it is silly and incorrect, because the newspaper will defend itself by saying that it is not the newspaper making the claims, it is merely forfilling its "public duty" to report. Meanwhile, this cheap story fills in the columns and brings sales.

    Why should a commercially-oriented editor or journalist challenge this? If they did, the story would be "old windbag makes silly statement on something he is totally uninformed of". Now that isn't going to sell many copies. However, the story as published did.