Two love letters to Wikipedia – by “Joel S”

May 2010:

Dear Wikipedia,

As a senior in high school, about to close the book on this remarkable journey, I feel the pressing need to profess my deepest adoration and gratitude for you. Frankly, you have been an indispensable asset, nay, a lifesaver throughout these past four years. I would be remiss if in thinking about the end and all who helped me get here I didn’t acknowledge you.

Seeing as I have no background in technological law, I care not about the legal questions that your services beg. Instead, I concern myself only with what you provide for me – a seemingly endless bounty of information, free of charge, and full of knowledge. You are an ostensibly omniscient being, providing information on almost any topic, be it acalculia, a calculator, or calculus. From the extensive to the esoteric, no topic seems too big or too small for your cavernous amphora of genius. Time and time again, topics, theories, and historical figures have bemused me. After flipping through the book, scouring the Internet, and nearly giving up, you are so often the one who helps me find what I’ve been searching for.

You’re also a time saver. Take that assignment in US history for example; remember all the way back to junior year? We had to identify less well-known civil war generals whose names were scattered throughout hundreds of pages of text. Rather than sift through the book, I consulted your services, and found all of the information that I needed for every last one of the generals – brigade commanded, side for which they fought, battles in which they participated. I even threw in some extra information that the teacher regarded as going “above and beyond” what was asked for in the assignment. Yes, Wikipedia, you are a bastion of efficiency.

Additionally, you satisfy my intense thirst for knowledge. If ever I find myself in a situation in which I desire to know more about a specific subject, you are the source to which I turn. When I wanted to learn what the WHIP statistic measured in baseball, I read your page. When my comparative government teacher discussed Ad Nauseam about Weber’s Modernization Theory, your page helped make sense of what exactly it was she was talking about. And, just a few days ago, when I found out what residential college I had been placed into at Yale, your page convinced me that Trumbull is indeed the best college at the school. Thank you Wikipedia for providing me, and countless others, with a free and rapidly evolving database of both useful and inane trivia.

Teachers may question the veracity of everything that you say. They are incredulous that a website monitored and maintained by the public can consistently result in fair, unbiased, and useful information. I understand their concerns, but throughout our four-year relationship, you have yet to let me down. I just want to say, in closing, that I love you Wikipedia, and I’m so happy that we get to go to college together.

Sincerely,
Me

October 5, 2010

Dear Wikipedia:

It’s been a little while since we have last spoken. I did not mean to neglect you; it’s just that, well college work is different than high school assignments. Also, I’m taking this intro to law and technology class that is reshaping the way that I view the Internet. It’s not that my feelings about you are any different; I still love you. It’s just that, well, the reasons for my loving you have changed.

No longer do I consider you the ‘be-all-end-all’ source of knowledge. The constant refrain of my high school teachers was in fact true: you are a good starting off point. For high school assignments where a rudimentary understanding of basic concepts was normally sufficient, you were all that was needed. That’s all changed now though, as classes go deeper in depth on more specific topics. It turns out you’re not as powerful as I used to think you were.

Though, in a technological sense, you are a paradigm-shifting database. A true embodiment of the auspices of the free software movement, your survival relies on the work of countless volunteers. As a manifestation of peer production, your work is a true testament to the power of collaboration, and signals a substantial cadre of people hoping to use the Internet as a communal tool, rather than simply a source from which you can readily access desired information. Upon reflection and further research, you were created to act as a discussion board among scholars and students alike, working together to create fair and balanced articles on all subjects that merited recognition. Your administrators, editors, and viewers to a lesser extent have adopted an esprit de corps that is founded on trust, curiosity, and an investment of trust in Internet users. If nothing else, you serve as an interesting social experiment as to what benefits and detriments arise out of increasing the role of the average Internet user in shaping widely read material. In terms of pure technology, your function is basic but noble. You recognize the human desire for immediate updates, and the near instantaneous dissatisfaction that comes with obsolete facts. In essence, you create a program that enables technologically inept users (such as myself) to make a difference in a domain in which they know very little.

Legally speaking, you also are an interesting case study. It makes sense that one of the few instances in which you censor material is when users post material that is an infringement of copyright. You create a culture in which the public decides the reputation of individuals by eschewing any tampering of one’s own page. Though, many reputation wary individuals (politicians come instantly to mind) ignore this cultural law and tamper with pages to enhance their accomplishments and downplay their pitfalls. Many subsidiary companies have started up, contrary to the non-for-profit nature of your endeavors, and consistently attempt to buffer the effects of bad press by editing their client’s pages. This creates an interesting quandary for you, and I wish I could tell you of some panacea to make it go away. I will say though, that through it all, I admire your commitment to assuming that all who use your services do so in the best interest of the general public.

Additionally, as Zittrain points out, your editors hold true to a certain ethos when working on your site (http://futureoftheinternet.org/static/ZittrainTheFutureoftheInternet.pdf, p. 142). Your dedication to neutrality signifies that readers most often find articles devoid of any noticeable bias. While that is a near impossibility, the technical style in which your articles are written come close to representing a fair account of the subject. Also, your stance on verifiability ensures readers that, while they should still be cautious, the majority of information found in your most frequently read articles is cited. And lastly, as an organization that conducts no original research, you uphold the purpose of an encyclopedia, and aggregate the work of many into one convenient, central location

In closing, I want to thank you again for all of your help, both as a source of information, and a beacon of hope for the future of the internet. Hopefully one day soon, people will put truth above stature, and care more about the accuracy and fairness of information on your site rather than what way to best enhance their own image on your pages.

Until next time,
Me

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