I love Wikipedia.
A while ago, a friend and I were wondering: which episode of Beavis and Butthead is it that Beavis claims he is being sexually harassed by a classmate, because she is so attractive that she "gives him a stiffie"?
A google search brings up the relevant Wikipedia article immediately. In the entry, "Sexual Harassment (Beavis and Butt-head episode)," you learn everything you need to know: the girl's name is Kimberly; it happens in social studies class; the boys take their claim to court; it all ends badly when they're called into judge's chambers to be reprimanded and they accuse her of sexually harassing them.
There's even a cute picture of the two of them getting all excited, and a link to "frivolous litigation" in case you wanted to check out what, exactly, they get in trouble for at the end.
Beavis in more light-hearted times, enjoying some nachos at the beach.
Well. Civilization has arrived. We no longer have to stumble around in ignorance. There are Wikipedias in over 200 languages. You can see the list, here.
But as every Wikipedia user knows, Wikipedia can be infuriating. Sure, if you want to know the chemical make-up of arsenic, or the population of Nepal, or whatever happened to Marc Bolan, you're in business.
But if you want to know about the concept of autonomy, or the history of Al-Qaeda, or whether the Landmark Forum is a cult-slash-pyramid scheme, you'll get the familiar directive: please see the talk pages.
In its early stages, the Wikipedia guys were kind of purists about the user-generated content business. They were totally anti-hierarchy. As time has gone on, though, they seem to have become more pragmatic. Some users are known, and thus trusted. Some users are so trusted they have the power to block edits. And so on. This is good, I think: a little hierarchy is necessary when subjects are controversial.
So some of these endless talk page discussions may end in high-quality entries, eventually.
But user-wikis are also just better suited to some things than others. On this page, Wikipedians explain that they have more, and better, entries in the sciences and technology than in arts and humanities. They say that's because early users were likely to be geeks.
But I don't think that's the whole reason. It's in the nature of, say, chemistry, that a student with a good textbook can put up high-quality information in minutes. Writing about ideas is harder. If I am going to write a short, informed, readable article on autonomy, I'm going to use a lot of mental energy, a lot of time, a lot of care, to get it right. (Likely depleting my active self; see previous post here).
If someone comes along with Autonomy for Dummies and edits my entry, I'm going to be mad.
Sometimes, too, I just miss the feeling of identity on Wikipedia. Who is this Wikipedia ghost, who took the time to transcribe Beavis's misadventures?
And in case you were considering a sex-harassment suit, please remember, as Wikipedia says here, "As some articles may contain errors, please do not use Wikipedia to make important decisions."