Wikipedia discussion pages. I can’t get enough of them. I don’t bother with the articles any more. I flick straight to the talk section, and try to deduce the main content, Rashomon-style, from the ebb and flow of its controversies. It’s the same irrational hunger that ruins my pleasure in DVDs. If I rent a movie, I’ve got no choice: I have to watch the extras on that disk: every actors’ commentary, every ‘making of’ doc, every Q&A, every video diary by a wacky bit part player, every piece of historical contextualisation from a noted academic theorist. It’s a fucking nightmare. Now I only rent movies without the bonus features: I just watch Woody Allen flicks, I don’t have the time to waste. And, gradually, the same thing’s happening with Wikipedia. So far I’ve managed to keep off the edits histories, but it’s the next step, I know. That’ll be my weekends gone: hunched over the computer screen, too preoccupied even to download porn, scrolling down page after page of usage quibbles, mainlining re-writes.
Why? What’s the appeal? It’s the same spurious behind-the-scenes thrill, I suppose, that makes me watch reality TV and The West Wing. The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s okay; but it would be much more fun to read about the frenzy of academic intrigue, backstabbing, resentment, envy and bitterness that went to produce just one desiccated sentence. Now, wonderfully, we can. Wikipedia contributors seem to divide fairly neatly into the strenuously polite and the insane. In post after post editors try to hold madness at bay through sheer force of etiquette. And, of course, any forum that throws together the pedantically erudite with slap-happy vandals is going to produce some geeky fun. “I’m pretty sure Kant never authored a work titled, ‘Do Me Like a Dirty Pig’, so I changed it to what the underlying link led to.” “What’s up with this? Actually it’s a little known work in Latin age me similis immunda sus.”
I can justify it, of course. Here we have the production of knowledge itself, for all to see. I hope some future e-historian is making notes. Wikipedia is the most culturally significant collaborative work since The Iliad. Unprecedentedly huge swathes of society are working together on the decision – What do we count as truth? Those discussion pages lead us to the fissures in our self-conception; they tell us what the finished pages never can – the true shapes of our doubts, our anxieties, our obsessions, our fears. They show us the private life of facts; the subterranean sludge of culture. Wikipedia is the true portrait of our age. (For all of the above, of course, citation needed; I’ll try to do some work on it when I get time.)