Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

suspiciously wiki

Wonderful post by Tim Carmody over at Snarkmarket about what I think of as a useful new word — or a new use of an already existing word. Someone had said of a piece of information given by someone else, “This story sounded suspiciously Wiki to me.” And as Tim points out, we all know exactly what the person means:

The obvious colloquial analogue would be “the story seemed fishy.” But note the distinction. A “fishy” story, like a “fish story,” is a farfetched story that is probably a lie or exaggeration that in some way redounds to the teller’s benefit. A “wiki” story, on the other hand, is a story, perhaps farfetched, that is probably backed up by no authority other than a Wikipedia article, or perhaps just a random website. The only advantage it yields to the user is that one appears knowledgeable while having done only the absolute minimum amount of research.

While a fishy story is pseudo-reportage, a wiki story is either pseudo-scientific or pseudo-historical. Otherwise, wiki-ness is characterized by unverifiable details, back-of-the-envelope calculations, and/or conclusions that seem wildly incommensurate with the so-called facts presented.

I’m going to start using this word in commenting on student papers.

I love Wikipedia — I use it every day — but it yields farfetched stories sometimes because people who write many of the articles rely on outdated information. Sometimes way outdated. For instance, in the generally useful article on the codex we find this passage:

The basic form of the codex was invented in Pergamon in the third century BCE. Rivalry between the Pergamene and Alexandrian libraries had resulted in the suspension of papyrus exports from Egypt. In response the Pergamenes developed parchment from sheepskin; because of the much greater expense it was necessary to write on both sides of the page.

No citation is given, and I found myself wondering where this information had come from and whether it is true. It sounded suspiciously Wiki to me. A day or two later, I happened to discover the origin of the claim: Pliny’s Natural History. Modern historians see no evidence for the story.

5 comments:

  • This casts doubts on all the wikipedia articles curated or edited by Pliny.

  • The Elder, anyway. Pliny the Younger rocks. Also the one Roz Chast called Pliny the Tiny.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I don't think "that sounds like it came from Wikipedia" is substantially different from "that sounds like it came from some book" (except maybe that people are picking up factoids from Wikipedia more than from books and newspapers and whatever else Cliff Claven used to read after his mail route).

  • Which was the Pliny who was killed by the volcano? Oh wait, I know where I could look that up ...

    This weekend I had one of those connecting-with-an-old-friend conversations where afterwards I was exclaiming to myself, "we've read so many of the same Wikipedia pages!" Oddly, it felt far more satisfying than finding out that we had favorite magazines or even books in common.

  • I like "suspiciously googly."

    Like, how 'bout more attribution for that great Leonard Cohen quote? Seems so googly, without.

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