I used to donate whenever Wikipedia made a plea for funds. Sometimes I’d send a few bucks after a particularly enlightening search. Last year I set up an automatic monthly contribution, which I only recently cancelled. Lately, as my point of view has changed – evolved, I’d like to think – the things that bother me about Wikipedia have begun to outweigh the things I like about it.
I can roughly sum up the problems I have with Wikipedia with the following list of Wikipedia articles and their word counts:
Noel Fielding (stand-up comedian) 2,254
Jerry Fielding (film music composer) 2,194
Yvette Fielding (TV producer) 1,676
Matt Fielding (fictional TV character) 1,635
Frank Fielding (soccer goalie) 1,458
Henry Fielding (“Tom Jones”) 1,301
Sarah Fielding (Henry’s sister) 1,183
Helen Fielding (“Bridget Jones”) 1,041
Joy Fielding (Canadian novelist) 516
actor who plays “Matt Fielding” 490
Roy Fielding (HTTP developer) 288
Daphne Fielding (flapper celebrity) 264
Harold Fielding (theater producer) 148
The five most important Fieldings are in movies and TV (if you class soccer as TV). Then come the writers. (My guess is that it is thanks to feminist Wikipedia editors from academia that Sarah Fielding beat out Helen Fielding. Rah-rah for our side. Of course, if you include the 1,701 words devoted to Bridget Jones – a fictional character whom Wikipedia describes as “a franchise” – it’s a different story.)
Harold, who brought American musicals to the London stage (The Music Man, Sweet Charity, etc.) and whose big success was Charlie Girl, was at least as important and successful as Yvette, yet is accorded 7% of the space. That looks like an indication of the difference between TV and theater in cultural relevance, but it also reflects a generational difference. People like Yvette, who became noteworthy after the internet had revved up, receive far more space than those like Harold, whose peak was pre-internet – barring, of course, people who’ve gone down in history (like Henry and Sarah) and have become subjects for academic study.
I have a friend who was editor-in-chief of a well-known modernist publishing company. For many years he edited the work of avant-garde writers from the Beats to the Oulipians and beyond, many of whom became household names. Harcourt, Brace published a novel of his in 1998. He has edited a number of anthologies of poetry and prose. (I’m not going into detail, because I don’t want to identify him without his consent – an old fashioned constraint, I guess.) Considering, for example, that Eric Simonoff, a literary agent (born 1967) whose claim to fame is representing three Pulitzer Prize winners and “over a dozen” New York Times bestselling authors and whose move from one agency to another was, according to Wikipedia, “considered a major event in the publishing industry,” merits a Wikipedia entry, I think my friend, with his fifty years of turning avant-garde writers into mainstream authors, deserves a mention in Wikipedia.
When I proposed such an article, one of Wikipedia’s more active and involved editors (unpaid, of course) asked me to send him links to on-line references to my friend. I did so and was told they were not sufficiently varied – that is, too many of them referred to the same set of facts; could I please come up with some more? The problem, of course, is that when my friend was most active in the publishing world, there was no internet.
I was pissed-off. Basing the criteria for meriting a Wikipedia article on an internet presence tips the Wikipedia project toward the post-internet generation – not only toward the post-internet generation of movers and shakers – writers, football players, TV stars, politicians, rock musicians, etc. – but toward the interests and specializations of the post-internet generation of academics (hence Sarah Fielding being accorded almost as long an entry as Henry). My Wikipedia correspondent was sympathetic and suggested I write to someone in Wikipedia’s forum on literature. I did so. I never received a response.
While, on the one hand, Wikipedia does wonderful work as an encyclopedia by helping to preserve the culture on line, it also contorts the culture by placing more emphasis on the present than the past – the wrong message for an encyclopedia. Wikipedia can be a source of knowledge; but its equation of celebrity and fame, its favoring the au courant, make it, for most visitors, I’m afraid, a source of information, but not knowledge.
Wikipedia tells us about Henry Fielding’s early years in 97 words: where he was born and educated, the fact that he became a lifelong friend of William Pitt the Elder, that he had “a romantic episode with a young woman that ended in his getting into trouble with the law,” and that he had gone to university at Leiden, but had to return London for lack of funds, at which point he began writing for the theater. On the other hand, it gives us 449 words about Noel Fielding’s coming of age: It tells us where he was born, who his parents were, how old they were when he was born, and that he remembers them as having given “lots of parties;” that he had a French grandmother; where he was educated and who some of his roommates were; that he had hepatitis while at college and stopped drinking for “a couple of years;” who his celebrity friends are and what bands he is a “fan of;” that he has no middle name and was never baptized.
Knowledge vs. information: I had not known that Fielding was a lifelong friend of Pitt I. That discovery has enriched my understanding of Fielding. The first William Pitt was a liberal Whig – liberal, that is, for his times (the fact that I have to point that out is, itself, an indication that our sense of history is turning to dust) – known as The Great Commoner. Fielding was an anti-Whig Tory. Tom Jones is a novel full of common touches, but whose happy ending still depends on the fact that Tom, although a bastard, turns out to be the nephew of his aristocratic benefactor and not just a by-blow of one of the servants. Where the novel stands politically in my mind has been nudged a wee bit to the left, now that I know that Fielding and Pitt were pals. Also, Fielding’s shady romantic liaison lends an autobiographical element to Tom Jones (although I think I already had learned about that at college and had forgotten it).
Someday, perhaps a hundred years from now, if punk rock is considered to have been an important cultural harbinger, and comedians of the early 21st century are studied for their role in the development of society and literature, the fact that Noel Fielding and Courtney Love were friends may add to the collective knowledge. Right now, it is just useless information.
So that is why I decided not to send any more money to Wikipedia.
I like to keep track of local news and gossip, and a couple of days ago came across a news article on a website devoted to regional affairs, reporting that an actor, Paul Rudd (who the article writer was careful to point out was a friend of his), had purchased a local business, a coffee shop which had entered the cosmopolitan consciousness at least to the extent that it had been pictured a few times as a backdrop for New Yorker cartoons.
I looked up Paul Rudd on Wikipedia. There were a couple of things about Rudd’s entry which stoked my simmering animus against Wikipedia. Along with a recital of movies and TV shows that Rudd had appeared in, were descriptions of future projects. That is a Wikipedia no-no. These are events which have not yet occurred and thus may never occur; to mention them in a Wikipedia article is considered promotional. Also, Rudd’s article included a subject heading, along with “Film and Television” and “Theatre,” entitled “Running Gags on Television” which mentioned one running gag of Rudd’s.
Yesterday, I went back to Wikipedia’s Paul Rudd entry. I discovered that the sentences about future projects had been removed. That gave me a sense of how the fact that Wikipedia is an ongoing project, rather than something writ in stone, has its positive aspects. (Four future Rudd projects – one dated 2018 – still are listed under “Filmography.”) However, the “Running Gags on Television” section was still there.
Although he is hardly the only comedian to have a running TV gag in his repertoire, Rudd’s is the only Wikipedia entry which includes that sub-heading. (I checked pretty carefully – by doing a search for “RUNNING GAGS ON TELEVISION” and “RUNNING GAGS ON TELEVISION" WIKIPEDIA.) I assumed my role as editor and eliminated the section and its text. Wikipedia asks for an explanation for each edit; I explained mine by noting that Running Gags on Television is not a legitimate Wikipedia sub-heading.
Today I discovered that the Running Gags section had reappeared. I’m not a nimble HTML user, so it is possible that I missed a step when I eliminated it yesterday. It also is possible that another editor put it back. I took it out again about half-an-hour ago. It has not yet reappeared.
And that is why I am sort of reconsidering, and may end up sending money to Wikipedia, after all.