Nicholson Baker has a wonderful article about Wikipedia in the current New York Review of Books. It’s ostensibly a review of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, but the best parts are Baker’s personal observations as a Wikipedia reader, contributor, and "inclusionist" fighting against the unnecessary deletion of articles. An excerpt (which is not really representative — you should read the whole thing):
The Pop-Tarts page is often aflutter. Pop-Tarts, it says as of today
(February 8, 2008), were discontinued in Australia in 2005. Maybe
that’s true. Before that it said that Pop-Tarts were discontinued in
Korea. Before that Australia. Several days ago it said: "Pop-Tarts is
german for Little Iced Pastry O’ Germany." Other things I learned from
earlier versions: More than two trillion Pop-Tarts are sold each year.
George Washington invented them. They were developed in the early 1960s
in China. Popular flavors are "frosted strawberry, frosted brown sugar
cinnamon, and semen." Pop-Tarts are a "flat Cookie." No: "Pop-Tarts are
a flat Pastry, KEVIN MCCORMICK is a FRIGGIN LOSER notto mention a queer
inch." No: "A Pop-Tart is a flat condom." Once last fall the whole page
was replaced with "NIPPLES AND BROCCOLI!!!!!"
This sounds chaotic, but even the Pop-Tarts page is under control
most of the time. The "unhelpful" or "inappropriate"—sometimes stoned,
racist, violent, metalheaded—changes are quickly fixed by human
stompers and algorithmicized helper bots. It’s a game. Wikipedians see
vandalism as a problem, and it certainly can be, but a Diogenes-minded
observer would submit that Wikipedia would never have been the
prodigious success it has been without its demons.
This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who
knows whether, when you look up Harvard’s one-time warrior-president,
James Bryant Conant, you’re going to get a bland, evenhanded article
about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen
minutes on April 26, 2006): "HES A BIG STUPID HEAD." James Conant was,
after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously
anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite
as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a
great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can
taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever
made. Instead it’s a fast-paced game of paintball.
Link: The Charms of Wikipedia (New York Review of Books)
Baker has a new nonfiction book out next month called Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.