Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rambling Towards Consensus

I wish there were some way for me to get paid for taking aimless, random wiki walks. Seriously.

OK, so there's this fancypants principle called the observer effect, which basically says that the act of checking things out will change them - observation has effects, in other words. It's hard for us to think about this if we haven't already been taught, visually-oriented as we are; our eyes passively receive photons, which trivially diminishes ambient light, but otherwise doesn't change much (Wikipedia's example of a tire pressure gauge is quite helpful, though). But when we're talking about a subatomic particle, we can't just wait for the relevant information to waft off of it from the background noise already present in the environment, we have to bounce an intelligible signal off of the object of our curiosity and that signal has an effect - bats would probably understand this better, or they would, if their prey responded to sonar. OK, last try: submarine captains understand. Fuckin' cripes.

Perhaps a better example, one I could relate to my pre-teen siblings, is the reason that an ice cube feels colder than ice water. Physically, they've got the same temperature and the same chemical composition, but why does one feel colder than the other? Well, because phase changes involve the transfer of energy: taking H2O molecules apart from an integrated crystalline structure into a free-flowing pile is a process that requires work, and your body heat rushes to the task in the same way that a kid with a wrecking ball would jump at the opportunity to reduce a building to a pile of bricks. Since it takes more heat from you, it feels colder, even though it's not.

Now, before you jump down my throat, let me reassure you that I know the observer effect and the perception of temperature aren't even the same sport, let alone in the same ballpark. What I'm getting at is not this or that physical phenomenon, but rather the philosophical point that they both touch on: we are active participants in reality, and not passive outside observers of it. Thus, all that we do shall in some way be inherently tinted by bias, since you cannot view at all without having a point of view. This goes double for culture, including discussons concerning any aspect or element thereof. I am continuously amazed at the extent to which people - myself included - are able to avoid taking this fact into proper account.

That was my point, and here is my case: on Wednesday, an internet mans with a great many fans did proceed to poke fun at Wikipedia by sharing his idea for an imaginary entry on malamanteau. Well, some yahoo then went and created the actual page for it, which is funny but doesn't quite fit Wikipedia's policies for a wide variety of reasons which others have capably pointed out. (TL;DR version: Randall Munroe made a joke, and Wikipedia is not a compendium of webcomic jokes; if fans started using the word "malamanteau" in their speech, the comic would get a bullet under the inspired activities section; the media attention this kerfuffle has already generated would probably justify an "in the media" section, but that hasn't been done yet; if the term enters common parlance, then the origin and etymology and early controversy and everything could go on its own page. Gawd.)

These policies (and others like them) are at the same time both the source of my respect for Wikipedia as a project, and the reason that I'll probably never be an active contributor. I gave them a once-over and then edited the phrasing of the Two Envelopes problem, but while double-checking my work I fell into a rules rabbit hole from which I was only able to escape by saying, "Balls to this!"

Anyway, Randall Munroe is a Wikipedian himself, and he jumped into the discussion Thursday morning, saying, "Hey, this is cute but totally unnecessary. How about we all chill out?" (I'm paraphrasing.) He closed by saying, and I'm quoting now, "Also, just so you know, nobody used the word 'disambiguation' until you people showed up. <3">disambiguation was used long before Wikipedia, as a cursory search of Google Books before opening your mouth would have revealed." Munroe responded to this in the best possible way by saying, "Moreover, I took some measurements, and my mom barely sits halfway around the house! I'm starting to suspect you're not an entirely reliable source on these matters!" This, of course, caused the other party to get butt-hurt because someone more popular was not taking him/her seriously.

What this discussion has revealed is that Wikipedia does in fact have words that it likes a whole lot, but not the ones Munroe pointed out in his joke. No, these favorite words are things like notability, neutral point of view, and Wikipedia is not a dictionary. What I find hilarious about all this, however, is that the discussion about how this ought to be treated has become something of an issue unto itself: by trying to clamp down and say how not-notable the whole thing is, the ensuing argument has in the process become something notable. Looking at things jacks up pageviews; talking about things changes the state of the discussion; even looking for things will affect Google trends. Using the internet invariably amounts to participating in it, and trying to control it is often an exercise in futility.

Of course, now that I go to check the state of the discussion on Sunday night, I find that everything's been resolved (and all the links I had to points in the discussion are now broken, thanks). Now searching for the word will redirect you to something generic about xkcd without explaining anything about all the discussion that ensued, a fine compromise in that nothing has been accomplished but at least everyone has shut up. Jeez, you'd think all these people were married or something.

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