Prize Descriptions

I visit Wikipedia every day. I study the evolving entries for Internet-specific entities like World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Foursquare and Picasa, often savoring the lucid exposition that Wikipedia brings to technical subjects that might not be expected to inspire poetry and for which no vocabulary has yet been set.

Wikipedia is a perfectly serviceable guide to non-Internet life. But as a companion to the stuff that was born on the Internet, Wikipedia — itself an Internet artifact — will never be surpassed.

Every new symbolic order requires a taxonomist to make sense of it. When Renaissance paintings and drawings first became fashionable in the art market in the early 20th century, the primary task of critics like Bernard Berenson was to attribute them, classify them and create a taste for them. Art collectors had to be introduced to the dynamics of the paintings, the names of the painters and the differences among them. Without descriptions, attributions and analysis, Titian’s “Salomé With the Head of St. John the Baptist” is just a clump of data.

Wikipedia has become the world’s master catalogue raisonnée for new clumps of data. Its legion nameless authors are the Audubons, the Magellans, the Berensons of our time. This was made clear to me recently when I unknowingly quoted the work of Randy Dewberry, an anonymous contributor to Wikipedia, in a column on the video game Angry Birds. Dewberry’s prose hit a note rare in exposition anywhere: both efficient and impassioned. (“Players take control of a flock of birds that are attempting to retrieve their eggs from a group of evil pigs that have stolen them.”)

The passage described Angry Birds so perfectly that I assumed it came from the game’s developers. Who else could know the game so well? But as Dewberry subsequently explained to me in an e-mail, that’s not what happened. In fact, according to the entry’s history, the original description of Angry Birds was such egregious corporate shilling that Wikipedia planned to drop it. That’s when Dewberry, a Wikipedian and devoted gamer, introduced paragraphs so lively they made the pleasure of the game palpable. The entry remained.

Like many Wikipedians, Dewberry is modest to the point of self-effacement about his contributions to the site. Because entries are anonymous and collaborative, no author is tempted to showboat and, in the pursuit of literary glory, swerve from the aim of clarity and utility. “No one editor can lay absolute claim to any articles,” Dewberry told me. “While editors will acknowledge when a user puts a substantial amount of work into an article, it is not ‘their’ article.”

For more information on the house vibe around credit-claiming, Dewberry proposed I type “WP: OWN” into Wikipedia to read its policy about “ownership” of articles. My jaw dropped. The page is fascinating for anyone who has ever been part of a collaborative effort to create anything.

At the strenuously collectivist Wikipedia, it seems, “ownership” of an article — what in legacy media is called “authorship” — is strictly forbidden. But it’s more than that: even doing jerky things that Wikipedia calls “ownership behavior” — subtle ways of acting proprietary about entries — is prohibited. As an example of the kind of attitude one editor is forbidden to cop toward another, Wikipedia cites this: “I have made some small amendments to your changes. You might notice that my tweaking of your wording has, in effect, reverted the article back to what it was before, but do not feel disheartened. Please feel free to make any other changes to my article if you ever think of anything worthwhile. Toodles! :)”

The magazine business could have used some guidelines about this all-too-familiar kind of authorship jockeying decades ago.

Wikipedia is vitally important to the culture. Digital artifacts like video games are our answer to the album covers and romance novels, the saxophone solos and cigarette cases, that previously defined culture. Today an “object” that gives meaning might be an e-book. An MP3. A Flash animation. An HTML5 animation. A video, an e-mail, a text message, a blog. A Tumblr blog. A Foursquare badge. Around these artifacts we now form our identities.

Take another such artifact: the video game Halo. The entry on Wikipedia for Halo: Combat Evolved, which Wikipedia’s editors have chosen as a model for the video-game-entry form, keeps its explanations untechnical. Halo, according to the article, is firmly in the tradition of games about shooting things, “focusing on combat in a 3D environment and taking place almost entirely from a character’s eye view.” But not always: “The game switches to the third-person perspective during vehicle use for pilots and mounted gun operators; passengers maintain a first-person view.” At last, Halo: I understand you!

At first blush the work of composing these anonymous descriptions may seem servile. Hundreds of thousands of unnamed Wikipedia editors have made a hobby of perfecting the descriptions of objects whose sales don’t enrich them. But their pleasure in the always-evolving master document comes through clearly in Wikipedia itself. The nameless authors tell the digital world what its components are, and thereby create it.

With authorship disputes, Wikipedia advises, “stay calm, assume good faith and remain civil.” The revolutionary policy outlined on “Wikipedia: Ownership of Articles” — search Wikipedia or Google for it — is stunningly thorough.

For the best-written articles on video games, search Wikipedia for WP:VG/FA. These are all featured articles, and as Wikipedia notes, they have “the status which all articles should eventually achieve.”

It’s time to contribute to Wikipedia — even if you just want to make a small correction to the Calvin Coolidge, “Krapp’s Last Tape” or Bettie Serveert entries. Join the project by following links from Wikipedia’s homepage, and then read WP:YFA, Wikipedia’s page on creating your first article.

Virginia Heffernan, New York Times


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