“What Wroth Roth Wrought” by Virginia Hefferman and Oliver Keyes
Élan Vital 2012-09-15
We may have a national drought, but a bumper crop of brilliant essays of, by, and for Wikipedia are turning up this weekend.
Oliver Keyes / Ironholds turned out this gem of an essay deconstructing, line by line, how many claims and statements in the original New Yorker piece fell somewhere between confused and false. In particular, he highlights that Roth has already been cited in the article at the time as disputing the claims by many critics that Broyard’s life was an influence on his character.
And he points out how credulous our traditional media are, when dealing with respected authors: how few outlets made an effort to check statements Roth made before repeating them, and often assumed they were true in coming up with social and factual analyses.
But these are the institutions that we – Wikipedians an everyone else – look up to for fact-checking and peer review in the first place. How to make sense of this communication gap?
Enter Virginia Hefferman, stage right. She published an insightful piece, with stylish patter to match the subject matter, on how the Rothroversy illustrates a digital culture war. An excerpt:
At least two Americas, then. Each with its own civilizations, its own holy artifacts, its own shamans. For contrast: Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia, born in 2001; it has some 365 million readers in 265 languages. The New Yorker is an American general-interest weekly, born in 1925. It has a circulation of almost 1.05 million, in a single language. Wikipedia America and New Yorker America are so dug into their hierarchies of values that, really, they can only cultivate blindness about the other lest they implode in madness. The East Coast establishment, for its part, is still so sure of itself that when Roth, one of its most esteemed denizens, finds himself narcissistically bugged in the usual way with something on Wikipedia, he doesn’t do what the rest of us do when Wikipedia narcissistically bugs us: learn the supremely learnable procedures for submitting changes to that populist and infinitely flexible document. Roth doesn’t read enough on the site to learn that at Wikipedia, nothing is left “on author” (as we used to say of the very rare uncheckable fact when I did my own time at The New Yorker). Everything must be sourced… “The Human Stain,” as a novel, might rise or fall on its status as a fictionalization of the life of this or that obscure intellectual. But Wikipedia, as the near-miraculous open-source document that defines knowledge on the Web, lives or dies on the strength of its traditions of anonymity, proceduralism, humility and collaboration. Once it knuckles under to power—literary, political, any kind—it cracks. Wikipedia as it stands is chaotic and error-ridden, although anything but soulless: It breathes with the intelligence of the hundreds of millions of people, around the world, who use it and contribute to it and take pride in it and maintain it.