Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Malamanteau, or Why I Hate Wikipedia (Sometimes)

Note: this is not about development, but just a general rant. Read at your own risk.
So you may not have heard all the hubbub over at Wikipedia about the word malamanteau. When I read xkcd that morning, I saw a great rejoinder to the tendency I've seen over at Wikipedia - describing something in terms so esoteric that you need to read the entries for the terms to understand the term they're describing. And if you had trouble following that, welcome to my world.
What is a malamanteau? It's a neologism (a newly created word) that is a combination of a malapropism (using the wrong word for something - alliterate instead of illiterate) and a portmanteau (combining two words to create new one). So a malamanteau is actually a portmanteau as well. Regardless, it was a word invented by Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd, and his comic was genius. So much so that someone went to Wiki and made the page. And that's where the trouble started.
See, Wikipedia has an identity crisis. Is it "the free encyclopedia anyone can edit"? Or is an encyclopedia that has editors and administrators who maintain a level of "respectable enough"? Unfortunately, the entire malamanteau issue has reopened the old wounds (which I'm sure are reopened constantly on other articles). What started as a little bit of fanboy fun turned into a much-larger-than-it-needed-to-be discussion about Wikipedia. If it's more of a "editors and admins" kind of thing, why do they allow tons of information about, say, Pokemon and Lord of the Rings? If it's the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, where is the line drawn between cruft and actual content?
Should the word malamanteau have its own article? Certainly not - it was a joke and, unless we begin to adopt this word into regular usage, not notable enough to engender a regular article. (Note that I will be using this word as often as I can.) But it was the edit- and flame-war that it initiated that was notable. It brought to the fore this division. It brought out the personal attacks ("idiotic fanboys" "WikiNazis"). It became an "us" versus "them" issue, despite that Wikipedia is supposed to be ours.
Is Wikipedia an encyclopedia? Don't people wish. You may not know, but I was a history graduate student for a while. Talk about a discipline requiring, well, discipline about sources. Wiki may have dreams that, when it's grown up a bit, it might be able to claim that. It is a good starting point for doing actual research, but it is not a reliable source in and of itself. Schools have banned it as a resource. No respectable college or grad student would dare place it on any kind of paper/essay/exegesis. Well, having been a TA, I know that they do, but trust me - there is a penalty to pay for that. There is, unfortunately, absolutely no way it can be edited consistently or accurately to make it a true encyclopedia. Too many things slip under the radar - errors, fanboy posts, etc. Too many biases by contributors and administrators are brought to the fore (look at the global warming article discussion - or the Naomi Oreskes article). The authors and editors are not professional copy-editors and researchers (in general). Nor do they have the time to do the job that would need to be done.
So what use does Wikipedia serve? Again, it's a starting point. There are tons of inaccuracies and I don't bother editing anymore because finding a relevant reference is usually too much trouble. But let me tell you - if I ever need information about Pikachu, Wiki is the place to go.