Friday, June 08, 2007


Wiki Wacky

I’ll make an assessment, falling short of an outright prediction: The Daria [fandom] Wiki, newly adorned with a spiffy logo showing Our Heroine, has potential.

That potential, unfortunately, is for it to become the most divisive element in what’s left of the fandom. I wasn’t around to see most of the earlier battles first-hand, but I’ve read many of the words in their wake by now, and I’ve seen their like in other fandoms.

From what I’ve gathered, battles over this wiki may rival “Trent vs. Tom,” “Shippers vs. Dramatists,” and, yes, even “Everyone vs. CINCGREEN.”

I’ve not been much of a fan of wikis, either in theory or in practice. I said so directly to Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales, the man who put the Big Kahuna of wikis, Wikipedia, on the map. He and I corresponded for several years, both privately and, through an individualist-oriented list, in public.

When the idea of Wikipedia was broached, it tried to take up a potent notion from free-market economists, that of a spontaneous or emerging order. Many elements of our lives end up being organized not by someone being in control, but by millions of individual choices interacting to produce a larger phenomenon. “By human action, but not by human design.” Marketplaces, languages, and most scientific interplay all tend to function this way.

Jimbo thought that an encyclopedia could be assembled this way — by setting only the broadest of ground rules, creating a foundation for funding, and letting millions of contributors write on what interested them or what they were trained to do. With everyone being able to edit every page.

I saw this as being highly dubious, and said so. It suggested that not merely a workable set of interactions, but a reference work of considerable authority, could be created by millions of edits that had no standards applied to them. It ignored that even in an emerging order, parts of it would only become stable by human design and guidance. That’s why, even though language is “alive,” dictionaries are still published to record and frame usage.

Jimbo thought my concerns were excessive, and proceeded with it all nonetheless. I have to say, now, that we both ended up being correct, in different ways. Wikipedia has pulled in many knowledgeable people, despite their work often not standing for long as they’ve written it — often at considerable effort.

On the other hand, an intricate apparatus of rules and procedures has grown up by mutual consent, making it much less spontaneous in its organization. Order has indeed been emerging, often painfully slowly.

What has fueled an enterprise of that size, though, has been that it’s tried to cover nearly everything, in an audacious way that hasn’t been seen in nearly 250 years, since the height of the Enlightenment and the French “encyclopedists.”

And the Wikipedia project has drawn on vast numbers of participants from every walk of life. That’s usually diluted personal enthusiasms from skewing vast portions of it one way or the other.

Dariadom, sadly, doesn’t have millions in it. It probably never even had thousands. It has a few hundred, by now, if that, all with passion for one series. And such a project is weakened, and personal conflicts magnified, if it’s ruled by enthusiasms.

I’d say the most daunting weakness of the Fandom Wiki, thus far, is quite simple. Everyone involved knows each other. That is, outside of the wiki. Few do, by contrast, at Wikipedia, where pretty much all that one can be is what one posts.

Here, though, all the participants have longer or shorter connections elsewhere, mostly over fanworks, but also through general discussions. Those provide an illusion, a common and seductive one on the Net: We often assume that we know all about others’ contexts and scope of knowledge. Well, we don’t.

Those who share a more abstract interest, in tussling over a Wikipedia entry and its nuances, have more of an incentive to stick to the facts. Especially when the object of their struggle is a third party, event, institution, historical fact, scientific issue, or public figure.

Those who share an enthusiasm, as with Dariafen, have glosses from their passions and personal interactions to add to the mix. And the subject matter involves other human beings more directly, not as third parties. Those factors make it far harder to be objective.

The wiki is too personal, in more than one sense. Some who’ve described themselves have gone on at nearly absurd lengths. Others are loath to edit such pages. Their subjects are known from elsewhere, and sparred with on message boards, and why would such edits be made, if they would endanger other relationships?

On the other hand, some are quite ready to classify others into categories that they see as being appropriate, ignoring that others are, indeed, more than what they post. Trying to create something “objective” tramples on the richness of viewpoint and nuance that is often readily available.

I’ll give my own example. The entry at the DFW describing me was initially set up by someone else, who not only noted (some of) the facts of what I’ve done in Dariadom, but also felt compelled to add some categorizing. I was, supposedly, a “fan-fiction prescriptivist” and a “controversial figure.”

Well, I demur on both points, and for different reasons. I’ve sought definitions and contrasts in fan fiction, trying to get a handle on what starts to diverge in excess from the original material, not to “prescribe” what others should do, but to make a stab at paying proper respect to the original creators.

And as to “controversy,” I find that difficult to measure. Anyone with pointed or unsheathed opinions, especially about art, is going to have others who aren’t pleased with them. To say that personal pique is the same as principled disagreement makes no sense. Controversy, as such, also measures someone by how others react to them, not by what he or she says.

I removed such categorizing. I didn’t want it, and I placed a statement on the “talk” portion of the page about me that said so. (That’s not the same as the personal page which exists from having registered as a member of the wiki project. I posted it there, though, as well, for reference.)

The category-building around other people has proceeded vigorously, though. Not everyone seems to mind. Where this spills over into weakening the project is where “edit wars” go on, especially involving personal descriptions.

One such war is raging at the moment over Stacy, the character, and her partisan Starmeshelion. Too many of the words, changes, and reversions are made because some have a general revulsion to Stars’ particular enthusiasm. He wants to highlight shades of opinion that he sees as distinct, and others are removing them or making them appear less important.

Why, though, are they doing so? Is this from being genuinely concerned that a discussion of Stacy is going astray? Is it from being frustrated or annoyed with Stars for his concerns or wording, or for his demeanor elsewhere? It’s difficult to separate these issues.

You can’t easily create a reference work with a “neutral point of view,” or even make a stab at it, when personal assessments are ground into the mixture. Either in citing others’ takes — or what one thinks are others’ takes — on a subject. Or in ruling out discussion aspects because someone else’s enthusiasm is annoying. That’s why detached, neutral editors and writers exist.

Nobody, though, is detached at this Fandom Wiki. Too much is bound up with every major player having commented on, joked with, beta-read for, or battled with the other players in other forums.

It makes for a fun “club,” or, as one DFWer said at the PPMB, “All the cool kids are there.” Yet the push toward a reference work heightens the battles, and risks blowing up personal differences beyond their real importance.

I’d hope this doesn’t come true, but for now, I see too much potential for real, complex, living people to be hurt by what others want to do to describe them, or to put them in verbal boxes, at this wiki.

Nobody who doesn’t share the enthusiasm for the series is present, or is likely to even visit ... just the “cool kids.” I’d say that objectivity requires more than a few who aren’t passionate, if only to drive by and say, “You’re being too personal here.” Or, for that matter, “You really need to clean up your grammar and spelling.”

It’s a paradox: A tool for insiders may be made better only by being shaped, in part, by outsiders.

We’ll see what happens. I wish the project well, but more to the point, I want to see the fans taking part in it remaining civil with one another.

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