The self-styled “newspaper” in magazine format, The Economist, examines the career of Jimmy Wales and the origin of Wikipedia, with some mention of my role. As an account it is fairly true to the facts, which is far more than can be said for many such histories.
But for the record, I do have a few quibbles.
- This is really a quibble, I don’t believe I ever really counted Jimmy Wales as a friend; he was a friendly acquaintance. We never even lived in the same state until I went to work for Bomis, and we never had anything other than a professional relationship at that time.
- It is false to say that Wales “called [me] up to contest every single point.” I believe he called me up once, or maybe two or three times; I remember only one call distinctly.
- Jimmy Wales didn’t merely invest in Bomis.com; he was its CEO and leading light.
- The article implies (perhaps understandably, given what I might have said in the interview) that I think that Wikipedia as a project somehow embodies relativism, or requires a “postmodernist” interpretation. I don’t think so; I think that its current policy of making no special role for experts, regardless of their level of knowledge, is sometimes defended on such relativistic grounds. (In other words, they think that knowledge is actually “constructed” by the Wikipedia contributor base, and so the results are just as legitimate as anything that is vouched for by experts.) To such a defense, I would have various objections, which I have elaborated in this Edge paper. I believe the reporter asked me what I thought Ayn Rand would have thought of Stephen Colbert’s notion of wikiality, and that, I think, is what elicited the remark, “Ayn Rand would be turning in her grave.” It’s not as though I particularly care about the disposition of that particular corpse.
- Finally, there is this interesting quotation from Gene Koo of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society: “Wikipedia resolves the postmodern dilemma of truth by ultimately relying on process. Its process is both open and transparent. The levers of power are not destroyed—Foucault taught us that this is impossible—but simply visible.” Allow me to deconstruct this; it is wrong in at least two important ways. Most Wikipedians are anonymous, and most articles are unsigned. Whatever you might want to say about traditional media, at least you knew (or could find out) who was behind a particular piece of content. And while the process of writing is transparent, notwithstanding the anonymity – certainly I’d grant you that — transparency of process does not require the radical epistemic egalitarianism of Wikipedia’s least credible defenders.