Friday, May 30, 2008

Style vs. Substance: A tragedy of the commons?

By now we've all grown accustomed to Wikipedia's pull. In fact, when we've polled client audiences prior to a series of new media presentations we regularly give, Wikipedia seems to be the one 'new media' experience everyone has had in the last 7 days...but is that a good thing?

Many voices in academia seem engaged in a sort of low-level war with wikipedia and other free, open information sources...from universities prohibiting the use of wikipedia and Google (see this, this, and this example of open minded academic discourse) to general griping about the quality of the entries to glee at the occassional outrages posted as part of the collective wisdom. Anger and denial are the natural first reactions of people for whom the power rules are changing.

Now comes the latest shot in an article by Mark Bauerlein in the Chronicle of Higher Education...and what does it say?

"I can tell when my students have consulted Wikipedia when writing their papers. Sentences lose their singularity, transitions go flat, diction pales. The discourse sounds like information issuing from a neutral platform, not interpretation coming from an angle of vision. "

The article compares the style of wikipedia entries on Moby Dick (I enjoyed the story, but not the harpoon me already) to that of older encylopedia's.

The Professor's conclusion?

"Each one [of the entries in the 'old' sources] is more vibrant and entertaining than the Wikipedia entry. The information is no better, and Wikipedia is, indeed, a marvelous source for a quick date, fact, definition, event. But in style, most entries are deadening."

He goes on to imply that students seem to be incapable of writing with a point of view when using Wikipedia and says "...but I wish I received a lot more biased, opinionated, argumentative, judgmental, stylish, and colorful papers."

Funny, I thought that's what teachers and grades were for...rewarding the desired behavior. Wikipedia and other encyclopedia's shouldn't be confused with primary research...nor with teaching. As a repository of the best available collective knowledge--and a mission that values neutrality--Wikipedia seems to fill an awful lot of demand among the un-Ivoried commoners.

But perhaps we're near a turning point...if the debate is now indeed shifting to stylistic concerns, then maybe we're entering another, happier place on the change curve...acceptance. Who knows, soon maybe the late adopter academics will engage Wikipedia en masse with their leaderly peers and actually try to make it better.

Meanwhile, I'll just continue missing the point of all the angst over the idea that the unwashed masses are not to be entrusted with the power of information unvetted by The Tower. Perhaps the Wikipedia entry about Wikipedia says it all? That or the number of people buying encyclopedias.

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