If you haven’t read our very own Virginia Heffernan’s column over at Yahoo today, you really ought. She has pit Wikipedia against the novelist Philip Roth, and has actually taken sides!
To set the stage… Imagine you wrote a book about lesbian vampires, and created a character based on somebody in real life: perhaps an old girlfriend who went on to become a famously vicious tabloid reporter. The book becomes a hit, they make a movie based on it, and years later Wikipedia has an entry on your lesbian vampire book, quoting two good sources that say the female character was based on your mother.
So you try to edit the entry in Wikipedia, because, after all, you wrote the goddamn book, and bloody well know who inspired the character. But Wikipedia rejects your edit, because there’s only one source: you. So you write an angry letter published on the New Yorker website.
Trade your lesbian vampire novel for The Human Stain, and you’re pretty much in the position Philip Roth is now. Only Mr. Roth (despite being amazing – any of you read Portnoy’s Complaint during the throes of late puberty?) is getting on in years, and doesn’t really respect or grok what Wikipedia’s all about.
Roth in 2009
Virginia rightly conveys Wikipedia’s two killer credentials – anonymity and humility – although I think of them as essences of each other. Much has been made of Wikipedia being false, or easy to hack, but in all of my years poring over the site, I’ve only seen one malicious bit of misinformation (and it was written by a Dook fan).
So Roth (as old media) mishandled Wikipedia (new media), but his complaint does seem logical. Inherently, the creator of a piece of art is the only human in existence who knows its inspiration (despite what the Jungians say). There are cases of “subconscious plagiarism”, which was the ruling against George Harrison because of “My Sweet Lord”, which stirs the possibility that artists may not know the original atom of their idea. But any farther than that, and you end up with B.F. Skinner and the end of creativity.
So let’s go back to your book: only you can tell Wikipedia that the lesbian vampire was actually your girlfriend. Surprise, you’re not allowed to. I totally get it: Wikipedia needs two sources in order to have any credibility, and third-party verification in print provides a “durability of facts”. But it does seem a little counterintuitive, and in this case, a detour away from truth.
The solution? Roth figured it out, whether he meant to or not. By creating a ruckus and writing his screed to the New Yorker, he provided his second source. The newsworthiness of the story made it into the Human Stain entry on Wikipedia, and bob’s your uncle.
Before you go off on your weekend, a word about Virginia Heffernan: in a world of monotonous snark, dispassionate reportage, and vocab words used as intimidation, Virginia is a rare diamond. Nobody sounds like her. She writes these pieces the way she talks, with a sort of impeccably free-form jazz that is always a little surprising, but never wandering too far away from the tonic chord.
She’s also a technophile who sees things in the light of what they are, not what they’re replacing. She has a skill that I try to keep sharp in my own life: the sense that the revolution isn’t happening, it already happened, and there’s lots to be excited about if you’re not nailing your shoes to the floor.