“About 90 percent of [Wikipedia editors] are male, and 27 percent are under age twenty-one — 13 percent are in high school— and nearly all are anonymous, with no controls by any outsider on what they write.” – Richard Jensen, Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812
Would you trust a high school boy to provide you with medical advice? Political commentary? Guidance on questions of religion and philosophy? Welcome to the world of “crowdsourced knowledge,” where each month 470 million people from around the world get the majority of their factual information from an encyclopedia where “expertise is not welcome” (Jensen) and editors usually do not have very much access to scholarly resources or the latest discussion among experts in the fields they are writing about. Jensen puts the number of “very active” editors at around 3 300 as of Spring 2012. Even leaving aside the age and lack of experience of many of these editors, there is also the big issue of gender. Thinking about that 90 percent male number, do you feel comfortable about the perspective of the page on Feminism? Affirmative action? Abortion?
It is for good reason that most university professors discourage use of Wikipedia for university writing assignments.
It is hard to feel good about the expertise of high school and twenty-something men in many of the areas covered by the millions of articles on Wikipedia, but I wanted to know how well the Wikipedia system works in an area where this demographic might actually be the experts: bad heavy metal.
In Flames are a melodic death metal band from Sweden. Or maybe an alternative metal band from Sweden. Or possibly a modern rock band from Sweden. There is a lot of debate about this (more about this later). All I know for sure is that they’re from Sweden. I was never a fan, but they’re pretty big as far as this music goes (2 million copies sold, according to Wikipedia) and some guys in my high school were big fans.
Anyway, they used to sound like this:
Now they sound like this:
I can’t tell the difference either, but the change was big enough to have inspired 6 300+ words of arguing over the band’s genre (their actual page is only 4 300 words!), some insisting that as (apparently) the inventors of “melodic death metal” genre, the genre’s definition should be whatever In Flames happened to be playing, others that they had abandoned that style to become some other kind of metal in the early 2000s, still others saying they now weren’t metal at all (and sucked). What was striking about this discussion wasn’t that so much of it was poorly spelled, or insulting or angry, but that so little of it made reference to any kind of outside sources; a lot of the editors make no secret of how they feel about the band, but maintained that, impartially, their own interpretation of what genre the band’s music now falls into. Instead of looking for authoritative sources, the In Flames Wiki editors seemed more interested in representing whatever camp of metal fandom they belonged to. There’s a paraphrase from Stanley Fish I have used before because I find it interesting for the Wikipedia discussion: if documents (like a Wiki) are a place where different social worlds meet, there are going to be fights between them to come to a “right” interpretation, but “for there to be a “right” way, there must be a standard and a judge external to all of the competing community-based alternatives. But there is no external fulcrum to move these social worlds that is not itself merely the internal standard of another social world” (from Brown & Duguid).
Looking over the “sources” that do actually appear on the In Flames Wiki seems to confirm that this “fulcrum” is lacking. The article is well-written enough, but its sources are mostly shoddy-looking online metal review websites and concert reviews from local newspapers. In a related idea, Leigh Star has argued that the process of “translation” of interpretations of a single document between these social worlds “often represents an attempt to subordinate one group to the other’s interpretation” (from Brown & Duguid). The main editor of the In Flames Wiki is a user who goes by Leon Sword; he is also almost the only voice on the Talk page who insists that the band has remained melodic death metal, and seems to have largely gotten his way through sheer persistence (and constantly reverting the edits of others). Clearly a big fan of the group, Leon Sword seems to believe that by controlling the content of the Wikipedia page, he can influence the way the outside world interprets the band. What is kind of alarming in a “crowdsourced” encyclopedia that is as popular as Wikipedia is that he is right. After all, searching In Flames on Google brings up their Wiki page as the second result. Without doing this much research, I for one would’ve just assumed whatever genre they were listed as on the page was correct (provided that I even noticed).
It is interesting that the one source that seems to have been aggressively blackballed by Leon Sword is the Encyclopaedia Metallum, or Metal-Archives. A massive Wiki-modelled resource for information on heavy metal with 90 000+ entries and 230 000+ users, the Metal-Archives presents an interesting alternative to the crowdsourcing idea; edits on the Archive are made by users, but before they appear, they are tightly moderated by a handpicked staff according to firm guidelines set out by the site’s owners. Sourcing is minimal; to prove a band is metal, users simply provide a link to the band’s music and the moderators judge whether they are “sufficiently metal.” The site hopes to one day catalogue every metal band that has ever and will ever exist; this task though means that there must be some definition of what metal is and is not, or else the site will eventually expand too far from its core goal. This also means that the site’s owners and moderators have drawn a line in the sand, blocking the addition of popular heavy bands such as KoRn and Disturbed as un-metal, or “mallcore.” In Flames were pointedly listed on their Metal-Archives profile as “Melodic Death Metal (early), Modern Rock (later)” for some years, though “Modern Rock” has now been changed to “Melodic Groove Metal,” a genre which has no Wikipedia page (yet). In a sense, the battle over In Flames’ Wiki is between a camp of die-hard purists of the Metal-Archives mindset with In Flames’ fanbase, or at least, a few big fans like Leon Sword, over how the band relationship with its supposed genre.
What all of this ultimately tells us about Wikipedia is that, in many cases, the idea of crowdsourced knowledge as many voices working together to create an accurate picture is misleading. As Van Dijk & Nieborg point out, “the majority of [Wiki] users, their activity is anything but a communal effort towards a shared cause; they may participate simply to satisfy their individual curiosities or because they are interested in the same product, brand, band or topic.” In this case, a small number of people battled each other to make their interpretation the one the public would see. My God, can you imagine how much trouble this might cause if they were writing about something important?
For more interesting discussion about Wikipedia’s accuracy, check out these classmate blogs:
Brown, J. S. & P. Duguid. (1996). The Social Life of Documents. First Monday. 1, 1.
Van Dijk, J. & Nieborg, D. (2009). Wikinomics and its discontents: a critical analysis of Web 2.0 business manifestos. New Media & Society. 11, 5. pp 855-874.
Jensen, R. (2012). Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812. Journal of Military History. 76, 1. pp 1165-1182