Wikipedia and Me

 Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

 -T.S. Eliot-

Did you ever get the  feeling  that Wikipedia was  a metaphor about everything that is wrong with the world? Or maybe just the virtual world?  You have to admit, at least, that there is something disturbing about a source of information, (one dare not call it knowledge)  that is based on the principle that everyone is an expert.

I started thinking about this again when the  controversy over Chris Anderson’s book, Free, became a topic of discussion. We have written about it before in “Ask the Agent”. It was one of those little tempests that occasionally engender contempt and derision in the literary world  and that is of little consequence to anyone else. Literary politics, like academic politics, is so vicious because the stakes are so low.

One of the  things that came out of this  shabby affair was that it was discovered that Chris Anderson lifted numerous texts  verbatim from Wikipedia  without attribution. He got caught with his pants down by the Virginia Quarterly Review, and made a number of mea culpa’s to Publishers Weekly and the New York Times. When he was interviewed on Fresh Air,   Terry Gross asked him to comment on his plagiarism. He very artfully sidestepped the issue and argued about how Wikipedia should be treated as a legitimate authoritative source. As I’m sure most of you know, any freshman in college who uses Wikipedia in his footnotes will get a failing  grade.

I decided to do my own research, anecdotal though it may be. Obviously I needed to analyze a subject of which I was an expert. So I looked at the topic on Wikipedia of which I was probably the world’s greatest authority. That would be Cody’s Books. After all, I owned it for 30 years.

So here is what I found. (BTW, some of the text  was so annoying that I changed it last week-end with the help of my tech savvy son, Robert. The article still isn’t very good, but it is much improved.)

Let’s start at the beginning. The first picture you see on the  Wiki Cody’s page is an image that is not exactly illustrative of the history of Cody’s. It is a photograph of the graffiti board of the men’s bathroom of the Telegraph store. See picture below.

Cody's public restroom grafitti board

Cody's public restroom grafitti board

Actually, it would be a good image for a story  about my 35 years as a bookseller. I  spent a considerable amount of time dealing with problems associated with plumbing, in general and  this restroom, in particular.  Information is unreliable  unless knowledgeable people filter out the bad information. Filtering is always a matter of judgment. And people with authoritative knowledge of a subject  are best at making those judgments. On Wikipedia, everybody is an expert.  And the reliability of the information will always be uncertain. Somebody should have pointed out that the picture of the lavatory graffiti was not authoritative information. It was, well, a picture of lavatory graffiti. Nothing more.  

The article  goes on to state  that Cody’s moved to Telegraph Avenue in 1967. This isn’t  true. Pat and Fred Cody moved the store in 1960 to a  Telegraph location now occupied by Moe’s Books. They moved again to the larger corner location in 1965. Several people interviewed me recently in blogs and noted  the 1967 date, which they had clearly picked up from Wikipedia. There is also a link to another Wikipedia article on independent bookstores that cites the 1967 figure. Internet gurus are always singing the praises of “viral information”. But bad information is just as viral as good information. Witness the  viral spread of articles on all things UFO and  the  vast conspiracy theories associated with Michael Jackson.

In the original Wikipedia article, there was very little  of substance about the history of Cody’s except for a sentence or 2 about the Rushdie Affair and how Cody’s was bombed as a result of our   selling the book. There was also passing mention of the anti-war protests on Telegraph and Cody’s involvement in this. Then there were some vital statistics (many incorrect or partially correct) about various openings and closings.  Here are some important facts about Cody’s that didn’t appear in the article:

1) Andy Ross bought the store in 1977. 2) Cody’s was primarily remembered as a store devoted to literary and scholarly titles. 3) There was no mention of opening the Fourth Street Store, only its closing. 3) No mention of the extraordinary author reading series that lasted for 30 years. The photographs of these authors have been posted in a number of places, most recently on this site. But, the authors of the Wiki article felt that the photograph of the lavatory was  a more significant image.

There are a lot of mistakes that are problems of detail. There are some vital statistics in a box at the top of the article. It refers to Fred Cody as the “founder”. Pat Cody as the “CEO” (She was actually the co-founder  and at the time of her work at the store, the concept of CEO was not in use even in corporate America.) Andy Ross was characterized as the “former president” which is correct. Hiroshi Kagawa was characterized as the “president”. (Actually, Hiroshi  was  CEO. And since Cody’s is closed, he would best be called “former CEO”) Ok, enough beating that dead horse.  But in aggregate, all these errors and omissions add up to sloppy research. And to dignify this Wiki article as authoritative is folly. In some cases, it would be a stretch to say they are providing “information”. Perhaps it would be most accurate to describe them as providing information-like material”.

One of the good things about Wikipedia is a kind of transparency. One can readily see  who made entries to an article and who changed them (although there seems to be no record of the changes that I made in the Cody’s article.) But here again, the transparency simply casts light on the fact that the authors of the article lack bone fides. Wiki posted a discussion that includes  a dispute about whether anyone  really knew that the bomb set off in 1989 was the result of terrorism or in any way associated with The Satanic Verses. This is a  valid point. In fact, we never learned who set off the bomb and what motivated the act.  On the Wiki discussion page, there was a heated discussion about whether this was an opinion or a fact. But the skeptic went on to say that the bomb (which was extremely sophisticated and destructive) might have been  the work of “opportunistic  juvenile vandalism”.   I don’t think so.

The discussion tab also shows who exactly are the authors of this entry. It indicates that the article is part of the “Wikiproject San Francisco Bay Area” (whatever that is) and with considerable work by “CKatz” (whoever he is). There is no obvious way to trace the identity or qualifications of these (I hesitate to say, people) entities.

The heart of the matter is the way that the article equates facts and judgments with citations and references without actually evaluating the authoritative nature of those references. Any story in a newspaper, blog or opinion piece  seems to have equal weight as an authoritative source. In Wikipedia a throwaway weekly has the same dignity as an authority as the news room of The New York Times.  Let’s look at some examples of the cited footnotes in the Cody’s article.

 Berkeley Celebrates a 40 Year Love Affair With Cody’s Books. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996. Although I love the sentiment here, the article consisted mostly of information and quotes by me and a few by Pat Cody. Certainly both Pat and I are authorities. But when I have been  interviewed by the press, particularly for puff pieces, (which this article clearly was), I tended to go warm and fuzzy and play to the house. A good scholar would have recognized this, and evaluated my comments accordingly.

 An Historical Berkeley Landmark and Independent Bookstore Begins Archive at the Bancroft Library. This footnote was to document that Cody’s was a vocal opponent of the growing dominance of chain bookstores. This is a rather odd source of authority on the matter. It was from a press release by the Bancroft Library at UC announcing that we had turned over all of our recordings of author events to the Bancroft for an archive.

Cody’s Books to leave S.F. — ‘It just didn’t work’. This was another article in the Chronicle. It was written by the reporter who covered the retail beat. They built the story around a quote by me.  This was  a reference for the “fact” about the closing of Cody’s SF. When asked why we closed, I said “it just didn’t work”.   Well, of course. But  this is  a tautology.  It reads well and is poignant, but explains nothing. There were a lot of reasons why it didn’t work. Most of them are speculative. At the time of my interview, I was broken hearted  about the whole thing. I didn’t want to get into the details of Cody’s failures and read about it next day in the Chronicle. So I just dismissed the question with: “it didn’t work”.

SFist: Cody’s Books on Union Square. Well, this one is particularly rich. Who is Sfist? I have no idea. It appears that they are a blog that writes puff pieces about San Francisco retailers to draw advertising.  Are they an authority on anything? I don’t think so.

 Cody’s Books Closes Permanently.  This was by the East Bay Express. Not a bad giveaway paper. It was  a short,  emotional announcement.  An authoritative source? No.  But, listen, this is great. On the Internet blog version of this  story, the readers can make their own comments. Listen to this reader who had  his own way of understanding what killed Cody’s:

 ” Cody’s was killed by that neurotic pseudo-liberal yuppie and his hollow expansionist vision of turning Cody’s into a Whole Foods inspired chain. 4th street Berkeley was one thing but to open at 2nd/Stockton in San Francisco while closing the flagship store? Hmph! And why did he close the flagship store? Because he saw that as an opportunity to sell the business office space he owned next door to the rented space where the Cody’s books store was on Telegraph right before the property market tanked based on his inside information. …”

 Unless I am mistaken, I believe the above  quote was about me. (For the record, there are a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the above.).

 I click on Wikipedia as much as the rest of you. How can you do otherwise? Any time you look something up, Wikipedia comes up first. It does a medium job on spelling and grammar. I learn some pretty good things about Hollywood celebrities.. It is an easy way of getting directed to other Internet venues. Some of which are good. Some bad.   I use it for dates and places, but I probably shouldn’t. It’s free. But I guess you get what you pay for.

 Let me tell you an inspiring story, a cautionary tale, really. One night 2 years ago, a number of students in the dorm at Tufts University decided to pull an inspired caper. They probably had drunk a little too much  cheap beer and were  bored and disappointed that they didn’t have anything better to do on Friday night. One of the students was my son, Robert Cole. Another was a foreign student from Bosnia, whom we shall call, “Hamid”.

 The guys decided to test Wikipedia by posting a story that was patently untrue. They created an entry about Hamid which stated that he was heir to the royal crown of Bosnia. They had a problem with the sources. Wikipedia will usually bounce a story that isn’t backed up with footnotes. Since Hamid was not, in fact,  heir to the royal crown of Bosnia, and since there was never even such a royal crown, the guys decided to put in spurious authoritative footnotes. Well, actually, they were real footnotes that were from real websites. All of them, though, were written in Serbo-Croation. What were the sites? Who knows? Maybe Bosnian dating sites, maybe UFO speculation in the Balkans, maybe movie reviews from the latest Sarajevo flicks. The guys figured out that likely  none of the Wiki “fact checkers”  would be able to read the citations. Clever thinking.

 Well, their item got bounced pretty fast. But I wonder how many other   items have been put up as college pranks? I will bet there are quite a few.  I don’t know whether the boys intended this or not, but they really attacked bombast and pretension with the most powerful weapon: ridicule.   Hamid, wherever you are, you will always be a  crown prince in my book.

 Somebody once said that you can get information that is either good, fast, or cheap. But you can only get 2 out of 3. You can get it good and fast by subscribing to the New York Times, but it’s  not cheap. You can get it good and cheap by going to a library. But it’s  not fast. Or you can get it fast and cheap by going to Wikipedia. – But it’s not good.

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8 Responses to “Wikipedia and Me”

  1. Patti B Says:

    This is the best criticism of Wiki culture I’ve read anywhere. Thanks, Andy.

  2. Nate Says:

    The 1967 date came from this article (“Cody’s Books to close flagship store in Berkeley”: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/09/MNGUTIOQ8L5.DTL ) published in the SF Chronicle in 2006, more than a year before the first Wikipedia article appeared. You can blame the Chronicle for that one, and the Express for the Hiroshi Kagawa as president statement. When people actually bother to find references, Wikipedia is heavily biased towards free, online, “reputable” sources, which mainly means newspapers and random university sites. You can see the result…

    The discussion tab doesn’t actually show who edited the article, just who talked about it; the history tab is where the record of every edit is kept. “Ckatz”‘s contribution was actually pretty minor.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Nate, the article is filled with incorrect facts and incorrect judgments about what facts are important. The writer (or writers), whoever he, she or they may be, were incapable of evaluating the reliability of a source. The decision to use the photograph of the graffiti board in the public lavatory is astonishing. The fact that the sources used were, themselves, sloppy doesn’t excuse Wikipedia from its own failures. Had the writers been knowledgeable about the subject or had they bothered to interview those who were knowledgeable, there would have been a much different and more reliable article.

      It seems that what you are saying is that the writers should not be blamed because they simply followed the rules of Wikipedia. That is a fair judgment. My criticism is about those rules, not about those writers.

  3. Sarah Trachtenberg Says:

    According to my nerd friends, Wiki is as reliable as any traditional encyclopedia, but I think the latter would still be looked down upon in a reference to an academic paper:)
    A good thing to see is when Colbert manipulated Wikipedia…successfully! What he wrote in jest turned into reality. Whoa!
    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/72347/july-31-2006/the-word—wikiality

  4. Mike Lipsey Says:

    I love wiki, not because I trust it, but because it offers so much information that would otherwise never have been available. There is no conceivable commercial encyclopedia of such vast scope.

    Regarding old reference sources, I treasure my 11th edition Brittanica and the supplements from after WWI. And dictionary.com is no substitute for the compact OED with the magnifier.

  5. Book Banning at Amazon.com « Ask the Agent Says:

    […] the dross from the gold.  This  fits in quite well with the Internet Culture of  Wikipedia (see previous blog entry)  in which everyone is an […]

  6. Fighting Against History Part 1 « Ask the Agent Says:

    […] something is missing. We have already spoken of the tyranny of Wikipedia (see blog entry: “Wikipedia and Me.”) There was something else that has been lost, though. The serendipitous pleasure of […]

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