Aug 3, 2006

Why I Hate Wikis [LINK]

No, not for the reason you might imagine. Sure, the information you find on a wiki is likely to be unreliable or incomplete, but we already knew that. For me, what makes wikis so often unbearable is the quality of the prose.

Never mind why, but a friend directed me to the wiki page for CNN's Anderson Cooper, where I found the following sentence in the "trivia" section:

His height is reported to be no more than 5' 10".
Granted, this is "trivia," which shouldn't concern us at all, but think about that sentence for a moment. If you read wikis you'll run across a lot of others like it: grammatically correct, but utterly confounding.

The most obvious problem is the use of passive voice: "His height is reported to be..." So who is doing the reporting? At least say something like: " reports that Cooper's height is..." Even: "A source who has actually met Mr. Cooper estimates his height as..." Or: "Sources familiar with Anderson Cooper's height say it is..." The passive voice just makes the information more tenuous and questionable. What is his actual height, anyway? Can't you just call his publicist? After all, the 5' 10" figure is pointlessly specific for a figure you have no real faith in. It's a lot like saying: "The federal government estimates this quarter's job-growth rate as 3.279 percent."

Another problem is the "no more than." Since we've failed to accurately state Cooper's height, we're now forced to rely on imprecise terminology that leaves us open to misinterpretation. For one thing, it sounds judgemental. Anderson Cooper's height is no more than 5' 10". Should he be taller than that? It's like saying Anderson Cooper is not even six feet tall! It also sounds vaguely controversial, as if there have been competing claims as to how tall he is. Some allegations were floating around that Cooper is six or perhaps even seven feet tall, but we have since learned he's no more than 5' 10". The "no more than," of course, doesn't address anyone claiming he's 5 feet tall. What makes us certain he's not 6 feet tall (not an inch more than 5' 10"), but uncertain whether he's 5 feet? If you just said his height is approximately 5' 10", would it sound quite as controversial?

I'd be interested in knowing if there's a particular tendency for wiki authors to use the passive voice in particular, as opposed to your run-of-the-mill blogger. Perhaps it's a form of defensive prose -- a way to ward off having your material summarily deleted? "It is claimed that Cooper 'doesn't drink hot beverages.'"

Wikinados might counter that I should go ahead and fix the problem I described, which I did, and in the process got to read some hilarious hand-wringing over how much about Cooper's sexual orientation to include in the article. But that doesn't get around the underlying problems. Like voting in national elections, there's little reason to believe your efforts will alter the underlying dynamic that results in consistently poor outcomes. That, plus I really don't care!

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