Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bizarro Wikipedia

I've noticed a strange phenomenon on Wikipedia recently. It was always plagued by a subtle, pervasive, systemic bias (sexism, racism, etc.) but there was a superficial veneer of objectivity: neutral language, and flags where the tone deviated from the norm or where opinions or dubious facts were offered without citation, which seemed relatively rare. In a way, this layer of "truthiness" made the problem worse, since the average user would be persuaded that the information on Wikipedia was accurate and unbiased.

Lately, Wikipedia seems to have lost many of these markers of objectivity. Is it because the site is now so expansive that it cannot possibly be managed, a kind of failure by success, Roman Empire–style? Stripped of the gestures toward neutrality, Wikipedia is becoming a kind of massive, living artwork: crowdsourced conceptualism. I find it rather beautiful: a bizarre, fictive, everchanging collage. A wabi-sabi Frankenstein text. For example, see the below sentences I've run across in recent weeks:
It has been written, inaccurately perhaps, that German is the only language that allows (us?) to penetrate the horror of Auschwitz, to describe death from within.
That's from the page on Paul Celan. The source cited is a French text; is this the Wikipedia editor's translation, a translation he was unsure of, hence the parenthetical? (Let's be honest, odds are the editor was a man.) Or is this a direct quote presented without quotation marks? And if so, who said it? Shouldn't this kind of obfuscating passive voice by flagged or banned? If it wasn't Celan, and there's no indication that it was, how it is relevant to the page? 

The page on the Storming of the Bastille seems to be wholly plagiarized from a British history book (note the formal tone and alternate spellings):
The commoners had formed the National Guard, sporting tricolour cockades (cocardes) of blue, white and red, formed by combining the red and blue cockade of the Paris commune and the white cockade of the king. These cockades, and soon simply their colour scheme, became the symbol of the revolution and, later, of France itself.
At the top of this page, an inconspicuous note: "This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. Please help to improve this article by introducing more precise citations. (July 2011)" Next to this note, a question mark, not an exclamation point or a red flag. It doesn't seem to have caused much worry in the past few years. (Nothing like the debate over the "the" before "Beatles.")

Then there's Barbara Daly Baekeland, whom I looked up after watching Savage Grace. There's not much information on the Internet about her, but here's Wikipedia's sexist editorializing (italics mine):
Returning to Spain, Barbara accepted the extent of her son's relationship with Cooper, but preferred his developing relationship with a young Spanish girl, Sylvie. However, Sylvie started an affair with Brooks. After discovering the affair in February 1968, Barbara again tried to commit suicide. Brooks decided that he had had enough of Barbara's behaviour, and decided to pursue a divorce. This led Barbara to severe depression and a further suicide attempt, from which her friend Gloria Jones, wife of author James Jones, saved her. 
In 1969 she met Samuel Adams Green, with whom she started an affair. Later introduced to her son, noted pop art curator Green was very unimpressed by his artistic capabilities. After six weeks, Green broke off the relationship, although Barbara was still obsessed by Green. She pursued him relentlessly; when she returned to the United States that fall, she walked barefoot across Central Park in the snow wearing nothing but a Lynx fur coat to demand entry to his apartment.
British spellings? Check! Slut-shaming? Check!

I hope Wikipedia just gets weirder and weirder as it expands, a kind of paranoid-schizophrenic, Fox News version of the world that, thanks to embellishments and extra u's, is eventually larger than the world.

If you see a good example of Bizarro Wikipedia, please leave it in the comments. I want to collect these.


  1. "Bizarro-Batman sported a Futility Belt full of cigarette butts and chewed gum and other such priceless Bizarro treasures. Yellow Lantern had no power from his powerless Ring, was vulnerable to the color green, and was the most easily-frightened being in the universe. Bizarro-Aquaman could not swim. There is even a Bizarro-Marilyn Monroe, the ugliest of them all."

    Bizarro World

  2. A few months ago I saw this passage in the Wikipedia article on the Cultural Revolution:

    Although the Cultural Revolution has been treated officially as a negative phenomenon ever since, Mao Zedong's desire to have the Chinese people keep wary eyes on their leaders is not dissimilar from countries with advanced democracies and that claim to have enlightened governance and leadership.

    I was amused enough to email it to friends, but it has since been removed. In fairness to Wikipedia I think it would be almost impossible to come up with good policies to handle this kind of thing.

    1. I'm glad it's impossible. I much prefer this version of Wikipedia, a massive bricolage of unjustified opinions.

    2. And here's another one:

      "In the practical arts and the fine arts, bricolage is the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process. The term is borrowed from the French word bricolage, which refers to amateur repair and DIY maintenance work (the definition of le bricolage, in French, corresponds exactly to that of the tinkering)."

      In the practical arts and the fine arts? "corresponds exactly to that of the tinkering"? Adorable.

    3. Sometimes I think it must be some bizarre translation from another language, as with this passage from the Wikipedia page on Goethe:

      Schiller's death in 1805, Goethe felt a drastic loss. During this time he also continued to own various diseases (erysipelas, renal colic). A deep incision in Goethe's life was in addition to the loss of the companion to the looming war with Napoleon Bonaparte . In the spirit of Goethe saw with his Duke already begging and asylum-seeking move by Germany (called his tendency to pessimism, his "black side").

      Or have words been removed at random?

    4. The "Later Life" section of the page goes on in that vein for quite a while. It's bizarrely bad, maybe cut-and-pasted from some poorly translated and poorly formatted source.

    5. That's almost like spam. Geez, quality control alert.

    6. Looks like something that went through Google Translate.

  3. I just had a look at the French and German versions of Paul Celan's Wikipedia page. Your citation from the English page does not appear in either. I looked up the source, but could not find a PDF copy of the Steiner article. I found secondary sources, however, explaining that Steiner made the claim in question. Such an example is here (in French, second paragraph).

    1. Was he talking about Celan? Seems kind of tangential.

  4. Yes, Steiner was talking about Celan. The Wikipedia sentence is just a bad paraphrasing of the original.

  5. Hi, Can I translate your excellent article into French and publish it (with credit and link) on ? Thank you, Wikibuster