wiki virtues

Feb 25, 2007

I must admit that I find the conservapedia “world history” lectures interesting–but for the same reasons that my wife and I used to collect premillenial dispensationalist pamphlets.

I promise this will turn into a more serious set of questions about the appropriateness of vandalizing, or even what it would mean to vandalize, a collective encyclopedia project. But before I do, let me note some of the list of great “homeschooled Christians” that are supposed to inspire the present generation:

Leonardo da Vinci
Claude Monet
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Stonewall Jackson
John Paul Jones
Robert E. Lee
Douglas MacArthur
George Patton…

George Washington
John Quincy Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
William Henry Harrison
John Tyler
Abraham Lincoln
Theodore Roosevelt

Joan of Arc
John the Baptist
William Cary
Jesus Christ…

Winston Churchill
Benjamin Franklin
Patrick Henry
William Penn
Henry Clay…

George Bernard Shaw
Mark Twain…

George Clymer
Benjamin Franklin
William Livingston…”

I’m not terribly surprised, but still vaguely disappointed, that Stonewall Jackson is on the list. Joan of Arc seems like a strange inclusion; and George Bernard Shaw as someone right-wing Christians would want to emulate? That’s just a declaration of idiocy.

Anyway, so here’s the ethical question. My wife and I were discussing left-wing vandalism of the conservapedia not long ago, and she said that this “reflects badly on our side.” Perhaps, but I’m not so sure about whether vandalism of the site crosses the line. For one thing, the whole point of a wiki encyclopedia is to draw on “collective knowledge” to produce intellectual and educational value. In fact, here are the “commandments” of the conservapedia:

1. Everything you post must be true and verifiable.
2. Always cite and give credit to your sources, even if in the public domain.
3. Edits/new pages must be family-friendly, clean, concise, and without gossip or foul language.
4. When referencing dates based on the approximate birth of Jesus, give appropriate credit for the basis of the date (B.C. or A.D.). “BCE” and “CE” are unacceptable substitutes because they deny the historical basis. See CE.
5. As much as is possible, American spelling of words must be used.[1]
6. Do not post personal opinion on an encyclopedia entry. Opinions can be posted on Talk:pages or on debate or discussion pages.

Outside of the bizarre antipathy to British-English spellings (which, apparently, counts as major evidence of anti-American bias on the wikipedia), and the insistence on Anno Domini, these “commandments” imply a responsibility among readers to correct factual errors such that the entries are “true” and “verifiable.” Not only is the site filled with some pretty egregious errors, but the administrators of the site have interfered with readers’ attempts to correct them.

For another, even if the site did not include un-editable content inconsistent with 1, 2, and 6 (including the aforementioned world-history lectures, which involve no–or, at least, very few–reference), many of the instances of vandalism do little to diminish the factual content of the site. In many cases, it is pretty hard to distinguish between “vandalism” and sincere entries; in others, the claims are so outrageous that they might as well discuss how the moon is made of cheese.

So, while I think many of the attacks–however funny–definitely qualify as “tacky,” I also wonder if the standards for what constitutes “vandalism” must be less clear in the face of a wiki with the aforementioned rules.


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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.