The Charms of Wikipedia

Nicholson Baker reviews John Broughton Wikipedia: The Missing Manual in the NYRB:

When, last year, some computer scientists at the University of Minnesota studied millions of Wikipedia edits, they found that most of the good ones—those whose words persisted intact through many later viewings—were made by a tiny percentage of contributors. Enormous numbers of users have added the occasional enriching morsel to Wikipedia—and without this bystander’s knowledge the encyclopedia would have gone nowhere—but relatively few users know how to frame their contribution in a form that lasts.[*]

So how do you become one of Wikipedia’s upper crust—one of the several thousand whose words will live on for a little while, before later verbal fumarolings erode what you wrote? It’s not easy. You have to have a cool head, so that you don’t get drawn into soul-destroying disputes, and you need some practical writing ability, and a quick eye, and a knack for synthesis. And you need lots of free time—time to master the odd conventions and the unfamiliar vocabulary (words like “smerge,” “POV warrior,” “forum shopping,” “hatnote,” “meat puppet,” “fancruft,” and “transclusion”), and time to read through guidelines and policy pages and essays and the endless records of old skirmishes—and time to have been gently but firmly, or perhaps rather sharply, reminded by other editors how you should behave. There’s a long apprenticeship of trial and error.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Now there’s a quicker path to proficiency: John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, part of the Missing Manual series, overseen by The New York Times’s cheery electronics expert, David Pogue.