We moved into a new house this summer, one that we actually bought. This was the most stressful event of my life except for one other one that required a daily beta blocker for so long I forgot what life was like without daily beta blockers. Not as chill, turns out. Anyway, it hardly helped that during the looking-bidding-buying-moving-settling-in process, I discovered the addictive thrill that is—or at least can be—editing on Wikipedia.
Nicholson Baker knows what I'm talking about. In an article published two years ago in the New York Review of Books, he quotes a Wiki employee who explained that while the site may be a source of information for users, for editors "it's almost more like an online game, in that it's a community where you hang out a bit, and do something that's a little bit of fun: you whack some trolls, you build some material, etcetera."
"Whacking trolls is, for some Wikipedia editors, a big part of why they keep coming back," Baker writes, and then goes on to describe his own experience getting way too involved in the politics of the site.
As for me, I whacked no trolls. Instead, I rewrote the Bix Beiderbecke entry. I rewrote it completely. The entry as I found it was terrible, and because I edit an encyclopedia for a living, and because I'm soon to be a published expert on Bix Beiderbecke,* I figured I would learn enough about Wiki to build a better entry. It's worth mentioning that part of why I did this is because I love Wikipedia. I think it's a great resource, and I say that even though the online encyclopedia that employs me follows a different model. So what? Wikipedia is a tool; learn how to use it well and it will serve you well.
But I also had mixed feelings: would the lack of a decent Bix entry actually heighten the need for my book, which will (one hopes) provide good information? Or would an entry that highlights his life and achievements, emphasizing what I find to be most interesting, do the work of getting people jazzed enough about his life & music to buy a whole book?**
I don't know. In the end, it didn't matter. I just couldn't stop. I piled my books up on the table in the new kitchen and I spent every spare moment working on the entry. I made a million edits. I received encouraging comments on the article's "Discussion" page. Someone even suggested I nominate it for Good Article Status, and I was flattered enough to neglect Molly for a few more weeks so I could tighten everything up and figure out how one actually does nominate it. Which I then did.*** Followed by . . . nothing. Or at least nothing for a few months. Instead, the entry took its place in a long queue, alongside entries about Kelly Clarkson songs and Japanese video game scores. I checked it obsessively—daily, hourly—waiting for some Wiki editor to voluntarily take on the task of assessing my life's work according to Good Article Criteria.
I might have mentioned that I'm a writer and editor. That I do this for a living. How could I put so much of my self-esteem into the approval of some anonymous unpaid Wiki editor? I don't know, but I did. Then, at the end of November, after nominating the thing in September, after cutting Beatrix's cord in the delivery room and still only almost forgetting about Wikipedia, an editor who goes by the name Philcha finally agreed to do the review.
By which time I positively craved this oddly named person's approval.
What I received instead was a kind of studied politeness as Philcha, a self-described "ignoramus about jazz," began to methodically pick my text apart, sentence by sentence, citation by citation, pointing me in the direction of style manuals and primers for writing leads. Then he (she?) left this comment:
"the second number was marred by alcohol consumed by the musicians, who included Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Beiderbecke's best friend, Don Murray, on clarinet". Does this implies that Tommy Dorsey and Don Murray contributed to the alcoholic mistaken in the 2d number? Tommy Dorsey and Don Murray contributed to Beiderbecke's life or work at last, except as members as the same band for a while? If these 2 musicians NOT contributed in at least of one of these aspects, they are irrevelant - just name dropping.
I am not embarrassed to admit that this filled me with rage. As did this comment:
In "(The headmaster went so far as to inform Mr. and Mrs. Beiderbecke, about Bix, "that certain parents have objected strenuously to their sons' association with him.)"
- The parentheses are dishonest - either you take responsibility their content and for the space they take in section.
- If the item is retained, the headmaster's florid prose needs to be replaced with something consise.
In the end, Molly calmed me down by reminding me that this was the Internet. That this did not matter. And she's right. It also didn't change the work that I did, and she's right about that, too. Finally, it doesn't necessarily mean that Wikipedia is any worse a tool for having editors (!) who can't spell or create coherent sentences. In fact, I hope it's better now that it has a good, if not perfectly consise, Bix Beiderbecke entry.
In the end, we worked it out. Bix was awarded its Good Article badge and for the time being I've given Wiki (and my ego) a rest. And then I found five dollars.
IMAGE: No, not my house, but Bix's.
* "Expert" here should be taken with a grain of salt. I fit only in the middle range of knowledge about Bix Beiderbecke among people for whom knowledge about Bix Beiderbecke is important. I mean to make no great claims for myself.
** Perhaps some Wiki editors are selfless. Not this one.
*** I figured other people were the ones who nominated your hard work for a pat on the back, but not so at Wikipedia. You do the nominating so if you receive constructive feedback, you're around and invested enough to respond to it. Makes sense, I guess.