Truth in Numbers

  Truth in Numbers
  Everything, According to Wikipedia
  4 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

"Truth in Numbers" documents the creation and subsequent world-wide popularity of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia maintained by the people for the people.

"Truth in Numbers" is a well balanced, entertaining insider's look at how a bomb turned into a not-for-profit phenom. The most compelling "character" is Wikipedia's founder, Jim Wales, an energetic cross between a Keebler elf and confidence man H.B. Barnum. He's equal parts dreamer, entrepreneur and huckster and comes off as one those starry-eyed optimists who walks along the street and discovers that the piece of paper stick to his shoe is a hundred dollar bill.

Among the many under the radar facts divulged about Wikipedia is its origin. Wales started, a search engine for porn actresses in 1996 before establishing "Nupedia," the daddy of Wikipedia. Nupedia floundered because of an exhaustive seven step approval process designed to authenticate every article. The combination of a lack of advertising and the collapse of the community forced Wales to open his new creation, Wikipedia, up to the public.

Wikipedia's enthusiastic and dedicated supporters include Ismail Serageldin (Director of the Bibliotheca in Alexandria), who notes that Wikipedia couldn't exist without the new technology: "It is a child of this century." Wikipedia's most ardent fans (and we hear and see from many of them) are the geeks, brainiacs and exceptional young minds in places like Seoul, Arizona, India and Germany who have ample time on their hands to contribute to the site. Some come across as Wales' acolytes - they're so convinced they're helping to educate people around the globe that their blind dedication would scare Jim "drink the Kool-Aid" Jones.

What saves "Truth in Numbers" from being an infomercial is the balance between Wikipedia's disciples and its detractors, the majority of whom are scholars, writers, former politicians and public figures wronged by inaccurate information.

Wikipedia's chief critic and the villain of the piece is Andrew Keen, a writer and critic whose stuffy British accent makes him sound like a snobby fussbudget. But Keen makes some valid points, including the fact that there are no mediators to settle disputes between contributors and no experts to validate facts. No one is steering the ship or protecting the public from misinformation. (Having signed on to correct several bogus facts about my favorite group, Traffic, I can attest that some of Wikipedia's articles are as reliable as Thomas Dewey guaranteeing a victory over Harry Truman.)

Keen seems to be smarting from the pasting he's gotten in public debates with Wales, who's  far less educated but more charismatic and street smart. Of Wales he says: "He's a self-acclaimed entrepreneur, not an intellectual, not a political activist, but he hasn't made a penny from it. It's kind of like having the winning lottery ticket and realizing you can't cash it." Keen is clearly out for blood when he adds, "Wales has said 'I trust a high school kid as much as a Harvard professor.' This is a ludicrous thing to say."

Journalist/writer and former Robert Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler, Sr., echoes Keen's sentiments. Seigenthaler was defamed by Wikipedia in 2005 when a contributor claimed he set up Kennedy's assassination. Still smarting from the incident and Wales' denial of accountability, Seigenthaler says of Wikipedia, "It's like a buzz bomb. Somebody sends it up in the air. If it explodes somewhere you can't say 'Oh, I'm not responsible.'"

Wikipedia has given every person with access to a computer the ability to shape (or misshape) history. As Stephen Colbert says, "Wikipedia is the first place I look for knowledge, or when I want to create some." Whether you're a scholar or you just play one on T.V., "Truth in Numbers" is worth looking up.



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