By Lizzie Skurnick
When the history of the Web is written, in what form will our progeny receive it? Via grainy promotional YouTube videos from Google? By listening to dusty Jeff Jarvis podcasts? Perhaps annotated, crowd-sourced and pre-preferenced Wikistories will be delivered directly into their cerebrums. (Personally, I'm hoping for a tiny avatar of a young woman in a flowing white gown and side-buns, interrupted midway by gunfire.) Yet whatever the medium, it seems unlikely that it will be the one that's falling out of favor even as you read this: the plain old book.
Because -- why write a book about a website? Really. Why do it? It distances the reader from the medium in an awkward and inexplicable way. (Not quite dancing the book review, but close.) It abdicates temporal authority, since by the time of publication, most visitors will have moved on to faster-caching pastures. Any user wishing to know about any site is presumably equipped with the power to log on and experience it herself, while those of us curled up with Edith Wharton and a nice tumbler of single malt are unlikely to look at breathless dispatches on how the other half keystrokes. And, although the Web lives to be writ and overwrit, most print authors, naturally enough, resist the idea of instantly being made palimpsest. So what are they doing with their peskily immutable pages in this land of instant updates?
In the case of "The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia," Andrew Lih's motivation, I think, is simply to spread the good word. This is less a thoughtful analysis than a movement handbook for would-be adherents, like "Black Power," say, or "The Moosewood Cookbook."
Hooray for them
"Imagine a world in which every person is given free access to the sum of human knowledge. That's what we're doing," begins the foreword by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Wikipedia, adds the collective that wrote the first chapter by wiki, laying out their philosophy of collaborative knowledge, "is something by design that is pure, empowering and untainted by commerce." (Writing well, like achieving a perfect tremolo or getting a good scald on fried chicken, is one of those arts that stubbornly resists crowdsourcing.) That storied Wikipedian neutrality? Net only.
Like all movement manifestoes, "The Wikipedia Revolution" marshals an impressive amount of insta-hagiography. It starts with reeducation ("To understand Wikipedia's community, one must understand the robust online culture that directly preceded it . . .") before shifting into the story of Wales himself. "Doris, ever the educator, was optimistic too," Lih writes about the mother of the future Wikipedia founder, "buying a set of the World Book Encyclopedia from a door-to-door salesman not long after becoming a mother. Jimmy, the firstborn, was not even three years old at the time. She didn't know it then, but she was planting a seed that would inspire a phenomenon."