Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
December 26, 200811:58 PM

Best Internet Article Of 2008

Almost any and every news article is now at your fingertips. Most of them are completely free. We take this new flow of information for granted.

In under a decade we went from having to get newspapers from anywhere but the city we were located in either specially delivered or specially ordered. It cost a lot more money and it usually took longer for those editions to arrive. Now, everything is everywhere and the challenge is not in the delivery. The challenge is in finding these articles and retaining the information. Some might even argue that the biggest challenge is in organizing it. In all of this mass content from the mass media, there is one article about the Internet that stands out as "the best" in 2008. It is:

The Charms of Wikipedia from Volume 55, Number 4 · March 20, 2008 of The New York Review of Books by Nicholson Baker. The article is actually a book review of Wikipedia - The Missing Manual by John Broughton (Pogue Press/O'Reilly).

"More people use Wikipedia than Amazon or eBay — in fact it's up there in the top-ten Alexa rankings with those moneyed funhouses MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. Why? Because it has 2.2 million articles, and because it's very often the first hit in a Google search, and because it just feels good to find something there — even, or especially, when the article you find is maybe a little clumsily written. Any inelegance, or typo, or relic of vandalism reminds you that this gigantic encyclopedia isn't a commercial product. There are no banners for E*Trade or Classmates.com, no side sprinklings of AdSense.

It was constructed, in less than eight years, by strangers who disagreed about all kinds of things but who were drawn to a shared, not-for-profit purpose. They were drawn because for a work of reference Wikipedia seemed unusually humble. It asked for help, and when it did, it used a particularly affecting word: 'stub.' At the bottom of a short article about something, it would say, 'This article about X is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.' And you'd think: That poor sad stub: I will help. Not right now, because I'm writing a book, but someday, yes, I will try to help."

The book review is so rich in terms of writing, content and insight, that you will forget it is a book review. The article also houses one of the best quotes I have ever read about the Internet:

"This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who knows whether, when you look up Harvard's one-time warrior-president, James Bryant Conant, you're going to get a bland, evenhanded article about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen minutes on April 26, 2006): 'HES A BIG STUPID HEAD.' James Conant was, after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it's a fast-paced game of paintball.

Not only does Wikipedia need its vandals—up to a point—the vandals need an orderly Wikipedia, too. Without order, their culture-jamming lacks a context. If Wikipedia were rendered entirely chaotic and obscene, there would be no joy in [it]."

Every sentence glows and each paragraph flows into the next and, before you know it, the article is finished where both these immense feelings of knowing something you wished everybody else knew collides with a sadness that it is over as you hunt for the next piece that will stir you this much.

Check it out for yourself: The New York Book Review of Books - The Charms of Wikipedia - Nicholson Baker.

What was your most memorable article about the Internet in 2008?

(side bar: if you love this article as much as I did, you can also listen to an audio conversation I had with the book author, John Broughton, here: SPOS #123 - Six Pixels Of Separation - The Twist Image Podcast - +1 (206) 666-6056 - Unravelling The Mystery Of Wikipedia With John Broughton).

By Mitch Joel


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