Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I use wikipedia quite a lot when I'm at work. The project I'm currently working on often requires me to read up on a broad swathe of history so that I have a reasonable idea of the context of the events I'm writing about. I don't need to know anything in great detail, just the broad shape of things. For that purpose wikipedia is great. I also frequently need to write things about weapons systems, past and present, and wikipedia -- with its huge cast of gun nuts, teenage boys, and war-obsessives -- gives me all the detail I could possibly ever want to know (and a fair bit more... I now have an opinion on the relative merits of 7.62mm vs 5.56mm ammunition, for example -- an opinion no one is ever going to ask me for, nor do I ever want to volunteer).

Unfortunately, if you spent a lot of time using wikipedia it's hard to resist the urge to glance under the hood, so to speak, to hit that little tab on the top of the page that says 'talk'. At first I'd look to see if anyone had put any useful links there in the course of their discussions, now I tend to look out of a sort of morbid fascination.

In case you're unfamiliar with the format, a wikpedia talk page is where the people involved in the creation of the page -- and interested readers -- can post queries or messages, suggest changes, or debate what should go in the article. Every now and then you find one like this, usually on some innocuous subject like botany or basket-weaving, but generally they're either empty (because the article was written by one person, and no-one else cares) or they're filled with a wonderful cross between committee minutes and a full-on forum flame-war. The rules of wikipedia -- which discourage personal attacks and urge contributors to always assume good faith -- ensure that most disputes are, at least at first, couched in wonderfully passive-agressive language. People make extraordinarily bitchy comments about each others' contributions without ever technically breaching any of these rules. I often find myself scrolling down, reading the gradual descent of a sensible, grown up discussion into childish name calling and threats. Often it's possible to follow these arguments as they jump from one article's talk page to the next, to various users' personal pages, to the annals of the administrators.

The talk pages on well known contentious and divisive subjects don't really interest me -- if I wanted to see pages and pages of people arguing religion or politics I'd look at, well, anywhere on the internet. What I like are the pages where you get two socially maladjusted nerds flinging abuse at each other over, say, the divisional organization of an army that was disbanded 200 years ago. It's like what the big bang theory would be if the characters weren't secretly just mouthpieces for witty, articulate people.

Sometimes the people involved are clearly completely insane. For example, I recently found this userpage, having encountered his signature on a few particularly bizarre messages left on talk pages. It reads like the sort of thing that gets mailed to the New York Times shortly before the author goes on a spree killing.

By far my favourite recent discovery, however, is this wonderful page -- the talk page relating to an article on a not particularly well known chess player, writer, and aspiring libertarian politician who seems to have puffed his own page out beyond all proportion to his notability. It's good partly for the arm-flapping fury of the participants, but also for the personalities of the two main combatants. If you follow their various disputes from page to page, it soon becomes clear that this bloke is this bloke's nemesis, and vice versa. They've managed to generate an animosity for each other, purely through chess and arguments on the internet, that in day of yore would have required one of them to murder at least two of the others' immediate family. The whole thing provides a fascinating insight into the slightly surreal and unintentionally hilarious world of professional chess players.