The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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I dunno… seems a little "wiki"

This story about NYC’s Murray’s Cheese Shop‘s Cheese 101 program is pretty good, but I took note of one phrase in particular:

We sampled six cheeses, drank wine and champagne, and learned that cheese was invented in Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C., when travelers carrying milk around in the sun in dried-out sheep stomachs noticed that it had begun to curdle and become delicious (this story sounded suspiciously Wiki to me, and indeed here it is, given as one possible explanation).

“This story sounded suspiciously wiki.” The obvious colloquial analogue would be “the story seemed fishy.” But note the distinction. A “fishy” story, like a “fish story,” is a farfetched story that is probably a lie or exaggeration that in some way redounds to the teller’s benefit. A “wiki” story, on the other hand, is a story, perhaps farfetched, that is probably backed up by no authority other than a Wikipedia article, or perhaps just a random web site. The only advantage it yields to the user is that one appears knowledgeable while having done only the absolute minimum amount of research.

While a fishy story is pseudo-reportage, a wiki story is usually either pseudo-scientific or pseudo-historical. Otherwise, wiki-ness is characterized by unverifiable details, back-of-the-envelope calculations, and/or conclusions that seem wildly incomensurate with the so-called facts presented.

This story about an extinct race of genius-level hominids turns out to be decidedly wiki.

Have folks heard this phrase in the wild? Is it unfair to Wikipedia, or to those who use it as a research source? Do we already have a better word to describe this phenomenon? (And: this phenomenon is all too real, and deserves a name, doesn’t it?)


How about “this story seems snopesy?”

I have some thoughts, but the first issue seems to be that there are many possible interpretations of this phrase. Even in context, it’s not clear to me what the original author meant.

Well, “fishy” means a lot of things, too. Obviously, this is a creative use of wiki (a noun) as an adjective, and it’s going to be nonstandard — but couldn’t it mean this? Shouldn’t it mean this?

Fletcher says…

I can’t say that I’ve ever heard the phrase, but might “suspiciously wiki” be a little more chicken than egg? There is a lot of information, good and bad, but a lot of it comes from other sources that are then integrated into the articles. Wikipedia isn’t alone in this. This reminds me of popular works on the History of the Book, like Petrofsky’s “The Book on the Bookshelf” or texts by Nicholas Basbanes that repeat the same stories about books that were printed by 19th and early 20th century bibliophiles and book collectors. The fact is that in small, generally amateur fields that have been around long enough to create a body literature, these “creation myths” have been repeated multiple times in print which then lends them credence when they are transferred over to Wikipedia.

Which is to say that I’m not sure that it is fair to blame Wikipedia for the propagation of these stories since you are just as likely to find them in a book about cheese printed in the 1920s (because if it’s old, it’s authoritative, right?).

Still, I kind of love the use of “wiki” here.

Fletcher says…

Sorry, what I really meant to ask is whether these stories are so widely repeated because they are in Wikipedia, or whether they are in Wikipedia because they are so widely repeated?

Tim Carmody says…

Totally. Stories have been wiki for a lot longer than there have been wikis. In fact, it seems like something Aristotle might say: “According to Herodotus, ____, but between you and me…”

In fact, this reminds me of another favorite story. (Not wiki at all, I was there; fishy, maybe, but that’s your call.) I was in a political science methods workshop with John Mearsheimer, who’s a pretty hard-bitten foreign policy realist, and a tough, argumentative guy to boot. We’re reading this realist book on the origin of major wars, which starts with the Peloponnesian, and talking about the merits and faults in the argument, when Mearsheimer finally breaks down and declares: “The problem with all of these arguments from history is that for the most part, we really don’t have very good data. I mean, c’mon. For the Peloponnesian War, this guy’s only data source is Thucydides. Really? Thucydides?” And oh, if you could have heard the way he intoned that name. It was glorious.

I have to say, I kind of feel like this when I toggle between reading modern summaries of Classical (Mediterranean/Near Eastern) and Biblical history and modern summaries of South Asian and Hindu history. Treatment of sources that seem like they have the same contemporary corroboration density and mutation resistance but different tenures in the Euro-American canon sometimes feel so inequitable that rapid alt-tabbing induces a kind of mental motion sickness.

To me, “suspiciously wiki” sounds like a hint at pseudo-depth, not pseudo-science or pseudo-history or even pseudo-reportage. It’s not the fact itself which is being called into question–that still requires separate verification—it’s the impression that the speaker would have conveyed to the listener in a pre-wiki era. If I heard a cheese-shop-cashier say this in 1997 I would not have believed them particularly more, but I would have been charmed at their enthusiasm for hard-to-find cheese trivia and apocrypha, and I might have tarried to chat with them longer. Now that random dubious facts and stories are so easily accessible AND so commonly the cheapest form of entertainment, it is a less catchy line. The romance of unconsciously imagining that this is someone who sometimes roams the stacks of the public library to pounce on a book on about cheese is destroyed, instead replaced by the near certainty that this is someone who idly thumbs through their iphone to see what’s the wikipedia entry of the day, and whose expertise on fine dairy products may be derived from no deeper connection to the subject than reading wikipedia.

Maybe I’m projecting, but I think not, b/c I feel my attitude is one that was very much brined in the New Yorker of my youth. It saddens me me that I am less likely to be charmed this way because I used to be one of those people who roamed the library stacks to pounce on random books and such previously rare signals were both useful for me to find my kind and to feel appreciated by them.

Exactly — it’s not the absence of truth that’s suggested so much as the absence of effort.

I think Saheli hits the nail on the head with “pseudo-depth.” It’s funny how well wikipedia (which I love in many ways) dovetails so nicely with the kind of contextualizing reflexes of many reporters, which Michael Kinsley recently characterized as an aspect of journalism’s legacy code. It seems somehow akin to the impulse to say “put (topic) into google and you get 10 million hits.”

“____ has 10 million hits on Google” is the new “my cab driver said…”

Hmm. I take that legacy code as referring to something slightly different—not the kind of contextualization that’s dependent on the the warmth the narrator has for her subject, but the kind that’s based on her once necessary assumption that her reader is a child or a recently embarked immigrant. I would say this sort of formerly charming trivia is not something I would have expected to find in the news section of the newspaper—more for magazine profiles and such.

I do think Kinsley makes his point a little too unforgivingly. He forgets that newspapers do not have links, which he took lovely advantage of in Slate, and that there are plenty of people eagerly reading about health care reform today, in 2009, who had only the vaguest clue if any what Hilary Clinton was upto in 1993. If you can’t imagine that a teenager or an immigrant might read a physical newspaper and not having immediate access to Wikipedia to clear up any confusion, then it’s a moot point, but I fear that such a class is both larger and more invisible than any of us (Snarkmarket, The Atlantic, or Kinsley) would like to think about.

Clint W says…

Never heard wiki in this context. But when I recently debunked a friend’s suspicious forwarded email recently, she informed me that she’d just been snopes-slapped.

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