If filmmakers Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill initially set out to present an “neutral” examination of Wikipedia they fortunately had the good sense to drop the pretense after speaking to the site’s co-founder Jimmy Wales. In one scene, the confident entrepreneur defends his community-sourced online encyclopedia, one of the most-visited sites in the world, by claiming that the best way to present knowledge is to limit the official record only to what everyone can agree on. Because, you see, reality is something everyone gets to vote on.
Not everyone exactly. For one, Wales is a big Ayn Rand fan and like most enthusiasts of her young adult fiction, he’s not inclined to trust so-called experts, since seriously studying a subject for years makes you biased, and the fundamental goal of Wikipedia is to achieve total neutrality. Because, you see, neutrality equals truth. So don’t go trumpeting your fancy-schmancy credentials if you want to be part of the Wiki community. Additionally, Wikipedia entries aren’t really the end result of the competition of thousands of conflicting opinions, but are largely provided by just a handful of engaged activist users. Wales values their enthusiasm and motivation (and lack of expertise), but one of the many skeptics interviewed in the film describes them instead as people “with nothing better to do.”
In case you don’t know, Wikipedia entries are written by an initial user and then constantly subjected to editing suggestions from other users, all of whom can hide behind anonymous (or “pseudonymous” if you want to adopt Wales’s preferred term) handles if they so wish. These (usually anonymous) suggestions often turn into editing wars. A free-market cultist like Wales believes these colliding biases will net out to the neutral truth, but the documentary provides persuasive evidence to the contrary, including multiple instances in which corporations are known to have edited their entries to eliminate any mention of controversy which, by definition, is not something everyone can agree on. If this is a virtual winnowing, the wheat sometimes gets discarded in favor of the chaff.
The awkwardly titled “Truth In Numbers? Everything, According to Wikipedia” (2010) is shot in a plain vanilla style with a series of talking heads (including Wales, writer Simon Winchester, and even brief appearances by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky) offering opinions of varying persuasiveness. Though the filmmaking won’t blow anyone away, the arguments are relatively far-ranging and well-organized. I found myself scribbling notes like “But is neutrality possible without accountability?” and “Biased does not mean untrue!” only to have my concerns answered in the very next scene.
Inevitably many points are glossed over in an 85-minute movie that tackles heady subjects like the nature of truth and the relative benefits of anonymous global interaction in an era still in its infancy. Wales is a business man, not an intellectual or a person with any particular cultural or philosophical knowledge (or interest), making his role as final arbiter of the truth-as-cited-by-generations-of-lazy-students troublesome, to say the least. Yet Wales is also doing his best to ride a wave he never imagined would spread so far, as evidenced by the fact that he started Wikipedia as a for-profit endeavor and only made it a public commons project after the dot-com implosion cut both traffic and investor interest.
The filmmakers grant that a site like Wikipedia has obvious benefits to citizens in countries with authoritarian governments who are now fighting a losing battle to maintain their chokehold on knowledge; interviews with amateur Wiki editors from several countries reveal young and sincere idealists who feel empowered by the communal effort. It’s hard to take Wales entirely at face value when he claims his primary goal is to make all knowledge freely available to everyone, but he has helped to turn on the spigot and there’s no going back. The question is whether there’s a way to make that freely-available knowledge less… shitty. To use a technical term.
Perhaps this ersatz archive shouldn’t be held to such a high standard. It’s not Wales’s fault if people are lazy enough to treat Wikipedia as their one-stop, definitive source for all information, and even the inclusion of a “For entertainment purposes only” label on every page would do little to combat intellectual sloth. That may be overstating the problem too. If there’s one argument the filmmakers fail to question, it’s their assumption that Wikipedia is, indeed, treated as gospel by many readers. Just because the kids (of all ages) use it as a convenient shortcut doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of its limitations. Whatever the case, at least it gives college professors something universal to complain about.
The documentary was initially released on DVD in 2011. I can only go by the Amazon entry (there I go, taking the first source I can find…) which states that it was “manufactured on demand using DVD-R recordable media.”
The movie has been re-released in 2014 on DVD by Kino Lorber. This transfer is solid if unremarkable, perfectly adequate for presenting a primarily talking-head documentary. The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer.
The Dolby Digital soundtrack is simple and straightforward. All dialogue is clearly mixed and SDH English subtitles are available, but they must be accessed from the Extras menu; your subtitle button won’t do it on the fly.
The disc includes three extra/deleted scenes, running a total of seven minutes and they’re all pretty interesting and well worth a small time investment.
Almost all documentaries are too long, but the arguments in this movie are so interesting I wish the directors had the chance to expand it into a TV series. There’s more than enough material. It will be perceived by some as an “attack” on Wikipedia, but informed and measured skepticism is always needed.