ASCII by Jason Scott

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Truth in Numbers —

You might be surprised that I feel bad for the creators of the Wikipedia Documentary Truth in Numbers.

People who knew me as the writer of the most definitive critique of Wikipedia have occasionally asked me why I wouldn’t turn my documentary-making skills to doing a documentary about Wikipedia. Simply enough: any such film I made would be a polemic, a op-ed piece shot on video. It would be expensive for me to do properly. And every single interview with be charged with unpleasant energy. The resultant work, even if I did my best to be accurate, would be considered a biased slam-piece, made by someone who didn’t get it. It would be an awful lot of work for an unpleasant result, unwanted, uninteresting. So no.

But one needs to be made, and the guys who assembled to do it for Truth In Numbers have been hard at work doing it for the last couple of years (with the last year or so being full filming). They’ve been editing it, and I had expected them to be at South By Southwest, but apparently they just barely missed that boat.

In keeping with the “spirit” of Wikipedia, there’s a Wiki of sorts about the movie (warning, it IMMEDIATELY plays music and video when you go to it). There’s a non-wiki version of the movie’s website as well (unfortunately, it ALSO IMMEDIATELY plays music and video when you go to it.

I watched the production from afar, and assumed, quite rightly so, that it was going to be one big love letter to Wikipedia, one huge goddamned hug about how incredible Jimbo Wales is and what a messianic figure he is and what an awesome thing this whole Wikipedia is and how anyone who doesn’t absolutely love the fucking thing is going to end up as peat moss in the garden of the Web.

That said, these are not slouches: these filmmakers obviously work at their craft, and have been filming this movie for two years. That’s not an in-and-out cookie-cutter schedule. They’re taking it seriously.

Was I cranked I’ve never been contacted for an interview, even though they’ve passed through my geographic location a couple times? Well, sure. But not in that “I’ve been wronged” sense of being passed over; I’d rather be known for something other than being a Wikipedia Critic, thanks. It was more of a case of seeing them travel worldwide, talk to all these people, and I’d wasted time some years back coming up with what I think are cohesive arguments as to why the project has issues, arguments that in many cases have held up, and then they’re just going to keep interviewing starry-eyed Wikipedians about how great it is to stick it to the reference establishment.

But no, it turns out they’ve gotten some pretty good names up. Of course, like most chaotic film projects you have to go to a relatively obscure location to get the real list, and I guarantee someone might eventually try to delete this as being not part of the “make an encyclopedia” goal, but for the moment, there it is, a pretty nice sample set. I see a number of folks who aren’t 100% lovers of Wikipedia, who have some perspective, and so on. It appears one of them is Andrew Keen, who is held up as this big critic but who I consider the ultimate strawman, since so much of his arguments can be pierced by schoolchildren. But either way, you can see the work being done here.

So it’s with great sadness for these guys that I see the burst of news going on now. Jimbo Wales leaving his wife, Christine, and her filing for divorce. Jimbo being matched up with a new girlfriend and there being questions of his propriety with regards to her wikipedia entry. Jimbo making self-serving statements to this regard. And then, out of nowhere, a once-trusted aide to Wikimedia and Jimbo comes out with an amazing litany of accusations, from continuous mistresses to borderline embezzlement to questionable use of wikimedia funds, and always those bits of evidence of the high rock-star regard Wales has for himself, everywhere.

How could this reconcile with the documentary? What about the shots of him and his wife and her opinion of the project? How about his portrayal as the guy behind this? Will you include everything that just happened, or will you just cut it out, leading to endless squirming moments when this is shown at Wikipedia festivals and gatherings?

I don’t envy their job. Not at all.

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