EXCLUSIVE: Scott Glosserman Talks Truth in Numbers? Everything According to Wikipedia
Director Scott Glosserman takes us behind-the-scenes of this upcoming documentary about Wikipedia and its founder Jimmy Wales, now available on DVD
Although Wikipedia is the 8th most popular website on the Internet today, and it is already the 3rd most widely read 'publication' in human history, attracting 100 million unique visitors a month, this great social and academic experiment of our age is riddled with vandals and challenged by skeptics, posing compelling questions about whether Wikipedia's model can truly achieve its goal.
Truth in Numbers? Everything According to Wikipedia, a new documentary from Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill, intersperses founder Jimmy Wales' unusual rise to Internet super-stardom among the global implications of Wikipedia. Are entries factually accurate? Biased? Accountable? Does 'Jimbo' Wales posses the wisdom to ensure that Wikipedians aggregate knowledge correctly? Truth in Numbers? Everything According to Wikipedia journeys to the heart of these burning questions and more.
We recently caught up with co-director Scott Glosserman to chat with him about this documentary, and where it all goes from here.
This is our conversation:
Scott Glosserman: You are talking about the logistical, technical answer. Opinions aren't necessarily appreciated on Wikipedia. In practice, not theory. Wikipedia is simply an aggregation of all the primary resources. In fact, the theoretical failsafe for Wikipedia is that I have to site a source. I can't do original research, or give an opinion. I have to give a secondary or primary resource that is different from my account. This is different from the Old Testament, or mashing up a different version of this film, because there is credibility behind the original source. And it is fact based. It is theoretically objective. It is a catalyst or a conduit between what is presented on Wikipedia and the actual facts. Does that make sense? I am not trying to say by any stretch that this is what happens every time. That is the theory behind it. And obviously, that theory makes it different from a mashed up video on the Internet, or the Old and New Testament.
It seems to me that Wikipedia has changed considerably since its inception. I can go on, and look at the page for this Truth in Numbers? Movie, but I can't automatically change all of the information that is on that page.
Scott Glosserman: Why do you say that? Or think that? Did you get on there and try to revert it?
Not on that actual page, no. But I have in the past. I've tried to correct mistakes, and those corrected mistakes never make the page. My edits go through a filter, and I don't see a change. I tried a couple of times, and I gave up.
Scott Glosserman: Right. You are saying there are no immediate changes. Maybe those changes get made, and several hours or days later it has been reverted back to something else. You've touched on a really interesting place where Wikipedia is. Wikipedia was the greatest experiment in utopian democracy when it started. I am not suggesting that Jimmy Whales would say its democracy, or that he would categorize it as 'anything' per se. But if one were to look at it as a Utopian determent and democracy, the question becomes: Have the individuals who spend the most time on Wikipedia become self-appointed curators and administers of this content? Have they become gatekeepers, and has it sort of inevitably become somewhat totalitarian in its practices? These are not questions that I have answers to. I am simply throwing them out there. I would submit that people develop a proprietary interest in a particular article or topic that they are covering. These are the people that have the most power and control. Some human, at the end of the day, has to have the power to lock down an article. If vandals come, or it gets out of control. That person who has the power to lock an article, or prevent edits, or prevent other people from editing, must exhibit some degree of wisdom and judgment. We don't know who these people are. Therefore, we are not sure how they arrived at their decision. Other than to look at those discussion pages. They are often times very intelligent and very logical. At the same time, if you disagree with them, you don't have much recourse unless you are an uber-editor at Wikipedia.
Watching the movie, it seems to me that our old history is in books. That history is contained in video, and its there. There is no real danger of losing our old history. Does the concern come from, that as we enter a more digital age, new history and new facts can easily be rewritten the very next day?
Scott Glosserman: That question is a little bit flawed in that we don't just have our history, and our history books. For instance, I think Wikipedia takes a lot of flack for some of the global reasons why people are concerned, or frown at Wikipedia. If you look at some of our most traditional history, if you look at the high school text books or the college text books that we teach our kids history with, and you look at just the Vietnam War...It says: We got into the Vietnam War. They develop a sentence or a quarter of a page to that. There is never a reason why its politically biased to the US. There are so many reasons why, and how our history textbooks are flawed. One could say that the twenty-five thousand document on Wikipedia about Vietnam, and the addition thirty-thousand word discussion behind the article, and the three hundred citations that the article sites, is arguably far more comprehensive and far more effective than anything our history books have taught us. I am not comparing Wikipedia to a primary resource. But as far as other reference books, like our history textbooks, I think Wikipedia is doing a fine job. Of course we are going to find more errors in an article that is twenty thousand words versus a quarter page in a reference book. Relative to the comprehensiveness, one could come out and claim that Wikipedia is far more accurate. I really think that there hasn't been nearly enough research comparing the veracity of Wikipedia articles to other "quote" reliable sources that we use as reference textbooks. If I may, look at what has been going on the last few months in Texas, Arizona, and Virginia. These textbook wars, on what to put in and how to spin it to children. There is a conscious movement to present history in a certain way. With regard to these textbooks. America is the purveyor of text. And our foreign policy is the purveyor of life. Which is fine, you can argue that as the day is long. But to knock Wikipedia for some of its obvious growing pains? Compared to what? What else is out there that is trying to be, in theory, as objective and as comprehensive as Wikipedia? I don't think anything else touches it. I have a lot of problems with Wikipedia myself. But this notion, if you show me something is better? I just don't know what is better, for instance.
Where I think Wikipedia gets it the most wrong is when it comes to public figures. A lot of times, there is false information put up there on purpose. Like Conan O'Brien, he's had his staffers go in and create a whole crazy bio for himself and the show. A lot of actors, and I am sure, politicians, have, and can, do this all the time at will.
Scott Glosserman: Let me try to put this in context for a second. Then I will get to the answer. When people talk about "quote" Wikipedia, unless you have a very fundamental understanding of what it entails...There are many different language Wikipedias. There are separate Wikipedias. There are Wikipedia projects. Then, or course, in Wikipedia, you can search a subject. You see that Math is perfect. If its not perfect, its near perfect. Where we get into trouble is with the liberal arts, and history, because there can be such a spin on history. But if you are talking about the Pythagorean theorem, there is really only one answer to that. We can debate all day long whether or not the ancient Egyptians knew about the Pythagorean theorem after the Chinese. The Avian Bird Flu virus, the Pythagorean theorem, or the element for Oxygen...These things are factual. Its really black and white. So, when people talk about Wikipedia, I think they neglect all of the things that are very black and white, and factual. They just point to the minority of the issues, which are just issues. Which gets back to your question. That is: Biographies of living people are the hardest thing for Wikipedia to manage. Because if Wikipedia is an aggregation of all these primary resources, there simply aren't a lot of primary resources. There aren't a lot of biographies on people who are living. The question is: What is a notable source? If the National Inquire is reporting about Katie Holmes's child or something, is that reputable? Is that notable enough to put into Wikipedia? Some people think it is, more people think its not. What highlights this is the John Edwards scandal. He was caught with his mistress outside of the Beverly Wilshire hotel, or some hotel in Beverley Hills. The National Inquire reported that. Whoever the guy was, who was in charge of locking down that article, would not allow people to update the article with this report that he had allegedly been caught with a mistress because what they were citing was the National Inquire. Conservatives had a field day on Wikipedia, saying, "You're just not locking this down because this is a liberal leftwing project. As soon as the Washington Post and the New York Times picked up the story, it was still locked down. Because the New York Times was reportedly only reporting what the National Inquire had reported. They didn't have any research. So, for a week, Wikipedia would not allow this John Edwards scandal to be updated. By the time, "quote", reputable or notable sources came out with new information on the scandal, Wikipedia had a ton of egg on its face. This is an example of someone who had an ax to grind. They maybe wanted to save John Edwards. Or, they may have been thinking that they were doing the right thing, sticking to policy. We'll never know, because we don't know who that person was. And we don't have a context for why this decision was made, or what influenced that decision. Does that make sense?
Yes. That makes total sense. Now here is something I want to know. I am learning from your own Wikipedia page that you came onto this project midway through the shoot. That Nic Hill was hired to follow Jimmy Wales around the world, but you came into reshape what this documentary was going to be...
Scott Glosserman: Oh, man. There is so much stuff to talk about with this. I don't even know how to get into this. Nic was hired by a producer (Michael Gibson) who had access to Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia community by way of CraigsList. Craig Newmark was doing a documentary, so he became ingratiated with Jimmy Wales at the time. (Michael Gibson) hired Nic to go and start shooting. To follow the Wikipedia community. He puts the whole thing on his credit card. At the time, he exhausted his funds, but he had a bunch of tape. He needed to figure out what to do with all of this footage. That's around the time that I came in. We raised some more capitol, we shot for a couple more years, and then we started editing. It took on a whole other life once I came aboard.
That's what I read, oddly enough, on Wikipedia. The whole idea transformed. Watching the movie, Jimmy is presented in nothing but a fair light. How did you decide how he should be portrayed throughout the body of this film?
Scott Glosserman: Well, we were hoping that Jimmy would become this dramatic character that would enable us to have a much more modern, three-act structured, theatrical documentary narrative, with a climax that people are used to when they are watching theatrical documentaries these days. We were desperately hoping to illicit emotional responses from Jimmy, to get Jimmy to champion some sort of cause, whether it was the Chinese Olympics at the time, and demanding that they lift the ban on the internet, and open up the websites. We were almost, in ways, contriving events for Jimmy, to get him to really engage. For instance, we set up a whole debate between Jimmy and one of his online critics. What we found time and time again, that is just not his nature. He was very hard to illicit an emotional response from. And he just seemed somewhat ambivalent about what was going on. I think libertarianism has a lot to do with it. The Wikipedians themselves have taken up this grand cause, and this movement. Where you hear about Ghandi, and getting this information to people for free. This seems like more of a lark for Jimmy. Its more of a hobby. So, things didn't seem to tie up. We didn't want to just contrive a fervent leader. There just wasn't enough there. We also didn't want to do a movie just about Jimmy. So his private life, and certain things that he has or has not done, was not relevant to what we were interested in, which was the Wikipedia community, and the implications of Wikipedia. We did feel that there are certain relevancies towards Jimmy's philosophies. And how, in the context of his family, and how this all started, and where it came from, and to explain some of the philosophies of Wikipedia, Jimmy became a spine for the narrative of the movie. In terms of Jimmy trying to accomplish a particular goal, in terms of climaxing to some grand moment, we never felt that we had that.
You say you never found that climax, and in watching this movie, this is a story that seems like it could continue to go on and evolve. Are you going to continue to explore this particular world on film?
Scott Glosserman: Absolutely. The hardest thing to do was end this process. The moment we ended it, something new would happen. The window between concluding our film and putting it in the can, and getting it out to the public was terrifying. Because so many things could happen between now and then. Look at what has happened. Especially in the Middle East. There are some non-intentional moments in the documentary that discuss how Wikipedia is the type of thing that is subversive to dictatorial and totalitarian regimes. We are not going to prevent thirteen-year-old boys from getting online in Saudi Arabia. We even show what happened during the fall of the Berlin Wall, and how Britannica couldn't keep up with that. But Wikipedia is always in the process. For all of these reasons, the two most accessed sites right now in the Middle East are al jeezera and Wikipedia. The documentary in that sense, and we didn't mean to do this, comes off as being very pression about how it can be integral in sparking certain movements. To answer your question, absolutely. There was so much stuff we couldn't put in here. There are a lot of extras on the DVD. We just couldn't finagle these things into the movie. There is a lot of stuff I'd like to update. Its really more a question about if we can get traction amongst the Universities and high schools, and those who are teaching illiteracy, and journalism, and crowd sourcing, all that stuff...If we can sell enough DVDs that it makes sense to revisit it, creatively, I would love that opportunity. There is so much that you can continue to cover. This is like a textbook, that every could of years, it needs to be updated. It needs a new version. I hope I have the fiscal justification to do it. Creatively, I have enough in my head to fit another addition of the movie.
Are there colleges now that teach courses in Wikipedia?
Scott Glosserman: There are tons, and tons of curriculum that integrate Wikipedia into various classes, both on how to use it and edit it. Whether there are specific classes that are entire semesters long that are called Wikipedia 101? I don't know that. I haven't heard of those yet. But I don't think its that far off. Wikipedia is certainly only as good as the person using it. It's a great starting point. I don't think anyone should be afraid of using Wikipedia to begin their research on anything. Wikipedia has all the citations listed at the bottom of the page. From there, you can go look up your resources. Like any good journalist, you have to check your facts. That is where people get into trouble. You just have to double check, and triple check those facts.
Do you ever feel compelled to go onto your own Wikipedia page and edit, or change any of the facts?
Scott Glosserman: No, actually. I just don't care enough. A good example is the description of the movie page. I think where Wikipedia gets into trouble is, if it's a George W. Bush article, tens of hundreds of thousands of people are going to contribute to that particular page. The article is going to be awesome. Because so many people are going to be looking at it. But if its an article on who invented the Victrola in Italy, or who invented voice mail at MIT In the 80s, there might be four people who know that information. If two of those people visit the site, you are going to get just that one version of it. The making of the movie? How many people know about that? Probably me, and Nic, and two or three other people. I haven't visited that page. So you'll get one person's version. It may all be true, but it may be weighted differently. Or said differently. The rule of thumb is, if its something like Global Warming, or Scientology, or Creationism, those are going to be some of the best articles. Because the most people are going to visit them.
Who wrote this page for your movie?
Scott Glosserman: I have no idea.
I'm looking at it right now, and it is way more in-depth than 80% of the movie pages that are out there.
Scott Glosserman: Its probably taken form a couple of interviews. Also, because its about Wikipedia, Wikipedians take a keener interest in it. I am not entirely sure. There was also an iteration of this movie before I came on. There might be different reasons for people wanting to represent different versions of why and how this came about.
Truth in Numbers? Everything According to Wikipedia is now available on DVD.