WHO'S real, and who's a pretender?
This debate continues to rage, and we can thank the Internet. You know, the Internet - that place where all information is submitted electronically and there's no overriding body policing its veracity.
It seems that Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that was once considered the height of democratic information sharing, has been infiltrated by professionals. That enrages some of Wikipedia's admirers, who love the site because it's written and edited by volunteers. They apparently believe that he or she who is not paid for his or her work is automatically free of bias.
In an article entitled Is Wikipedia Going Commercial?, Salon.com's Maura Ewing reports that people with enough social cachet to merit inclusion in this world-famous encyclopedia are paying "profit-seeking writers" to do their biographies proud.
Presumably, the bigwigs hiring writers to update their profiles are doing so to ensure that the information in them is correct and that it accentuates the positive. That isn't kosher, according to the "die-hard Wikipedians" editing the website for free. They object to the fact that, for example, entertainment-relations consultant Soraya Field Fiorio charges musicians and writers $30 an hour to edit their existing profiles, and $250 to write them from scratch.
These profiles don't go straight to print - Wikipedians discuss in cyberspace whether each topic, article or fact should be allowed to fly. Like others who submit to Wikipedia, if Fiorio wants her submission to be accepted, she has to defend it against its detractors. Still, the Wikipedians disapprove.
It's an interesting war. I don't know how anybody can afford to donate their skills to Wikipedia, nor do I understand why they do so. One Wikipedia contributor quoted by Salon. com claims to have made 63,000 unpaid contributions about comic books and celebrities since 2005. This particular fellow says he has a need to "put things in order." That's something paid scribes also do daily; one of a writer's key responsibilities is sifting through existing information and arranging it in a neat and logical way. Yet it sounds as though Wikipedians view such professionals with suspicion.
Outside Wiki-world, journalists who are paid for their work must now contend with competition from bloggers who donate their efforts to cyberspace for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have something important to say, sometimes they simply need to be heard, sometimes they crave fame, and sometimes they're looking for financial support from advertisers. Many bloggers are not professional writers and don't have editors watching out for grammatical, spelling or factual errors, insupportable logic, or tasteless slurs against innocent people. Yet they're gaining more and more visibility - they're often quoted by the mainstream news media as if random, often whimsical opinions ought to be taken seriously just because they've been posted on the worldwide web.
This past week, Internet trolls, vigilante-style, decided to identify a man as the key tormentor of bullied teenager Amanda Todd. The police quickly determined this person to be completely blameless, but not before the media jumped on board and printed his name. Some online "researchers" and bloggers are good, many aren't, but nobody seems to care too much which is which. One crucial difference: hacktivists and bloggers have the option of remaining safely anonymous while they fling around accusations, unlike police officers and journalists.
And people who write for a living, like Fiorio, are being challenged by Wikipedians who don't. To them, the fact that Fiorio accepts money for doing a job they're willing to do for free somehow taints her as a legitimate supplier of content. How perverse.
A similar argument seems to be bubbling in the heads of people who object to the Globe and Mail starting to charge for its online newspaper, as do the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Of course everybody enjoyed getting these papers for free - it was wonderful being able to access all a newspaper's reporting, columns and feature writing, its obituaries and reviews, its photographs and other design elements, simply by Googling it daily.
Those of us who've always subscribed to newspapers in print form understand and accept that running them costs money. Writers, editors and photographers deserve to be paid for their expertise, just as other workers do.
Maybe Wikipedians weren't aware that if you give away work that's actually worth something, you undercut its value for everybody. When other people get paid for what you do gratis, you start thinking of them as prostitutes and of yourself as sadly taken-for-granted. But whose fault is that?