How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia
Hyperion: 272 pp., $24.95
The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America
Random House: 384 pp., $27
How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own
New Press: 352 pp., $26.95
When the history of the Web is written, in what form will our progeny receive it? Via grainy promotional YouTube videos from Google? By listening to dusty Jeff Jarvis podcasts? Perhaps annotated, crowd-sourced and pre-preferenced Wikistories will be delivered directly into their cerebrums. (Personally, I'm hoping for a tiny avatar of a young woman in a flowing white gown and side-buns, interrupted midway by gunfire.) Yet whatever the medium, it seems unlikely that it will be the one that's falling out of favor even as you read this: the plain old book.
Because -- why write a book about a website? Really. Why do it? It distances the reader from the medium in an awkward and inexplicable way. (Not quite dancing the book review, but close.) It abdicates temporal authority, since by the time of publication, most visitors will have moved on to faster-caching pastures. Any user wishing to know about any site is presumably equipped with the power to log on and experience it herself, while those of us curled up with Edith Wharton and a nice tumbler of single malt are unlikely to look at breathless dispatches on how the other half keystrokes. And, although the Web lives to be writ and overwrit, most print authors, naturally enough, resist the idea of instantly being made palimpsest. So what are they doing with their peskily immutable pages in this land of instant updates?
In the case of "The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia," Andrew Lih's motivation, I think, is simply to spread the good word. This is less a thoughtful analysis than a movement handbook for would-be adherents, like "Black Power," say, or "The Moosewood Cookbook."
Hooray for them
"Imagine a world in which every person is given free access to the sum of human knowledge. That's what we're doing," begins the foreword by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Wikipedia, adds the collective that wrote the first chapter by wiki, laying out their philosophy of collaborative knowledge, "is something by design that is pure, empowering and untainted by commerce." (Writing well, like achieving a perfect tremolo or getting a good scald on fried chicken, is one of those arts that stubbornly resists crowdsourcing.) That storied Wikipedian neutrality? Net only.
Like all movement manifestoes, "The Wikipedia Revolution" marshals an impressive amount of insta-hagiography. It starts with reeducation ("To understand Wikipedia's community, one must understand the robust online culture that directly preceded it . . .") before shifting into the story of Wales himself. "Doris, ever the educator, was optimistic too," Lih writes about the mother of the future Wikipedia founder, "buying a set of the World Book Encyclopedia from a door-to-door salesman not long after becoming a mother. Jimmy, the firstborn, was not even three years old at the time. She didn't know it then, but she was planting a seed that would inspire a phenomenon."
Lih includes lengthy accounts of the first article to make it through the editorial process at Nupedia, Wikipedia's progenitor -- "Atonality" by Christopher Hust, in case you were wondering -- as well as of the Great Server Load Crisis of 2003. His retelling of the Gdansk/Danzig Wars is particularly riveting (I'd like to see a live reenactment of "20:45 Nico (fmt)/21:42 Wik (rv)"), and his report on site-specific buzzwords ("the French call the creation of articles on Wikipedia 'the piranha effect' ") offers a nice counterpoint to the sad saga of the site's martyr, the tragic user RickK, who deleted his entire account when his admin status was revoked for 12 minutes.
If Lih is a human resources manager giving a chatty tour of the Internet premises for the new employee, then Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin is the same manager after three drinks at happy hour, discoursing darkly on company intrigues both recondite and mind-numbingly specific. Given where she works, it's hardly surprising that her "Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America" should follow the money, but Deep Throat himself might have been taken aback at Angwin's level of zeal.
Take this typical entry on Brad Greenspan and Brett Brewer, founders of eUniverse (the company that created MySpace, under Greenspan's supervision):
"Greenspan's mother had agreed to pay his rent for a year after graduation -- despite opposition from Greenspan's father -- so Greenspan was able to pay $865 a month for the master bedroom suite in the Manhattan Beach rental. Brewer paid $365 a month for his bedroom, which was literally a converted closet that just fit a queen bed. Brewer drove a tiny two-seat Toyota coupe that the Sigma Nus called the 'Pocket Rocket.' Greenspan drove a used blue Acura Integra, which he had bought for $2,500 and was always breaking down. The guys called it 'Blue Magic.' "
It is the rule of great drama that, if a "Pocket Rocket" appears in the first act, it must be fired in the third. But Angwin's book contains all the dark intimations of true-crime writing without bothering to give us a body. MySpace: I'm still not sure who stole it. Was it Rupert Murdoch from Sumner Redstone? Intermix from eUniverse? Tila Tequila from the notion of human dignity?
David Bollier's "Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own," meanwhile, tacks academic, presenting what are essentially a series of cogent lectures on topics including Creative Commons licensing, universities providing course work free and musicians bypassing labels to offer direct downloads to their fans. If you are a PhD candidate in philosophy who has spent the last 30 years in a deep slumber, statements such as "the commons is a social analogue. A commons does not revolve around money and market exchange, but around collective participation and shared values. It does not use property rights and contracts in order to generate value: it uses gift exchange and moral commitments to build a community of trust and common purpose" will be extraordinarily useful. The rest of us will be too busy watching Hercule Poirot on Hulu.
Data without control
The problem with these books is not a lack of good material. Certainly, there's a great story behind the formation of MySpace. (Angwin's sidestep of one of the founders' clear early career disseminating Asian porn was a definite miss for me.) And it's not that a personality such as Jimmy Wales is unworthy of deep examination. I, for one, would have liked more focus on the noted information freedom fighter's underlying dictatorial tendencies; "I just wanted to say that becoming a sysop [systems operator] is not a big deal . . ." he wrote in a post quoted in "The Wikipedia Revolution." "I think perhaps I'll go through semi willy-nilly and make a bunch of people who have been around for awhile sysops. . . . I don't like that there's this apparent feeling here that being granted sysop status is a really special thing."
For years, Lawrence Lessig has provided crucial analysis of the Web's legal and philosophical permutations, work that must and should appear online. But if browsing the Web has taught us anything, it's that a simple succession of facts alone does not a story make. It comes as no particular surprise that Lih and Angwin can't do much more than shape what were clearly a series of lengthy interviews into the recognizable form of narrative, or that Bollier's audience is as yet unclear. How could it be otherwise, when their very projects suggest the disconnect between form and function, between the fluidity of electronic media and the fixity of print?
It seems almost pedantic to point out that, as the Web is a dynamic, immediate experience, a book is doubly hindered in that it can neither replicate nor necessarily explicate it well. But that's not the essential problem. Sure, for looking at the Web, books are an unwieldy medium. But more to the point, these works, heavy on cliché and jargon and light on thoughtful analysis, are definitely not the message.
Skurnick's blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick. She is the author of "Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading," due out in August.