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There was once an Englishman named John Locke, who had some interesting thoughts about political theory. There is also a character named John Locke on the TV show Lost.

Which one has the longer entry on Wikipedia?

To the surprise of nobody, it's not the enlightenment philosopher. This is what we call "wikigroaning": the art of highlighting Wikipedia's bias toward things that don't matter. It goes like this:

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First, think up two similar topics, one being of genuine historical or social relevance, and the other being useless to everyone but a small coterie of fans. To cite the classic example, you might pick "Knights" and "Jedi Knights." Next, load up the respective Wikipedia pages of each pair, and notice their respective lengths. Hear yourself groan? There you go - you're wikigroaning!

The challenge lies in finding the most egregious pairs. The game's creators, writers at a somewhat opaque comedy website called Something Awful, provide an eye-opening list of groan-worthy pairs to start with: The article on "Archaeology" is shorter than the one on "Indiana Jones." "Latin" on Wikipedia is shorter than "Klingon language." The entry for "Women's suffrage" is shorter than the piece entitled "List of fictional gynoids and female cyborgs."

Of course, "wikigroaning" is a new word for an old sport. Most everyone has rolled their eyes at Wikipedia's excesses at some point. The term was met with such enthusiasm online that it wasn't long before a new site, Wikigroaning.com, was set up to help punters compare Wikipedia pages, in the search for ever more groan-worthy pairs. It appears to be doing a brisk business.

Evidently, they're onto something. Wikipedia, it must be said, is unendingly rewarding to poke fun at. Maybe it's the portentousness of the endeavour. Its most vocal advocates are also the most grating: The crowdsourcing enthusiasts who tell us that in the 21st century, everything is better written by amateurs or crowds, or better still a crowd of amateurs, if one is handy. (And one almost always is.)

Maybe it's the Wikipedians themselves. Lovely people, I'm sure, but since Wikipedia takes and publishes detailed notes about every step in each article's creative process, they tend to come off as caricatures. They take themselves seriously so you don't have to. Watch as they fiddle endlessly with opening paragraphs, argue like humourless pedants, fuss over vandalism and, evidently, put a good deal of effort into making sure that no starship goes undocumented.

There is the small issue of accuracy. Educators have always cast a leery eyeball on Wikipedia, less because they're embattled elitists, and more because they're trying to teach kids to research, and not just write down things they read on the Internet.

So Wikipedia has become something of a running joke: the ultimate resource on things that don't matter. The bottom of reliability's totem pole. "I saw it on Wikipedia," the saying goes, "so it must be true." That saying, to reiterate, is usually meant to be humorous.

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I'm starting to think that this is all a little disingenuous. Let's be honest: I use Wikipedia every day, and I suspect you do too. I might not put money on the accuracy of any given figure I find there, but I use it. With an assist from Google, whose inscrutable logic has seen to it that Wikipedia pages often appear near the top of search results, Wikipedia has become the standard first stop when boning up on a new subject.

It's the great oracle of after-dinner arguments, the arbiter of factual disagreements. It's more than a joke: It's an indispensable and rather fantastic tool that also happens to be ridiculous.

The fact that it is both at once is the key. That Wikipedia is chock full of useless arcana (and did you know, by the way, that the article on " Debate" is shorter than the piece that weighs the relative merits of the 1978 and 2003 versions of Battlestar Galactica?) isn't a knock against it: Since it can grow infinitely, the silly articles aren't depriving the serious ones of space.

And don't be fooled into thinking that the silliness is a nerd problem. If you look over the list of groan-worthy pairs of Wikipedia articles, you'll notice that the silly ones aren't just sci-fi epics or video-game references. Even the article on Grey's Anatomy (a television show with, I imagine, a slender following in households that speak Klingon as a first language) beats out the Gray's Anatomy entry. The lesson of wikigroaning isn't that nerds rule Wikipedia, but that pop culture wins out every time.

It only makes sense: Wikipedia works on the principle that people write about the things they know; the more people there are who know about a certain topic, the more fleshed-out that topic will be. And the one thing, by definition, that a lot of people know about in any given culture is the culture itself. Wikipedia acts as a de-broadcaster: television, movies, radio shows, Web cartoons are broadcast out to the people, who turn around and put it back together again in one place.

I suspect that what really irks us about Wikipedia is that, as a user-written encyclopedia, it doesn't reflect ourselves with very much gravitas. Whatever its other merits, you have to admit that the Enyclopaedia Britannicamakes us out to be a Very Serious Race. The joy of wikigroaning formalizes the act of reminding ourselves that we're not.

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Let's not shoot the messenger. If you don't care that the 2003 remake of Battlestar Galactica is obviously vastly superior to the original, then you're into some other obscure and insufferable phenomenon. Wikipedia will be all over it, too. As the practitioners of wikigroaning remind us, "masturbation" beats "love."

Look them up and see for yourself.

Quick Clicks

LAND OF LOST LEGO

Did someone mention humoring personal obsessions? Here's a bit of collecting monomania as only the Internet can encourage: The Brick Factory is a comprehensive catalogue of every Lego kit ever sold, going back as far as 1959. Indulge your suspicion that they just don't make toys like they used to. Revisit your youth and smile fondly on the sets you owned. Alternately, travel back in time and gawk at the sets you desperately wanted but were not given. Notice how you're still angry, and ask if this might be an opportunity for healing.

MEMBERS OF THE BRAND

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All My Faves wants to be a useful directory, but it's best suited for proving a point. Even though the Web is, in theory, a vast patchwork of independent websites, in practice it mostly boils down to a handful of commercial properties that we all visit. Take a gander at All My Faves and see for yourself: It arranges the biggest corporate sites on the English-speaking Web into a big grid of their logos, a plentiful buffet of branding. (In truth, they all kind of look the same.) It excludes Canadian sites, but otherwise, the gang's all there: It's the mainstream Internet in a nutshell - and it's really not that big.

I.T.

webseven@globeandmail.com

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