Friday, December 27, 2013

Wikia Fatigue, Tidal Forces, & The Process

The third or fourth greatest threat to my productivity.

Procrastination bedevils my life, and the Internet is ever the willing Mephistopheles. My absolute worst habit -- even less productive than compulsively checking Twitter, watching badly dubbed 1980s cartoons on YouTube, or slumming through reader comments sections -- is Wikia trawling. "Hey! What was the deal with Juri in Street Fighter IV?" I'll think (suddenly, and for some inscrutable reason), and so it's off to the Street Fighter Wiki to read about Juri, which means I'll be perusing Street Fighter trivia for ten to twenty minutes (if I'm lucky). Or maybe I'll find myself wondering if Blight's arc was ever properly resolved in Batman Beyond, so it's off to the DCAU Wiki. Am I momentarily (and morbidly) curious about what I'm missing in Final Fantasy XIII-2? To the Final Fantasy Wiki!

Et cetera, et cetera.

But as I'm browsing all these pop culture repositories -- all with nearly identical layouts, editorial styles, principles of organization, and World of Warcraft ads -- I can't help remembering a time when these fan-generated pop culture databases weren't so homogeneous in terms of design.

It was around 1996 that I started using the Internet. It was a much sparser place back then; the "frontier" metaphors you sometimes hear are very apropos. This was before Wikipedia, and certainly before the scattering of its wiki spores throughout cyberspace. If you ran a search for, say, The Mysterious Cities of Gold on Webcrawler or Altavista (this was before Google, remember) and didn't find any useful results, you could either wait for someone else to make a website or roll up your sleeves and make one yourself.

And from that impulse emerged the old fansites: hundreds of independent, noncommercial information sources and "shrines" to various TV series, films, video games, bands, and so on. A few of the ones I visited most back when I was a middle school student were Thomas Cardwell's Ranma 1/2 Universe (now defunct), Kurt Kalata's Castlevania Dungeon (operational, but under new management) and Kabir Akhtar's Tool Page (still up and running).

Hmm. Take a quick look at the Tool Page and then at Tool Wiki. At a glance, which looks more interesting? Which has more personality? Which design seems more apt to and informed by the site's subject?

(Side note: I wish I could find a screenshot of what the Tool Page used to look like back in 1997, 1998. The sad thing about the Internet Wayback Machine is that when you use it to view anything from the 1990s, it reproduces pages with archaic coding your browser can't read correctly.)

On the face of it, a wiki has almost every advantage over a fansite. A private website dedicated to a band, a video game series, a film director, etc. generally offers an overview of its subject, while a well-maintained wiki is, practically by definition, encyclopaediacally comprehensive. A fansite is curated by one person; a wiki is designed to be overseen and edited by pretty much anyone with an interest in its subject. This democratization means (in theory, and usually in practice) more updates, more information, and more self-corrective oversight. Back when the Internet was rife with GeoCities fan pages, the majority weren't terribly well designed, contained more or less the same information, and really could have used some proofreading. Today, in the age of Wikia, everyone with an interest in a particular area of pop culture can collaborate in maintaining and expanding the definitive "unofficial" website on that topic. (Fun fact: Wikia's original name was Wikicities, but was changed after five months -- perhaps changed because it sounded a bit too much like "GeoCities [, WE WILL BURY YOU].")

But wikis are boring. They have no fucking personality.

Nah. That's not fair. Certainly they have a personality -- but when something becomes standardized, you stop noticing it.

I hesitate to admit this, but I used to have a little Marilyn Manson fan page. (In my defense, I was in the eighth or ninth grade.) It was on a webring and everything! And it was fun to browse the ring and check out other fans' Manson pages. Even if they tended to repeat themselves, these fansites bore always bore the unique stamp of their curators' personalities and creativity. They contained personal stuff, too: art, concert journals, photographs, reviews, jokes, bootleg concert recordings in RealAudio, goofy fanfiction, and so on. In spite of their informational redundancy, they were charming. Fansites exude personality, and that's rather what I miss about them. They were distinct. They had idiosyncrasies and quirks. They were very clearly created by individual people rather than aggregated by the hive mind.

But in the epoch of the wiki, these kinds of efforts become rather superfluous. Why would anyone today sink their effort into, say, making their own Lord of the Rings fansite when not one person running a Google search on "Nazgul" or whatever won't immediately end up on the Lord of the Rings Wiki? Obviously their time would be much better spent contributing to the existing wiki, which is why the thing is approaching 5,000 pages.

Analogous lines might be drawn between the evolution of the Internet and the formation of the solar system. Come on, indulge me. It's been a while since we've said anything about astronomy.

Something like 4.6 billion years ago, all the stuff from which our fleck of the cosmos is formulated existed as a rotating cloud of gas and detritus held together by its own gravity. You probably already know how it goes. Contractive forces at the gravitational center (and rotational axis) of the nebula cause material to condense into a protosun. Clumps of gas and dust (thousands, millions of them) zip through space, tugging at, colliding with, and absorbing each other to form planetesimals and protoplanets in a commotion of n-body chaos.

After 100,000,000 years or so, the neighborhood has transformed from something that looks something like like this:


To something more like this:

Out of confusion and diffuse clutter formed a rather orderly system with a much clearer and more definite structure, in which a relatively small number of large bodies have dominated their orbital zones by either absorbing, flinging aside, or trapping any smaller objects in their vicinity.

Similarly, the Internet has come to be dominated by a relatively small number of massive websites (most of them commercial). And the reasons for this outcome should be fairly obvious. On that note: if you've noticed the irony in a person posting on Blogger to complain about standardization and accession in cyberspace, you get a gold star.

There has been no diminishment of activity on the the Internet -- obviously, there are much more people online than there were fifteen, years ago. But I'd guess that the proportions of traffic have changed dramatically; that a much larger percentage of traffic passes through a much smaller number of web spaces (or types of web spaces).

One might notice a parallel process in the globalization phenomenon.

While visiting Warsaw a few days ago, I emerged from the subway and the first building I saw on the plaza contained a row of three stores: Pizza Hut, KFC, and Starbucks. My old man and I visited a shopping mall to get some last-minute Christmas gifts, and the place looked, sounded, and smelled like any mall I've ever been to on the North American continent. Half the stores were the same; all of the Christmas music was the same. The clustered mallrats smoking cigarettes outside the entrance were the same, right down to their black hoodies with the anarchy symbol printed on the back. Everyone carried iPhones, everyone smoked Marlboros, everyone sipped Coca-Cola from McDonald's cups. From the terrace on the thirtieth floor of the Palace of Culture and Science, you can look out across the city and see the new towers of glass and steel rising over the boxy old twentieth-century buildings, and guess how long it will be until Warsaw looks exactly like every other "global" city on the planet.

The peculiar physics of the market and of culture dictate the courses of these transformations as logically as the laws of motion and gravitation converted a massive cloud of gas and debris into a solar system dominated by eight planets.

Would one call this gravity of capital, I wonder?

Large bodies absorb the smaller, throw them aside, or draw them into their own orbits. When a massive edifice takes form in a cultural space, all the activity in that space occurs in the shadow of that edifice, if not inside the edifice. (Consider how Starbucks has changed the very institution of the coffee shop, for example. Or how Wikipedia, Facebook, Reddit, etc. have reterraformed the web around themselves.)

Thought: if cultural spaces become increasingly standardized under the tidal influence of such edifices, does the human activity fostered and permitted by these spaces become homogenized as well? Does the overall range and variety of cultural activity increase or decrease?

(But why worry about it? These patterns of transformation must be as old as culture itself. It's all another inexorable part of The Process.)


  1. Stop by Berlin next time and I'll show you the delightful shopping arcades dotted around the city. That is, I'll show you one, and you will then know what every other looks like. I'm sure it's perfectly possible to give someone directions to the Gamestop in one of those and not realize until a minute after that that you're in this arcade but the directions were for another. Then you hurry after the guy and he's walking the opposite direction, carrying a Gamestop bag, and gives you a thumbs-up.

    Remember all those sites like i-Mockery or Encyclopedia Obscura? That's all Buzzfeed now. And Seanbaby is a Cracked editor.

    1. Er...sorry for not mentioning anything sooner. I think I was hoping to avoid admitting that I looked at the price of rail fare and then looked at my bank account and then looked at the price of rail fare and then looked at my bank account and then looked. . . .

      I will absolutely visit Berlin when I am not as broke as I am today.

      I REMEMBER ENCYCLOPAEDIA OBSCURA. I also remember when it stopped updating. Sigh.

    2. No worries. Warsaw/Berlin is not exactly crossing the Hudson River.

      And hey. At least Encyclopedia Obscura is still online and has simple enough code to stll be readable. 80% of X-Entertainment's images, for example, were broken seven years ago, Lord knows what it looks like today.

      ... reminiscing about the nostalgia websites of yesterday, Meta-nostalgia, that's what's going on here.