Thursday, October 28, 2010

Detecting WikiCulture: Corruption and Borderline Sociopathic Incivility

There is a terrific new mini-series on PBS Masterpiece Theater in which Benedict Cumberbatch renders a brilliant portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, updated to 21st Century London.

Holmes is the Consulting Detective whom Inspector Lestrade is obliged to call upon because his own bumbling team of crime scene investigators are not quite up to the challenge of solving the perplexing mystery of the week.

The mutual contempt between Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Lestrade's stupefied crew is deliciously manifest from the outset. They consider Holmes to be a dangerous psychopath who is as likely to be the murderer as anyone given to a peculiarly single-minded obsession.

When Lestrade's forensic man, Detective Anderson, calls Holmes a psychopath, he snaps back, "I'm not a psychopath Anderson, I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research."

That bit of dialogue amplifies the caricature of those whose pursuit of the ground truth comes at the expense of the wreckage of rudely bruised egos.

There is more than a little sociopathy to be found in everyday culture, and nowhere is this more visible online than in WikiCulture, which frankly seems to attract and cultivate a wretched excess of amateur sociopathy.

The most visible examples would be the characters who habitually go trolling for lulz — baiting, taunting, ridiculing, and otherwise scandalizing the hapless residents of WikiLand.

Is it possible to deal with this issue without becoming a net contributor to the rising tide of sociopathic incivility?

Journalists routinely cover political scandals, sometimes scooping rival news organizations by being the first to break a scandalous story about some corrupt politician whom the public has never previously heard of.

Given the public's voracious appetite for juicy scandals, is it any wonder that journalists occasionally go over the top in such stories?

I have a colleague on the Internet who has become a "Citizen Journalist" at Examiner.Com, where he covers Wikipedia and related projects and activities of the Wikimedia Foundation. There has been no shortage of embarrassing scandals in the ten-year history of Wikipedia, but only a few of them have been notable enough to be featured in the mainstream press. My friend, the Citizen Journalist at Examiner.Com is filling in the gaps.

Investigative Journalism is a difficult beat to master. One has to tell a coherent story both accurately and succinctly, and do it in a way that brings credit to semi-professional journalism, even when it brings a measure of discredit to the subjects of the stories.

A recent story about a new hire at the Wikimedia Foundation generated a substantial backlash, divisive enough to prompt me to call in the USU faculty experts on Mass Media Ethics for their thoughtful commentary.

And so we come to our newest ethical conundrum of the season. How does one cover a complex subject that features more than a little corruption, incivility, and borderline sociopathy without losing one's own moral compass and becoming ensnared in the pathology that one seeks to eradicate with the disinfectant of fresh air?


Gregory Kohs said...

This was a very thoughtful and even-handed essay, Dr. Kort. I will grant that "high-functioning sociopath" may sometimes describe me! However, in a fit of mercy, it's worthwhile to point out that I have dramatically lowered the tone on my recent Examiner article with a substantial re-write. If Wikipedians still find wrongdoing in it, then I think the burden of sociopathy is back on them.

Moulton said...

In the new Sherlock, when he first meets Watson and engages in a bit of razzle-dazzle deduction about Watson's presumptive backstory, his new friend exclaims, "Brilliant! Amazing!"

"That's not what most people say," notes Holmes dryly.

"What do most people say?" inquires Watson.

"Piss off."