Home Video Hovel: Truth in Numbers? Everything, According to Wikipedia, by Craig Schroeder
In a world where universal truths are at a premium, I’m fairly confident in the validity of the following statements: one, access to information is key to a healthy, vibrant society. And two, you must take information from Wikipedia with an entire shaker of salt. But there must be a contingency of folks arguing against these two statements. That is the only explanation for the existence of Truth in Numbers? Everything, According to Wikipedia, the documentary from filmmakers Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill. Because if we can all agree on the those two statements, then Truth in Numbers?– which spends its entire run time condescending to its audience in order to convince them of something they already know–is a film for no one.
As far as I can tell there is only one person who doesn’t agree that Wikipedia is, by its very nature, imperfect. And that person is Jimmy Wales, the peculiarly endearing megalomanic who founded the online, user-edited encyclopedia. Jimmy Wales is obsessed with Ayn Rand. His first attempt to make money in the dot-com business garnered him a reputation as some kind of shady porn magnate. And he spends a good portion of the movie in foreign cities asking people on the streets if they’ve heard of Wikipedia. He’s a perfect weirdo. He’s also bad at being an internet pioneer; evidently Wikipedia has brought him zero dollars in net profit. But Jimmy Wales believes in Wikipedia. Like, really, really believes in it, having said on multiple occasions that he trusts a high-schooler with an internet connection more than he trusts a tenured professor.
It would seem Glosserman and Hill lucked into a pretty fascinating subject. But Truth in Numbers? isn’t really about Jimmy Wales. While many of Wales’ indiscretions and poor choices are highlighted, they’re done so to illustrate why Wikipedia isn’t trustworthy rather than to explore the psyche of an especially strange human and his rise(?) to mediocrity. Glosserman and Hill take all of the interesting aspects of Wales’ career and try to apply them to an argument that simply doesn’t exist. The entire film operates under the assumption that there is someone, anyone (other than Wales) that can’t detect the surface level infallibilities of an encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone with an internet connection. The entire film is formatted in an answer-response-rebuttal format, where Side A says Wikipedia is wholly perfect and Side B says it’s wholly imperfect. But that’s just not the case. Even the most avid Wikipedians featured in the film recognize the site as a great tool but not without flaws. And those who hate Wales and Wikipedia (including one spurned philosophy professor whose syrupy contempt for Wales is easily the best part of the film) admit that Wikipedia can still serve something of a purpose. There is no real argument happening in this film except for the one that the filmmakers manufacture.
The B-story of Truth in Numbers? is no better: an “examination” of how important freedom of information is to the world. Wales is an advocate for ease of information across the globe–though his motivations are suspect. Taking a topic wrought with potential, the film merely follows Wales around the globe as he hawks his site under the guise of philanthropy. Nothing is explored, only presented with all the conviction of a college freshman whose entire political philosophy can be summarized on their car’s bumper.
The bright moments in Truth in Numbers? are compelling but fleeting. One moment comes courtesy (or perhaps at the expense) of John Siegenthaler, an American journalist who, in 2005, had a Wikipedia entry written about him that said he had a hand in, if not pulled the trigger, in John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s such a fantastically bizarre story. Yet the film breezes right past it, only focusing on it as yet another example (that no one needed) of Wikipedia’s infallibility, rather than examining it for how engrossing it truly is. The film does this with a number of genuinely interesting topics: censorship, changing technology, how we ingest media, sensational bias, etc., but only discussing them in how they relate to the film’s silly “pro vs. con” narrative. And thus is the nature of Truth in Numbers?; to bypass anything interesting for something dull and pointless. It’s like speeding by the Grand Canyon on your way to see the world’s largest bottle of ketchup at a roadside attraction.
I watched most of Truth in Numbers? Everything, According to Wikipedia through heavy sighs and wandering thoughts. And then it ended and it got great. As the credits roll, each talking head featured in the film, including Bob Schieffer and Noam Chomsky, read a printout of the Wikipedia entry on themselves. Each person is as impressed by the level of detail in their entry as they are irritated at the minor to major factual inconsistencies. And it’s genuine insight about Wikipedia’s pros and cons presented in a humorous, entertaining and memorable way; it’s just too bad the preceding ninety minutes do the exact opposite.