“When you come to a fork in the road,” Yogi Berra said, “take it.” Wikipedia has come to a fork in the road, and it should pay heed to Berra’s advice.
The rules that govern how the popular online encyclopedia works are set by its community of contributors – the so-called wikipedians – through a process of argument and consensus-building. But the community has begun to split into two warring camps with contrary philosophies about Wikipedia’s identity and purpose. On one side are the deletionists; on the other are the inclusionists. Between them is not a middle ground but a no-man’s-land. As one Wikipedia observer recently put it, “The inclusionist versus deletionist debate is as firm and strong as the abortion debate, gun control debate, or the death penalty debate.”
The adherents of inclusionism believe that there should be no constraints on the breadth of the encyclopedia – that Wikipedia should include any entry that any contributor wants to submit. An article on a small-town elementary school is no less worthy for inclusion than an article on Stanford University. The supporters of deletionism, in contrast, believe in weeding out entries that they view as trivial or otherwise inappropriate for a serious encyclopedia. Here’s how the encyclopedia itself describes the two camps:
Deletionism is a philosophy held by some Wikipedians that favors clear and relatively rigorous standards for accepting articles, templates or other pages to the encyclopedia. Wikipedians who broadly subscribe to this philosophy are more likely to request that an article that they believe does not meet such standards be removed, or deleted. Conversely, Wikipedians who believe that there ought to be a place for an article on almost any topic in Wikipedia, and that there should be few or no standards barring an article from it, are said to subscribe to inclusionism.
There is an Association of Inclusionist Wikipedians, with 207 members at the moment. (See logo.) Their slogan is “Wikipedia is not paper.” Because there are no physical constraints on the encyclopedia’s size, they see no reason to limit the number of entries. Let’s focus on making each entry as good as possible, they say, not on picking which entries should stay and which should be deleted. There is as well an Association of Deletionist Wikipedians, currently with 144 members. They have a slogan of their own: “Wikipedia is not a junkyard.” To them, Wikipedia needs to be seen as a whole, not just as a vast assortment of discrete entries. Deleting entries is, in their view, essential to improving the quality of the overall work.
To the inclusionists, Wikipedia is in essence a wiki. It’s an example of an entirely new form for collecting knowledge, a form unbound by the practices of the past. To the deletionists, Wikipedia is in essence an encyclopedia. It’s an example of an established form for collecting knowledge (albeit with a new production and distribution model), with traditions that deserve respect. The split between deletionists and inclusionists is thus a manifestation of an identity crisis that has always been inherent in Wikipedia. From the start, Wikipedia has pursued two conflicting goals: to be an open encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and to be a serious encyclopedia that is as good as the best print encyclopedia. In the early years of Wikipedia’s existence, when it was viewed mainly as a curiosity, the tension between those goals was easy to overlook. Nobody really cared. But as Wikipedia has become more popular – and as it has begun to be held to a higher standard of quality – the tension has reached the snapping point. The inclusionists’ desire for openness and the deletionists’ desire for seriousness are both worthy goals. But, as the diametrically opposed missions of the two camps reveal, they are also mutually exclusive goals. You can’t be a deletionist and an inclusionist at the same time.
At a deeper level, the split between the deletionists and the inclusionists is yet another example of the fundamental epistemological crisis of our time: the battle between absolutists and relativists. The deletionists are absolutists. They believe that some subjects are simply more significant than others, that absolute distinctions can and should be drawn among different kinds of knowledge. John Milton is more important than George Jetson. The inclusionists are relativists. No subject is inherently more significant than any other, they believe. It all depends on context. John Milton will be more important than George Jetson for some people. But for others, George Jetson will be more important. There are no absolutes; it’s all relative.
The tension between the inclusionists and the deletionists is not merely theoretical. Entries are being deleted and “undeleted” from Wikipedia all the time – as the recent dust-up over the deletion and reinsertion of the entry for “Enterprise 2.0″ shows – and the practice of and criteria for deleting entries are sources of constant and often bitter debate among wikipedians.
Whether the deletionists or the inclusionists gain the upper hand will determine Wikipedia’s future scope and quality. If the deletionist philosophy prevails, the inclusionist Wikipedia will be lost forever; we will never know what a truly open encyclopedia – a truly wikified encyclopedia – would ultimately look like. If the inclusionist philosophy prevails, the deletionists’ ambitions for Wikipedia will go unfulfilled. We’ll never know how good, by traditional standards, an encyclopedia created by volunteers might have been.
The best way forward in this case – the way that creates the least harm – may not be through the process of consensus-building. Trying to find common ground between the deletionists and the inclusionists seems a futile exercise – in fact, those who seek compromise between the two camps are known as “delusionists.” The time may have come to form two competing Wikipedias – to “fork” the encyclopedia, as software programmers would say. Let the deletionists and the inclusionists pursue their separate ideals separately – and let users decide which version best suits their needs.
UPDATE: More here.