It’s over. The Deletionists won.
“It’s like I’m in some netherworld from the movie Brazil, being asked for my Form 27B(stroke)6,” writes the media scholar and long-time Wikipedian Andrew Lih. He’s describing what it’s like these days to contribute to Wikipedia, the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Lih recently noticed that Wikipedia lacked an article on Michael Getler, a reporter who now serves as ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting System. Lih added a brief entry – a “stub,” in Wikipedia parlance – assuming that other contributors would flesh it out in due course. Within minutes, though, one of the site’s myriad wikicops had swooped in and marked Lih’s entry as a candidate for “speedy deletion,” citing the site’s increasingly arcane legal code:
It is a very short article providing little or no context (CSD A1), contains no content whatsoever (CSD A3), consists only of links elsewhere (CSD A3) or a rephrasing of the title (CSD A3).
Lih’s reaction: “What the… what manner of… who the… how could any self-respecting Wikipedian imagine this could be deleted? I’ve been an editor since 2003, an admin with over 10,000 edits and I had never been this puzzled by a fellow Wikipedian.” After some more digging, he discovered that the rapid deletion of new articles has become rampant on the site. Deletionism has become Wikipedia’s reigning ethic. Writes Lih:
It’s incredible to me that the community in Wikipedia has come to this, that articles so obviously “keep” just a year ago, are being challenged and locked out. When I was active back on the mailing lists in 2004, I was a well known deletionist. “Wiki isn’t paper, but it isn’t an attic,” I would say. Selectivity matters for a quality encyclopedia.
But it’s a whole different mood in 2007. Today, I’d be labeled a wild eyed inclusionist. I suspect most veteran Wikipedians would be labeled a bleeding heart inclusionist too. How did we raise a new generation of folks who want to wipe out so much, who would shoot first, and not ask questions whatsoever? It’s as if there is a Soup Nazi culture now in Wikipedia. There are throngs of deletion happy users, like grumpy old gatekeepers, tossing out customers and articles if they don’t comply to some new prickly hard-nosed standard.
But, given human nature, is it really so “incredible” that Wikipedia has evolved as it has? Although writers like Yochai Benkler have presented Wikipedia as an example of how widescale, volunteer-based “social production” on the Internet can exist outside hierarchical management structures, the reality is very different. As Wikipedia has grown, it has developed a bureaucracy that is remarkable not only for the intricacies of its hierarchy but for the breadth and complexity of its rules. The reason Deletionism has triumphed so decisively over Inclusionism is pretty simple: It’s because Deletionism provides a path toward ever more elaborate schemes of rule-making – with no end – and that’s the path that people prefer, at least when they become members of a large group. The development of Wikipedia’s organization provides a benign case study in the political malignancy of crowds.
“Gone are the days of grassroots informality,” writes a saddened Lih in another post. “Has the golden age of Wikipedia passed?”
Maybe the time has come for Wikipedia to amend its famous slogan. Maybe it should call itself “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit on the condition that said person meets the requirements laid out in Wikipedia Code 234.56, subsections A34-A58, A65, B7 (codicil 5674), and follows the procedures specified in Wikipedia Statutes 31 – 1007 as well as Secret Wikipedia Scroll SC72 (Wikipedia Decoder Ring required).”