Knowledge and unknowledge
December 03, 2006
I've been thinking recently that I'm overdue for a Wikipedia post - I mean, it's been at least a week - so I was relieved to see a long article in today's Washington Post, by David Segal, about a theme I touch on from time to time: The expansion of the Wikipedian bureaucracy and the ever stricter controls which that bureaucracy is imposing on the free encyclopedia's content. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's cofounder and top executive, recently said, "The radical idea behind Wikipedia is for all of us to imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge and that's what we are doing." But is that really what Wikipedia is doing?
As the Post article describes, the "sum of all human knowledge" ain't what it used to be. A good portion of the mental energy of Wikipedia's elite members is today going toward removing stuff from the site rather than adding to it. And the stuff that's being removed isn't just graffiti and trash talk; it's real content. Recently, for instance, an entry on the Shining Diamonds, a Canadian thrash-folk band, was slated for deletion from Wikipedia.The powers-that-be decided that the band was "non-notable." As Segal writes:
This was not some hasty, capricious opinion, either. No, this was the official verdict of a squad of stern-sounding editors at Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which recently began the process of booting an entry about the Shiny Diamonds off the site. One Wiki editor counted a mere 97 Google hits about the group and noted on a Wiki page that all those citations "seem to be myspace or other self-promotion." Three other Wiki editors soon weighed in, each recommending "delete," which in Wiki-speak translates roughly as "Beat it, losers."
The band's front man, who goes by the name Tim the Mute, was a bit miffed, Segal reports:
"I urge whatever Internet-snob wiki-geeks who deem our band 'non-notable' to look at their own lives," he fumed. "The Internet is about sharing and the point of Wikipedia is that there's room for everything."
At least Tim the Mute has a lot of company. About a hundred entries a day are being erased from "the sum of all human knowledge." (My all-time favorite entry - the one for Montahue Jetson, George Jetson's grandfather - has thus far avoided the Wikipedian scythe, I note with considerable relief.)
Now, philosophically, I have no problem with this newfound desire to separate the wheat from the chaff. Encyclopedias have always had to decide what's worthy of being included and what isn't. Wikipedia is just following the fine old tradition of selectivity. But what puzzles me is this: I thought Wikipedia was about not following tradition. I thought it was about being freed from the old physical world's scarcity-imposing constraints, the constraints that forced us for millennia to live without easy access to "the sum of all human knowledge." I thought the fact that Wikipedia didn't have to worry about ink and paper and printing meant that it could be radically inclusive - that it could put everything in and let readers decide what was worthy of their time and what wasn't. I thought Wikipedia was about the long tail of knowledge. I thought it was about abundance.
I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who would at some point like to learn more about the Shining Diamonds. Hell, I'd like to learn more about the Shining Diamonds. So why is that knowledge suddenly deemed to be outside the scope of "the sum of all human knowledge"? Why is that knowledge suddenly unknowledge?
What bugs me is not what Wikipedia is doing but the discrepancy between what it's doing and the myth that continues to be promulgated about what it's doing. If you're not trying to collect "the sum of all human knowledge" - if your goal is in fact to collect some subset of human knowledge, as encyclopedias have always done - then for crying out loud stop talking about assembling "the sum of all human knowledge."
In a recent interview, Mitch Kapor, one of Wikipedia's most tireless promoters, was asked, concerning the online encyclopedia, "Where is the systematic arbitration of truth? Where is the gatekeeping?" He replied, "Who said the arbitration of truth is ever systematic? Or that it could be or should be? Who said that quality emerges out of gatekeeping?"
Who said that quality emerges out of gatekeeping? That's precisely what Wikipedia is saying, about a hundred times a day.
UPDATE: Blogger Tony Pierce writes about his impending banishment from the sum of all human knowledge.
Now, now Nick - it would seem Wikipedia wouldn't be able to "win" no matter what. That is:
1) Include everything - Look at all that trivia! This is an "encyclopedia"? They have an article on this trash, and that nonsense. What silliness.
2) Don't include everything - Hypocrisy! They said they were the "sum of all human knowledge", and they don't have an article on what I ate for lunch today. That's part of human knowledge, so they aren't living up to their goals. And then there's the trivia they do cover ... (go to #1)
Wikipedia's always been clear overall that it has some standards, and radical inclusionism is only a Wikipedian faction, not a charter value.
You write: "What bugs me is not what Wikipedia is doing but the discrepancy between what it's doing and the myth that continues to be promulgated about what it's doing. If you're not trying to collect "the sum of all human knowledge" - if your goal is in fact to collect some subset of human knowledge, as encyclopedias have always done - then for crying out loud stop talking about assembling "the sum of all human knowledge."
Oh, c'mon. This is like the people who hate the New York Times and complain about the slogan "All The News That's Fit To Print". It's more like "All The News That Fits In The Hole Around The Advertising". And though that might make a more honest slogan, how meaningful a criticism is it?
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 3, 2006 07:54 PM
This is like the people who hate the New York Times and complain about the slogan "All The News That's Fit To Print".
I'm not sure I buy that.
National Review (quoted for linguistic example, not because I agree with this):
"The Times does not seem to be living up to its self-proclaimed reputation for thoroughness. "All the news that's fit to print," trumpets the paper in a famous box on the top left corner every day. In practice, however, the editors only correct a very small proportion of the paper's many Middle East errors and slurs against Israel."
Anyway, the main point is that Wikipedia has always been against vanity and things that nobody will care about. Of course, many of the things that its audience cares about are low-status, while encyclopedias are by default high-status. That leads to several problems. But there's no change in policy or even much in practice here. At best, the issue itself is receiving more publicity because more people are aware of Wikipedia and see having an entry in it as desirable.
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 3, 2006 09:54 PM
"Anyway, the main point is that Wikipedia has always been against vanity and things that nobody will care about."
Defining "things that nobody will care about" is exactly what Nick is talking about here. Wikipedians believe they know what nobody will care about, but from where I'm standing they've been publishing volumes upon volumes of things nobody cares about for years while having silly arguments about whether things like Shining Diamonds or Jason Kottke deserve an entry.
There are pages about obscure video games, pages about characters in obscure video games, pages about fans of characters in obscure video games... It's about time Wikipedia admits that the inclusionists have already won in all of the geeky subjects, and the non-geeks would enjoy the site a lot more if it were equally comprehensive in other areas.
Posted by: Michael Moncur at December 4, 2006 12:59 AM
This is not at all accurate: Oh, c'mon. This is like the people who hate the New York Times and complain about the slogan "All The News That's Fit To Print".
That slogan immediately prompts a question: who determines what is fit? The answer here is clearly the editorial board of the Times. The word "fit" does not, in fact, have an absolute definition, and absolutes are exactly where Wikipedia runs afoul of reality. The Wikipedia slogan is very absolute. The phrase "the sum of all human knowledge" does not prompt any question of qualitative assessments. It is instead an absolute, unassailable quality.
No, it's not a problem to make your goal something less than the sum of all human knowledge. But to be in denial of what you're doing prevents adequate review of your processes. How can Wikipedia's editorial policies be properly evaluated when they are supposedly serving the goal of being all-inclusive?
Posted by: Anthony Cowley at December 4, 2006 02:47 AM
My understanding is that the strength of wikipedia (and wikis in general) is that the topics that the audience cares about most are also most likely to be accurate. This is a good thing -- it's the most efficient use of authors' time.
If anybody in wikipedia's audience knew of, or cared about, Shining Diamonds, it surely wouldn't have been removed. Clearly Shining Diamonds' fans don't care -- they would have chimed in if they did. Doesn't seem to me that any harm was done.
Seth - you mean we shouldn't take the s.o.a.h.k. line literally, because we know it's a marketing claim? I'm getting a strange sense of deja vu...
Phill - you're not an economist by any chance? (Q: Why do economists never look for coins on the ground? A: Because if they were there somebody would already have picked them up.)
Posted by: Phil at December 4, 2006 04:44 AM
I'm in a band and the powers-that-be decided that my band was also "non-notable". I tried to add a wiki entry for our, then, band name 'Gravity In Crisis' and we were rejected. We're about 20 years away from being as notable as, say, U2 but I think all musicians should be allowed to add a wiki entry even if they aren't "notable". We've recently settled with the name Sleepercurve but dare take on the Wikigod by trying to add a "non-notable" entry. I'll try every six months though just to see at what point we cross over the "chasm of notability".
Posted by: simonjamest at December 4, 2006 08:18 AM
Anthony: The rant version would run that "fit" *sounds* like an absolute, and The New York Times must change its slogan to be "All The News The Editors Determine To Be Fit To Print", otherwise it is being dishonest. "No, it's not a problem to make your goal something less than [all the news that's fit]. But to be in denial of what you're doing prevents adequate review of your processes. How can [NYTimes] editorial policies be properly evaluated when they are supposedly serving the goal of being [fit, when that has no absolute definition]?" (and then segue into complaints about "bias").
Phil: I thought of that point, the "just marketing" excuse. I think it's possible to be too extreme in both directions - that is, one can make claims that are deeply misleading (e.g. "Markets Are Conversations" - no, they're nothing like it), and excuse it that the misleading is marketing, and inversely, one can be overly fussy about a little puffery over missing qualifiers ("The Sum Of All [NOTABLE] Human Knowledge"). I don't think they're equally bad, but I'd say that being very pedantic isn't a strong argument. Moreover, it might cause people to dismiss the more meaningful (in my version) critique of marketing as emotional manipulation.
That is, I don't see where anyone is going to be hurt when finding out that Wikipedia does indeed have some standards if they had the impression it didn't have any standards. Even deeper, it doesn't operate by giving the impression it has no standards for article inclusion and then obscurely having such standards (though it does give the impression it has no standards for article edits, where it really does, but that's a different matter).
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 4, 2006 08:23 AM
The big question is, simply, how can Wikipedia's editors make a reasonable claim that a topic is non-notable when articles like List of pop culture references to Rock Paper Scissors and List of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Characters* exist?
* ...many of whom have their own pages. Notable.
Posted by: Michael Moncur at December 4, 2006 11:31 AM
Seth, I disagree completely with your substitution of words in my post. The fact that a word like "fit" "has no absolute definition" is exactly the point. If the word has no absolute definition, and is therefore qualitative, then there is no question about someone's attempts to satisfy it. This is like a movie critic calling a movie good; we don't question his or her ability to define "good." Instead, we recognize it as a judgement.
If Wikipedia's mantra was to include all notable human knowledge and accept only reasonable edits from respected contributers, then the discussion could simply focus on how they decide what is worthy for inclusion. Those qualifications are the entire crux of community interaction with Wikipedia, and should be more closely examined. Instead, these discussions are typically derailed by a repetition of the fact that (almost) anyone can edit (almost) everything, and isn't that neat?!
Posted by: Anthony Cowley at December 4, 2006 12:51 PM
Anthony, I don't think "sum" in "sum of all human knowledge" means "every detail" - rather, it's more at "ultimate distilled essence". Consider the title "The Sum Of All Fears" - that didn't mean "a catalogue of all phobias".
So I agree there's problems with Wikipedia's presentation, but that isn't one of them.
Michael: It's clear the rules are quirky. There's what we could call the "Grandfather Clause", after George Jetson's grandfather, which states that minor aspects of a very notable topic might get their own pages. But fictional characters don't spam to promote themselves, so I don't think that quirk really works as a quasi-precedent.
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 4, 2006 01:36 PM
I don't think "sum" in "sum of all human knowledge" means "every detail" - rather, it's more at "ultimate distilled essence".
Seth, What you think, which is entirely reasonable, is beside the point. What I'm writing about is the deliberate and persistent mythologizing about Wikipedia as an emergent, radically egalitarian product of collective intelligence despite the fact that the myth is contradicted by how Wikipedia really operates. Here's an excerpt from an official press release from Wikipedia this past March:
The Wikimedia Foundation announced today the creation of the 1,000,000th article in the English language edition of Wikipedia ... Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales commented, "We are thrilled that our millionth article in English is about the Jordanhill railway station. This is not something which would appear in a traditional encyclopedia, and it shows how Wikipedia reflects the needs and interests of people everywhere, and not just the dictates of what academics and cultural mavens claim is worthy of an encyclopedia ... Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing."
Note the language here: "Wikipedia reflects the needs and interests of people everywhere, and not just the dictates of what academics and cultural mavens claim is worthy of an encyclopedia."
Please explain to me the difference between the "dictates" of these horrible unnamed "culture mavens" who decide what's "worthy of an encyclopedia" and the dictates of the Wikipedian culture mavens who decide what's worthy of an encyclopedia. And also explain to me how Wikipedia reflects "the interests of people everywhere" if it is dismissing some of those interests as "nonnotable" and hence unworthy of an encyclopedia.
There's an intellectual duplicity at work here that has nothing to do with innocent marketing slogans.
Posted by: Nick Carr at December 4, 2006 02:24 PM
Absolutely, say it, "the deliberate and persistent mythologizing about Wikipedia as an emergent, radically egalitarian product of collective intelligence despite the fact that the myth is contradicted by how Wikipedia really operates" - any it's because I think that's important, that I suggest the semantic-laden criticism over the meaning of the phrase "sum of all", may do more harm than good for that goal.
"Please explain to me the difference between the "dictates" of these horrible unnamed "culture mavens" who decide what's "worthy of an encyclopedia" and the dictates of the Wikipedian culture mavens who decide what's worthy of an encyclopedia"
George Jetson's grandfather, the list of Pokemon monsters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle characters. Really. As I pointed out above, it's the difference between low-class and high-class (pop culture and highbrow culture). If I can paraphrase your points, to speed the discussion, I think your argument is that:
1) Wikipedia claims no *topic* standards/gatekeeping/constraints
2) But in a real world, there are always standards/gatekeeping/constraints
2a) Look, here's an example of standards/gatekeeping/constraints "out"
2b) Look, here's some low-class standards/gatekeeping/constraints "in"
3) Therefore, Wikipedia is both hypocrite and low-class
However, what I've been saying is that premise #1 is not correct. Above we've discussed that mostly in terms of textual analysis. But further, it's about class warfare. The difference is the basis for the gatekeeping. Wikipedia does it on the rationale of, roughly, POPULARITY - does anyone CARE? If you take that out of context, of course it can be made to sound silly. But, if you want an answer, it does make sense - do a significant number of people care about the show The Jetsons? Yes. Pokemon? Yes. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Yes. Is any error of too-detailed granularity likely to be spam or exploitation? No. So there's no need for strict policing of over-zealousness there, and nobody will make much of a fuss if it's wrong.
Wales' whole pitch is the difference between popularity-based rather than academic-based inclusion, and per above, that is a difference. Arguing that it's still a selection system is not a strong objection, and comes across as at best misreading the point he's making.
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 4, 2006 03:43 PM
But, Seth, I think our pedantic argument about wording is a great example of the problem. Your interpretation of Wikipedia is, to me, a very optimistic one. Let's set aside marketing as being inherently duplicitous, and let's pretend you are the one setting Wikipedia's course. If popularity is truly the arbiter of truth, then I think very careful consideration needs to be given to when that is appropriate and how it is determined.
How does an ideally objective popularity (subjectiveness being, essentially, lost in the statistics) mesh with what one hears about infighting between Wikipedia editors as to what should or should not be included? It turns out that popularity is the determining factor for inclusion, but it is the popularity of the editor, not the information.
Posted by: Anthony Cowley at December 4, 2006 08:40 PM
Anthony, it would be a hive mind indeed if everyone who is part of a project was in complete agreement on how to implement every detail of a broad vision (or even in complete agreement with the vision itself). I hate to sound like an apologist for Wikipedia, but infighting between editors is not their specific failing. And contributors are drawn to different aspects of the Wikipedia sales-pitch - some are unabashed fans writing about their favorite pop-culture aspects, others are pretentious types who want the academic status of Writing An Encylopedia. The latter tend to find the former somewhat embarrassing, because of that high/low class conflict.
Nick, if you're still following the thread, check out the discussion around Tony Pierce. Turns out the deletion proposal was the work of a troll group targeting bloggers in order to get attention. This could get interesting ...
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 5, 2006 08:23 AM
I wrote some thoughts about the Tony Pierce issue here: http://engtech.wordpress.com/2006/12/05/on-wikipedia-blogging-and-the-anti-blog-bias/
Here's the direct link to the wikipedia discussion page that reveals that this entire Tony Pierce thing is probably a response to Timecop having his GNAA page pulled: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Gay_Nigger_Association_of_America_%2818th_nomination%29
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 10, 2006 09:18 PM
It is a paltry consolation prize, but the few sentences about Monty are at the Internet Arhive for as long as it lasts and since he was only a redirect, you can still see the old entry The user who did the redirect is not an administrator, so you could try to put it back.
I would say that one of the other problems with Wikipedia is that only those who have suffered through learning the use and significance of most of the Special pages have a chance of understanding "what happened" and what your options are. For administratively deleted pages, the page itself (or the recent versions) are really gone except in the event that some administrator wants to do you a favor.
I think that what these deletetionists incorrectly assume is that tidying of up Wikipedia of some of its junky stuff is somehow going to increase the "quality" of the encyclopedia. That is a falacy. If the "Featured Articles" (of which there are little over 1000) still suck in writing quality and choice of content to Britannica, Wikipedia still loses the game. I am probably only interested in about 50,000 articles at Wikipedia. If the overall project had 10 or 100 times as many articles, then it would not bother me. If the important articles (ones that require true expertise such as history, hard science, technology, engineering, traditional/classical humanities, classical music, law, math and other traditional non-fiction subjects) did not suck, then I would be satisfied. If I could also have an up-to-date "Who's Who" into the people of academia and research (down to a low level of notability) in those areas, with quality articles, then I would satisfied. The time-sink controversial articles (especially many social/political issues) will always have some bias. Ah, cover them anyway but let the fringe groups have their say.
For the rest of the fiction-based stuff (well, most fiction and pop-culture since the advent of radio) could be shipped off to Wikia. The current version of the Wikipedia Blade Runner article could just be exported to Wikia as this older version was and that would be a good thing. The problem with Wikia is that its Alexa Internet rank is still low (1000) as opposed to Wikipedia (which is around 10), so Wikia is a lonelier place. But that is where that pop-culture stuff belongs. Including Monty. Oh, and of course, you would have to put up with the ads. But you sat through all those commercials when you watched the original runs of the The Jetsons when you were a kid, right? Now, all you have to do is ignore them. Of course, the real problems would be: 1. The traffic volume at Wikipedia.org would go down 2. The egos of the high-minded 20-something "education"-oriented admin/bullies would be injured. 3. Fewer young people would accept Jimbo Wales as their personal savior. Especially for that latter reason, it is not going to happen.
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