Wikipedia Doesn’t Want You

How Deletionists are Making Sure Wikipedia Isn’t Awesome

Wikipedia isn’t exactly what I thought it was. Not by a long shot. And it sure as hell doesn’t want you.

According to Wikipedia itself, Wikipedia is a “free access, free-content Internet encyclopedia, supported and hosted by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Those who can access the site can edit most of its articles. Wikipedia is ranked among the ten most popular websites and constitutes the Internet’s largest and most popular general reference work.”

My daughter’s not allowed to use Wikipedia for her schoolwork. Her teachers are afraid, since anyone can add to Wikipedia, it can’t possibly be a source of accurate information. Of course, I argue that point, insisting the it’s the internet, dammit, and the moment some non-information were to hit Wikipedia, thousands of fact checking experts would swoop in and save us all. That’s the beauty of Wikipedia: informational crowdsourcing and the rabidly anal. Thousands and thousands of experts on thousand and thousands of topics dumping the contents of their brains into a centralized, multi-lingual, cross-referenced vat.

Surely, this guy needs his own page on Wikipedia.

I decided to contribute for the first time myself last weekend and create a page for my friend Lance. Lance was having a rather significant birthday and he’d mentioned he would love to be on Wikipedia, so I thought I’d see what I could throw together. Now, the easy part was going to be the Lance part. Lance Anderson is a very notably figure in the history of podcasting, particularly here on the West Coast of the United States. Lance had been a comedian and storyteller for years, and when I first heard about podcasting back in 2004, he was the first person I called. Lance would become a mainstay of podcasting and an important, energizing force in bringing podcasters together. He founded LA Podcasters, he produced panel discussions and live events at the first podcasting and new media conferences, he was invited by Cambridge University (yes, that Cambridge University) to come and speak about podcasting. The Swedish press was using his as a role model for how Swedish podcasters might expand the form. The British press was calling him an “Underground Hero.” Surely, this guy needs his own page on Wikipedia.

Lance was already mentioned several times on Wikipedia, so getting the page rolling really just took some cutting and pasting. “American podcaster,” “LA Podcasters,” “Cambridge University,” blah, blah, blah. Links to websites, blogs, press clipping, etc. Click “Save.” I’ve done it.

I had given Lance Anderson the greatest gift of all. The gift of eternal life. The gift of Wikipedia.

I emailed a link to Lance. Waiting for his tearful thanks, I realized I was filled with an enormous sense of accomplishment. I had added to the collective knowledge base of all mankind. Me. Sure, Lance was the “Underground Hero,” but how would people know about that? Because of me, and my uncanny ability to cut and paste computer code.

The jubilation didn’t last long.

A couple days later I noticed a guy named Paul Babin had posted on Facebook, in a group called “Podcast Artifacts,” a request for links to articles about Lance, because Wikipedia had flagged his article for deletion. What? Deletion? But, all my references are valid, all my code seemed to work. What gives? I’m adding to the knowledge base of all mankind, for Pete’s sake!

Turns out, according to the editors at Wikipedia, Lance isn’t “notable.”

The mere fact that a person is important in their field seems worthy of note, right? No, not really, according to my new linguistics tutor.

Now, this is where I had to learn the difference between American English and Wikipedia English, and my logic and Wikipedia logic. See, I didn’t understand how Wikipedia could argue that Lance isn’t notable. I’d just written an entire page on their site outlining exactly how and why he is notable. So, I cooled down a bit and wrote the editor who’d flagged the article a fairly level-headed reply, apologizing for my including a couple of outdated links and suggesting Wikipedia was perhaps confusing notability with fame. Lance isn’t a famous podcaster, like Marc Maron or Sarah Koenig, but he is notable in the history of the rise of podcasting. The editor, Gaijin42, wrote me back, and counter-suggested that I was confusing notability with importance. He told me, “There are many important people who are not notable. There are many notable people who are not important.” Okay, what now? Silly me, I would have assumed anyone important would automatically be notable. The mere fact that a person is important in their field seems worthy of note, right? No, not really, according to my new linguistics tutor. This is where we start to need our Wikipedia to English dictionary. In Wiki-land, a person is “notable” if they have been “noted,” in depth, several times, in “reliable sources.” Gaijin42 told me a person needs 3–5 in-depth articles about them to qualify as notable by strict Wikipedia standards. Being included in an article by a major newspaper doesn’t really count, if the article wasn’t about you. By this criteria, their logic goes, Lance Anderson is not notable.

At some point in my defending Lance’s page, I reread what Paul Babin posted on Facebook to find my page was nominated for deletion too. Okay, now things are really getting serious. Apparently, my creating a page on Wikipedia about Lance had drawn the attention of the “deletionists” as they are called, and they’d found my page and put me on the chopping block as well. Like Lance, I am not a “notable” podcaster. All my multiple “passing mentions” in major publications, my TV news appearances, trade magazine cover stories and the book I’d co-written did not add up to me being particularly notable. I was included in a book (twice) indirectly claiming I am a “famous” podcaster! Not good enough. But, my page has been up since 2007, why is it suddenly a problem? “Sometimes things slip through the cracks.”

So, if Lance Anderson isn’t a notable podcaster, and I’m not a notable podcaster, who is? Well it turns out, almost nobody. Well, nobody between Adam Curry (2003), the first podcaster, who was already famous from his days on-air at MTV when podcasting started, and Adam Carolla (2009) who was already famous when he was fired from his radio job and started podcasting. Articles about podcasting in the years between were focused on podcasting: what it is, how it works, how it will disrupt the established media. Most of the ink had to go to the mechanism and not the people making the medium popular. Every few prominent people working in podcasting between 2004 and 2009 would qualify for their own article in Wikipedia.

Turns out, the trolls, sorry, “editors,” of Wikipedia have been casting off podcasters at an alarming rate. And the one’s who remain will go unmentioned here, for fear of getting them nominated for deletion.

But, this isn’t really about podcasters.

Because, really, who cares about podcasters? It’s not about podcasters. It’s about what this means. It means Wikipedia is not what I thought it was. It is not all the knowledge we have. It’s all the knowledge we can find already written about in the mainstream media 3 to 5 times. It means there are layers and layers of depth within any subject matter within Wikipedia that just isn’t there. And if it is there, it’s being stripped away as quicky as possible, in the name of, what? Accuracy? No. The accuracy of the articles being deleted doesn’t seem to be called into question. No, it’s the protection of Wikipedia from the unworthy. And those gates are being guarded by people who have no expertise in the subject matter they’re supposedly guarding.

It stands to reason a person mentioned in several other Wikipedia articles should have their own page. I created a page Lance Anderson because he’s already mentioned so many times. It’s being argued that he is not “notable,” but his name and accomplishments are “noted” on several other pages in Wikipedia. Why wouldn’t that automatically dictate the site needs a page for him? Doesn’t it follow that the site is stronger if each name referred to has a link to a page specific to that person? What is the downside of me being able to click on Lance’s name in the “History of Podcasting” and going to his page? What is the upside of not having a page specific to Lance?

In my back and forth with the editors, nobody is arguing whether or not he is part of the history of podcasting, only whether it is notable to the general public. His notability within the context of podcasting doesn’t seem relevant to the current editors of Wikipedia, or they’d just take the word of an expert in the field (yours truly) and the other people pleading his case and move on. But, there is a layer of value judgment, based on what other journalists have written extensively about.

In my experience with the news media, they never get the whole story. How could they? Mainstream media is limited by time and available print space. Wikipedia is not. The mainstream media will never be able to cover a topic in the depth it deserves. But, Wikipedia CAN. Couldn’t we proceed as if Wikipedia is a warehouse of all knowledge? If so, then even an “in-passing mention” would warrant a person being included in Wikipedia. The author of the news article thought the person was worthy of “noting” in the article, who are we to judge that as not noteworthy enough? Information is information. Would Wikipedia be weaker or stronger with more articles on people? Would it crumble under it’s own weight if everyone were listed? I doubt it. Each page is, what, 20k? Twenty kilobytes. A measure of digital information so small we can no longer conceive of it.

Editor Gaijin42 explained it to me by saying, “Practically each article has a …cost to readers, who now need to wade through billions of low value articles to get to the good info.” But that just isn’t how Wikipedia works. Nobody has to wade through an article on an obscure topic to get to the “good info” about a more general topic. These articles aren’t shoved in your face. You find them by searching for them, or by clicking on links to them from more general pages.

I think we would all concede a site like Wikipedia takes a certain amount of oversight, or, as Gaijin42 likes to call it, “policing.” And the police force of Wikipedia is small and over worked. “There are [only] so many eyeballs, and so many hours in the day to police these things,” he explains. “Some of that policing is by culling out the chaff to reduce the workload.” And by “chaff,” he means articles on people like Anderson. And me.

“We editors do it for either altruistic reasons, or out of the general ‘argue with people on the internet impulse.” Makes sense.

For taking on this workload, the editors are not compensated. Gaijin42 explained “We editors do it for either altruistic reasons, or out of the general ‘argue with people on the internet impulse.” Makes sense. That would explain why all the other editors who had seen my page since 2007 had merely made altruistic comments and suggestions on how to strengthen the page, while other editors (need I mention names?) were far more interested in “culling the chaff” and quoting Wikipedia scripture.

The problem with following scripture is interpretation, and figuring out how to live within that scripture. Editor MelanieN had this advice for me about Lance’s article: “…we do have an extensive article at History of Podcasting, and many of the early players are mentioned there, whether or not they have enough outside coverage for an article of their own. So if an article of interest to you gets deleted, you can still add information about them to other relevant articles.” But that’s a bad idea. Adding the information from an article about Lance Anderson, for instance, into the general article about the history of all of podcasting would (no offense Lance) disproportionately represent Anderson in that history. His coverage on that page is perfect how it is. More information specific to Anderson on that page would be too much. That extra information should be somewhere else. But, where? If only we could…oh, never mind.

My mistake is that I keep assuming the editors of Wikipedia value information. The reality is, they have no concern for the value of the information, only in gleefully, nearly orgasmicly, deleting pages. And, why? What is the benefit of reducing the amount of information in an encyclopedia of limitless size? We’ll have too much information on a topic? Oh, no!

I looked at the Wikipedia pages of about two dozen semi-famous players in various fields: sports, show business, medicine. Only about 5% of the pages I saw pass the “3–5 in-depth articles” rule. Does that mean, if the deletionists can work fast enough, 95% of the people currently on Wikipedia will be gone as soon as possible?

At this rate, Wikipedia will eventually be a list of major celebrities and endless amounts of information on Star Wars (apparently the light saber is covered quite extensively in Wikipedia). No minor players, no major players in fields that don’t get media coverage. It’ll have the depth of information equal to the publications it was supposed to replace, and that is not progress. Progress would be including everything. Every major discovery, every minor player, every location, every theory. And why not? So what if there is a page that simply says, “Joe Smith, American gas-station attendant, St. Louis, Missouri, retired?” Is it true? Then it might be valuable information.

What Wikipedia needs is more faith in crowdsourcing. It needs editors who focus on making sure the information is factual and up-to-date, with no desire to judge the information’s merit. And most important of all, Wikipedia needs competition. Luckily, if not competition, at least they have a “hippy cousin” in Deletionpedia. Deletionpedia is “a radical inclusionist wiki for rescuing articles from Wikipedia’s deletionism.” When pages on Wikipedia are nominated for removal, Deletionpedia automatically pulls the page and adds it to their wiki. Brilliant. It stands to reason, given enough time, Deletionpedia will surpass Wikipedia in usefulness and Wikipedia will die. Forgive me if I can’t muster a sad-face emoticon.

As the seven-day review period for our pages ticked away, Gaijin42 offered words of unity. “I hope this experience has not completely soured you on wikipedia. We always need more editors, and there is great value in having a diversity of interest and experience in those editors.” Oh, I agree. There is untold value in having diverse editors, editors who can apply their specific knowledge to the editing of the site, instead of just following strict deletionist dogma. How powerful would the site be if pages were only edited by people with prior knowledge of the subject matter?

An Irish chemistry technician deleted my page from Wikipedia. No comment from her at all. Just pulled the plug.

Between the writing of the first and second drafts of this article, an Irish chemistry technician deleted my page from Wikipedia. No comment from her at all. Just pulled the plug. I assume Lance is next. Then, the rest. Soured, indeed.

I am thankful Paul Babin’s reaction to the peril was more proactive than mine. Yes, I frantically added all the articles I could think of to Lance and my pages. I worked, hoping to convince a retired British bureaucrat, a former Marine and a guy who claims to be “internet famous” because his screen name was included in an article about Neil DeGrasse Tyson that I’m worthy of their grace. Paul simply made a new wiki and called it “The History of Podcasting.” I suggest you follow Paul’s lead and do the same.

Ps: Gaijin42, your inclusion here is an in-passing reference and does not make you notable in any way.