In the Future, Everyone Will Be Famous Until Their Wikipedia Entries Get Censored


Annalee Newitz is on a mission:

My experiences [editing the entries of obscure authors and publishers] have made me strongly question the idea of "notableness" on Wikipedia. I am genuinely offended by the notion that obscure authors, technologies, ideas, and events should be deleted from what's supposed to be a vast compendium of knowledge. It's not as if Wikipedia is running out of disk space and needs to delete stuff to keep going. And it's not as if an entry on an obscure writer will somehow undermine somebody's ability to search for less obscure ones.

Besides, who is to say what is notable or not? Lutheran ministers? Bisexual Marxists? Hopefully both. For me, the utopianism of Wikipedia comes from its status as a truly democratic people's encyclopedia — nothing is too minor to be in it. Everything should be noteworthy, as long as it is true and primary sources are listed. If we take this position, we avoid the mistakes of 19th-century chroniclers, who kept little information about women and people of color in archives because of course those groups were hardly notable. Yet now historians and curious people bang their heads against walls because so much history was lost to those deletions.

Katherine Mangu-Ward's profile of Jimmy Wales didn't get into the weeds here, so does anyone have an answer? Who selects whether a subject is too obscure for an entry? How would Wikipedia actually suffer if, worst case scenario, people created entries for their pets and camcorder-shot movies?

NEXT: Fred '08: Because Cheney's Not Available

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  1. Someone should interview Eric Dondero on this issue.

  2. Ultimately, that’s where the Wikipedia fails. Control on controversial issues passes to the hands of those who have the most amount of free time (i.e., those who don’t actually have lives,) not necessarily to those who actually have any knowledge of the topic at hand.

  3. Newitz has had her knickers in a twist over this since the entry for HP Lovecraft’s wife was removed and integrated into the Lovecraft entry.

    Personally, I avoid reading people who write for the SF Bay Guardian.

  4. There’s already a site that chronicles the lives of people nobody cares about. It’s called MySpace.

    Leave Wikipedia alone.

  5. I’m not that familiar with how Wikipedia operates and is financed, but I suspect that the issue may indeed be one of space/bandwidth — That if Wikipedia effectively began to incorporate MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, etc., it _would_ be crushed by its own weight.

  6. dbcooper,

    Hey man, where did you end up living after you parachuted out of that plane?

  7. Hey Grotius, the email address reveals all dude. Currently I am known to float around northern europe though. I converted to the euro early.

  8. dbcooper,

    Well, I hope you invested that money wisely.

  9. There’s already a Wikipedia that encompasses anything anyone wants to add. It’s called the Internet.

  10. I believe the reasoning behind limiting Wikipedia to “notable” entries has to do, ironically, with developing an image as a “real” encyclopedia. If every Tom, Dick, and Harry could get an entry, it would quickly go from being a respectable source of information to being an anarchistic, overrun, low-brow, lowest common denominator source of information. I.e., the Internet.

  11. How would Wikipedia actually suffer if, worst case scenario, people created entries for their pets and camcorder-shot movies?

    “You have reached the disambiguation page for ‘Fluffy’. There are 323,894 entries…”

    I wouldn’t care if people created personal entries as long as they aren’t linked from “serious” articles.

  12. From reading the policies regarding Wikipedia (which can be accessed on Wikipedia), it seems that the goal of notability standards are to prevent self-promotion in a non-encyclopedic fashion.

    Some food for thought: Ever notice the similarity between the words “notable” and “noble”…

  13. I posted the first comment on this article at Like a good shoulder (i.e., a rude jerk), I linked to Mangu-Ward’s article. I wonder, does it anger anybody when a commentor links to another site?

    You still should have blogged about Newitz’s “Green Libertarians” piece. Reading the far left commentors’s takes on libertarianism was great fun.

  14. shoulder = soldier, I’ll now take a nice long coffee break.

  15. I salute Wikipedia for noting the historical contributions of people of color.

  16. The editorial decisions regarding “notableness” at Wikipedia fall into the hands of user-editors.

    For an example of arbitrary deletion, the Wikipedia page on this guy has been deleted a few times, ostensibly because he isn’t “notable” enough. He actually isn’t any more or less notable than, say, this guy, and I suspect Donahue’s page was deleted because he’s an outspoken practitioner of ritual magick who speaks of conjuring Goetic demons, claims he can remote-view numbers, and badmouths Christianity. I suspect he offends some Wikipedians who are in a position to keep him from having an entry.

    I think that if enough user-editors decide they don’t like a person they can declare him or her “not notable” and summarily delete the entry.

  17. Rhywun put it very well. The notability criterion makes Wikipedia easier to use, since there’s less scope for confusion.

  18. Timmothy Noah had a couple articles about this topic.

  19. wikipedia sucked 3 years and still sucks today…can we move on now and not talk about wikipedia until it stops sucking.

  20. The Wikipedia is like the Wild West with roving Marshalls. Each article has a pretty sparse population of watchers, often zero, most of whom know almost nothing of the Wikipedia’s myriad of policies and conventions. Every now and then, one or more of these roving Marshalls, some admins, some “vigilantes”, stumble on the article. Then they arbitrarily apply their interpretation of WP policy to the article, document their changes with profuse lawyerish prose on the Talk page and proceed to watch it for a few months to keep the “civilians” in line. If there’s more than one Marshall there, there’s a vote, between like 2 or 3 people. Again, this “consensus” is defended, for a few months at least, against the “barbarians” and Marshalls with a different interpretation.

    Some articles, like “Che Guevara”, seem to hold the attention of enough people to maintain a diversity of opinion on policy, and ultimately seem to lead to excellent articles with some semblance of balance.

    One “tribe” of the Marshalls is called “Exclusionists”. There is a User Category on the Wikipedia for people to identify themselves as such, but there are lots of exclusionists who don’t self identify. Their philosophy is that the Wikipedia should ONLY contain unambiguously notable material. The interpretation varies, but it can exclude articles with too few Google hits, too few “unique” Google hits, too low of an Alexa ranking, too much reliance on hits on “unverifiable” or “untrustworthy” sources such as blogs, forums, “vanity” or “issue” publications, or whatever else can be argued as having inadequate fact-checking among those voting.

    This leads to an enormous quality variance between chaotic articles that cite no sources and read like fourth grade book reports to articles that are the envy of Brittanica to articles that are so dry and pared down to nothing more than a collection of quotes from the NYT that they are essentially useless.

  21. Rimfax,

    I’ve not really paid attention to the history of the articles on Wikipedia but I can say in the case of the entry on Leo Strauss that your improvement over time thesis has proven to be true. I think it could still be improved (a more explicit section on Strauss’ views on the medieval enlightenment, for example, would be helpful) but it is far better than it was.

  22. If everything were permitted to have an entry, then any search even for something like “Franklin Roosevenlt” or “Micheal Jordan” would bring you a disambiguation page with 25,000 possible topics. A high school kid named Robert Kennedy does not need a wikipedia page to talk about his great performance playing trumpet in the high school band at the homecoming game. Also keep in mind titles are not copywritable. I could name the 5 minute film of my keyboard I just made with my cellphone camera “The Godfather Part II” … it’s all a matter of accessability.

  23. bruce m:

    The solution would be to apply the concept of “notableness” to ordering the search results. More notable = higher on the list.

  24. Titles are “copywritable.”

  25. …but are they “copyreadable”?

  26. The wikinazis seem to be a bit out of control. The clubby mentality, regardless of topic, makes Wikipedia seem like a freaking Star Trek convention…once a wikinazi gets his or her hands on an entry, it plays out like a matter of stubborn, anonymous pride that they win the battle.

    As there already exists a wealth of information within traditional encyclopedia, the Wiki does provide a great opportunity to document the more obscure happenings in the world, and who exactly should be the arbiter of a topic’s importance? Some schools have already banned wikipedia from certain classrooms, so it would seem the so-called editors don’t necessarily exist to fact-check or boost the site’s credibility.

  27. Well, here from the horse’s mouth is Wikipedia’s notability policy. A list of arguments for and against the policy can also be found here.

    The problem that Fluffy alludes to (gigantic disambiguation pages) is the main reason I would support notability requirements for articles on people. On other topics, where name conflicts are less likely, they ought to be more lenient. If a subject is really non-notable, few if any people will access it, and it wont soak up that much bandwidth.

  28. “democratic people’s encyclopedia ”

    Fact by consensus???

  29. Ah, Wikipedia, where you can find long entries on lightsaber fighting techniques, but entries on something J. Random Ubergeek doesn’t think is “significant” will get deleted.

  30. Holy crap! I’m on Wikipedia! Sure, there’s no article about me, and you’ve gotta do a search on “Boone” to find my name, and it highlights my utter defeat in the only race in my short political career, but that’s to be expected. After all, I’m no Eric Dondero.

    Well, I guess that’s the last nail in the coffin for Wikipedia. Any club that’d have me as a member…

  31. ‘any search even for something like “Franklin Roosevenlt” or “Micheal Jordan” would bring you a disambiguation page with 25,000 possible topics.’- bruce m
    Actually “Micheal” Jordon gets 212,000 hits on Google, I am amazed that so many people can’t spell Michael.

  32. My fargin’ cousin is MacWorld’s equivalent to Gillespie and somebody is trying to pull his entry off Wiki because he isn’t important enough. The guy is considered to be a member of the Top 10 most knowledgeable Mac Guys on earth. Go figure.

  33. This is a topic of much contention at Wikipedia, but there’s more to it than Annalee Newitz says (or at least, what she says that’s quoted here).

    In essence, we’re dealing with several issues:

    1. Concerns about libel, attacks, and simple inaccuracy. Wikipedia has taken a lot of criticism for these in the past. One thing we’ve found is that all too often pages on obscure living people contain these, and because the topic is of interest to few, such problems tend not to be found until the subject themselves notices them. In a more general sense, many Wikipedia contributors think there should be articles only on subjects that have enough interest to keep them well-maintained. This isn’t by any means consistently believed, but it has reasonable currency.

    2. Spam, plain and simple. Every self-promoting jackass on the internet wants to get themselves or their stuff in Wikipedia. This has bred a bit of understandable paranoia about this.

    3. Wikipedia users tend to delete crap articles. Good articles on obscure topics will stay; a crap one has a much bigger chance of getting deleted, especially if the article doesn’t really tell anyone why anyone should give a damn about the subject matter.

    In the case Newitz is talking about, the article on the person in question was copied in violation of copyright from an external source. When a Wikipedia editor deleted the copyright violations, there was practically nothing left, so they redirected the title to Lovecraft’s article, which contained more about the person than what was left. Possibly not the best decision, but understandable.

  34. wikipedia are a bunch of facists [citation needed]. Many interesting topics turn into a pissing match between people who want to chronicle their existence and moderators who feel people shouldn’t know about them [citation needed]. Often wikipedia mods will decide to punish groups of people because some among them have generally been pests in other parts of the site (consider the GNAA) [citation needed]. Personally I think that if wikipedia can be used as a compendium to all the world’s obscure manga [citation needed] why shouldn’t I be able to go to wikipedia to learn about Brian Peppers, and the time he was an internet phenom? [citation needed]

  35. If independent references exist on a topic (i.e., if the claims are verifiable), that topic deserves an article. If a topic is so obscure that no independent source else ever wrote anything on it, then it is considered unnotable. Just how hard is it to grasp this simple concept? Surely, accusing Wikipedia of “censorship” is so much easier and more sensational… as so many blog entries such as yours would confirm.

  36. I feel all of their pain.

    I’m actually running for President (you didn’t know either, huh?), and don’t yet rate an article.

    So does mean Wiki have achieved MSM status? 🙂


  37. *sigh* I hate it when I only discover the typo, after clicking “Submit”. :/

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