Category Archives: wikimedia


As a frequent consulter, but not an editor, of Wikipedia, I’ve often wondered about what exactly goes on among the core contributors. A few clues can be found in the revision histories, but on a whole these are hard to read, internal work documents meant more for those actually getting their hands dirty in the business of writing and editing. Like choreographic notation, they may record the steps, but to the untrained reader they give little sense of the look or feeling of the dance.
metawiki.jpg But dig around elsewhere in Wikipedia’s sprawl, turn over a few rocks, and you will find squirming in the soil a rich ecosystem of communities, organizing committees, and rival factions. Most of these — the more formally organized ones at least — can be found on the “Meta-Wiki,” a site containing information and community plumbing for all Wikimedia Foundation projects, including Wikipedia.
I took a closer look at some of these so-called Metapedians and found them to be a varied, often contentious lot, representing a broad spectrum of philosophies asserting this or that truth about how Wikipedia should evolve, how it should be governed, and how its overall significance ought to be judged. The more prominent schools of thought are even championed by associations, complete with their own page, charter and loyal base of supporters. Although tending toward the tongue-in-cheek, these pages cannot help but convey how seriously the business of building the encyclopedia is taken, with three groups in particular providing, if not evidence of an emergent tri-party system, then at least a decent introduction to Wikipedia’s political culture, and some idea of how different Wikipedians might formulate policies for the writing and editing of articles.
On one extreme is The Association of Deletionist Wikipedians, a cantankerous collective that dreams (with considerable ideological overlap with another group, the Exclusionists) of a “big, strong, garbage-free Wikipedia.” These are the expungers, the pruners, the weeding-outers — doggedly on the lookout for filth, vandalism and general extraneousness. Deletionists favor “clear and relatively rigorous standards for accepting articles to the encyclopedia.” When you come across an article that has been flagged for cleanup or suspected inaccuracies, that may be the work of Deletionists. Some have even pushed for the development of Wiki Law that could provide clearly documented precedents to guide future vetting efforts. In addition, Deletionists see it as their job to “outpace rampant Inclusionism,” a rival school of thought across the metaphorical aisle: The Association of Inclusionist Wikipedians.
This group’s motto is “Salva veritate,” or “with truth preserved,” which in practice means: “change Wikipedia only when no knowledge would be lost as a result.” These are Wikipedia’s libertarians, its big-tenters, its stub-huggers. “Outpace and coordinate against rampant Deletionism” is one of their core directives.

A favorite phrase of inclusionists is “Wiki is not paper.” Because Wikipedia does not have the same space limitations as a paper encyclopedia, there is no need to restrict content in the same way that a Britannica must. It has also been suggested that no performance problems result from having many articles. Inclusionists claim that authors should take a more open-minded look at content criteria. Articles on people, places, and concepts of little note may be perfectly acceptable for Wikipedia in this view. Some inclusionists do not see a problem with including pages which give a factual description of every last person on the planet.

(Even poor old Bob Aspromonte.)
Then along come the Mergist Wikipedians. The moderates, the middle-grounders, the bipartisans. The Mergists regard it their mission to reconcile the two extremes — to “outpace rampant Inclusionism and Deletionism.” As their eminently sensible charter explains:

The AMW believes that while some information is notable and encyclopedic and therefore has a place on Wikipedia, much of it is not notable enough to warrant its own article and is therefore best merged. In this sense we are similar to Inclusionists, as we believe in the preservation of information and knowledge, but share traits with Deletionists as we disagree with the rampant creation of new articles for topics that could easily be covered elsewhere.

For some, however, there can be no middle ground. One is either a Deletionist or and Inclusionist, it’s as simple as that. To these hardliners, the mergists are referred to dismissively as “delusionists.”
There are still other, less organized, ideological subdivisions. Immediatism focuses on “the immediate value of Wikipedia,” and so are terribly concerned with the quality — today — of its information, the neatness of its appearance, and its general level of professionalism and polish. When a story in the news draws public attention to some embarrassing error — the Seigenthaler episode, for instance — the Immediatists wince and immediately set about correcting it. Eventualism, by contrast, is more concerned with Wikipedia in the long run — its grand destiny — trusting that wrinkles will be ironed out, gaps repaired. All in good time.
How much impact these factions have on the overall growth and governance of Wikipedia is hard to say. But as a description of the major currents of thought that go into the building of this juggernaut, they are quite revealing. It’s nice that people have taken the time to articulate these positions, and that they have done so with humor, lending texture and color to what at first glance might appear to be an undifferentiated mob.

a better wikipedia will require a better conversation

There’s an interesting discussion going on right now under Kim’s Wikibooks post about how an open source model might be made to work for the creation of authoritative knowledge — textbooks, encyclopedias etc. A couple of weeks ago there was some dicussion here about an article that, among other things, took some rather cheap shots at Wikipedia, quoting (very selectively) a couple of shoddy passages. Clearly, the wide-open model of Wikipedia presents some problems, but considering the advantages it presents (at least in potential) — never out of date, interconnected, universally accessible, bringing in voices from the margins — critics are wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Holding up specific passages for critique is like shooting fish in a barrel. Even Wikipedia’s directors admit that most of the content right now is of middling quality, some of it downright awful. It doesn’t then follow to say that the whole project is bunk. That’s a bit like expelling an entire kindergarten for poor spelling. Wikipedia is at an early stage of development. Things take time.
Instead we should be talking about possible directions in which it might go, and how it might be improved. Dan for one, is concerned about the market (excerpted from comments):

What I worry about…is that we’re tearing down the old hierarchies and leaving a vacuum in their wake…. The problem with this sort of vacuum, I think, is that capitalism tends to swoop in, simply because there are more resources on that side….
…I’m not entirely sure if the world of knowledge functions analogously, but Wikipedia does presume the same sort of tabula rasa. The world’s not flat: it tilts precariously if you’ve got the cash. There’s something in the back of my mind that suspects that Wikipedia’s not protected against this – it’s kind of in the state right now that the Web as a whole was in 1995 before the corporate world had discovered it. If Wikipedia follows the model of the web, capitalism will be sweeping in shortly.

Unless… the experts swoop in first. Wikipedia is part of a foundation, so it’s not exactly just bobbing in the open seas waiting to be swept away. If enough academics and librarians started knocking on the door saying, hey, we’d like to participate, then perhaps Wikipedia (and Wikibooks) would kick up to the next level. Inevitably, these newcomers would insist on setting up some new vetting mechanisms and a few useful hierarchies that would help ensure quality. What would these be? That’s exactly the kind of thing we should be discussing.
The Guardian ran a nice piece earlier this week in which they asked several “experts” to evaluate a Wikipedia article on their particular subject. They all more or less agreed that, while what’s up there is not insubstantial, there’s still a long way to go. The biggest challenge then, it seems to me, is to get these sorts of folks to give Wikipedia more than just a passing glance. To actually get them involved.
For this to really work, however, another group needs to get involved: the users. That might sound strange, since millions of people write, edit and use Wikipedia, but I would venture that most are not willing to rely on it as a bedrock source. No doubt, it’s incredibly useful to get a basic sense of a subject. Bloggers (including this one) link to it all the time — it’s like the conversational equivalent of a reference work. And for certain subjects, like computer technology and pop culture, it’s actually pretty solid. But that hits on the problem right there. Wikipedia, even at its best, has not gained the confidence of the general reader. And though the Wikimaniacs would be loathe to admit it, this probably has something to do with its core philosophy.
Karen G. Schneider, a librarian who has done a lot of thinking about these questions, puts it nicely:

Wikipedia has a tagline on its main page: “the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” That’s an intriguing revelation. What are the selling points of Wikipedia? It’s free (free is good, whether you mean no-cost or freely-accessible). That’s an idea librarians can connect with; in this country alone we’ve spent over a century connecting people with ideas.
However, the rest of the tagline demonstrates a problem with Wikipedia. Marketing this tool as a resource “anyone can edit” is a pitch oriented at its creators and maintainers, not the broader world of users. It’s the opposite of Ranganathan’s First Law, “books are for use.” Ranganathan wasn’t writing in the abstract; he was referring to a tendency in some people to fetishize the information source itself and lose sight that ultimately, information does not exist to please and amuse its creators or curators; as a common good, information can only be assessed in context of the needs of its users.

I think we are all in need of a good Wikipedia, since in the long run it might be all we’ve got. And I’m in now way opposed to its spirit of openness and transparency (I think the preservation of version histories is a fascinating element and one which should be explored further — perhaps the encyclopedia of the future can encompass multiple versions of the “the truth”). But that exhilarating throwing open of the doors should be tempered with caution and with an embrace of the parts of the old system that work. Not everything need be thrown away in our rush to explore the new. Some people know more than other people. Some editors have better judgement than others. There is such a thing as a good kind of gatekeeping.
If these two impulses could be brought into constructive dialogue then we might get somewhere. This is exactly the kind of conversation the Wikimedia Foundation should be trying to foster.