The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Have You Ever Edited Wikipedia?

Yes. Once upon a time.

I took this survey via Lifehacker.

CNET reports that Wikipedia has received $890,000 in funding specifically aimed at creating an easier to use interface for readers with a low level of tech knowledge. Wikipedia’s goal is “to identify the most common barriers to entry for first-time writers, and then work to systematically reduce or eliminate them.” It’s an excellent idea, considering the obvious fact that there are presumably countless potential contributors with a lot of knowledge but a low level of tech skill. Still, since most of our readers are a tech-savvy bunch, it got us wondering:

Have you ever edited Wikipedia?

Well yes. But I soon stopped.


After some consideration, and discussions, I’ve come to the decision that I will add no further articles on LGBT hate crime victims to Wikipedia. When I started the Hate Crimes on Wikipedia project, it was because I’d noticed that there were several anti-LGBT hate crimes I knew, and had written about, of that were not documented on Wikipedia for some reason. I thought that by adding them to Wikipedia, I could bring more exposure to a broader spectrum LGBT people who have been the targets of hate crimes.

I have learned, however, that the notability guidelines on Wikipedia, and some of the community members who enforce them, make it almost impossible to show to bring exposure to hate crimes that happened long ago and/or not received widespread coverage. And that means that it is difficult to being exposure to more diverse LGBT hate crime victims on Wikipedia, if their stories are not recent, having received widespread coverage, or otherwise launched major protests or new legislation. As subjective as those guidelines sound, they are reasons I was given as objections to some of the articles I posted.

It was one big headache, and I still haven’t been able to understand it. The policy, that is, or the reason for it. The whole reason I started the LGBT Hate Crimes Proect on Wikipedia originally was to spread information about hate crimes that hadn’t received as much coverage as others. I was working on a post about the hate crimes bill one day, and realized that there were some cases I knew about that weren’t on Wikipedia. Since I enjoy doing research almost as much as writing (I’m weird that way I know), and felt passionately about the topic, I thought it was the perfect project for me to take on. And Wikipedia seemed the prefect place to do it.

Until the notability police found me.

Don’t get me wrong. It started out well. My entries for Nizah Moriss and Nireah Johnson, were featured on the front page of Wikipedia, in the “Did You Know…?” box. My entry on Michael Sandy was well received. But take a look at the discussion on the Johnson entry and you see there the trouble began. My entries on Roberto Duncanson and Erica Keel were deleted due to notability.

Around that time I took a long, hard look at the notability guidelines.

Within Wikipedia, notability is an inclusion criterion based on encyclopedic suitability of a topic for a Wikipedia article. The topic of an article should be notable, or “worthy of notice.” Notability is distinct from “fame,” “importance,” or “popularity,” although these may positively correlate with it. A topic is presumed to be sufficiently notable to merit an article if it meets the general notability guidelines below, or if it meets an accepted subject-specific standard listed in the table at the right. If an article currently does not cite reliable secondary sources, that does not necessarily mean that its topic is not notable.

…If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to satisfy the inclusion criteria for a stand-alone article.

   * “Significant coverage” means that sources address the subject directly in detail, and no original research is needed to extract the content. Significant coverage is more than trivial but may be less than exclusive.[1]

   * “Reliable” means sources need editorial integrity to allow verifiable evaluation of notability, per the reliable source guideline. Sources may encompass published works in all forms and media. Availability of secondary sources covering the subject is a good test for notability.[2]

   * “Sources,”[3] defined on Wikipedia as secondary sources, provide the most objective evidence of notability. The number and nature of reliable sources needed varies depending on the depth of coverage and quality of the sources. Multiple sources are generally preferred.[4]

   * “Independent of the subject” excludes works produced by those affiliated with the subject including (but not limited to): self-publicity, advertising, self-published material by the subject, autobiographies, press releases, etc.[5]

   * “Presumed” means that substantive coverage in reliable sources establishes a presumption, not a guarantee, of notability. Editors may reach a consensus that although a topic meets this criterion, it is not suitable for inclusion. For example, it may violate what Wikipedia is not.[6]

A topic for which this criterion is deemed to have been met by consensus, is usually worthy of notice, and satisfies one of the criteria for a stand-alone article in the encyclopedia. Verifiable facts and content not supported by multiple independent sources may be appropriate for inclusion within another article.

After wading back and forth through that a few times, I took a look at the list of people whose cases I’d yet to research and realized that most of them — in life as well as death — would never have met the requirements for “notability.”

Victims of high-profile crimes do not automatically qualify as notable enough to have a stand-alone article solely based on their status as victims. Notability with regards to this is defined as satisfying some other aspect of the notability of persons guideline that does not relate to the crime in question.

As such, a victim of a crime should normally only be the subject of an article where an article that satisfied notability criteria existed, or could have properly been created prior to the crime’s commission. Thus, attempts at inclusion prompted by appearance in the press should not be excluded if notability can be otherwise asserted.[1]

My other option was to make entries to an omnibus list of violence against LGBT people, but a one or two sentence summary with a link to a single news article wouldn’t accomplish at least one of my goals: to document in as much detail as possible the lives of the victims, and include as many details as possible about what was done to them because of who they were.

I made the mistake of making entries to the list and including reference links to the entries on the LGBT Hate Crimes Project, but ran afoul of the Wikipedia prohibition against linking to external sites you yourself have created. So, I deleted my entries and left Wikipedia, except for adding an entry about the congressional GLBT Equality Caucus. Which, good grief, has also been tagged for notability issues. I guess Wikipedia would rather leave it as just an entry on a list.

Is it any wonder I no longer contribute to Wikipedia? I’m not about to put in the time to research and write entries that are only going to get deleted because the subjects are deemed (by Wikipedians) unworthy of notice.

I’m not the first or last would-be Wikipedia contributor to run headlong into the notability requirement. But I’ve read some good arguments against the notability guidelines from others whose who have.

Timothy Noah was evicted from Wikipedia and rescued by Wikipedia, after which he summed it up nicely.

In two previous articles about Wikipedia (“Evicted From Wikipedia” and “Rescued By Wikipedia”), I argued that the open-source online reference work ought to abandon its “notability guideline,” which says that an encyclopedia entry on a particular topic is ineligible for inclusion, and (at least theoretically) will be removed, if Wikipedia’s gatekeepers conclude that the topic lacks sufficient importance. In the case of a paper encyclopedia, a notability standard makes perfect sense because of limitations of space, staff, and reader navigability. But in the case of Wikipedia, notability shouldn’t be an issue, since Wikipedia has access to more or less infinite space, and (since its writers and editors are all volunteers) manpower, plus a method of navigability (the search engine) that’s blissfully indifferent to volume. The only explanation I could find for Wikipedia’s seemingly pointless notability guideline derived from Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen argued that society sorts and discriminates among people and things long past the point where such actions have practical value, and that these “invidious distinctions” serve to uphold ancient status hierarchies. Wikipedia lets some topics in and keeps other topics out not because doing so is necessary, but because doing so is pleasurable.

He goes on to respond to some statements in support of the guidelines.

Brianna, who became a Wikipedia admin after becoming involved with Wikimedia in 2005, brought some background and perspective to bear.

By the end of 2005, we had lived through Seigenthaler. This incident especially threw a lot of scrutiny on Wikipedians, who previously had been just happy geeking out and amusing themselves. Seigenthaler was the mainstream media and traditional authorities (academics) demanding to know what the hell Wikipedia thought it was doing and how dare they and just exactly how were they planning to meet the standards of those traditional fonts of knowledge anyway?

I think it panicked the community, and the defensive reaction that was collectively taken was to retreat into the standards and practices of those traditional authorities. Appease them by adopting their methods, deferring to their authority. “Look, we’re not untrustworthy — we’re trying to write the same kinds of documents as you. We have the same ideals about verifiability as you.”

The idea of notability is also very much a product of this time. Academics decide what is worthy of study. Wikipedians mimicked this by becoming gatekeepers to the wiki. This “guideline” is the most obvious mark of a community appealing to established authority. Paper encyclopedias must have inclusion/exclusion criteria because they have limited resources: limited time, limited money (to pay authors), and limited paper/space. But Wikipedia, with no publishing deadline, written by volunteers and provided virtually free over the internet, has none of these excuses.1,2 The notability guideline is the most blatant example of the Wikipedia community retreating into traditional acceptability because we were spooked. Maybe also because we wanted to be respected, respectable? We wanted to be gatekeepers too, and enjoy that decisive feeling of “keeping order” amongst the rabble of the world?

…The further Wikipedia’s coverage and cultural reach expands, the more we will have this problem. Academics do not typically consider “everything in the world” deserving of study. Even if they are po-mo pop-culture theorisers, they will draw the line somewhere. The other thing is that there is not enough of them. Wikipedia is writing up the world faster than academia can study, hypothesise, research and publish about it. (And if you’re lucky, in a language you speak, in a journal you can access via a library near you, too. Good luck.) When we tie our respectability to traditional authority by invoking their methods, we must also accept the limitations of those methods: because there are many things that academics will never study, Wikipedia will never cover those topics in a way that is internally consistent and acceptable. I am not just thinking about the trivia of Western life, but more importantly major cultural knowledge that has not happened to have yet fallen under the Western academic radar.

..I guess I think it is a great shame that Wikipedia has doomed itself to such a limited existence by, as I say, falling back on the methods of traditional authority for respectability. But! Just like the Podcast article, it is only limited if everyone carries out the letter of the law (policy). If we use social pressure to encourage the keeping of articles that are non-harmful and useful (if not sourceable), the law may be irrelevant.

Tim Bray made me aware of a whole discussion (previously unknown to me) of deletionism on Wikipedia.

Deletionism and inclusionism are opposing philosophies held by editors of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, regarding the criteria for including or deleting content.[1]

On Wikipedia, deletionists generally argue for the deletion of articles that they allege are short and poorly written,[2] unreferenced or referenced only by Web-based sources and blogs, that they claim fail the community standards of notability,[3][4] or that they say exclusively contain trivia or popular culture references, as well as of other types of articles deemed unencyclopedic.

Inclusionists call for retaining more content, for higher tolerance of “stub” articles, and for an acceptance of notable blogs and other Web-based sources.[3][5]

And then offered his take. (Which I love.)

For a nice safe NPOV (“Neutral Point of View”) discussion of the issues, see Deletionism and inclusionism in Wikipedia. My experience, which isn’t NPOV at all, is that Deletionists are knuckle-dragging droolers, walking vacant spaces, and as a side-effect generally, well, what’s the word I’m looking for? “Wrong.”

…Are the deletionists simply, as it seems, reveling in their own inadequacies? This came up on Twitter last night and Jeff Atwood put it well: “The fatal flaw of deletionism is the mindset of deciding what someone else should find interesting.” Jeepers, what kind of impoverished soul does it take to delight in removing accurate and potentially-useful information from the permanent record based on the subjective and silly notion of “Notability”?

A little thought-experiment is in order: What harm would ensue were Wikipedia to contain an accurate if slightly boring entry on someone who was just an ordinary person and entirely fame-free? Well, Wikipedia’s “encyclopedia-ness” might be impaired… but I thought the purpose of Wikipedia was to serve the Net’s users, not worry about how closely it adheres to the traditional frameworks of the reference publishing industry?

I suggest the deletionist wankers go and cluster around an alternate online reference tome which has articles only about God, Immanuel Kant, and Britney Spears. Notability is not in question, so they should be happy.

Goddless Liberal Homo (a blog name I will envy from now on), after watching the discussion about the deletion of an entry on the Zeitgeist the Movie (which was eventually deleted from Wikipedia, on the basis of the notability guidelines for films) made another interesting observation.

These guidelines rely on directly on corporate sources, government sources, and sources which get funding from corporations and/or governments. Can you imagine how difficult a film to qualify which challenges economic and political power and practices in such basic ways? The guideline being used by Wikipedia has an inherent bias in favor of information that corporate interests and the governments they influence find acceptable.

The mere existence and marketing of a film that so strongly challenges the ideologies behind Christian supremacy and corporate oligarchy is notable in and of itself, regardless of how effectively corporate interests suppress it.

Wikipedia bases part of the reliability of its articles on what it calls a “Neutral point of view (NPOV).” Even in the best of situations, such a thing as a “neutral point of view” simply does not exist. Any time an individual human or a group of humans writes something in prose form, that writing reflects the biases and values of the authors.

What is considered “significant views” is filtered through dominant cultural views and corporate media sources. What are considered “reliable sources” are filtered in a corporate and government fashion as well. Keep in mind that university research is primarily dependent upon corporate and government funding. It is equally important to remember that the right-wing, corporate bias of “mainstream newspapers” is legendary.

I realized, after reading that last bit, because so many of the people I’m writing about in the hate crimes project were ignored by much of the mainstream media as well, in it’s role of deciding whose lives and deaths are worthy of note, notice, and examination.

Then I realized that Wikipedia some time ago began to lean in that same direction. And it was at that point that it became far less useful to me. Or at least no more useful than the printed, bound Encyclopedia Britannica. I might pull the Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf to look up a reference, but then I close it up and put it back.

I don’t participate in it. I’m not invited to participate it. Neither I nor my knowledge or experience qualify.

It’s not entirely useless to me, though. It can serve as a source for the LGBT Hate Crimes Project, because I can research hate crime cases that are deleted from Wikipedia, because they lack notability.

So, thanks to Wikipedia, I have another name to add.

2 Comments

  1. Minor correction. I have never been a Wikipedia admin. I was an admin on Wikimedia Commons for a couple of years.

    I’m glad you found my post useful.

    cheers, Brianna

  2. Thanks for quoting my blog.

    I think it is important to think critically about all media, and you are doing just that.

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