ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Thank you so much, Jimmy —

I’ve been very good, haven’t I? It’s been months since I mentioned Wikipedia on here in any amount. That’s on purpose. It gets old. I sound one-note. I’d rather be known for doing stuff than bitching about how others do stuff.

But I did want to say something, because sometimes I’m driving and I grip the steering wheel tighter, or I’m working on something and my face gets redder. Just a little wave of anger, a little passing torrent of pissed-off. I should get it out.

I wouldn’t care so much about criticizing Wikipedia if I didn’t see such potential in the approach. If I didn’t think that, at the core of it, there was such an amazing potential for goodness to come out, and then to see it not be that, I wouldn’t give Wikipedia a second thought. I don’t give sites like Everything or H2G2 much of my attention because they’re cute and all but I don’t actually get excited thinking about them. If they’re run well or not well, this doesn’t affect my life all that much.

But Wikipedia does. Wikipedia sends tons of links my way. People have taken material at great handfuls from my works and put it, wholescale, on articles without attribution. They are in my face constantly when I do searches. I get to watch tons of people link to the Wikipedia Article something as the sum total of their explanation to a newbie or uninformed compatriot. I can’t get away from it.

So every once in a while I browse it. I browse it for things I couldn’t possibly have my life affected about if it was entirely wrong, so that basically means I use it to browse comic book plots and…. well, basically comic book plots. You could vandalize the hell out of the comic book plot entries and big deal, I now got my Plastic Man history wrong, woop-de schnoz.

And when I browse it, I remember why I hate how it actually works. And what I hate the most is the notability debate.

I don’t mean just hate it, like you hate how you missed the train, or hate a food that tastes horrible to you. I mean loathe it, loathe it like nothing I can remember in my adult life. A long time ago, someone launched into a multi-month terror campaign against me, calling me on all my phone lines (including ones not assigned to me) to tell me he was waiting near my house with a shotgun to kill me, tapping my phone lines (from within his job in the phone company) and then calling me later and using details of the tapped conversations to threaten me further. Eventually, friends of his blackmailed me for hundreds of dollars to stop the campaign (which did stop immediately). I hate that guy, and his friends.

But I hate the notability debate more than that.

The notability debate is this:

Obviously, Wikipedia can’t have an article on every single thing that everybody creates for it, because sometimes people make redundant crap, make crap nobody else can even verify (list of things in my dorm room), or crap that doesn’t actually exist (“On the other side of Saturn is Basar, a moon in the shape of a unicorn”). Thus, there are procedures in place on Wikipedia to handle these situations. If someone puts a totally fictional or utterly unverifiable entry into Wikipedia, then there are deletion “discussions” that take place about them. The discussions range from utterly brilliant to pants-on-head retarded, depending on the phase of the moon and the popularity of the subject or even the personality of the party initiating the deletion “discussion”. At the end of this, if the fictional/unverifiable item is deemed to be just that, it is deleted out of the wikipedia database (actually, it’s simply marked unbrowsable).

If the entry is considered to be redundant or unable to stand on its own, then it is often merged or “redirected”. An example might be an entry on pumpkin seeds, which might be a short entry, which becomes a single paragraph in the “pumpkin” entry. Attempts to look up “pumpkin seeds” are redirected to the pumpkin entry. The discussion over whether an article can stand on its own or be a small part of another begins to get heated because instead of focusing on it being a mere classification discussion, it becomes a worthiness or value discussion. By the way, there’s more than enough information on pumpkin seeds to warrant a separate article.

These value discussions are cancer. They infest Wikipedia everywhere; instead of being about how to fit in the maximum amount of information while still maintaining accessibility and consistency and quality, they become about what “deserves” to be in Wikipedia. You know, the honor to be bestowed.

Among the mutations of the cancer is the aforementioned notability. In the notability discussion, Wikipedia is thought of as a high-water-mark, where only items, persons and entities that would normally acquire collated information and the need for information of a certain level should be in Wikipedia. The alternative is thought of, among a portion of users, as an untenable quagmire of unmaintainable slag. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, you see, and should hold encyclopedic standards. Never mind that it’s not an encyclopedia and has never been able to maintain that facade properly; at the end of the day you shouldn’t expect to be reading articles in Wikipedia that have no encyclopedic value. Well, unless it’s lists of porn stars who appeared in mainstream films. Or a list of fictional guidebooks. Or Brainfuck.

I can cherry-pick shit all day; obviously there are now millions of articles to choose from. Some of them are completely out of the realm of significant to the vast majority of humans; in fact, a lot of them probably share this classification. But they mean enough to people to want to write out entries and maintain them. And improve them, and fight the inevitable grey-gooing that occurs to a lot of Wikipedia articles by bot, incompetence and hostility. These items exist. They are classifiable. They are information.

But the notability cancer makes it simple enough for a do-gooder or person looking for brownnoser points to come along, delcare a subject “not notable” and shift the resultant process into one of defending or detracting the article. And make this clear: they detract not only the article but the subject matter.

Go spend time on this page. Specifically, you will need to browse over to the daily list of defendants brought before the High Court of Wikipedia. Here are the 105 discussions opened yesterday.

First, ignore the actual discussions. Click on the headers, the actual articles being discussed. Go browse them, see the weeks or months of work put into them. See ones that are a few scant lines and a bunch that are basically fully formed.

Then go back to the discussions.

Watch the arguments. Watch how “notability” becomes the core discussion the vast majority of time. Keep an eye out for how many times someone not only dismisses the notability of the subject but the subject itself. Watch the times when someone who actually cares about the subject stands up for it, and the debate becomes whether the subject itself is worthy to be in Wikipedia. Note the fear that if one of “this type” gets in, many more will follow. In rare occasions the subjects or experts in the subject show up, and then the real knives come out.

What is the fear here? Why is there concern that an article maintained for months on end (go check the history of an article and see how long it has been around) by many different people who obviously thought it worthy enough to stay will somehow infect the Wikipedia collection with its obscurity? When did the classification of information become an incredible black art that only a few could fathom? Where is the effort obviously being sprayed down the well in writing these articles redirected to classify them?

Once, the internet was considered such a powerful new technology and such an expensive experiment, that the idea of it going for any information outside of the core values of scientific and academic spheres was not just downplayed but grounds for termination of employment and connection to the greater internet. Here, for example, is a discussion showing how Xerox cut off usenet access to a newsgroup due to too much “Star Trek” traffic. This concern was valid, in 1983; the transfer of massive amounts of messages could equal many (and I do mean many) thousands of dollars in additional costs for bandwidth. Consumer-level disk storage was measured in the hundreds of dollars per megabyte. Hundreds of dollars per megabyte. This was a real and valid issue.

As time went on, these costs and concerns reduced. Subject matter diversified into not just items of pop culture and trivia but also sexuality, classifieds and fiction. The facility sustained these expansions. People worked very, very hard to ensure these expansions were maintainable. They increased political discussions, cries for help, declarations of bravery and stupidity. And engineers spent weekends at ray-guns destroying their vision to advance classification and routing mechanisms to ensure this information could be found. This happened. It is happening.

And now in this modern era, we live in the shadow of this promise, this goddamned promise that Jimmy Wales makes in endless speeches and presentations and writings to the world, where “the sum of all human knowledge” shall be accessible, even one riddled with crappy writing or stunted committee-led construction. High Watermarks, Jimbo, they’re not just for speeches, anymore.

I sometimes stumble upon them, these great leap backwards, these popularity contests, these endless procedural dodgeball team tryouts where people are encouraged to dismiss, deride, flaunt their ignorance of a subject as proof of its unworthiness for the Wikipedia, and that’s where the anger comes from. That such things happen now, in 2007, where a USB key that could hold days of music or centuries of text could be had for a paltry sum, is beyond reckoning.

I lay this travesty, this waste of energy, time and good faith, on Jimmy Wales. He sets the tone for the project, he talks the endless game, he sits for his never-ending schedule of shallow interviews. People cite him like he’s a new version of the bible. He could step in and with deft words stop entire ranges of actions should he so choose. I’ve seen him do it. That Wikipedia has a “Ignore All Rules” rule is directly from his pen and left in to give himself enormous veto power over any action. He has used this “rule” many times. He will continue to. He should use it here.

Otherwise, all I can do is thank him; thank him for making it clear how much energy I have saved myself the past three years by not contributing to the project, thank him for showing others the dangerous pitfalls of turning all knowledge into an essentially rules-based game, and thank him for not, on any given day, getting better at hiding his baser motives.

Something great will grow from Wikipedia’s mulch. The notability fad poisons this potentially fertile ground. Stop this madness, this backward-thinking unlimited popularity contest played with the efforts of real people to do real things.

It is a joke, a mad sick joke, and I have long stopped laughing at it.

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  1. cassiel says:

    Exactly, that’s the way it is. WP and the whole concept of encyclopedias is a concept of the 19th century and before. WP is the attempt to get the idea of free speech online back into the bottle.

    With technology we’re in 2007, with our minds we are somewhere before the industrial revolution. There are still many people who believe everything they read to be the truth, especially when they read that is is “objective”, “neutral” or “non-biased”. Therefore there are power-addicted people who take advantage of this. The head for the key positions in WP and of course everything they don’t like is “not notable”. It’s not “power to the people” that drives WP, but “power over the people” by limiting their view, especially when it comes to politics.

    And speaking of cancer: WP is information chauvinism, which is no wonder because Jimbo is objectivist, which means the same. All kind of chauvinism are cancer: egoism, sexism, racism, specism, parlamentarianism, nationalism, objectivism etc. all in all chauvinism is the cancer of humankind.

  2. openfly says:

    Uhm… not to be a curmudgeon or anything, but the entire idea of a wikipedia is fucking retarded.

    I like the idea of centralized repository for all human knowledge. Don’t get me wrong. It’s an awesome idea. Additionally I believe increasing availability of raw information is exceptionally useful to the trained eye. However, I cannot trust joe idiot to get up one morning and suddenly be an expert in the five or so fields necessary to document properly the “facts” of a given semi important subject.

    Wikipedia is in it’s thrust a bad fundamental idea. What you need to do is stand back, and think of what at the core you are trying to accomplish.

    I would say the core attempts here are…

    Free exchange of information between many sources… (good)

    Centralized repository of well cited factual information concerning many different things (or the sum total of all human knowledge)… (good)

    A single brand that can attract many, and change the way the internet is used in research as in make it a valid citation… (good)

    The problem is these 3 things cannot be accomplished the way Wikipedia is currently structured. You can’t allow final confirmed documentation of properly cited works and properly verified facts to reach publication and allow basically any jackass on earth to start up an article.

    What we need is a system that appoints multiple counterpoints and professionals of relative fields necessary to the complete understanding of a topic within wikipedia. This pool of experts should be able to collective address submitted material, properly verify authenticity and accuracy, weed out improperly formed arguments and properly weight perspective arguments concerning any subject. This is singularly impossible to do with wikipedia as it currently is.

    You need to allow the common man to submit information, but you cannot allow them to publish it.

    And you need to properly audit the entire catalogue of works via an objective (sorta) third party.

    Once you have that… you almost have a decent online work that addresses your core needs. You can’t have perfection, but you can have something close enough to it to work.