ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Quiet Wikideath of BBS History —

Folks, I’ve said I’m not a fan of Wikipedia for nearly ten years now. I used to mention it in presentations until I found that eighteen-year-olds would confront me at the end, like I spoke out against oxygen or wearing socks. So I don’t mention it much anymore and generally, it doesn’t come up. They got a little better on some quarters anyway, and so it’s not a complete doomed airship, just one that lists poorly to one side now and then.

But every once in a while, something really stupid happens on Wikipedia, and by once in a while I mean every single goddamned day, and occasionally it’s so “really stupid” someone thinks they have to summon me like I’m Odin and Ragnarök just popped out of the Advent calendar. “Do something”, they say, or maybe something more along the lines of “You should see this”, because if you’re Ralph Nader what you really want to do is witness car crashes.

There’s the internal politicking stupid, which is boring these days, and there’s the “inaccurate howler lives on for months” stupid, which is fleetingly entertainment. Luckily nobody thinks to drag me to those tailgate parties.

No, the big one is “some numbnut gang has decided Wikipedia doesn’t need entries on this this week.”

Now, call me an old-fashioned kinda archiving guy, but keeping stuff around is, on the whole, a good thing. It’s especially a good thing if what’s being kept around is obviously the hard work of dozens or even hundreds of people contributing time and knowledge to make something better. Hey, put down the pitchforks, Charlie. I’m just saying, here. You come up against something that’s obviously got some weight and effort, your first thought isn’t to toss it into the compactor.

Yet all the time, some people get together and think “this entry… I’ve never heard of it… I just did a cursory search and it’s not [made up criteria]. Into the bonfire with you, obscuro!” and then they do that little kangaroo court thing with the Articles for Deletion.

If you don’t know what the whole Article for Deletion thing on Wikipedia is…. great. I mean, just walk away. You don’t need to know exactly what shoegazer crapsongs the pimply-faced badass down the street listens to when he’s tagging your garage door, either. You will not be a better person for it.

But the upshot is that pretty much anybody can get together with as little as 2 other people and decide, across a seven day period, to delete an article. This happens all the time. It’s despicable.

No, don’t jump on my shit by comparing it to normal pruning of vandalism articles or self-promotional spam. We’re talking articles where they’ve been around for years, and people do an AfD, and kill it, or even worse, nominate it over and over, every few months, until at one point they’ve won. See, that’s the brilliance of it: People who are guardians of an article have to defend it over and over, always doing their best to “win”, while the fucks just have to nominate it over and over and win ONCE, and then the article is blown off the face of the earth.

None of this is new. I’ve talked about this before.

What happens in the realm of “let’s go rattle Jason’s tree about this” is that occasionally some weasel on Wikipedia will decide to go after a thematic purge. They decide to go after, say, everything related to famous trailer parks, or infamous London criminals, or anything where they can go plonk, plonk, plonk, right down the line.

And one of the big punching bags is anything related to BBS history.

See, when you’re a a puffy-fingered bureaucrat tapping away from your incredible younger-than-my-shoes point of view, BBS history just tends to fall under “who GIVES a shit”. You find a lack of citation of it, make some wild-ass judgement about whether it was “relevant”, and even if the information is sourced and valid to a small extent considering the scant available material online, you go ahead and just knock that shit out.

So they do this, and then I end up with friends and fans coming to me to tell me what’s going on.

The most recent casualty is Space Empire Elite, a perfectly fine and relevant BBS Door Game that lived a happy life of a few years ago. Pre-web, really, and not ported to some modern flash or html5 equivalent, so not, you know, hitting Reddit every 12 seconds. So it got the boot.

Benj Edwards did a perfectly fine mention of this and a call to arms. He has all the gory details I can barely bring together the energy to peruse, much less summarize.

Anyway, here’s where I diverge from a lot of people.

Fuck Wikipedia.

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck Wikipedia.

See, the problem is that people think of wikipedia as a SOURCE. It’s NOT a source. It’s REALITY SLASH FICTION.

You’ve got people randomly making up what they think is important and then writing whatever, day in and day out, and then being able to mess with everyone ELSE’s idea of what’s important, and then everyone can stomp around everyone else’s sand castle until either a topic is so boring and obscure nobody else wants to touch it, or they lock the thing down and flip out if anyone messes with it, especially if that subject or person is in the news. In some cases, the article is in a state of flux constantly – not one of improvement, just churn – endless rewriting and twiddling that doesn’t really do much except let the next person get in there and pee on the hydrant from a slightly different angle. Everybody is a hero. Everybody is the final Grand Poobah of You Get To Stay, and they can adjust their little antler hat and hit the delete button all day long. Life is cheap in Wikipedia, and ideas even cheaper; effort the cheapest of all.

So fuck ’em.

For years I’ve taken the following groundbreaking approach with BBS history: Snag as much of it as I can from as many sources as I can. Pull together data and documents that are insights into what happened. Interview people who were there. Transfer video recordings and audio recordings and scan documents and make it all into online actuality. You can debate the notability of Space Potato BBS all day, or you can scan and transfer all the Space Potato BBS material and put it somewhere where we don’t get a straw poll every harvest moon to decide to burn it to the ground.

Oh, the faces of the Wiki-faithful when I’m like this in person (and I am, in fact, like this in person). The concerned and sourpuss face when they mention something about Wikipedia and my response is fundamental distaste. The dropped mouth, the sad eyes – it’s like eating delicious key lime pie to me. Seriously: Have fun all day, folks, but I’m not going to put on the party hat and act like this birthday cake isn’t full of horse poop. Nice decorations, though.

No, the solution is to stop thinking of Wikipedia as the Source, the Big Stage, the Final Arbiter. It will fail at this and it will always fail at this as long as people get to undo the work of many others merely by being a persistent keyboard-pushing douchebag. Even on Reddit, when someone informed or at least long-winded and opinion-filled shows up, they can only downvote them into greyness, not delete them entirely.

No, primary sources. Mark my words. 2013 is the year I am scanning and duping in terabytes, terabytes of BBS and home computer material. Trust me – the world is going to get a lot more of what happened in that period.

Let Wikipedia do an article on THAT, is my advice. We’ll get by until then.

Categorised as: jason his own self | punditry

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  1. Dragan says:

    As much as I agree with all your criticism of Wikipedia, I hope Archive Team is trying to copy it. However crappy it might be, it is still one of the largest collaborations in history. And I wonder if the database dumps etc the Wikimedia Foundation is offering are actually useful? Can one re-create a complete Wikipedia with these files?

    • Jason Scott says:

      Archive Team is constantly grabbing copies of Wikipedia dumps, as is the Internet Archive.

    • buro9 says:

      One of the largest collaborations in history? I think WW2 gets that prize. That was also pretty crappy.

    • AP² says:

      Yes. With the dumps and a copy of the software – which is open source and freely downloadable – you can easily make a complete clone of Wikipedia; it’s just a question of installing the software on any webserver and loading the data into its database.

  2. Bill Tozier says:

    Yes, and thank you. Also: the books we scan, the newspapers I’m still trying to make hardware to scan, and all the rest.

    Thank you. And again: yes.

  3. tcowley says:

    I was a WP hopeful until I saw the European demoscene goons delete and destroy every trace of the American demoscene from WP. Over and over for years until it was gone.

  4. nobody says:

    euro demoscene ftw!!

    seriously though, nice article, jason.

    “it’s on wikipedia! must be true!” is a bit like “it must be true, fat bloke down the pub said so!”, except no-one can see his piss-stained trouser legs.

  5. maxCohen says:

    Wikipedia is digital masturbation.

  6. Mike says:

    Amen to that! A fun little example of Wikipedia stupidity is a TV comedian I help out who would constantly get asked about a stupid incident in his past, too small to bother remembering but with a tiny amount of sensationalism. Every time he’d have a media interview it would come up, and finally he realized that the incident was in his Wikipedia article. Clearly reading his Wikipedia article was all the prep the reporters bothered with.

    I’ve since been his keeper of the article, making sure that stupid incident doesn’t get reverted back in.

    • Anon says:

      Sorry, what? You leave a comment on a blog post railing against deletionism… explaining how and why you put time into keeping information off of Wikipedia? And you think this means you agree with Jason? I mean, agreed, that incident oughtn’t to get unfairly large amounts of exposure relative to everything else… but that is _exactly_ the argument the deletionists make!

      • Mike says:

        Actually I was providing an unrelated anecdote about the same platform Jason was referring to, and the difference is that I deleted a paragraph, not the whole damn article.

        • blandekic says:

          So a little bit of censorship is okay, but not if China does it? Deleting a paragraph is all it takes to remove key BBS history elements, as some things weren’t preserved sufficiently to have a full page dedicated to them. So I agree with the original responder, you are doing precisely what Jason was writing about! And while Wikipedia doesn’t need to have someone’s exhaustive biography that includes whether or not they are circumsized, constantly removing a part of someone’s life because they don’t like answering those questions is not my idea of a good policy.

  7. Nobody says:

    Completely agree on the deletion policy. It’s equivalent to burning books because your infinite sized library needs more space.

  8. jpm says:

    “You’ve got people randomly making up what they think is important and then writing whatever, day in and day out, and then being able to mess with everyone ELSE’s idea of what’s important, and then everyone can stomp around everyone else’s sand castle until either a topic is so boring and obscure nobody else wants to touch it, or they lock the thing down and flip out if anyone messes with it, especially if that subject or person is in the news.”

    You’re an a**-hat and a troll. This is the definition of ALL recordings. This is not Wikipedia. It is every single recording initiative ever. NGM, Britannica, anything. The only difference is that you don’t like that it’s more open than your average reference library. Everybody gets a say on what to add, surely not ideal, but Wikipedia does as good a job as anyone could of flagging bad articles. It’s was never advertised as a definite source for anything (that’s what a reference section is for).

    I agree that article deletion shouldn’t delete the history of an article but merely state that the article is part of a dungeon for unwanted info. But the rest of your article is a hissy-fit of YouTube comment-troll proportions.

    • Jason Scott says:

      Wait, what letters are under the **?

      • Michael. says:

        A**-hat. Ate-hat? Maybe it was meant to be hat-hat (like a certain character from the Discworld) and the first a got transposed? Ape-hat? Aye-hat? The list goes on!

        Ah hem.

        I, unlike you Scott, do like Wikipedia. Well, rather I like the idea of an Internet Encyclopedia that anyone can edit anyway. But this is a perfect example of where Wikipedia went wrong. My solution is to promote the idea of decentralised and federated subject specific encyclopedias (actually decentralised and federated is my solution to most Internet/Web related issues). I notice that at the Vintage Computing article you link to, this is basically what the author is asking on this topic. What’s really needed is Wikipedia to be willing to link to these subject specific sites though. And I don’t see that happening.

    • The Warezwolf says:

      hahaha, they’re doing their best over there! Everyone gets a say!

    • Erik says:

      I’m nominating you for PfD – Persons for Deletion. If two more people say yes, you’ll be terminated. Have a good day.

  9. […] Read the Full Text of, “The Quiet Wikideath of BBS History” by Jason Scott (via ASCII Weblog) […]

  10. Nobody says:

    It’s “ass-hat”, you fucking ass-hats.

  11. Hi Jason. I’m wondering what, if anything, you have on a store-and-forward BBS from the 1990s called OneNet. I was on its Board, but haven’t heard much about it in years.

  12. jas says:

    Can you scan those boardwatch mags? nobody else will do it

  13. Orion Blastar says:

    The Space Empire article in question got six keep votes and three delete votes. The keep votes won but they deleted the article anyway. It is not even a vote or democracy anymore, not even an encyclopedia but a cancer.

    • blandekic says:

      Can you provide a link where I can get these stats from? I am not that familiar with how Wikipedia works so I’m not certain I could dig it up myself! 🙁 I would like to follow up on this topic further…

  14. kittent says:

    I hadn’t realized wikipedia had gotten so bad. If they are deleting articles just because they want to, they don’t deserve to be the keepers of information. I missed the BBS era, but go ahead and try to explain usenet to someone who has never used anything but a browser…Try to explain the importance of PLATO…I ran across this via The Digital Reader and I totally appreciate your efforts. Scan away brother…find a Librarian to help!

    • blandekic says:

      I’m a bit confused by your logic. If I offered you a warm apartment so you don’t have to freeze to death but made the stipulation that you can’t bring friends over, would you say that it’s not worth living there at all? That is sort of what Jason is saying about Wikipedia. Yes they delete articles, yes they do it even when keep votes outnumber delete votes, yes European sceners deleted American scener articles, but the vast majority of information stored on Wikipedia is mostly accurate and serves a wonderful purpose of being a jumping off point for people who are even seriously studying some subject. Even if 20% of articles got deleted (which is nowhere near the actual numbers) it would still be totally worth as a FREE resource. They don’t even have ads for crying out loud! You and Jason are both using faulty logic here! I agree fully with Jason that is a disgrace history is “lost” when Wikipedia stuff is deleted, but thanks to Wikipedia I have discovered, for example, the chips used on original Sound Blaster boards, I’ve found out things about various WWIV community members. Maybe due to deletion I missed out on a few things, but the vast majority of stuff I was interested in I was able to get at least a start on.

      I was originally set to hate Wikipedia after reading Jason’s powerful words, I was overwhelmed by the emotion of being wronged when stuff important to me got deleted, but then I had a breather and I seriously thought about it. It’s like saying that it’s useless to use the Internet from China because it’s heavily censored. It’s not, it’s still very useful! Same logic applies here. I wish Jason could see that.

  15. I appreciate Wikipedia for what it is, AND I acknowledge serious problems with it. Those problems are not only about deletion, but also about adding and editing material.

    I liked this article when it came out, and I think you might too. Jaron Lanier on what he calls “digital Maoism”. For those who want a summary, the epigram covers things: “The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?”

    —Michael B.

  16. Nick S says:

    I call it ‘The Dickipedia Effect’.

    I’ve seen it deployed on a different target, but one that’s relevant to Jason’s interests — self-important Wikipedia assholes have repeatedly deleted articles on Leslie Harpold, on bullshit ‘notability’ criteria, mainly because her personal site archives dropped off the web after her death. When some snot-nosed scrote finishes tweaking a 5,000 word piece on a minor anime character then decides to summarily AfD a writeup on one of the pioneering writers for the web, I get pissed off.

    The Wikipedia-as-gospel tendency, with its rolling imposition of the canonical, is insidious and unhealthy. I think we need people doing historical analysis on archives, which includes social history on people’s memories of these digital artefacts as well as quantitive work (as I mentioned to Jason at XOXO) but that’s a process that depends upon having multiple narratives in an ongoing conversation.

    • blandekic says:

      I’ve never heard of Leslie Harpold, thank you for that, I’ll go some digging around.

      I would also get annoyed from the things you wrote, but even when that is the case, Wikipedia still remains a good source of info on anime characters, does it not? So it still serves a purpose, just not the one you are interested in. So it is still highly useful, even without stuff on Leslie.

  17. ckoerner says:

    I think you should work for Wikipedia. Or, at the very least, someone there should be listening. I don’t think your interests and other folks who share similarly excluded interests should feel frustrated by Wikipedia. It’s not in their interest to have knowledge and information _not_ pouring in, retained for all.

  18. kittent: “try to explain usenet to someone who has never used anything but a browser”

    True, but at least Usenet can speak for itself. You can always link to Google’s archive.

    BBSing was an entirely separate event in world history, one that obviously doesn’t make itself available as an archive automatically.

    You know what would be really cool, actually: setting up classic BBS’s as virtual machines available via telnet. I don’t mean real active ones, but classic ones. It would be like an interactive museum, and get around the problem of how to archive the experience.

    However, I really doubt anybody has saved all that.

  19. […] who hide behind the doctrine of “notability” continues to befuddle me. Jason Scott has written extensively on this topic over the years, and I find myself falling more in line with his […]

  20. […] Scott: The Quiet Wikideath of BBS History (Dec. 7, […]

  21. Maybe one answer is to start concerted efforts to start proposing AfD over and over again across the board. On every article that can be found. Barack Obama? AfD the muthafucka. The wikipedia article on wikipedia? AfD it. over and over again until the AfD asshats reap what they’ve sown.

  22. Donncha says:

    Thanks Jason – I’ve looked in the past but could never find my old Fidonet BBS mentioned anywhere but this afternoon I found it mentioned in this nodediff from 1995.

    Great post, I wish I had been forward looking enough to archive more of my BBS logs. I was lucky enough to restore most of my C64 stuff but there’s a chunk of my digital life from the mid to late 90’s that’s missing. It never occurred to me that grabbing a screenshot or two from my BBSes of choice would be a useful thing to do ..

  23. globalfax says:

    When I was a wee one, my first orgies of windows, pre-tabbed browsing, came from — does any sizeable population still discover this place? I thought it was an amazing way to combine what is explicitly a plurality of views on a plurality of topics, with contributions from both subjective and objective angles. I often bring this up in discussions over the perceived ‘authority’ of Wikipedia articles. Each article speaks as a single agent with an implied guild with (like what this article describes) its own undercurrents of politics. Yes, this is all more or less public if you dig, but I believe it still has an effect on the way people perceive contents’ veracity and even (like what this article describes) subjects’ validity.

    Where is the line (or diffence in evolutionary time-directions) between encyclopedia and a compendium of views on any given key? some constructed boundary between knowledge and experience?

    I sense this is the sort of teleological ivory building meta articles like “eventualism,” I wouldn’t know myself, I just ask Auntie Wikipedia. Even Uncle Google believes her yarns, sleeps under afghans of them.

  24. […] Articles for deletion on Wikipedia. […]

  25. blandekic says:

    Oh dear Jason, where to start.

    I absolutely agree with your displeasure over things that are emotionally and personally important to you, and to a vast many of us from the BBS days. And I do see the problems you are describing, they are serious and are somewhat easy to solve technically. My view on things isn’t about saying “fuck” and ignoring them, I like to solve problems using technology, so I had an idea about how to approach your concerns.

    Wikipedia needs to keep track of AfD requests first of all. If a user requests the same articles, or heck, they could even track it on a “topical” basis (so say WWIV related articles), and if those articles are deemed to be kept, then this behavior should be labelled as abusive and the account can be suspended! This is done regularly for spam anyway, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to implement on a wiki. This would solve the same person requesting the same article to be deleted over and over. The logic could be extended so that if anyone suggests deleting something that has been repeatedly voted as a keep item, so a user couldn’t simply decide to get a new account!

    This would be a social way to indicate that a particular article is important to enough people that they are willing to mark it as keep, thus implying it’s important to humanity and needs to be maintained. A very simple approach I think, no? I think that would address the majority of what bothers you.

    The only way to defeat it, is to organize a huge posse at the start of the AfD process and crowdkill an article! So if someone could organize, say, 100 people, yes an article could still wind up getting deleted. But that is the same problem as when interest groups lobby the government to change the law one way or another, and there are already perfectly useful processes that could be applied in an online environment to deal with such abuse so I won’t waste my time explaining them.

    Now for the hate in your entry. I was overwhelmed with emotion when I read your entry and turned to the dark side, and I even said “Fuck Wikipedia” and thought about not using it anymore. Your words are very powerful, even more so because I fully agree with them. But then I thought about it after relaxing with some good tunes, and I think you are wrong in dismissing all of it. It would be like throwing an entire egg carton because 2 eggs were broken, wouldn’t it? Maybe Wikipedia isn’t kind to the BBS and maybe even the American demo scene, or other topics you don’t know about. But the vast majority of what is on there is useful, informative, and at the very least, provides a starting point for other research! It not only has it’s uses, it can even help you out with your desires of preserving what mattered to you when you were younger. Try not to take a black and white attitude with tools, no matter how much actions of others hurt you. Wikipedia is here to stay, and I hope so is

    p.s. linked from your main site, does not load as of 30 minutes ago. I get an error “web site not found” and when I look up the DNS records on a few name servers, they do not exist. So either you’re having some big issues, or you should remove the link from your front page? :-/

  26. Not a big Wikipedia fan here. I think the problem with a “by the user” type of data source is exactly what you talk about in your article.. We could band together quickly and 7 days from now knock out random pages and excerpts before people can put a stop to it.

    Especially with BBSers and BBSing in general. I’m kind of shocked and borderline disgusted that when I search for it online I find almost NOTHING. I spent the better part of a childhood (70s child) BBS’ing from the crappy 300 baud days on up. To see the thousands of hours I spent on my WWiV site summarized in a 1 page wiki article makes me regurgitate a little bit in my house.

    The modern day computer kids have nothing on what the BBS generation got out of it. Sure, technology is stronger, faster, blah blah.. But the average user of it is borderline dim and their use of the technology (aka pressing screen in Angry Birds or w/e app du jour) is laughable compared to what previous generations did with their tech. Sure, some exceptions and amazingly bright spots in the tech world.. But the average is a button smashing baboon.

    The only way for BBSers and BBSing in general to receive it’s due, it for the people who were a part of that time to step up and make some kind of effort. Your site Jason and Josh’s site @ Break Into Chat are great examples of making that effort. I hope the forums I’m working on will be another resource for daily chatter and a way for BBSers to show their sites off and what they are doing now, some 15-20 years later.

    It’s in all of our hands. Fuck Wikipedia. What, we can’t all come together and knock this out ourselves? I call BS!