Life in the vast lane

Yesterday I not only learned that my Wikipedia entry was nominated for deletion, but that Tara Hunt‘s went through the same process a while back — and failed to survive. She’s still here in the physical world, still on the rest of the Web, but gone from Wikipedia.

I’m also sure her experience with Wikipedia deletion — being marched to the gallows by a finger-pointing Wikipedian, then standing there while the gathered crowd gave a thumbs-down before the trap door dropped — was reason alone to write The Whuffie Factor, a forthcoming book that comprises the entire Usage section of Wikipedia’s whuffie entry. There is a link for Tara there, and for the book too. You can follow Tara’s to the deletion log, where you’ll find records of its execution. The book is graced with pure potential: it has no entry yet.

I’m impressed at how well Tara took her sentence, while awaiting her entry’s execution:

There are oodles of entries on Wikipedia like this, though. Debatable ‘notables’, some who obviously do use their pages as their resumé, many people who have, obviously, accomplished a lot in their lifetime, but who are not widely known for these accomplishments and missing any ‘notable third party sources’. Others I searched for are nowhere to be found, who are well-known authors, presenters, inventors and real thought leaders. But they haven’t been quoted or featured by some national publication to be verified as mattering to history. And all judgements on “delete” or “keep” are still made by a handful of individuals.
Is Wikipedia the people’s encyclopedia? Well, no. Not really. I mean, it gets closer than the Encyclopedia Britannica, but it uses similar editorial guidelines. Its advantage is that there are more sources (people) to add entries so that it can grow and encompass knowledge faster than the small, paid editorial team at EB. But I don’t think it was meant to be the people’s encyclopedia and this is where our tempers run high.
I could think, “I’m being deleted? What do these jerks know about my accomplishments?” and be personally offended and upset by this. But Wikipedia is no measure of my worth. It’s an encyclopedia that is editable and online. Period.
Should there be an encyclopedia of people? Well, there is already. It includes the internet, but extends into phonebooks, government records and personal anecdotes. Maybe we can’t all be written into history like we want to be, but know that this is a century’s old issue: History is not ‘a fact’, it is a point of view. History has been written by a small percentage of the population over time and, because of ‘scaling problems’, will probably continue in the same fashion.

Fine points, gracefully delivered.

I think the main problem for Wikipedia isn’t just scaling. It’s that Wikipedia is worst at something it is also best at: dealing with living subjects. On the one hand I’m astonished at how well Wikipedia stays on top of changing topics such as the world’s tallest structures. (Here’s a second entry, and a third.) On the other I’ve often winced at how lousy Wikipedia can be at presenting accurate biographical information about living people (Dave Winer comes to mind), and at maintaining both accuracy and neutrality on topics such as, well, neutrality. Too much of what gets written are iterative errors and approximations by partisans.

That’s why I’ve always been happy enough with a Wikipedia stub. Soon as you get past the minimal, errors and approximations set in.

All of reality is a work in progress. Especially the tiny corner of the universe that supports life. We need to remember that the Net is still new, the Web is even newer. That both have profound effects on life is undeniable. But it’s a few seconds after the Big Bang and all we have a few light elements, a lot of heat, and no galaxies. The best we can do, as Kurt Vonnegut taught, is just to be kind to each other.

5 comments

  1. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Your mention of Kurt Vonnegut trigged one of the oddest things I worry about…. There’s a real live person named John Figler, who wrote to Kurt Vonnegut when he was alive, and summarized his work in the sentence:

    “Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail.”

    Because of the way books work… some people assumed that Vonnegut invented the writer of the letter… but in fact he’s a real person.

    It’s odd, but I worry about it…

  2. jr’s avatar

    I sometimes wonder why there is even a delete button on wikipedia. It’s not like it has to be pruned down to fit in some dead tree edition some where. All that wikipedia should be concerned with is the information provided should be accurate. Giving the thumbs up or thumbs down is so last century.

  3. Don Marti’s avatar

    If the deletionists were right, there would be some infrequently-used articles suffering wiki rot — getting out of date or full of crap. If there’s no wiki rot, why delete?

    Or is Wikipedia deletionist just the subtle, evolved form of Internet Troll?

  4. Kathy Sierra’s avatar

    Being a “living person” with a wikipedia entry is not a good thing. Wikipedia has an excellent policy on “biography of living persons”, that includes issues like protecting the dignity of the person, respecting their privacy, and not having tabloid-style info… but there’s no good mechanism for ensuring the policy is even known to editors let alone read and followed.

    In my opinion, the best thing that could happen to a living, non-celebrity bio is deletion. Or for Wikipedia to put far tighter controls on who is allowed to edit a living person bio… that would help. I’ve met a whole lot of people lately who have had some pretty awful things done to their Wikipedia bios, none of which would appear to most of us as obvious vandalism.

    One big problem is that people reading/discovering Wikipedia entries often take them far more seriously than the editors (i.e. “the crowds”) do. It’s not that I don’t trust “the crowd”, but “the crowd” has far better things to do than stay on top of one tech blogger’s bio.

    That said, if you end up being deemed Not Notable Enough and yet my page remains, something has gone ridiculously wrong with the system. My page was originally added (by Rogers Cadenhead, in a well-meaning attempt to “get more women in Wikipedia”) because of my Java books, which all combined have had a fraction of the impact of Cluetrain, your work on VRM, etc. Makes no sense.

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