Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet
February 28, 2020 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Remember when Wikipedia was a joke? In its first decade of life, the website appeared in as many punch lines as headlines. The Office's Michael Scott called it “the best thing ever,” because “anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject—so you know you are getting the best possible information.” Praising Wikipedia, by restating its mission, meant self-identifying as an idiot. That was in 2007....
posted by growabrain (88 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
The hagiography, it burns.

In many ways, Wikipedia is a project that succeeded in spite of itself. Its administration is Byzantine, its culture dominated by white male editors, its issues with diversity well documented, its inability to properly engage with GamerGate a black mark on the project's good name...I could continue to go on, but I think the point has been made. The modern lack of trust in Wikipedia is not a remnant of past criticism, but the result of an encyclopedia that takes more care with pop culture ephemera than in documenting the achievements of women in many fields.

To put it bluntly - if Wikipedia truly was "the last best place on the internet", this article would never have been written.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:06 AM on February 28 [37 favorites]


So nice of the article to acknowledge the racism and sexism issues in one whole paragraph, capped by a sentence blowing them off as self-correcting because "the rise of feminist edit-athons" will surely solve the "trolling, doxing, hacking, death threats" suffered by most active editors who are not straight white and male.
posted by Karmakaze at 10:14 AM on February 28 [15 favorites]


Everyone here knows what the last, best place on the internet really is.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:15 AM on February 28 [33 favorites]


That's right. https://html5zombo.com/
posted by LeDiva at 10:20 AM on February 28 [49 favorites]


I got arrested for trying to scrape all of Wikipedia. I was like, "Wait, I can explain everything!"
posted by aspersioncast at 10:29 AM on February 28 [46 favorites]


The modern lack of trust in Wikipedia is not a remnant of past criticism, but the result of an encyclopedia that takes more care with pop culture ephemera than in documenting the achievements of women in many fields.

If you want a true glimpse of Wikipedia's priorities (such as they are), take a look at the page for any professional wrestler. And then realize that they used to be significantly longer a few years back, before a campaign to get rid of entire sections like "Frequently Used Moves" and "Feuds".
posted by Etrigan at 10:31 AM on February 28 [10 favorites]


The racism and sexism complaints have not actually detracted much from Wikipedia.
posted by floam at 10:45 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


I guess I don't feel Wikipedia needs to really get into the weeds about wrestling feuds. Moreover there are almost certainly fan wikis that are exhaustive on that topic. Frankly I wish Wikipedia would try to focus more on general interest stuff. For instance there isn't a math article that isn't impenetrable to all but subject matter experts. People who want Wolfram MathWorld know where to find it.

But yes, it recently took a Nobel Prize for a female scientist to be deemed worthy of an article (who, BTW, was still an associate professor, so that probably already felt pretty familiar to her). They do have to stop people from putting their resumes up on Wikipedia, but their judgement here is notoriously bad.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:54 AM on February 28 [7 favorites]


Wikipedia, seen from a distance, is like the universe's biggest rubber band ball. It's a tense, tangled, planet-sized thing that manages to be both uniquely impressive and intensely boring.

The trick is to look at it close up. Wikipedia, in miniature, can be wonderful. Find a little corner of it, some semi-obscure topic or local thing that you care about, and make it better.

A really nice thing to do for a local non-profit that you care about, for example, is to create a Wikipedia page if they don't have one. It'll quickly rise to the top of the Google results for that organization, and helps legitimize them in the eyes of anyone searching for more information.
posted by oulipian at 10:57 AM on February 28 [14 favorites]


I would heartily recommend all of you become more active in editing Wikimedia Foundation projects. If anyone wants help, please let me know.
posted by koavf at 10:58 AM on February 28 [12 favorites]


In my work with community college students, I used to ask them to avoid Wikipedia in their research and find more reputable sources. I quickly discovered that they had no damn idea what a reputable source is or where to find one, so with Wikipedia off limits they started citing CocaineJoesFactShack.com or ObamaIsAGayMuslimAtheist.net and the general quality of their assignments plummeted to new, previously theoretical lows. My time is limited, and I can only devote a certain amount of it to teaching remedial media literacy rather than the actual content of my courses, so I grudgingly removed Wikipedia from my blacklist. Does it have biases, omissions, and errors? Definitely. Is it better than a significant percentage of the crap that ordinary people would otherwise turn to for information? Yes, yes, yes, and again I say yes. I repent of my previous Wikipedia hate. It could be so much worse.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:59 AM on February 28 [44 favorites]


They do have to stop people from putting their resumes up on Wikipedia

Do they really, though?

The problem with spending more than a tiny amount of time worrying about "low quality" articles that nobody is ever going to see is, the deletionist policies that kind of worrying spawns end up being inherently susceptible to abuse. "Notability" and such will always tend to give cover for bad faith actors deleting things they don't like under a false pretense of "just following policy".

I'd much rather a hundred shitty stub articles about not very noteworthy people than yet another go-round of "this [not a straight white guy] isn't notable, deleted".
posted by tocts at 11:02 AM on February 28 [19 favorites]


My time is limited, and I can only devote a certain amount of it to teaching remedial media literacy rather than the actual content of my courses, so I grudgingly removed Wikipedia from my blacklist.

My kids' teachers (middle and high school) seem to have adopted the stance that Wikipedia is not a citeable source itself, but have pointed to it as a good place to start looking for other sources on a subject.
posted by Etrigan at 11:08 AM on February 28 [18 favorites]


Wikipedia, like all things human, is fallible. But still, there's a lot of good stuff there.
posted by valkane at 11:23 AM on February 28 [6 favorites]


My kids' teachers (middle and high school) seem to have adopted the stance that Wikipedia is not a citeable source itself, but have pointed to it as a good place to start looking for other sources on a subject.

And funnily enough "no original research" is/was the organizing principle of WP itself!
posted by rhizome at 11:25 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]


For instance there isn't a math article that isn't impenetrable to all but subject matter experts.

Thank you. I am a seriously interested math amateur and I can't read a section in any given math-adjacent article without being forced to open 3 new tabs for concepts I'm not familiar with, each (of course) thousands of words and formulas long. So it's effectively impossible to actually finish any article unless you already understand "mathematics" in its entirety. It's like trying to slay the hydra.

Also, I spent several academic years under the dictum "Don't use Wikipedia for your papers" and never made the connection that I could still read the articles and then read and cite all the source citations within the articles. Wikipedia itself is search-friendly and usually tops in google results; it's much more difficult to find relevant papers without going through wikipedia first, unless (again) you already know what you're doing.
posted by smokysunday at 11:26 AM on February 28 [15 favorites]


A really nice thing to do for a local non-profit that you care about, for example, is to create a Wikipedia page if they don't have one. It'll quickly rise to the top of the Google results for that organization, and helps legitimize them in the eyes of anyone searching for more information.

Oh, this is one of those little known or mentioned bits about Wikipedia's success - Google boosting their PageRank to increase their visibility.

I would heartily recommend all of you become more active in editing Wikimedia Foundation projects. If anyone wants help, please let me know.

Allow me to heartily say fuck that noise. Why would I ever donate my time and labor to an organization that I consider to be poorly run, with endemic issues with sexism and racism? I find the strategy by Wikimedia to respond to criticism with "then you should give us your labor" to be both offensive and tonedeaf. Clean your house first, then we can talk.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:32 AM on February 28 [16 favorites]


The problem I have with wikipedia is that it is so easy for dedicated bad actors to exploit. There is, for example, one man whose wikipedia entry has him as a shining model of community activism and entirely ignores his jail sentence for defrauding the inmates of an old people's home he ran. He watches it constantly, and cleans off any references to his crimes. Obviously, the effort is worth far more to him than to anyone with a knowledge of the story but no real desire to get in a long pissing match with a sociopath. But anything which so enables a Trumpist attitude towards historical truth is going to be unreliable when it deals with individuals.
posted by alloneword at 11:49 AM on February 28 [13 favorites]


I would never suggest that people log in anonymously to edit Wikipedia pages such as oh to pick one at random "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MetaFilter" or whatever, because that could lead to shenanigans.

Way back in 2006 I got an email out of the blue from Jimmy Wales. Someone had argued with him that vetting credentials for Wikipedia editors was impossible, so he picked me at random to ask whether I could verify the education I listed in my profile. I replied with a link to my published PhD dissertation. It is my one tenuous Wikipedia claim to fame. (I expect that he emailed more than just me, but hey, it felt neat to have an Internet Celebrity contact me personally.)
posted by caution live frogs at 11:59 AM on February 28 [8 favorites]


If you want a true glimpse of Wikipedia's priorities (such as they are), take a look at the page for any professional wrestler. And then realize that they used to be significantly longer a few years back, before a campaign to get rid of entire sections like "Frequently Used Moves" and "Feuds".

I would think such articles are written and have so much depth because they are written by an aggregate of folks who super-duper care about that subject. If yo think Wikipedia is lacking in any area, it might be because you know and care enough about it to know better than the article -- which could mean your expertise would be a worthwhile contribution.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:03 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]


I repent of my previous Wikipedia hate. It could be so much worse.

I think this article kinda isn't for us, Very Online people many of whom know a lot of the stories behind the stories about Wikipedia. I'm a regular editor of Wikipedia and have been for 15 years. This year, I have added articles for every state library association that didn't have one (N=30-ish). This is how I keep the winter blues away. In doing so I got to have a platform to voice some of the issues about my chosen profession, librarianship, that haven't seen the light of day until recently (the racism that used to permeate the profession even more than it does now) mostly locked up in journal articles that no one read. Being able to pull a sentence or two out of an article about the history of Jim Crow in Alabama and let people know how it affected library associations is worthwhile. When I talk to people about using Wikipedia, I mostly talk about going to the sources, many of which are very good.

And this is true even though Wikipedia in some real ways, sucks and is getting better too slowly. The Women in Red project is incredible. When you see the sheer number of articles about notable women that they are able to add on a monthly basis it both gives you an idea of the scope of the problem (why were these women not there?) but also the scope of Wikipedia (you can add dozens of articles about women daily and there's still so much work to do).

It also gives you an idea about nerd culture. The people who squat on articles to keep them the way they want them. The people who literally do nothing but fix typos using bots, or add categories to pages. The people who hate the whole thing because one article is wrong, was wrong. The vandals. The people who had a bad experience and never went back. I am often like that with Reddit. The bad parts are bad enough I don't even want to participate in the good parts. But I often wind up there anyhow because it's so big and, in a lot of ways, so much of the internet. Wikipedia is also like that. I spent a lot of time in the bit mines there (I've been an employee, a Wikimedia Foundation advisor, a volunteer, a trainer) and while I go in and out of how much time I spend there, it's a place I like to put my efforts, not because it's perfectly aligned with my values, it very much isn't, but because I can do useful work there that does help me otherwise kick the ball down the field of making the internet the way I want.
posted by jessamyn at 12:05 PM on February 28 [67 favorites]


I would think such articles are written and have so much depth because they are written by an aggregate of folks who super-duper care about that subject.

Yes, that's the point. People who care about pro wrestling (who tend to skew male) aren't pushed off and don't see their work diminished, while people who care about female American authors (who tend to skew female) are pushed off and do see their work routinely denigrated. Who gets to stay matters.

If yo think Wikipedia is lacking in any area, it might be because you know and care enough about it to know better than the article -- which could mean your expertise would be a worthwhile contribution.

Again, this sort of response is both offensive and tonedeaf. "Give us your labor to fix our fuckups" is not an acceptable response to criticism.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:11 PM on February 28 [11 favorites]


If you want a true glimpse of Wikipedia's priorities (such as they are), take a look at the page for any professional wrestler. And then realize that they used to be significantly longer a few years back, before a campaign to get rid of entire sections like "Frequently Used Moves" and "Feuds".

I would think such articles are written and have so much depth because they are written by an aggregate of folks who super-duper care about that subject.


Yes, but the flip side of that is that -- as alluded to by sjswitzer -- the very existence of a page on Donna Strickland was deemed unworthy by the authorities of Wikipedia right up until her Nobel Prize was announced.
posted by Etrigan at 12:13 PM on February 28 [13 favorites]


All of the criticisms above are 100% accurate and on point. I am in my 15th year on the wiki, but these days I cannot recommend participating on Wikipedia to anyone, EVEN white straight American men with stereotypical white straight male American interests.

Many of the project's problems have been aggravated by the deletionist reign of terror that began as an overreaction to the project's unexpected jump in popularity in the mid 2000s but is now in its second decade with no sign of slowing down. Even without all the other issues, how could I recommend creating content for a project where even the most conscientious new contributors face a substantial risk of being dragged through a deletion process that is traumatic and draining even when it does not result in one's best efforts being simply thrown in the trash?

It's hard to get a grasp on just how deep Wikipedia's problems are. One illuminating moment came at an Art+Feminism editathon where the organizers played a Wikimedia Foundation video whose creator apparently decided that the best way to turn the page on sexism would be to pivot to ableism, serving up some of the ugliest anti-Aspie stereotypes I've ever personally been on the receiving end of. That was the end of editathons, and of any hope that the WMF would save us, for me.

And yet. Taking stock lately of my lifetime of dead ends, I realized that my Wikipedia contributions have had by far the most lasting value to other humans out of anything else I've tried to accomplish. So I've come to the conclusion, on a personal level, that Wikipedia is simply too important to walk away from with a clear conscience. I hope to spend my remaining available time trying to make whatever little corner of the wiki I find myself in somewhat less terrible and more useful for other humans.

I don't claim to have much hope, but then hope is pretty scarce in general these days.
posted by Not A Thing at 12:28 PM on February 28 [21 favorites]


If yo think Wikipedia is lacking in any area, it might be because you know and care enough about it to know better than the article -- which could mean your expertise would be a worthwhile contribution.

Oh yay, a chance to argue with rules-lawyering nerds who have no particular expertise on the subject I would be handling? That sounds just super-fun. For example, if you do structural welding you are indebted to Omer Blodgett. If you do structural welding and don't know who he is, then I question your expertise in structural welding.

Does he have an entry? Of course not. Will he? Not by my hand, because I have actual things to do in life beyond trying to figure out which opaque rule I broke or personal vendetta I've inspired by virtue of trying to care about something other than Pokemon phyla and the specifics of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
posted by aramaic at 1:17 PM on February 28 [15 favorites]


I've written a few articles for wikipedia. Haven't done so in a while, because I simply don't have the time at the moment. It's a very time-consuming hobby. You don't just have to research your topic, but also how the community works to pick the right fights and don't waste time on the useless ones. And that might explain some of Wikipedia's problems with diversity. Who has the leisure and energy?

But when I do have the leisure and energy, I do think wiki is a worthwhile use of it. Even knowing how the sausage is made ( I certainly won't defend wiki against any of the accusations of racism and sexism brought up already), wiki is still my first stop whenever I want to get a quick general idea of something or need to refresh my memory (and a popular choice when I'm desperate to procrastinate). I use it pretty much daily and have gotten so many hours of entertainment out of it, I feel a certain obligation to give back. Like Jessamyn, I really do think I can do useful work there.
posted by sohalt at 1:53 PM on February 28 [6 favorites]


Why not write a Omer Blodgett article and defend it?
posted by floam at 2:13 PM on February 28


Why not write a Omer Blodgett article and defend it?

I charge my clients $200/hour, where do I send the bill? I'll throw in a slight discount for time spent learning the intricacies of the editing system ($150/hr), but I'm gonna need $250/hr for any time spent arguing with editors.
posted by aramaic at 2:22 PM on February 28 [7 favorites]


Two minutes on Google is enough to see that an article on Omer Blodgett would stick. There are multiple non-trivial independent articles about Omer Blodgett the man and any number of references to his professional work.
posted by StephenB at 2:49 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


Well, he's a white man, so maybe so. But hardly worth the bother given the chances of being harassed by some passing deletionist.
posted by tavella at 2:52 PM on February 28 [5 favorites]


I readily acknowledge that Wikipedia has tons of problems - some of which I have run up against directly (rules lawyering), but I still value it tremendously. It's the first place I turn for information about just about anything I'm curious about, from movies to visual artists to software.

I've had the pleasure of making small contributions, too - lots of fixing typos, fixing bad links, fixing odd wording, but I've also contributed a page (about jazz musician Marcus Shelby) that's seen a number of revisions but nothing major, and no deletion.

It's one of many things in the world today where I feel like it's easy to look at it and throw up your hands in exasperation at all the problems ... but it really does have genuine value for a lot of people (myself included), and - while I 100% understand choosing not to spend time contributing if you have reason to believe your contributions will be removed - I think Wikipedia IS something that makes the world, overall, a better place, and something I can make a little bit better if I have five minutes between projects.

I guess, to me, this is one of the big questions in my life right now: what brings good to the world, and can I nurture that, at all, in a way that feels right to me?

With Wikipedia - like with Postcards to Voters - I do feel like I can help a bit to maybe make the world a tiny bit better. All things are imperfect. Some things are deeply imperfect. But to me, Wikipedia's good outweighs the bad, and I'd rather see it be a bit better, if I can.
posted by kristi at 2:54 PM on February 28 [16 favorites]


I wrote about Omer Blodgett. Anyone who wants to is welcome to improve it.

The biggest hurdle to getting anything done on Wikipedia are the people who review new articles and find reasons to not approve them. This is a huge problem as Not A Thing references upthread. At some point, I'm not even sure how, I wound up with some level of privs which mean I can just write articles that don't go through that particular nerd gauntlet. And then they grow, slowly, and become harder to delete. Very occasionally I've waded into the fight to keep an article by someone else from being deleted; it's super not fun and I've seen all sorts of bad behavior. Being an old-timer at least people don't (usually) lecture me as if I just got there. But I've also got this sort of equanimity which means if they do I am usually okay walking away I know not everyone is like this.

Which is just another way of saying "Hey if I can help you with a thing, let me know."
posted by jessamyn at 2:59 PM on February 28 [41 favorites]


I get all the pushback on the deletionists, I really do. But something has to keep Wikipedia from becoming a worse version of Myspace. The process and policies could absolutely be better, but there needs to be process and policies.

There's a balance to be struck and the negotiation over that balance will last until they unplug the last server.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:00 PM on February 28 [6 favorites]


Kickass Jessamyn!
posted by floam at 3:00 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]


but there needs to be process and policies

But does that process need to center around "notability", which is fraught with issues like "notable to who"? Wikipedia could instead take a stance that an article can be about any verifiable subject.
posted by Pyry at 3:15 PM on February 28 [8 favorites]


Allow me to heartily say fuck that noise. Why would I ever donate my time and labor to an organization that I consider to be poorly run, with endemic issues with sexism and racism?

This is why I don't vote.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:32 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]


any verifiable subject

What's to stop the creation of an article about me or something I care about that doesn't matter?
posted by floam at 3:58 PM on February 28


Can you clarify? Do you mean "I don't want to be on Wikipedia, but what's stopping somebody from putting up an article about me anyway"? Or do you mean "I'm not important enough to be on Wikipedia"?
posted by Pyry at 4:19 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


I donate my time and money to Wikipedia. I'm not going to stop. Someday things will be better if we don't give up.
posted by hat_eater at 4:23 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]


I get all the pushback on the deletionists, I really do. But something has to keep Wikipedia from becoming a worse version of Myspace.

After the way Wikipedia failed to handle Gamergate properly, this argument holds no truck with me. Wikipedia leadership refused to acknowledge how the site was being weaponized against their targets, so the argument that deletion is necessary to protect Wikipedia's reputation is laughable - that test got failed miserably. Besides, the deletion policies (or more specifically, treating deletion as a vital action instead of as a necessary evil to be done as a last resort) were yet another one of Jimbo Wales' half-assed attempts to chase credibility.

I'm very much in agreement with Mark Bernstein's point made here - Wikipedia as it stands is unsalvagable, because the people with the power to actually right the ship have no desire to do so,and in fact will stop such attempts. Sometimes, the rot is so complete, you have to start over.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:29 PM on February 28 [6 favorites]


Pyry: I shouldn't have an entry in an encyclopedia, but there are people who want one for themselves not to help others learn things but for their own reasons. I guess they want articles published for things they care about because... they have lousy perspective? They see other things with articles and feel it's not fair? Their feelings are hurt or they are upset by others saying no after they invested time.

I think there needs to be a high bar. It's an encyclopedia.
posted by floam at 4:58 PM on February 28


Regarding the whole Well Obviously There Have To Be Rules thing, it seems worth pointing out that Wikipedia article creation rates fell off a cliff around 2007 (and have kept falling ever since), which corresponds closely to the time when notability began to be heavily (mis)applied as grounds for deletion rather than merging. (To be sure, various other problematic "we'd better slow this whole thing down" systems like Articles For Creation, which Jessamyn mentioned, came in around the same time.) Surprisingly, even as Wikipedia's growth continues approaching zero, the rate of growth in human knowledge has not slowed, and by most estimates has in fact increased considerably. So these systems have been an absolute, catastrophic failure, and the only reason this isn't recognized by the community is that most people who would be open to recognizing such an inconvenient fact have long since left.

There are multiple ways that Wikipedia's race and gender problems aggravate this situation, but I think we shouldn't lose sight of how the deletion process itself has been a honeypot for the dregs of white supremacy and misogyny on Wikipedia. (A certain high-profile recent deletion discussion that I'm disinclined to link to shed some light on this, because all the weird pseudo-legal arguments that are usually marshaled in support of consigning someone else's hard work to eternal flame were suddenly marshaled in favor of keeping a particular article whose only discernible purpose for existing was/is to give rhetorical cover to white supremacists.)
posted by Not A Thing at 5:03 PM on February 28 [20 favorites]


I don't see anything wrong with deleting TV, anime, etc. trivia. There's a whole lot. It shouldn't be used as an excuse to publish more junk.
posted by floam at 5:07 PM on February 28


Wikipedia could instead take a stance that an article can be about any verifiable subject.

What does "verifiable" mean? Where is the line between that and "any noun?"
posted by rhizome at 5:22 PM on February 28


Let's set aside the issue of people posting lies (which is what "verifiable" is meant to cover), supposing that a (truthful) Wikipedia page could be made about literally "any noun", no matter how trivial it seems to you, would that be such a disaster? We aren't running out of bits: storage is cheap and getting exponentially cheaper, and text compresses very efficiently. Why does Wikipedia need to gatekeep which topics are "important"?
posted by Pyry at 5:29 PM on February 28 [10 favorites]


Why does Wikipedia need to gatekeep which topics are "important"?

I said this before, somewhat tongue in cheek, but does your resume or mime need to be up there? There has to be some filter to keep it from becoming Myspace. We can argue over what that filter should be, but we can't seriously argue that there has to be a line can we?

I think this argument is over governance rather than government.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:38 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


If you can provide citations for every element of your CV/resume, well, why not?
posted by Pyry at 5:39 PM on February 28 [6 favorites]


Use LinkedIn or your own website for that. Wikipedia is not the web. The web is the web.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:41 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


Even though I sometimes use it for one, I don't think "dictionary" should be Wikipedia's editorial policy. The word "encyclopedia" still has meaning even if the books themselves no longer have value!
posted by rhizome at 5:50 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


would that be such a disaster?

Yes, it will be gamed and not be trustworthy. We don't want Wikipedia to be geocities and hosting anything. It's an encyclopedia. It does matter if something exists there or not.
posted by floam at 5:57 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


Yes, it will be gamed and not be trustworthy.

Again, that boat sailed long ago. The fact that you're more concerned about Wikipedia "hosting anything" and not how it's been weaponized to attack women and minorities illustrates the whole problem with Wikipedia today.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:13 PM on February 28 [14 favorites]


Letting tiny villages have Wikipedia articles has not resulted in any disaster. Like, go to the Wikipedia main page in the language of your choice and hit 'Random Article' a bunch and you will discover: notability is totally arbitrary nonsense. And yet, despite all these articles existing for townships of 50 people and 18th century nobodies, Wikipedia has not collapsed. Having a Wikipedia article should not be an award or a status symbol.
posted by Pyry at 6:14 PM on February 28 [15 favorites]


I really hate how every discussion about Wikipedia here turns into a fight about whether it sucks or not. Compared to what? This article does a good job of reminding us that Wikipedia exists in the real world, where the other available sources of information that people turn to have become catastrophically worse.

For anybody who's thinking about contributing to Wikipedia, it's easiest to start by immediately creating an account and building up a history of relatively small, uncontroversial edits in your area(s) of interest. This gives you an easier learning curve while you figure out the enormous amount of technical stuff like templates, images, linking, categories, infoboxes, citation formats, and policies. You do NOT have to submit new articles for review once your account has existed for a certain amount of time and you've made a certain number of edits. Those restrictions are only for very new accounts.

Add your references as you add information. Don't wait to add it in later edits. If your information is cited, it's much more work for ax-grinders to justify deleting it.

Also, since Wikipedia is a vast and fractured community, your area(s) of interest will probably only have a tiny number of editors compared to the site as a whole. You'll be interacting with them a lot, and you should see them as individuals, not a faceless cabal out to get you. By the same token, you as a single individual have an enormous potential to transform the content in a given subject area, even as a infrequent editor.

As difficult and confusing as it is, you can avoid many of the issues that frustrate new editors. If you don't have time to contribute, fine, but being flawed does not make Wikipedia a lost cause or unworthy of your efforts. Those flaws will simply become worse if knowledgeable people stay away, whereas making contributions WILL have a positive impact. That's one of the most satisfying things about editing Wikipedia, is knowing just how much traffic the articles you've worked on are getting, or seeing your content linked/quoted/cited elsewhere on the web.
posted by hyperbolic at 6:17 PM on February 28 [24 favorites]


Those seeking peer-reviewed secondary sources on the interplay between the "notability" dysfunction and misogyny on Wikipedia might be interested in this paper: Not notable enough: feminism and expertise in Wikipedia.
posted by Not A Thing at 6:21 PM on February 28 [8 favorites]




That is amazing dedication on your part, pledging to repost your comment
posted by floam at 6:46 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter would probably enjoy:
Citation Needed, from the Technical Difficulties and Two Of These People Are Lying | The Technical Difficulties.

It's Tom Scott (who from what I can tell is a decent guy and one of the UK's "famous" science-y YouTubers if that's a real thing), and a trio of his friends playing odd games with Wikipedia articles.

The first is Tom picks a "random" article and the rest try to fill in details while being funny. The second is the trio each pick a "random" article and Tom tries to figure out who's lying or not.

It's terribly amusing and quite interesting and I've lost track of the times I could have made an FPP about one of the "random" articles and gathered favorites. They're usually hilarious and you learn something new.

So... Wikipedia...despite everything... does have some really good things that have accumulated.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:50 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Again, that boat sailed long ago.

I don't think it's too late to remove a lot of these articles. There are people working on it right now. You can help.
posted by floam at 6:55 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


I really hate how every discussion about Wikipedia here turns into a fight about whether it sucks or not. Compared to what? This article does a good job of reminding us that Wikipedia exists in the real world, where the other available sources of information that people turn to have become catastrophically worse.

Spot on. I use Wikipedia multiple times each day for my work, find it to be reliable in the area in which I use it, link to it often, occasionally make minor updates, and donate yearly. I'm grateful for its existence, despite its problems, particularly because if there were nothing like it, the world would be a poorer place.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:12 PM on February 28 [7 favorites]


That is amazing dedication on your part, pledging to repost your comment

Honestly it's a pledge that holds about as much accountability as Wikipedia pledging to improve their governance
posted by Merus at 7:15 PM on February 28 [9 favorites]


Wikipedia is one of those things where it's easy to find things to complain about, but very difficult to come up with solutions that don't amount to either "find the right people and put them in charge of everything" or "burn it all down". The first doesn't scale to something with a worldwide scope like Wikipedia; the second is pointless, especially without some kind of idea of what would replace it.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 7:28 PM on February 28 [14 favorites]


Preview stopped me from posting a worse version of what A Thousand Baited Hooks said much better than I would have.
posted by sjswitzer at 8:00 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


i mean, we can wail on Facebook helplessly, but we actually have a chance of making Wikipedia better.
posted by sjswitzer at 8:04 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


we actually have a chance of making Wikipedia better.

I was just thinking this. Your Facebook analogy is apt. If Britannica or World Book ruled the internet, there'd be little or nothing any outsiders could do to effect change.

I remember well the sport of "wiki-groaning." I just checked: Emperor Constantine has grown to 11,000 words; Emperor Palpatine has shrunk slightly to 8,000. The other examples have rebalanced in favor of the non-pop-culture topics, too. (Except Gray's Anatomy vs. Grey's Anatomy, which, well, is in its 99 millionth season, so....)
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:42 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


> Wikipedia is one of those things where it's easy to find things to complain about, but very difficult to come up with solutions

Not every complaint must be paired with a proposed solution. It's okay to complain about things that should be better.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:06 PM on February 28 [6 favorites]


It's okay to complain about things that should be better.

That's true, but it's also a program for what Other People should do.
posted by sjswitzer at 9:15 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


I get all the pushback on the deletionists, I really do. But something has to keep Wikipedia from becoming a worse version of Myspace. The process and policies could absolutely be better, but there needs to be process and policies.

I can't tell if you're being serious here, but if you are, I guess this takes us back to the OP. If you really think the problem with open-era Wikipedia was that it was too open and accepting, didn't have enough rules, and grew too fast, I have great news. Citizendium needs contributors too! With your help, they might eventually make it to 3,000 articles!

More generally, these kinds of Panglossian rationalizations would be plausible if the processes and policies that are used today to stifle article creation on Wikipedia had been in place from the start. But that's not what happened. Wikipedia's success, such as it has been (bracketing all the isms and kyriarchy and such), has flowed almost entirely from its free-and-open character, its willingness to accept and build on rough and imperfect content, and its built-in recognition, reflected in the wiki structure, that it will never be more than a very rough draft of its potential self. In contrast, the efforts to move away from that foundational openness and present an artificially polished face to the world have been a straightforward disaster -- and have also had the side effect of making the project's always-serious problems with racism and sexism even worse.

Case in point: If you spend any time editing Black history, you're going to come across countless examples of straightforwardly notable people and topics that have either been back-door-deleted as "declined drafts" through Articles for Creation or regular-deleted by the regulars on Articles for Deletion who mysteriously never feel like doing any research of their own when the article at issue relates to a Black person. It's goddamned exhausting (and very much the opposite of how wikis are supposed to work) to be trying to pick through the wreckage these destructive morons leave behind and rebuild articles that should have never been deleted in the first place. Again, how could I ever in good faith recommend engaging in a project that treats people's work with such contempt?

I mean. As a fellow Wikipedian, I really do appreciate your eagerness to put in the work. But work alone won't get us out of this mess. Any meaningful forward progress is going to require engaging with the reality of how badly things have gone off the rails.
posted by Not A Thing at 9:38 PM on February 28 [20 favorites]


As an aside (and counterpoint to sjswitzer's comment above), I find the mathematics articles on wikipedia to be some of the highlights there. Last I check, Wolfram's mathworld is pretty bad in terms of finding information on a broad range of topics. Wikipedia is much better.

It is fair that the articles are often written for specialists, not a general audience (This could be improved, although I'm not really sure how--this is a broader problem within mathematics as a whole). But if that's what I'm looking for, there is no better place that I know of.
posted by vernondalhart at 11:29 PM on February 28 [7 favorites]


I think I'd be pretty good at Wikipedia but I don't have time for that shit, which is sort of the problem, isn't it?

I'm more interested in hearing the people who do contribute to it complain about why it sucks than the people who don't, though.
posted by atoxyl at 1:16 AM on February 29 [2 favorites]


Read the posted article when it came out. Read all of these comments. Yes, Wikipedia can be a horrible place and the criticisms above are clear. Also, that doesn't stop me from editing over at a little project called Simple English Wikipedia that almost nobody knows about. It is an exercise in trying to write as clearly, directly, and as simply as possible. There are very few editors. The rules lawyering can be just as pedantic, but also the stakes are even lower if that is possible. I would encourage Mefites to give it a try.

Simple English entry for "Hair" is not great, but is comprehensible.
"Humans and some other animals have lost much of their hair through evolution, and some other mammals, such as the elephant and the whale, have almost none at all."

English entry for "Hair" is neither great nor comprehensible.
"The human body, apart from areas of glabrous skin, is covered in follicles which produce thick terminal and fine vellus hair. "

I would love it if a few people would pop by and join in. Same handle there. Trying to take an impenetrable and unbalanced English Wikipedia article and simplifying it is a good challenge. One of the benefits is that it creates an easier source for translators to use to create articles in other language wikis. Not a bad thing.
posted by Gotanda at 2:50 AM on February 29 [9 favorites]


But something has to keep Wikipedia from becoming a worse version of Myspace.

This is complete nonsense.

The time period in which Wikipedia had the most growth (in terms of articles and in terms of popularity) was the period where there wasn't a deletionist cabal running around nuking things from orbit. You're handwringing about how the very openness that was the only reason Wikipedia succeeded in the first place is actually somehow its greatest threat that must be held at bay with an iron fist of censorship.

Wikipedia was not falling apart nor in danger of becoming "a worse version of Myspace" (whatever that even means) prior to the insane policies of the last 10+ years.
posted by tocts at 4:36 AM on February 29 [6 favorites]


Much as I also like to complain about arguments with other editors, I do actually like the crowd-sourced quality control aspect. Does it hurt my feelings when some over-eager fellow editor butchers my beautiful prose because of his own stylistic preferences? Sure. But he also did catch a genuine error in my synopsis where I plain misremembered/misread some plot point, so I'm glad he went over my work anyway.

Many important people for wikipedia don't necessarily write many articles of their own - they go over other people's articles and correct typos, see if all the links work, look for other articles to link to, add categories, see whether the cited sources actually match the paraphrase, etc. These people are a valueable but limited resource and I kinda get why deletionists don't want them to waste any time on articles that don't meet a minimum standard of general interest. Of course you could just leave it to everyone to make up their own mind if an article merits further efforts, but even that takes a certain amount of time one might considered wasted, when it's just some paid-for marketing.

What I don't understand is why we don't just put one of these boxes at the start of the article "notoriety not established" or something (like the "citation needed"), so that the people who generally trust the crowdsourced consensus on questions of notoriety know not to bother with it, and those who don't (for all the very good reasons we've already discussed here) still get a change to engage with the article?
posted by sohalt at 7:36 AM on February 29 [3 favorites]


What I don't understand is why we don't just put one of these boxes at the start of the article "notoriety not established" or something (like the "citation needed"), so that the people who generally trust the crowdsourced consensus on questions of notoriety know not to bother with it, and those who don't (for all the very good reasons we've already discussed here) still get a change to engage with the article?

Because Wikipedia has institutional imposter syndrome - hence why we get articles such as the one in the OP. Some of it comes from the criticism that Wikipedia got early on, and some of it comes from darker places, as those who would bend Wikipedia to darker ends rely on its reputation to do so. The whole policy of treating deletion as a vital act instead of a last resort came out of a push for "credibility".

Wikipedia is one of those things where it's easy to find things to complain about, but very difficult to come up with solutions that don't amount to either "find the right people and put them in charge of everything" or "burn it all down".

This is because the root issues with Wikipedia ultimately come down to its governance, and governance issues ultimately boil down to either getting in people who will govern in a manner to fix those issues, or abandoning it and rebuilding elsewhere so that these governance issues can be corrected with the initial development. When an organization has endemic, systemic issues with racism and sexism and its leadership refuses to do anything about it - you're left with few options.

I don't think it's too late to remove a lot of these articles. There are people working on it right now. You can help.

This statement in many ways illustrates the issue with Wikipedia today. First off, removing current examples of weaponization of Wikipedia without fixing the root causes behind them is just playing a neverending game of whack a mole, which I have no interest in doing. Second, stating that the answer is just deleting these attacks shows a lack of awareness of the deeper issues with Wikipedia governance that enables this behavior. Finally, even if I wanted to help (and I don't, for reasons stated above,) I can't, because the very people who are at the heart of the problem have made sure to build up enough power to prevent outsiders from being able to challenge them. This is an issue that has to be solved by the community, because they're the only ones who can.

I really hate how every discussion about Wikipedia here turns into a fight about whether it sucks or not.

Those of us who are criticizing how Wikipedia is governed are not "fighting" about whether it "sucks". We have specific criticisms of how it's been governed, and how that governance enables racism and sexism on the site, and how that in turn has allowed Wikipedia to be weaponized to attack women and minorities. Reducing this to "it sucks" is just trying to dismiss those criticisms without having to actually address them. As for why we keep having this same discussion - that has to do with the fact that Wikipedia refuses to address these issues.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:19 AM on February 29 [8 favorites]


I use Wikipedia a lot. I'll always trust a better source if I can get it, but it's usually a good place to start. I often want to find (say) hanzi + pinyin, or pointed Hebrew, for historical names, and it's surprisingly good at that.

As for editing it... been there, done that, sick of the fights. I wish I could say it's related to the problems of sexism/racism/etc, but it's not. It's running into rabid deletionists, a few toxic vandals, and (e.g.) people who want to argue about what a Quechua word means when they don't know Quechua.

It's the best argument for and against crowd-sourcing. It harnesses the enormous energy and wide interests of thousands of people. But it also encourages petty tyrants who chase them away.

I wish I had a fix, but I don't. I once tried to correct an error on IMDB. It involved filling in several pages of forms, and there was no feedback that the correction was made or even received. So, the "I can make this better right now!" aspect of Wikipedia is very attractive... until you run into enough setbacks to decide to spend your time elsewhere.
posted by zompist at 9:48 AM on February 29 [5 favorites]


“Why would I ever donate my time and labor to an organization that I consider to be poorly run, with endemic issues with sexism and racism? I find the strategy by Wikimedia to respond to criticism with 'then you should give us your labor' to be both offensive and tonedeaf. Clean your house first, then we can talk.”

I don’t know anything about you personally, so I cannot speak to your particular concerns but here are a few:
  • Because you can actually help change how it runs. Can you change your (if you are an American) state government? Probably not very much, even if you expend an extraordinary amount of your effort. Can you change other online properties like Google? No. Can you change the global Bretton Woods economy? Also no. This is an example of one of the few places where you can have an immediate impact on something that genuinely effects billions of human beings.
  • Because you use it and it’s only fair to give back. Same reason why you should donate to public radio.
  • This seems like a really convenient way to not engage with basically anything. America has racism, so they should just “fix” all of it before I do anything to engage with civic society.
  • I didn’t say to contribute to the English-language Wikipedia. Are there problems with Wikivoyage? Wikiquote? Wiktionary? Wikibooks? What about the Spanish-language Wikipedia? The German-language Wikinews? There are 800 Wikimedia Foundation wikis.
  • You have fundamentally misunderstood the response of “Wikimedia” (the Wikimedia Foundation? the community of Wikimedians?): there has been money put into outreach, the leadership has been run by women for years now who have prioritized closing the gender gap, Wikimedian of the Year awards (and grants) boost the work of non-English speakers worldwide, individual contributors have put forth hundreds and thousands of hours doing edit-a-thons and performing research to try to fix these problems. The Overcoming Systemic Bias group was one of the first WikiProjects on Wikipedia, 15 years ago. If you have suggestions on how to fix things, we are all ears. Everyone who has a serious investment in any of these projects cares about accessbility, multi-lingualism, best practices, and inclusivity. Do you have any constructive criticism on how to create a repository of the world's knowledge that is better?
  • There are no better alternatives. Are you just going to stop using the Internet?
  • Wikipedia functions not as some engine for bigotry but at worst, a symptomatic outcome of much deeper issues. Why would you pick the last link in the chain to blame?
  • “Tonedeaf” is a non-argument that is only used to silence when you have no real criticism.
Those are from the top of my head: if you want more, I’m sure I can think of a few.
posted by koavf at 9:47 AM on March 1 [11 favorites]


[One comment removed; this needs to stop a circular re-re-restatement of opinions thing, if folks need to have an extended back and forth go do it over email or something.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:06 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]


If you have suggestions on how to fix things, we are all ears.

Many suggestions have been made but nothing seems to happen. Wikipedia's problems aren't unique: I see a very similar problem with Stack Exchange. Both sites have assigned a tremendous amount of power to volunteer editor/moderators and consequently exhibit the prejudices those people bring along. When people complain they get told to fix things by getting involved - which is what you just said! - but that ignores the imbalance of power between established editor/moderators and people who are complaining about prejudice, as well as the very great difference in effort required between gatekeepers and people who want to change things.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:19 PM on March 1 [6 favorites]


Nothing seems to happen? Which would you prefer I assume here: you are ignorant about what you’re talking about or the thousands of hours of free labor that editors have put into creating biographies of women and non-Western persons were just a waste of time?

I also have no clue about Stack Exchange as I do not use that site but while there are definitely sometimes wars of attrition on Wikipedia, I have not seen this huge power imbalance that you purport exists: what is your source for this?
posted by koavf at 7:50 PM on March 1


Are you ... are you seriously using the existence of the Women in Red project, something that was established to fight back against Wikipedia's institutionalised misogyny, as evidence that the problem doesn't exist?

while there are definitely sometimes wars of attrition on Wikipedia, I have not seen this huge power imbalance that you purport exists: what is your source for this?

I honestly cannot tell if you're serious or if this is some sort of performance art.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:54 PM on March 1 [5 favorites]


"What is your source for this?" How about actually reading this thread you're commenting on?

Writing "I have not seen this huge power imbalance" in a thread where many people who have also edited for wikipedia talk about their own experiences with it and expecting this to be an any sort of argument, is a bit hard to take seriously.

I've contributed to the "women in red" project. Obviously I don't personally think that wikipedia is beyond hope. But I also don't feel that my work is slighted by the suggestion that the current efforts are simply not going far enough. They aren't. Whether anyone is optimistc about the possiblity to expand them is very much a "your mileage may vary" type of deal.
posted by sohalt at 12:06 AM on March 2 [1 favorite]


Is it only mileage will vary if it’s someone else’s? They can post their experience but I can’t post mine?

And after a comment of mine got deleted with no explanation: No, this is not “performance art”, which I think you know and my comment above explicitly points out there there are efforts to undo implicit bias, not that it doesn’t exist—I clearly did not write that.
posted by koavf at 6:44 AM on March 2


The worst case scenario isn't MySpace or Geocities, it's Encyclopedia Dramatica.
posted by RobotHero at 7:30 AM on March 2


Is it only mileage will vary if it’s someone else’s? They can post their experience but I can’t post mine?

You can post your experience. But the thing is that when other people are posting about their experiences and explaining the harms that they have dealt with, using your experience to dismiss theirs comes across as hostile and defensive. Just because you haven't experienced a power imbalance doesn't mean it doesn't exist (and this is triply true if you're someone in a place of privilege), and the best thing to do in these cases is to listen.

my comment above explicitly points out there there are efforts to undo implicit bias, not that it doesn’t exist

The issue many of us have is that these efforts are superficial and only target the most surface level aspects, while doing nothing to actually deal with the deeper root causes. Creating entries on topics that have received short shrift because of Wikipedia's institutional biases is not "worthless", so to speak - but it is something that has weak support in the long run, because those biases still exist, and the people reinforcing those biases still have the tools to undo all that work. You can't fix structural problems by only treating the symptoms.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:20 AM on March 2 [4 favorites]


“using your experience to dismiss theirs comes across as hostile and defensive.”

Agreed. I was not doing that and if other users read what I wrote that way, pardon me.


“You can’t fix structural problems by only treating the symptoms.”

Also agreed. So what’s next? Note also how these responses do exactly what you accuse me of having done, which is devaluing the work that projects like Women in Red do. I’ll be sure to tell them that MetaFilter thinks that their hard work is superficial.
posted by koavf at 10:15 AM on March 2


I’ll be sure to tell them that MetaFilter thinks that their hard work is superficial.

It would be very useful if we could avoid doing this. I specifically called out WIR as being a worthwhile project. Maybe NA feels differently. "MetaFilter" doesn't think anything in particular.
posted by jessamyn at 10:22 AM on March 2 [7 favorites]


It's rather telling that when people raise their issues with systemic problems with Wikimedia the response which comes back from someone deeply involved amounts to
"Why don't you keep braving abuse and fix it?",
"If you can't show that each one of 800 wikis each has these issues, you can't say it's a systemic issue",
"But we've done so much already, how could you ask us to do more?",
"There's nobody better, why don't you stop using the Internet instead?",
"We're just the product of bigotry, why are you blaming us?"
"Either it's the last-best-place on the internet or thousands of hours of spare time have gone to waste, so why are you calling people's efforts a waste of time?"
All with a casual "Those are from the top of my head: if you want more, I’m sure I can think of a few." (which strikes me as *deeply* impolite, to say the least)

I mean, normally I'd say this is a spot to be less "Take on all comers", but I think this is more accurately "A hit dog will holler". Why are you this invested in minimizing other people's experiences of abuse?
posted by CrystalDave at 10:43 AM on March 2 [6 favorites]


Not A Thing, that's an excellent article on notability, which outlines the gaping holes in Wikipedia. Some of the sections are a bit much for a layperson like myself without much expertise in critical/cultural studies, save a few undergrad classes a long time ago, but it's incredibly clear in its conclusions.

Wikipedia is the set of things that people who can write source code cared about and could find by Googling at the dawn of the 2000s. Which shouldn't be surprising because the idea was proposed, in some detail, by Richard Stallman. Google itself, even, originated by taking a set of trusted mainstream media gatekeepers and using them to assess the relative quality of every page on the Internet. If CNN or somebody like that was linking to your page, it must be a good one. The pages a good page linked to were good, but less so, and so on. For your typical source-code writing dude (me, for one), this was a life-changing increase in the ability to find "good" sites, rather than clicking through 5-15 pages of more or less randomly ordered results of only the most tangential relevance. And since the Internet lets you more or less switch instantly to a new site that is 5% better than the old one, it's pretty clear how Google came to dominate.

Wikipedia was the same thing, from the same "netural" point of view. Their markup language was just enough simpler than previous forms of hypertext (anyone remember SGML? Hideous.) and they were hosting it in such a way that anyone could edit. Of course, when the population who has the necessary coding skills skews heavily in one demographic direction, and the easiest references are those are linked to by the mainstream media, or the sites linked to by those sites, you are going to get a very, very particular type of encyclopedia. And once the early culture is set, it's going to be extremely resistant to change, because that culture's blind spots are exactly what is missing. There is going to be precious little appetite for moving beyond one's own perspectives when everything seems fine to you. Bringing this back to feminism, as noted in the article, feminist subjects suffer doubly because bias from media gatekeepers reinforces personal bias. You can easily have a situation where an important community organization has no particular media footprint outside its own outreach and therefore no notability from a Wikipedia perspective.

But this is all by design. Wikipedia was originally intended as junior companion to the "real" encylopedia, which would be vetted carefully by experts. It was always meant to be the place where non-experts would give things a once-over. Web references didn't even exist at first, let alone books and real academic periodicals. It was meant to be good enough. But as so often happens, good enough was better than expertly vetting from a standpoint of people's contributions...

I have observed a lot of the negative experiences noted in this thread and others. I still think there's tremendous value in perspectives besides the Wikipedia default, and I hope people have the energy to provide them and Wikipedia moves toward the systemic change necessary to support them.

Finally, if anyone has some material they want added (with references), I can try. I'm not a mega editor, but apparently I have created 49 pages. Including most recently, one for the White Lion, the ship that arrived in 1619 and, in my opinion, a severe oversight.
posted by wnissen at 12:57 PM on March 2 [6 favorites]


I would heartily recommend all of you become more active in editing Wikimedia Foundation projects. If anyone wants help, please let me know.

just so you know, this guy was just banned from mefi for posting some vile racist shit in a different thread.
posted by anem0ne at 4:18 PM on March 17 [11 favorites]


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