Monday, December 13, 2010

The Cancer Inside Wikipedia

I write about radio every day. But today I won't. Today another topic distracts me so much that I must air it out so I can get back to more important things like radio history, programming, engineering, media law, and broadcasting ephemera... I recently found a short entry I wrote on Palda Records was deleted. It was not a multinational corporation, but certainly a record label of relevance in it's day. I tried to contest the deletion and my account was promptly blocked. I have come to find this is a very common problem.

For years I have created and edited entries on Wikipedia. This is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of people have added or edited information to Wikipedia. but in the years since I began my ad hoc contributions Wikipedia has changed. Wikipedia has had a small problem for a long time. One group of contributors create, and another deletes. The problem with this is that creation takes time, knowledge and effort. Deletion does not. This is a fundamental imbalance.

Deletionists according to their Wikipage believes they are fighting "Rampant Inclusionism." It's a negative, even dogmatic point of view. One that is at odds with Wikipedia's stated goal: "...to create a summary of all human knowledge in the form of an online encyclopedia." I note the word all. Deletionists by definition, oppose this primary purpose of Wikipedia. I am therefore by default, an inclusionist.
The fun of that Wikipedian goal is that we all have specialized knowledge. People have interests, they get interested in tintypes, cast aluminum toys, wood working, bodies of water, species of salamanders, planetary bodies, typewriters, regional architecture, defunct sports teams, old record labels and an incredible wealth of historical minutiae. The possibilities are infinite and in fact early predictions suggested Wikipedia could literally grow at the above rate.  But the growth of Wikipedia slowed. In 2007 the growth rate broke sharply from the estimate. You might see this as an indication that the estimate was optimistic.  It's not. The rest of the Internet continues to grow at that rate as a whole.

In 2009 a user Rd232 started an article defining notability. It was a formal criteria for exclusion. This has become the rationale behind all deletionism. I'll freely admit some contributions are surely trivial, unclear, redundant, grammatically poor, or even factually wrong. I'll admit vandalism exists too and furthermore that all these things need edited out. What does not need deleted is content. In our Web 2.0 world, information is what we call "content." There is no technical term for the content you discard. That's because deleting content is contrary to being content-driven. Indeed most content on the Internet is assumed to "be forever." But on Wikipedia content is discarded frequently, more frequently than I even knew. A Wikipedia article was started in 2001 regarding it's own size. That article grew to include data on it's growth rate which now, due to deletionism now has a projected plateau. You can see the growth rate in the graph below:
So in seeing this data for the first time, I realized that the argument between deletionism and inclusionism isn't just an obtuse philosophical disagreement within it's editorial community. It's an actual threat to it's future  relevance. At some point in the very near future, (probably under 5 years) Wikipedia will become stagnant.  Inclusionism isn't rampant, as deletionists claim.  The math does not bear that out.  In fact the situation is quite the opposite. So knowing all this I decided I can no longer donate to them.  I wrote to Wikipedia to tell them why. The first response was sort of a form letter. It became personalized thereafter but each became progressively more flippant, dismissive, and even rude. In the end he started to lie. So being the over-educated prick that I am, I'm publishing all of it below minus some edits for length. I hope it provides some insight.

FIRST EMAIL:
I had intended to donate to Wikipedia this Xmas. Then, upon signing on I saw that your "editors" had deleted every contribution I had made in the last 2 years.This was offensive to me philosophically. I see the deletionist theory as completely contrary to the free exchange of knowledge.

I am a member of the SBE, the ARSC, and a researcher in the field of late 1940s record labels, and broadcasting. Wikipedia presently has little information in these areas as its editors are promptly destroyed in some overreaching dogmatic response to the ignorance of an individual. Relevance is a measure of personal knowledge. In this exchange knowledge is destroyed by an editor who is by definition, less knowledgeable than the author.

I will not be donating this year, or ever again until the problem is rectified.
-Jose Fritz

FIRST RESPONSE:
As you know, Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia (as explained at http://en.wikipedia.org wiki/Wikipedia:Introduction, and so anyone may edit its articles. The choice of what remains and what is removed is taken by individuals on Wikipedia; article content is not controlled by a central authority, and I'm afraid we cannot resolve editing disputes via email.

I suggest you follow the steps outlined at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:DR. These steps are designed to help you work with other editors and to draw upon the help of the wider community.
Thank you for your contributions to Wikipedia.

Yours sincerely,
Guy Chapman

SECOND EMAIL:
I do not intend for you to personally intervene in any specific deletion of any article I wrote. It is the policy of encouraging deletionism that I disagree with. I am suggesting you make a substantive change in policy.  Currently deletionist advocate the wanton destruction of knowledge. It is in total opposition to what you purport you purpose to be. Allow me to quote your own site "Our goal with Wikipedia is to create a free encyclopedia; indeed, the largest encyclopedia in history, both in terms of breadth and in terms of depth."

It is an error on your part to tolerate deletionism. It opposes the central purpose of Wikipedia. It threatens the quality of your sites value: content. Everytime you fail to take responsibility for that, you diminish yourself. I can not support you if that is the case.
-JF

SECOND RESPONSE:
As far as I am concerned, everybody on Wikipedia is inherently an inclusionist. We do, however, have different thresholds for inclusion. The definition of what is indiscriminate, what is sufficiently well sourced, what counts as trivial versus non-trivial coverage, has been and always will be subjective.

There are arguments on both sides. You could equally argue that the inclusion of material which is not supported by in-depth coverage in reliable secondary sources jeopardizes the project, tending as it does towards original research and personal bias. Not saying that's the case here, just that it's an alternative interpretation.

As far as I can tell the only objective test for a deletionist versus an inclusionist is thet it's *my* article that got deleted! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_Deletion_is_not_a_war_zone
is a nice essay on the subject. Anyway, this is all philosophical debate. I understand your frustration, have seen it at first hand, and I don't think there's much I can do to change that right now.

Sorry, I wish I could be more helpful to you.

Yours sincerely,
Guy Chapman

THIRD EMAIL:
On that point I must disagree with you firmly. Deletionists destroy knowledge, or at least obstruct it's dissemination which is synonymous. They apply their own subjective judgment on what should and should not be available. Those limited circumstances of deletion  are nothing like what actually occurs in practice. 

This deletionism is apparently so rampant that content creators must either babysit every piece of content, or surrender everything to a possibility eventual destruction. At the very least it displaces time better spent creating more content. The situation is totally contrary to your stated goal.

Inclusionists take a completely different tact. Typically they believe that everything should be includes. Knowing that disc space is cheap and plentiful, there is no onus for deletion beyond concerns for quality: profanity, tact, impartiality.. etc. Deletionists are modern day censors, redacting text, destroying knowledge. In other words, you are sowing the seeds of your own obsolescence.

Best of luck in the future.
-JF

THIRD RESPONSE:
Well, like I say, it's a philosophical division, and it's lasted as long as Wikipedia. "Destroying knowledge" is emotive language for what is, basically, a process of editorial discrimination, which is by common consent essential else we'd have an article on everyone's pet hamster.  Anyway, I understand your point even while disagreeing with you.

Yours sincerely,
Guy Chapman


FOURTH EMAIL:
I thought about this for a couple days to make sure I was not responding in undue haste. I like very much that Wikipedia exists, but I do not like what Wikipedia is becoming.

I did use the term "destroying knowledge" quite willfully. But I don't see it as emotive. I did so deliberately, to illustrate a delicate point. The information that resides in only one place, in one document, one sheet of music, one hard-drive, or worse yet, one brain... is in always in danger of being lost. Wikipedia does not wait for the wiles of time to destroy information. Wikipedia clicks delete.

...Content arrives free and freely as digital text in file sizes that are trivially small. Grammar is corrected by volunteers for free, and connected to existing works so that it's relevance can be made clear to the novice. Then after volunteers create and tidy those tiny files, those nuggets of raw potentially immortal data... you throw them away.  Ergo: destroy knowledge.

Regardless, your responses have been professional and pleasant. Thank you kindly.
-JF

FOURTH RESPONSE:
We do understand. This is one reason that parallel projects such as Wikinews, Wikibooks, Wikiversity and Wikisource exist: we have deliberately set policies that Wikipedia is not a news source or a venue for publishing original research, but we completely recognize the value of news and original research, so we provide alternative venues for these.

I do get the impression that this is simply a case of "not on Wikipedia", not "not on our servers". I could be wrong, of course. Do please have a look at our sister projects and see if their aims might inform
your view.

Yours sincerely,
Guy Chapman

FIFTH EMAIL:
I am curious if Wikinews, Wikibooks, Wikiversity and Wikisource all also suffer from significant data loss due to deletionists. You must keep at least internal metrics on these sorts of things, right?
-JF

FIFTH RESPONSE:
You are begging the question. We do not keep metrics based on subjective judgments.

Yours sincerely,
Guy Chapman

SIXTH EMAIL:
There's nothing subjective about deletion. Either an article/content was deleted or it wasn't. The validity is irrelevant to the math.  If you're uncertain if an edit was additive or subtractive you can guess from the file size before and after. At the very least Wikipedia must know how many whole entries are created and deleted every day, week, month and year. You can determine the scope of your problem with a simple SQL query.

Wikipedia should know if it is shrinking or growing? Is the rate of growth flat, increasing or decreasing? A more interesting comparison would be a histogram of content creation vs. content deletion. My expectation is that Wikipedia has at the very least, plateaued in terms of the rate of creation and that the rate of deletion is rising. These are basic metrics any content driven project needs to do just for hardware allocation.

I am certain that Wikipedia is aware.  Best of luck, hope you feel like sharing the math. 
-JF
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