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On Wikipedia, storms, teacups, and _why's notability

In which our hero ponders the Internet’s underwear, the oxymoronic nature of social software, and that not only should you not hate the playa but you shouldn’t even hate the game.

It must be a weekend, the interwebs have their panties in a bunch again. This time it’s about the Wikipedia entry for _why the lucky stiff, one of the major Ruby hackers. For the backstory, see Deletionist Morons by Tim Bray. In short: Wikipedia editors want to delete _why’s entry because he doesn’t pass Wikipedia’s Notability test.

Social software is a funny old thing, isn’t it? On the one hand, we have the word “social” with its overtones of informality, emotion, and all those black turtleneck wearing arts graduates. Then we have the word “software” with its harmonics of precision, logical thought, and Aspies with intravenous caffeine. In fact, when you think of “software” you probably think of people who could easily be described as “antisocial”. Is it any wonder, then, that the product of the two doesn’t exactly mesh well with our view of the world?

Having read Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, I now know that Wikipedia is social software. Not the reading part, but the editing. There’s a human process for humans to follow, whereby the humans use the software to debate (something humans do, not software) and arrive at a decision. This is a human, social, process … not a software one. A lot of the rancour comes from misunderstanding this.

Perhaps an analogy to another social process would help. Wikipedia is like an open source software project where the great unwashed submit patches, the committers choose which to apply, and the core team make executive decisions when needed. There’s no piece of code that determines worthiness to be committed to the source tree. Instead, there are people with judgement and human flaws in the way. The Linux kernel shouldn’t grow e-mail protocol stacks, web server hacks, and a built-in relational database just because someone submits the patches. The project’s committers are there to keep the software project on track. So too with Wikipedia.

Hating the humans or even hating the filtering process is a waste of time and energy. The deletionists and the inclusionists both have a role to play. Wikipedia has a lot of things that it is not and the humans are there to keep the project on track. Those who want to delete and want to keep are doing their bit, just as others did by creating a page for _why in the first place.

The creators of any piece of social software must carefully choose where to punch holes in pure computational deterministic perfection to let human attributes like intelligence or taste shine through. Their choices define the project. This “you want X, I want Y, we’ll go back and forth citing Wikipedian principles and external sources until a decision emerges or must be made by an administrator” process isn’t Wikipedia’s weakness, or even its strength, it is Wikipedia.

In social software as in software projects, the human filters sometimes make poor decisions; you can’t have the flexibility and intelligence of humans without their flaws. Using Wikipedia but becoming enraged when your favourite marginal entry is deleted is like going to an art gallery but being enraged that you saw something there you didn’t like. It’s a big waste of time and energy that could better be spent working on this patch I’ve got to add a relational database to the Linux kernel ….

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  • http://davidgerard.co.uk/notes/ David Gerard

    Indeed. What gets put up for deletion annoys me at times, but the fact remains that Wikipedia goes far further into the realms of the marginal than any encyclopedia before ever has. This is where we get into the difference between what Wikipedia is and what people imagine they’d like it to be.

    In the case of biographies of living people, we’re consciously going the other way – because we don’t have the luxury of eventualism with them.

  • http://vielmetti.typepad.com Edward Vielmetti

    I’ve been happiest in wikis where the bounds of marginality are as deep as they possibly can be, while still allowing for some things to be irrelevant.

    There’s a local effort, Arborwiki, which is a civic wiki for Ann Arbor and the surrounding county in Michigan. Everything in the county is relevant, no matter how marginal, including 60 yr old photos of houses that were torn down to build gas stations. Because, damn it, that *is* relevant by some sufficiently scoped bounds, even if it isn’t by Wikipedianism.

    there was a lecture series that Marshall Poe organized at the Eastern Michigan University campus which I referred to as “Wikipedia: threat or menace”, bringing in skeptics and advocates for the use of that tool in education. What’s remarkable I guess is how hard it is to really write a good encyclopedia article.

  • http://paulmwatson.com/journal Paul M. Watson

    Being a Ruby developer I am biased but _why passes the notability test for me. Not because of his fame or popularity but because of the positive impact he has had on helping many developers learn Ruby in a deep and meaningful way. Nobody else elucidates Ruby like _why.

    p.s. Is it just me or is the first link a bit broken? It is bringing up an Aperture pop-up window but not linking me through to Wikipedia. I disabled Aperture but now the link is blue and doesn’t work at all.

  • Beau Vrolyk

    RE: Apture link – worked just now, I just tried it.

  • http://synthesis.williamgunn.org Mr. Gunn

    Oh god, that link is horrible. Links should go to the linked page when clicked!

  • http://wikiprojectoregon.wordpress.com Steven Walling

    You’re spot on in your description of Wikipedia as social software. Very insightful. You did, however, get one small but vital point wrong in saying “until a decision emerges or must be made by an administrator“.

    Wikipedia administrators don’t have true editorial authority. They do close deletion debates, but such a closing is based on the consensus of the discussion (as best they can tell). In terms of the minutiae of existing article content goes, admins have no more say than any other user.

  • http://original-research.blogspot.com llywrch

    I would go further about editorial control than Steve Walling’s comment did: there is no “core” or group of “committers”. Anyone who submits a patch to Wikipedia can also revert someone else’s, although some changes are harder to make than others.

    With this extreme degree of freedom to edit Wikipedia, one would expect that it be nothing more than a huge collection of gibberish, vandalism, & hoax content. This leads back to the canard that “In theory, Wikipedia does not work; in reality, it does.” That is a canard which overlooks the true reason that Wikipedia works: there is a community, organized around the cause of providing useful information, which protects it.

    Geoff