Wikipedia, the deeply conservative and traditional encyclopedia

Wikipedia, the product, does not aim to be anything new or radical. It aims to be something quite old-fashioned and conservative — a comprehensive secondary reference on all branches of knowledge. An encyclopedia.

Wikipedia, the process, OTOH, is deeply radical. Mass, collaborative, pseudonymous, minimum-standards-free, help-yourself authorship — yep, that looks pretty radical.

On the face of it this observation just makes me think “duh”. But it just crystallised in my mind recently, in discussion with an academic, so I want to capture the things that I think are interesting about this.

The first is that it wasn’t always so. Wikipedians were not always certain about what type of content was appropriate for inclusion in Wikipedia. As time passed, the shared understanding became more distinct, or at least it was clearer that certain things were definitely not appropriate. And thus we have WP:NOT (What Wikipedia is not), which is somehow one of the most interesting policies as it is so heavily relied upon yet still a definition of negativity.

Wikipedia used to contain dictionary definitions. It used to contain tutorial-type material. It used to contain quotes. It used to contain lists. (OK, it still does. It’s a happy mystery to me how they really survived.) Lots of other things that used to be considered OK on Wikipedia were progressively shoved off onto sister projects, other wikis or just forced to find their own place in the web world (deleted). As I wrote in my first blog post, I think it is no accident that the progressively narrower understanding of “what Wikipedia is” has happened parallel with the development and expansion of Wikipedia’s sister projects.

Why did this happen?

My theory is that in the very early days, maybe pre-2004 (which I didn’t personally participate in), no one much was paying attention to Wikipedia. It didn’t matter if someone created an article you had a problem with because chances are you wouldn’t even know about it. Just getting a Wikipedia article in a top 10 search result was a cause for celebration.

By the end of 2005, we had lived through Seigenthaler. This incident especially threw a lot of scrutiny on Wikipedians, who previously had been just happy geeking out and amusing themselves. Seigenthaler was the mainstream media and traditional authorities (academics) demanding to know what the hell Wikipedia thought it was doing and how dare they and just exactly how were they planning to meet the standards of those traditional fonts of knowledge anyway?

I think it panicked the community, and the defensive reaction that was collectively taken was to retreat into the standards and practices of those traditional authorities. Appease them by adopting their methods, deferring to their authority. “Look, we’re not untrustworthy — we’re trying to write the same kinds of documents as you. We have the same ideals about verifiability as you.”

The idea of notability is also very much a product of this time. Academics decide what is worthy of study. Wikipedians mimicked this by becoming gatekeepers to the wiki. This “guideline” is the most obvious mark of a community appealing to established authority. Paper encyclopedias must have inclusion/exclusion criteria because they have limited resources: limited time, limited money (to pay authors), and limited paper/space. But Wikipedia, with no publishing deadline, written by volunteers and provided virtually free over the internet, has none of these excuses.1,2 The notability guideline is the most blatant example of the Wikipedia community retreating into traditional acceptability because we were spooked. Maybe also because we wanted to be respected, respectable? We wanted to be gatekeepers too, and enjoy that decisive feeling of “keeping order” amongst the rabble of the world?

What’s interesting now is that when I see people say “I love Wikipedia”, it’s almost always for all the ways it is not a traditional encyclopedia. The exhaustive coverage. (A thought: Wikipedia appears exhaustive for everything except your favourite niche.) The articles on stuff you couldn’t have imagined. The totally bizarre lists. The obscure details that you know someone very obsessed has left behind — and you’re pleased they bothered.

I’m sure I remember a newspaper article (or Wired?) commending the Wikipedia article Podcast on being the best comprehensive guide to podcasting available anywhere. This was like six months after podcasting really started to take off. The word was still hardly appearing in print, and had almost definitely never appeared in (let alone been the subject of) a book. But this article was full of very poorly sourced information, definitely no book references. This would be something Wikipedia the Traditional Encyclopedia would frown upon. But it was damn useful!

The further Wikipedia’s coverage and cultural reach expands, the more we will have this problem. Academics do not typically consider “everything in the world” deserving of study. Even if they are po-mo pop-culture theorisers, they will draw the line somewhere. The other thing is that there is not enough of them. Wikipedia is writing up the world faster than academia can study, hypothesise, research and publish about it. (And if you’re lucky, in a language you speak, in a journal you can access via a library near you, too. Good luck.) When we tie our respectability to traditional authority by invoking their methods, we must also accept the limitations of those methods: because there are many things that academics will never study, Wikipedia will never cover those topics in a way that is internally consistent and acceptable. I am not just thinking about the trivia of Western life, but more importantly major cultural knowledge that has not happened to have yet fallen under the Western academic radar.

The next most obvious point is that people’s understanding, both readers and editors, of “what Wikipedia is”, may not match what Wikipedia purports to be (ie policy). This is naturally a constant struggle, that plays out over hundreds of pages every day, for either (1) individuals to be persuaded to change their understandings to match existing policy, or (2) people to be persuaded to change policy to match the understandings of individuals. Both are necessary, but (2) is much more difficult, and probably like any great bureaucracy, becoming ever more so.

I guess I think it is a great shame that Wikipedia has doomed itself to such a limited existence by, as I say, falling back on the methods of traditional authority for respectability. But! Just like the Podcast article, it is only limited if everyone carries out the letter of the law (policy). If we use social pressure to encourage the keeping of articles that are non-harmful and useful (if not sourceable), the law may be irrelevant.

Another alternative is that Wikipedia will come to a less strict understanding of itself that is more in line with readers’ expectations and needs. But given that the trend to date has just been tightening the screws, I do feel it is unlikely in the immediate future. If it were to happen — just imagine the relief! We could figure out our own understanding of what we are, based on our own strengths, instead of trying to live up to someone else’s standard for no reason other than that.

[1] Although it is not free for the Wikimedia Foundation to provide, I have never heard anyone suggest enforcing a Notability guideline in order to save them bandwidth!

[2] There is a good argument for instituting some kind of notability criteria in relation to people, in order to avoid harm. But the notability criterion as it stands applies to basically everything.

10 October, 2008 •



Fantastic post.

Ben · 10. October 2008, 04:52


I would be interested to hear how much of the verifiability and no original research guidelines you consider necessary.

Mary · 10. October 2008, 06:48


Mary: These guidelines originally were created to deal with cranks & kooks who insisted on including their “important research.” Since then, guidelines like these have morphed into criteria with their own rationale for existence, ignoring the need that they be secondary to the need to create a useful work of reference — an encyclopedia.

I’ve often thought that Wikipedia needs to rewrite its policies on a more logical basis, starting with the assumption that we are writing an encyclopedia, a premise from which we logically derive all of the needed guidelines. But I’m damned if I can figure out how to do it: I’m still trying to formulate the starting statement — a useful definition of an encyclopedia.

Brianna: I agree that notability is one of the concepts related to Wikipedia that gives everyone trouble. It’s a “I know it when I see it” quality.

Problems like this has led to a movement to try to reduce all of Wikipedia’s guidelines & policies into a legalistic framework. (I guess the proper name for this kind of thinking is “formalism”.) My objection to this kind of action is that doing this not only frustrates new users making useful contributions — who are more likely to inadvertently break these rules & be unfairly punished for it — but increasingly restricts participants from using their heads to make the right decisions. If one can provide a cogent & persuasive argument to do something, that person ought to be allowed to do it — even if it violates all of the guidelines & the Manual of Style. I believe that thinking about the intent of one’s edits is an intended corollary of “Ignore all rules.”


llywrch · 10. October 2008, 08:33


You’re right in the overall, but wrong in two details: (1) Larry Sanger told me not to write dictionary defintions in Wikipedia already in May 2001. This is not something from 2004-2005. It’s an old mental hook-up that comes from the fact that the English language makes a real difference between a dictionary and an encyclopedia. In German you can use “Lexikon” for both genres, and the difference is blurred. Think “biographic dictionary”, which is more like an encyclopedia than a word-book. (2) Notability is necessary for facts to be verifiable. For smaller and less important topics, it becomes impossible to verify statements and to distinguish real knowledge from made-up fantasies. Wikipedia is not only free, it’s also free knowledge, as opposed to free fantasy. So in order to be useful, the topic of an article needs to be verifiable, and therefore notable.

LA2 · 10. October 2008, 11:27


“Notability” actually came from Votes For Deletion – people would say “delete, not notable” meaning “I don’t like it,” others would answer “notability is not a requirement” … so someone wrote a requirement headdesk

The trouble with “notability” is it’s subjective. I asked on my blog a while ago for people to define “notability” in terms of NPOV, verifiability and no original research … no takers so far.

David Gerard · 10. October 2008, 21:15


What a great post. I avoid looking into deletion requests nowadays, because sometimes I feel physically sick from reading stuff like “I don’t know it”, “I don’t like it”, “it’s just the author trying to promote himself”, “vanity! vanity!”, and the like. Agreeing that a line should be drawn, I think it should be short of articles about “my dog’s pedigree”, “the guy next door”, etc. Agreeing with that the subject is verifiable, sometimes this doesn’t seem to be enough for deletions to not occur. And that makes me sad. Someday, we’ll regret this attitude.

Patrícia · 10. October 2008, 22:31


@ Ben & Patricia, thanks for the kind words.

@ Mary & Geoff, I will address your comments in a separate post soon.

@ LA2, thanks for the correction re: dictionary definitions. I wonder if the situation is/was different in de.wp because of this different linguistic boundary? (Actually even in English, it can be bent a bit — one of the Wikipedia Weekly chaps is working on a project called the “Dictionary of Sydney”, although it’s actually an encyclopedia.)

However I think you are mistaken about notability. Not everything verifiable is notable (for some value of…), and vice versa. Verifiability does not follow from notability. There is too much intervening stuff that happens in the middle.

pfctdayelise · 10. October 2008, 23:55


A few things. I don’t think we panicked from late 2005 (well, about userboxen, maybe …) Certainly things began to change, partly because we had huge numbers of new people. I guess one important factor was that those who “liked rules” tended to stick around, while those who don’t drifted away. Result: more and more rules, some necessary for the mission and its protection, but some not. The business about notability is something in its way quite interesting. The concept is broken, always has been. The reduction to enough good sources is even more broken (and promotes systemic bias). It is hugely, practically important though widely misunderstood. And people now complain about the bits that work!

Charles Matthews · 11. October 2008, 02:18


Individual people might be clever, but a crowd is always stupid. en.wikipedia is drowning itself in its misconception of democracy, imho. You might call votes !votes, but they remain votes nevertheless, and it is always easier to get people to vote against something then to vote for it (not to mention to actually understand it first and then vote), leading to a more and more bureaucratic and conservative system. On the other hand, discussions just don’t scale. I think the way out is radical decentralization and an even more doocratic and meritocratic culture to cut down the number of people involved in any decision.

Tgr · 11. October 2008, 21:18


Also, with the userbase becoming more diverse, en.wikipedia seems to have moved from a tech culture towards a lawyer culture. Compare RfC (which is the method engineers use to reach consensus on internet protocolls) to arbitration (which seems to be largely modeled after american court proceedings).

Tgr · 11. October 2008, 23:52


@ Tgr, Individual people might be clever, but a crowd is always stupid. — I thought it was the other way around? The general success of the content of Wikipedia would suggest so.

How would go about “radical decentralisation”, specifically?

I like your observation onf tech vs lawyer culture. Very neat. :)

pfctdayelise · 12. October 2008, 12:43


notability = enough reliablse sources to write a NPOV article without resorting to original research

dshgf · 16. October 2008, 23:34

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