The trouble with WP:NOT (What Wikipedia is not)

My last post on Wikipedia’s reliance on traditional methods of authority prompted a burst of comments. I want to respond to some of the comments and expand some of my original ideas here.

First, thanks to these people: Poulpy wrote Wikipédia, l’encyclopédie profondément conservatrice et traditionnelle [fr], which appeared on Planète Wikimedia. Ulf Larsen wrote Slettere versus beholdere [no] on the Norwegian Bokmål Wikipedia Village Pump. It was also mentioned by Ben Yates, in the History News Network blog, and on the Russian Wikipedia’s Current issues page. I love to see people seeding interesting discussions across languages. I only wish there were a few more discussions seeded from other languages to English.

Mary asked how much of the Verifiablity and No Original Research (NOR) policies I considered to be necessary.

Geoff responded, better than I ever could,

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.

Yep. OK first, the point about “a useful definition of an encyclopedia”. It is really a problem that there is no positive definition for what Wikipedia is. All we really have is What Wikipedia is not (WP:NOT). The reason that’s a problem is unless you have some very extraordinary and persistent individuals, rules such as policies only expand. It’s extremely difficult to get a shorter, less detailed policy accepted. It takes great writing and diplomatic skills, and probably some very savvy networking and wheedling. Unsurprisingly individuals with the talent and willingness to cull rules pages are in much lower supply than those who are able to just add one or two more sentences. Because WP:NOT is a negative definition, when it expands, it just eats up more things that Wikipedia may not be. Wikipedia can be whatever you may dream — until you put it into action and someone doesn’t like it, and adds your dream to WP:NOT.

A positive definition allows for much more creativity. It just sets the parameters, that an acceptable article/topic area will have these properties, and if you can think of a new presentation method that provides those things, then it should be acceptable.

When I was an administrator at Wikimedia Commons, for a time I tried to work on policies, mainly to resist instruction creep and the mindless importation of Wikipedia policies. Commons has no 3RR rule. For a long time we had no blocking policy. Our desire to minimise policy occasionally proved disconcerting to people who lived exclusively on Wikipedia. (I was disappointed to see recently the formation of What Commons is not.)

The main policy governing Wikimedia Commons is Project scope. It is a positively defined and broadly inclusive document — perhaps too inclusive at times. Partly because Commons was initially set up to serve Wikipedia, and partially because we didn’t have the cultural baggage of an existing academic entity to emulate, Commons’ most important scope restriction is Must be realistically useful for an educational purpose. That is pretty vague, but because of usefulness it ties us to our audience’s needs.

As Geoff mentioned, with his idea of formulating a premise from which all policies can be logically derived, I tried to do this for Commons, too. I came up with a page called Commons:Principles. It was this:

Wikimedia Commons is a collection of useful, free content media files.

It is curated by a worldwide open and multilingual community that shares a commitment to improving the collection.

Wikimedia Commons is a project of the Wikimedia Foundation and this is our contribution, as part of the Wikimedia community, to furthering the Foundation’s vision and mission.

Various words and phrases were linked in the rest of the document to explain it. The idea was that it was a link between the WMF’s Mission and Vision, and our grab-bag of ad-hoc rules. If a rule couldn’t be derived from this document then we shouldn’t really need it, or the document was incomplete. I never pushed this for project-wide adoption so it remains another random page of notes in my userspace. (There are some related notes on another userspace page called Aims and goals.)

Anyway… could Wikipedia have a positive definition? Is one based on “usefulness” and the principle of do-no-harm possible? Wrong and misleading information (or do I mean unsourceable information?) is not useful.

Could we find a way to define Verifiability that was more broad than the traditional definition, including methods such as personal experience, keeping in mind the ideas of usefulness and minimising harm?

Surely we could. Wikipedia has already had to figure out lots of stuff, and we have managed. Although we fall back on traditional encyclopedia ideas, they have no mechanisms for coping with e.g. breaking news or detailed fields of pop culture such as television. We have figured those things out ourselves. We can figure more things out ourselves.

Definitions don’t work in a vacuum, they only work in relation to other things. “Identica is an open-source Twitter.” “Twitter is blogging but only 140 characters at a time.” or “Twitter is SMS but on the web, to everyone.” “Blogging is keeping a diary on the web for the whole world to read.” “Keeping a diary is putting your thoughts into words and sentences.”

Surely Wikipedia (the product) is more than “Encyclopedia Britannica, but on the web”. Don’t get me wrong, “on the web” gives us a lot: links, no real limit on the potential number of articles. But we could do more. We could be more.

So anyway, stuff is broken, how could it be fixed? I mentioned two ways last time, changing policy or essentially having everyone implicitly agree to ignore it (just as, say, much of the populace ignores copyright law on a day to day basis). But these both seem terribly unlikely. There is a third: a fork. Forks are very bad for a project in the short-term — very painful and causing reduced productivity — but in the long-term can either be benign, or even positive, or serve as a death-knell. A successful fork may be a serious wake-up call to a community where previous calls for policy reform have not been successful.

I’m not advocating for a fork at this point… but we should never forget that it is an option available to us. :)

I believe that thinking about the intent of one’s edits is an intended corollary of “Ignore all rules.”Geoff

I strongly agree, but unfortunately I think Ignore all rules is pretty much dead. It has been suffocated by all the rules!

12 October, 2008 •

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