Charles Matthews: Backing Limited Perspectives

This is a guest post by Charles Matthews. See also his previous posts. —Brianna

That is not what BLP stands for on Wikipedia, though you might sometimes wonder. This now-notorious three-letter acronym stands for Biography of Living Person. Wikipedia hosts several hundred thousand of them, and the summary deletion of a number of those has recently caused consternation and recrimination, not to speak of admin-on-admin disrespectfulness, of a kind that hasn’t been seen for, oh, all of several years.

BLPs are troublesome because in real world terms they affect lives, in legal terms they may be defamatory, and in Wikipedia terms content policies must be applied very strictly, and still may give poor results. But they predominate among biographies: there is a decay law saying if you go back a decade by birth date the number of biographies for that year of birth drops off by a factor (could be something like 20% or 30%) and this is quite marked as you get back to 1900 and before. Around 1983 is the peak (over 8000), which tells us what? Duh, sport (Finnish speedway stars, anyone?) and popular culture. Editors add but do not necessarily maintain well numerous articles about young stars aged 27 or so who are mentioned in the media.

Back among the grumpy folk known as “old school Wikipedians” the term “MySpace page” may occasionally pass the lips, but surprisingly, perhaps, there is a classic old-style inclusionist argument that works the other way. In a polite form it reads “if you come across work of others on the site that is substandard, your first task is to try to improve it, before cutting it or sending it for deletion”. In the matter of BLPs substandard means just one thing: references absent or low-grade. Wikipedia shouldn’t post things about real people out there that are just made up. We all agree. So, an editor finding a substandard BLP should try to reference it better.

Nice theory. BLPs are speedy-deleted by the thousand as newly-posted pages when unreferenced, sometimes quite wrongly, because as posted they don’t have the references needed to support them (no verifiability and/or no convincing reason to support notability). The drama has come up when the same criteria, or stricter, have been applied to articles dormant on the site for years: unreferenced BLPs that seem not to be going anywhere better.

So what is the “old school” counter-view? ‘Wikipedia has no fixed rules’ is part of the old-time mantra called the ‘five pillars’. Which allows for tectonic shifts in how things are done. Some anti-BLP activism has homed in on the broken nature of incremental change in dealing with the issue. Some BLPs are inherently problematic, functioning only as places of wars between supporters and denigrators of a real person (I have to babysit three of those). As Wikipedia expands, it gets into the area of biographies that are not that easy to reference. And such tenuous biographies may just have to remain, as things stand, because the inclusionist view amounts to saying that you are obliged to nurture them. And indeed better references or a controversy may turn up tomorrow: I started Ruth Padel never dreaming she’d be in the news so prominently. I read a history book by David Gress not knowing he was going to appoint himself to climate change controversy.

So what has happened? The limited perspective that there is no real lower threshold for biography on Wikipedia has created another limited perspective, that only a radical cull and shift to a seriously summary deletionist policy on BLPs can save Wikipedia from a future as a morass of neglected gossip about real people. Some demonstrative admin actions on the site have brought the matter to the top of the agenda. These things get messy and costly in human terms, but the logjam gets broken along with the eggs for the omelette, and the real losers are peaceful editors who detest mixed metaphors. No, this is serious stuff, but the lurching motion is unfamiliar to those who haven’t seen Wikipedia in this mood.

25 January, 2010 • , ,

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