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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 • , ,


The responsibility of Wikipedia in the wider world

Jim Redmond has a post on his blog that almost read my mind, called One thing that Wikipedians often overlook: not everybody gets it:

Most non-Wikipedians still don’t get how Wikipedia works; they still think that its content is centrally controlled.

This is part of the reason this week we saw the SMH report More woes for Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, about Jeff Merkey’s claims of “cash for kindness” or donations for Wikipedia article editorial favours.

When Wikipedia was small and ranked on the 10th page of Google results or worse, it didn’t matter so much if a person’s Wikipedia article was full of nonsense. But when your Wikipedia article can rank higher than your official site, you have a problem. That’s the major reason for the English Wikipedia policy, Biographies of living people. I really recommend having a look at it, even if you’re familiar with the acronym.

Biographies of living persons (BLPs) must be written conservatively, with regard for the subject’s privacy. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a tabloid; it is not our job to be sensationalist, or to be the primary vehicle for the spread of titillating claims about people’s lives. An important rule of thumb when writing biographical material about living persons is “do no harm”.

Jimmy Wales has made it clear repeatedly that Zero information is preferred to misleading or false information.

And that is why you might blank a poorly written article about a controversial figure.

It may be hoping too much to ask the general public or the media to understand the purpose and process of OTRS, but it is worth noting that it is a private method of complaining about one’s article. It’s a selection of trusted volunteer editors working together with WMF staff and board (when appropriate) to answer the questions of those who can’t or won’t use a wiki talk page, but can use email.

It is, quite frankly, thankless and largely invisible work. If disputes are resolved successfully, you’ll never hear about it.

As the figurehead for Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is often approached or written to personally, by people that should actually be writing to OTRS, but the process is too esoteric to figure out. It’s rather like contacting Rupert Murdoch to complain about an article by a staff writer in some random NewsCorp paper, except that Wales takes it on himself to be involved in this resolution process, rather than palming it off to a secretary.

So in blanking Merkey’s article, Wales was actually following the single most ethically serious policy Wikipedia has, showing that Wikipedia is not an anarchy or a free-(libel)-for-all, but a project that takes the responsibility of high web visibility seriously and tries to minimise the negative impact it has on people’s lives.

And while Wales was acting to minimise the harm Wikipedia causes in other people’s lives, the news media shows that when there’s a whiff of controversy, that idea doesn’t apply.

If you had even the vaguest idea about how Wikipedia works, you would surely reject out-of-hand as unlikely if not ridiculous, the idea that Wales would offer editorial favours in exchange for donations. Because he better than anybody knows how impossible that is. The whole article history is right THERE.

But if Wikipedia is just a big black box that somehow produces timely articles, then it is not an unreasonable idea.

Ultimately, recent new stories say to me that while Wikipedia has developed responsible processes over the past couple of years, it has done an extremely poor job at communicating their existence to the outside world. So it’s not enough to be big; we really do have to try and get everyone involved. Only by being a part of it, and understanding how it works, will people know enough to be able to dismiss nonsense claims when they see them.

If Wikipedia was a type of travel, at the moment it’s somewhere between a rocket and a aeroplane, in terms of accessibility and participation and general understanding of how it works. There’s still too much that’s mysterious and seemingly random and magical.
Reading and editing Wikipedia needs to be as familiar as riding a bicycle. Almost everyone can do it, with a few hours practice and maybe some training wheels. No special test or license. You can go anywhere. That’s what Wikipedia needs to be like.

14 March, 2008 • , ,

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