Wikipedia: Inclusionists vs. Deletionists

Jason Scott, of and BBS: The Documentary, presented a talk on the failure of Wikipedia at Notacon 3 this weekend. I highly recommend listening to his talk. It's fascinating-- full of insights into what makes Wikipedia work so well, but specifically highlighting some of the social problems they've run into as they grow.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

The big problem with inclusionism is that the deambiguation pages become more and more cluttered. Really, that’s the only major problem you get from having the data (unless you look for it, it isn’t going to be found). The mission of the Wikipedia itself makes it fairly clear that inclusionism is going to prevail.

What I find odd about the deletionist attitude is that the the “junk” pages take up negligable bandwidth, storage space and administrative resources (if you exclude the arguments between the two groups that is). If one is going to worry about deleting everything that isn’t “interesting”, why not worry about all the “junk” pages on the Internet proper? Perhaps go on a quest to rid the Internet of all myspaces pages as a start? Perhaps a good book burning is in order as well, with all the romance novels making great kindling?

Deletionism is just a form of censorship. An elitist form perhaps, but nothing more. If the mission of the Wikipedia is to index knowledge, why should elitists get to decide what knowledge? The criteria should be instead the quality of the knowledge being presented.

Maybe one guy thinks comics shouldn’t be indexed because they are cultural trash, while the next thinks information about video games should likewise be discarded. The third thinks all TV related information is irrelevant. If everyone who thinks information should be deleted is allowed to act, only the common denominator pages of every culture, viewpoint and interest will be left.

Which probably isn’t very much.

Deletionism is just a form of censorship. An elitist form perhaps, but nothing more.

Just to play Devil’s Advocate: what is preventing us, ultimately, from having a Wikipedia entry for every man, woman, and child on planet earth? Or every street in every city?

I am definitely not a deletionist, but there has to be a line, right?

The problem with being a Deletionist is that, like it or not, the internet is a giant Katamari Damacy-like ball of stuff.

With a creationist viewpoint taken to its logical extreme, at what point does Wikipedia stop being Wikipedia and start being… well, the entire internet? Should the one authoritative page on any topic BE Wikipedia? That’s one a-spicy meat-a ball! And probably far too much power for any one site.

Example. One thing that particularly aggravates me is the way movies have their own pages in Wikipedia. I prefer movies to stay on, and I view the Wikipedia movie entries as very weak subsets of what I could already find on IMDB.

But I think you need to consider the unique nature of Wikipedia - it is an online, dynamic site. There is opportunity to filter and rank the information based on page visits, external links, etc. So I think you can have your cake and eat it too: inclusionists can put whatever they want on the site (including a boring entry about yours truly) and deletionists can use Google or some other ranking system to find the signal within the noise. You could even put a proxy-like site in front of Wikipedia that only returns pages that have a certain rank or visit count. Deletionists can use that as their entry point.

There is opportunity to filter and rank the information based on page visits, external links, etc

But we already HAVE a system like this. It’s called “The Internet”. So Wikipedia either A) becomes the internet-- the source of all knowledge, or B) subsumes all content on the internet.

I’m not sure people understand how quickly Wikipedia could grow, like a virus, to dominate the #1 spot in search rankings for every keyword imaginable. I’ve read, repeatedly, that an absurdly high percentage of searchers only click on the first returned search result.

Think about what this means!

In any case, this Jimbo* dream of an editorless world seems wholly unsustainible to me. It LOOKED like it worked until they outgrew this paradigm.

  • aside: why would you, as a grown man, willingly choose to let people call you “Jimbo”? MY NAME IS JEFF, BUT MY FRIENDS CALL ME SLAPPY!!!1!

Jason Scott’s 5 Wikipedia predictions for 2007:

By 2007…

  1. Wikipedia will no longer allow anonymous edits of any kind.
  2. Wikipedia will have to split off “user space” from “Encyclopedia space”.
  3. Jimbo Wales will be either ousted or have his power curtailed relative to Wikipedia.
  4. Wikipedia will make it almost impossible to edit entries on living people (or any entity that can sue).
  5. Wikipedia will add advertising (banner ads, text ads, or pop-ups).

Maybe I’m a little too cynical, but I think a lot of teenagers in need of purpose and direction have decided to camp out on Wikipedia, Google some topic, then simply rewrite whatever information they can find on it. Nothing like the illusion of helping - by performing glorified copy and pasting, we build knowledge that nobody could possibly find with one of those darn search engine things.

And then you get an illusion of the “perfect truth” as a sort of bonus. So when, in the future, you “wikisearch” those specifications for a rocket (or whatever you like), go ahead and make it, everything goes pear shaped, your rocket explodes and the chicken soup gains sentinence and starts slathering all over your kitchen on world conquest, who’s to blame?

Surely not the guy who pressed “edit page” and changed some numbers without researching them! No, Wikipedia has angry users battering each other over the real way of pronouncing the name of an alien on Star Wars, a strange “if you can find some random web-link that agrees with this fact it is true” system and an awful lot of things prefixed with “wiki”. Lots of monkeys, lots of typewriters. What COULD go wrong?

These are the ingredients for a perfect utopia of information! BOW TO THE NEW INTERNET!

In all seriousness though, Wikipedia has had some success. I admit I use it for a brief overview of a subject I’m not accquainted with jus to get a ‘feel’, but I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole if I wanted to be SURE of something.

Sorry for the double post, SLAPPY!!1, but in paragraph two, “(or whatever you like)” should read “or chicken soup, for that matter”. That remark didn’t just come out of nowhere, y’know.

But we already HAVE a system like this. It’s called “The Internet”. So Wikipedia either A) becomes the internet-- the source of all knowledge, or B) subsumes all content on the internet.

I think that’s a huge oversimplification of what the internet is. Will retail web sites be part of Wikipedia? Will historical archives of news groups be entries in Wikipedia? Will every photo on Flickr become an entry in Wikipedia?

I just don’t see how you can make a leap from Wikipedia having a liberal policy about including articles to subsuming all content on the internat. That’s crazy talk!

My point in my previous post was that technology can be used to support both an inclusionist view of Wikipedia and a deletionist one. They don’t have to be exclusive. And my suggestion about ranking goes beyond a Google search - only Wikipedia can gather statistics about what pages people visit, what order, links they follow off pages, etc. They can build a more intelligent ranking (and thus filtering) system based on actual usage - not on external links back into the site. They can serve up a complete view of the site and a most-popular/viewed version at the same time.

Its like having the complete Britannica encyclopedia and the two-volume condensed version all in one.

I like to think of Wikis as small world-wide-webs and as such they are full of good and bad information – in my opinion mosty good but I guess it depends on the tolerance level of the reader :slight_smile:

The question of where does the web ends and Wikipedia is an interesting one but then again I think of Wikis as sets that union and intercet with the WWW…just like encyclopedias overlap and complement with each other.

Dude! Monica Rambeau was in the last Black Panther, saving New Orleans from honky vampire throwbacks with T’challa, Luke Cage, and Blade. Plus some voodoo guy.

Also, she’s in Warren Ellis’ NEXTwave, which is basically just Ellis’ transcribed morning grumblings with underwear pervert illustrations to go with. Very situationist, but instead of trite Marxist critiques you get the old-man-noises of a broken-headed English pubhound.

So yeah, she deserves her own damn Wikipedia page. At the very least.

There is a difference. Wikipedia at least has pretensions to being an encyclopedia, and it succeeds surprisingly often. The core idea behind it is the antibody theory - if one nitwit puts crud up there, then a non-idiot will remove the crud. Assuming more non-idiots than nitwits, you end up with a mostly factual system.

It is not quite so easy to fix the ‘internet as a whole’, because I cannot edit your site, and you cannot edit mine, at least in the general case.

So, while I agree that IMDB is a better store for the facts it contains, there are facts that do not have a dedicated database on them. For those, the wiki model might just be the best way we have found yet to self organize.

In general, I am more on the inclusionist side, as long as the pages stay real and stay relevant. I do not care whether there is a page about Sailor Moon, nor about the high school I went to. I do care that there is a very good page on military unit sizes, roman legion practices, and the various Claudian emperors. Other people will have different priorities, of course, and thus we will find all of the above reasonably well updated. Pages with a single entry, and that kinda flawed do need to be deleted in my opinion, because what makes Wikipedia work is the group effort and the group correction.

Put another way, as long as it represents a community consensus on knowledge, then it has some degree of utility. When it represents an unedited junk pit, then we start to get ambiguities and problems.


I tend to err on the inclusionist side purely because I use wp as a first stop for finding out anything. If someone mentions a comic book character, and I don’t know who the hell they are, I want to be able to wp them and find out who they are. I personaly wouldn’t care most of the time alot of detail, only what comics they had been in. But the point is, I’d like that information to be there should I need it.

Interesting speech. But “the Great Failure of Wikipedia” is so much hyperbole. Has wikipedia has its problems and growing pains? Sure. Has it fallen short of the grand visions Jimbo laid out for it? Undoubtably. And if the stars were easily obtained, we would not reach for them.

What one cannot ignore is that wikipedia has also enjoyed outrageous success in some ways. Wikipedia’s high PageRank, its reputation as a generally accurate, well-edited, and informative source is not for nothing. Is it a 100% accurate? No, but nothing is. Is wikipedia close enough to 100% for most practical purposes, I think the answer is an obvious yes.

Wikipedia, because it is an endeavour of men, cannot avoid politics. This is true. But the presence of politics is not an indication of failure, it’s just an indication of humanity at work. Sure, wikipedia has had its embarassments. But there’s a huge difference between “failing” and “being a failure”. The United States has failed many times; read our the history of our nation and you’ll find countless ways that we’ve failed to live up to the lofty goals our Founders had for us. Are we a failed state? I think not. The American Experiment is incontrovertibly nowhere close to being thrown onto the scrap-heap of history.

So it is with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is first, an innovative idea; secondly, a decent real-world implementation of that idea; but above all, it’s a research project – a project with kinks to work out and things to improve upon. The inclusionist / exclusionist debate is one such kink. I think eventually the wikipedia nation will come to the consensus that there’s no way to objectively basis to determine what’s “notable” and “not notable”, that it’s better to err on the side of too much information than too little, and this founding principle will be modified – just like the idea of “protected pages” modifies the principle of “an encyclopedia anyone can edit”, just like the Civil War put a stake through the heart of the idea of states with broad rights and near-total soverignty working under a weak federal government.

I still don’t think people appreciate that Wikipedia is growing exponentially. Today, it’s a fraction of the size it will be in a year. It’s already a force to be reckoned with right now. Imagine the monster it’s going to become, with pagerank hovering near 10 and a near-monopoly on a huge swath of search keywords.

And as that pagerank and search dominance goes up, so do the stakes for gaming the system.

Wikipedia isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary. I worry that it is too much of a good thing.

Also, Coda Hale, you should apply for a job at Vertigo Software:

Here’s the link to the transcribed talk, if you don’t want to listen to the audio:

I still recommend the audio if you have time. The delivery is excellent.

It’s a particularly sappy and particularly naive way of looking at the world, but it’s worked (wonder of wonders) so far

I would argue that it has worked so far because there wasn’t much money at stake. Now that wikipedia has grown so much – with such a strong pagerank across so many keywords – it becomes a question of who gets paid, and how much?

Money tends to poison processes like that.

I know of very few pieces of software that have the wiki ethic of “anonymous you have the power to change anything at any time.”

I agree. I think it’s a foregone conclusion that Wikpedia will completely disallow anonymous edits.

“I think it’s a foregone conclusion that Wikpedia will completely disallow anonymous edits.”

I’m not sure what this means. On the internet, everybody is anonymous.

True, signing up for an account is an extra hoop to jump through, and there is SOME control … but realistically it doesn’t change much. Wikipedia will still be the public encyclopedia anyone (with an email address) can edit.

It’s not gonna be the massive sea change everyone thinks it will be.

First of all, I’d like to say I reference Wikipedia all the time for various bits of information. The fact that I choose Wikipedia as my source for such information is, at least to me, proof that it is a success.

As for the addition/deletion argument, I say add, add, add and never stop adding. It’s all about growth – moving forward. The whole reason we’re all here able to have an argument about a website and the culture surrounding it is because mankind is constantly moving forward; innovating, advancing, learning, adding.

I know it’s the extremely liberal position, and I can understand other viewpoints, but I am completely against censorship. I love when people push the envelope and rage against the machine. Let people add obscure comic book characters.

All knowledge is good knowledge. Keep adding, keep learning, keep growing.

I think the main question to answer is who gets to play “interesting” nazi and will that person of body of people have the same general thoughts on what is interesting as every single person who accesses Wikipedia. I don’t think that is achievable because what is interesting to me is not neccessarily interesting to my wife or the guy making my latte at Starbucks.