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Is It Time To Reboot or Replace Wikipedia?

Date/Time Permalink: 03/02/11 06:36:42 pm
Category: General

The idea of free information lies cheek-by-jowl with the idea of Free Software. Indeed, open-source program code is simply the freeing of software information, point-blank. And if the web does not exist to make as much information available to as many people as cheaply as possible, then what, exactly, do we have the World Wide Web for?

There's been a growing amount of outcry against the perceived bias of Wikipedia editors. Just recently, the gaming site "Rock, Paper, Shotgun" has called for salvation of the Wikipedia entry for the now-defunct "Old Man Murray" website.

Wikipedia editors always give some outlandish reason for kicking content off the site, and yet I almost never see these methods applied democratically. What is notable, what is reliable, what is a source, varies depending on which editor is interpreting the rules that day. In any case, you can forget the "anyone can edit" part. You're either a member of The Old Boy's Club, or every attempt you make at improving anything will get incinerated as soon as you do it.

The struggle for credible sites to get equal treatment becomes a Kafka trial. "Old Man Murray" was deleted because a third party had not written about it in a non-trivial way. Ironically enough, the Wikipedia entry for "Rock, Paper, Shotgun" carries the warning:

"This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party publications. Primary sources or sources affiliated with the subject are generally not sufficient for a Wikipedia article."

And indeed, of the seven citations given under references, six point to the domain rockpapershotgun.com itself, and the other one is a link to Amazon for a book written by Jim Rossignol, one of the authors of the site itself.

Try this: hit that handy 'random' button on the left sidebar of any Wikipedia page and see what kinds of references are left to stand undeleted, year after year, on article after article. Here's a random sampling of what I got in just a few minutes:

  • Sarajevo in ancient times - No citations.
  • Jakarta International College - The only reference cited leads to a dead page! I especially find these all the time.
  • 1981 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships - Two references, two dead links.
  • The Economy of Esteem - It's an article about a book, and the only citation is its own book! That's great. But doesn't that count as "citing oneself"?
  • I'll Be Your Shelter - A 1990 Taylor Dayne hit; we all remember it if we were paying attention in 1990. But the only reference provided for all of this information points to a web page that simply lists the song - name-artist. Where do you get who it was written by and what else she wrote and who did the backing vocals out of all that?
  • Flow On - But this article about another music single doesn't cite anything.
  • Gordon Van Gelder - The only reference cited is a link to a message board forum. One where anybody could create an account and post whatever they wanted to. Note that it does have a pile of external links, which look like they should be in the reference section.
  • Kolga-Jaani - This geographical stub references a site written in a language other than English (I don't know what language). This is another common problem I see a lot; how do you verify information when you don't speak the language the original material is in? At the least, an English Wikipedia page should reference an English source.

Now, I'm not saying that the above articles are false or anything. I'm also aware that somewhere in the Byzantine maze of Wikipedia rules there might be justification for the application of policy in some of these articles. It's just hard to see why they are still living and breathing while the pages referred to in this list of 15 deleted articles got the ax.

But a lot of the deleted entries recently could have motives attached.

Wikipedia has become a walled garden. Arbitrary rules are hammered out willy-nilly and applied by rogue editors with agendas on top of agendas, and anybody cannot fix it. Which wouldn't irk me so much if they didn't have the gall to collect $16 million in donations last year.

Update 3/4/11 The Old Man Murray story hit Boing Boing and now the O.M.M. entry is reinstated in Wikipedia (at least while everybody is watching). One case got media attention and got immediately corrected; how many more dozens of cases will go unknown and unjustified?

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