The great Wikipedia debate: should it be quality or quantity?

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Janice Tibbetts

There is a war raging behind the scenes at Wikipedia that is threatening the online encyclopedia’s mantra of being a forum “where every human being can freely share the sum of all knowledge.”

A dispute over whether volunteer administrators have become too deletion-obsessed has produced two clashing factions within the ranks of Wikipedians, sparking enthusiastic and sometimes ugly sparring on blogs and discussion groups.

On one side are the come-one-come-all inclusionists, who argue there are no space restrictions, so why not include articles that have limited interest?

, who counter that the hugely popular compendium — which marked its two-millionth English entry this fall — should focus on quality rather than quantity.

Wikipedia administrator Andrew Lih, a former media professor who is writing a book about the six-year-old venture, has accused it of developing a “soup Nazi culture,” referring to the fierce gatekeeper on the TV program Seinfeld who tossed out customers if they didn’t comply with the arbitrary rules at his soup stand.

“One of the things I noticed in the summer of 2007 is that I started to see a sharp, sharp turn in what people considered newsworthy or inclusion-worthy, things that I thought would be pretty obvious a year or two ago,” Lih said.

While Wikipedia invites readers to edit and add to entries, only about 1,000 volunteer administrators — picked from the legions of regular contributors — can delete or resurrect articles.

Thousands of entries are discarded daily, the vast majority because they are ridiculous by anyone’s standard or because they are considered to be inaccurate vandalism.

Some entries meet the rules for “speedy deletion” and can be eliminated on the spot. Others are shipped to an articles-for-deletion page for a debate on whether they meet inclusion criteria.

Wikipedia now is more about being cautious, erring on the side or removing stuff rather than keeping stuff, and that’s a huge cultural shift from the beginning days, when it was ‘let’s keep adding stuff,'” said Lih, noting that new entries have dropped dramatically.

“The preference now is for excising, deleting, restricting, information rather than letting it sit there and grow.”

Lih, a deletionist-turned-inclusionist, confesses that he switched sides after one of his articles about a new social networking site, called Pownce, was wiped off Wikipedia by an administrator who dismissed it as free advertising. Lih hastily resurrected it.

Simon Pulsifer, one the world’s most prolific Wikipedians, said he has noticed lately that some of his earliest articles have vanished, including one on Ottawa‘s second-tallest building, Minto Metropole.

He said he waited a few days and then quietly restored the entry, hoping nobody would notice.

“I always get annoyed when something I’ve written has been deleted,” said Pulsifer, who parks himself in the inclusionist camp.

“What makes Wikipedia strong is having wide coverage,” said Pulsifer, who has written about 3,000 articles and contributed to about 90,000 more.

“More articles attract more users and it doesn’t really matter how large [an article] is, as long as all the information can be easily verified and accurate and ensured to be neutral.”

A Wikipedia entry on Pulsifer, who gained fame for being the biggest contributor to the online encyclopedia, was on the chopping block last year but it survived after contentious debate.

Three months ago, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales found himself at the centre of a week-long deletion furore after he posted a single-sentence entry on Mzoli’s Meats, a butcher shop and restaurant in Guguleto township near Cape Town, South Africa.

appeared, it was deleted by a young administrator who declared that it met the criteria for speedy deletion because the restaurant was too obscure to be noteworthy.

After much debate, which included accusations that Wales was getting preferential treatment, the article survived.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

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