Wikipolitics: Part 1

Recently, I went from being a normal web user (or as normal as us internet people can be) to being a Wikipedian. Wikipedians are people who edit the Wikipedia; the open content online collaboartive encyclopedia. For those of you who aren’t familiar with wikipedia, or, if you read pages from it sometimes, but haven’t been involved with its editing, or even if you are a veteran wikipedian who is curious as to the reaction of a new member, I am going to share my experiences and observations. If your experiences and observations differ, feel free to share them via the comments.

I have used Wikipedia for a while, mostly to satisfy personal curiosity about some topic I wasn’t clear on or some term I’d heard mentioned. One of the people who lives on my floor in my dorm had taken a more active role in the Wikipedia community, fixing typos, adding content, and so on.

It was at his suggestion that I got a user account, and began participating in the wikipedia process. At first, I was participating oblivious of the community that exists; as I imagine most first time editors do. I think the nature of the wikipedia encourages this type of participation, initially, and the result has a profound effect on how one responds to discovering the community of editors.

Any group that shares a common function, whether that function is to play baseball or collaboratively edit an online encyclopedia, will trend away from being several people cooperating, and form a coherent community. And communities have customs and taboos.

Now, because you can participate in the wikiprocess (note: wiki is considered a valid prefix in some circles) without having any awareness of this community, one can easily go against custom without being aware of it. It is advised that wiki-veterans not bite the newcomers, but, understandably, sometimes their tone can be hostile when they’ve had to correct the same error hundreds of times or deal with the same misunderstanding repeatedly.

One thing the Wikipedia lacks is a cohesive process for “training” new members. However, there is good reason it lacks this: the last thing you want to do when your existence depends on a volunteer army of internet surfers is make the process of joining more difficult than it needs to be. You want to make joining easy, and then just hope people learn the ropes as time goes on.

After a brief stint of light editing, I stumbled across Votes for Deletion. What I did not at first realize is that this is perhaps the most political aspect of Wikipedia. In fact, at the time, I imagined wikipedia to be without politics. Now, when I say politics, I am referring not to governmental affairs, but instead to wikipolitics; the policies and attitudes that people support and have in virtue of their ideas of what Wikipedia is meant to be.

If any wikipedian considers an article to be deficient, they can nominate it for deletion by editing the page itself to add a deletion notice and by listing it on the Votes for Deletion (VfD) page. Then, concerned/interested wikipedians add their vote and some sort of justification (using the term very liberally) to the VfD page, and, when rough consesus is achieved, the group-preferred action is taken.

Articles get nominated for a lot of different reasons. A non-exhaustive list is: The article is unexpandable, the article belongs on a different project (wiktionary, wikisource, etc.), the article is a joke or nonsense, the article’s subject is not notable enough, the article is a copyright violation, the article’s subject cannot be addressed neutrally, and so forth.

Now, there are definitely VfD regulars, and after spending a fair amount of time browsing the votes on VfD, the patterns to their votes (for those who have patterns) become readily evident.

I was astounded when I discovered that there was a page which, in effect, was a battleground for people’s views about Wikipedia policy. Now, the simplest way to put it is that Wikipedia is governed by direct democracy. There is no rule-making body save the community itself, and while there are editors who have been designated sys-ops or administrators, from what I understand, their role is exclusively to enact whatever consensus is achieved by the community as a whole.

Now, the politics that I’m talking about aren’t liberal or conservative biases in articles (although some people do submit material that is biased), but between different ideas of what wikipedia’s goal is/should be.

On one end of the spectrum you have the group of people who envision Wikipedia, eventually, being a catalogue of pretty much all knowledge ever. From things as miniscule as the acting credits and biography of an extra from an episode of Friends, or say, every individual Pokemon to things as important as World War II or Christianity. Their all too often used motto is “Wikipedia is not Paper” which apart from being true in a literal sense, is used to indicate the idea that, since they do not suffer the physical space/cost limitations a traditional encyclopedia does, because disk space is cheap, and text files are small.

At the other end of the spectrum are Deletionists. They want Wikipedia to be a professional quality collection of articles on encyclopedic topics. B movie actors and Pre-schools do not usually make the cut, by Deletionist lights. Their fun motto about what Wikipedia isn’t is “Wikipedia is not a junkyard.” This motto, shares the quality of literal truth with the Inclusionist counterpart, and is meant to point out that just because you could have an article on every Pokemon by no means guarantees that you ought to or even that it might be good to have an article on each individual pokemon.

Now, politics can be irrelevant on wikipedia, and they can also be very influential. An editor could abstain from and ignore participating in any of the political goings-on, and merely edit pages that need editing. And indeed, many do. But, as I discovered, wikipolitics are alluring. I read about the different factions on wikimedia which is a wiki whose content is about other wikis. After careful consideration I threw down with the inclusionists.

In the next update, I will talk specifically about becoming an Inclusionist and how that has impacted me and my involvement with wikipedia.

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