Friday, August 21, 2015

Don't put all your eggs in one Wikipedia

If you have ever tried creating a wikipedia article on a not so popular subject you know how it gets flagged for speedy deletion even before you make the second edit on the page.

For example, I recently tried creating a page for Swathanthra Malayalam Computing which anyone active in the free software sphere of Kerala would be knowing about. But, it was soon deleted. I have a fairly good understanding of how the WP:NOTE policy works and I was fairly convinced with my knowledge of reliable sources that SMC is notable enough to warrant an inclusion in Wikipedia. So, I started trying to convince the administrator who deleted the page (a non-Malayali, non-Indian) to restore the article. After at least 4 hours spent in writing essays to convince him, the article was partially restored to my User space. I was then asked to edit it, get it reviewed and then move it to the encyclopedia.

This ruthless deletion of content can be understood from one point of view - that of maintaining a high quality encyclopedia which gives people immediate access to a brief summary of a certain topic.

But that's where Wikipedia (or rather Jimmy Wales) becomes slightly hypocritical and arrogant. It's claimed (by who? by Jimmy Wales and many others) that Wikipedia is trying to give people free access to the sum of all human knowledge.

Is this realistic or true? Can Wikipedia be the sum of all human knowledge? Assuming Wikipedia gets enough donations to run millions of servers. Can it include the sum of *all* human knowledge? Or, more importantly will it?

Wikipedia quite clearly allows only encyclopedic knowledge to be included in itself. And there are quite a few guidelines on what content belongs to Wikipedia and what doesn't. This very fact shows that "encyclopedic" is only a subset of all human knowledge and has two corollaries:

  1. wikipedia is not the sum of all human knowledge
  2. the editors will constantly be under pressure to categorize any knowledge as encyclopedic and non-encyclopedic and omit some of the information

This is a handicap wikipedia has put on itself to make itself useful for someone who comes in for a superficial knowledge of a topic. Thus wikipedia easily becomes a ready reference to get an overview of things. But it becomes impossible to go deeper on anything.

And this compulsion to trim articles by removing some facts selectively paves way for problems like the hegemony of asshole consensus.

I believe the problem is that we try to put all our eggs in Wikipedia because we're mistakenly led to believe that only the content that exists in Wikipedia is the content that is worthy of knowing. (Because you see, Wikipedia is the sum of all human knowledge). This is both false and stupid.

Who decides notability on Wikipedia? The editors, based on notability guidelines. And who decides that? People like Jimmy Wales and editors who have significant majority or influence over the policy formation process of Wikipedia?

Currently notability is heavily relying on reliable sources. Who decides reliability? In a world where censorship and political correctness is not unknown, is there a way to be sure that reliable sources are telling you the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Does these policies and guidelines take into account the perspectives of people who are under-represented on Wikipedia?

How different is Wikipedia from a multi-author blog? Does having a million editors automatically make Wikipedia infinitely better than a blog if what the editors can and cannot do is decided by a smaller set of people?

But, are you saying all codifiable knowledge should go on Wikipedia? Shouldn't there be some kind of curation or peer review of what is right and what's wrong?

What I am saying is that Wikipedia should stop claiming that it is the summum bonum of human knowledge. (This should also help them be less arrogant when trying to push Wikipedia as the only website that people need access to)

It is not, and it can never be.

The closest it can come to that is to become a great foundation for building a federated system in which people can easily get started codifying all the knowledge that they happen to have. In fact, by creating mediawiki software they've done a great deal towards that.

The next step they should embark on is federation. Federation instantly solves all the problems that I mentioned above. Because if one wikipedia doesn't like your content, there would be another wikipedia to accept it. Instead of spending all your time and effort in convincing a random white male admin that your article is worthy or notable, you can spend it on writing down all that you know about your subject on a wiki where it is welcome.

But remember that this is already how the Internet is. The Internet is decentralized and federated. "Knowledge" on the Internet is uploaded by whoever is interested. People have to spend some energy in figuring out what is correct and what's wrong. Instead of censoring anyone, the Internet allows everyone to speak. Peer review and content curation is implemented not by removing content, but by adding more content. If there's something wrong on the Internet, there'll be another article on the Internet explaining why it is wrong.

Wikipedia can help a lot if it tries to facilitate this process by encouraging federation. But instead if it tries to be a centralized authority, it is hampering access to knowledge.

In other words we must give Wikipedia only the importance that it deserves - just another multi-author website on the Internet. Wikipedia is not the sum of all human knowledge; the Internet could be.

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