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March 22, 2006

Wikipedians vs. Bloggers

Wikipedia is an incredibly useful research tool.  It can be wrong; articles can be badly written; it is sometimes hacked and sometime manipulated.  All of those occasional annoyances are trivial given the advantages of scope and currency which Wikipedia has.  But Wikipedia is somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to blogs.

[Note: If you’re not familiar with Wikipedia, go here and look something up as you would in any encyclopedia.  Then look something else up.  You’ll be amazed.  Even more so when you realize that Wikipedia articles are posted by volunteers – often anonymously – and, with several small exceptions, anyone can post an article and anyone can edit any article anyone posted.  Somehow it works almost all of the time.  Obviously, NO source, online or offline, should be trusted all the time and without verification.]

Wikipedia is particularly useful to bloggers since it’s there, available, as we compose online AND because we link to Wikipedia articles (although we CAN’T be sure they won’t change between the time we cite them and the time our readers follow the link to them).  I know there is a big overlap between those who read blogs and those who use Wikipedia; I suspect there is also a large overlap between those who write and comment on blogs and those who post or correct articles on Wikipedia.

But Wikipedia is somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to blogs.

I realized this shortly after I created a Wikipedia article on advisory capital (a term Stowe Boyd introduced and many blogs are discussing) when the article suddenly disappeared.  “WTF?” I asked myself.

Turns out that it was “speedy deleted” by a Wikipedia editor (there is such a thing – something like a sysop on a message board used to be). The reason given was “lack of context” which basically means the topic was made up out of the blue. The deleted article list pointed to the deleted article policy which told me how to appeal a deletion. I did.

The process is interesting. I posted an appeal. Other people agreed that the article did not qualify for SPEEDY deletion but, because it was based on blogs, might also not qualify for retention. By consensus, they decided to resurrect the article but put it on the list of articles which are proposed for deletion. The decision was that there had been a process error but perhaps not a substantive one.

The article came back. Immediately there were a couple of recommendations for its deletion, this time with due process. Grounds this time are that the term is a neologism – a made up word. Neologisms are allowed when there is evidence (search engines allowed) that they are actually in somewhat widespread use. New words often start as neologism – Wikipedia lists both “blackhole” and “neologism” as example of respectable words which began life as neologisms.

Of course, I cited the hundreds of references to the term which can be found in both Google and Technorati but these references are all in blogs. And current Wikipedia verifiability policy says: “Anyone can create a website or pay to have a book published, and then claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason, self-published books, personal websites, and blogs are largely not acceptable as sources.”

The policy also says: “One of the keys to writing good encyclopedia articles is to understand that they should refer only to facts, assertions, theories, ideas, claims, opinions, and arguments that have already been published by a reputable publisher.”  In other words, self-published articles are not welcome as sources for the self-published encyclopedia. Huh!?

Wikipedia policy makes a good argument that readers should have sources to check. I do check the sources cited in Wikipedia articles often. But I neither agree that traditional media sources are particularly reliable – we do remember several recent incidents in the New York Times, don’t we? – nor that self-published sources should be ignored.  It’s enough to cite the sources and allow the reader to decide what credibility to give them; it’s not helpful for the editors of Wikipedia to decide which sources are credible although they should be applauded for insisting that sources be cited.

The example of “advisory capital” is a trivial one but a good illustration. Within a few months use of the term “advisory capital” will either have died out or been picked up by the traditional media. According to some interpretations of Wikipedia policy, the article will become appropriate once the term appears on a dead tree. The irony is, of course, the traditional media will have picked the term up from the blog discussion which Stowe Boyd started.

Obviously blogs are authoritative and verifiable as a source for what is being discussed on blogs – the claim I’m making for advisory capital. But it is an oxymoron for Wikipedia to disdain self-published information on any subject. Sure, most individual bloggers (including me) have earned little public credibility. Individual contributors to Wikipedia don’t have individual credibility either. But the aggregate of the information and opinions presented on blogs or Wikipedia articles is an extremely useful source. There isn’t much difference between bloggers and Wikipedians.

One of the many strengths of Wikipedia is that everything including policy is open to discussion (altho Wikipedia disclaims being a democracy).  Searching for my missing article and the reasons for its demise, I joined the WikiProject on Blogging to better integrate Wikipedia and blogs.  You can join or lurk as well if you’re interested.

The discussion on whether or not to delete the advisory capital article is here. Not sure how that’ll come out (only one vote to keep so far) but I’m more concerned with the overall issue of blogs as one of many useful types of source than with this particular article.

Even given its current antiblog bias, Wikipedia is a great source and one worth improving.

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