Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Writing articles, part V

Last weekend, I was doing a lot of edits, obeying the definition of a "Wiki-Gnome". There are a number of pages of the form "List of state leaders in year X", which serve the goal of Wikipedia by providing reference information and for which there is no reason they can't be reasonably complete. Yet many of these are embarrassingly incomplete. For example, look at the version of the page List of state leaders in 1490, which had information on only four European states: Burgundy, Crimea, England, and Hungary. (I have since fixed some of these problems.) The problem is not that this article should be Europe-centric, but that even as European-centric the article fails; one could be charitable and claim that it was Japan-centric because the most complete coverage in that version concerned the states of Japan and its neighbors -- with an emphasis on charitable.

This uneven coverage is due to a number of causes. First is the tendency of writing a stub: a brief, obviously incomplete article on a subject, which is written in the hope of attracting attention from other Wikipedians who will then grow the article. In the case of this article, it started with OldakQuill taking the standard template and adding only one entry: the Emperor of China for that year. The article grew for a couple of months, but then stalled for over a year before someone added the first entry for a European country.

This illustrates another tendency: in order to edit as many articles as possible, some editors will limit their contributions to an article to one specific change which they have an emotional investment in. That is how the version of this article I encountered lists the Khan of Crimea and king of Ryukyu yet omits mentioning the king of France or the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire -- let alone the major states in what is modern India, Thailand and elsewhere. I fear that the emergent behavior created by enlightened selfishness only benefits Wikipedia so far; the most obvious solution for quality to improve further, is to have someone familiar with the subject refactor the material and fix the problems.

That is the state of many articles in Wikipedia: glaring omissions contrasted with an amazing attention to details. And many of these omissions will not be filled soon because that requires editors to take the time to do research, to figure out how to explain the material -- and then hope that some myopic fellow Wikipedian does not stubbornly revert this contribution because of some trivial objection.

One has to either accept this drawback of emergent behavior -- or decide that in order to improve the quality of the article Wikipedia must recognize some form of authority and thereby change the environment Wikipedia has created. I'm not entirely comfortable with either option, so I'm not endorsing either; I only hope that whatever solution Wikipedia adopts will still allow contributions in some form from everyone, because experience has shown me -- and continues to show me -- that there are still too many voices that need to be included in the paradigm of NPOV.


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