Thursday, January 17, 2008

 

Is Wikipedia Losing its Potential?

It's a familiar story, maybe bordering a little on urban legend: parents go out of town for the weekend, leaving their teenage son at home. Free of parential oversight, he throws a party and invites everyone he knows and more, and trashes the house. Then the parents come home.

In essence, this is why the case of Corey Delaney is notable, and worth a mention in Wikipedia. What many 15-year-old boys talk about doing, what their parents fear they might do, and what has become the plot of countless movies and television episodes, Delaney did. And it was a blow-out of a party: according to one source, this young Australian threw a party that attracted as many as 500 people, and required a platoon of police, supported by dogs and a helicopter to break it up. For a while, he was on the run from not only the authorities, who wanted to serve him with a bill for the damages, but an even more intimidating nemesis: his parents.

When I was his age, over here in the US, my wildest dream was getting my hands on a six-pack of beer and a cute girl to drink it with. As irresponsible as it is to say this, part of me admires him -- even though he looks like an ersatz pimp in his oversized sunglasses and unbuttoned shirt.

Yes, someone created an article about him in Wikipedia. And yes, the article was deleted, someone insisted that the discussion for deletion should be hidden (after all, Delaney is a minor), and the deletion argument continued to deletion review. (For those not in the know about Wikipedia culture, this is a process that, in some ways, is more like asking your dad for something after your mother has said no than appealing a judge's decision to a higher court.)

I didn't get involved in this argument, in part because I discovered it long after the battlelines had hardened and it was clear that the article would stay gone, but also in part because the battlelines over this notable event had been drawn far differently than they should have been. What is notable about this incident is not Corey Delaney himself -- but the wild party itself. In my, perhaps twisted, opinion the story would have been just as notable had this party been thrown by Delaney's best friend -- or the nerdiest guy in their high school class. However when people heard about this incident, their response was to create a new article about Delaney -- who might change his ways, and decide not to continue the path of being famous because he's well-known, and instead become something less notable like a fireman, an investment fund manager, a Microsoft employee, or a Wikipedia editor.

Instead, this was an incident that should have been added to an existing article. There, the entire matter could have been covered in a few sentences, properly sourced, handled and forgotten. (Maybe I'll make that very edit in a few months -- if I remember to.) These kinds of wild, teenager-created parties do happen; I remember reading how these kinds of parties were a chronic nuisence in the Hamburg, Germany area in a German newsmagazine. Further, many years from now when someone, who remembers that this incident did make the news, and wants to now more, the first place she or he will start looking will not be under this kid's name, but under something more generic, like "party".

But there's a more troubling problem here than just a fight over whether we should have an article. It is an amazing lack of imagination, a quality which continues to grow. In some ways, our choice of new articles -- and their treatment -- on Wikipedia betrays a very conservative approach to possible topics. Instead of organizing information in new and intellectually stimulating ways, Wikipedians are instead modeling their approach in the ways most familiar and accessible to them. Jimbo Wales made a call over a year ago to improve the quality of Wikipedia articles; for many, this apparently means making Wikipedia more like a circa-1955 version of Encyclopedia Britannica than the Encyclopedia Britannica!

Not to say that I have surpassed this race towards mediocrity: almost all of the new articles I have recently created are about settlements -- villages and towns -- in Ethiopia. One could say that I'm not writing an encyclopedia, but a gazetteer; I have the notes for writing an account about a religious dispute of the Ethiopian church, a subject I doubt exists anywhere else online or in print. And writing that article and making it available for free to everyone, would doubtlessly encourage someone who is an expert -- in other words, someone who knows something about the subject -- to write a better account.

The last is just a thought I have when I wonder what I should be working on for Wikipedia.

Geoff

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Comments:
Sometimes I wonder if Wikipedia should be split into two projects. On part could be re-named the "Encyclopedia of Pop Culture". The popculturepedia could be creative in manufacturing new catgories and page names that reflect what is new in the world. The other half of Wikipedia would be the more conventional part....more concerned with with the kinds of topics seen in conventional print encyclopedias of the previous century.
 
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