Friday, October 01, 2010


To make something, it helps to know what it is

Instead of doing something productive like folding clothes or writing Wikipedia articles, I spent a slice of my free time this afternoon looking at the links in the Navibox of Essays on building Wikipedia. It links to a number of interesting essays; not "interesting" in the sense of encouraging me to be a better writer of Wikipedia articles, but "interesting" in the sense of making me wonder about the mindset of my fellow editors.

Take, for example, this passage from the essay "Wikipedia:Bare notability", concerning research from non-web sources:

Look off the web: Visiting your local library may help. But sources found on the web are more likely to be trusted than those that are not simply because they are accessible to more people. So if an off-web source is used, try to make it as detailed as possible to increase the chances of verifiability.

The first thing I thought when I read that second sentence was, "But it must be true: I read it on the Internet." In a sarcastic tone, of course.

Of course, I changed it. My version might be considered too harsh, and might be severely rewritten by the time anyone reads this, but dammit when did it become common knowledge that the resources of your local library was always a poor second to the results of a Google search?

I wish my concerns ended there. I read a few more essays, some better thought-through than this one, until I found myself looking for a specific one, which was not there: How to research and write an article for Wikipedia. Actually, after "Wikipedia:Bare notability", I'd be happy to find an essay on only how to research an article; but essays on both would be useful.

My first thought was to consult my copy of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research papers, sixth edition, and use that to fill the need. The MLA Handbook has a useful chapter at the front on how to research and write a research paper, and after all the average Wikipedia article is a research paper. But after reading the first five pages of that book I had to put that idea aside, partly because to use it as an authority I'd have to deal with the author's assumption that a good research paper will include an idea or interpretation which has not been expressed before -- which violates Wikipedia's policy on no original research -- and explaining that away would effectively negate the MLA Handbook's value as an authority. (BTW, the major reason I had to put the book aside was that I had to get my daughter Rachel to lie back down to her nap. The joys of children!)

More importantly, I believe we would not have many of the problems over content had a definition over what is an encyclopedia. Instead we have Jimmy Wales' assertion, "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing." So instead of creating an encyclopedia, an introduction to a subject with clues to learn more about it, we have a website with the authoritative statement on practically every conceivable subject, which means a great many people have a vested interest in what it says. Not only topics about which people have killed and died over (like Israel and Palestine), or people have argued about for centuries (like any religious belief or creed), but even something like the aorist conjugation.

But this is an understandable oversight: in the early days of Wikipedia, everyone involved knew what an encyclopedia was, and knew what a satisfactory encyclopedia article should look like. However with the passing years the community around Wikipedia has changed, and I can't help but suspect a large number of Wikipedians have never seen an actual encyclopedia in book form. They have an unrealistic assumption of an encyclopedia, which is often far more serious or stodgy than the ones I used in high school were. So that horse has escaped the barn long before anyone could close the door.

But at the least, could someone write an essay on how to research a subject for an article? It would benefit both Wikipedia's reputation for reliability, as well as the new contributor who might not know about the resources available, both online and off. I would write that essay, but on one hand I suspect my reputation on Wikipedia has suffered greatly and on the other my own interest in the project has likewise suffered greatly.


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