Unwanted: New articles in Wikipedia

That’s a pretty provocative headline. I don’t usually do provocative headlines. But Wikipedia has undergone such a dramatic culture shift of late that it merits wider attention.

It may seem like a trivial gripe — should we care about the battle over what stays or goes in this online encyclopedia. But it’s an indication there’s trouble in Wikipedia’s community and its collective soul. Given how many people now depend on the project worldwide, it’s a problem that needs to be recognized as a threat that could starve Wikipedia long term.

In my previous post, Wikipedia Plateau, I wondered — what was happening in English Wikipedia that would cause a massive drop in new article creation?

Lots of people chimed in, with over a dozen thoughtful comments. I didn’t really buy most of the explanations. New article creation restrictions in December 2005 didn’t make sense as a reason for an October 2006 drop.

It’s clear an emergent community phenomenon was affecting new articles. And I found something startling — articles like [[Pownce]] and [[Michael Getler]], about new and old topics alike, were equally hit by this new contagion. The fate of just these two articles will surprise most Wikipedians.

Michael Getler is an esteemed news reporter having served as ombudsman for the Washington Post newspaper. He’s currently serving as the first ever ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting System in the US. As I watched the evening news the other night, he was identified as one of the journalists tracked by the CIA, revealed by the “Crown Jewels” documents had been declassified. Like any good Wikipedian, I of course looked him up right away to see what his article had.

Nothing, no article existed at all. Surprising. So doing exactly what Wikipedians normally do, I was bold, and I created a starter article:

Michael Getler is the ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting System in the United States.

External links

I’ve done this many times before — I bolded the name, made internal wikilinks, included an external source and labeled it a stub. It had all the components any experienced Wikipedian would have created.

Even a bot looking for basic “articleness” would have found this perfectly acceptable. It was a fine stub. Another user Cmprince edited it to use a more specific “US television” stub tag. Yes, this was the start of a good seed crystal that would grow.

Or so I thought.

Within one hour, a User:Chris9086 came by and slapped a “speedy delete” notice on the page. The “pink slip” read:

This page may meet Wikipedia’s criteria for speedy deletion. The given reason is: It is a very short article providing little or no context (CSD A1), contains no content whatsoever (CSD A3), consists only of links elsewhere (CSD A3) or a rephrasing of the title (CSD A3). If this page does not meet the criteria for speedy deletion, or you intend to fix it, please remove this notice, but do not remove this notice from pages that you have created yourself.

What the… what manner of… who the… how could any self-respecting Wikipedian imagine this could be deleted?

I’ve been an editor since 2003, an admin with over 10,000 edits and I had never been this puzzled by a fellow Wikipedian. Did he even bother to check the subject matter, or my user page to see my track record? I wrote on his Talk page:

…the speedy deletion tag on Michael Getler is inexplicable. Since he is the first-ever ombudsperson for PBS is not only notable, but extremely notable. — Fuzheado | Talk 19:54, 27 June 2007 (UTC)

In the meantime other Wikipedians came and added more to the article. Finally, eight hours later someone (User:JPD) removed the obviously inappropriate deletion notice. Chris9086 eventually got back to me with a one liner:

It was one sentence long when I added the tag. Chris9086 02:28, 28 June 2007 (UTC)

That was his justification for deleting it. Incredible. This user was so specialized in the chapter and verse of deletion criteria, yet he had no idea about Wikipedia’s communal editing culture, its collaborative spirit or the classic essay “The perfect stub article” and its modern recommendations. I was tempted to write a nastygram, “You have a problem. You have a deletion hammer, and everything looks like a nail.”

Showing some Wikilove, I decided not to. It was an isolated incident, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Until today.

While traipsing through the blogosphere, I read a post that complained that the new web site Pownce.com did not have a Wikipedia article.

I said to myself, “Oh whiny blog, of course Pownce has a Wikipedia page.”

Pownce was created by the famous entrepreneur and podcaster Kevin Rose, the founder of digg.com. If there’s anything Wikipedia is good at it’s tech stuff, the new hottest Web 2.0 projects. I just saw a BusinessWeek article out talking about Pownce.

“Let me prove you oh-so-wrong by clicking in Wikipedia and … what the?!”

Here’s what [[Pownce]] read:

View or restore 37 deleted edits?

Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name.

How in the wiki gods could this be? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

The message about “37 deleted edits” is a bit unusual even to experienced Wikipedians. It’s a message only an administrator (like myself) can see, because admins can view deleted versions, undelete articles and restore pages.

I was flabbergasted. I went into the deleted history, and examined the last version that got deleted. It had an infobox with hard statistics, a “see also” section, external links, the works. The text started:

Pownce is one of the latest entries in the world of online social networks. But unlike similar websites, its focus is not on meeting people. Pownce is centered around sharing messages, files, events, and links with already established friends. It was created and currently maintained by Digg founder Kevin Rose, with Leah Culver, Daniel Burka, and Shawn Allen.

Since the launch on June 27, 2007 new members can only join by friend invite or e-mail request.

Now this is not the best article in the world. It’s got some marketingspeak, but it’s not unsalvageable. Yet folks nominated it for deletion, and it was indeed deleted, by claiming:

Previously speedy deleted as spam. While on DRV, where all opinions were to endorse the deletion, the article was recreated. This is advertising about a non-notable website. Corvus cornix 20:02, 8 July 2007 (UTC)

DRV is Deletion Review. Call it what you will — the zombie graveyard, the last chance saloon of Wikipedia. It’s basically the ash heap where you can revive articles that have been deleted. The article was originally deleted when four users — Evilclown93, Blueboy96, Ke5crz and Xtifr — all voted to delete. Only User:DGG had any sense to wait for a DRV outcome.

But at DRV, where you get some more eyeballs to second guess the decision, it was also unanimous delete. Three users all voted to keep it deleted — Corvux_cornix, Stifle (what a appropriate name), and Radiant. The lone voice of dissent was user Tawker.

It’s incredible to me that the community in Wikipedia has come to this, that articles so obviously “keep” just a year ago, are being challenged and locked out. When I was active back on the mailing lists in 2004, I was a well known deletionist.

“Wiki isn’t paper, but it isn’t an attic,” I would say. Selectivity matters for a quality encyclopedia.

But it’s a whole different mood in 2007. Today, I’d be labeled a wild eyed inclusionist. I suspect most veteran Wikipedians would be labeled a bleeding heart inclusionist too. How did we raise a new generation of folks who want to wipe out so much, who would shoot first, and not ask questions whatsoever?

It’s as if there is a Soup Nazi culture now in Wikipedia. There are throngs of deletion happy users, like grumpy old gatekeepers, tossing out customers and articles if they don’t comply to some new prickly hard-nosed standard. It used to be if an article was short, someone would add to it. If there was spam, someone would remove it. If facts were questionable, someone would research it. The beauty of Wikipedia was the human factor — reasonable people interacting and collaborating, building off each other’s work. It was important to start stuff, even if it wasn’t complete. Assume good faith, neutral point of view and if it’s not right, {{sofixit}}. Things would grow.

Today, {{sodeleteit}} is the norm. And it’s not with a smile, regret or even a note to the user. It’s usually in insultingly bureaucratic code: “Salt it… A7 and G11… DRV“.

It’s like I’m in some netherworld from the movie Brazil, being asked for my Form 27B(stroke)6.

If anyone knows all the codes on the Deletion Criteria page, you are a danger to Wikipedia. You are a menace. Because it used to be that users thought about the value of an article first. As a thinking individual and Wikipedian, you were expected to decide based on its merit, rather than trying to shoehorn it into a deletion category.

It was never like this before. What’s happened?

In a drive for article quality, there have been new policies: citing references, writing biography of living persons and picking reliable sources. They are all good things, but if and only if they are coupled with existing community values that built Wikipedia — assume good faith, don’t bite the newbies (or even oldies), use the talk page, open lines of communication and support each others’ work. We’ve lost these values. The community has gotten so big you cannot recognize people anymore. It lost the village feel a while ago, but it’s not even a town or city anymore, it’s on the cusp of becoming an impersonal bureaucratic slog depicted in Apple’s 1984 video.

What can we do? Can the community model be rehabilitated? I welcome suggestions, from Wikipedians, technologists, sociologists, urban planners, anthropologists and anyone with a clue.

There’s one thing I can do. Take it back, one article at a time. Educate the young folks, that it’s not about forms, A7, G11, not using edit summaries and ignoring talk pages.

So here goes my voyage into gonzo journalism. I’m undeleting [[Pownce]] now. Unilaterally. It’s out of process, and it may cause a stink. But I’m being bold in restoring the article, and maybe restoring a bit of Wikipedia’s heritage.

And I’ll report back what happens.

UPDATE: I’ve undeleted the article with this message:

I am undeleting Pownce in the name of common sense. There was an era in Wikipedia when a web site detailed in Business Week [1], started by a prominent Internet entrepreneur, and widely spoken about on the Internet would be more than ample notability to be included. So I am making this stand in the spirit of Wikipedia, for its original roots, for its community values and the triumph of rational thought over mindless A7, G11 and DRV nonesense. I claim this article back in the grand tradition of the wiki. I hope you will join me. — Fuzheado | Talk 22:30, 10 July 2007 (UTC)

UPDATE: Kelly Martin seems to have been inspired by my complaining about this oddity in IRC the other day. Here’s her take on Pownce in Wikipedia.

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