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Wikipedia makes me cry

I said a while back that I was done with contributing content to Wikipedia. I'll stand by this. But I've been at least willing to contribute typo fixes and clarifying text, as long as I could do it anonymously.

Now I'm closer to being done with that too…

I was reading about Jim Crow Laws in Wikipedia today, and found an ugly little sentence that began "In 1913, for instance, the acting Secretary of the Treasury—an appointee of the first Southern-born president of the postwar period—was heard to express his consternation…" It seemed to me that adding actual names with wiki links might improve the sentence substantially. The sentence pretty clearly was referring to Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the most racist president in our nation's history (although James Buchanan was pretty bad).

I then looked for the edit button—and found that the page is locked. That's OK—I'm sure a page like "Jim Crow Laws" is a frequent target of racist garbage, so that makes sense. I next tried to find where in the revision history the page was locked, and where in the talk section it explained why. No luck: the revision history had no obvious explanation, and the talk section was pretty clearly an evolving set of page amendments that people couldn't get onto the page because it was locked, rather than actual discussion. There was, however, a hint that I could edit the page if I logged in.

I don't want to do edits on Wikipedia as myself; I want to do them anonymously, to reflect my lack of support for the organization. I thus decided to create a second account for myself. The first time I tried, I failed the CAPTCHA test. I was pretty sure I had typed it right, but oh well, I tried again and got past that hurdle.

Then I hit the final roadblock. The page informed me that an automatic username policy checker had decreed that my chosen username of "WikipediaFixer" violated the username creation policy of Wikipedia. So I went to the provided link to this policy (which is, by the way, not obviously available through Wikipedia's search function).

Oh my. The username policy of Wikipedia is about 2500 words. I kid you not. It wasn't obvious that "WikipediaFixer" violated the policy, but it wasn't obvious that it didn't, either.

Anyhow, by this time I had expended enough effort trying to make Wikipedia better—especially since I now had a long blog entry to write. I suppose I'll still do whatever typo fixes and minor corrections to Wikipedia that it lets me do truly anonymously. However, my commitment to helping Wikipedia has just gone down again.

I hadn't quite realized that was possible. Fob

[For an example of what a real public wiki is like, and how great it can be, I'd suggest starting at It's not Wikipedia.

Update, a few minutes later: I note that the Wikipedia entry for is marked for deletion due to lack of "notability" and of all things "verifiability". Hah. Go go Guardians of the Purity of Wikipedian Knowledge!]


Bart, speaking as one of the more visible "Wikipedia guys" in Portland, I wish you had contacted me about your disillusionment earlier. Maybe I might have started pushing for change sooner -- a change I think many of the experienced Wikipedian volunteers would agree the project needs.

You are right about why the article is protected from anonymous editting, although indefinite protection in this case is not a recommended best known practice. As for your user name problem, based on my experience I expect any user name with the word "Wikipedia" in it would be prohibited because of the number of troublemakers who have abused that name. (Although the motivation might also be related to trademark paranoia -- those decisions are made by people I don't talk with, & probably have never met.)

While I have the access rights to fix many of the problems you encountered, I would agree with your implied point that this would only be adddressing the symptoms, not the illness here. Many people in the Wikipedia community have grown quite insular & forget that they need to include the vast number of people outside of it in their audience & decisions. Fighting the monsters that plague Wikipedia has turned many of them into monsters themselves. Many of the veteran members, I suspect, arrive at this conclusion which leads them to leave; I know I've been wrestling with this conclusion for a while now.

Maybe the time has come to simply drop the "anybody can edit" part from the motto, much as the day once came when Linus no longer accepted patches from just anyone.


I think the phrase "the Wiki magic" is due to Wiki inventor Ward Cunningham, and describes a cool thing that can happen with publicly editable wikis such as, and happened in the old days with Wikipedia, where almost no governance is needed. It turns out that given half a chance the editing public will do something pretty cool on their own, although it may not be exactly the thing you wanted or expected when you set the thing up.

Obviously, some controls are needed: some minimal mechanisms to cut out the worst of the outright spamming, defacement, and shock and hate speech. Maybe for Wikipedia there needs to be some way to ensure that things that are verifiably untrue or obviously defamatory circumvent the "edit war" process. Other than that, though, I think that anything should be fair game.

In particular, I have seen no identifiable benefit of the "notability" and "verifiability" criteria of Wikipedia. As I wrote in my earlier piece on the subject, with disk space practically free and Google doing an awesome job as the default Wikipedia search engine, if everybody the world wants to create a vanity page for themselves it's no skin off my nose.

(Interesting math: about 4.5B adults world wide at 1000 chars per vanity page = about 4.5TB of storage = about $4000 at current prices. Google indexes about 10B pages right now, so it would notice this pile of pages, but presumably they would choose to index less than 1% of them, which would put the whole thing in the noise.)

I guess what I'm espousing is letting us help Wikipedia fight its demons, instead of creating its own that fight us too. Smile

Sorry to have not explicitly included you in the earlier conversation, Geoff. I thought I'd discussed these things with you at Bar Camp a year ago, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to keep badgering—my memory mistake. Perhaps you'd accept as mitigation the excuse that I have had so many great conversations with so many people (including yourself) about so many things over the last couple of years that I'm just not smart enough to keep it all straight?

Thanks much for your insightful and measured response to my perhaps less than politic rants. Honestly, I (and a lot of other folks who feel as I do) only get so exercised because Wikipedia has been so good and yet we know it can be even better.

Death to Nupedia. Fob

I noticed while digging through the minor edits I've done over the past year that a bit of text I deleted from "Strongly connected component", namely "and from v to u" in the first paragraph, has been restored. This clause is mathematically ridiculous and more than a little confusing, but I don't want to start an edit war by deleting it again. What would you suggest that I do in this situation?

Thanks much for any advice you might have. Fob

Normally nonsense or confusing edits in an article tend to stand out, & are corrected by other readers -- or so the theory goes. And if you consider that there are a lot of intelligent people out there who may not be experts in a given subject -- yet have the critical & reasoning abilities to identify B.S., this is not an implausible theory. However this article, "Strongly connected component", is an example of where the theory doesn't work: it is written at a technical level. One could say it was written by experts for experts, not for the average layman. As a result, errors creep in either due to cranks quietly slipping their nuttiness into the article -- or due to amateurs or students who don't entirely understand the subject.

I feel the second possibility -- that people don't always understand a given subject, yet believe they do & edit accordingly -- is more often the case. These people aren't kooks or stupid; they may be, indeed, very bright people. But the material is difficult, which leads them to perpetuate mistakes they aren't aware of. Watching this happen time & again makes me very worried that I may be doing the same thing.

I mention this possibility only because I suspect this is what is happening here: on one hand, I understand what you are trying to say (the relationship is not always symmetric), yet I also understand what this editor wants to say (that u & v are strongly connected not only if u & v are directly connected, but u & v are also directly or indirectly connected). What helped me to make sense of all this what to understand the graph on the right which showed examples of objects that are strongly connected.

I would rewrite the lead in this article to reflect my interpretation if it weren't for that, as I wrote above, I have learned to be cautious: I know I can be wrong. I would post a question on the Talk page asking if my understanding was correct -- but I suspect that the right kinds of people don't visit this article often enough to get a useful answer.

I guess this is a roundabout way to draw attention to one of Wikipedia's Best Known Practices: Wikipedia: Bold, revert, discuss. The idea is to draw out other editors by making bold changes then discuss the edits. Sometimes they are, indeed, idiots or troublemakers -- but one never knows until one starts to talk with them. (The problem then becomes how to convince other editors that your opinion about this person is correct, & it should be promptly acted on. Smile


I certainly didn't mean to imply that the person who reverted my edit was malicious: I'm sure they're just confused. I note that you're confused as well, which lends credence to this theory… Smile

For any proposition P, the following two statements are logically equivalent:

forall a, b . P(a, b) and P(b, a)   [eq1]
forall a, b . P(a, b)   [eq2]

To understand this, you just need to understand how "forall" works. The variables a and b in [eq2] range over all possible values. So let's say that a=5 and b=7 at some point, and that we thus have that P(5, 7) is true. Then later, since a and b range over all values, we'll have a=7 and b=5, and so P(7, 5) is true. The second clause in [eq1] is just redundant: it doesn't hurt anything particularly, but it's anti-idiomatic to those who understand math and not terribly helpful to those who don't since it makes things look more complicated than they actually are.

I guess the obvious way to fix it is to try to rewrite the sentence so that it is more formal and less mathematical. I'll give that a try and see how it sticks.

Thanks for your help. Fob

One option, when you can't edit an article from an IP address because it's semi-protected, is to post a comment on the talk/discussion page of that article, explaining what change you think should be made to the article, and why. Ideally you'll cite a source, particularly if there is a content dispute, but for copyediting/typos, that's not necessary, of course.

(And, as an aside - if you had succeeded in getting a new account set up, you'd still have to wait until you became "autoconfirmed" in order to edit semi-protected pages. Currently that happens four days after registration, but it looks like that is about to change, to something like seven days PLUS at least 20 edits. That's to reduce vandalism, which it certainly will, but it would be yet one more rule change that will - at least slightly - further impact new editors.)

It's good to know what the procedure is, and what's happening.

As I said above, one of my concerns with the "Jim Crow Laws" article is that it has collected quite a pile of suggested edits on the Talk page: it didn't seem like adding to that pile was a terribly good idea.

It seems like protected and semi-protected pages should have a designated official "guardian" who will respond personally to requests for page changes in a timely fashion. This would help everyone, and probably would cut down on the number of protected pages due to the limited number of people willing to assume this role when proposing protection. Fob

Bart, I believe we talked at BarCamp '07 about some of your Wikipedia frustrations.

I'm sorry to hear about your irritating experience. I share your concern that Wikipedia is evolving in an overly bureaucratic direction, that often makes it hard to do things that should be simple.

Much of it results, I think, from the ambitious nature of the project. Building an encyclopedia is an inherently complex thing; add in the desire to accommodate anonymous edits, and the desire to prefer the use of free images over copyright-protected ones, and various other factors, and you wind up with a pretty overwhelming set of goals that often come into conflict with one another.

Viewed from that perspective, I think one could make the case that it's pretty astonishing Wikipedia has come to anything at all.

Anyway, I'd like to echo my friend llywrch's comments. If you encounter frustrating situations like this, feel free to contact me, and I'll try to help out if I can.

It's my firm belief that local communities will be of critical importance in making Wikipedia truly user-friendly, and helping it to achieve its full potential. That's why I helped establish WikiProject Oregon's blog, which we hope will be an effective way of reaching out to our fellow Oregonians, and helping make Wikipedia make a little more sense.

Thanks much for your kind comments last year and on this blog. I know most of the Oregon Wikipedians are trying hard to make the best of what Wikipedia is doing.

I think part of the problem I and others have with Wikipedia comes from questioning the concept of what an encyclopedia is and should be in the context of a Wiki. Somewhere between Britannica and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy lies a reasonable compromise.

I was really interested in the first article I saw on your WikiProject Oregon site, about "How to publish a photo on Wikipedia." The solution turns out to be…email? It's nice to know, I guess, but when one has to submit content by email then IMHO the website has just failed one of the most fundamental tests of actually being a wiki!

I fully understand the legal and ethical issues raised by Wikipedia around photos. However, these same issues of licensed use surely arise to some degree in text as well? In any case, having the photo submitted by email seems to me to be neither necessary nor sufficient to establish the licensing that is required—it seems like just another technical hurdle to getting content onto the site.

Anyway, I definitely look forward to the continuing conversation. Like I say, if you get bored in 'pedia world, come help us out at That's where the fun is.(B)

Bart -- I'd say that Wikipedia is more about harnessing the collective resources of the world, than about promoting any one piece of technology. At this point in its evolution, email is the simplest system we have for photo submission; sure, it leaves some things to be desired, but it gives people with little time to invest in learning an upload system and copyright law an easy way to contribute their photos.

There's room for growth, no doubt -- and I think photo uploads is in need of improvement more than most areas. But, give us a chance -- these things take time!

(by the way, do you think I could persuade you to cross-post your comment on our blog, so I can answer over there? We're getting a ton of traffic -- over 200 hits so far -- but the discussion is slow to get going!)

I'm be happy to do the comment cross-posting to WikiProject Oregon if I can figure out how. I'm assuming the way to do this is to respond to your comment on my article in "Roundup of blog posts"? What exactly would you like me to do?

I sort of feel like I should write a longer, more coherent piece about my views on Wikipedia. I'll try to find time RSN. Fob

Well, what I had in mind was that you just comment right on the blog post about submitting photos, but I guess it depends on what you have to say! Post in whatever thread you like. Or, if you'd like to do a guest post of your own on our blog now or in the future, that might be a good way to get the discussion going.

I personally think it's really important to get specific feedback from folks like you who have been frustrated, but understand the potential value of the project well enough that you haven't despaired of giving feedback. It's the main reason I advocated for starting the blog. Hopefully, we can address some of your concerns, though it will of course be a slow and gradual process...

I just looked at the Jim Crow laws article. Looking in the talk page archives (the protection was in fact noted noted, it was just back in the archives), I found that it was initially semi-protected due to recent vandalism. So, I un-protected it.

I should note a couple things: first, this is one of my first actions as an administrator, and it's quite possible I have a rude awakening in my near future. If the vandalism comes on fast and furious, the article may need to be re-protected.

Also, I think there's good reason for making the block "indefinite," or at least not advertising how long it is, in a case like this; if you advertise how long the block will last, you essentially invite the vandals to come back on that date. So, in a way, it's a good thing that the block lasts until someone explicitly undoes it.

By the way, you can always request an "unblock" on the talk page, if you like...or make a request at the administrators' noticeboard...though, of course, many admins have a different approach to this sort of thing, so there's no guarantee such a request would be honored.

(p.s. as long as we're complaining about bureaucratic techo-nonsense, I was just told I couldn't use my name because it belongs to a registered user...but this so-called "registered user" has not yet been approved to log in! What's up with THAT?! I had to use my full given first name...eeew! Wink

Being dense, I'm just now realizing that your last paragraph referred to FOB, not Wikipedia :-). Hey, it only took me 6 months.

What happened here, of course, is that you had signed up for an account under your name, but I hadn't yet approved it. It has been approved for some time now, though.

I agree that it's a bug in the Drupal comment module that anonymous users can't use the same name as registered ones; the anonymous users are clearly marked "(not verified)" in their signatures, which should be sufficient. Someone should file a bug report with Drupal about this.

Thanks for unprotecting "Jim Crow laws"! It looks like it didn't stick, but oh well. As I said in my original post, I think having a page like that protected, even indefinitely, is perfectly reasonable. It would be nice to have someone moderate content from the corresponding talk page onto each protected page on a semi-regular basis, but that's asking a lot…

It's so frustrating to me that the Wikipedians I know and interact with are wonderful people who do such great things for the project. I just wish the central governance could be half as good. Fob

On Wikipedia, articles are not eligible for deletion if they are written poorly, only if the subject is not worthy of an encyclopedia (ie someone writing an article about themselves).

I understand the principle behind the notability rule. I just don't agree with it.

The idea that having e.g. President Jimmy Carter write an article about himself is not OK, even though anyone else is welcome to, is just silly.

The rule is also applied in a crazily uneven fashion. For example, the entry for was marked for deletion, as noted above. However, the other day I ran across an entry for the Quatama / NW 205th Transit Center on the Portland MAX line. Can you honestly tell me that the latter entry is more notable than the former.

Finally, I don't see why anything need be excluded on notability grounds. In 2008, disk space is literally on the order of .00001 cents per article and getting cheaper; bandwidth should be practically free for articles no one cares about and therefore no one reads. I believe it would be best to let Wikipedia be as complete as possible, and let notability take care of itself to some degree.

Perhaps there could be a category of "officially endorsed" articles or some such thing, to provide an intermediate step between deletion and full support?

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