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. Friend of Bart

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

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

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I understand the principle

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 tvtropes.org 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?

Thanks for your comments! But...email?

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 tvtropes.org. That's where the fun is.Friend of Bart

I'm just now realizing...

Being dense, I'm just now realizing that your last paragraph referred to FOB, not Wikipedia Smiling. 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. Friend of Bart

Cross-post to WikiProject Oregon

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. Friend of Bart

Thanks for the tips!

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. Friend of Bart

BTW, some advice?

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. Friend of Bart

Thanks for your advice!

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… Smiling

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. Friend of Bart

Put "the Wiki magic" back?

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 tvtropes.org, 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. Smiling

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. Friend of Bart