High Programmer > Alan De Smet > Rants > Not Notable: Wikipedia's Arbitrary Deletion Policy

Not Notable: Wikipedia's Arbitrary Deletion Policy

I'm a big fan of Wikipedia. I've been using it as a reference for years. Sure, it's not perfect, but for a quick overview of a topic it's usually better than a given web search on a topic. After using and appreciating Wikipedia for several years, I began contributing. Over the last three years I'd contributed over 1,000 edits to Wikipedia. In the process I've hoped I've made it better.

I have a low tolerance for the Wikipedia haters. No, it's not perfect. Yes, there is sometimes vandalism. Sometimes outright errors and lies persist. It's a darn shame. But that's true of the web as a whole. Unlike the web as a whole, Wikipedia lets you see previous versions, is widely reviewed, and lets you make corrections.

One particular sub-group of Wikipedia haters are the "I tried editing, but they rejected my work." I largely chalked this up to simple whining. Having spent time maintaining articles, I know there is no limit to people who try to put outright bias, unverifiable and contested facts, and lots of linkspam. However a subset complain that Wikipedia's deletion policy is arbitrary. I was less certain that this was true, as I had no real experience with Wikipedia's deletion procedures.

Now I have that experience. And I'm forced to conclude that much of the criticism is accurate. In particular, regarding "non-notable" topics, it's arbitrary and uneven.

The article in question was "The Imaginary Theater Association." It's a sort of meta-group that includes other gaming groups, especially LARPing groups, in Canada. After much work, it was deleted. Here's the debate. Prior to the article appearing in Wikipedia I had never heard of the "Imaginary Theatre Association." I don't ever anticipate meeting anyone involved in the group. I think I'm a reasonably neutral party on the matter.

I can definitely appreciate why many people swear off Wikipedia after a bad delete experience. I was essentially told, "You may have spent hours of your life you've spent trying to add something to Wikipedia, but it's complete crap and we don't want it. It is hereby completely purged." Totally gone. It's even been purged from Wikipedia's famed revisions system. That's really demoralizing. There is no clear policy or even guideline that says why the article might be deleted, so this ultimately boils down to individual opinions. Given that articles of similar notability are found throughout Wikipedia, it feels very personal: why was my article deleted when all this other crap exists? Indeed, one of my gut reactions was to go on a binge of flagging other people's work for deletion out of spite.

The debate page claims, "this not a ballot". The longer explanation claims " The debate is not a vote...". Complete and utter nonsense. If it's not a vote why does the linked Dragons_flight summary tool call them votes and tally them? If it's not a vote, just a debate, why say "Unregistered or new users are welcome to contribute to the discussion, but their recommendations may be discounted..."? Surely a valid point is a valid point no matter how new the user is. Similarly, they note that recommendations by sock puppets (essentially a single person using multiple accounts to look like multiple people) will be discounted. Surely it doesn't matter if someone says the same thing repeatedly. In truth it is very much a ballot. While administrators have a fair amount of discretion, deletion is largely a vote by established users.

Of course, the group of people who vote on articles for deletion tend to be self-selecting; I believe they self select toward people who err on the side of deletion. Getting involved in deletion debates is time consuming, and ultimately not productive in the direct way that adding new content to Wikipedia is.

Now this is supposed to be a debate. Points should be raised and discussed. I brought up what I felt were serious arguments for the notability of the group. The only discussion was from one other user who declined to even vote. None of the many people who voted for deletion addressed my points. (One other user brought up the CBC video. Unfortunately his post was nearly at the last minute, so I didn't get a chance to clarify that the group in question was indeed part of the ITA.)

So the administrator has some discretion, right? So what ultimately swayed his vote? Did he consider my arguments and reject them? Or did he simply tally the votes and purge the article? I have no idea; nothing is listed.

So the majority of posters seemed content to simply say, "It's not notable" without bothering to say why, without making it clear what would make it notable. So I'm forced to engage in mind reading. Perhaps it's something in the guidelines for an organization's notability. Of course, that page clearly says, "The following is a proposed Wikipedia policy, guideline, or process. The proposal may still be in development...." Perhaps it's the core notability guidelines. They're even real guidelines, but they clearly warn "The status of this policy or guideline is disputed." There is heavy debate over the matter. But these disputed, unofficial guidelines are used as standards. Contested articles are being held to unofficial, disputed standards. Despir the uncertainty of the standards, the burden of proof is apparently on those who would vote to keep the article. As noted above, even if those who would keep the article try to meet the burden of proof, those against are free to simply ignore it and vote Delete.

It's really frustrating that these deletion policies are so inconsistency enforced. The most common critcism is why does every single Pokemon get its own full article? Does a sub-region of the Pokemon universe really have multiple, reliable, non-Nintendo sources that can be used to verify Nintendo's claims about Johto? Of course not. The reason these articles survive is obvious: Pokemon is popular; it's too easy to rally votes in defense. Only a fool would meddle in such a popular topic. So only less heavily trafficked articles are ever really considered.

In the safer topics, less popular article, why are LARPing groups like Ordo Solis, Ripen, or Brassy's Men apparently notable, but the ITA wasn't? I think the answer here is equally simple: they aren't. Such articles are commonplace throughout Wikipedia. The only reason they survive is that none of the more extreme notability police have noticed them yet. (And indeed, it looks like someone noticed the Brassy's entry. It was nice knowing you.) This summarizes why the notability deletions seem so arbitrary: they are. If no one notices an article for long enough, it can build up interested parties and is more likely to survive.

Wikipedia has plenty of space. So long as the articles are factual and neutral, there really isn't any harm to letting the more marginal articles survive. There is absolutely a benefit. I frequently use Wikipedia to get an overview of a new topic, person, or organization. Wikipedia can provide a great neutral point of view for a topic that otherwise doesn't have a lot of coverage. It's useful when you learn about an organization, but want a summary untainted by the organization's own bias. Aggressive deletion of non-notable topics doesn't benefit Wikipedia, indeed and slightly harms the value of Wikipedia as a source of knowledge. It's a damn shame to see Wikipedia's promise artificially limited by such closed mindedness. Wikipedia can be an encylopedia of Pokemon facts and is. Why can't it be an encylopedia of LARPs? Why not be an encyclopedia of web comics? (Those interested in web comics finally gave up in the face of the notability police and forked Wikipedia, leading to two weaker resources instead of one unified one.)

I still find Wikipedia a great resource, and I want to continue helping to make it better. But directly facing the notability police has put a large damper on my enthusiasm. I lack the time and interest to get involved in the politics and try and change things; I spend too much time editing articles in the first place. So the system will continue to be dominated by a self-selecting group that errs toward deleting articles and making Wikipedia less useful in a flawed attempt to keep it "encyclopedic."

Keeping a questionable notability article on Wikipedia

I have learned some things that might help people wanting to get more marginally notable content into Wikipedia. If you've got a group, person, web comic, website, or similar that you think might not be notable enough for Wikipedia's harsh and arbitrary standards, you can probably keep it in Wikipedia if you plan ahead.

First, get some friends. All of you should get Wikipedia accounts right now. Now here's the key: don't create your goal article yet. Right now you're new accounts and don't have much of a reputation.

Instead, all of you need to spend time editing Wikipedia. Focus on topics you know something about. I'd suggest at least 100 edits spread out over perhaps three months. More is obviously better; several hundred edits over a year would be great.

While you're doing this, learn the ways of the Wikipedia community. If you're really editing articles you can't help but doing so.

While you're doing this, get external web sites to mention you. Not just links, you want real mentions. Get reviews and commentary, good or bad. The two keys are volume and depth. Bigger sites count more. A paragraph discussing you is good, but a full article is better. An entry in a link database is worthless.

If you can, get some non-web exposure as well. Maybe a local-interest piece in your local paper or television news. Be sure to scan it in and upload it so other people can see it.

Now you're ready. You've got a history of making good edits on Wikipedia, which earns you reputation. You're familiar with Wikipedia's etiquette, which makes other people more likely to listen to you. You've got multiple people who presumably agree that the topic is notable, essentially more votes. You have some external links you can use to pass the fairly arbitrary "two external resources" limit. Now post your article. If, and when, it comes up you'll be better prepared to survive the resulting vote.

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