The battle for Wikipedia’s soul

Mar 17 2008, 01:11 IST
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SummaryIt is the biggest encyclopedia in history and the most successful example of ‘user-generated content’ on the internet, with over 9 million articles in 250 languages contributed by volunteers collaborating online.

It is the biggest encyclopedia in history and the most successful example of ‘user-generated content’ on the internet, with over 9 million articles in 250 languages contributed by volunteers collaborating online. But Wikipedia is facing an identity crisis as it is torn between two alternative futures. It can either strive to encompass every aspect of human knowledge, no matter how trivial; or it can adopt a more stringent editorial policy and ban articles on trivial subjects. These two conflicting visions are at the heart of a bitter struggle inside Wikipedia between ‘inclusionists’, who believe that applying strict editorial criteria will dampen contributors’ enthusiasm for the project, and ‘deletionists’ who argue that Wikipedia should be more cautious and selective about its entries.

Consider the fictional characters of Pokemon, the Japanese game franchise with a huge global following, for example. Almost 500 of them have biographies on the English-language version of Wikipedia, with a level of detail that many real characters would envy. But search for biographies of the leaders of the solidarity movement in Poland, and you would find no more than a dozen—and they are rather poorly edited.

Inclusionists believe that the disparity between Pokemon and Solidarity biographies would disappear by itself, if only Wikipedia loosened its relatively tight editorial control and allowed anyone to add articles about almost anything. They argue that since Wikipedia exists online, it should not have the space constraints of a physical encyclopedia imposed upon it artificially.

Surely there is no harm, they argue, in including articles about characters from television programmes who only appear in a single episode, say? After all, since most people access Wikipedia pages via search, the inclusion of articles on niche topics will not inconvenience them. The ideal Wikipedia of the inclusionists would feature as many articles on as many subjects as its contributors were able to produce, as long as they were of interest to more than just a few users.

Deletionists believe that Wikipedia will be more successful if it maintains a certain relevance and quality threshold for its entries. So their ideal Wikipedia might contain biographies of the five most important leaders of Solidarity, say, and the five most important Pokemon characters, but any more than that would dilute Wikipedia’s quality and compromise the brand. The presence of so many articles on trivial subjects, they argue, makes it less likely that Wikipedia will be taken seriously, so articles

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