by: Iqbal Mohammed

A recent post by Doc Searls narrating the near-deletion experience of his Wikipedia entry set me thinking about the debate between Wikipedia inclusionists and deletionists.

To paraphrase the debate, the inlcusionists believe that since "Wikipedia is not paper" and has no space constraints, it should contain as many articles as its contributors are willing to produce - no matter how trivial they are. Deletionists on the other hand believe that Wikipedia should follow a more stringent editorial policy and ban articles on trivial subjects - something they believe will make it a credible and trustworthy source of reference.

As the Economist article above goes on to explain, Wikipedians have created a complex quagmire of rules to judge what makes an article trivial or non-trivial. The fate of a Wikipedia article nominated for deletion rests on the application and re-application of these rules, draining deliberations and debates - and if an entry fails this torturous process, it finds itself walking the plank (as it happens, to an afterworld called Deletionpedia.)

It is a sign of Wikipedia's growing importance that a crippling bureaucracy is developing around it - apparently, entries about governance and editorial policies comprise around a quarter of its content. To most observers, this regulation and law-mongering is good news - it will make Wikipedia a bona-fide encyclopaedia, an illegitimate child finally given the legitimacy of the family name (ironically, as Britannica itself crosses over.)

But, as I have argued elsewhere, the problem lies in defining Wikipedia as an encyclopaedia - or at least in comparing it to one. In my opinion, Wikipedia was never an encyclopaedia  - it is (and should remain) a marketplace for information, where buyers and sellers meet and trade information.

Every contributor to Wikipedia brings along a bundle of information - information that either makes an entire entry of its own, or is a cog in a bigger entry. When the contributions of various contributors conflict, Wikipedia's negotiation dance kicks in - the discussion page becomes a hotbed for the deliberations and debates discussed above. Hard as it is to believe, over time this protracted negotiation does result in an unbiased and objective entry.

While this negotation works well to resolve conflicting information, I am not convinced it works as well to decide upon the triviality or non-triviality of an entry.

A long tail marketplace of the kind Wikipedia is, instead, should not decide triviality and non-triviality by itself. It should leave it to the buyers to make that decision for themselves - and strive instead to make the meta-data (the information about the information) transparent to its users.

What that would mean is to append to every page with information about its use - the number of people visiting it, for example. An entry - no matter how detailed and complete - with no visitors is trivial. Correspondingly, a stub with lots of visitors is not. That decision shouldn't at all be an administrator's to make - no matter how stringent and bureaucratic the process aiding and abetting him.

Providing visitor numbers for each entry (in one or more ways - raw numbers, comparative colour-coded gradings, percentile figures, numbers benchmarked against the most popular entry in the category, etc) will also enable users to figure out the probablity of the accuracy of an entry. The more viewers a page has, the more likely that its going to be accurate, thanks to Linus' law - "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". (I use IMDb extensively, always aware that its Bollywood information can be buggy while everything about mainstream Hollywood fare is near authoritative.)

Finally, this transparency about visitor numbers for each entry sends a valuable signal to the sellers in the marketplace. Those contributors slaving over those biographies of Pokémon characters (more than 500 detailed character biographies at last count) will probably be persuaded to abandon those entries and contribute instead to biographies of the leaders of Poland's Solidarity movement (currently, only a handful of poorly edited entries.)

Or more likely, the numbers will probably convince them of saleability of their wares.

(The likelihood of such a shift towards transparency occuring in Wikipedia's near future seem bleak though. The Economist reports that Wikipedia has not been gathering and disclosing figures about user-activity on the site for more than a year - probably because they reveal unpleasant truths.)

The real battle for Wikipedia's soul does not lie in the include/exclude skirmishes currently taking place at its frontiers. It will be fought - if ever - within the very entry that defines what Wikipedia is. And when the word encyclopaedia is dropped from its definition, Wikipedia will be free to become what it was meant to be.

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