March 22, 2008

Something wiki this way comes

Geoff Pullum has now written a spirited defense of Wikipedia.  I applaud.  But on one point I have to issue a warning, having recently read Nicholson Baker's "The Charms of Wikipedia" (a review of John Broughton's Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, yet another splendid volume in the O'Reilly series of computer books) in The New York Review of Books (3/20/08, pp. 6-10).  What's at issue is Wikipedia as a boundless resource (unlike conventional print encyclopedias) -- this in face of an enormous number of entry deletions (Baker says about 1,500 a day), some of them removing clearly nuisance items, but some of them performed by "deletionist" editors bent on purging the site of entries they view as insufficiently important.

I admit to having a personal interest in the question.  At least once, my own entry has been proposed for deletion as nonnotable (it's been preserved, but at the "stub" level), and so have the Eggcorn and Snowclone entries.  For the Eggcorn entry, a small campaign was mounted to demonstrate to the Wikipedia gate-keepers that the eggcorn idea had been cited a number of times in reputable newspapers and magazines.  The experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

Baker was obsessed with Wikipedia for some time -- contributing content, editing, righting error, and rescuing threatened entries.  He reports (p. 10):

In the fall of 2006, groups of editors went around getting rid of articles on webcomic artists--some of the most original and articulate people on the Net.  They would tag an article as nonnotable and then crowd in to vote it down.

Randall Munroe's xkcd strip (seen here on Language Log a number of times) was deleted and then restored.  Here's an xkcd riff on Wikipedia -- entitled "Wikipedian Protester" and captioned "SEMI-PROTECT THE CONSTITUTION":

There are rays of (somewhat ironic) hope.  Baker notes that

... as of January, an article about "Deletionism and inclusionism in Wikipedia" ... survived an early attempt to purge it.

It's still there.  (And see Nicholas Carr's blog entry from 2006 on deletionisn -- "Wikipedia is not a junkyard", it's an encyclopedia -- and inclusionism -- "Wikipedia is not paper", it's a wiki.)

Baker concludes:

... I have a secret hope.  Someone recently proposed a Wikimorgue--a bin of broken dreams where all rejects could still be read, as long as they weren't libelous or otherwise illegal.  Like other middens, it would have much to tell us over time.  We could call it the Deletopedia.

[Addendum: I should have realized that a site of this sort already exists: wikidumper, a Wikipedia rejects site started in November 2006.  Hat tip to Marnee Klein.]

Language Log presence on Wikipedia: an entry for Language Log itself; non-stub entries for John McWhorter and Geoff Pullum; stub entries for Heidi Harley, Dan Jurafsky, Paul Kay, Mark Liberman, Geoff Nunberg, Barbara Partee, Sally Thomason (with a link to a page of her artwork), Ben Zimmer, and me; so far as I can tell, no entries for the rest (Lila Gleitman and Roger Shuy should certainly be in there).

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 22, 2008 10:52 AM