Friday, March 4, 2011

Boing Boing gets it wrong on Wikipedia deletions

Boing Boing today has an item about the deletion of a Wikipedia article on the seminal gaming website Old Man Murray. Like much outside coverage of Wikipedia deletions it is hysterical and inaccurate.

A lot of people don't seem to grok the idea that you can delete things from Wikipedia. People who can largely grasp the concept of "the encyclopedia anyone can edit" choke on the idea that those same people can delete things too. But it's not that simple; any single person can edit, but a single person can't delete an article, they can only suggest that an article be deleted. This is done on a page called Articles for Deletion. When the article is submitted to this page, a discussion begins, with references to Wikipedia policies and guidelines and reliable sources about the subject of the article. For some reason, the idea that, on an encyclopedia anyone can edit, anyone can suggest something be deleted makes them go absolutely apeshit. Someone who would never blame Wikipedia as an entity for something like an eight-grader changing George Washington's occupation to "ass pirate" reacts like a hysterical lunatic to a deletion discussion: OMG THOSE WIKIPEDIA BASTARDS WANT TO DESTROY MY FAVORITE THING AND ALL THAT IS GOOD IN THE UNIVERSE. Sometimes, a specialized blog or message board gets wind of the discussion and the fans descend like locusts on the discussion, armed with profanity and little else.

Look, anybody can edit. Anybody can suggest things be deleted. Some guy even proposed that the article on Jean-Luc Picard be deleted and he was laughed out of the virtual room. And yet, somehow, Wikipedia and the universe survived. Deal with it.

It's bad enough for random forums and blogs to perpetuate this, but it's unfortunate and bizarre for the tech-savvy Boing Boing do so as well. Rob Beschizza of Boing Boing takes it one step further into insanity and instead of blaming some anonymous mass of Wikipedians, he specifically name one person, some poor schmuck named Ben Schumin. By following Wikipedia's proper procedures for suggesting an article for deletion and having a bunch of other Wikipedians agree with him in a public discussion open to all, he has "quietly orchestrate[d]" the elimination of this article.

There's a bunch of problems with this piece, primarily the focus on Schumin. The title of the piece is "Did an old grudge get Old Man Murray deleted from Wikipedia?" But the question of the title quickly becomes a statement of fact - Beschizza calls it "a fact not disclosed in the nomination" by Schumin in the third sentence. What is this grudge? Beschizza quotes the blog Rock Paper Shotgun: "It is claimed in the discussion page on Wikipedia that Schumin has a long-running dispute with OMM." What is the grudge? What is the dispute? No one seems to know or is willing to spell it out, but anonymous comments on a website anyone can edit have made their way to a becoming statement of fact on one of the internet's more popular websites.

This is the height of irresponsibility, not just because of the dubious factual inaccuracy, but also because of the asymmetric warfare going on here. Beschizza has access to one of the most prominent platforms on the internet and when he presents allegations about Schumin as fact, Schumin has no similar platform with which to respond. (I suspect Beschizza would be willing to print or excerpt a response from Schumin, but Beschizza would be the gatekeeper.) Wikipedia may be one of the most used websites on Earth, but that doesn't grant any particular Wikipedian any piece of that traffic. It's not like Schumin can post a response on the front page of Wikipedia, right under the latest news from Libya. The best he can do is post a message on his user page, where few will likely read it. This bizarre mix of visibility and powerlessness makes individual Wikipedia editors particularly vulnerable to people with large platforms and/or persistent insanity. The website, to its discredit, does little to protect individual editors of the consequences of pissing someone off and there are plenty of examples of victimization at the hands of everyone from random internet trolls to a vengeful Hollywood producer. It's sad to see Boing Boing participate in that sort of thing by passing off anonymous allegations about some random editor as fact.

Those sorts of allegations are distressingly quite common on Wikipedia and are one of the least fun things about editing there. For a large percentage of trolls and combative editors, allegations of "bias" and "conflict of interest" are thrown out as an opening gambit. It is distressing to see so many evidence-free allegations thrown at Schumin in the deletion discussions and it was irresponsible of Wikipedia editors and administrators not to remove them. So does Schumin have a grudge against OMM? He may very well have one, but it doesn't matter. The proposed deletion should have been decided on its merits, and a bunch of Wikipedians did and decided they agreed with Schumin.

Beschizza writes "a useful resource is history" as a result of this discussion. You may agree because you know that OMM was a genuinely important website. But the discussion wasn't so much "Is OMM important?" but "Does this article demonstrate that OMM is important?" and "Does this article establish that using reliable sources that belong in an encyclopedia?" Many of the people attacking Schumin in the discussion merely asserted the importance of OMM, self-evident to them but not to someone who never heard of it. Others claimed that sources were provided by the dissenters, but most of those "sources" were passing mentions of OMM. At the time of its deletion, most of the references in the OMM article were to the website itself or message board posts. This clearly wasn't enough to support an encyclopedia article, which should not rely on message board posts, anonymous allegations, or self-interested assertions.

The article has been restored through the deletion review process and is now full of proper references. If half the energy devoted to attacking Wikipedia and demonizing Schumin had been devoted to improving the article, it never would have been deleted in the first place. Deleting the article was the wrong decision in the long run, but this mistake (one easily corrected through deletion review) isn't an excuse for the opprobrium directed at the website and largely defenseless individual editors. Based on the evidence available at the time, it was the right decision.

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