Tireless volunteer effort has turned Wikipedia into the world's most popular information source. But increasingly acrimonious arguments about what it should include threaten to split the online encyclopedia in two. Ian Douglas reports
There's a war going on behind the pages of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written and edited by its readers.Ian Douglas: how I fell in love with the iPod TouchIan Douglas: my shop has no nose
Submission of new articles is slowing to a trickle where in previous years it was flood, and the discussion pages are increasingly filled with arguments and cryptic references to policy documents. The rise of the deletionists is threatening the hitherto peaceful growth of the world's most popular information source.
|Torn asunder? Debate is threatening to rip Wikipedia apart|
Even though anyone can edit all but the most controversial pages, the English-language Wikipedia is governed by a group of a little over 1,000 administrators drawn from the ranks of enthusiastic editors. Only they have the power to finally delete an article or bring it back from the dead.
The group is forming itself into two factions: inclusionists and deletionists. The deletionists say that an encyclopedia is not a dumping ground for facts; standards of notability have to be upheld or their pages will fill with trivia. Inclusionists reply that Wikipedia's great advantage is that it has no space limit and that an entry of interest to just a few people is justified. Niche articles will never trouble most people, since access is through search.
From the articles explaining the principles on Meta-Wiki, a website discussing how to manage Wikipedia, it is clear that both groups find the other a little ridiculous and enjoy poking fun at each other.
It's on the discussion pages of articles nominated for deletion that anger creeps in. Policy documents are referred to only by abbreviations. There's WP:NEO (avoid neologisms), WP:NOR (no original research), WP:NOT (what Wikipedia is not, including a dictionary, a crystal ball and a democracy) and the favourite of the deletionists WP:NOTE (notability).
The notability debate has spread across the discussions like a rash. As well as WP:NOTE itself, CSD (Criteria for Speedy Deletion) has a lot to say about what qualifies for an entry. The often-quoted CSD article seven bans any "article about a real person, group of people, band, club, company, or web content that does not state why its subject is important or significant".
Short articles intended to be a seed for future edits (known as stubs) might not state why the subject is important, say the inclusionists, but that does not necessarily mean that it's insignificant. It might just need expanding.
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, created a stub entitled Mzoli's Meats. It was one sentence: "Mzoli's Meats is a butcher shop and restaurant located in Guguletu township near Cape Town, South Africa", with a link to a blog.
It was deleted in 22 minutes in a unilateral action by Chad Horohoe, a 19-year-old Wikipedia administrator who goes by the name ^demon.
The two weeks of furious debate that followed was summarised by user Kelly Martin, who said: "The Wikipedia that Jimbo [Wales] originally created takes short stubs like the one he created and turns them into articles; stubs should only be deleted when there is no reasonable hope that they will ever cease to be stubs. Unfortunately, in the past few years Wikipedia has changed; it now takes short stubs and throws them in the trash can, and excoriates those who have the temerity to create them. This stub is being saved only because it was created by Jimbo."
Mzoli's Meats now has an extensive entry and is unlikely to be deleted.
Andrew Lih was a well-known deletionist until recently when he became embroiled in the row over the entry for Pownce, a messaging and bookmarking website from Kevin Rose, the founder of the popular site Digg.com. The entry for Pownce, which had been written up in Business Week, was deleted as advertising until Lih resurrected it. He wrote about the row on his blog and has become a de facto spokesman for the inclusionists, and says he feels like an old hand.
"The old timers remember the early days when we used to say 'ignore all rules' and 'assume good faith', but people tend not to emphasise that now. The third or fourth generation of Wikipedians has only heard Jimmy Wales talk about the problems.
"So now, mixed in with the euphoria and positive energy it's a lot of cutting, fighting, referencing, cutting back while leaving the good stuff in. New priorities are arriving. Newer folks feel like they're wielding a machete, not planting new trees.
"A lot of the veterans see established articles nominated for deletion. They try not to be arrogant, try to be inclusive, but it's tedious after six, seven or eight times."
At this year's Wikimania conference in Taiwan, a 6ft model of Wikipedia's lettered globe logo dominated the entrance hall. At the end of the three days it was smashed and the delegates rushed to take a piece home, signed by fellow Wikipedians.
Splinter websites are already springing up to rescue articles removed from the mainstream Wikipedia. As a new generation rises that edits with an axe, the old timers' hopes of maintaining a unified Wikipedia are beginning to fade.