Wikipedia warriors hit delete

Janice Tibbetts, CanWest News Service  Published: Thursday, December 27, 2007

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Simon Pulsifer of Ottawa is credited with writing about 3,000 articles for Wikipedia.Rod Macivor, CanWest News ServiceSimon Pulsifer of Ottawa is credited with writing about 3,000 articles for Wikipedia.

It has quickly become one of the most popular sites on the Internet, but a behind-the-scenes battle at Wikipedia is threatening the online encyclopedia's mantra of being a forum "where every human being can freely share the sum of all knowledge."

A dispute over whether volunteer administrators have become too quick to delete entries has produced two clashing factions within the ranks of "Wikipedians," sparking enthusiastic and sometimes nasty sparring on blogs and discussion groups.

On one side are the inclusionists, who argue there are no space restrictions, so why not include articles that have limited interest?

On the other side are the deletionists, who counter that the compendium, which marked its two-millionth English entry this fall, should focus on quality rather than quantity.

Wikipedia administrator Andrew Lih, a former media professor who is writing a book about the six-year-old venture, has accused it of developing a "soup Nazi culture," referring to the fierce gatekeeper on the television program Seinfeld who tosses out customers if they don't comply with the arbitrary rules at his soup stand.

"One of the things I noticed in the summer of 2007 is that I started to see a sharp, sharp turn in what people considered newsworthy or inclusion-worthy, things that I thought would be pretty obvious a year or two ago," Mr. Lih said in a telephone interview from Beijing.

While Wikipedia invites readers to edit and add to entries, only about 1,000 volunteer administrators, picked from the legions of regular contributors, can delete or resurrect articles. Thousands of entries are discarded daily, the vast majority because they are ridiculous by anyone's standard or because they are considered to be inaccurate vandalism. Some entries meet the rules for "speedy deletion" and can be eliminated on the spot. Others are shipped to an articles-for-deletion page for a debate on whether they meet inclusion criteria.

"Wikipedia now is more about being cautious, erring on the side or removing stuff rather than keeping stuff and that's a huge cultural shift from the beginning days, when it was 'let's keep adding stuff,' " said Mr. Lih, noting that new entries have dropped dramatically.

"The preference now is for excising, deleting, restricting information rather than letting it sit there and grow."

Mr. Lih, a deletionistturned-inclusionist, confesses that he switched sides after one of his articles about a new social networking site, called Pownce, was wiped off Wikipedia by an administrator who dismissed it as free advertising. Mr. Lih hastily resurrected it.

Simon Pulsifer, one the world's most prolific Wikipedians, said he has noticed lately that some of his earliest articles have vanished, including one on Ottawa's second-tallest building, Minto Metro-pole.

He said he waited a few days and then quietly restored the entry, hoping nobody would notice.

"I always get annoyed when something I've written has been deleted," said Mr. Pulsifer, an Ottawa native.

"What makes Wikipedia strong is having wide coverage," said Mr. Pulsifer, who has written about 3,000 articles and contributed to about 90,000 more.

"More articles attract more users and it doesn't really matter how large it is, as long as all the information can be easily verified and accurate and ensured to be neutral."

A Wikipedia entry on Mr. Pulsifer, who gained fame for being the biggest contributor to the online encyclopedia, was considered for deletion last year but it survived after contentious debate.

Mr. Pulsifer, who said he has dramatically cut back on his writing because he says there aren't many new topics to cover, now tries to make sure his entries are deletion-proof by getting to the point of their importance in the first sentence.

Three months ago, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales found himself at the centre of a week-long deletion debate after he posted a single-sentence entry on Mzoli's Meats, a butcher shop and restaurant in Guguleto township near Cape Town, South Africa.

Only minutes after the entry appeared, it was deleted by a young administrator who declared that it met the criteria for speedy deletion because the restaurant was too obscure to be noteworthy. After much debate, which included accusations that Mr. Wales was getting preferential treatment, the article survived.

The internal Wikipedia wars have played out in numerous online venues, including Mr. Lih's blog. In response to Mr. Lih denouncing the deletionist factions as "grumpy old gatekeepers," his adversaries shot back that there are plenty of good reasons to delete articles.

"The quality of Wikipedia can only be guaranteed when enough readers and writers care about the articles," wrote one editor.

Brian McNeil, a media officer for the Florida-based Wikipedia, said that every encyclopedia has its internal battles over what merits inclusion, but with Wikipedia the debate is carried out in the open.

"Britannica does not suffer the same issues and criticism, but I suspect this is due to their selection process happening behind closed doors," Mr. Mc-Neil wrote in an e-mail.

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