Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wikipedia tics

I'll say it again: Wikipedia is great.  I use it all the time.  It does its job astoundingly well, particularly given that when it was first getting started any sensible person could have told you it couldn't possibly work.  Anyone can edit it?  Anyone can write anything about anything?  And people are going to depend on it for information on a daily basis?  Riiiight.

But it does work, thanks to countless hours of effort from dedicated Wikipedians hammering out workable policies, nurturing the culture behind those polices and putting those policies into practice by editing a stupefying number of articles.   It is this endless stream of repairs and improvements that keeps Wikipedia from devolving into chaos.  It's a wonderful thing, but wonderful is not the same as absolutely perfect (for starters, one is achievable and the other isn't).  Anyone who's read Wikipedia more than casually will inevitably have a few pet peeves.  Here are some of mine (and yes, I do try to fix them when I come across them, time permitting):
  • Link drift: Article A includes a link to article B.  Article B gets merged into article C and the link is changed to point to article C -- not the section, but the whole article.
  • More link drift: Article A includes a link to article B.  Someone creates an article on a different meaning of B.  The article for B becomes a disambiguation page, and the article on A continues to point to it.
  • Digression:  Article A has some connection to topic B, which people Need to Know More About.  Instead of just providing a short summary and linking to the article on B, an enthusiastic editor gives the complete story of B, in nearly but not exactly the same form as in the original article (or, the digressive section moves to its own article, but the section later regrows).
  • I'm really into this: An article is stuffed with unsourced Things You Didn't Know about the topic, often to the point of downright creepiness.
  • Some say ... yes, but some other people say ... yes, but ... :  People feel strongly about topic A.  Generations of editors qualify each other's statements until the article reads like a pingpong match. Usually an effort is made to collect the clashing statements into one section, but that doesn't always keep them from escaping into the article at large.
  • Actually, everybody gets this wrong:  An editor makes a great point of declaring some piece of common knowledge incorrect without bothering to check if this is really the case.
  • This is a very important distinction:  Instead of saying something on the order of "not to be confused with [link]" or such, an editor feels that it's worth including a sentence or two on either side of some valid but not earthshaking distinction emphasizing how crucial it is (see previous item if the distinction in question is invalid)
  • Take it to the discussion page, please: A discussion that ought to be lightly summarized is hashed out in excruciating detail before our eyes.
  • Oh look, I can write a textbook/conference paper, too!:  Editors seem to make a special effort to pepper their writing with the mannerisms of their professors or other authorities.  Math articles seem particularly prone to this ("clearly ... it turns out that ...").
  • My home town/band is the awesomest:  Material on a place or group reads like your cousin showing you around on a visit.  I actually don't mind this, so long as it's not too overboard, even though it generally runs somewhat afoul of Wikipedia's notability policy, because how else does one find out about the Anytown Moose-waxing festival or the real meaning of "incandescent oak" in that one song (don't go searching for those -- I made them up).
  • This article reads like it was written by dozens of different people over the course of several years:  Well, yeah.  The real magic of Wikipedia is that relatively few articles read like that, particularly if they really have had a chance for dozens of different people to work on them over the course of several years.
  • [One other tic occurred to me not long after I hit "Publish": Gratuitous wikification.  To "wikify", in wiki parlance, is to make an ordinary term into a link to the article for that term.  It's one of the things that makes wikis wikis, but sometimes people seem to go randomly overboard, occasionally with fairly odd results.]
Wikipedia's strength is in its transparency.  For the most part, you can see every draft of every article if you want to, every mistake, every correction, every paragraph in need of tightening, every statement in need of a reference, every quibble, every pointless edit war -- in short, everything that a normal publication, encyclopedic or otherwise, goes to great lengths to hide.  The downside is that flaws like the ones listed above are also there for all to see.

The upside is that we get Wikipedia.

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