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Pedia again

danah boyd is going through Wikipedia deletion pains. The comments on her Articles for Deletion page and Discussion page have been very interesting reading.

Marshall Kirkpatrick has been pointing out my own entry on women in Wikipedia, but my preferred post on that particular event was Yo Sock Puppets; much of the discussion about Wikipedia occurred in the later post.

One of the most fascinating elements to come out of the discussion on danah’s entry has to do with her name: danah is legally ‘danah boyd’. She was born ‘danah michele mattas’–different last name, but same use of lowercase; she uses danah boyd for all of her own work. However, the Wikipedia editors won’t allow her entry to reflect the case on her name–insisting that since the publications that reference her name give her name as “Danah Boyd”, the Wikipedia entry must do the same. Why? Because, to quote a Wikipedia editor:

Unfortunately, you seem to have a misconception of how Wikipedia works. I strongly recommend reading the policies and guidelines at Wikipedia:Autobiography, Wikipedia:Verifiability, and Wikipedia:No original research. In a nutshell: Wikipedia is not for placing “the truth”, it is for placing summaries of information that is already published in other credible news sources. If you can’t convince the NY Times, NPR, USA Today, and Fox News to lowercase your name, that makes a really tough case to argue on Wikipedia, since the policy here is to only incorporate information after it’s been published elsewhere. If, however, you *can* convince the major media outlets to print it differently in future press, then that will make a stronger case to get the Wikipedia article adapted to match. Or in other words, don’t sweat it for an immediate change — take the long view.

(emph. mine)

The point of the editor is that because of danah’s appearance in these publications as Danah Boyd, most lookups on her name would occur because of this case. Those who know danah as ‘danah’, most likely wouldn’t be looking up her name. Still, I would assume that Wikipedia would accept danah’s verification of the accuracy of her name, and that the tool is intelligent enough to manage differing case when performing a lookup on her name.

What’s more relevant to a discussion on Wikipedia at large is the direct admission that Wikipedia is not the place for ‘truth’. This, to me, is an extremely honest and important statement to make. I would hope the statement is pasted all over Wikipedia, because this is the ‘truth’ of Wikipedia, of any encyclopedia: what’s contained is less a matter of philosophical truth than verifiable source. Where Wikipedia editors are making a mistake is treating danah’s work as it appears in non-mainstream publications such as the ACM or her own birth certificate as less ‘worthy’ than those that appear in Fox.

The editor then responds with confrontations in this regard with a recommendation to danah to get the publications to use the proper case, which would then make a better argument for correcting the case in Wikipedia. My goodness–what an intransigent viewpoint, and almost bizarre recommendation.

At first glance, the editor’s comments are baffling, in the extreme. I think what’s happening with Wikipedia, though, is that given the lack of early structure for the online site, the editors have, over time, formulated rules of their own. As happens in cases such as these, they then maintain a far more rigid adherence to said rules then if there had been a structure in place in the beginning. As time passes, Wikipedia becomes less a tribute to fact and more a tribute to process.

This doesn’t mean that Wikipedia doesn’t have value–I still use it to look up information, though I don’t consider it the definitive authority on a topic. As the editors would say, only a fool would rely solely on what’s written in Wikipedia. Still, at what point does the rigid adherence to process outweigh the usefulness of the data? In other words: what is Wikipedia’s tipping point? And has it been reached?

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