Saturday, February 6, 2010

The problem behind Wikipedia's demand for citations

Perhaps a disclosure is in order, though not of the FCC disclosure kind. Several years ago, there was a sports radio show in Los Angeles called Roggin and Simers Squared. Two of the three hosts, Fred Roggin and T.J. Simers, were well known in Los Angeles sports circles. The third, Simers' daughter Tracy Simers, was not as well known, her only media experience being a weekend show hosted with her dad. From this, she ended up as one-third of a sports talk team on morning drive. I mentioned Tracy Simers in the blog that I was writing at the time (most notably here), and the posts with Simers not only were highly rated on my blog, but highly rated on Google itself - a situation that persists today.

At the time, I began thinking that Simers' presence on a radio show in a major market deserved a Wikipedia article, so I wrote one. But if you search for that article today, you won't find it. Why? Because, as I noted in a January 2008 post, someone had tagged the article with a "general notability guideline." This concept is explained by Wikipedia itself:

Within Wikipedia, notability is an inclusion criterion based on the encyclopedic suitability of an article topic. The topic of an article should be notable, or "worthy of notice"; that is, "significant, interesting, or unusual enough to deserve attention or to be recorded."...Notable in the sense of being "famous", or "popular"—although not irrelevant—is secondary.

This notability guideline for not policy; however, it reflects consensus reached through discussions and reinforced by established practice, and informs decisions on whether an article on a person should be written, merged, deleted or further developed.

So, at some point after Tracy Simers went off the air and returned to a more private life, some Wikipedia editor decided that her career was not notable enough for mention in Wikipedia. So my article got yanked. Not that I'm bitter at the scumbag who did that or anything.

Another of Wikipedia's policies is that articles have to be fully sourced. If Robert Scoble were to edit his own Wikipedia entry to say that he wears glasses, some Wikipedia editor would argue that the statement is not fully supported. Never mind the fact that the subject of the post made the statement; to the mind of a Wikipedia editor, the tidbit wouldn't be considered factual unless Shel Israel wrote a blog post that mentioned Scoble's glasses, and some person cited THAT post as supporting evidence in the Wikipedia article.

Which brings us to Posterous. As I write this, the Wikipedia article on Posterous includes the following statement:

It boasts integrated and automatic posting to other social media tools such as Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook, a built-in Google Analytics package, and custom themes....

This last statement is supported by a footnote, and the footnote cites an article that presumably mentions the claims of the sentence.

Why do I say "presumably"? Because the footnote in question reads as follows:

2. ^ Daniel Brusilovsky, TechCrunch (2009-09-23). "Posterous Adds Theme Support; Continues To Grow".

If you happen to click on the link to the September 23 TechCrunch article, you get the following message:

Page Not Found

Sorry, we couldn't find the page you were looking for. Please return to the homepage.

(If you don't know WHY TechCrunch deleted this particular article, read this post.)

But this isn't the only case in which a cited article disappeared into In fact, this is just a small symptom of a pressing problem that Steven Hodson addressed. As his post title notes, there is no such thing as permanence on the web.

We like to believe that all our contributions around the web and on our blogs will last forever. Unfortunately this is nothing but a dream that we will take to our graves.

Take a look around.

Twitter: even now everything you post is gone after two weeks after you wrote it.

Forums: totally at the discretion of the forum owner. Once they decide to shut it down your contributions are gone.

Blogs: our blog content only lasts as long as our domains do. Stop paying those fees either because of financial problems or death and at some point all that content is gone.

Who knows how many links in Wikipedia articles - links that were used to buttress the content of the articles - are now dead links?

But then again, Wikipedia itself could be gone fifty, or twenty, or even ten years from now.

Especially if someone in the Taliban gets editing privileges. In that case, bye-bye Bill Handel.
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