For many years, I have valued Wikipedia as a source of interesting and useful information on a staggeringly wide variety of topics. I wonder how long that will remain the case, though, given that Wikipedia is changing in ways some of us find unhelpful.
Thinking and reading about Wikipedia’s dominant editing culture has helped me clarify what I like to get out out of Wikipedia, what its controlling forces want, and the difference between the two. At one point, Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia’s cofounder) presented a vision that greatly appeals to me:
“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing. “
Unfortunately, one aspect of this vision (access to the sum of all human knowledge) is at odds with, one of Wikipedia’s current guiding principles, namely notability:
“Article and list topics must be notable, or ‘worthy of notice’.”
A focus on notability means that articles on obscure topics, on little-known people, places, and things, are looked down upon, and deleted, by many Wikipedia editors. Yet such articles are a big part of what I look for in Wikipedia. In contrast to traditional, print encyclopedias (which I also love, by the way), I expect Wikipedia to give me access to the long tail of human knowledge–not just the most popular or noteworthy topics.
Some Wikipedia deletionists might say I should satisfy my hunger for obscure, factual information in other parts of the web, or in a specialized wiki geared toward a niche. Yet I greatly prefer it when I can find such information directly in Wikipedia. In contrast to information on the rest of the web, Wikipedia entries tend to have a consistent tone and layout, making them easier to navigate and process. I know that the top part of the entry usually contains a helpful summary of the topic at hand, followed by a table of contents for the rest of the entry. On the right near the top, there’s usually a box full of categorized facts, a box whose format tends to be consistent across articles of the same kind (such as countries of the world). Near the bottom there is often a “see also”, “references”, “further reading”, and/or “external links” section, each of which is chock-full of helpful links. Also, there is often a link to a Wikipedia list of items belonging to a category described by or related to the entry. The main value Wikipedia provides to me lies in its wikification of information that’s available elsewhere, making it more readily accessible to me. The deletion of articles on niche topics (or their exile to specialized, external knowledge bases) thus reduces Wikipedia’s value to me.
Some Wikipedia editors are concerned about the quality of entries on obscure topics. I do care about quality, and want Wikipedia’s articles to be factual and well-written. There may be some entries that may merit deletion or drastic editing. However, I don’t see why a properly researched and well-written entry on a niche topic should be deleted. Such entries don’t consume paper or inordinate bandwidth. They also don’t get in the way of the bulk of readers who aren’t interested in them and don’t care to look them up. They will be missed, however, by those who are interested in their facts, those who wish that Wikipedia would remain a great starting point for inquiries into all sections of human knowledge.
How about you? What do you desire from Wikipedia?