As I have previously noted, Wikipedia’s editors have gotten into the business of assigning certain Wikipedia entries to the dustbin of history for not being “notable” enough. The implication of this guideline for entries is that there is only so much space on the servers housing Wikipedia and so those precious megabytes (terrabytes?) shouldn’t be taken up with irrelevant entries. You can read my previous post to see why I think a notability test makes no sense, given the model that Wikipedia is built on.
In an interview with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole in the March/April edition of Humanities Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tries, unsuccessfully, to explain his position on this particular issue. When asked to discuss the differences between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the differences Wales points to is the question of size and scope. As he correctly points out, Wikipedia is and will remain much greater in size and scope than any print encyclopedia both because it can be larger with only a small incremental increase in overhead and because the community-generated nature of its content makes it much easier to generate lots more content. “Certainly, you can find articles in Wikipedia that you would never expect to find in Britannica simply because of their cost structure,” Wales says in the interview (50).
Those unexpected entries include those Wales described as “fairly trivial topics” but, he continues, “the point is, well, why not cover fairly trivial topics if we have the resources to do it?” (50). When asked how Wikipedia judges what is and isn’t trivial, Wales gives the example of the obscure pop band that never charted and says such an entry would be cut before one on Thomas Jefferson. Big surprise there.
But then he goes on to say, “On the other hand, ‘wiki’ is not paper. There’s never a reason to say there’s not enough space or something is just taking up space; it does not take up any space that matters.” (50)
Okay, now I’m confused. Articles like the obscure pop band might have to be cut before those on Thomas Jefferson. If such a trade off (the OPB vs TJ) were being considered by Wikipedia’s editors and “notability” is the standard, what other possible reason could there be but server space? After all, Wikipedians love to cite the tiny staff of the organization and the volunteer editor model. So it isn’t staffing overhead that is the problem.
Wales does offer the example of the elementary school entry. He says that in general entries on elementary schools are rejected because verifiable information on the schools is hard to come by. Jimmy Wales (and all the Wikipedians who say such information is not available) very obviously does not have elementary school aged children in the U.S.! Here in Virginia we are overloaded with verifiable information about elementary schools–everything from the history of the schools, to the names of all the staff, to the percentage of children on subsidized meals, to the students’ scores on various standardized tests.
Okay, he picked a bad example to make his point.
I’ll accept that for an entry to stay up, it ought to be built on verifiable information. Shouldn’t that be the standard instead of notability? So, for instance, if he hadn’t founded first Nupedia and then Wikipedia, would Wales himself have been notable enough for his role as a purveyor of “guy searches” at Bomis.com? Or would he have been just another B-level Internet boom guy who made a pile of cash in the go-go days of the dot.com boom and then rode off into the sunset in his Beemer ragtop?
Fortunately for all those B-level boom guys (and gals), there seems to still be space for them in Wikipedia.