Thursday, February 22, 2007

The kiss of death from Wikipedia

The kiss of death from Wikipedia
By David Segal

The Shiny Diamonds, a spunky band from Canada, make music they call "mind-blowing thrash folk." Recently, the lads and their songs were tagged with a less flattering description: "non-notable."

This was not some hasty, capricious opinion, either. No, this was the official verdict of a squad of stern-sounding editors at Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, which recently began the process of booting an entry about the Shiny Diamonds off the site.

One Wiki editor counted a mere 97 Google hits about the group and noted on a Wiki page that all those citations "seem to be MySpace or other self-promotion." Three other Wiki editors soon weighed in, each recommending "delete," which in Wiki-speak translates roughly as, "Beat it, losers."

Up in Vancouver, B.C., where the band's lead singer was reached by phone, the news hit kind of hard. "Dude, I don't know what they were thinking," said Tim the Mute, which is a stage name and the only name he would give. In midsentence, Tim's cellphone went dead and, a few minutes later, he sent an e-mail.

"I urge whatever Internet-snob wiki-geeks who deem our band 'non-notable' to look at their own lives," he fumed. "The Internet is about sharing, and the point of Wikipedia is that there's room for everything."

That, it turns out, isn't exactly true.


Casual readers might assume that Wikipedia's goal is a complete account of all earthly knowledge, but the site maintains a rather elaborate set of criteria for admission. The several thousand unpaid volunteers who write and edit Wikipedia spend a lot of energy ensuring that people, bands, companies and everything else meet what it calls "notability guidelines."

Let's sum it up this way: Not everyone is Wiki-worthy.

In fact, Wikipedia jettisons more than 100 entries every day, many of them from people who posted autobiographies after registering on the site. Writing your own entry, as we will see, is "strongly discouraged."

The list of nominated rejects is posted each day on a page titled "articles for deletion," and because all of Wikipedia is transparent and public, anyone can watch the editors' votes roll in and witness those ultimately deemed non-notable get cyber-gonged off the stage. Type into a Web browser for a peek at the latest.

There goes T.C. Congi, described as a "random school kid" by an editor.

Buh-bye, Muhammad Islam, also "being considered for deletion," the son of the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens. ("Being the offspring of a famous musician is not enough to merit notability.")

Still on the bubble is Kim Eternity, a "minor porn actress" who "doesn't seem to have any awards" and who has done "nothing noteworthy in her niche," various editors wrote. Supporters pointed out that Ms. Eternity had appeared in several issues of Voluptuous magazine, among other achievements.

'Vanity in vain'

The proceedings are generally courteous, a quality prized in the Wikipedia ranks, but a tone of you've-gotta-be-kidding occasionally seeps in.

"Vain vanity in vain," quipped one editor, voting an illustrator named Peter Mitchell, 28, off the island.

"Crystalballery, vanity, unencyclopedic, non-notability," snapped an editor after reading an entry on an Israeli model named Esti Ginzborg, which included the claim that "many say she has a bright future."

"Who cares?" the editor countered.

It's like the minutes to a meeting of the planet's own co-op board. And you'd be surprised at how many people want in. Wiki-worthiness has quietly become a new digital divide, separating those who think they are notable from those granted the imprimatur of notability by a horde of anonymous geeks.

Now, the presence of any quality-control system on the site might surprise those who are familiar with the conventional rap against Wikipedia: that its pages, which every registered user can alter, are rife with mistakes.

The upside of the site's collaborative style is reflected in the astounding breadth and growth of the site, which launched in 2001 and features more than 1.5 million entries in English on everything from La Modelo, a prison in Colombia, to the Cobden Club, a British gentlemen's club founded in the 1870s.

But just because the premises are spacious and a little unruly doesn't mean that the Wiki mandarins will let just anyone stay.

Musicians and bands must have charted on "any national music chart, in at least one large or medium-sized country," or released "two or more albums on a major label or one of the more important indie labels," or "been the subject of a half-hour or longer broadcast on a national radio or TV network."

Politicians must have received "significant press coverage," while sports figures must compete in a "fully professional league" or "at the highest level in mainly amateur sports."

If a person clearly doesn't belong, an editor might mark him or her for "speedy delete," which shortens the mull-it-over period.

Here, Wikipedia can be ruthlessly efficient, because Wikipedians are constantly on what they call "new-page patrol."

That entry on illustrator Peter Mitchell, for instance, lasted a mere eight hours, he said. Otherwise, the administrators wait for a consensus of "delete" or "keep" to coalesce over a span of days.

Room for disagreement

Even with those detailed definitions of "notable," there is plenty of room on Wikipedia for disagreement, and not just among editors. Wikipedians are frequently deluged with protest e-mail from the newly deleted.

So who are these editors, the nameless sages who can bestow or withhold the cachet of Wikidom as they please?

In Wiki terminology — and this is a realm piled high with terminology — these editors are called "administrators" and they get their jobs after being nominated and voted in by the great mass of Wikipedia contributors. Fairness and diligence and a track record for good writing and editorial decisions earn you the nod.

There are just more than 1,000 administrators at any one time, and none of them is paid. Generally, they are men in their 20s or 30s with jobs in the computer field; it's also likely these people have a lot of time on their hands.

Plenty of deletees, of course, have no idea they've been chucked. Like Bill Slavick, who was expunged from the site soon after an editor described him as a "failed candidate for U.S. Senate in Maine who got 5 percent of the vote."

Speaking on the phone from his home, Slavick, 78, a retired professor of English, sounded unmoved.

"I don't care," he said.

You don't care?

"No. Someone called me a few months ago and asked if it was OK to send in this biography, and I didn't have any big objection."

Slavick would, however, like to clarify one point. As an independent candidate, he participated in three debates in this fall's campaign, two of which were televised. The verdict, by his reckoning, is that he won all three.

"In Maine," he says, with a hint of pride, "I'm notable."

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