Evicted from Wikipedia.

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Feb. 24 2007 7:02 AM

Evicted From Wikipedia

Why the online encyclopedia won't let just anyone in.

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We know why other encyclopedias need to limit the topics they cover. If they're on paper, they're confined by space. If they're on the Web, they're confined by staff size. But Wikipedia commands what is, for all practical purposes, infinite space and infinite manpower. The drawback to Wikipedia's ongoing collaboration with readers is that entries are vulnerable to error, clumsy writing, and sabotage. The advantage is that Wikipedia can draw on the collective interests and knowledge of its hundreds of thousands of daily visitors to cover, well, anything. To limit that scope based on notions of importance and notability seems self-defeating. If Wikipedia publishes a bio of my cleaning lady, that won't make it any harder to field experts to write and edit Wikipedia's bio of Albert Einstein. So, why not let her in?

Granted, there are a few practical limits to covering any and all topics, "important" or not. One is privacy. Assuming that my cleaning lady were neither a public figure nor part of any larger story, it would be difficult to justify posting her bio against her will. Another limit is accuracy. The bio's assertions about my cleaning lady would have to be independently verifiable from trustworthy sources made available to readers. Otherwise, Wikipedia's vast army of volunteer fact-checkers would be unable to find out whether the bio was truthful.

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But Wikipedia already maintains rules concerning verifiability and privacy. Why does it need separate rules governing "notability"? Wikipedia's attempt to define who or what is notable is so rococo that it even has elaborate notability criteria for porn stars. (A former Playboy Playmate of the Month is notable; a hot girlfriend to a famous rock star is not.) Inside the permanent town meeting that is Wikipedia's governing structure—a New Yorker article about Wikipedia last year reported that fully 25 percent of Wikipedia is now devoted to governance of the site itself—the notability standard is a topic of constant dispute.

When people go to this much trouble to maintain a distinction rendered irrelevant by technological change, the search for an explanation usually leads to Thorstein Veblen's 1899 book, TheTheory of the Leisure Class. (Click here to read it.) This extended sociological essay argues that the pursuit of status based on outmoded social codes takes precedence over, and frequently undermines, the rational pursuit of wealth and, more broadly, common sense. Hierarchical distinctions among people and things remain in force not because they retain practical value, but because they have become pleasurable in themselves. Wikipedia's stubborn enforcement of its notability standard suggests Veblen was right. We limit entry to the club not because we need to, but because we want to.

[Update, Feb. 24, 2007, 11:40 a.m.: I didn't bargain on Wikipedia being such a highly sensitive instrument. Immediately after this article was posted (and therefore well before most people had a chance to read it), a Wikipedia sysop granted my entry a stay of execution  with respect to "notability." Delighted as I am to be elevated once again to the company of Nicolaus Copernicus, Igor Stravinsky, and Melvin "Slappy" White, can the dividing line between eminence and obscurity really be the authorship of a single magazine article about Wikipedia? I note with interest that Stacy Schiff, author of the excellent New Yorker article cited above, failed to impress Wikipedia's arbiters of notability by winning the Pulitzer Prize in biography, writing several other well-regarded books, and receiving fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It wasn't until she wrote her Wikipedia piece  that she became sufficiently notable to be written up in Wikipedia.

I presume the Wikipedia sysops will debate this point and others with respect to my entry, and that I can expect to be re-tagged for removal and un-tagged ad infinitum over the coming days as they hash it out. I'll follow future developments (click here to keep track of them) with interest. In the meantime, I hope it isn't lost on readers that my aim was not to reinstate myself but rather to argue against Wikipedia's "notability" standard itself and to use it as a newfangled illustration of our society's love affair with invidious distinction.]

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.