Rescued by Wikipedia
Is Wikipedia's ticket to "notability" the writing of one published article about … Wikipedia?
I once was lost but now am found. Wikipedia, which previously tagged my bio for removal because I failed to meet the online encyclopedia's rather stringent "notability" guideline, has now reinstated me. What brought about this miraculous intervention? My publication (in Slate and in the Washington Post) of an article that described my misfortune and then went on to argue that—given the seeming infinity of cyberspace and volunteer expertise available to Wikipedia—the only plausible reason Wikipedia's gatekeepers would exclude anyone or anything as insufficiently notable would have to be the secret thrill of exclusion itself, as described in Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.
I don't mean to suggest that the sheer brilliance of my argument suddenly caused the scales to fall from the eyes of Wikipedia's content guardians. At best, I seem to have stimulated further discussion among the Wiki faithful about whether to eliminate the notability standard (click here and scroll to the bottom), a source of controversy long before I arrived on the scene. (Harvard Business School, for instance, dedicates a case study to Wikipedia's notability-based removal of its article on the term "Enterprise 2.0," coined by one of its professors; the article was merged into a separate article on "enterprise social software.") The notability standard itself still stands, fortresslike, and (as of this writing) continues to threaten elimination of two other Wikipedia entries that I mentioned in my earlier piece: for a Japanese anime series called Final Approach and for a Finnish security consulting company called Secproof. A third topic that I cited earlier as being endangered due to insufficient notability—Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens—has since been rated sufficiently notable, apparently on the merits.
My rescue, by contrast, seems to be a case of jury nullification. Let's review the sequence of events.
As I reported yesterday, my Wikipedia bio was bumping along, minding its own business, when a Wikipedia user (identified on the site as REtwW) tagged it for removal on notability grounds. A Wikipedia "sysop," or administrator, named Benjamin Lowe (one of about 1,500 volunteers chosen to enforce Wikipedia's standards; his day job is homeland-security consulting) has since explained to me that REtwW didn't enjoy any special gatekeeping privileges and that the tagging was very preliminary. At this stage, Lowe said, the expectation was that some other user would come along and add material clarifying the subject's notability, and that would be that. If such clarification proved impossible—as it would in my case, because (as I explained in my earlier column) the language of the notability guideline pretty clearly excluded me—then another user would, at least in theory, initiate the process of removal.
Slate published my Wikipedia column. In the blink of an eye, one user removed my scarlet letter of non-notability. Then another user, one Kendrick7, not only restored the scarlet letter but initiated my removal process, which consists of five days of debate followed by a sysop's ruling on the matter. If no one chooses to debate, the Wikipedia entry automatically comes down. That was not a worry here; the appearance of my piece in Slate (and, the next day, in the Post) brought hordes of Wikipedia users to the site. They added and subtracted biographical details to my entry; added citations (my entry had also been tagged for its lack of citations, an easy problem to fix); argued passionately about whether the bio should mention the "Chatterbox" column about Wikipedia that had caused this ruckus in the first place; and, of course, debated whether Wikipedia should keep my entry at all. (I stayed out of the editing and debating processes because I didn't want to pollute the outcome, about which I was very curious.)
The pro-Tims tended to agree with me that the notability standard ought to be eliminated outright. The anti-Tims argued that the notability standard was a necessary bulwark against anarchy and noted that I myself had asserted that it rendered me ineligible. Eventually an administrator (handle: JDoorjam) cut the process short, which is allowed under a Wikipedia rule that says you can ignore all other rules when the site's basic health is at stake. JDoorjam decreed that I would be "speedy kept" (i.e., reinstated immediately), and he explained he had short-circuited discussion because it was inviting "troll magnetry" (i.e., lots of uncouth people logging on and saying rude things) and "edit warring" (i.e., people repeatedly doing and undoing the same edits). As I write this, the final entered comment reads as follows:
Wow. That's just shameful. A run of the mill columnist intimidated you into keeping his article by bitching in a public forum. If that's all it takes, Wiki has a long way to go before it can be considered at all legitimate.
Not my intent, but also not my concern. I continue to believe that Wikipedia should stop putting on airs about legitimacy and repeal its notability standard. In a future column, I'll consider the arguments against my open-the-floodgates position as readers have presented them to me over the last few days.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.