The arguments for Wikipedia's notability guideline don't hold up.

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March 1 2007 9:00 PM

More on Wikability

The arguments for a notability guideline don't hold up.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

In two previous articles about Wikipedia ("Evicted From Wikipedia" and " Rescued By Wikipedia"), I argued that the open-source online reference work ought to abandon its " notability guideline," which says that an encyclopedia entry on a particular topic is ineligible for inclusion, and (at least theoretically) will be removed, if Wikipedia's gatekeepers conclude that the topic lacks sufficient importance. In the case of a paper encyclopedia, a notability standard makes perfect sense because of limitations of space, staff, and reader navigability. But in the case of Wikipedia, notability shouldn't be an issue, since Wikipedia has access to more or less infinite space, and (since its writers and editors are all volunteers) manpower, plus a method of navigability (the search engine) that's blissfully indifferent to volume. The only explanation I could find for Wikipedia's seemingly pointless notability guideline derived from Thorstein Veblen's 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen argued that society sorts and discriminates among people and things long past the point where such actions have practical value, and that these "invidious distinctions" serve to uphold ancient status hierarchies. Wikipedia lets some topics in and keeps other topics out not because doing so is necessary, but because doing so is pleasurable.

Many "Chatterbox" readers disagreed with me, and I thought their arguments merited consideration. Here they are.

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Wikipedia does not command infinite Web space. Servers cost money.Wikipedia is owned, along with some lesser-known Wiki projects ( Wiktionary, Wikibooks, Wikinews, etc.) by the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikimedia's 2006 financial statement says its largest single expense is "Internet hosting," which cost $189,631 in 2006. That's more than a fourfold increase over 2005. Without a doubt, Wikipedia's rapid expansion is running up the bills. But that expansion is simultaneously increasing—at the same pace—the volume of contributions. These totaled $1.3 million last year—again, a fourfold increase over 2005 and easily enough to cover Wikimedia's total expenses ($791,907). Granted, there's no guarantee that Wikipedia's future income from contributions (or other sources) will continue to track Wikipedia's growth. But for now, at least, new encyclopedia entries seem to pay for themselves. So, it would at best be premature to worry that abolishing Wikipedia's notability guideline would put it in the red.

Banning the notability guideline is an invitation to sock puppetry. A " sock puppet" is an e-mail identity intended to disguise a user who's already known by a different e-mail identity. An example would be a book author who, under an assumed name, posts favorable reviews of his book on Amazon. Without a notability guideline, it would in theory be easier for someone to post a Wikipedia article about himself, a practice Wikipedia strongly discourages even when the author doesn't hide his identity because such entries tend to be self-serving. But if an article is self-serving, that should be evident either from its tone or from its use of unverifiable facts, and therefore subject to correction or elimination by other Wikipedia users. If someone uses a sock puppet to post an article attacking a personal enemy, its hostility and/or unverifiability ought to be similarly self-evident. You don't need a notability guideline to rein in such misbehavior.

Facts about nonfamous people are difficult to verify. In my earlier columns, I suggested that I ought to be able to post a Wikipedia entry about my cleaning lady or my mailman, provided they didn't object. Such entries, readers note, would be hard to verify from print sources. Agreed. But in the event I were able to rustle up reliable citation sources for the facts about my cleaning lady or my mailman—possibly provided by them—I would no doubt find it especially irritating, after all that effort, to see these bios removed on "notability" grounds. If I didn't rustle up reliable citation sources, their bios could get tagged for removal because of unverifiability. So, where's the problem?

Wikipedia articles about non-notables get policed less. Because fewer people will see these entries, they'll be more likely to contain errors or diverge from legitimate Wikipedia standards. True. But this is a Zen riddle. If nobody sees a Wikipedia entry, it won't matter. If very few people see a Wikipedia entry, it won't matter very much.

How many George Bushes? There are two people in the world named George Bush who are of great interest to many readers—three if you count Jeb Bush's son, George Prescott Bush, who wowed 'em at the 1988 Republican National Convention—and who knows how many more people named George Bush who are of little interest to most readers. How to prevent the wrong George Bush coming up on a Wikipedia search? This is a nonproblem. The "real" George Bushes will come up first, and if you want to save a little time you can enter "George Bush" and "president" as search terms. Judging from this search page, a much more serious problem is the more than 10,000 separate Wikipedia entries for the 41st and 43rd presidents that really ought to be consolidated into two. A notability standard does nothing to fix that.

Wikipedia would turn into MySpace. No, it wouldn't. Entries would still have to conform to Wikipedia format and standards.

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

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