Wikipedia takes a u-turn – The change in the editing concept of Wikipedia (Part One)

20 September, 2011 at 19:28 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 3 Comments
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Notes These are the first few paragraphs of an article I write about the concept behind the editing of Wikipedia and how it has changed. I will publish the next ones shortly. In the mean time, comments are welcome. Please note that this is a draft, so it might include mistakes or inaccuracies. If you find one and would like to correct me – I’d be grateful.

The three principles of Wikipedia

Wikipedia's puzzle piece stands between Veritas, the goddess of Truth, and the Mouth of Truth, which she holds in her hand.

Veritas, the Mouth of Truth and Wikipedia

Wikipedia has three basic rules to govern its editing policy, namely Neutral Point Of View (commonly known as NPOV), Verifiability and No Original Research (commonly known as No OR). The first rule, which, for many years, was also considered the most important one, was NPOV. The other two were added during the early stages of Wikipedia’s emergence. No hierarchy was set for these three rules. Perhaps they were considered harmonious, and in some respect they are indeed. For example, the “No OR” rule caters for neutrality and verfiability by screening out new analyses and views that were not subject to thorough examination and criticism, hence, are likely to be unreliable or biased politically, commercially, ideologically or otherwise. The Verifiability rule requires that every statement be attributed to a certain person or body, so that controversial statements would not be presented as commonly accepted facts.

And yet, quite often do these three rules contradict one another. For example, in case a place or a phenomenon have two names, each of which carries some political or emotional meaning. In such cases, using any of these names harms the NPOV principle, while inventing a new neutral one is a violation of the “No OR” rule. Most of the examples for this problem come from the field of geopolitical conflicts. Is it “the Malvinas” or “Falkland Islands“? Should the leading name be “the West Bank” or “Judea and Samaria”? Is this port city on the Baltic Sea called “Danzig” or “Gdansk“? In the latter case, Wikipedians on the English-language Wikipedia debated for months and eventually developed a scheme matching between periods in the city’s history and the appropriate name to be used in the certain context. They figured that neutrality would be better served if the city be called “Danzig” when referring to it in the time between the two world wars (for example) and as Gdansk in the post-World War II era. Such a solution would be futile for the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and for the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, since the conflict is ongoing and any choice could be interpreted as siding with one of the parties.

The term “massacre” is sometimes used to denote events that did not involve mass killing. The Boston Massacre in 19770 is a good example. The loss of lives is regrettable ofcourse, and yet the number of people killed is not considered a massacre by commonplace standards. The name “Boston Massacre” is, however, the name by which this event has come to be known, and after so many years, and after time healed most of the wounds, no one really cares  any longer about the title given to this event. This, however, is not the case with recent events, especially those which still have political, emotional or ideological significance.

Sometimes, even using or rejecting a certain terminology in an article about seemingly innocent subject might be problematic in terms of NPOV. Is Pluto a “planet” or a “dwarf planet”? You may ask, who cares, but I won’t be surprised if this issue touches sensitive nerves in the astronomical community. If you are in the business of Linguistics, think of terms like “pro drop” versus “null subject”. The two describe the same phenomenon. The former is a Generative Linguistic term that assumes the existence of an abstract “pro” element in certain languages. Linguists who reject the Generative (Chonskian) theory might frown upon such a title for an article about what they prefer to call “null subject”. In all of these cases, you cannot satisfy both neutrality and the “no original research” principles.

Problems exist anywhere. If they are not too harsh, they make our life more interesting. The issue here is not whether Wikipedia encounters problems. Sure it does. It is bound to encounter problems. The question is how Wikipedia resolves these problems, and more generally, what is the new concept (if any) behind its editing policy. Such concept is, and will always be, reflected in the way Wikipedia solve such contradictions as the ones I mentioned above.

There is another principle, never formulated explicitly but very much present, especially in the early days of Wikipedia. This is the principle of collaborative work. Now, most of our lives we work with other people and cooperate with them. There is no other way to live, let alone build projects. But Wikipedia, especially after its inception, presented the idea of building a systematic corpus of knowledge without a strict blueprint or editorial line, but rather by constant productive negotiation among the various editors. This constant negotiation was supposed to be the solution, or at least one of the major solutions, to the abovementioned problems. Productive negotiation would highlight the points on which all agree, single out the controversial issues and lead to an accepted decision on how to present the controversies fairly. This concept is somewhat utopic, and in my humble opinion, it indeed failed. However, I also believe it was not given much chance. Wikipedia took a sharp turn and adopted a different concept before a system of real collaborative work could evolve.

TO BE CONTINUED

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  1. “Neutral point of view” is not “no opinion may be expressed” – it is “the opinion that is expressed must take into account all points of view”. NPOV is actually a very trite thing to call a policy which translates as “ALL points of view…weighted by their coverage”. So, to use you example of the Falklands – we don’t care about emotional weight vested in it. Do not give a dog’s tonker. We’re an encyclopedia; emotional baggage can be left at the door. What we *do* care about – and what will decide what we call it – is the name given to it by the majority of reliable sources.

    • You are a bit ahead of where I reached in writing this article. What you present here is the current interpretation of “neutrality” as expressed in the formulation of the NPOV rule since 2006. Wikipedia had a significantly different version of this rule in the first five years of its existence. I have some speculations about why the interpretation of the rule changed so significantly. I presented them on Wikimania 2011 – you can see my talk and the slides of my presentation embedded to the previous post on this blog. I’ll present them in more details and in a better arranged manner in the next parts of this essay. As for the emotional charge of terms and titles – You cannot avoid them. The fact that majority of sources use a term, does not mean it does not carry emotional, political or other kind of baggage. Majority is also very elusive. It is often hard to determine what is the majority. There are often large margins, complicated views in between and ofcourse shifts of views due to of all kind of trends. Think of this example – Does the fact that Barack Obama won the majority of votes in the US make him a non-political American figure? Does it mean that what he says is the neutral view? Not in the least. He is still a politician with political views and political job, but he has a majority to support him, at least until the next elections.

  2. […] Wikipedia takes a u-turn – The change in the editing concept of Wikipedia (Part Two) 26 September, 2011 at 18:51 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wiki systems, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment Tags: Abortion, Conflict resolution, English Wikipedia, Ireland, Pro-life, Wikimania, Wikipedia The following is the second part in a series of essays, which ellaborate my talk on Wikimania 2011. The first article is here. […]


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