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Wikipedia and the Hidden Deletionist Agenda

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A few years ago my kid's teachers all give up and stopped banning Wikipedia articles. In many ways this was a big win for the commons. Instead of a narrow body of academic professionals editing "all the world's information," high school teachers and college professors now accepted the fact that our children can learn from real-world experts. After all, Wikipedia is, in many cases, more accurate, more open and more timely than commercial encyclopedias written by residents of ivory towers.

But with the open crowd-sourcing of knowledge comes a big problem, which was the reason we created academic institutions and college degrees in the first place: Who determines what is notable and important enough to be written about and shared with the world?

At first glance this seems like a simple problem. My cat, Ziggy, is amusing and perhaps even smarter than me. But an article about Ziggy should not pollute Wikipedia's virtual pages. There may be more notable people or cats named Ziggy. Granting Wikipedia article status to Ziggy may be used to deceive other people or cats about his stature in our world and enable fraud of some kind. Articles about irrelevant cats, as opposed to relevant cats like Garfield, might besmirch the credibility of Wikipedia as whole and give high school teachers and college professors reasons to restrict my kid's research to encyclopedias with academic credentials.

Recently Kate Middleton's wedding dress was treated as if it was as relevant to the world as my cat. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is concerned, as this article in Slate reports, and he sees it as a diversity issue. Eight-one percent of Wikipedia's editors are men and these men seem to view Kate's dress and my cat as not very important. The problem isn't only pig-headed men who don't understand the importance of fashion and weddings. The problem is deletionism and deletionists.

The Deletionist Wars on Wikipedia make visible the underlying culture wars that impact so many parts of our lives, our laws, our media and the way we think. A deletionist is basically an amateur editor with a very narrow definition of what is relevant and a very wide brush with which to paint his editorial will. A deletionist is motivated by intolerance and isn't trained in recognizing his bias (which is something you learn in academic programs and therapy sessions).

The broad brush in this case is Wikipedia itself. If you can prevent an article about wedding dresses from being included on Wikipedia, you can invalidate a whole segment of the human story. You can control the conversation, because if you can't find it on Wikipedia, then it can't be cited or spoken about. Eventually, it can't even be thought about. Isn't that what Wikipedia is supposed to prevent? Thought control?

It's not like the deletionists have a single grand agenda. If they did, they would be easy to fight. What Jimmy Wales has recognized is that this is a big problem. What we all have to recognize is that the deletionists are us! When we censor someone for expressing the "wrong" ideas, instead of talking to them about it, we are the intolerant deletionists. Technology can't fix us. We have to fix ourselves.

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