Why Wikipedia is like a fart in a jar

For those of you who enjoy a good podcast, I highly recommend Slate Magazine’s Daily Podcast. It’s typically a reading of one of their magazine articles, though Fridays they do their Political Gabfest, which I find amusing even as a lowly Canadian with no real connection to US politics.

Rambling plug aside, I found a recent episode of particular interest – it was a reading of this article from the magazine by writer/editor Timothy Noah. It seems that a few months back, Noah stumbled across an entry on Wikipedia dedicated to him. Much amused, Noah checked his entry every so often until one day he discovered, to his horror, that he was slated (no pun intended) for deletion.

Apparently he did not meet Wikipedia’s new notability guidelines.

In its ongoing quest to become a legitimate source of information (undoubtedly set back by this wee scandal and to a lesser extent, this wee’er one), the Wiki powers that be have decided to leave out the little man and impose guidelines. As neatfully summarized by Noah himself:

Wikipedia’s notability policy resembles U.S. immigration policy before 9/11: stringent rules, spotty enforcement. To be notable, a Wikipedia topic must be “the subject of multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject and of each other.”

And thus, Noah was on the block, neatly illustrating one of the drawbacks to this so-called Web 2.0. Give the masses the power to do stuff and they might, gasp!, do stuff. It strikes me a little rich, frankly, that Wikipedia – the champion of empowering the user – is now trying to rein in that which they have granted.

It’s like the proverbial (or, in the case of my friend Dave, literal) fart in a jar. So long as that fart is in the jar, the jar owner has control over it. Open the lid, however, and it’s bye-bye fart control. That fart is going to waft through the air and tickle the nostrils of everyone around it. And, according to Dave, it’s going to be rank.

Ok, so maybe that analogy is a bit rank itself, but my point is made, je pense.

The downside to consumer-generated content is that consumers are going to generate content. If Steve in Topeka wants to create a Wiki page for his mailman Sal, who is to say he can’t? Perhaps Sal delivers Steve’s much needed insulin doses or pornography. Perhaps Sal saved Steve’s cat Twinkie from getting hit by a Nissan Maxima last week.

Hell, maybe Sal is actually a top-secret KGB spy and only Steve knows that.

The point is, you can’t take that control back.

Wikipedia’s fatal flaw is the the same thing that makes it such an interesting and powerful tool. Anyone can generate, edit and delete content. The powers that wik have tried to establish guidelines and criteria – and to their credit it seems they’re doing it on a consensus basis – but imposing order on the chaos is much like trying to get that fart back in the jar. At some point, as they appear to have done by granting Noah a stay of execution, it’s just easier to let the smell dissipate on its own.

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