Wikipedia Equality Notability Discussion Paper #1: Maintaining Encyclopedic Scope
Q: Abolishing the Notability Criteria will allow Wikipedia to host information indiscriminately, including that belonging to personal webpages. It will cease to be an encyclopedia.
A: We agree that Wikipedia has a mission as an encyclopedia, and should not have, for example, pages on your local bus drivers. So there has to be some limit to the information contained in Wikipedia. However, to determine that limit, we should go back to what an encyclopedia is, and what function it should serve.
What is Encyclopedic Information?
An encyclopedia is ultimately a reliable source of information, sitting there waiting for people to look up particular topics whenever they need to. An encyclopedia covering more information is better than an encyclopedia covering less, because people will be able to find what they are looking for more often. This is why even in traditional print encyclopedias, the more expensive and comprehensive ones tend to have more pages. Of course, there is a practical limit to how big a print encyclopedia can be, because of physical size limitations, as well as the fact that information on paper is much harder to search when there are too many pages.
However, Wikipedia is not a print encyclopedia. It does not have any size limitations. It also does not become harder to search with more information, as the search tool automatically brings up the most relevant information almost instantly for any search. Therefore, Wikipedia should include as much information as people potentially want from an encyclopedia.
So, the next question is, what do people potentially want from an encyclopedia. People want to look up all sorts of things that make up the world we are living in, that they may be interested in. The kind of information people want can be pretty diverse. Print encyclopedias, due to their size limits, can only include information that a lot of people would want. But in Wikipedia, information that only a small number of people will want and need can be included — and is sometimes already included, for example information on small rural towns. This makes Wikipedia much more powerful than any print encyclopedia.
However, the Notability Criteria means that certain information some people may want is still excluded: for example, information on self-published authors, non-profit organizations without much media publicity, or obscure programming languages, to name a few categories. If Wikipedia can include information on small rural towns that most people would not find useful, why can’t it include the aforementioned categories of information too? After all, many independent authors and musicians have audiences larger than the population of entire small rural towns featured on Wikipedia. As in the case for information on rural towns, while most people may not find this information useful, some people will. The case of rural towns effectively demonstrates that, just because some information is not interesting to the vast majority of people out there, it doesn’t mean it cannot hold encyclopedic interest for some people. Given that Wikipedia has a virtually unlimited capacity, we argue that such information should be included wherever possible. What isn’t Encyclopedic Information?
Of course, there still has to be a limit as to what can be included in an encyclopedia, to ensure that is it not just an indiscriminate collection of information. Wikipedia cannot become a place for random biographies, for example, and still remain an encyclopedia. This is because people expect encyclopedias to carry only verifiable and reliable information, that is also relevant to humanity’s shared culture. While the scope of ‘shared culture’ can be pretty broad nowadays due to the internet allowing for an endless number of subcultures and the widespread availability of ‘long tail’ cultural products, something that can be called a part of our ‘shared culture’ must still have some unique cultural value that is not bound by personal association with the subject (e.g. due to friendship or family ties). Random biographies should not belong in any encyclopedia, no matter its capacity, because random biographies are usually unverifiable and usually have no unique cultural value that can transcend personal ties. A biography on your average neighbour is not only non-verifiable for accuracy (meaning that it could have been made up by a prankster), it holds no cultural value for people who do not personally know said neighbour.
The Problem of Verifiability
Some Wikipedians have taken the aforementioned need for verifiability as a justification for the Notability Criteria. However, not every subject needs to have received mainstream media attention (Wikipedia’s way of assessing Notability) to be able to have a meaningful and useful page with verifiable information. For example, if an independent author’s page claims that they published a certain book, the existence of this book can be easily proven with information from Amazon or Google Books. Moreover, some non-human subjects are even more easily verifiable, such as computer programming languages (as long as there is a book or similar guide published about them).
We also generally trust value-neutral biographical information (e.g. date and place of birth) given by authors, musicians and other cultural icons, and often find such information useful in placing the creator of works in their cultural context. This appears to hold true even for celebrities, as biographical information they give in media interviews is readily accepted and included in Wikipedia profiles. Nobody asks to see a celebrity’s birth certificate before their date and place of birth is included in a Wikipedia page. There is no reason why non-celebrities should be held to a different standard (if anything celebrities are more likely to lie about their birthdays for various reasons). Therefore, value-neutral biographical information about authors and musicians should be considered verifiable as long as one can point to a source that is believed to have come from the subject themselves beyond all reasonable doubt. Actually, to be always objectively correct (as encyclopedias should aim to do), such information on Wikipedia pages can and should be stated to have come from the subject themselves or their trusted representatives where this is the case. If such a policy is adopted, it should apply equally to celebrities and non-celebrities.
NOTE: There will be another discussion paper dedicated to the Verifiability policy and its interaction with the Notability policy.
The Cultural Contribution Criteria
Gathering the aforemtioned considerations, we propose a new cultural contribution criteria as a replacement to the current Notability Criteria for assessing subjects’ eligibility to have a page on Wikipedia. The standard of having a substantial cultural contribution was chosen for several reasons:
Firstly, it is not a standard that is likely to be discriminatory like the current Notability Criteria. Our mission here at Wikipedia Equality is to end Wikipedia’s role in perpetuating the structural racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the wider world. Where some Wikipedians claim that Wikipedia simply reflects the imperfect reality as it stands, the fact that Wikipedia is the Facebook or Google of internet encyclopedias means that it has enormous cultural power. Therefore, where it reflects structural discrimination, it is unavoidably using its power to entrench and enhance such structural discrimination. As the cultural contribution criteria does not depend on mainstream media attention or acceptance, it does not reflect barriers erected by forces of structural discrimination. There are essentially no privilege-based barriers for fulfilling the cultural contribution criteria.
Secondly, it is a standard that will serve to preserve the encyclopedic nature of Wikipedia. While some have argued that there is no harm done to include information on your average neighbour, this information cannot be considered encyclopedic because it holds no cultural value for those who do not personally know said neighbour. However, information on authors, thinkers, musicians, and other cultural contributors are within the scope of an encyclopedia whether they have received media attention or not, because someone who do not personally know them may still want to know more about them having come across one of their works.
Thirdly, the fact that someone has created one or more substantial cultural products means that there is likely to be verifiable and useful information about them, for example in the author’s biography section of books. Such information should be considered verifiable because it is available in published source, and even though it may have come from the subject themselves we generally don’t expect a higher standard of verifiability even for public figures and celebrities. Such information should also be considered potentially useful, because it provides a context to the subject’s cultural contributions.
Recommendations from this Discussion Paper
Recommendation 1: In general, Wikipedia pages should be about subjects that have had a substantial cultural contribution to the totality of human culture. A substantial cultural contribution is defined as the authorship (if a human subject) or the main subject (if a non-human subject) of a minimum of one musical album of at least four tracks, one book of at least 100 pages (except self-help books, manuals and guidelines), one podcast or blog discussing matter(s) of public interest actively maintained for at least two years, one idea that has received coverage in at least 5 reliable sources (reliability as per the verifiability policy), or equivalent contribution in other formats. Such contributions can be commercially published or self-published, but there must be a clear intent on the author’s behalf to publish, thereby contributing to the totality of human culture. Such contributions must also have been made in good faith, e.g. not to deliberately create a circumstance where the subject can have a Wikipedia page so they can promote their own business.
Recommendation 2: Non-cultural commercial products (e.g. appliances, tools and gadgets) are only considered to have had a substantial cultural contribution if they have received substantial coverage in mainstream news sources over time, or if it can be proven that they have a substantial community of users. This is because such products do not have any inherent cultural value in and of themselves. The average toothbrush does not have unique cultural value, but the iPod does because it has become a cultural phenomenon. Such products are not considered to have had a substantial cultural contribution even if a book has been written about them (since many such products would come with a user manual, for example). (On the other hand, computer programming languages are NOT non-cultural commercial products, therefore as long as there has been a book or equivalent published about such languages, they constitute substantial cultural contributions.)
Recommendation 3: Individual works of one author or artist should not have separate pages, unless the author or artist’s main page is already more than 5,000 words in total. (This recommendation is to replace the current Notability criteria for books and music etc., so that there would not be an explosion in the number of pages for these things once the Notability criteria is abolished.)
Recommendation 4: Wherever human subjects do not meet the cultural contribution criteria, they must meet one of the following criteria to have a page:
- The historical figure criteria: a historical figure that has inspired substantial public discussion in later generations (this cannot apply to living people);
- The newsworthy criteria: a person or organization who has been the subject of news reports in mainstream media, generating newsworthy interest that is not limited to a short duration of time. This essentially covers all cases where subjects meet the current Notability criteria but not the new cultural contribution criteria (e.g. sportspeople).