Wikipedia and Notability

Wikipedia:Notability (WP:N), one of the most cited, and most contentious, elements of Wikipedia editorial policy (it’s technically a “guideline”, which still means it’s a pretty firm part of the rules) looks to be on its way out. “Notability” is a concept that evolved from a sort of common sense “worth having in an encyclopedia” to a monster of Wikipedia jargon. Until recently, the stable version of the “primary notability criterion” was:

A topic is notable if it has been the subject of at least one substantial or multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject and of each other.

In practice, the significance line for what makes an acceptable Wikipedia article has increasingly diverged from the official guideline, and the bar has dropped as the userbase has grown. Especially with entertainment, art, and other elements of popular culture, new editors and established ones who disagree with or don’t know about WP:N continue to write new articles on cultural ephemera and minutiae, and many others find value in such articles or at least don’t see any harm in including them (“wiki is not paper“). However, editors who are involved with policy and with deletion discussions (i.e., the ones who create and use notability policy) tend more toward deletionism than inclusionism (mergism is roughly my position).

Notability policy has been a cause of minor but growing irritation in the form bad press, especially in the recent weeks. Webcomics have attracted more attention that most areas of Wikipedia; a few complaints about deletions focused the attention of the Wikipedia community, which then resulted in stricter adherence to WP:N for minor webcomics (and hence more deletions), which fed into even more negative reactions within the webcomics community, etc., etc. The issue of notability, and with it the confusing and sometimes arbitrary conventions for deletion, has appeared in a few mainstream news pieces as well (such as Marshall Poe’s September 2006 article in The Atlantic Monthly); these have been less significant than the webcomics issue among editors, but have brought some of Wikipedia’s dirty laundry to a wider audience. Slate writer Timothy Noah, in a recent series of articles (some content of which was also on NPR and in the Washington Post), explored WP:N through the lens of watching the article on him go through the deletion process; ironically, the first article, which was actually about him, provided a level of sourcing for the article to pass WP:N muster.

The Wikipedia mailing list was aflame for several days over the constellation of notability issues, and the discussion there, beginning with Phil Sandifer’s report on a dinner discussion with comics expert Scott McCloud, finally generated enough heat for a real attempt at melting down the old WP:N and forging Wikipedia’s inclusion criteria anew.

A straw poll resulted in a clear lack of consensus for WP:N, even in a slightly looser form: it looks like half or more of the community wants to rebuild WP:N from scratch or ditch notability altogether and simply rely on the policy that everything in Wikipedia must be attributable to a published (though not necessarily paper) source. At this point, it looks like the most probable conclusion of the WP:N debate will be the adoption of the more flexible substitute Wikipeida:Article inclusion and the reformation of the subject-specific notability guidelines to be a baseline for automatic inclusion (assuming someone actually writes the article) rather than a justification for exclusion.

Whether one has a Wikipedia article is fast becoming a validation of someone’s fame and importance, in the popular imagination (or at least among many of the non-Wikipedians I’ve interacted with over the last two years or so). So there is some level of implicit understanding that not just anybody gets an article. But the notability process, most editors are starting to agree, is (or, hopefully, was) badly broken. It’s heartening to see that Wikipedia is not so resistant to change that it cannot deal with its scaling problems, though it remains to be seen how effective the response will be. If the fate of WP:N works out well, maybe there’s hope for another topic of frequent debate: the admin promotion process and the ever-increasing standards for adminship, and the resulting increase in admin workload (and perhaps admin burnout).