Learning about “notability” and thinking print dependence

I’m a new wikipedia editor. If I make it past the fourth day, I will have reached the status of “Established Editor” – apparently most people don’t make it that long. I feel a little bit like Atreyu approaching the Southern Oracle in The Neverending Story.


I hope I don’t get zapped and I have a sense that there is something a bit mysterious about this test.

But a couple of things are currently tumbling around in my head about what I’ve learned thus far.

The first is just how conservative Wikipedia is as a knowledge structure. As a “tertiary” resource, an encyclopedia, Wikipedia is designed to depend on the printed word for its authority. If it isn’t in print, it’s going to be hard to have robust citations of the sort that Wikipedia demands. It’s not about truth, it’s about what can be cited.

Of course, there are problems here, especially as a group of us begin to tackle issues of inclusivity by improving or adding pages by and about women and people of color. These are often the very same groups whose histories, voices, and art have not made it into print. There the claim is often that it isn’t profitable, and the driving force of market forces is part of what the “free” space of Wikipedia is supposed to push against. Of course, we recognize that there is a lot that isn’t “free” about Wikipedia, but I had not recognized that as a “tertiary” structure, Wikipedia may reproduce many of the same market effects that we’ve long seen in print. While twitter this evening brought the notion of oral citation into the conversation, I know very little about it and will have to search further.

This issue of print dependence comes to a head in Wikipedia’s policy regarding “notablity” which is remarkably literal in privileging that which has been “noted” by means of being printed. It seems strange in our current context that what is “worthy of notice” remains so intricately tied to what has been printed. I’m sure someone has done some great work on this, but I’m just coming to it and I’m a bit flabbergasted. Given that the Wikipedia standard is to write for a global audience (a laudable goal in many ways), the bar is quite high for what can be argued to be “notable,” and I worry that the work of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and those of lower economic class fall right through the sieve. What’s worse, as the economics of print become even more untenable, the problem is going to get worse, not better.

While the Wikipedia folks seem to think this is not necessarily problem, noting that “If the subject has not been covered outside of Wikipedia, no amount of improvements to the Wikipedia content will suddenly make the subject notable,” I think we have a knowledge transmission structure that is worth spending a fair amount of time thinking about. This is a topic of much debate, I’m learning, which seems right to me. We should be taking an interest in how we build and disseminate knowledge.

Now this post was prompted by the suggestion that an ongoing twitter conversation could be more robust in comments, so bring on the comments. I hope they’ll teach this newbie more about a subject she could clearly get engrossed in.

6 thoughts on “Learning about “notability” and thinking print dependence

  1. While Wikipedia does replicate the printed sources of the past, there are lots of interesting ways in which its dependence on published sources replicate the internet era. Because most of the research done by Wikipedians is done via the internet, the bias that often concerns me is that towards internet sources rather than peer-reviewed scholarship. This is a double-edged sword in some ways, however. Women and people of color who are sometimes written out of the traditional scholarship have used the internet to publish new histories of themselves in reputable forums and these can be used as sources.

  2. That’s a great point, Adrianne. I assume, though, that when you say “histories of themselves,” you don’t mean first person accounts of their own experiences. It’s my understanding that such publications still wouldn’t fit the bill – is that right?

    1. Sometimes first-person accounts can be used (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Primary#Primary.2C_secondary_and_tertiary_sources) – “A primary source may only be used on Wikipedia to make straightforward, descriptive statements of facts that can be verified by any educated person with access to the source but without further, specialized knowledge.” However, it is easier for established editors to use these sources because they have seen the ways in which Wikipedians will accept such sources and the ways in which they won’t.

  3. This is a great post. Happy to see this being discussed more–thanks!
    I submitted my first article recently and was lucky enough to pass the notability check, but it could just as easily not. The article was on a female Victorian textual scholar *who created an edition that is amazingly prescient of the stuff we’re still figuring out with digital editions today–but she had previously only been briefly mentioned on a male Victorian editor’s Wikipedia page as the woman who stole a husband from his wife and children (Victorian morals are apparently contagious).
    I’m not deep enough into the Wikipedia community to know how much the kind of flagging you discuss comes from the number of cited sources and how much (if any) of the decision to flag comes from perceived credibility of the submitter (i.e. have you written other articles? on “notable” topics? what does your username imply about you?). Would be interesting to survey editors on the pages they visit when okaying an article–how many visit the author’s profile, look at other articles authored by that person, or search for related Wiki topics. And I’m wondering about ways of establishing non-written community knowledge, like creating small task forces for potential articles facing notability skepticism–have a group of people submit and interlink articles on a related topic at the same time (e.g. Victorian female textual scholars, in my example), or multiple people working on the same topic (maybe showing interest from more than one author indicates greater credibility?). I guess these are already happening to some extent with themed edit-a-thons. This doesn’t solve the issue of finding sources to cite about marginalized topics, but perhaps showing a bunch of related articles coming in from a variety of authors does a better job of reflecting non-written community knowledge.

    * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teena_Rochfort-Smith if you want to read more or add some info!

    1. Articles from new editors are more likely to be deleted, yes. On Wikipedia, an editor builds up cultural capital (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cathedral_and_the_Bazaar) which she then relies on or spends. Writing about marginalized topics such as folk games that have no published history is a tricky prospect on Wikipedia, but the rule about having a published source is, of course, a good one in many ways. Without it, anyone could add any piece of information to Wikipedia – and it is that kind of indiscriminate kind of editing we want to avoid. Finding the middle ground is far from easy and I hope that events like #tooFEW will help us find good ways to negotiate these difficulties.

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