Rambling about Wikipedia, Subculture, Legibility

I’ve contributed an article to wikipedia on a band I play in, and I thought I’d share my thoughts about the experience. (This is also a timely exercise, as Wikimania 2006, which I’m attending in Boston this weekend, is upon us.)

I’ve contributed an article to wikipedia on a band I play in, and I thought I’d share my thoughts about the experience. (This is also a timely exercise, as Wikimania 2006, which I’m attending in Boston this weekend, is upon us.)

At wikipedia, policies that govern the inclusion and exclusion of articles are negotiated between editors (and anyone can be an editor). Ideally, reason and rational persuasion should prevail in the determination of what is to be included. But the process of building a truly comprehensive, and, importantly, inclusive encyclopedia (which wikipedia aims to be) is not straightforward, and in areas of specialized knowledge this struggle may be most profoundly felt.

Cases in point: subculture, marginality. I posted an article about my band, as it had been mentioned in another wikipedia page some months previously. An editor flagged my article for deletion on the grounds of “Notability”. I didn’t notice this right away, and five days elapsed, which resulted in an automatic deletion of the article. The current policy governing inclusion or exclusion of musicians and bands is that they be “notable”, which is decided on the basis of whether the band or artist has met one of a number of criteria, which at this date and time are:

A musician or ensemble (note that this includes a band, singer, rapper, orchestra, hip hop crew, DJ, musical theatre group, etc.) is notable if it meets any one of the following criteria:

  • Has had a charted hit on any national music chart, in at least one large or medium-sized country.
  • Has had a record certified gold or higher in at least one large or medium-sized country.
  • Has gone on an international concert tour, or a national concert tour in at least one large or medium-sized country, reported in notable and verifiable sources.
  • Has released two or more albums on a major label or one of the more important indie labels (i.e. an independent label with a history of more than a few years and a roster of performers, many of which are notable).
  • Has been featured in multiple non-trivial published works in reliable and reputable media (excludes things like school newspapers, personal blogs, etc…).
  • Contains at least one member who was once a part of or later joined a band that is otherwise notable; note that it is often most appropriate to use redirects in place of articles on side projects, early bands and such.
  • Has become the most prominent representative of a notable style or the local scene of a city (or both, as in British hip hop); note that the subject must still meet all ordinary Wikipedia standards, including verifiability.
  • Has won a major music award, such as a Grammy, Juno or Mercury Music Award.
  • Has won or placed in a major music competition.
  • Has performed music for a work of media that is notable, e.g. a theme for a network television show. (But if this is the only claim, it is probably more appropriate to have a mention in the main article and redirect to that page.)
  • Has been placed in rotation nationally by any major radio network.
  • Has been the subject of a half hour or longer broadcast on a national radio network.

Eventually I had the article restored with a few amendments to demonstrate notability, but that’s beside the point.

There is discussion going on between editors as to how these guidelines might be amended (a discussion in which I’m participating a bit). The value of the guidelines seems to be that any number of imaginary or fleeting amateur bands and musical scenarios could be dreamed up and posted to the site, which would, the argument goes, diminish the value of the repository.

But the practice of exclusion is counterintuitive to the internet medium. On the web, the link (“hyperlink” for old timers) is the fundamental unit of analysis. Links drive traffic, search visibility, confer associations, permit media sharing, and facilitate direct communication between two parties. The internet cannot exist without links. It may be nothing more than links.

If the internet is nothing more than links, the informational value of a webpage is calculable in terms of how many other webpages link to it, and the informational value of those linking pages. These are basic principles in search marketing, as they are the underlying principles of the most successful, intuitive search engines currently in use.

Legibility is already accounted for in terms of the basic structure of links (wikipedia is like the internet in that it, too, is built out of links). Pages that no other pages link to fall into obscurity, appropriately, and pages that contain valuable information will attract numerous inbound linking pages. Try making use of a myspace profile where your only friend is Tom (or even try dumping Tom and have no friends!), and you’ll get the idea of how Reed’s Law affects the legibility and value of a single node or page unconnected to a network.

on a side note, a friendless myspace page, in the right creative hands, might make a worthwhile art installation…

There is a problem with “notability” as a rule in the first place. Notability is relative. Not all musicians who have a charted hit are “notable” (indeed, many are, uncontroversially, and possibly by design, forgettable), and many memorable artists are not legible in the mainstream media channels on which the notability guidelines so heavily depend. But the structure of the web and wikipedia, whose fundamental DNA is the link, guarantees a preexisting democratic structure for information.

Such a democratic structure has heretofore permitted the development of specialized online repositories of information about subcultures. Websites such as Deathrock.com are exemplary of this phenomenon, which wikipedia partly obscolesces. But wikipedia will only replace these former repositories if it lets groups represent themselves more effectively in its pages. Specialized knowledge is vital. You probably wouldn’t want an pulmonary specialist diagnosing a possible kidney disorder, just as screamo kids shouldn’t get to write what EBM is all about, or about what matters, and how it matters within that scene. I predict that editorial policies at wikipedia will become more nuanced, and more complex (accounting for variations in standards of legibility and notability, which vary from one group of editors to another), or wikipedia will be abandoned by the very people who breathe diversity and comprehensiveness into it.

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