Thursday, May 28, 2009

The dead trees standard

June is coming in a couple of days, which will be the two year anniversary of the dead trees standard. It's an idea that applies to courtesy deletions for Wikipedia's biographies of living people.
If the living subject of a Wikipedia biography wants their biography deleted, and that person does not have an entry in any reliably published paper encyclopedia including specialty encyclopedias, then we delete their biography upon request.
It's objective, it's measurable, and it's sensible. A Wikipedia article is going to be a top Google return for nearly anyone's biography, and nobody is more affected by that than the subject himself or herself. Many of these biographies are not watchlisted, they're openly editable, and biography subjects are strongly discouraged from editing their biographies themselves.

So in other words, David Bowie is here to stay. And everyone else who has an entry in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll is going to stay in Wikipedia. But if a fellow who played bass for David Bowie for a year wants out of Wikipedia, we'll delete the bassist's biography if he asks us to.

There are two great sides to nailing this down:
  1. Wikipedians cut down on low priority drama.
  2. Biography subjects get an answer they can understand.
Ever call the cable company with a service request and get the run-around? It's no fun. When you want a refund for a service outage, the last thing you want to hear about is how Cable Inc. organized their departmental structure. If the answer is yes you want the money now, and if the answer is going to be no they could at least say it without wasting your time.

Living people who want their biographies out of Wikipedia want straight and simple answers. Put yourself in their shoes: the top Google return for your name is a lot more important than a five dollar refund from your cable company. We can't stop corporate bureaucracy, but we can fix this.

So let's do the decent thing: add dead trees to policy.
Image credit


AGK said...


Joshua said...

I agree that a standard is necessary. The dead tree standard however is far from ideal. Among other issues it is capricious. As someone (I think it was actually you) observed this means that almost anyone marginally related to Star Trek or Star Wars have no choice about having an article even as people who have actually campaigned for office can request deletion. Moreover, as paper encyclopedias become less and less common the standard becomes stricter. There is also no overarching rational to the test. Its only advantage is being a bright line.

A better test is whether people are a willing public figure. If people have willingly become public figures there is both a direct public interest in knowing about the people and it is less reasonable for the individuals to pick and choose what sort of coverage they get. The standard does produce more borderline cases than the dead tree standard but has many advantages.

Alex said...

The main issue I can see is that of bias. The types of encyclopedias that most editors will have access to may have even more bias toward Western nations than Wikipedia. Neither Encarta nor Britannica have an article on Choummaly Sayasone, the president of Laos. While its unlikely he would request deletion, he may qualify under this criteria. But as a head of state, I don't see how he could possibly be considered to be non-notable.

The Laotian Wikipedia may be the only encyclopedia written in Laotian; the literacy rate in Laos is only 68.7%. The only hope would be to find some some specialty encyclopedia, published recently, about heads of state or southeast Asia, and then try to find someone with access to a copy.

As an ideal, I think its good, but it makes a few assumptions that would create problems in practice:

1. It assumes frequent publication - How often is the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll published? The last version on Amazon is from 2001. What if sites like Wikipedia make it unprofitable and they stop publishing it?
2. It assumes easy access to specialty and/or foreign language encyclopedias that may not have online versions.
3. It assumes that published encyclopedias will, overall, have a wide, balanced coverage of topics.

Joshua said...

Alex, I don't think that issues of systemic bias in this regard are as large as you make them out to be. The vast majority of people requesting deletion are people in English speaking, Western countries (indeed, most have been people residing in the US).

Lise Broer said...

The vast majority of those who create the articles are also English-speaking. Been doing new pages patrol on the back end of the queue lately. It's amazing how quick it goes, patrolling the hours when North America is asleep. Then it picks up when the East Coast gets their first cup of coffee. The difference is like night and day.

Alex said...

The proportion of people requesting deletion doesn't really matter, what matters is the bias in the standard. Someone who would easily meet the standard if they lived in a Western nation (like a high-level government official or a well-known artist) would fail just because they live in a poorer nation with less of a body of published works. We already have enough bias. I'd rather not increase it, even just a little.