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December 6, 2007

Wikipedia: Bag the articles — read it for the discussions


That was the advice of Wall Street Journal "Portals" columnist Lee Gomes in an informative piece that appeared on August 15, 2007, and follows.

    Forget the Articles, Best Wikipedia Read Is Its Discussions

    You already know about Wikipedia — or think you do. It's the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the one that by dint of its 1.9 million English-language entries has become the Internet's main information source and the 17th busiest U.S. Web site.

    But that's just the half of it.

    Most people are familiar with Wikipedia's collection of articles. Less well-known, unfortunately, are the discussions about these articles. You can find these at the top of a Wikipedia page under a separate tab for "Discussion."

    Reading these discussion pages is a vastly rewarding, slightly addictive, experience — so much so that it has become my habit to first check out the discussion before going to the article proper.

    At Wikipedia, anyone can be an editor and all but 600 or so articles can be freely altered. The discussion pages exist so the people working on an article can talk about what they're doing to it. Part of the discussion pages, the least interesting part, involves simple housekeeping — editors noting how they moved around the sections of an article or eliminated duplications. And sometimes readers seek answers to homework-style questions, though that practice is discouraged.

    But discussion pages are also where Wikipedians discuss and debate what an article should or shouldn't say.

    This is where the fun begins. You'd be astonished at the sorts of things editors argue about, and the prolix vehemence they bring to stating their cases. The 9,500-word article "Ireland," for example, spawned a 10,000-word discussion about whether "Republic of Ireland" would be a better name for the piece. "I know full well that many Unionist editors would object completely to my stance on this subject," wrote one person.

    A ferocious back and forth ensued over whether Antonio Meucci or Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. One person from the Meucci camp taunted the Bell side by saying, "'Nationalistic pride' stop you and people like you to accept the truth. Bell was a liar and thief. He invented nothing."

    As for the age-old philosophical question, "What is truth," it's an issue Wikipedia editors have spent 242,000 words trying to settle, an impressive feat considering how Plato needed only 118,000 words to write "The Republic."

    These debates extend to topics most people wouldn't consider remotely controversial. The article on calculus, for instance, was host to some sparring over whether the concept of "limit," central to calculus, should be better explained as an "average."

    Wikipedia editors are always on the prowl for passages in articles that violate Wikipedia policy, such as its ban on bias. Editors use the discussion pages to report these sightings, and reading the back and forth makes it clear that editors take this task very seriously.

    On one discussion page is the comment: "I am not sure that it does not present an entirely Eurocentric view, nor can I see that it is sourced sufficiently well so as to be reliable."

    Does it address a polarizing topic from politics or religion? Hardly. The article was about kittens. The editor was objecting to the statement that most people think kittens are cute.

    These debates are not the only treasures in the discussion pages. You can learn a lot of stray facts, facts that an editor didn't think were important enough for the main article. For example, in the discussion accompanying the article about diets, it's noted that potatoes, eaten raw, can be poisonous. The National Potato Council didn't believe this when asked about it last week, but later called back to say that it was true, on account of the solanine in potatoes. Of course, you'd have to eat many sackfuls of raw potatoes to be done in by them.

    The discussion about "biography" included random facts from sundry biographies, including that Marshall McLuhan believed his ideas about mass media and the rest to have been inspired by the Virgin Mary. This is true, said McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand. (Mr. Marchand also said McLuhan believed that a global conspiracy of Freemasons was seeking to hinder his career.)

    Remember, though, this is Wikipedia, and while it tends to get things right in the long run, it can goof up along the way. A "tomato" article contained a lyrical description of the Carolina breed, said to be "first noted by Italian monk Giacomo Tiramisunelli" and "considered a rare delicacy amongst tomato-connoisseurs."

    That's all a complete fabrication, said Roger Chetelat, tomato expert at the University of California, Davis. While now gone from Wikipedia, the passage was there long enough for "Giacomo Tiramisunelli" to turn up now in search engines as a key figure in tomato history.

    Wikipedia is very self-aware. It has a Wikipedia article about Wikipedia. But this meta-analysis doesn't extend to "Wikipedia discussions." No article on the topic exists. Search for "discussion," and you are sent to "debate."

    But, naturally, that's controversial. The discussion page about debate includes a debate over whether "discussion" and "debate" are synonymous. Emotions run high; the inability to distinguish the two, said one participant, is "one of the problems with Western Society."

    Maybe I have been reading too many Wikipedia discussion pages, but I can see the point.

December 6, 2007 at 02:31 PM | Permalink


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