Thursday, November 20, 2003
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Last Year

Newly added to the top-of-page directory of new stuff is a line inspired by Dave Winer's Scripting News:

A Year Ago:

Wikipedia Biography

Kathryn Cramer proposes that ISFDB take back author biographies from Wikipedia.

After a brief experience with Wikipdia, its editors strike me as a pack of officious trolls whose main concern is to make sure that you don't actually know the people you are writing about. The science fiction field doesn't work that way. I know hundreds (maybe over a thousand) science fiction writers, editors, and fans. Many, many of them could be described as my 'associates.' Am I connected to most members of the professional science fiction community in some way? You bet.

Where is wikipedia best? The most effective articles share some common properties:

  • Of potential interest to a wide audience
  • Of vital interest to very few
  • Impersonal

A wikipedia article on cycloctatetraene (one of my old friends) is likely to be good. Lots of people might be interested in cyclooctatetraene. Nobody cares terrible about it. Nobody loves or hates it. (I have a sneaking, nostalgic affection for it, but that’s just my and my COT).

A wikipedia article on a controversial, living person is almost bound to be a combat zone. Dave Winer, for example, is sometimes controversial; his article is currently subject to deletion (!) because some anonymous enemy thinks the inventor of RSS and outline pioneer is not notable. The discussion page alone has hundreds of edits. Juan Cole's page has been the subject of a continuing revert war. Harlan Ellison (of course) has an edit war. Ted Nelson, inventor of hypertext, has no edit war (and almost no article). Most of Tony Judt's article is devoted to his opinions on Israel, and his work as a historian is covered in three or four sentences. Mel Gibson’s article is locked

Wikipedia biography is doomed, at least for living people. People who are passionately admired by some and detested by others are going to generate revert wars and nonsense. People who don’t, won’t — but nobody will notice.

One solution would be to avoid biographical entries of living persons. Another might be to limit those entries very strictly to a set of specific, objective, and enumerated facts: birth, relations, affiliations, publications, offices, and honors.

Update:Tom Hoffman, Getting Beyond 'Wikipedia Good!' Kathryn Cramer revises and extends her remarks, concluding that 'The elite of the Wikipedia editors, entrusted with special powers by Wales et al. act as a form of secret police, and of course the fighting is so vicious because the stakes are so low. Truth is not the point. The point is control.'

Update 2: Paul Montgomery is launching Tinfinger, an electronic Who's Who that takes on the problems of contemporary biography head on.

Tinderbox can add this functionality easily, right out of the box. I set up an agent, About A Year Ago, that looks for all the posts I made in a three or four day window last year. It sorts them by word count -- because you'd probably prefer to see an essay that's 366 days old rather than a one-liner that's exactly a year old. Then, a second agent picks off the top note. All I need to say on the page is:

^include(a year ago)