Backstage with the Wikipedians Inner Workings of Global Encyclopedia 'Better than a Soap Opera'

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Part 4: The Inclusionists vs. the Exclusionists


The German Wikipedia today is embroiled in many debates over fundamental principles, for example the question of relevance. Late last year saw a fight break out between the "inclusionists," who consider almost any topic worthy of Wikipedia, and the "exclusionists," who want to rigidly limit what can and should be written about. The argument ballooned further into an association called the Victims of Abuse against Internet Censorship, which was denied the creation of its own Wikipedia entry. The debate even reached the media.

Elisabeth Bauer sees these debates as artificial. The real questions, she says, should be how many articles the community can maintain at a reasonable level and how they can be protected from vandals and press offices. Relevance isn't the issue for her. Instead, she sees a problem in the fact that when a new user writes an article that's incomplete and too short, administrators simply delete it -- and berate the new user. That too is a type of vandalism, Bauer says, and a new user who encounters such aggressiveness won't write again. That's a pity, because the project, as she points out, depends on new volunteer collaborators.

This is what Bauer means when she says that Wikipedia still works very well for readers looking for information, but not as well on a human level. Most Wikipedians are young men. "It's sometimes astonishing, how young they are," she notes. That too may explain some things. "Many of the people who display such atrocious behavior in the discussion forums are actually alarmingly nice in person," she says. For some, Wikipedia is more than an encyclopedia and more than a pastime -- it becomes a central part of their lives, even an addiction.

Take a look at the debate over the Danube Tower, Bauer suggests, and see how a single sentence turned into months of discussion. Then she adds, "Or maybe it's better not to. Otherwise people will think everybody there is crazy."

It's simply not possible to represent the course of the discussion about the Danube Tower here in a way that does justice to its aggressive and interminable character. It can be summarized, though, as follows: Wladyslaw Sojka refused to recognize his opponents' arguments, repeated his own in countless variations. As proof, he cited books with titles such as "The German Television Tower: A Political and Architectural Border Crossing." His opponents responded in kind.

The battle also spread to other Wikipedia pages, for example to the "list of the highest television towers" Sojka once drew up, where the Danube Tower had previously stood at 50th place and now had to be protected from deletion.

It was Henriette Fiebig who seemed to have the definitive last word in the argument. She made 7 megabytes' worth of technical articles available to all participants in the debate, which supposedly proved beyond a doubt that the Danube Tower was, in fact, an observation tower. She had carried out her research in the Berlin State Library every day for two weeks. Sojka still demanded to see proof that the Danube Tower wasn't a television tower. But he had clearly lost the battle.

It appeared, Sojka wrote in a bitter closing entry, that "the content of an article is determined not by arguments and academic literature, but by groups and personal animosities." Then he wrote, "I'm out of here."

Banned from Wikipedia

Looking back, Sojka says it probably would have been a better strategy to write considerably less. He says this in Lörrach, in his study, in front of the same computer where he once spent so many hours on Wikipedia.

He doesn't like Wikipedia anymore, Sojka says, and feels he was treated badly there. He finds it absurd that people can participate in discussions on everything, even subjects they know nothing about -- television towers, for example.

Sojka left Wikipedia after the debate. The site has since also banned him, having detected that he used "sock puppets," or different user identities, to strengthen his position in the discussion. It's a misdoing that has claimed other prominent victims on Wikipedia.

That was the end of Wladyslaw Sojka's career as an author, but only temporarily. He still uses the site under a new user name.

Henriette Fiebig says this edit war shows how seriously Wikipedians take documented truth. Certainly, she says, there are times when she doesn't want to hear another word about Wikipedia or the self-righteousness involved. "But then I want to know what happened next anyway."

On good days, she says, Wikipedia is "better than any soap opera."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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more q than a 04/23/2010
1. another "german trait" ?
Read the article with some interest, since I have often wondered how frequently wikipedia is given as THE source of info in german fora and blogs. Use it myself : a quick FIRST step of research, but would hesitate - even be kind of embarrassed - to have it as my sole back-up .... Now I can't wait for someone to comment on how "very german" the whole controversy is ;)
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