Deletionism and Inclusionism

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Deletionism and inclusionism are opposing philosophies that largely developed and came to public notice within the context of the community of editors of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. The terms are connected to views on the appropriate scope of the encyclopedia, and the appropriate point for a topic to be allowed to ‘include’ an encyclopedia article (i.e., ‘inclusion’) or ‘delete’ the article (i.e., ‘deletion’).

Inclusionism and deletionism are broad terms falling within a spectrum of views. The concepts are closely related to the concept of notability, with deletionists and inclusionists taking a strong or relaxed stance on ‘notability’ accordingly. Many users do not identify strongly with either position. ‘Deletionists’ are proponents of selective coverage and removal of articles seen as unnecessary or highly substandard. Deletionist viewpoints are commonly motivated by a desire that Wikipedia be focused on and cover significant topics – along with the desire to place a firm cap upon proliferation of promotional use (seen as abuse of the website), trivia, and articles which are of no general interest, lack suitable source material for high quality coverage, or are too short or otherwise unacceptably poor in quality.

‘Inclusionists’ are proponents of broad retention, including retention of ‘harmless’ articles and articles otherwise deemed substandard to allow for future improvement. Inclusionist viewpoints are commonly motivated by a desire to keep Wikipedia broad in coverage with a much lower entry barrier for topics covered – along with the belief in that it is impossible to tell what knowledge might be ‘useful’ or productive, that content often starts poor and is improved if time is allowed, that there is effectively no incremental cost of coverage, that arbitrary lines in the sand are unhelpful and may prove divisive, and that goodwill requires avoiding arbitrary deletion of others’ work. Some extend this to include allowing a wider range of sources such as notable blogs and other websites. To the extent that an official stance exists, it is that ‘There is no practical limit to the number of topics [Wikipedia] can cover’ but ‘there is an important distinction between what can be done, and what should be done,’ the latter being the subject of the policy ‘What Wikipedia is not.’ The policy concludes ‘Consequently, this policy is not a free pass for inclusion.’

Due to concerns about vandalism and appropriateness of content, wikis require policies regarding inclusion. Wikipedia has developed spaces for policy and conflict resolution regarding the disputes for individual articles. These debates, which can be initiated by anyone, take place on an ‘Articles for deletion’ page. Much discussion concerns not only the content of each article in question, but also ‘differing perspectives on how to edit an ideal encyclopedia.’ At the end of each debate, an administrator judges the community consensus. Articles that do not require debate can be flagged and deleted without debate by administrators. If the administrator’s decision is disputed, then the discussion can be taken to ‘deletion review,’ where the community discusses the administrator’s decision. In controversial cases, the debates can spread to other places on the Internet. A 2006 estimate  indicated that pages about Wikipedia governance and policy entries were one of the fastest-growing areas of Wikipedia and contained about one quarter of its content.

 The ‘Association of Inclusionist Wikipedians’ and the ‘Association of Deletionist Wikipedians’ were founded by administrators. Each has a Wikimedia page listing their respective members, charters, and principles. While written in humorous tones, they reveal the perceived importance of Wikipedia held by the members. Inclusionists may argue that the interest of a few is a sufficient condition for the existence of an article, since such articles are harmless and there is no restriction on space in Wikipedia. Favoring the idiosyncratic and subjective, an inclusionist slogan is ‘Wikipedia is not paper.’ On the other hand, deletionists favor objectivity and conformity, holding that ‘Wikipedia is not Google,’ a ‘junkyard,’ or ‘a dumping ground for facts.’ They argue that the interest of enough people is a necessary condition for article quality, and articles about trivial subjects damage the credibility and future success of Wikipedia. They advocate the establishment and enforcement of specific standards and policies as a form of jurisprudence.

According to veteran contributor Geoff Burling, newer members are less likely to have helped delete articles that should have been kept on hindsight, and so exercise less caution. Journalism professor K.G. Schneider has identified the mentality of deletionism as having manifested once the emphasis of the encyclopaedia shifted from quantity to quality. A ‘Wikimorgue,’ in which all deleted articles and their edit histories would be retained, has been suggested as a means to provide greater transparency in the deletion process. A website, ‘Deletionpedia,’ in fact now has a file of representative deleted pages.

Between the two groups, various ideologies have been formed that are not mutually exclusive. In 2004, editor Reene Sylverwind created the ‘Association of Mergist Wikipedians’ to promote a middle ground between the two groups, as not all deletion debates result in keeping or deleting the article entirely. A merge from one article to another is executed by moving the relevant content from the former to the latter, and redirecting the former to the latter. This is a sort of compromise since the content still exists, satisfying the inclusionists, while the original article no longer exists by itself, satisfying the deletionists arguing against retention.

Documentarian Jason Scott has noted the large amount of wasted effort that goes into deletion debates. Being called an inclusionist or deletionist can sidetrack the issue from the actual debate, which may contribute to community disintegration, restriction of information, or a decrease in the rate of article creation that suggests a decrease in passion and motivation amongst editors. Nevertheless, some have observed that the interaction between the two groups may actually result in an enhancement of overall quality of content. Startup accelerator and angel investor ‘Y Combinator’ co-founder Paul Graham has written on a page listing ‘Startup Ideas We’d Like to Fund’ that deletionists rule Wikipedia: ‘Deletionists rule Wikipedia. Ironically, they’re constrained by print-era thinking. What harm does it do if an online reference has a long tail of articles that are only interesting to a few people, so long as everyone can still find whatever they’re looking for? There is room to do to Wikipedia what Wikipedia did to Britannica.’

Novelist Nicholson Baker recounted how an article on the beat poet Richard Denner was deleted as ‘nonnotable,’ and criticized the behavior of vigilante editors on Wikipedia in the ‘New York Review of Books.’ The article has since been restored. According to Baker, ‘There are some people on Wikipedia now who are just bullies, who take pleasure in wrecking and mocking people’s work – even to the point of laughing at non-standard ‘Engrish.’ They poke articles full of warnings and citation-needed notes and deletion prods till the topics go away.’ Such debates have sparked the creation of websites critical of Wikipedia such as ‘Wikitruth,’ which watches for articles in risk of deletion. ‘Wikinews’ editor Brian McNeil has been quoted as saying that every encyclopedia experiences internal battles, the difference being that those of Wikipedia are public. In 2009, Wikipedia began to see a reduction in the amount of edits to the site, which some called a result of user frustration due to excessive deletionism.

Specific cases of disputes between deletionists and inclusionists have attracted media coverage. The article on South African restaurant Mzoli’s was nominated for deletion after being created by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, who said that supporters of deletion displayed ‘shockingly bad faith behavior.’ The article was kept after a multitude of editors helped work on it. The consequence is that while inclusionists can say the deleting administrator crossed the line, deletionists can say that the process works as notability was established.

Since each language Wikipedia sets its own notability standards, these have in some cases diverged substantially. The German Wikipedia is said by one journalist to be dominated by ‘exclusionists’ whereas the English Wikipedia is ‘inclusionist’; although it is pointed out that the English Wikipedia has for several years required users to create accounts to create articles, which German Wikipedia does not. A debate in late 2009 over inclusion of several articles led to criticism in the German blogosphere of such vehemence and volume that the German Wikimedia held a meeting with several bloggers and German Wikipedia administrators regarding the German Wikipedia’s notability criteria, and issued a press statement.

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