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06 September 2006


David Moles

I don't get involved, I just make edits.

David Moles

Also, there's a difference between the inevitable lack of neutrality in scholarly work, and, say, editing the Thomas Jefferson article to say he was a white supremacist, with a cross-reference to an article on "Nordicism" and "Pan-Aryanism".


Oh, and in case I wasn't clear about this, by being involved even just enough to be making edits, you're making yourself one of the heroes of the internet. Whatever one thinks about Wikipedia, it certainly isn't going away anytime soon, and I'm happy that so many people are willing to put work in to keep it functional. I just have this weird barrier to getting involved myself.

Benjamin Rosenbaum

I'm suspicious of claims to neutrality or objectivity, but equally suspicious of abandoning the notion of neutrality. I think as long as we're talking about a provisional rather than an ultimate neutrality, we're talking about something useful, and I think a pretty decent measure -- or even definition -- of provisional neutrality is "those statements which a large number of contentious people with different points of view have been willing to let stand, given the ability to change them if they want."

Okay, yes, where there's a huge and well-distributed bias throughout the population (such as wanting a naked picture under Woman and not under Man), Wikipedia will reflect it. (Though has anyone tried adding a naked Man?) That's why its objectivity is provisional. But, as David says, you will at least eliminate a lot of outliers.

Jackie M.

It might be an interesting discussion point to see what happens (and on what timescale) when somebody adds a naked man.

In fact, if the joke isn't completely stale yet, I'll pay 500 Woolongs to anyone who's willing to undertake such a mission...


The naked man is there (or was last time I checked), he's just not at the very top; you have to scroll down half a screen-height to find him. The top image is Vitruvian man.

Jackie M.

Yeah. Presumably the proper experiment is to try to move him to the top. And/or move the woman down.

Alas, I am also one of those wikipedia non-interventionist-types.

David Moles

So, this weekend I was looking up something about circumcision customs, and discovered Wikipedia does have quite a few pictures of penises. You'd think that four (circumcised, uncircumcised x flaccid, erect) would be enough, but there are just too many proud and generous gentlemen with cameras out there.

I'd like to say that this somehow is a counterweight to the naked woman / naked man problem, yet somehow I suspect it's actually another aspect of the same problem.


Just for the record, I'm not actually advocating any messing around with Wikipedia just for the sake of experiment. For all my criticizing, I'm actually pretty impressed with the amount of work people do put in, and how seriously most of them take it. I mean, the whole thing wouldn't be so frustrating if it was just worthless, you know?

Jackie M.

Oh, no! I don't think you ever failed to communicate that. Nor does it appear that you are in any way advocating mucking about with wikipedia for the sake of mere scientific curiosity.

(I, on other hand, am advocating precisely that.)

David Gerard

Neutral Point Of View ideally means you take a subject and describe the view from 20,000 feet - not trying to find a favoured vantage point on the ground and tagging that the 'neutral point.' Is that any clearer? This is of course an ideal to work towards, but I think it's Wikipedia's big innovation - bigger than having a top-10 website open to general editing.

We have a page, [[Wikipedia:WikiProject Countering Systemic Bias]], to try to alleviate the effects of Wikipedia's editor population largely self-selecting from middle-class white male computer geeks in the US and UK. And I've had a few discussions with a feminist friend about what to do about the problems with Wikipedia. The only reasonably workable-sounding solution I've heard so far is to get such contributors involved.

The big problem with Wikipedia is that working with people you consider complete idiots is not optional. And they think you're an idiot too. In this, it's a microcosm of the rest of the Internet and the rest of the world.


David-- Thanks for dropping by and commenting! And thank you for the explanation of NPOV, although I have to admit that the problem isn't that I don't understand what it means. I understand it just fine, I'm just too deeply entrenched in the belief that all history is written from a viewpoint. (And I do rather enjoy it that way, as long as everyone's acknowledging their viewpoint.)

As far as what makes me tired about interacting with Wikipedia editing, it's not the prospect of dealing with idiots. It's the prospect of dealing with very smart people who are obsessed with things I find irrelevant or annoying. (I hate how negative I always sound when this comes up! I'm not actually anti-Wikipedia, I'm just... wary.)

David Gerard

I suppose the problem with getting the 20,000 foot view, not the view from a point on the ground, is that, despite that being the ideal, we are in fact all on the ground and trying to work out what things *would* look like from 20,000 feet. Then trying to convince the opposing idiot^Weditor of our idea of what the view from 20,000 feet would look like ...

One has to work this out per area. e.g. a neutral survey of accepted historical viewpoints is preferred to novel syntheses, i.e. a list of notable viewpoints rather than the Truth(tm).

Ah, NPOV, it's like a spiritual path and about as attainable sometimes!

Mind you, I started my Wikipedia career writing about (a) neo-Nazis and (b) Scientology. Let's just dive in at the deep end ...

See also my comments here: http://badgerbag.typepad.com/badgerbag/2006/08/feminist_histor.html

Phil Boswell

The way I think of it is more like constructing a three-dimensional image from multiple two-dimensional images...like a "stereoscopic pair" but with more than just two images if you get me.

So you have a viewpoint from this hill over here, and another from that hill over there, and maybe a shot from down in the valley, and if you're lucky a satellite photo; if you combine them all you can get a reasonably good idea of what your target looks like.

To carry the analogy further, sometimes your pictures will have been taken at different times, so the lighting doesn't match, or your target has changed or moved, but this is all good stuff. The vital thing is that each image WAS a valid image from a particular vantage point at a particular time: document all of that, complete with caveats, and you're in gravy.

Throw in there the idea of dealing with a picture which someone has maybe airbrushed, or simply faked, or "found somewhere but I can't remember where", and you get a flavour of the problem of distinguishing GOOD sources from BAD. Sometimes there is an element of malice involved, often it's more cluelessness, but usually the person who tries to include the allegedly-bogus picture in the process gets miffed somehow or other. And that's when it can get tricky, because not many people are able to simply raise their hands and admit that their picture might be bogus...even, you will be unsurprised to hear, when the bogosity is astoundingly obvious. The false positives aren't great, either, because nobody likes being accused when they're innocent.

Sorry, didn't mean to go on at such length ;-)

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Susan Marie Groppi

  • Susan Marie Groppi is a historian and an editor, currently living in Berkeley, California.


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