Quick notes.

A Manual of Style for humans.

Our Manual of Style is lengthy, comprehensive and really sucks to try to read or use. Compare to a really readable reference, like Fowler or Strunk & White. Or even Chicago. Have you ever picked up those books and thought “this is really good, I can use this stuff”? I’d hope you had. If you have aspirations to writing better, those books get your brain sizzling.

But, rather than being a guideline for thoughtful application by editors seeking guidance in writing effective encyclopedia entries, our manual of style has become a sequence of programming instructions for bots. So no-one ever looks at it unless they’re looking for (or adding) a stick to hit other editors with.

Our MOS should be something that editors will want to read.

Here‘s my attempt to make the intro readable.

Anyone want to help recast the rest of the megabytes of MOS as thoughtful guidance in English, rather than programming instructions for bots and weapons to be wielded by the antisocial?

Edited to add: From my user page, my personal style guide: We’re writing articles for someone who knows nothing about a topic but needs to get up to speed really quickly. You have ten seconds.

I sometimes picture my reader as a very bright ten- to twelve-year-old. Someone with a good reading age, but who knows nothing yet. Did you used to devour encyclopaedias as a kid?

{{spoiler}} Jesus dies … False ending! He comes back! {{endspoiler}}

  • Science proves that trolls really are a bunch of dicks.

This proves Phil Sandifer‘s deep evil. Superlative call, sir.

I’m slightly surprised, if pleased, at the pent-up hatred for the {{spoiler}} tag’s overapplication. It actually survived a deletion nomination last year, but the arguments for its grossly unencyclopedic nature and direct incitement to violate and defend violations of neutrality this time are much more convincing. Particularly the examples of the sort of misuse its presence fosters — did you know this thing had been placed on Anagram and Kiss? I thought this was the most unthinkingly process-over-product edit (complete with txt spk) I’d seen on the wiki yesterday, then I saw this.

I expect the tag will not be killed utterly, but I do expect its application will be severely curtailed. Someone’s already helpfully noted that if there’s a “Plot”, “Summary”, “Synopsis” or similar header, then, duh, there are going to be plot elements therein. Personally, I’d favour the German Wikipedia’s spoiler warning policy, which Babelfish and I loosely translate as:

When discussing creative works, e.g. books, music, computer games, TV series or films, an encyclopedia’s task is to give a summary of the work and its place in the overall field. Thus, it is natural that the action of a book or a film will be described and discussed in full.

Many books or films lose their attraction, however, if too many details or the ending are revealed before they are read or seen. So it became common on the Internet to put a spoiler warning before such descriptions.

In encyclopedias, however, this is rare. In the German language Wikipedia, after long discussions, consensus developed not to include spoiler warnings, and to remove existing ones. The section which contains a description of the plot should, however, always be clearly denoted, for example by the heading ==Plot summary==.

Why deal with bad policies by nominating them for deletion? Because processes are generally held responsible for their widespread misuse. If the idea is good but the process is bad, the idea doesn’t justify saving the process. (Of course, I expect IAR will quite properly continue to ignore this.) I am enormously pleased that in this case, it was done by direct attention to core policies and detailed demonstration of how it violates those.

As Doc glasgow notes: “I mean that Prince Charming marries the girl is a plot twist you’d never expect ;)”


By Kat Walsh. Based on Moldy nectarines by Roger McLassus. GFDL.

Notability for deletion.

Notability is a contentious notion on Wikipedia. It originally entered Wikipedia jargon on Votes For Deletion (as was) as a euphemism for “I don’t like it.” (I was there and watched this happen. I was one of those saying “rubbish, there’s no such rule.” So of course someone wrote a rule.) It’s an obvious notion — of course we don’t want non-notable things on Wikipedia — but its application is grossly problematic, because it’s so subjective in practice and becomes a hideous source of systemic bias. So inside the wiki people argue endlessly, and outside the wiki it becomes a source of horrible public relations because it’s so obviously subjective and applied subjectively. And it trashes our usefulness for the Long Tail, thus damaging our breadth, one of our greatest strengths.

(I don’t want to seem to be minimising the Firehose Of Crap problem. There are 6,000 deletions every day at present. “Notability” is also a euphemism for a quite justifiable “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS CRAP WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU THINKING.” Anyone who thinks they’re an inclusionist needs to read all of Special:Newpages. Once should be enough.)

Now, then. The policy on biographies of living people was written in a real hurry after the Seigenthaler fuckup: Jimbo declared “this damn well needs fixing” and it had to be swung. So I wrote the second draft based strictly on neutrality, verifiability and no original research, so as to avoid the peril of sympathetic point of view becoming mandatory. And it stuck. Because these are the three fundamental content policies of the wiki that aren’t up for a vote — if you disagree with them, you’re on the wrong project — it was easy to support an important guideline from the fundamentals.

Your assignment: Construct a useful notion of “notability” using only neutrality, verifiability and no original research. Look to the living biographies policy for how it was done previously. Note in particular: you may not use What Wikipedia is not (especially that “indiscriminate collection of information” one, which is most often explained in terms of phone books but applied in practice as a euphemism for “fancruft”). You may only use the three fundamental rules on content.

Consumers buy HD DVDs to spite copyfighters.

BLOCKBUSTER, Strip Mall, Thursday (U! News) — In the face of ludicrously overreaching intellectual property claims by the Hollywood copyright-industrial complex, consumers are rebelling — by buying new High-Definition DVD releases, in protest at the valiant copyfighters battling for their rights by spamming the AACS processing key “09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-wt-fg-1b-b3-r1-5h” into every goddamn input box on the goddamn intarweb.

“I’m really enjoying the high-resolution version of ‘Casino Royale,'” said Meg Grackswell, a developer on top 10 social networking site Wikipedia. “It even came with a free PlayStation 3! I wiped Ubuntu from my main computer and bought a copy of Windows Vista just to play it. It really pisses off these spamming morons when you tell them they personally converted you away from Linux. BitTorrent’s a goddamn pain in the ass, anyway.”

“but d00d!” said unstoppable human rights defending machine 09 f9 11 02, who recently legally changed his name from Hiram Nerdboy even in the face of family threats to disown him and evict him from his parents’ basement, “w3 g0tt@ f1ght t3h m@n! th3y c@n’t t@k3 @ll 0f u5! h3r3, l3t m3 s@v3 j00r fr33d0ms,” he finished, copying and pasting the AACS key into another three hundred Wikipedia articles, cleverly working around the spam filter by putting colons between the hex pairs rather than spaces.

“We were originally worried,” said AACS LA lawyer Michael Avery, “that our DMCA notice to Digg had triggered a disastrous public backlash. But we’re grateful to the outraged geek population for working so hard to remind normal, everyday people just why it was they hated nerds in the first place, no matter how much money they make.”

“but d00d!” interjected Nerdboy, “1t w@5 0n D1353l 5w33t135 t0d@y! j00 r s0000 fuxx0r3d!!”

No playground for “super school.”

PETERBOROUGH, Stamfordshire, Sunday — The most expensive state school in the UK will not have an outdoor space for students when it opens in September.

Alan McDalek, head of Stamfordshire‘s £46.4m Blipvert City Academy, said: “This is a massive investment of public money and I think what the public want is MAXIMUM LEARNING from the young persons and MAXIMUM TEACHING from the teachers. They recognise that young persons can play in the hours outside 8:30am to 5:30pm and hang around outside off-licenses in their local communities, and not anywhere the public will have to see them or be aware of their existence.”

The 2,200-pupil “super school,” part of the government’s city academy scheme, will replace three separate schools. The school fits three times the pupils into the space formerly used by one school as it does not waste space on playgrounds, corridors or student canteens or toilets. All pupils are decanted into vats and fed intravenously, while wastes are handled using catheters. Approved information is beamed directly onto pupils’ retinas at a fabulous rate, with memory retention being encouraged through wires plugged into the pleasure and pain centres of each pupil’s brain.

But independent play expert Tim Gill, who led an official inquiry into children’s play, said the concept sounded “crazy” and “borders on inhuman. It’s symptomatic of a way of thinking about children that we have to control and programme and manage every aspect of their lives.

“How will we train children to be the citizens of tomorrow? How do we prepare them properly for a world of working in a grey-upholstered office cubicle, breathing canned air, eating food from packets, continuous observation from CCTV cameras that talk back … oh, okay, maybe you have a point.”

The academy is being built in Industrial Estate 15, Peterborough, as a replacement for Soviet Concrete Horror #15 School, Holding Camp Before Retirement At 16 School and Criminal Street Entrepreneur Community College. Construction work on the Albert Speer-designed building started in July 2005.

The city academy programme aims to revitalise secondary schooling in areas where local school management could benefit from wads of cash being passed sideways to public-private partnerships.

Tubgirl is Love.

An English Wikipedia admin account just got compromised and abused again, because the admin used “fuckyou” as a password. That’s the sixth most common password, I think. The main page was deleted for five minutes and Tubgirl was put in the sitenotice.

Brion and Greg are (right now) running a password cracker over the admin accounts. If you want to keep your admin bit and know, deep in your heart, that your password is a bit rubbish, I strongly suggest changing it or it will be locked. Hint: if it shows up in Google, it’s a rubbish password. Or enter it into the search box at the right of this page with your username — I have a, uh, phishing detector running there. Yes, that’s it. A note on the subject has been added to Wikipedia:Administrators.

Now we eagerly await Single Crack 0wnz0ring. Normal people just don’t get passwords. I used to do dial-up Internet tech support. “What do you want for a password?” “Oh, [username].” “I’m sorry, you can’t have it be the same.” “Oh, [username]1.” Suggestions? Assume we can’t require an RSA keyfob for all editors.


A flashmob of fight-the-power morons are still spamming an allegedly illegal number into every input box on the web. The Wikipedia admins collectively declared “FUCK OFF YOU SPAMMERS.” (Some have gone rabid “ZOMG LAWSUIT” and we were getting a pile of oversight requests as well — I didn’t zap, Fred did, until Erik told us not to. Mind you, it nicely short-circuited the idiotic deletion review.) Eventually it was put into the spam filter, because distributed spam is spam.

We’re a project to write an encyclopedia, not a public graffiti wall. You want to paint “09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0” in fifty-foot high letters on every Hollywood studio, I’ll buy brushes. You want to splatter it across Wikipedia, you can fuck off. I expect the article will contain the number in due course; I’d guess two to four weeks, any earlier would in my opinion only encourage further use of Wikipedia as a graffiti wall.

Immediatism is the greatest curse of our popularity and blatantly interferes with the far from finished encyclopedia project. Wikimedia has a newspaper. No candy for you. You come back, one month.

Update: Wikipedia:Keyspam.

Revealed! Why the community is on crack.

The problem with Internet-based projects is that they form groups of humans, and a group is its own worst enemy. That’s a marvellous essay by Clay Shirky, who’s on the Wikimedia advisory board for good reason. When I read it I was just nodding my head and going “yep” over and over. A community (Internet or not) has a life cycle. It starts, it’s good for a while, it chokes itself or falls away. I’ve seen this time and time again.

On Wikipedia, the community is not an end in itself but has grown around a purpose. The English Wikipedia’s interesting community problems are an emergent phenomenon, not Wikipedia or Jimmy Wales doing something wrong.

(Not to mention the flood of people for whom this is their first online community, who haven’t experienced the cycle even once. We have enough trouble enculturating Usenet refugees and their robust interaction style.)

Larry Sanger is trying to work around this on Citizendium, as advised by Shirky’s main source, Wilfred Bion‘s Experiences In Groups: group structure is necessary. Robert’s Rules of Order, parliamentary procedure and so forth. The obvious risk is killing the best in favour of steadiness.

Shirky notes: “Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.” I’ve long spoken of Wikipedia’s fundamental policies — neutrality, verifiability, no original research; assume good faith, no personal attacks, don’t bite the newbies — as a constitution, and said that any process that violates them must be thrown out. The catch being there’s not yet a way to enforce that.

One thing Shirky strongly points out: “The third thing you need to accept: The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations. This pulls against the libertarian view that’s quite common on the network, and it absolutely pulls against the one person/one vote notion. But you can see examples of how bad an idea voting is when citizenship is the same as ability to log in.” You would probably believe the outrage when I applied the phrase “one moron one vote” to Requests for Adminship, the prime example on English Wikipedia at present of a group that’s being its own worst enemy. Worse than Articles for Deletion. (The reason people form into insular groups that defend one moron one vote is that the groups then attain local “core” status and feel they can get some work done. This is why new committees keep popping up.) The trouble is then squaring this with not being exclusionary toward the newbies.

(And you’ll see Shirky’s 2003 essay speaking of Wikipedia as a project that’s dodged that one. Whoops.)

The Tyranny Of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman is one of my favourite essays on emergent hierarchies: if you pretend there’s no hierarchy, one will emerge out of your sight and bite you in the backside. (I’m unconvinced its solutions, particularly electing everyone, are directly applicable here — just about every process on English Wikipedia even resembling a vote rapidly turns into an insular committee or a lynch mob.)

Some consider cabalism on English Wikipedia the source of all problems. Unfortunately, with 4330 frequent editors and 43,000 occasional editors each month, no-one is going to know everyone. So people will cluster with those they do know just to get anything done.

The people who do work on a project will usually ignore idiocy until it gets in their face. In the Linux world, the kernel.org lists resolutely ignore the baying fanboy cat piss men, and Linus Torvalds remains project leader by acclaim. The LambdaMOO solution in Shirky’s paper may be the best option: the wizards return and lay the smackdown. Let’s start with shooting all rules that violate the above six constitutional basics. So who are the wizards?

How to keep the community focused on the point of the exercise? What level of control does one apply to keep the project on track without killing off the liveliness? How would you apply Shirky’s findings?

Is there a sociologist in the house?

(Other useful responses on the social networking site. From people I mostly know from Usenet.)