Wikipedia’s Notability Requirement

by on November 11, 2007 · 26 comments

The more I think about it, the less sense Wikipedia’s notability rule makes. That’s the rule that says that the subject of an article must “worthy of notice” to merit the creation of an article about them. For example, today I was goofing off on Wikipedia and looking at Wikipedia’s encyclopedic coverage of the Taft family. I was curious about Pres. Taft’s living relatives, so I drilled down to William Howard Taft IV, and I noticed that he has a son, William Howard Taft V, who appeared not to have a Wikipedia entry.

So I googled WHT V and quickly came to this 2005 wedding announcement in the New York Times. I thought I’d do my good deed for the day and create a new Wikipedia article based in the information in the Times story.


But it turns out I’m not the first person to think of this. The powers that be at Wikipedia have deleted past incarnations of a WHT V page on the grounds that the guy isn’t “notable.” Said “Kinu” in February 2006: “Just because your father is famous doesn’t make you famous automatically. Until he does something to establish his own noteworthiness, no article; a passing mention in the William Howard Taft IV is good enough.”

This is asinine. The guy isn’t famous, but at least a few people (including me) are interested in learning more about him. It’s hard to see what purpose is served by removing his article. Disk space is now so cheap that including him is effectively free. Moreover, Wikipedia has a powerful enough set of search and organization tools that having “too many” article doesn’t really get in anyone’s way. You’ll never come across a WHT V article unless you are looking for it. And if non-notable sources do start cluttering up search results, a much more straightforward approach is to simply flag non-notable articles and then add an “include non-notable articles” checkbox to the search engine. Deleting non-notable articles is an extreme and unnecessary step.

Most of the arguments you hear for the notability requirement are better dealt with via the no original research rule, the biographies of living persons, and the rule against adding material to an entry about oneself. These requirements ensure that the biographies of most non-famous people will be very short, if not non-existent, since they are rarely the subject of mainstream media coverage.

My guess is that the real reason Wikipedia insists on a notability requirement is that it’s still got a hint of an inferiority complex. “Serious” encyclopedias don’t have entries about your neighbor’s dog, so if Wikipedia wants to be a serious encyclopedia, it had better not have an entry about your neighbor’s dog either! But the reason paper encyclopedias don’t have entries about really obscure subjects isn’t that there’s something intrinsically wrong with covering them. It’s that resource constraints–paper and ink, staff time–make covering them financially prohibitive. Wikipedia, of course, doesn’t have that problem, since disk space is cheap and labor is free. So they should realize that, as long as it’s reliable and respects peoples’ privacy, more information is always better than less.

  • http://tieguy.org/blog Luis

    It makes sense if you think of it as the sign of an inbred bureaucracy that needs to feel important itself. Otherwise, no, not so much sense.

    Note that there is no good way to figure out what pages have been deleted and rescue them for an ‘inclusivist-pedia’, either. That irritates me to no end.

  • http://tieguy.org/blog Luis

    It makes sense if you think of it as the sign of an inbred bureaucracy that needs to feel important itself. Otherwise, no, not so much sense.

    Note that there is no good way to figure out what pages have been deleted and rescue them for an ‘inclusivist-pedia’, either. That irritates me to no end.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    I doubt that this is a priority of Wikipedia, but the notability requirement does help keep private citizens’ lives private. People aren’t wrong to dislike having information – even public information – about themselves published online, especially in a regularly consulted source. Their preferences are overcome by public interest if they are public figures, of course, but at some point the descendant of a president is just another ordinary citizen. A minimum of information about the descendant might be included in the biography of the president, but I could see him or her disliking being the subject of a separate entry.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    I doubt that this is a priority of Wikipedia, but the notability requirement does help keep private citizens’ lives private. People aren’t wrong to dislike having information – even public information – about themselves published online, especially in a regularly consulted source. Their preferences are overcome by public interest if they are public figures, of course, but at some point the descendant of a president is just another ordinary citizen. A minimum of information about the descendant might be included in the biography of the president, but I could see him or her disliking being the subject of a separate entry.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Jim, that’s a reasonable concern, but I think the no-original-research and living-persons guidelines suffice to address it. if I google “william Howard Taft V” or “william Taft V,” that New York Times wedding story is one of the top 3 Google results. So a Wikipedia page summarizing the information in that story would hardly increase the guy’s visibility online. Moreover, it’s not like the Times runs wedding announcements over the objections of the subjects. Most likely Mr. Taft provided much of the information to the Times in the expectation that it would be published. So it can’t have been bothered too much by having the information in that article be widely available.

    Two other points: The “no original research” rule means that only information that’s been published in newspapers or other reliable sources would qualify for inclusion. For most people, no information at all has been published about them in a reliable public source, so it wouldn’t be possible to write a Wikipedia entry that qualifies. Even for people who have had information about them published, it would almost always be things like their age, home town, where they went to school–hardly the sort of information people generally consider sensitive.

    Second, the “Biographies of living persons” guidelines also provide significant protections for ordinary people. It states that birthdays, addresses, and other contact information should be omitted for non-famous living people. It also states that unsourced material about living people should be deleted immediately rather than merely tagged as unsourced.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Jim, that’s a reasonable concern, but I think the no-original-research and living-persons guidelines suffice to address it. if I google “william Howard Taft V” or “william Taft V,” that New York Times wedding story is one of the top 3 Google results. So a Wikipedia page summarizing the information in that story would hardly increase the guy’s visibility online. Moreover, it’s not like the Times runs wedding announcements over the objections of the subjects. Most likely Mr. Taft provided much of the information to the Times in the expectation that it would be published. So it can’t have been bothered too much by having the information in that article be widely available.

    Two other points: The “no original research” rule means that only information that’s been published in newspapers or other reliable sources would qualify for inclusion. For most people, no information at all has been published about them in a reliable public source, so it wouldn’t be possible to write a Wikipedia entry that qualifies. Even for people who have had information about them published, it would almost always be things like their age, home town, where they went to school–hardly the sort of information people generally consider sensitive.

    Second, the “Biographies of living persons” guidelines also provide significant protections for ordinary people. It states that birthdays, addresses, and other contact information should be omitted for non-famous living people. It also states that unsourced material about living people should be deleted immediately rather than merely tagged as unsourced.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    This statement is not true:

    Disk space is now so cheap that including him is effectively free.

    While frequently asserted, the accumulated cost is NOT free. It’s not just the cost of a few bytes of disk space. It’s in context of hosting, and the backups, and bandwidth from robots, etc. etc. etc.

    Each article has a very tiny cost – but they do add up. To the point that Wikipedia has million-dollar hosting costs nowadays. That’s NOT free.

    That may not be the real reason – but it’s a reason.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    This statement is not true:

    Disk space is now so cheap that including him is effectively free.

    While frequently asserted, the accumulated cost is NOT free. It’s not just the cost of a few bytes of disk space. It’s in context of hosting, and the backups, and bandwidth from robots, etc. etc. etc.

    Each article has a very tiny cost – but they do add up. To the point that Wikipedia has million-dollar hosting costs nowadays. That’s NOT free.

    That may not be the real reason – but it’s a reason.

  • sccarper

    I would think the notability rule helps keep the number of faux entries lower. If the rule is that someone needs to be notable it is far more likely that others can knowledgeably edit the entry. If people who are not notable are allowed in the number of vanity pages and faux entries will go up and it will be harder to ascertain their accuracy.

  • sccarper

    I would think the notability rule helps keep the number of faux entries lower. If the rule is that someone needs to be notable it is far more likely that others can knowledgeably edit the entry. If people who are not notable are allowed in the number of vanity pages and faux entries will go up and it will be harder to ascertain their accuracy.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    I agree with Tim on this issue, because the fact that someone is related to someone of note, makes that person notable, to some degree. Otherwise, many of the European nobility would not have articles written about them, e.g.:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archduke_Georg_of_

    But I have one question:

    Here’s another rule that is completely impossible to adhere to:

    An important rule of thumb when writing biographical material about living persons is “do no harm”.

    OK, how exactly could I write an article about GWB and adhere to that guideline?

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com enigma_foundry

    I agree with Tim on this issue, because the fact that someone is related to someone of note, makes that person notable, to some degree. Otherwise, many of the European nobility would not have articles written about them, e.g.:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archduke_Georg_of_Austria

    But I have one question:

    Here’s another rule that is completely impossible to adhere to:

    An important rule of thumb when writing biographical material about living persons is “do no harm”.

    OK, how exactly could I write an article about GWB and adhere to that guideline?

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    EF, the Bush daughters seem like reasonably nice people. Maybe you’re just supposed to write about them.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    EF, the Bush daughters seem like reasonably nice people. Maybe you’re just supposed to write about them.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Oy. It seems everyone thinks their own privacy preferences are universal. Tim, I know people who have been written up in newspapers – who agreed to be subjects of articles – and are embarrassed by the attention it brought them. Extending the reach of such articles another step by placing the information from it on Wikipedia would bring them further exposure and further degrade their own, highly subjective, and – I agree – quirky sense of privacy.

    I doubt that Taft V would worry about a Wikipedia entry, but there are plenty of people about whom information is in reliable public sources that would rightly feel exposed by having that information republished on Wikipedia.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Oy. It seems everyone thinks their own privacy preferences are universal. Tim, I know people who have been written up in newspapers – who agreed to be subjects of articles – and are embarrassed by the attention it brought them. Extending the reach of such articles another step by placing the information from it on Wikipedia would bring them further exposure and further degrade their own, highly subjective, and – I agree – quirky sense of privacy.

    I doubt that Taft V would worry about a Wikipedia entry, but there are plenty of people about whom information is in reliable public sources that would rightly feel exposed by having that information republished on Wikipedia.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Sure, but that’s a two-edged sword. I bet there are also people who would enjoy having a Wikipedia entry about themselves. It’s not obvious which set of quirky preferences should be given priority. It seems like it would be much more straightforward to simply respect deletion requests from non-notable individuals. That would allow information to be made available about people–probably the majority–who don’t care or even like to see their name in an encyclopedia.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Sure, but that’s a two-edged sword. I bet there are also people who would enjoy having a Wikipedia entry about themselves. It’s not obvious which set of quirky preferences should be given priority. It seems like it would be much more straightforward to simply respect deletion requests from non-notable individuals. That would allow information to be made available about people–probably the majority–who don’t care or even like to see their name in an encyclopedia.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    I’m not sure that’s fair to the billions of non-notable people out there, whose privacy could be affected (marginally) when a Web site that many don’t know or care about vacuums up and reposts information about them.

    Privacy aside, without a notability requirement, what would stop Wikipedia from becoming a repository of MySpace and Facebook profiles – and a reprint of every obituary, wedding announcement, corporate press release, and so on? I don’t see why that supports the mission of an encyclopedia. And, as Seth pointed out, each article itself may have a tiny cost, but when there are millions of them, that’s far from free.

    You’ve got to draw a line somewhere. There may be nuances to notability – and Wikipedia folks may be wrong on WHT V – but I wouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. (Nor do I plan to spend the rest of my day on this issue. It’s – ahem – not notable enough!)

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    I’m not sure that’s fair to the billions of non-notable people out there, whose privacy could be affected (marginally) when a Web site that many don’t know or care about vacuums up and reposts information about them.

    Privacy aside, without a notability requirement, what would stop Wikipedia from becoming a repository of MySpace and Facebook profiles – and a reprint of every obituary, wedding announcement, corporate press release, and so on? I don’t see why that supports the mission of an encyclopedia. And, as Seth pointed out, each article itself may have a tiny cost, but when there are millions of them, that’s far from free.

    You’ve got to draw a line somewhere. There may be nuances to notability – and Wikipedia folks may be wrong on WHT V – but I wouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. (Nor do I plan to spend the rest of my day on this issue. It’s – ahem – not notable enough!)

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    MySpace, Facebook, and corporate press releases (all of which are self-published) aren’t reliable third-party sources. On the other hand, I don’t see a problem with entries based on wedding announcements and obituaries. Obviously, creating those articles shouldn’t be a priority for Wikipedians, but if a volunteer does it I don’t see what purpose is served by deleting it. Yes, the disk space isn’t literally free, but per bit it’s very cheap and getting cheaper every year.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    MySpace, Facebook, and corporate press releases (all of which are self-published) aren’t reliable third-party sources. On the other hand, I don’t see a problem with entries based on wedding announcements and obituaries. Obviously, creating those articles shouldn’t be a priority for Wikipedians, but if a volunteer does it I don’t see what purpose is served by deleting it. Yes, the disk space isn’t literally free, but per bit it’s very cheap and getting cheaper every year.

  • http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/ Seth Finkelstein

    Tim, again, it’s not just “disk space”. It’s hosting, backups, bandwidth, etc. While it gets cheaper every year, there’s also more demands every year. Wikipedia’s database is around 4GB, but it costs FAR more than a few bucks to run Wikipedia.

  • http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/ Seth Finkelstein

    Tim, again, it’s not just “disk space”. It’s hosting, backups, bandwidth, etc. While it gets cheaper every year, there’s also more demands every year. Wikipedia’s database is around 4GB, but it costs FAR more than a few bucks to run Wikipedia.

  • Diego Taylor

    I have came with similar problems in wikipedia

    The interesting thing to me is how Wikipedia contradicts itself and has a crowd of groupies who votes against you like machine guns.

    To illustrate my point I have added some software and it was removed because it was not notable, some months later I discovered a whole set of pages listing software, like: List of Jabber client software or the whole Free Software Portal

  • Diego Taylor

    I have came with similar problems in wikipedia
    The interesting thing to me is how Wikipedia contradicts itself and has a crowd of groupies who votes against you like machine guns.

    To illustrate my point I have added some software and it was removed because it was not notable, some months later I discovered a whole set of pages listing software, like: List of Jabber client software or the whole Free Software Portal

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