Saturday, December 02, 2006

Another WikiRant - Illustrated

I've been obsessing about a couple of my favorite films recently. Right around Thanksgiving I was mostly immersed in A Christmas Story, that wonderful Jean Shepherd film about Ralphie Parker's quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. But just at the moment I'm busy listening to interviews with writer-director Bob Zemeckis, screenwriter Bob Gale, and actor Michael J. Fox about one of my top three favorite movies of all time, Back to the Future. I've been doing this to nail down citations for a trio of Wikipedia articles.

Citations? Trio? Wikipedia? You're probably far from shocked that this has something to do with my Wikipedia obsession, but what's all this about citations and multiple articles? Well, I'll tell you. See, there's a constant struggle on Wikipedia between editors who want to put cool stuff in, especially about their favorite movies and tv shows (these people are called "inclusionists") and people who want to delete what they consider "fan cruft," or any statement that doesn't have a scholarly citation to support it (these people are called "deletionists"). Guess which of these I am. Right: inclusionist.
Still, the deletionists do have a point. There are people who love to paste in cool trivia they found elsewhere online, totally disregarding copyright issues, possible inaccuracy, or even the probability that the fun fact they're adding is already in the article. For example, people just have to mention (again) that Courthouse Square can also be seen in some other movie they like, or that Huey Lewis rejects Marty McFly's band as they play a Huey Lewis song. Yeah, yeah, guys. Read the article first, okay?

Deletionists, and Wikipedia policy, tackle the accretion problem and the one of inaccuracy by applying (and sometimes over-applying) a couple of policies. One policy tries to discourage people from having trivia sections at all, asking them instead to work anything that's important into the rest of the article, and to leave out that stuff that isn't important. Another forbids "original research" - in other words, you're not supposed to make new claims, draw new conclusions, or report on that experiment you conducted at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. Instead you're supposed to cite reliable sources: books, newspapers, magazine articles and so on, preferably something that's online and not fan-based or a blog. That way, if the info is wrong, at least it's not an error on Wikipedia's part, or a guessing game.

It gets taken too far, though. For some editors, any article that doesn't cite multiple sources other than the subject of the article should not be on Wikipedia at all. Every statement, or close to it, should be tied to a citation. But what if you're writing about a work of fiction, for which the main source is the work itself?

One of the Back to the Future‎ articles is one called Back to the Future timeline. It was nominated for deletion today, on the grounds that the article consists of

Original research. It's essentially an essay that would make a cool blog post or whatever, but doesn't belong here. The separate timelines that form the basis of the article are entirely a supposition of the author."

The article lists what happens in each version of history, as shown in the three movies, and as explained somewhat by the filmmakers. There is little original "supposition," and no one author. But nobody bothered to put in citations, because it was stuff seen in the movies themselves. An article on Hill Valley is objected to on similar grounds. It seems ridiculous to demand that one must cite a magazine or a book for the fact that there's a Texaco station in Hill Valley, or that Marty returned to a different 1985 from the one he left.[2], as Doc explained in BTTF Part 2. But that's where things seem to be heading. One guy groused today that soon he'll have to list a source for the statement that the thirteen colonies declared independence in 1776.

I'm happy to day, though, that this over-zealous approach does meet with resistance from people who feel that Wikipedia and its readers are best served by a little less rule-mongering and a little more common sense. Most people commenting on the "AfD" are saying that the timeline article is primarily sourced from the three movies themselves, and that besides, it's really cool. I'm personally in favor of citing some additional sources: interviews with Zemeckis and Gale, a FAQ they wrote, and even an old Starlog article on the subject. The article would benefit from that. And it might, just might, get some of the deletionists to look elsewhere for stuff to delete.



  1. some other reference
  2. ^ a b c Robert Zemickis and Bob Gale, Q&A, Back to the Future [DVD], recorded at the University of Southern California

Typos fixed Sunday at 2 PM MST.

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julie said...

I tried to work on the House article, but gave up for many of the reasons you cited.

I did have a dream that involved Wikipedia last night, though. Someone showed me an excerpt from an old Supreme Court decision that used the term disemvoweling. As if.

Clearly, I need a life.

Chris said...

This was very interesting to me because I use wikipedia a lot but had no idea of what went on behind the scenes.

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