2021:Submissions/Wikipedia and the Weird: covering humorous and unusual topics with respect and fairness
Speakers[edit | edit source]
Abstract[edit | edit source]
What is Weird?
1. Importance of weird topics in Wikipedia
- It’s part of what makes it great!
- Increases user retention
- Adds to Wikipedia culture
- Satisfies curiosity
- Weird and funny topics can have reverberations through history and culture, some of which result in events which are not funny at all
2. Common issues with representing the weird
- How we classify weirdness is biased by our own history, culture, and interests.
- When writing about the weird there is a tendency towards defamiliarization, which can be both a good and bad thing, depending on context
- Wikipedia editors tend to have certain specific biases, such as viewing internet culture and memes as more obscure and less important than they are, leading to reduced coverage and even severely lacking work on the subject.
- Viewing a topic as weird or funny tends to lead to minimization of the topics’ importance, even though often understanding the odd is paramount—humor is seen as taboo by many on Wikipedia, despite it being well-recognized and studied in academia. This taboo can lead to minimization and backlash against important humor-related articles, such as cultures built around jokes and influential internet memes.
3. What can we do about it?
- Look for holes in the system, and interrogate your own reactions to the weird and funny
- Be careful about keeping consistent internal standards with regards to notability and criteria for deletion (if you’re fine with using sports and music articles as sources, but find yourself skeptical of a similar quality paper covering memes, it’s worth checking yourself for potential bias)
- Practical tip: pay attention when you write something off as “niche,” or “irrelevant/unworthy of coverage” — is it truly irrelevant, or is it only irrelevant to your particular interests and culture?”
- Note how aesthetics changes your judgement of notability/verifiability
Session Outcomes[edit | edit source]
Viewers should walk away with an enhanced understanding of the importance of Weirdness on Wikipedia, common editor biases that effect coverage of the Weird, and with concrete excercises that can be implemented to help minimize such biases.
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Transcript of speech[edit | edit source]
Wikipedia is weird.
It’s bonkers, really. A whole bunch of people from random backgrounds, all holding contradictory beliefs, most of whom have never even met each other, and we’ve been given free reign to write or delete pretty much anything we want, on a website funded by the masses that even one of its co-founders hate, with almost everything made on a completely volunteer basis, and yet *this* is what comes out of it? It’s completely insane! Off the rails! Incredible! Wikipedia is weird. It’s weird, and yet here we are. One of the most trafficked websites in the world, used by scientists, researchers, and students of every type, and almost completely controlled by us…the mob.
Okay, so Wikipedia is pretty weird. But what about weirdness on Wikipedia? For a website with such a strange and unlikely background, it can sometimes seem like our treatment of weird and humorous is somewhat lacking.
Take, for example, the “secret cabinet” of Naples. It’s a famous museum containing a vast array of weird and erotic art excavated from the ruins of Pompii, and it played a massive role in shaping our current understanding of ancient Greek conceptions of sexuality. Additionally, the museum’s history of being censored by various governments, as well as secret viewings of its contents becoming a rite-of-passage for many Victorian men, have been subjects of extensive coverage by historians and sociologists. While we do have a solid article on sexuality in ancient Greece, the article for the “Secret Cabinet” is little more than a stub, and there is not a single article covering any of its contents, despite the extensive and detailed coverage by historians of many of the deeply unusual sculptures and frescos inside.
As a more recent historical example of our aversion towards the Weird, before I added a short paragraph a few days ago, we were completely missing coverage of the phenomenon of so-called “surreal memes,” which thanks in part to celebrities like Elon Musk using the memes to promote the subReddit r/wallstreetbets, precipitated what became known as the 2021 GameStop Short Squeeze, the effects of which are still not totally understood, but which has certainly resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars gained and lost, not to mention absolutely massive political fallout. This is a topic which requires an understanding of what many would consider the weirder parts of internet culture, but despite a wealth of outside coverage, from sources ranging to anthropological journals to a full-length article from Forbes Magazine examining the history of the “stonks” meme, we had somehow completely missed an absolutely essential element of this massive economic event. As far as I can tell, this was due in large part to a sense of apathy or aversion towards coverage of the weird or seemingly fringe on Wikipedia.
Due to time limitations, I won’t continue to give all that many more concrete examples, but if you want to see further instances of these issues, I highly recommend looking through some of the roughly twenty thousand articles nominated for deletion on Wikipedia that have the keywords “trivial content.”
Even controlling for the number of citations from authoritative sources, the proportion of topics that editors deem weird, sexual, or humourous, is vastly more likely to be tagged as “trivial,” seemingly regardless of that topic's coverage in outside sources.
I hope I have made it clear to everyone by now that there are often obvious biases and gaps in our coverage of topics that involve the Weird or the Funny, which sometimes can have reverberating effects on our coverage of the deadly serious.
In short, when things get weird, Wikipedians tend to look away.
Why is this?
Well, Wikipedia editors tend to have certain specific biases, as we are all aware. We’re mostly composed of Western, English-speaking, Christian or atheist white men, and the scope, coverage, and quality of articles on topics that this demographic cares about reflects that. Some particularly egregious biases, like gender imbalance in Wikipedia biographies, have thankfully been receiving significant attention lately, but there are many other, common biases that are both clearly evident and deeply understudied.
One very basic bias often found among us Wikipedians, and the one that we’ll be focusing on for for now, is that we tend to view topics that appear to us as weird or humorous, as being less important than they actually are, leading to reduced coverage, and lesser quality work on these subjects, than they actually deserve.
Weirdness as a descriptor, is, of course, incredibly subjective. What seems completely bizarre to one person may be accepted as totally normal by the next. What one person finds hilarious may be interpreted completely seriously by another. This is actually emblematic of a central feature of The Weird—it is the opposite of the familiar.
The Weird is The Other. And the Other, of course, can be scary, or even repulsive to some. We see this fear of the Other in its most horrifying and dangerous forms when trying to fight racism, sexism, queerphobia, and other forms of discrimination, but negative reactions to the Other and the seemingly Wierd can also take more subtle, more benign, but still harmful forms. The fact of the matter is, we treat the familiar, or the Normal, to different, more lax standards than we treat the weird.
Let’s move on to the silly, which lies adjacent to the Weird. We take humor from the unexpected, and, according to at least some theorists, all humor can ultimately be viewed as subversions of the expected, or normal. As a consequence, things which appear weird, or abnormal to us, can sometimes also seem quite silly. And in Western culture, or at least in Western academia, humor is seen as being of lesser importance to culture and history than perhaps it truly is.
I personally come from an Orthodox Jewish background, which, while I won’t focus deeply on this today, does have a somewhat different view on the intersection between humor, weirdness, and culture than what most people are familiar with. To give a brief example, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moshe_Waldoks), a noted historian of Jewish humor, has argued that Jewish humorists play a critical role as a source of self-criticism within the community. As he puts it, “the humorist, like the prophet, would basically take people to task for their failings.” (https://web.archive.org/web/20080511151852/http://www.sdjewishjournal.com/stories/cover_aug04.html) This sensibility, in which humorous memes, trends, and events are treated, well… seriously as being a vital aspect of the human condition is not often found among Wikipedia editors. On the contrary, despite the importance of understanding the odd, a sort of taboo against the Weird seems to have developed, which can lead to minimization of—or backlash against—important humor-related articles.
So what can we do about this?
To some degree, bais will always exist on Wikipedia. There’s no such thing as a truly impartial editor, and the quest towards perfection is never-ending. Of course, that doesn’t mean the quest isn’t worth it. We need to do our utmost to create the best encyclopedia we can, and that includes, among many other measures, taking concrete steps to be more representative and respectful of the unfamiliar, the humorous, and the weird.
One relatively easy place to start in this quest, is to look for existing holes in our coverage of different topics. We tend to stick close to what we know best, but if you can use even a small percentage of your time on Wikipedia to go actively searching for the unfamiliar, you can make a massive difference in under-represented places, topics, and communities. Ask yourself what sort of things are unlikely to naturally get picked up by our editor base, and take some time to go hunting for the “out of the way”. One excellent way to do this is to talk to groups outside your cultural comfort zone, both on the internet, and in real life. Find communities of people with radically different interests than you, and ask what they wish they could find more accurate information on online. Perhaps more importantly, find out what they’re reading. There are countless reliable sources of information out there that are almost non-existent as citations on Wikipedia, simply because there aren’t many editors around who happen to be aware of those sources. You can also ask fellow Wikipedians what they find to be missing on Wikipedia, although you may be less likely to hear of topics which have completely escaped our collective notice so far. It’s easy to think of Wikipedia editors as coming from a fairly randomized cross-section of the internet, but we really aren’t as diverse as one might expect, so relying solely on peers to find gaps in information can leave us completely unaware of gaping holes in our knowledge base.
Another useful exercise to help tamp down on personal biases, is to be careful about keeping consistent internal standards with regards to notability and criteria for deletion. To go back to a previous example, if you’re fine with using sports and music-focused publications as sources, but find yourself skeptical of a similar quality publication covering, say, memes or TikTok trends, it’s worth checking yourself for potential bias there. Pay particular attention when you write something off as “niche,” or “irrelevant,” or “unworthy of coverage” — is it truly irrelevant, or is it only irrelevant to your particular interests and culture?
Also, when you’re researching to find high quality sources to cite, note how the aesthetics of different publications can influence your judgement of notability and verifiability. Aesthetics plays a massive role in our judgement of what is notable and what is not, and aesthetic judgement varies from culture to culture. Simply because something looks “trashy” or “uncultured” to you does not mean that it is not notable—after all, opinion is not the arbiter of notability. Especially when considering criteria for deletion, or during any editing activity which may be seen as controversial, be extremely careful to keep consistent internal standards, and pay attention to your gut reactions, particularly towards the weird, the funny, and the Other.
I’m Yitzi Litt, and I wish you all success in our collective quest to make the world a smarter, stranger, and better place.
Have a wonderful day!