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Look Me Up Under 'Missing Link'
"Who cares?" the editor countered.
It's like the minutes to a meeting of the planet's own co-op board. And you'd be surprised at how many people want in. Wiki-worthiness has quietly become a new digital divide, separating those who think they are notable from those granted the imprimatur of notability by a horde of anonymous geeks.
Now, the presence of any quality control system on the site might surprise those who are familiar with the conventional rap against Wikipedia -- that its pages, which every registered user can alter, are rife with mistakes. The upside of the site's collaborative style is reflected in the astounding breadth and growth of the site, which launched in 2001 and currently features more than 1.5 million entries in English, on everything from La Modelo, a prison in Colombia, to the Cobden Club, a British gentlemen's club founded in the 1870s.
But just because the premises are spacious and a little unruly, to put it politely, doesn't mean that the Wiki mandarins will let just anyone stay. Musicians and bands must have charted on "any national music chart, in at least one large or medium-sized country," or released "two or more albums on a major label or one of the more important indie labels," or "been the subject of a half-hour or longer broadcast on a national radio or TV network." Politicians must have received "significant press coverage," while sports figures must compete in a "fully professional league" or "at the highest level in mainly amateur sports." If a person clearly doesn't belong -- the T.C. Congis of the world, if you will -- an editor might mark him or her for "speedy delete," which shortens the mull-it-over period. Here, Wikipedia can be ruthlessly efficient, because Wikipedians are constantly on what they call "new-page patrol." That entry on illustrator Peter Mitchell, for instance, lasted a mere eight hours, he said. (A "speedy keep" is possible, too, if for instance some joker nominates George W. Bush for deletion.) Otherwise, the administrators wait for a consensus of "delete" or "keep" to coalesce over a span of days.
Even with those detailed definitions of "notable," there is plenty of room on Wikipedia for disagreement, and not just among editors. Wikipedians are frequently deluged with protest e-mail from the newly deleted.
"Sometimes a person or an institution is deleted and we will hear about it," says Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, speaking from the headquarters of the Wikimedia Foundation in St. Petersburg, Fla. "There was an entry for a church, for instance, that we deleted -- because it wasn't a church, it was a Web site."
E-mails from the church's supporters didn't help. "This isn't a poll," Wales explains. "It's a discussion among known editors."
So who are these editors, the nameless sages who can bestow or withhold the cachet of Wikidom as they please? In Wiki terminology -- and this is a realm piled high with terminology -- these editors are called "administrators" and they get their jobs after being nominated and voted in by the great mass of Wikipedia contributors. (Fairness and diligence and a track record for good writing and editorial decisions earn you the nod.)
There are just over 1,000 administrators at any one time, and none of them are paid. Generally, they are men in their 20s or 30s with jobs in the computer field, according to Wales, who is guessing based on his own informal travels to meet admins, as he calls them. It's also safe to assume these are people with a lot of time on their hands.
The thumbs-up-or-down debates can rivet those in danger of Wiki deletion. Chicago composer and writer Matthew Dallman noticed last week that the fate of a biographical entry about him, which he says he didn't write, was being debated and on Wednesday, it was gone. On Thursday, it was back.
"It looks like the votes are running five to three in favor of deletion," he said on the phone from his home in Chicago. "I've been watching for a few days and I've got to say, it's really perplexing and very surreal. There's this debate going on about me, but Wikipedia seems to dislike self-promotion, so saying anything on my own behalf would probably undermine my cause. It's like I'm on trial and I can't testify."
Ultimately, though, Dallman couldn't resist rising to his own defense, and on Friday he lobbed an e-mail into the ongoing debate about his entry, staking his claim to prominence.