Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat running for a Senate seat in Iowa, might win her election, becoming a person of power, and perhaps even determining whether the next U.S. Senate is controlled by Democrats or Republicans. However, Wikipedia editors maintained she was not “notable” enough to merit her own Wikipedia page until this past Wednesday, when a nearly year-long process concluded in her favor.
Why did it take so long for a candidate who might potentially represent 3,155,000 people to get a Wikipedia page? Some have said Wikipedia was procedurally unfair toward her — and toward women in general — or the delay reveals the deep flaws in Wikipedia’s organizational model.
In fact, the long delay is unsurprising to anyone familiar with how Wikipedia works. Greenfield didn’t easily qualify under long-established procedures and precedents on the global online encyclopedia. To understand why, you need to know how Wikipedia works.
Wikipedia has complicated rules
Wikipedia is the eighth most popular website in the United States. Its popularity, Internet prominence and perceived trustworthiness give it the power to confer legitimacy and prominence on the subjects it covers. Politicians want to have Wikipedia pages, and they prefer it when Wikipedia says nice things about them.
However, Wikipedia is run and written by volunteers. These volunteers need to be able to agree on the topics that Wikipedia covers, and how it covers them. That is why there is an elaborate and arcane structure of norms and rules underneath the hood of Wikipedia, to resolve disagreements between editors. These rules and norms produce a successful and consistent product from the combined efforts of a userbase of at least 130,000 active users and at least 40 million registered users.
By Wikipedia standards, Greenfield wasn’t ‘notable’
Greenfield’s Wikipedia article got snagged in the Wikipedia bureaucracy because of two important rules. An article about a politician can only be added when the politician satisfies: (i) a general notability guideline and (ii) a politician-specific notability guideline. These guidelines are supposed to ensure “notable” subjects are included and “non-notable” subjects are excluded.
The guidelines don’t precisely identify the line of notability but, just as in a law court or bureaucracy, rule interpretations and precedents have developed over the course of many years. These interpretations state political candidates must have (i) served in public office or (ii) been the subject of substantial newspaper coverage in relation to events unrelated to their candidacy to be considered notable.
Greenfield is an uniquely tricky case for Wikipedia because she doesn’t have the background that most candidates for major political office typically have (like prior government experience or prominence in business). Even if Wikipedia editors could recognize she was prominent, she had a hard time meeting the official criteria for notability.
This generated controversy
Two events explain why Wikipedia was so slow to move on Greenfield’s case. The first happened before Greenfield became a candidate. Wikipedia community members had previously recognized that cases such as Greenfield’s might occur. Some of them attempted to tweak existing guidelines in an October 2018–January 2019 quorum so candidates like Greenfield (who are prominent but who do not have prior fame) would indisputably be able to have Wikipedia pages. However, Wikipedia’s decision-making procedures require a consensus to enact drastic changes, and the quorum wasn’t able to reach that level of agreement.
The second happened after Greenfield’s page was first created in 2019 when she announced her candidacy. Wikipedia quickly deleted it. The page kept being re-added and removed in 2020 until an official “article for deletion” quorum took place in May 2020. This discussion concluded with a consensus that Greenfield was not notable enough to have her own article. This is important because under Wikipedia rules, a consensus decision needs to be reversed with a consensus in the other direction. In June and July, three “deletion reviews” (the equivalent of appeal courts) failed to reach consensus.
By October, Greenfield’s Wikipedia struggle was growing more contentious. Outsiders were commenting on the situation, looking at internal Wikipedia discussions and expressing puzzlement. The issue was thrown to the “Administrators’ noticeboard,” a high-profile discussion forum on Wikipedia that can serve as a higher appeals court. Editors debated whether to create an article, with some arguing she did indeed meet the existing rules, and others arguing she did not. Some editors suggested the episode showed Wikipedia needed to revise its rules.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales made a rare entry into a substantive debate, opining that the Greenfield situation was a perfect example of what “Ignore all rules” (an actual, albeit obscure and rarely applied, guideline) was intended for. Editors ultimately reached a consensus that Greenfield did indeed merit her own page, but they did so under an unusually lenient and broad interpretation of the notability guideline. They decided the amount of news coverage about Greenfield was substantial enough to warrant a page — even if the news coverage related solely to her candidacy.
There is a logic to how Wikipedia works
All of this may seem crazy and bureaucratic to Wikipedia outsiders. But the Greenfield saga shows it’s impossible to construct rules that apply perfectly and unambiguously to every situation. Even if Greenfield was famous, she wasn’t notable under Wikipedia rules. “Wikipedians” were not procedurally unfair to her; they were just following set precedent.
Is this stubbornness a sign of bureaucratic irrationality, simply sticking to the rules even when they don’t make sense? Others might point out strict adherence to rules, norms and precedents is what makes it possible for Wikipedia to survive and function as an organization with a large, diverse and fluid userbase.
This story, however, illustrates the trade-offs of strong rules. They can provide stability to an organization with a diverse and large membership. But they also lead to a strong status quo bias, preventing anything but gradual institutional change.
Sverrir Steinsson is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University.