Issues, Tech

Whacky Wiki: How Some Wikipedia Restrictions Have the Potential to Reduce Content Quality


By Alex Biles, University of Michigan

Fans of mashup extraordinaire Gregg Gillis – better known as Girl Talk – are well-aware of the weaved patchwork of infectious samples that make up his music. Ranging from your Top 40 fare to the arcane, Girl Talk has culled hundreds of different samples for each of his albums.

Considering the popularity of Gillis’ one-man-army, a neatly organized compendium of Girl Talk’s exploits should seem easy to find online. There are cumulative lists of the samples – provided by Girl Talk in album liner notes – but they do not discern which tracks the samples can be found on. The only other collection I could find was an attractive infographic on Fast Company, but it is incomplete by at least 40 samples. The lack of a comprehensive source for Girl Talk samples is likely why some fans took to Wikipedia in order to share their insights and perhaps tack-on some of the samples that others missed.

Following the release of Girl Talk’s 2010 album All Day and up until December 2010, the Wikipedia pages for Girl Talk’s albums provided a reservoir of accurate information highlighting most of the samples contained within. For each song on the tracklist, information regarding the original artist and song, along with the time intervals during which the samples appeared could be found.

Then one day in March, Girl Talk came up on our house speakers, prompting my housemates and I to conduct a routine Wikipedia search for the origins of a particular sample. Needless to say, we were surprised to see that the vast stores of sample listings had vanished from the pages of all of Girl Talk’s albums.

Apparently, editing articles to reflect the perceived analysis of Girl Talk listeners constitutes a violation of Wikipedia’s terms of use. Although the editing of article pages via crowdsourcing to enhance the information on albums is the epitome of the Wikipedia model, it can also violate one of its major tenets: no original research.

Yet, Gillis has not released a comprehensive sample listing for any of his albums, including All Day. Since he is the creator of the content, he’s one of the only people who can be cited by Wikipedia’s standards. This is despite the fact that Gillis himself, expressed dismay at Wikipedia for taking down the fan-generated tracklistings.

A Wikipedia administrator responded to some of these concerns and elaborated on the type of source necessary to generate a comprehensive sample list:

There is nothing to cite…Gillis stated on his Twitter that he was interested in doing this someday, but that is irrelevant. The artist does not have to publish his list to get it on here – any reliable source can publish a tracklist and have it considered for inclusion in this article. What this means is that a professional or known entity in the field publishes the tracklist. This is a very low standard of inclusion into Wikipedia, and if this low standard is not met for proposed content, then that content does not belong.

So even if the article page for All Day reached a point where all 372 samples laid out in the liner notes were identified correctly by fans, it would still not be up to Wikipedia’s standards for inclusion. In response to these policies, other sites have sprung up criticizing the “hard-line Wikipedians” and creating truly open crowdsourced Girl Talk sample lists. Cheers to the Internet. Here’s one and another.

Wikipedia’s policy is understandable, but its implications are something to ponder and beget a much larger question. First, there’s obviously trade-offs. Limiting inclusion of original research for articles on thylakoid membranes and the Planck constant makes sense due to the technical expertise required, but it’s the varying nature of knowledge that makes current regulation of Girl Talk articles unique.

Outside of a musicology degree, there are no established standards to legitimize the act of listening to music and picking up on sampling, much less on a collection of mostly mainstream hip-hop based mashups. Not to mention that with an album full of hundreds of samples, the incentive to offer one’s insights is vastly enhanced through the potential for crowdsourcing.

Enacting a one-size-fits-all policy where one must have a professional publish “research” on Girl Talk tracklists imposes unintended costs (albeit nontraditional costs, since Wikipedia is technically free) on users and reduces the amount of information available to the public. Surely, restrictions on altering content are beneficial in many cases, but one must wonder: how much information remains unknown to the masses due to Wikipedia’s restrictions on “original content?” And some other questions: should there be a line drawn regarding what sort of knowledge requires the co-signage of a “professional entity” in a given field? If so, where?

In any case, the Girl Talk articles provide an interesting case of spontaneous crowdsourcing attempting to change Wikipedia into something it says it’s not. As an administrator explains:

Wikipedia is not and has never been a source intended or reasonably usable for factual citation. Wikipedia is a place where people come to read summaries and therein find sources to cite. I do not think anyone in the community disputes this.

Yet, it’s these very Wikipedia users that have built the site into what it is today – something quite different than what it looked like at its inception. There is rich irony when a source that prides itself on constantly evolving and improving chooses to maintain static in a circumstance where more open crowdsourcing would likely optimize the quality of its content.

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