Friday, 1 June 2007

The fullness of time

The current debate about the application of the biographies of living persons seems focused solely on the question of whether or not Wikipedia should have an article about a person at all, and there have been only a few rare attempts to frame the debate in more nuanced terms than this binary approach. One of the key questions we should be asking, in addition to the question of whether to present information at all, is the question of how that information ought to be presented.

Much as I take a mergist stance in the inclusion/deletion debate more broadly, I think a similar stance is most preferable in this current manifestation of that debate. The fundamental reason is the same: content must be presented in the most appropriate context. The right context allows the proper significance of information to be conveyed, and presents it in a naturally coherent fashion, which is exceptionally valuable for an encyclopaedia.

In the case of biographies of living persons, the question is then whether or not certain information is best presented in a biographical article, whether such an article provides the most appropriate context for the content.

One key issue to consider is the temporal focus of an article.

Articles about an event concentrate on the short-term, are generally tied to one or several discrete points in time and have a narrower scope; even though they sometimes discuss larger issues, they do so through the prism of individual situations. In contrast, biographical articles are focused on the long-term, with scope extending to the entire lifetime of a person.

When we decide where to include material that relates to a person's involvement in an event, we ought to consider the proper temporal focus of the sources for that material. Sources with a short-term focus, that discuss a person in order to discuss a particular event, should be used to develop articles about the event, and not biographical articles about the person. On the other hand sources with a long-term focus, that discuss a person, often by way of discussing a series of events, should be used to develop biographical articles.

Many of the biographical articles that have been causing problems lately are drawn largely from news sources. News coverage, generally speaking, is almost always concentrating on the here and now; if it writes about people, it is usually writing about them only insofar as they are part of a particular event, that is, only insofar as their lives intersect with this discrete point or points of time. This is the same even for "human interest" type pieces that seem to be about people: really they have the same short-term focus, the journos are just looking for a different angle to help sell the story.

Choosing to put content in a biographical article becomes increasingly appropriate the more that the content is drawn from sources with a long-term focus. Where the only sources available are short-term, event-focused sources like news coverage, then it must be questioned whether the content should be presented as a biographical article, and in most cases (especially where the news sources are all about one event) it probably should not.

Lastly, in all of this we must not forget Wikinews, a project which is intended precisely for the type of coverage which is not always proper for inclusion in an encyclopaedia: news coverage, with a narrow, short-term focus on its subjects. Wikinews is surely a far more appropriate venue for many of these types of articles, since fundamentally it concentrates on knowledge that is important at a particular point in time.

The exhortation that "we have a really serious responsibility to get things right" in the context of biographies of living persons applies not only to what content we present, but also the manner in which we present that content. We must ask ourselves, what is the most appropriate context for this information? Is it really the most desirable choice to present this information in a biographical article? Whenever the answer is no, then look to other articles instead, where context may be better established, or else look further afield, to projects like Wikinews.

Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia, not a newspaper. Its content must be developed with this difference in temporal focus in mind.


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