[Foundation-l] Request for your input: biographies of living people

Sue Gardner sgardner at wikimedia.org
Mon Mar 2 07:20:53 UTC 2009

Hi folks,

I've been increasingly concerned lately about Wikimedia's coverage of living
people, both within biographies of living people (BLPs) on Wikipedia, and in
coverage of living people in non-BLP text.  I've asked the board to put this
issue on the agenda for the April meeting in Berlin, and I'm hoping there to
figure out some concrete next steps to support quality in this area.  In
advance of that, I want to ask for input from you.

First, I'm going to lay out the scope of the problem as I see it. (If you're
already up to speed, you might want to skip that bit.)  Then I'll lay out a
little of my thinking on how we could aim to improve.  I would very much
appreciate any feedback from you -ideally here on this list- before the
April meeting :- )

(Please note that for convenience I'm going to use the phrase "BLP" as
shorthand for the whole issue of coverage of living people throughout all
Wikimedia projects. BLP's probably constitute the majority of that coverage,
but not all of it.)

Scope of the problem:

I am sure that BLP subjects have been complaining about their portrayals
since Wikipedia's very early days.  And I am sure that BLPs have always
suffered from the same problems and errors that occur in all articles:
malicious vandalism, biased editing, lack of citations, and so on. However,
I am particularly worried about BLPs, for two reasons:

1. BLPs are, by definition, about living people.  A mistake in an article
about the War of 1812 is too bad. A mistake in an article about a living
person could cause that person real-world harm. We don't want to do that.

2.  I believe the risk of hurting people is greater than it used to be,
because Wikipedia is growing increasingly unignorable. People are using the
internet to check out job applicants, colleagues, dates - and we are the
first search result for many names.

As Wikipedia generally becomes bigger and smarter and more in-depth, its
credibility increases - and so the gap between what we aim to do and what we
actually achieve on many BLPs, becomes ever more visible and disappointing.
This hurts our mission:

* We want to be taken seriously. Having a large number of influential,
accomplished people (the people who are typically subjects of BLPs)
distrusting or disliking us, damages our credibility.

* We aspire to be neutral and accurate. We know that not all BLP
complainants share that goal - some simply want their BLP whitewashed. The
existence of unfounded complaints, though, doesn't undercut the seriousness
of the real problem: many BLPs are inaccurate, unfair and paint a distorted
picture of their subject. They are not up to Wikipedia's standards.

* And -as I said earlier- these are real people's lives. Neutrally-written,
sourced information that is unflattering to the subject of an article is
appropriate to an encyclopedia, but lies, nonsense, insinuations and
unbalanced portrayals are not.

So what can we do? Here are the things I am thinking about. I would love
your input:

* Do we think the current complaints resolution systems are working?  Is it
easy enough for article subjects to report problems?  Are we courteous and
serious in our handling of complaints?  Do the people handling complaints
need training/support/resources to help them resolve the problem (if there
is one)?  Are there intractable problems, and if so, what can we do to solve
them?  Some Wikimedia chapters have pioneered more systematic training of
volunteers to handle OTRS responses; should we try to scale up those or
similar practices?

* Are there technical tools we could implement, that would support greater
quality in BLPs?  For example – easy problem reporting systems,
particular configurations of Flagged Revs, etc.

* Wikimedians have developed lots of tools for preventing/fixing vandalism
and errors of fact. Where less progress has been made, I think, is on the
question of disproportionate criticism. It seems to me that the solution may
include the development of systems designed to expose particularly biased
articles to a greater number of people who can help fix them. But this is a
pretty tough problem and I would welcome people's suggestions for resolving

* The editors I've spoken with about BLPs are pretty serious about them –
they are generally conservative, restrained, privacy-conscious, etc. But I
wonder if that general attitude is widely-shared. If Wikipedia believes (as
is said in -for example- the English BLP policy) that it has a
responsibility to take great care with BLPs, should there be a
Wikipedia-wide BLP policy, or a projects-wide statement of some kind?

BLPs and our general effect on living people have been a tough problem for a
long time, and I think we need now to bring together the appropriate people
and resources, and hash through how to best make some progress on the
problem. I'd like to start that discussion here, now. I'd appreciate any
feedback from you all, before April.  Please note I am deliberately not
asking questions about who should be responsible for what: chapters,
individual volunteers, the Wikimedia board or staff.  We can figure that
part out later. Right now I'm mostly interested in what we should be doing.


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