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

Ray Saintonge saintonge at telus.net
Tue Mar 3 05:48:02 UTC 2009

I'm making a point of replying to this before I read any of the other 
responses to avoid being tainted by them.

Sue Gardner wrote:
> * 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?  
Training accomplishes very little if we don't know what we want that 
training to accomplish.  At some level it is important, but it is not in 
itself THE problem.  Courtesy is a personal quality that is most often 
not amenable to training.  Discourtesies need to be handled with an even 
hand.  If courtesy is shown to the subject, but not to the apparently 
offending writer, the problem is exacerbated when the writer feels 
pushed to defend his actions.  An intervenor who takes an unnecessarily 
aggressive approach to fixing an article is as much a part of the 
problem.  The intractable problems are rooted in human nature.

I have always believed that the subjects of BLPs should have a right of 
reply.  To some extent they should have the right to publicly rebut what 
is said about them.  Such rebuttals need to be clearly identified and 
attributed, and, unless they launche a clear personal attack on some 
other person, even an outrageous reply needs to be added without content 

> * 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.

I have always felt flagged revs to be a valuable proposal; and I find 
the level of resistance to that initiative incomprehensible.  Largely, I 
don't think that this is a matter of technical solutions; technical 
solutions for human problems can never be more than superficial.

> * 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
> it
The problem with rules that are too detailed is that the letter of the 
rules often overrides the spirit of those rules.  It does little good 
when a discussion about a possibly derogatory statement migrates to one 
about the use of primary or secondary sources.  When every detail about 
a BLP receives the same scrutiny the really bad stuff tends to fall into 
the background, and energies are sapped by being perfect over details 
which, even if wrong, are harmless.  The question, for example, of where 
the subject attended school is not usually harmful if it's wrong.  If 
the subject tries to correct this we need to trust him in the absence of 
reason for the contrary, and we need somehow to credit him as the source 
of that information.  To question this without reason presumes bad faith.

Presumption of bad faith is a huge problem.  It disguises itself as 
objectivity.  When we insist that every little detail be unimpeachably 
sourced, we are assuming bad faith; we are not trusting the 
contributions of the editor who put them there no matter what he says. 
When we treat everything contributed from a corporate boardroom as 
advertising spam we are assuming bad faith; we ignore that maybe there 
are some things where they are the ones in the best position to answer.  
Reality should be recognized as somewhere between spicy hot, and 
tasteless pablum.

We write here in a time of ambient distrust.  Events away from us and 
beyond our control have given ample justification for this.  This 
distrust has developed  concurrently with the means for its 
justification.  The paradox is that Wikipedia owes its success to trust, 
not just of the accuracy of its content, but of the mutual respect of 
its contributors.  Questioning, and whistle-blowing are valid 
activities, but when mistrust goes so far as not to take anything at all 
at face value the really serious biases just fade into the background.

Using a what-will-the neighbours-think approach is a path to stagnation; 
it focuses our sights on what happens outside, and not on our own behaviour.

> * 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?
The English Wikipedia is probably the worst offender.  Until that is 
sorted out a Wikipedia wide policy is premature.  The qualities at the 
beginning of you paragraph are important, but a level of common sense 
also needs to be applied.  In unbalanced criticism any individual 
comment may be perfectly valid when viewed in isolation.  The problem is 
with the effect of restating details, or the injudicious use of 
adjectives in places where they don't enlighten.


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