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The free online encyclopedia that anyone can help edit has long since become the go-to source of information for many of us. But few people actually know what goes on behind the scenes there. Only recently, the New Likudniks – a small and controversial group vying for influence in Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling party – got an entry of their own in the Hebrew-language Wikipedia, after years of debate that deemed them to be irrelevant and unworthy of a stand-alone encyclopedia article.
By virtue of its unique technological structure and its desire to stay accurate on a daily basis, Wikipedia can be viewed as a digital chronicle of our history, a "live blog" of what is considered true or false, relevant or irrelevant. Wikipedia functions as a complex bureaucratic system that’s simultaneously anarchic and structured, one with endless debates and procedures that wouldn’t shame any academic institute. A few examples from the past week exemplify the trials and tribulations undergone by articles that eventually made it onto the site.
On Sunday, editors eligible to vote – veteran Wikipedians who are active in the online community in Hebrew – decided that Netanyahu, Jr. was worthy of an entry of his own. The vote was 41-30 in favor, following an online debate that included many calls for his deletion. Each article on Wikipedia has its own forum, called the “talk page,” where editors debate its merit and any potential changes. Senior Wikipedians who think an article merits deletion can call a vote on whether it should be allowed to remain on the site. During the voting period, editors are expected to make the case for keeping, deleting or rewriting the piece, based on its encyclopedic value.
In this case, the debate was tainted with partisan politics as much as encyclopedic concerns.
“In my opinion, the main reason that there’s so much interest about this article is that [left-wing] Molad [the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy] decided to get on the case of Netanyahu, Jr., because Netanyahu, Sr. is apparently too big for them,” wrote one of the editors who objected to the entry’s inclusion, adding, “At the moment, it doesn’t justify an entry.” But another editor maintained, “If he’s important enough to be a target for the barbs of the media and the left-wing organizations, then he’s also important enough to have a Wikipedia entry.”
Many of the participants in the discussion complained that the entry’s content was no more than gossip reported in media outlets biased against the prime minister and his family. “It’s impossible to estimate whether it will be of importance in the mirror of time,” one of them observed. An editor with a sense of humor elaborated: “Almost every sentence in the entry bears the potential for an argument between encyclopedia lovers and haters of Netanyahu and his family.”
In the end, an interesting compromise was worked out. The entry about Shaul Olmert, the son of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, would be restored after being deleted, and in response some of those objecting to the “Yair Netanyahu” entry would change their positions. The logic of the compromise was that if one prime minister’s son is worth an article, so should the son of his predecessor. It was further decided to tone down the language of the entry: Phrases such as “the crown prince,” which were deemed too political or just too snarky for an encyclopedic article, were expunged from the body of the text and relegated to footnotes.
Speaking of crown princes, another group of articles that generated a furor lately, without recourse to a vote, were those of the so-called royal houses in “Game of Thrones.” In both Hebrew and English Wikipedias, after each episode’s airing, massive amount of content was added to the show’s entry, with an inordinate number of details being added about the Houses of Baratheon and Lannister – so much so, that Wikipedians started demanding that the articles be rewritten and that fan theories concerning the plot be deleted.
This is a good example of how texts relating to popular culture with uncontroversial sources like books or television shows thrive, while biographical articles about living people whose sources are easily politicized get stuck in the discursive mud. The character of Joffrey Baratheon, of course, has his own Wikipedia entry in English, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish and Russian.
The entry about Meni Naftali – the former chief caretaker of Netanyahu’s official residence-turned-anti-Netanyahu protest leader – was on the firing line this past week, in the wake of his overnight incarceration ahead of the weekly rally he organizes against the handling by Israel’s attorney general of the criminal investigations against Netanyahu. “We can’t write that he was arrested for urging disorderly conduct, because that’s a pretext invented by the police [and thrown out by the courts],” one Wikipedia editor wrote, insinuating that his arrest was a political move attempted to quell the protests. A veteran editor in the community called Nero Yair retorted: “We are not a court – that’s what the police claimed.”
Naftali got his own entry only at the end of May, after rising to public prominence for winning a lawsuit against the Netanyahu family. However, since then Naftali's “talk page” has turned into an arena for a political war of words, pitting left-wing editors against more conservative ones. “The fact that Meni organizes weekly demonstrations outside of the home of the attorney general doesn’t in and of itself make him a social activist,” argued Nero, questing whether Naftali’s political activity warranted labeling him as such, let alone giving him an encyclopedic entry. In a compromise, the phrase “social activist” was deleted from the article. But the argument over whether Naftali belonged in Wikipedia didn’t end, and questions about the entry’s encyclopedic value continued to plague its growth.
“As I see it, a person has to do a lot more in his life than join a few demonstrations in order to deserve an article,” one of the naysayers argued. To which one of the advocates of the entry responded, “There is great interest [in Naftali] among the Israeli public. The importance of this article increases with the increasing number of protesters at the demonstrations.”
So, it seems, Meni Naftali’s place in Wikipedia is secure as long as the demonstrations he organizes continue.
Ins and outs
After being deleted in August 2012, the entry for the liberal caucus within the ruling Likud party was resurrected this week. The New Likudniks are considered by many on the right as a left-wing trojan horse, an attempt to abuse its primary system to push in left-leaning voices that would otherwise never rise to prominence in the right-wing party. Ironically, one reason the article for the group was reopened is that in recent weeks the Likud party itself has waged war against the liberal group, thus justifying its role as a political force worthy of an encyclopedic entry.
But it looks as though Mendel Roth won’t make the cut and will be erased from the digital encyclopedia. And who, the reader might well ask, is Mendel Roth? Well, according to his soon-to-be deleted Hebrew Wikipedia entry, he’s a Hasidic blogger who writes a column on a local ultra-Orthodox website. Roth’s article is now under vote for deletion and it is one example a large group of articles created about fringe figures from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox world – from yeshiva heads to tweeting rabbis – who, despite vigorous activity by their adherents, fail to meet the criteria set out by Wikipedia’s Hebrew-language community of editors.
The criteria for encyclopedic value vary from Wikipedia to Wikipedia, per the local language and culture. The English Wikipedia, for example, is considered relatively inclusive, while the Hebrew one is a bit more strict, especially when the subject is a living person. Across the different Wikipedic communities, there’s a pervasive fear people will abuse the platform to create articles for themselves as a form of self-promotion, and thus biographical articles face tougher scrutiny than most new articles on Wikipedia.
Naturally, not all the discussions conducted by Hebrew Wikipedia editors are of such a dramatic nature. For example, editors were asked this week to decide whether the entry kef (fun) should continue to refer readers to that for hana’ah (enjoyment). In a modest vote, a handful of Wikipedia editors voted unanimously, though without further elaboration, that, “‘Fun,’ as a concept, differs from ‘enjoyment.’” Go figure.
Interestingly, the Wikipedia article for the Hebrew word for “enjoyment” no longer has that same appellation, and in line with the psychoanalytical tradition, it’s known these days as oneg (pleasure). Wikipedia articles can change names and in this case, it might be telling that pleasure is defined as “a totality of sensations that human beings have need of and aspire to achieve.” Only one defiant editor dared to protest: “I couldn’t understand the dramatic difference that justifies two entries.”