William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for May 2010

Much Ado About Malamanteau

Tagged as , , , , ,
on May 18, 2010 at 8:29 am

XKCD is a web comic written for math majors, web developers and related sub-groups classifiable as “nerds” by Randall Munroe, whom one presumes falls into one or more of the above categories. Among Munroe’s favorite topics is Wikipedia, and a few of his panels — “The Problem with Wikipedia” and “Wikipedian Protester” — are classics, inasmuch as a comic strip about a website can be so considered. Last week Munroe published a new panel cartoon about Wikipedia, reprinted below in accordance with Creative Commons:

I’m not sure I quite got this one, so I turned to a website called Toby, Dave & Ian Explain XKCD for their take:

The Author, a well-known fan of Wikipedia, has squeezed yet another joke from its bountiful bosom. This particular joke uses the clever linguistic trick of “word-play” as well as “meta-humor” to derive a new word: malamanteau. Malamanteau is a combination of the words “malapropism” (the substitution of a word for a word with a similar sound) and “portmanteau” (the combination of two words).

The creation of this new word or “neologism” is particularly humorous as the methods used to create it are the very words used in the process. This is called a meta or “self-referential” joke.

That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, either. XKCD Sucks, a similar blog with a somewhat different mandate, stated:

Today’s xkcd comic genuinely mystifies me. I’d like you to try to imagine me writing the following post (the beginning of it, at least) with a more honest voice, not the sarcastic one I usually employ. Today’s comic asks us a question: “Ever notice how Wikipedia has a few words it really likes?” And the thing is, I haven’t. I have never noticed that. Have you? … what word is he even referring to? It can’t be “Malamanteau,” since that isn’t a real word and isn’t on wikipedia (though of course some xkcdicks tried.

As much as I enjoy XKCD on occasion, this take made more sense. And indeed, someone did try to create a Wikipedia article for Malamanteau:

wiki-malamanteau
What followed was a debate, running to nearly 19,000 words, over what to do about it. Wikipedia has a clear guideline against the creation of articles about neologisms, and even most words unless there is more to be said than a dictionary entry might. In these cases, the term should become an article at Wiktionary, but having a Wiktionary article just isn’t the same, and in any case “Malamanteau” isn’t ready for that, either.

The discussion of what to do about Malamanteau ultimately was not about whether to have an article about the term — that was right out — but whether to create a “redirect” so that people who search for the term will find themselves on the Wikipedia article about XKCD. The best argument against creating the term is perhaps the first:

The target article holds no relevant information on the term currently, thus this redirect only serves to confuse. XKCD readers already know this originated there, thus with no relevant information on the target article, the redirect is purposeless. Non-XKCD readers who somehow find the term and search it won’t find any information on it at all, and will only become more confused.

And some of the arguments for keeping the term could be described as willfully encouraging Wikipedia to undermine its own goals:

Wikipedia’s editors are high on their own farts. Comics like the one that led to this redirect make that point, and the ensuing discussion drives it home expertly. Of course it will be deleted – why would the project suddenly have a sense of humor about itself, or allow contributions that encourage everyone’s involvement, rather than that of an elite few who “take the project seriously enough” to be endowed with its protection?

At least some of the votes to delete the redirect are based more on annoyance than anything else: because “Malamanteau” is supported by people who do not have Wikipedia’s best interests at heart, there is no reason to grant such leeway. Hence some editors weighing in to say: “Delete with a vengeance” and “Delete and salt” — as in salting the earth to prevent someone from recreating it again.

But in the end, the redirect stuck. The editor who closed the discussion explained at length; to the lay reader unfamiliar with the finer points of Wikipedia’s guidelines, here are the facts that mattered:

The threshold for a term being a redirect is substantially and intentionally lower than that for a separate article. As several keep !voters pointed out, redirects are supposed to be from any useful search term or likely mistake, to the proper destination. The traffic indicates that, while falling off by as much as 75% a day, the term “Malamanteau” has plenty of search traffic during its short life to establish that it is useful to some people. … Since XKCD maintains past archives of all its strips, it is likely that traffic will continue to seek this term even after this week’s furor has died down.

In fact, this isn’t even the first time Munroe has used his comic strip to poke at tender spots in Wikipedia’s organizing rule structure.

While there are many editors who feel that this only causes unnecessary problems — 19,000 words over a lousy redirect? — I think the better case to be made is that Wikipedia’s long-term success lies in a carefully considered approach to site policies. To the extent that Wikipedia’s policies are explored by outsiders and explained by insiders, this is a good thing. But it’s still a pain in the ass.