William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for October 2011

Trick or Treat! “The Human Centipede” and the Making of an Unpopular Featured Article

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on October 31, 2011 at 11:08 am

Editors on the English-language Wikipedia often like to choose “Featured articles” (FA)—the best articles Wikipedia has to offer—for appearance on the website’s front page to coincide with relevant dates, including holidays and anniversaries. This is called “Today’s Featured article” (TFA), and while all Featured articles are eligible (and only those articles) it is not automatic and not necessarily a given. For example, two articles shared featured status on the day of the U.S. presidential election in 2008: John McCain and Barack Obama. To coincide with Halloween in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) Wikipedia editors have chosen “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” as the day’s Featured article. And not without some controversy.

If you don’t know what this film about… I suggest that ignorance may in fact be bliss. But the chances are pretty good that you do; “The Human Centipede” is a film that many more people know about than will ever choose to see, so there was more than enough independent coverage to write extensively about it, and there were in fact serious horror fans who were so moved to write it. So it exists. And according to those who have reviewed it closely (I am not one of them) it’s quite well done.

This doesn’t mean everyone was happy that the article was granted Featured status, nor that it was actually chosen to be featured on Wikipedia’s front page. In fact, when it was first nominated for Today’s Featured article—by its originator and chief contributor, Coolug—to coincide with the sequel’s release earlier this month, it didn’t go over so well. One editor replied:

Using Wikipedia’s main page to promote the sequel, which features even more depraved torture of pregnant women, rape of children, etc., would be despicable. The nominator should quickly remove this nomination with an apology (for his own good) and then observe a self-imposed (unofficial) “block” as penance (again for his own good).

Another:

Oppose due to my personal belief that this is a disgusting topic, although I think Kiefer goes way too far in suggesting Coolug owes us an apology. He has as much right as anyone to be proud of his efforts and wish to see them on the main page.

And another:

Quite apart from the obvious dubious moral grounds in featuring this article, it also amounts to giving free advertising to The Human Centipede II, a film so questionable in its content that it is actually illegal to supply in the UK. “Highlights” of Centipede II include [Editor's note: Wow, I'm really not going to quote that here.] I am sorry, but giving the kind of exposure the main page of Wikipedia provides to this apocalyptic level of filth is just not on. I am therefore posting a firm oppose.

So the article was shot down, and Coolug replied:

I suspected this might be the reaction to this nomination, but I thought I would give it a try anyway, oh well never mind :) Maybe in a few months I will try and get a more traditional article on the main page. I’m writing something very boring about the Soviet Union and who knows where that might end up? I didn’t nominate this to try and help Tom Six sell tickets for his horrible sequel, but I can see why editors might see things that way. I must admit I am very amused by the suggestion that by nominating this I am essentially a bad person. Thanks for the comments congratulating me on getting the article to FA by the way.

But with Halloween on the horizon, he tried again, and this time the reaction was not too much warmer—just enough to get it through. The opponents led early:

I restate opposition to featuring Human Centipede on the main page, because its sadistic content and the worse content of its sequel, which includes murdering of a mother, torturing a pregnant woman, etc. A few minutes exposure gave me nightmares, honestly. The British authorities have banned the latter film because it threatens to cause harm to the public.

Second, I believe that everybody but myself stated (some) appreciation for Coolug’s efforts, so it is an exaggeration to say that “his head was handed to him”. Nonetheless, the community overwhelmingly opposed featuring Human Centipede on the main page, with many stating an objection based on its sadism, albeit apologetically, alas. Those objections will remain.

Although it was pointed out:

The Brits reversed their ban on the second film after filmmakers did a little more editing. This article is also not about the second film, but about the first one – thoughts on the content of the second film (or its article here) should not weigh into the decision. Our precedent has not been to wait a year after the release of a sequel to have other movies/video games/tv shows on the main page.

I’d be much more inclined to hold my objections if Human Centipede were on the main page on Halloween instead of a different date. I still wish I’d never read it, but that’s not due to the quality of the article.

And support did emerge:

OK Coolug, I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that you go ahead and nominate this for Hallowe’en. There seems to be some support building for this here, and on your user talk page. While I still think that the subject matter is horrible, it’s a very popular and widely-read article, and it is one of a tiny number of featured articles about horror movies. On Hallowe’en, readers will be less shocked to see the article on the main page, and I think that any concerns about promoting the sequel are even less relevant now that it no longer coincides with the release date. Finally, noting that a precedent exists for articles about distasteful subjects and extreme horror films on the main page, I can offer my support for a nomination in this date context.

More:

Support. Agree with Papa November. Coolug’s article is an accomplishment, well done! Nothing in the article nor the film is distasteful except the concept. Is Wikipedia going to disregard Raul’s (and the general readership of Wikipedia’s) opinion? Are we such prudes that we censor what the public finds fascinating? Halloween is the ideal choice. What else could be such a match? (Most past Halloween choices have been quite boring.)

Not that everyone agreed:

Strong Oppose, on any date The subject matter of the article is frankly extremely disturbing and filthy. I don’t deny that this is out of personal interest. My little sister views Wikipedia’s main page on a regular basis. I don’t want her to see this, and I’m fairly certain that the majority of readers wouldn’t want to read this either. This would also generally reflect very badly on the project.

But if I had to choose one quote that summarizes why the article was approved, it would be this:

I do not oppose the article (or indeed, any article) being banned from TFA [Today's Featured article] at any point in time. I think it would be insulting to an editor who put so much work into an FA to be told “no, we won’t allow your article on the main page because the subject matter is icky” (which is what this ultimately boils down to), especially when such a thing is anathema to Wikipedia culture.

The point about Wikipedia culture links to a Wikipedia guideline called “Wikipedia is not censored“, which generally means that just because content may be conisdered “objectionable” is not a reason to remove it. Whether that means such material should be actively promoted is another issue entirely.

Other featured articles were suggested for the date, including Bride of Frankenstein and London Necropolis Company (this one would have had my vote) but “The Human Centipede” was on a roll. Today, some opposition is apparent on the article’s discussion page. The heading of one editor’s reply: “On What Planet Did Making This A Featured Article Seem Like A Good Idea?” You have to expand a hidden section to read all of the protest, so I can’t actually link it, but here is one that’s readily visible:

Wow. What a troll. How in the hell did this article become a Featured article? It’s not exactly morally right and this doesn’t make a good impression of Wikipedia to the masses who come here everyday. I hope the (old, resident) Wikipedians here are not becoming weird (if they aren’t already). Please reconsider and remove the Featured article nomination… this has NOTHING to do with Halloween, it is NOT FITTING; the subject of the article isn’t morally right and this kind of stuff shouldn’t be known by young kids who might come here. Oh what have you guys done? :O

And Coolug has set up a page to collect “Human Centipede related hate mail”—although no one has taken up the offer just yet. And has posted a note on his user page explaining the article’s history:

I started this article for a bit of a joke back in 2009 when I had for the most part only really used Wikipedia to mess about with articles and cause general low level mischief. I ended up taking the whole thing a little bit too seriously and out of it somehow became a pretty serious Wikipedian. I suspect this is quite a common editing progression and therefore I’m always loathe to treat the vandals too harshly. We can always revert their rubbish and hey, maybe one day they might write something really good?

After three attempts at FAC [Featured article candidates] this eventually passed, however, the attempt to immediately shove it onto the main page was as predicted an absolute disaster, with one editor observing that I should apologise and then leave Wikipedia temporarily “for (my) own good”.

However, bizarrely quite a few editors thought it would be a good idea to nominate the article again, this time for Halloween 2011. And even more bizarrely, it actually got selected!

You may not care for the subject matter—I’m not planning to read the article, let alone see the film—but I think that makes it all the more interesting a Wikipedia success story.