Happy Anniversary, Wookieepedia—Time to Start Over

kudzu

For those of us old and crotchety enough to remember the dawn of Wikipedia, certain guiding principles remain hardwired to the concept, no matter how much the world of open-source encyclopedias has evolved in the intervening years. “Be Bold“, for one—in other words, when in doubt, go ahead and make the edit. A flawed addition is better than no addition. Another is Disambiguation, which is probably less well-known as a principle than it is in practice, in the form of articles like Mercury (element) or Razor (clone trooper). Another concept that brings me back to those early days is Instruction Creep: the bureaucratic process by which rules, procedures, best practices, and so on are slowly codified in response to new circumstances and specific incidents, eventually becoming overwhelming to new users and obscuring the true goals of the organization in question. Wikipedia’s page on Instruction Creep cleverly uses the picture of kudzu vines that begins this article as a metaphor for this process.

Over on Wookieepedia’s version is the following text: “Wookieepedia is not supposed to be bureaucratic. Procedures are popular to suggest but unpopular to follow, due to the effort required to locate, read, learn and abide by them.” Of course, the wook also takes great pains to clarify that it is not Wikipedia, and just because something is policy at one site doesn’t mean it should be taken for granted at the other; nevertheless, the “avoid instruction creep” page remains. It continues: “our contributors are volunteers, and will simply go away if the policies are too confusing or too difficult for them to follow.”

Wookieepedia was founded on March 4th, 2005, and one week from today, it will officially celebrate its tenth anniversary. At the time it was launched, I was writing for TheForce.Net, and I squeezed every bit of juice I could out of that position to promote the development of the site, from interviewing the creators to directly requesting new articles in news posts (and the Tonnika sisters are looking pretty good these days, if I do say so myself). Naturally, I was an active editor as well in those days, but as I’ve already discussed that here previously, I’ll leave my own experiences aside this time.1

Around the time that my own editing started to wane, a new organization was created called the Inquisitorius (no, not that one). Their goal was to review and sign off on articles nominated for Featured Article (FA) status. In addition to being, well, featured on the front page of Wookieepedia for a time, FA status, as former wook administrator Thefourdotelipsis2 describes it, was “basically a stamp where the encyclopedia is saying ‘as of this date, this article is comprehensive and well-written’, or in effect a ‘complete’ entry up to that point. It is an authoritative catalogue of material on that subject. (…) The point of FA is to put those pages on the main page and say ‘Here’s where you can trust us’ which is really critical to a site where anyone can edit the material.”3

For a period of time, by most accounts, this process worked well. As the site exploded in popularity over the following years, though, eventually activity among members of the Inquisitorius lapsed—or, more accurately, article-review activity lapsed. As with most groups of sufficient size, online or off, the wook’s user base began to develop cliques, and the Inquisitorius was no exception; except in their case, they had actual power at the site. By multiple accounts, “active” members of the Inquisitorius became more and more inclined to let articles nominated for Featured status languish in their queue when written by newer members, while articles written by “Inqs” themselves were rushed through on the pretext that, well, these writers are known entities, so they don’t require as much careful consideration. “Several times over the past few years”, Fourdot recently elaborated, “I have attempted to write content for the site, get it to the appropriate status, only for no one to look at that work, wait until I’ve lapsed into inactivity and then decide to look at it and declare that I’m inactive and it can’t go through.”4 Eventually what was once a substantial backlog of FAs (once they’re granted FA status, articles are moved from that queue to another, for temporary placement on the main page—at their peak, the wook was featuring a different article every day) dwindled enough that measures had to be taken to keep things churning along. Limitations on how many articles a user could nominate were considered, as were systems by which Inqs had to review a certain number of existing articles for each one they nominated themselves.

It’s all quite fascinating, isn’t it? No, it’s really not. That last link, the debate about how to adjust reviews and nominations to keep the FA queue in good order, is about ten thousand words long (and I read it! Just for you people!). Which brings me back to the concept of creep: as the wook has gotten on in years, elaborate, multi-layered discussions like that (or this one, about whether a piece of art in a roleplaying guide should receive its own character article) have become more and more and more common—and even if you agree with the consensuses jeffquotebeing reached, you have to admit it’s not the kind of thing that’s super-welcoming to new users. Former user Jeff Ferguson, known at the wook as Menkooroo5, says that “much of the site’s policies are bogged down by the community’s slavish adherence to procedure and lack of imagination, with common sense often being thrown out the window in favor of procedure for the sake of procedure.” He’s not alone in his concerns—even among the leadership of the site, some have expressed skepticism about its relationship with “average” users. One current administrator, in an interview on Wookieepedia NewsNet, the site’s community blog, said last year that “I sometimes feel that we lack coverage in vital areas, while working on articles that are less than universal and of little interest to casual readers.”6 It’s not just in recent years, either; back in 2011, another current administrator acknowledged on the blog that in his time with the wook, “the site has changed considerably. Several of Wookieepedia’s most prolific writers, many of whom I was directly influenced by, have left the site for whatever reason was deemed necessary. Also, the standards by which many of those same writers became prominent, have changed drastically.”7

As those standards, let’s say evolved, anyone who happened to disagree with the administors and their adherents (to say nothing of newbies who didn’t learn fast enough) was met with ever-harsher criticism. “Around the time I left,” Jeff told me, “it was decided that the rarely-used ‘Equipment’ section in character articles was now always necessary, even if only to say ‘This character wore clothing.’ Any attempt to argue against this or other policies is often met by scorn, bullying, and even outright personal attacks by the site’s administrators, of all people.” As certain administrators became more entrenched and secure in their power, the impenetrability of the wook’s bureaucracy was reinforced by a prevailing tone of contempt for any who stood on the outside. In the aforelinked debate on whether to grant an article to a character in a piece of roleplaying art, one admin, in favor of allowing the article (though really, the actual positions are beside the point here) responded to a notability objection as follows:

Thirdly, and lastly, ‘Nobody will ever search for this ever.’ That right there is the sickest, laziest, most disgusting statement I have ever heard on Wookieepedia in my entire time of my being here.

Elsewhere, in a discussion on (try to stay awake for this one) creating a layout guide for articles on out-of-universe (read: real life) individuals, when discussing the matter of whether to refer to in-universe characters by their last names or first names, an administrator (one who is now a site bureaucrat as well, the highest level of power in the wook hierarchy) had this to say:

It makes me sick on a basic human level that people actually listen to what [other user] says. I can’t believe I’m dignifying his idiocy myself by even responding to him, but I have a moral obligation to defend the basic tenets of journalism by helping us understand that just because you link to one mainsteam media example doesn’t mean it’s the say-all, end-all “correct” version of how to do something. You linked to a book review. Let me say that again. A book review. Are we critiquing books here? No. We’re writing encyclopedic summaries of published works. When someone chooses to refer to characters by first name in a book review, they do so because it helps the average idiot reader comprehend the material better, because they’re not going to remember characters by last name in a random romantic thriller serial novel they picked off the shelf waiting in line at Walmart. Our material, both the subject and the substance of what we’re creating, is completely and totally unrelated to the linked book review example. There’s no reason why someone can’t choose to write using last names if they want to. For whomever thinks they’re going to start a [vote] forcing us to use first names in an OOU article, I can pretty much guarantee it will receive plenty of opposition.

Understand: this wasn’t even a debate, or a vote; simply a discussion. The above quote is a little long for insertion into this article like I’ve done, but I’ve read a crapload of these discussions, and more personal testimonials that I can keep track of, and no more representative example exists of what it’s like these days to disagree with Wookieepedia. Years earlier, in a questionnaire accompanying his request for admin rights, that same individual said that “in many ways, the administrator acts as the ‘face’ of Wookieepedia. He is the one whom other users approach when they have a problem, be it technical, a question with how something works, or a conflict of interest with another user, and it is his responsibility to reach a resolution.”8 He’s absolutely correct—and does this sound like a person whose dispute resolution you would trust?

Of course, if you’re a casual reader who just uses the wook for reference, you’re probably not going to find yourself in a position to disagree with them, so what do you care how they choose to guard their respective bridges? Well, if you’re a woman (or over 13), you may want to avoid the site this April Fools’ Day. The debacle over last year’s April Fools’ revision of their already-ill-advised “Breast” article has been well-covered already, here and elsewhere, but it bears mentioning now because it’s exactly the kind of thing that can happen when a community becomes too insular; its administration too secure. A wiki, of all places, lives and dies by the participation of its “casual” readership, and incidents like this one both attract and scare off exactly the wrong people. In response to the controversy, one administrator (one of the only women, at that) wrote that the wook “is breastarticlea community with a public reputation, and it’s not a good one. Many fail to realize that this needs to be changed. Many fail to realize that this is actually something that the Wook needs to concern itself with, and it feels like sometimes that I’m the only person who actually gives a damn.”9 A few months later, after seven years and thirty-thousand-plus edits, she stopped contributing altogether. Can you blame her?

Aside from the obvious, the “breast” situation offers a rare empirical example of this destructive insularity in action. The article—the real one, not the AFD one—first caused a stir way back in 2007, and a vote was held over its deletion. While the final result was 26-21 in favor of deletion, according to policy, this was insufficient consensus to effect a change, and the article was kept. Already that seems iffy, but hey, rules are rules. Fast-forward seven years later, and in the aftermath of the April Fools’ controversy, a new vote was held. This time, with sentiment against the article at a fever pitch, the result was 26-2 in favor of keeping it. It calls to mind the process of gerrymandering, wherein a congressional district that somewhat favors one side is reorganized so that a 60% advantage, say, becomes an 80% advantage. The problem isn’t the winning, per se, it’s that the wins are so safe as to render the debate obsolete—and to anyone outside the bubble, that’s a fast track to crazytown.

Ex-admin Havac10 (whom our readers may know better as Lucas Jackson) agrees. “‘The way we do things right now’ got sanctified as a holy tool to beat up on anybody who didn’t get in line”, he says. “If they were a newcomer, they were an outsider idiot who was trying to ‘change’ Wookieepedia, which is the worst thing that could possibly happen, and if they were an oldbie who had actually built that place, they were some out-of-touch fool who was trying to drag Wookieepedia back into the dark ages of 2007.”11

*     *     *     *     *

Back in the present, a new problem has arisen that, logistically at least, outweighs all of this: the continuity reboot. Suddenly, a site dedicated to providing utterly comprehensive information about a fictional universe now has to figure out how to do the same thing for multiple universes—and when much of those universes, thus far, is effectively indistinguishable. I asked Steven Greenwood, co-founder of Wookieepedia under the username Riffsyphon1024 (and administrator to this day), how he felt the site was handling the wake of the Great Reboot. “It’s complicated to say the least,” he said. “Since Legends, it’s made things considerably more difficult to edit and as such our numbers have dwindled.”

Other administrators have been less diplomatic. In a blog interview published last April 24th—the day before the Legends announcement—one admin said his personal desire was “to block [Episode VII and Rebels] out [of his mind] and hope they don’t destroy 30+ years of Expanded Universe continuity and canon out of the window. I really do not like the current trend of appealing to the new generation of fans rebootquoteseemingly at the expense of the older generation of fans who read the books and bought the merchandise even before the prequels were announced.”12 Last month, another reflected that “I was numb for several days knowing that all the stories I had enjoyed had essentially been rendered meaningless.”13 Certainly emotions were running high after the announcement, and people who had contributed untold thousands of hours to chronicling the newly-designated Legends universe were going to feel the sting more than the average fan—but it’s hard to say they couldn’t have seen it coming. Way back in 2012, a couple weeks after the Disney purchase and Episode VII were announced, yet another administrator expressed his fears very frankly: “if they decide to totally throw out the Expanded Universe so they can do whatever they want, then we’re going to have MAJOR issues. Really, if they go that route, anything could happen and I haven’t the slightest clue how we’ll handle it or what will happen to us. If I were a Magic 8-Ball, I would say “outlook not so good”.14

Eighteen months later, the day he feared came. And went. What now?

In the LONG run? Wikia’s going to collapse. They’re going to collapse under the weight of their own greed and stupidity. They’re going to keep thinking they can compensate for the mass exodus of intelligent users who are fed up with their “social networking” features by adding MORE social networking features until it’s too late to realize that all they have left are a dozen 12-year-old Spongebob fans and 7,000 spambots. (…) What we need to do in the slightly-less-long run is to plan for this eventuality.

– Yet another admin15

Not everyone is as pessimistic as the folks I’ve been discussing thus far. One current user, also a Wikia employee, has actually embraced the NuCanon, as they call it, because “I felt it gave me something to contribute. It opened up a part of Wookieepedia where the stories I know the most about needed to be documented again from the ground-up. In a way, it’s almost like starting Wookieepedia over again, which let me get in on the ground floor.”16 Indeed, work has proceeded more or less normally in the ten months since R-Day. No wiki can ever be truly complete, so judging whether the amount of progress being made on canon articles matches that of Legends articles is subjective at best. In cases where both canon and Legends information exists on a single subject, an intermittent tab system has been implemented—and in most cases, visitors to such an article are shown the Legends tab by default, which according to Jeff, “allowed the community to continue to ignore the new canon for as long as possible.” Right now a fair argument can be made that there’s simply far more useful information in the Legends tabs, while the only thing we know about the canon Momaw Nadon, say, is that he’s an Ithorian who visited an unnamed bar one day. But what happens a year from now? Two years? What happens when people get home from The Force Awakens in December and Google Chewbacca, only to end up at an ostensibly-comprehensive encyclopedia article that says he’s dead?

As that title up there makes clear, I think it’s time to follow the franchise’s example and, for everyone’s sake, turn a new page. I don’t think the wook as it exists now should be thrown out, or that anyone who still wishes to work on it should be told not to, but I think the addition of a brand-new wiki, with a fresher and less-entrenched user base, would make everyone happier. Right now, there’s only The Clone Wars, Rebels and a handful of books and comics that would need to be covered in a hypothetical Canon Star Wars Wiki. That’s not nothing, but it pales in comparison to the task sitting in front of Wookieepedia even now, after ten full years of work. In a way it’d be like going back in time to 1978 and being able to start from practically the inception of the franchise—for the hyperinclusionist hypercompletionist wiki editors out there, I have to think that idea holds some appeal. And for those who still haven’t come to terms with the reboot, and would just as soon “block it out”? Let them. I don’t mean that in a nasty “to hell with them” sense; I mean literally, let them “finish” Wookieepedia. Would that ever happen? No, but now that the Legends universe is effectively over, it’s actually not an utter impossibility. And freeing these people from the responsibility of making (and maintaining) articles on Rey and Finn and Kanan Jarrus and BB-8 and the Wookiee Jam Crew (you know, the truly important stuff) would only make their lives easier. Is that the worst thing in the world?

I asked around. Steven, wook co-founder, said “I’m not sure how I feel about a Canon splinter wiki. I am already seeing where new sources are technically recanonizing Legends items but there will need to be much more to flesh things back out.” Fourdot, while getting where I was coming from, admitted that he’s “kinda against a separate one…basically all I would advocate is that people get in there [the wook itself] and start writing up the canon stuff. Make it impossible to deny and resist. Content is the best weapon at that joint, and I for one wouldn’t participate in anything that was set up in competition. Not because I disagree in principle, but I put my heart and soul into the other and I’d never want to tear it down.” Jeff, on the other hand, says, “if a new wiki were created, I would help out. I’m not that interested in the new canon, but I would do some small things here and there. Such a project would inevitably be met with hostility from the Wookieepedia community, so as much positive help as possible could only be a good thing.”

Which is the real problem, remember. This isn’t about one continuity versus another. It’s about inclusivity versus hostility. About open versus closed. Which of those is a wiki supposed to be, again?

(Editor’s note: the original version of this piece incorrectly identified one user—the Wikia employee—as an administrator. The line has been edited accordingly.)

  1. A note on quotations: while I solicited several well-known Wookieepedians for input on this piece, I also conducted extensive research of the public record. Since it’s not my intention to call out specific individuals here for either blame or credit, whenever someone is quoted with whom I didn’t speak personally, I’ll be providing a source link in lieu of naming them within the text. []
  2. Registration date: 9/2/2006; Total edits: 31,115 []
  3. http://boards.theforce.net/threads/wookieepedia-the-star-wars-wiki.20673016/page-85#post-52175130 []
  4. http://boards.theforce.net/threads/wookieepedia-the-star-wars-wiki.20673016/page-84#post-52156357 []
  5. Registration date: 11/4/2006; Total edits: 27,737 []
  6. https://wookieepedia.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/sir-cavalier-of-one-our-wookieepedian-of-the-month-for-april/ []
  7. https://wookieepedia.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/tommy-newest-wookieepedia-administrator/ []
  8. http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Wookieepedia:Requests_for_user_rights/RFA_archive/Toprawa_and_Ralltiir []
  9. http://boards.theforce.net/threads/ignorance-is-bias-the-diversity-manifesto.50003195/page-244#post-51433665 []
  10. Registration date: 4/5/2006; Total edits: 17,869 []
  11. http://boards.theforce.net/threads/literature-member-interviews.50012784/page-20#post-50903340 []
  12. https://wookieepedia.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/sir-cavalier-of-one-our-wookieepedian-of-the-month-for-april/ []
  13. https://wookieepedia.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/exiledjedi-wookieepedian-of-the-month-for-january/ []
  14. https://wookieepedia.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/meet-our-two-newest-administrators/ []
  15. https://wookieepedia.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/interview-with-bureaucrat-darth-culator/ []
  16. https://wookieepedia.wordpress.com/2014/09/14/brandon-rhea-wookieepedian-of-the-month-for-september/ []

3 comments

  1. smisk says:

    I knew there was a lot of controversy on Wookieepedia over the reboot, but never knew that things were this bad. Maybe a new canon-only wiki would make thing easier, especially to new fans.
    Though I think if editors make more of an effort to keep canon articles up to date and make them the default page it could work out. Right now though, it seems like there is still more focus on the legends stuff and many of the canon articles are not as extensive as they should be.
    Just discovered this site a couple weeks ago, and am really enjoying the articles. Keep up the good work!

  2. Ben Crofts Ben Crofts says:

    How on earth did you manage to write this Coop? It sounds bonkers!

%d bloggers like this: