Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the yardstick for Wikipedia entries


I use Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Wikipedia entry as a yardstick for other Wikipedia entries. At the time I'm writing this blog entry, her Wikipedia article is 1600 words long. So 1600 words is how many words Wikipedia assigns to the 20th most powerful woman (and the most powerful female lawyer) in the world.

By comparison, Wikipedia has collectively decided that the 2007 Philadelphia Eagles season merits 5500 words. The exploits of a lackluster last-place American football team therefore clocks in at 3.4 Ginsburgs. In a sense, Wikipedia says that a last-place football team's exploits is over three times more significant than the most powerful woman lawyer in the world.

The fictional character John Locke from the television program Lost comes in at 4900 words, or just above 3 Ginsburgs. Apparently Wikipedia thinks that it's notable that Locke likes Gold Toe socks.

The plot summary for the movie Little Man is approximately 1.5 Ginsburgs. That's just the plot summary, not the entire entry. We know more about the plot to a mediocre film than we know about a Supreme Court Justice.

It's not just popular culture that has taken the lead on Wikipedia. It's specifically post-2000 popular culture. The television program The Brady Bunch, which has been influencing United States popular culture for decades, merits a simple list of episodes, whereas the short-lived and totally forgotten show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip spends 1300 words just on the subject of references from the show to other Sorkin shows.

Even the Internet video The Bus Uncle weighs in at 1.8 Ginsburgs.

Slate's Timothy Noah, who is certainly more notable than I am, also takes issue with Wikipedia's notability guidelines after being evicted from Wikipedia and subsequently reinstated. Reuters noted that the Wikipedia page is the new status symbol.

For some reason I have a Wikipedia entry, despite not being "the subject of multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject and of each other." As far as I'm aware, nobody has written even one book about me, much less multiple.

Comments (55)
  1. pc says:

    I wouldn’t think that number of words in an article would measure how significant something or someone is.

    Maybe it’s just related to how complex the topic is.

    (By and large, I’m trying to agree with the sentiment you’re making.)

  2. keith says:

    Nitpicker’s corner: I would claim that the United States Solicitor General Elena Kagan is the world’s most powerful female lawyer (in the sense that this officer is a practicing litigator).  The overall point still stands, as Elena Kagan’s wikipedia article comes in at about 1200 words.

  3. Nick Lamb says:

    “As far as I’m aware, nobody has written even one book about me, much less multiple.”

    How many books are there /about/ Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

    Of course the Wikipedia documentation you linked correctly says “works” not “books”. A pseudonymous blog post may not carry the same weight as a biography from a major publisher, but it does count for something.

    My leak-diagnosing tool cites you for the idea, not the algorithm or code. If you’d rather not be cited, you ought to have provided a citation of your own for the idea (even if you blamed some nameless Microsoft colleague).

    [I would argue that a pseudonymous self-published Web page doesn’t count for much. (I wrote a blog entry about my niece; does that make her notable now?) And there are books about Justice Ginsburg (you can find some in the References to her Wikipedia article). -Raymond]
  4. Raymond, how many blog entries and articles have been written about you, or quoting your work? In Spanish, at least, I have read several times about The Old New Thing, and I myself have quoted you two or three times in my (now neglected) blog, http://tecnousuario.blogspot.com/ . I’d say more has been written in Spanish about you than about Ginsburg – and that’s what makes you qualify for an entry in the Wikipedia.

    It’s matters like the Bus Uncle video (btw, I love the way the word "uncle" works in Chinese dialects) that are amazing. But even with all those disproportions, Wikipedia is worth its weight in gold (well, almost always, at least).

  5. Sinewy says:

    I’m convinced that most of Raymond’s notability derives from Joel Spolsky’s How Microsoft Lost the API War:

    http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/APIWar.html

    Indeed, the Raymond Chen Wikipedia article was created with a reference to the essay:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Raymond_Chen&oldid=6592159

  6. nathan_works says:

    Yes, but Raymond, have you doubled the population of elephants in the past 6 months ?

  7. dave says:

    re: John Locke from the television program Lost

    The other day I was looking at an internal bug report that had occurred on a machine named JeremyBentham.  I thought it was nice that software development was showing a more intellectual approach to machine naming, and was apparently now interested in English philosophers.

    Alas, it turned out to be a reference to a character in a TV series.

  8. David Walker says:

    Ack!  "the short-lived and totally forgotten show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"…

    I really, really liked that show.  And I really, really don’t like the show "30 Rock" which all of the critics and much of the public seems to like.  "30 Rock" and "Studio 60" started at the same time and were somewhat lumped together by many critics and viewers (they had a somewhat similar premise).  

    I think "Studio 60" was very well written; the episodes (two, I think) with John Goodman as a small-town sheriff were among the best TV I have EVER seen.

    I just wish other people had shared my preferences, but oh well.  The show was not forgotten!

  9. Marquess says:

    A lot of Wikipedia’s content (especially episode guides and character pages) would be better of at Wikia (the advertisement based wiki farm). But that’s what you get with open content.

    (In unrelated news: Whoever is responsible for this blog’s Captcha system should be shot. It doesn’t work if you open more than one page at a time.)

  10. scott says:

    You could possibly improve on your metric by considering how many edits an article receives, as a gross measure of attention.

    It is also worth mentioning that article of many words could easily be edited into submission and wind up half its size.

    Ginsburg might be short not due to neglect, but due to focused and passionate attention; a jewel to be cherished.

    It might that some things (I’m looking at you, Eagles) aren’t worth the time it takes to clean them up properly.

  11. GWO says:

    @scott Ginsburg might be short not due to neglect, but due to focused and passionate attention; a jewel to be cherished.

    Rather, Ginsburg’s article is short because 90% of the things for which she is notable are better covered in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberts_Court and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_Supreme_Court_cases_by_the_Roberts_Court and its descendents.  Ginsburg’s SCOTUS opinions correctly belong there.

    You would not expect . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tra_Thomas to cover every game he played for the Iggles franchise, now would you?

  12. Lazbro says:

    Length is a factor of how many people contribute, which in turn is a factor of how vulgar/mass culture a subject is.

    And to play devil’s advocate, which has offered more added value to more people since the origin of Wikipedia: quantum teleportation or Lost?

  13. Leo Davidson says:

    I agree with David Walker. Studio 60 is far from forgotten, at least while my brain exists! I was thinking about buying the DVDs and re-watching it just today.

  14. MJH says:

    An observation that lead to Somethingawful’s game of <a href="http://jwz.livejournal.com/770585.html">wikigroaning</a&gt;

  15. Aaron says:

    I see what’s going on here… This is a clever scheme to get your regular readers to add to your Wikipedia article, increasing your Ginsbergs from 0.225 to 0.525 so that you can finally overpower Dave Cutler and gain control of the Windows division!

    I’ll help, do you want me to add a new section about "Confirmed Psychic Phenomenon" or would you rather I focus on documenting your experience as a 7th-grade paper grader?

  16. Gabe says:

    In a professionally edited encyclopedia, the longest articles are about the most important topics to the target audience. So for example, an English encyclopedia will have a long article on Shakespeare and a short article on Cervantes, while a Spanish one will have the reverse.

    Thus, you could conclude that 3 times as many readers of Wikipedia care about the guy from Lost as compared to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

    Or you could just conclude that the type of people who care about fictional TV characters have 3 times as much free time on their hands as people who care about Supreme Court justices.

  17. weightless says:

    Hardly surprising that Wikipedia should have such disproportions.

    Next year perhaps you should dissect the NY Times Magazine’s "The Lives They Lived Issue". Persons of some importance do make it in, but so do persons of interest on a few blocks of Manhattan or in a niche of the media.

  18. AC says:

    This post somehow read like it was rom XKCD.

    Funny nonetheless.

  19. Pierre B. says:

    That’s because you choose to ignore the unautorized works. Just a short list from the first shelf of my Chen library:

    1. I dated a nuclear device.

    2. The annotated tour of Raymond Chen’s cycling prowess. (Includes detailed maps and eatery spots.)

    3. A decade of Raymond. (Backside blurb: Pictures of Raymond’s reactions to music taken from a tiny camera hidden in a violin.)

    4. Suntem toţi în trapa (translation: We’re all in the hatch) (Illegal compendium of the best advices from this site, edited on Romanian.)

  20. Brian says:

    I guess this proves that the quantity and quality of words are not correlated in any way.  Viz. Gettysburg Address vs. any other speech.

  21. Matthew Prestifilippo says:

    How many words have you used to illustrate cultural problems with wikipedia that could have used to lengthen Ginsburg?

  22. blah says:

    If you’re going to make a fun unit out of somebody, it should be Courics.

  23. Actually, you’re wrong about the Brady Bunch. In additional to the list of episodes, there is an actual page about the Brady Bunch here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Brady_Bunch) that is considerably more detailed. (Sorry I didn’t count words)

    And that is one of the interesting issues about Wikipedia. Information that should be covered in one topic is spread across several. I was looking at sleep cycles, and started looking at “nap” which lead me to “siesta” There is very good information in both topics, but they really need to be consolidated into one, instead of across two or more…

    [I didn’t express myself well. I meant that it gets a list of episodes rather than an entire page devoted to each episode. -Raymond]
  24. GreenReaper says:

    There are other metrics that could have been chosen. Word count doesn’t include references. Ginsburg has 24,873 bytes vs. 36,355 bytes for the 2007 Philadelphia Eagles season (the article on the Philadelphia Eagles themselves has 39,012 bytes). The article about Ginsburg has also had roughly three times the number of edits (almost 1,500 vs. less than 500).

    As noted by GWO, most of her work will be is covered in other articles; Wikipedia’s "summary style" dictates that only the most important aspects of these cases be reflected in biographies.

    Still, this is all just noise. Just as you could not properly judge a piece of code by the number of lines or how long a programmer had spent on it, word, byte and revision count are all pretty poor ways of rating articles.

    The 2007 Philadelphia Eagles article reads well. But Ginsburg’s article appears of a higher quality when looking at it with an editor’s eye. Many facts are properly cited. Important aspects of her career are highlighted. There are relevant pictures. Elements have been discussed on the talk page. It has even been subjected to a "good article" review (which it failed; the review offers several tips for future improvement).

    Could the article could be better? Absolutely. There’s a lot more to be said. But it is a lot harder to summarize the achievements of a lifetime than it is to record the play-by-play history of a game season. And, as Gabe notes, the relevant experts may not have the time to spend on the task.

    I’ve written a "good" (not featured-level) biographical article on Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Conway ) and it took over a week of work, all told, hunting down references and working on the wording. And I’m reasonably knowledgeable in the topic area and had several years of editing experience at the time. How many of those who know Ginsburg and Wikipedia well are likely to have a week free to work on it?

  25. Anonymous says:

    You have a blog with a non-trivial readership, which ends up getting cited in other places, so I’d say the existence of your article is appropriate.

    On the other hand, the Wikipedia policy on what is allowed to have an article and what needs citation and notable sources (not to mention which sources are notable) are really inconsitently applied, along with every other "rule" on the site.  I believe even I read some place in the rules that you’re not supposed to follow the rules always, and that "being bold" supercedes all other rules.  I should have stopped reading there.

  26. Brian says:

    Really these results aren’t so surprising.  You’ve got an encyclopedia that is essentially written by the masses for the masses.  Echoing what Gabe said, articles that are more interesting to the target audience are going to have longer, more detailed entries.  By definition, "pop culture" refers to that which is most interesting and familiar to the general populus, ergo you’re going to see longer articles about recent TV shows or sports than Supreme Court justices.  It is perhaps lamentable that people don’t take more of an interest in history, science or the workings of government than they do entertainment, but it’s not surprising.  It’s just human nature.

  27. Phil W says:

    "It’s specifically post-2000 popular culture. "

    Maybe there’s a demographic at work here, people of a certain age latching onto what they think is cool or interesting. The older stuff is, well, so 20th century.

  28. Warren says:

    Kinda pathetic that one of the bright minds at Microsoft is wasting his effort doing word-counts on Wikipedia articles and bashing the well-meaning nature of its contributors instead of, ohhhh, I dunno, shipping a better shell that doesn’t crash and ruin the user’s workflow when an extension that displays thumbnails runs across a file with bad data in it.

    How about you work on that, Raymond, and let the Wikipedia people get on with their own preferred method of making the world better — by making more information available under a free license.

  29. DrkMatter says:

    @Warren

    Because Raymond obviously does this on his work time, and shouldn’t be allowed to have any intellectual curiosity outside of the realm of shell bugs.

    Way to troll, sir.

  30. Brian Gilbert says:

    @Warren: troll elsewhere, Raymond’s blog is on his own time.

    [Warren also assumes that I have dictatorial control over all aspects of the shell. -Raymond]
  31. steveg says:

    The Einsteinian implications for the Ginsburg are interesting. Picture a world where everything is measured in Ginsburgs, yet the Ginsburg itself is subject to constant redefinition depending on the whim of wikieditors… clearly news of the change in Ginsburg cannot travel faster than C, so there will be a constant rippling effect through the ginsburgcontinuum.

  32. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    @Warren,

    Wut? We’re down to the good old sport of vistabashing?

    Oh, by the way "a better shell that doesn’t crash and ruin the user’s workflow when an extension that displays thumbnails runs across a file with bad data in it" is shipped with Win 7 (or Vista, I forgot).

  33. Random User 43793 says:

    Hmm… *pulls out recorder*

    "Idea for a biography, …"

    j/k

  34. say watt says:

    @steveg: there is also the ambiguity of "Ginsburg" to the layman’s ear. A geezer my age might assume that it refers to Alan: Wordsworth published about 1.5 Ginsburgs, Eliot about .2. Or he might remember that Douglas G. almost made it to the Supreme Court, and why he didn’t: President Obama is assumed to to have smoked about .8 Ginsburgs in his college days.

  35. Gaspar says:

    @Raymond:

    [Warren also assumes that I have dictatorial control over all aspects of the shell. -Raymond]

    He knew you you have dictatorial control over the shell (and of Paraguay) because it is in your Wikipedia article.

    Not for nothing but I think anyone who has dictatorial control over a country qualifies as meeting any notability guidelines.  I guess that’s just my 2 cents though.

    Also your Wikipedia entry says you are Santa Claus, so can I have a Ponie for Christmas?

  36. Brian says:

    The major difference is that all of my colleagues know who you are, but apparently none of them have heard of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I just read her Wikipedia article and to be honest was not impressed, or at least very interested.

  37. Josh says:

    @scott: If you go by edit count, the most important subjects in the world will be those related to the Balkans and Israel/Palestine. Anything where ethnic, religious and/or nationalist groups disagree strongly gets *tons* of attention, most of it to the detriment of the article.

  38. MSDN Archive says:

    @Raymond

    Heck, the dicussion on the Taskbar Notification Area alone (in which I referenced Raymond) shows how out of whack Wikipedia can be.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Taskbar

    @Warren

    I know for a fact that the shell team takes robustness extremely seriously.  As the amount of buggy extensions grew, so did the aggressiveness of the response.  We can all look back in hindsight and say well, maybe Explorer.exe should have kept third-party code out of the process space, but consider the many, many benefits it’s provides.

    The real problem is that when extension "X" blows chunks, the user is told "Windows Explorer stopped working."  If instead it said "Acme Shell Module X stopped working" we’d be able to place the blame correctly and not tar and feather the shell.

    FYI, I haven’t seen the shell crash on icon or file preview issues in years.

  39. Andreas says:

    Well, you forget some important factors:

    *Biography articles of living persons are generally quite short

    *Ginsburg is almost irrelevant outside of the US

    *"most powerful" is totally subjective

    *"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is totally awesome! really. try it. it deserves more seasons.

  40. 640k says:

    [Warren also assumes that I have dictatorial control over all aspects of the shell. -Raymond]

    Well, do you?

  41. David Walker says:

    James Curran: That would be interesting… a way to "pay it forward".  Everyone who shares a name with a famous person writes the famous person’s Wikipedia entry.

    Which would mean, I suppose, that I need to write (or edit) the article about the former US Comptroller of the Currency who shares my name…  Or the astronaut.

  42. mikeb says:

    >

    [Warren also assumes that I have dictatorial control over all aspects of the shell. -Raymond]

    Well, do you?

    <<

    Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein!

    (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfX86TDhl44)

  43. mattm says:

    I always assumed that Wikipedia was predominantly maintained by computer nerds, a personality which is overwhelmingly nit-picky with a breadth of knowledge that is decidedly niche.

  44. James Curran says:

    This leads to an interest predicament I have about Wikipedia.  There is already a entry for "James Curran". It is not me.  Moreover, it’s not even for the most famous/important James Curran (that being Dr. James W. Curran, the former head of AIDS research for the Centers for Disease Control).

    If by some twist of fate, *I* get a Wikipedia entry, I would feel morally obligated to write one for Dr. Curran.

  45. Josh says:

    @mattm: I don’t know about that. I’m a semi-regular Wikipedia editor, and while I may be a computer geek, I have interests in several other fields that are sufficient to contribute to articles on politics, math and psychology at the very least. I suspect a lot of other editors have similar areas of interest. After all, a common symptom of Asperger’s is the "dinosaur effect": intense focus on random fields of study (much like many five year olds have an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs, except with Asperger’s types, it might be Hoover vacuum cleaners and persist into adulthood). So as long as a sufficient number of the computer geeks are Asperger’s types (and a fairly disproportionate number seem to be), there should be some coverage for just about anything. :-)

  46. Lisa says:

    Oh Raymond, this is BRILLIANT. Wikipedia makes me insane. In fact, as AC commented this reminds me of something out of XKCD; specifically, the one where every entry must end with "in popular culture".  :-)

  47. James Schend says:

    Charles Oppermann: Wow, that is epic.

    For the record, the retarded "Notification Area" vs. "System Tray" debate is 8843 words, which is a little over 5.5 Ruth Bader Ginsburgs.

    5.5 Ruth Bader Ginsburgs devoted to something that contributes approximately *nothing* to the quality of the site.

  48. bdoserror says:

    Well, as long as we’re making Ginsburgs a cosmological-esque constant we need to spiff up the name.  I suggest "Ginsword", since we’re counting words.  That makes "Gins" the prefix, equal to 1600.  From that we can establish, for example, that a mile is approximately 1 Ginsmetres.

  49. GWO says:

    @lisa: Wikipedia makes me insane.

    Do libraries, bookshops and the internet make you insane, too?   Go to your nearest library or bookshop and count the number of books on, say,  moral philosophy, advanced calculus, or the lives of the saints, compared to the number of works of romantic fiction.  

    Alternatively compare the number of google video hits for “cat playing the piano” versus “lecture on existentialism”.

    Presumably, all we need to do to improve wikipedia is to delete all those articles which we, personally, consider beneath us.

    [Libraries, bookshops, and the Internet do not have a notability requirement for inclusion. If the Web site were called Wikistuff then I doubt anybody would have a problem with including information of no lasting relevance. -Raymond]
  50. Dan says:

    What do you expect? The reason it’s called pop culture is because it’s popular. It’s easy to document something as it is happening (like a football season). A lot more hours are spent watching Lost than are spent following the career of a Supreme Court Justice. After all, posting to Wikipedia is a tad bit easier than getting published in, say, the New England Journal of Medicine. Your mom could do it.

    New (and regularly updated) Wikipedia entries are a barometer for what the public is interested in. Of course entertainment trumps modern history. It doesn’t require that you go to a library and look stuff up in order to type it into your computer (those who might be interested in actually doing so are a slim percentage of academics and/or aficionados of the subject in question). Wikipedia is still not the end-all-be-all of human knowledge, and who really argues that it is?

    If anyone looks at this and shakes their head disapprovingly saying it’s a sad sign of the times, then they have their head up their ass.

  51. mgbrown says:

    Apparently according Raymond’s wikipedia entry:

    “His favorite text editor seems to be vi”

    Maybe Raymond could make a clear statement on his preference for vi, or not, so we can get rid of the “seems to be” part. After all, it is a crucial fact that the world needs to be certain of ;-)

    [That part cracks me up. It’s pure Kremlinology. “Ooh, in this picture, Raymond is standing next to a Packard Bell PC. Packard Bell must be his favorite brand of computer.” -Raymond]
  52. mikeb says:

    Raymond Chen uses the vi editor : Raymond Chen has always used the vi editor.  A large part of the the computing literature of five years was no completely obsolete.  A large part of the computing literature of five years was now completely obsolete. Reports and records of all kinds, newspapers, books, pamphlets, films, sound-tracks, photographs, wikipedia articles – all had to be rectified at lightning speed. Although no directive was ever issued, it was known that the chiefs of the Department intended that within one week no reference to Chen’s use of notepad, or Chen’s use of emacs, should remain in existence anywhere….

    (with abject apologies to Eric Blair and his many fans)

  53. GWO says:

    @RaymondChen: Libraries, bookshops, and the Internet do not have a notability requirement for inclusion. If the Web site were called Wikistuff then I doubt anybody would have a problem with including information of no lasting relevance.

    Firstly, yes absolutely libraries do.  Stop being obtuse.  (Not as obtuse as “No one has written a book about me therefore there are no sources” — its hard to be that obtuse twice in one life).  

    So, which articles that you mention do not meet Wikipedia’s notability requirements?  Wikipedia has notability requirements, but they’re very low.  So what?  What’s your point?

    That the existence of long articles on webcomics and pro-football makes the Ruth Bader Ginsburg article worse?  That’s demonstrably not true.

    That many wikipedia contributors only write about things of which Ray Chen does not think fitting?  Get over yourself.  

    That its easy to make snide comments about wikipedia because there’s a lot of trivia?  True, its very easy.  But, as you’ve found, its considerably harder to make a coherent point, besides your current level of pointing and giggling.

    [No self-respecting “real” encyclopedia would devote so many pages to episode summaries of science fiction shows or the detailed career of a so-so college football player who bounced around a few NFL teams but so far as I can tell never actually played in a game. -Raymond]
  54. Nick Lamb says:

    No self-respecting "real" software vendor would name a whole operating system after a GUI element.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman

  55. TonyB says:

    @Lazbro: "Length is a factor of how many people contribute, which in turn is a factor of how vulgar/mass culture a subject is."

    The fact that the entry on Beavis and Butthead runs to about 10,000 words suggests you are right. If you want to know about Canon, the mega multinational producer of cameras, printers, copiers etc, Wikipedia won’t take you far.

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