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A Little Fun Goes A Long Way

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By Ganesha811

Wikipedia is a place for learning. As an encyclopedia, we owe our readers accuracy, verifiability, and reliability. We pride ourselves on the fact that when people come here for knowledge, they usually come away with error-free, well-summarized, usable information. But we have forgotten one key element that makes Wikipedia successful – joy. It's not that our editors lack joy – like most of you, I'm here because I love doing this. There's true pleasure in making things a little bit better one edit at a time. But as soon as a smidgen of joy makes its way out from behind the curtain and into the gaze of our readers, it is expunged. We are not, collectively speaking, any fun at all.

I'll cite four examples, but there are others you may remember. For years, a number of editors have waged a battle to keep this simple joke off of Wikipedia – specifically, off of Guy Standing's page. Elsewhere, a dedicated corps of Wikipedians have diligently ensured that Will Smith's introductory biographical paragraph bears absolutely no resemblance to the lyrics of the Fresh Prince theme ("In West Philadelphia born and raised..."), even though he was, in fact, in West Philadelphia born and raised. A slow-moving fourteen-year-long skirmish on whether to put a hatnote linking to self-referential humor on the self-referential humor page has resulted in an unsatisfying compromise, relegating the hatnote to a subsection. And finally, ever since this tweet drew attention to the issue, the 'perfect Wikipedia caption' on Scottish National Antarctic Expedition has been guarded jealously against levity.

Why? In every case, the same reasons are given. Wikipedia is not here for humor. Allowing tidbits like this would lead to wave of vandalism and jokey edits. It would hurt our reputation as a serious place of knowledge. These are reasonable arguments. But they ignore history, and the nature of learning. Samuel Johnson famously included the following definition of 'dull' in his seminal dictionary: "Not exhilarating... not delightful: as in, to make dictionaries is dull work". We Wikipedians are "a committee armed with computers", as Geoffrey Wolff described the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1974. And we are becoming dull. We want to convert readers into learners and learners into editors. A sprinkle of eccentricity, the slightest element of surprise – these can make all the difference. It has been years since people treated Wikipedia as a punchline. Maybe we can now safely afford to make a joke or two ourselves – just a few, here and there, for the sake of learning.

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How does the author know that we are not already doing this, in our own, quiet way? – Jonesey95 (talk) 22:44, 25 April 2021 (UTC)[reply]

Much as I love the care taken in distinguishing a penguin from a Scotsman, or the vandalism where a photo of the Presidents of Brazil and the US standing together was replaced by one of Miss Piggy and Kermit in a parade, I'm afraid we have to strike out the jokes in Article Space. Slippery slope, y'know. Jim.henderson (talk) 23:37, 25 April 2021 (UTC)[reply]

Maybe a Noticeboard for disputes over creative writing. -- GreenC 00:15, 26 April 2021 (UTC)[reply]

@Bilorv: It doesn't really bother me if someone knee-jerk reverts an edit the first time, but I think there's a point at which the decision to rollback needs to be critically examined. The issue I have isn't with someone saying "oh, this isn't funny, I think it's vandalism, I'll revert". The issue I have is with extremely protracted and obtuse arguments in which people doggedly insist that anything funny must be bad content. On Talk:Guy Standing, for example, you can see gallons of ink being spilled over whether it's unencyclopedic to caption it "Guy Standing sitting". To me, this is about as silly as you can get -- just as "phrasing it this way is funny" isn't a good justification for an edit, neither is "phrasing it this way prevents it from being funny". Nobody would bat an eye if the caption was "Bob Smith sitting", but as soon as the slightest iota of humor is derived from a sentence, the apocalyptic event of someone chuckling must be avoided at all costs. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll present this as an example of a good post I made being removed on the grounds of alleged inappropriateness, even though "ape iron" is a totally plausible interpretation of "apeiron". But the rest of these seem quite harmless. Perhaps in 2005 it made sense to insist on going out of our way to avoid anything that could potentially be construed as unprofessional; at this point, the New York Times writes articles about how reliable we are on a regular basis. Who gives a damn if Category:Recursion includes itself? And, more importantly, is it really worth fully protecting the category for five entire years to avoid -- Heaven forfend! -- the possibility of someone adding it to itself? I wouldn't be opposed to a MoS supplement specifically to deprecate contorting an article to remove a joke, or a guideline saying that edit-warring to remove a joke is just as much a nuisance as edit-warring to keep one in. jp×g 03:03, 26 April 2021 (UTC)[reply]

Yes, it is worth reverting these things. No, it is not worth protracted discussion. This MoS addition idea is precisely the waste of time I want to avoid. I've never seen a caption reading "X sitting" and it doesn't seem natural to me, so I'd revert it. But if I saw that there was discussion or was asked to join it, I no longer care, because "X sitting" is not an implausibly bad caption. Apeiron can't reasonably be confused with "use of irons by apes" (it would be different if "ape iron" was a thing), even though it might be everybody's first unfunny joke when they meet Apeiron at a dinner party, so I'd revert it. Self-loops in categories are never helpful for navigation, so I'd revert it. I don't need a special reason to undo something that's funny, because being funny is not a trait that has any weight or value according to any policy, guideline or precedent I've ever read. As for The New York Times, whether we are seen as a serious or reliable is not relevant to any of the reasoning I've given. — Bilorv (talk) 03:23, 26 April 2021 (UTC)[reply]
  • I agree. I have to say, I'm very happy with the discussion this piece has sparked already. I think humor on Wikipedia can go too far very easily - I'm sympathetic to the slippery slope argument. Whenever it becomes non-factual or genuinely confusing, it should be removed. But subtle things that lead to smiles - "cetacean needed" is a perfect example - can enhance the reader's experience. These things need to be handled on a case-by-case basis, and, as Bilorv points out, many "humorous" edits are simply vandalism. But adding a bit of joy to the reading experience can be valuable thing for an encyclopedia built on the idea that knowledge is worthwhile and worth sharing. Ganesha811 (talk) 04:59, 26 April 2021 (UTC)[reply]
    To the best of my knowledge, the cetacean needed joke is the only long-standing one on Wikipedia. Is some ways there's something special about 'the one permitted joke'. T.Shafee(Evo&Evo)talk 02:59, 18 May 2021 (UTC)[reply]
I think jpxg gets it right in terms of how to strike the balance and the fact that some things get reverted because they might amuse even if they would be unobjectionable elsewhere. Barkeep49 (talk) 16:14, 26 April 2021 (UTC)[reply]
Was going to mention a dry-humorous but accurate caption edit I made but then would have to fight Gouleg in a dark alley, so will spare them the cement-burn and after-fight-handshake ritual. Randy Kryn (talk) 16:44, 26 April 2021 (UTC)[reply]
What some editors think articles should feel like to the reader: "It was tedious to write, it should be tedious to read."
EEng 02:26, 28 April 2021 (UTC)[reply]

I've just read this op-ed which is admittedly not the most recent one. So my comment comes a little later than most others. I'm happy about Ganesha811's approach and venture. Humor is such an integral component of good communication. Texts that lack any humor are failing to win the readers' good will. A won smile is not only an animation of face muscles but the building of ad hoc bridges. In an encyclopedia humor is a good thing as long it is subtle. Yes , there must be red lines and pragmatic rules to remove e.g. rude microaggressions masked as jokes. And I'm glad that Ganesha811 declares "sympathetic to the slippery slope argument. Whenever it becomes non-factual or genuinely confusing, it should be removed." All this is pricipally able to reach consensus among the majority of Wikipedians I'd guess. But there are also people in our community that don't cherish humor. And I not even presume them to be "evil". For example persons with Asperger's syndrome (just as an example) are sometimes very handicapped to perceive and to enjoy humor. They lack so to say tuned antenna for it and can't help it. Can we pragmatically develop rules that are also integrating those persons inside our community that lack humorous inclination to tolerate most forms of subtle humor in Wikipedia articles? -- Just N. (talk) 13:21, 26 May 2021 (UTC)[reply]

Or, and this one aligns more closely with the people with Asperger's I've known in my life, such people can have quite different senses of humour. And many things they might find funny will be taken, by people reading their words off a screen with no further context, as rude, unfunny, aggressive or hurtful. But the same can of course be true of neurotypicals too. — Bilorv (talk) 17:45, 26 May 2021 (UTC)[reply]
Hey, Bilorv, your more differentiated observations sound allright. Yes, I remember things like that. But if I had chosen people with heavy narcism as my example .... --Just N. (talk) 18:47, 3 June 2021 (UTC)[reply]
Indeed. jp×g 03:54, 1 September 2023 (UTC)[reply]


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