Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2021-04-25/Op-Ed

A Little Fun Goes A Long Way: Why do we work so hard to avoid having a sense of humor?


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.