Friday, January 20, 2017

Featured Articles are a Funny Phenomena

Regular readers of Wikipedia know that the front page always includes a “featured” article. Such articles are those that “are considered to be the best articles Wikipedia has to offer, as determined by Wikipedia's editors”.

Once an article is nominated for featured status, it goes through an extensive process of review, refinement, and voting before it is placed on the most-treasured space of real estate on the world’s fifth-most-visited web site.

It’s quite an honor, indeed, for an article to receive such a status. And it’s a very exclusive club. In the English version of Wikipedia, fewer than 5,000 articles have been designated as “featured”. That’s less than a tenth of one percent of all eligible articles.

Although Wikipedia started in 2001 (and almost immediately exploded in size and popularity), the “featured” feature wasn’t a feature at first. It wasn’t until February 22, 2004 that the front page took on more-or-less its present-day format and the first featured article was highlighted.

This most have been quite an event at the time. After all, there were a million articles to pick from. What leader, what event, what significant citizen of the universe would be deemed worth to have its Wikipedia article declared the very first “featured” article of the day?

That honor went to the article about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A noble choice. The first few lines of the article informed us that Mozart “was one of the most significant classical composers” and that he “lived just a little over half of Beethoven's life span, yet was amazingly prolific from early childhood until his death in 1791.”

Yep, a wonderful article about a truly one-in-a-millennium genius.

I’m sure the readers of Wikipedia in 2004 welcomed the new “featured” feature. I’m sure they could hardly wait for 24 hours to pass so they could find out what article would be bestowed the honor on the second day.

The Internet world held its collective breath. Finally, the evening and the morning became the second day and a new “featured” article appeared. The subject of the article:

Irish Houses of Parliament”.

Oh. Hmmmm...

The Irish Houses of Parliament, also known as the Irish Parliament House, was the world's first purpose-built two-chamber parliament house. Today it is called the Bank of Ireland, College Green, due to its use by the bank. It served as the seat of both chambers (the Lords and Commons) of the Irish Parliament of the Kingdom of Ireland for most of the 18th century until that parliament was abolished by the Act of Union of 1800, when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

It’s a lovely building, I’m sure. But it’s an odd choice for the best article that can be offered by a world class encyclopedia site.

This is a reminder of an important concept in the weird world of the Web. Although the English version of Wikipedia is an English site (Wikipedia operates in more than 50 word languages), Wikipedia is not an American site. It literally belongs to the citizens of the world.

True, Mozart isn’t American, either. But he is much more popular in America than a government building in Ireland.

The selection of an article about such a building sent a signal to the world. The Wikipedia editor value quality over popularity. They value a world view over an American view. And they are a fiercely independent lot.

Over the years, articles have been featured that honor dinosaurs (Dromaeosauroides), items of vexillology, (Flag of Singapore), and corporations (Cracker Barrel). Beyond Mozart, other honored musicians include Frédéric Chopin, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Michael Jackson. Oddly enough, not Ludwig van Beethoven.

Go figure. The merits are of the article, not the subject. And the decision is of the editors, not a consensus of the world.

The Irish Houses of Parliament can be proud. The building’s article was determined to be among the first of the best of the best. Nobody can take that away from them. Fifteen minutes of Andy Warhol fame became 24 hours of Wikipedia fame. That’s more than I could ever hope for.

In fact, not even Andy Warhol’s article has yet been so honored. And that puts Andy in good company with Ludwig.

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