User:The Duke of Waltham/Auto-formatting is evil

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I hope you haven't taken the title too seriously; I simply think it makes for an eye-catching description of how I and others feel about auto-formatting. It goes without saying that neither the technical features of on-line encyclopaedias nor their developers are inherently malevolent. Auto-formatting has been considered a good idea by many people, or it wouldn't have persisted for so many years. But times change, and now is the time to revise our views on date linking.

What exactly is auto-formatting? According to the relevant guideline, "a combination of day-number and month can be autoformatted by adding square brackets ([[5 November]]). If a year is also given, with a separate link, all three items can be autoformatted as a single date." (Example: [[5 November]] [[2007]]) In other words, auto-formatting constitutes adding regular wiki-links to dates, which will appear as such on the page. The essential difference is that only registered users who have chosen a setting in their preferences will see properly linked dates in their preferred format. This is a function of the MediaWiki software and cannot be overridden manually;[1] proper date links will always be auto-formatted.

Unless, that is, this situation changes. And there is no shortage of arguments in favour of such a change.

Why auto-formatting should go[edit]

There are eight reasons why auto-formatting is more of a liability than an asset for the project. Numbers 1–3 argue that it is not as beneficial as it is commonly held to be; numbers 4–8 list the problems that it causes.

  1. Useless to most readers
    Auto-formatting shows a preferred date-format throughout Wikipedia's pages, yet this functions only for registered users who have chosen a preference. This goes against the basic principle of giving priority to readers and designing everything based on their needs first; all that the vast majority of Wikipedia's visitors get is dates with links.
  2. A solution in search of a problem
    The English Wikipedia is language- rather than nation-based, so it makes little sense to segregate dates from other trivial differences between the varieties of the language;[2] our "WP:ENGVAR" guideline has managed to embrace all of these varieties with time-proven effectiveness. Dates are easily readable in both major formats, something evident in the case of signatures: there are no objections to their international-format dates, yet auto-formatting is only there for the editors (the principal readers of signatures).
  3. Of limited application
    Only the simplest forms of dates will accept auto-formatting; that makes date ranges (11–16 July 1863 or July 11–16, 1863) and slashed dates (the night of 10/11 May 1944) appear in their original form, creating a motley mixture of formats for editors with date preferences on. Dates in quotations, article and section titles, and disambiguation pages, as well as incomplete dates (e.g. November 1989) and dates in non-Gregorian calendars, should also appear in their original format, contributing to the general inconsistency.
  4. Creates inconsistencies and mess
    Auto-formatting obscures from editors various date-format inconsistencies, while it draws readers' attention to them through the links' distinctive colour and underlining. Two or more date formats are often keyed into a single article, which violates our convention on internal consistency; auto-formatting tends to inhibit the correction of such inconsistencies. Even if only one format is applied throughout the article, it is sometimes the wrong one.
  5. Creates unnecessary links
    Auto-formatting contributes to over-linking, filling the screen with blue and making text harder to read. It detracts from high-importance links, and dilutes their impact. The date links themselves are almost always useless; specific dates and years are rarely relevant to the text.
  6. Does not allow for stylistic refinement
    Due to the nature of auto-formatting, details of professional writing like hard space between days and months (e.g. 1 January 2001 or January 1, 2001) and commas after years in the US format (e.g. "Washington's death on December 14, 1799, was followed...") are impossible to apply correctly on linked dates.
  7. Creates confusion
    Date links are indistinguishable from regular links in both normal page-view and the edit window. This can be confusing for many users, who are often unaware of the auto-formatting function, and can lead to errors (e.g. dates only linked on first instance). There is often confusion with piped links like [[1996 in film|1996]], which might end up replaced by auto-formatting, or mixed with it (with dubious results).
  8. Creates complexity and errors
    The limited application of auto-formatting makes it inherently prone to misuse, requiring greater maintenance effort to keep articles tidy. Likewise, its manner of insertion is often unintuitive and leads to common syntax errors (e.g. [[28 June 1838]] and [[June 28]], 1838). The essential complexity of the relevant guideline testifies to the difficulty of correctly using auto-formatting.

All in all, the auto-formatting of dates is a feature that negatively affects the appearance of articles and complicates their maintenance, with relatively minor benefits enjoyed by a very small percentage of Wikipedia's users. These benefits, undeniable as they are, cannot outweigh the great disadvantages of auto-formatting for most of our editors and almost all regular readers—the people this encyclopaedia is written for. And for that reason, we need to make the great step and abandon an inherently faulty practice that is as chaotic as it is widespread, and as outdated as it is long-standing. It will take time and work, but in the end, the benefits to our content and editing practices will be hard to ignore.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Pipe-linking can prevent a linked date from changing formats—for example, [[September 11, 2001 attacks|September 11]]—but it causes inconsistencies for users with date preferences on, and the link is obscured by other, identical-looking date links of little value.
  2. ^ If anything, it strengthens the voices of those who wish to divide the project into "American" and "British" versions.