Wikipedia:Repainting the Great Wall of China

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Consistency creates strength, but should not close off new ideas

King Qin Shi Huang oversees the last brick being laid in the Great Wall of China. From one end of his empire to the other, a sturdy wall protects his realm from barbarian invaders.

One day Zhang Liang, a statesman whose land strides the Great Wall decides that it would be a good thing if his portion of the wall was painted pink. "It would look really nice, complementing the cherry blossoms that appear every spring in my land".

Liang's men pick up their brushes and ladders and start painting the rammed earth brickwork. Huang is unhappy that the wall is being painted, and promptly sends a retinue of workers, accompanied by soldiers, to remove the paint. After a few scuffles the two men decide to meet.

"Why are you repainting my wall?" demanded Huang.

"Well, firstly it is not your wall", replied Liang. "Anybody is free to make changes to it if they think they can improve it. And I reckon it would look great if it was painted pink"

Huang wasn't impressed. "It took me 20 years to get every brick in that 2,000 kilometre wall aligned right. All this work cost me 25,000 slaves. It is going to look rather ridiculous if your small portion is not going to be not like the others"

The argument continued. Liang kept explaining why he thought his colour-scheme was an improvement, while Huang said that it was an affront to the virtue of consistency. But both men knew that if they appeared disunited the barbarians could take advantage of the situation and launch an attack, so they sought counsel from other noblemen in the realm.

Some thought that Huang was too protective about the wall, while others acknowledged the work he had put in and reckoned the wall should remain as it is. The discussions continued into the night, with other arguments being introduced. Who was going to repaint the wall every year? Why not fork off another pink wall around Liang's territory? One nobleman wanted his portion to be green, and another wanted his to be bright orange.

Eventually Huang gave up. The kingdom would be vulnerable if the division was allowed to continue. "Very well, Liang, the wall will be pink. The barbarians might think we are mad to have it this colour, but at least by having it the same colour it shows we are both united and professional. Please go ahead and paint the wall pink, or whatever colour you want"

" Great"

Liang made a start on a few adjacent cobblestones along the 2,000 kilometre wall, but eventually got tired. Huang rebuked him on his sloth, and Liang kept giving excuses - the wall is a work in progress, he would say.

"You paint the wall - it is you who wanted it pink!" demanded Huang.

"You paint the wall - it is you who wanted it consistent!" replied Liang.

The barbarian warlord saw the enmity between Liang and Huang, and reckoned a half-prepared army would be found behind a half-painted wall. The warlord made a surprise attack, breached the wall, and slaughtered the armies of Liang and Huang.

The walls we create for ourselves[edit]

The Manual of Style dictates that style and formatting should be consistent within a Wikipedia article, though not necessarily throughout Wikipedia as a whole. Editors should not change an article from one guideline-defined style to another without a substantial reason unrelated to mere choice of style. Where there is disagreement over which style to use in an article, defer to the style used by the first major contributor

In terms of consistency between articles of the same narrow subject (such as Lufthansa destinations and Aeroflot destinations), the manual of style is less clear. Often internal style guidelines emerge on the respective project pages.

The dilemma faced by Huang and Liang illustrates some valid points:

  • internal styles are not set in stone - anybody is welcome to propose new styles, for practical, aethetic or other reasons.
  • the first, or the most prolific, editor of a group of articles does not own them - but they are more likely to understand how those articles work overall, and will stay for the long-haul rather than an editor with a single-minded interest.
  • changing a new style is laborious - there should a substantial reason why a change should be made in the first place. It may be more efficient to propose and implement many small changes in one hit.
  • if you propose a change, and it is accepted, the expectation is that you would take responsibility for making all the changes to all the affected articles, and keeping the articles maintained.