Wikipedia:Why dates should not be linked

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Mmm, nuts! This page in a nutshell:
Editors should not link and autoformat dates because it doesn’t benefit regular IP users.

Overview and objective[edit]

You’ve probably come here because there is a battle raging on Talk:MOSNUM over the linking of dates and the autoformatting of dates. Or perhaps the issue there is whether editors should not link and autoformat dates. Or perhaps the dispute is over deprecating these practices… or whether a bot should facilitate that end.

The purpose of this essay is to provide an opinion as to what exactly is going on with the autoformatting and linking of dates. With this knowledge, you can be better prepared to participate in the discussions on WT:MOSNUM, understand why certain consensuses were reached, and better participate in arriving at new consensuses.


The date display option in "Preferences"

The first thing you should do is temporarily set your user preferences as shown at left. Go to my preferencesDate and time and set your preference to “No preference”.

Why should you do this? You also might wonder “just exactly what dates does this preference setting affect?” The original purpose of the preference was to format dates and times in article histories and other Wikipedia pages. However, new tools came along that also looked to the preference setting that can affect main body text article content in many of the articles you visit. Unfortunately, this preference setting—and its effect on article content—is not available to regular I.P. readers, who comprise the vast  majority of our readership.

Why not make the autoformatting work for everyone? That is a separate issue (addressed below). For the moment, let’s understand how linking and autoformatting can affect us registered editors and I.P. users differently. Take a look at the example text, below, just before you adjust your user preference:

(Preferences-sensitive, normal dates: What you are seeing now in articles)

• After the March 30, 1791 order by the French government instructing the Academy to…

• After Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on 1941-12-07 the U.S. Congress on…

What do you see? If you have your preference set for Euro-style dates (16:12 15 January 2001), the example text is rendered with gorgeous looking dates like this…

(Fixed-text preview of what a Euro-style preference produces)

• After the 30 March 1791 order by the French government instructing the Academy to…

• After Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 the U.S. Congress on…

Or, if you have your preference set for U.S.-style dates (16:12 January 15, 2001), the text is rendered with American-style dates like this…

(Fixed-text preview of what a U.S.-style preference produces)

• After the March 301791 order by the French government instructing the Academy to…

• After Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the U.S. Congress on…

But what do virtually all other readers (all I.P. users) see? To save you the trouble of adjusting your preference setting, they see the following:

(Fixed-text preview of what all regular I.P. users see)

• After the March 30, 1791 order by the French government instructing the Academy to…

• After Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on 1941-12-07 the U.S. Congress on…

A group of regular I.P. users.

When you link dates, you are often also autoformatting dates and only we registered editors can see its *pretty* output. In the article closely associated with France, regular I.P. readers from Europe see an awkward U.S.-style date. Conversely, in other cases, you can go to an article on the Attack on Pearl Harbor, where there might be a date that has been innocently coded by a European editor as [[7 December]] [[1941]] and if you have your date preferences set to produce American-style dates, you will see nothing inappropriate or out of place for an article closely associated with the United States. Elsewhere in that same article, still another editor might have coded that very same date as [[1941-12-07]]. Again, you, as a registered editor with your user preferences set, will see nothing inappropriate at all. But in each case, I.P. users will see the raw format. Further, the style of date is varying within a single article. You might read on WT:MOSNUM where some editor is bitterly complaining about how disgusting and inconsistent dates are within an article. Where is this editor going to see such junk?!?  Well, if you have your preference set to anything other than “No preference”, you aren’t going to see these problems. In short, to better address the shortcomings of date links and autoformatting, and to truly understand what is going on with our articles, you should—at least temporarily—set your date preferences to “No preference”. Bear in mind that this will change how dates are displayed in article histories as well. With “No preference” selected, article histories default to Euro-style dates, e.g., “02:00, 29 October 2008”.

Implementing autoformatting in what looked like simple “[[  ]]” links (rather than template-style “{{  }}” curly brackets) for editors to routinely use in body text, and also limiting its effect to only registered editors, turned out to not be the wisest of decisions. Having autoformatting look towards the preferences settings of registered editors was intended to stop edit warring over date and time formats. But in the process, editors were blithely creating a hodgepodge of inappropriate and sometimes outright ugly dates in our articles for the vast majority of Wikipedia’s readership to look at. Most of us had no idea we were doing this! With your date preferences turned off, you will be seeing Wikipedia as virtually every other reader of Wikipedia sees it. Then you will be better prepared to contribute to arriving at a decision on how to address these issues.

Autoformatting for I.P. users[edit]

Perhaps autoformatting can be made to work for regular I.P. users too. That’s a separate issue from whether that is necessary. It can reasonably be argued that there should be simple rules for selecting the most appropriate date for any given article. MOSNUM already has a guideline that advises editors to use the date most common for a given English-speaking country. But MOSNUM also has a “Retaining the existing format” guideline that grandfathers in inappropriate date formats in many cases. While this solves editwarring among Wikipedians, it also results in formats being used that are contrary to, but which supersedes, MOSNUM’s Strong national ties to a topic.

As for making autoformatting work for regular I.P. users, currently a small army of volunteer editors produce most of the templates you and I use. These templates rely on “parser functions” which are produced by “developers”. Developers are advanced programmers who work on the inner workings of Wikipedia and its rendering engine. Making simple templates that can autoformat dates would require a parser function that automatically looks to what country the requesting readers’ request is coming from. Such a parser function could enable the writing of a template that produces country-appropriate date formatting for all readers.

Currently no such parser function is available. Furthermore, developers have their own set of priorities and their own schedule. These things usually take time. A lot of time.

Date links to trivia[edit]

If someone is reading up on the famous architect Frank Gehry, providing a link to beautiful architecture, like Fallingwater, is a good idea. But…

We devalue links and bore most readers of that article when we link 1929 (the year Gehry was born) to an article that says March 3 - Revolt attempt of Generals José Gonzalo Escobar and Jesús María Aguirre fails in Mexico.”

Note also that autoformatting, as currently implemented, also links to articles that are long lists of randomly chosen trivia. So another issue to be addressed—even if autoformatting tools can one day be made to work for regular I.P. users—is whether such formatted dates should take the form of links that take readers to these sort of lists.

In keeping with Wikipedia:Only make links that are relevant to the context, links within Wikipedia articles should always be topical and germane to the subject matter. Properly chosen links anticipate what the readership of any given article would likely be interested in further reading. As such, judiciously selected links invite exploration and learning. In many cases, a reader’s reaction should be “Cool… I didn’t expect they’d have an article on that too!”  When links are judiciously employed in articles, they become more valuable, interesting, and effective.

The simple fact is that too few readers actually bother to read these date links. If you don’t believe this point, try reading these dozen trivia articles, top to bottom, with no skimming: January 1, January 2, July 15, July 16, September 22, October 16, 1925, 1933, 1955, 1965, and 1987. No, seriously; read all twelve. Each in totality. Tough, ain’t it? Come on… you didn’t read them. Go ahead… try.

The nearest thing to a completely random list that has been successful is the Guinness Book of World Records. But, given the nature of what’s in that book, and the fact that it is organized into classifications (natural disasters, human feats, etc.), it can actually be read rather linearly with some measure of enjoyment. Wikipedia’s random lists of who-knows-what come up quite short of “compelling reading.”

If you find the prospect of reading twelve articles of pure trivia to be torturous, you might consider not linking dates in your articles since one can’t expect any reasonable portion of our visiting readership to do so either. After all, why link to date articles if you can’t even stomach reading them yourself?

The issue here is not whether or not these date-related trivia articles have value or should or should not be available on Wikipedia. The issue is simply whether or not these trivia articles are sufficiently germane and topical enough in most articles to merit being routinely linked to in common circumstances, such as birth dates. Unless there is a compelling reason otherwise, it is usually best to simply choose the date format most appropriate for the article and write it out as non-linked, fixed text, e.g., “On 24 August 2008, MOSNUM policy was changed to no longer encourage the autoformatting of dates.”

It is logical to wonder then, how, if we don’t link to these historical trivia articles, any reader can know they even exist. There have been suggestions that our See also sections might be splendid venues to let readers know about the existence of these trivia articles. Entries like these two:

…could be a good way to accomplish that end. Further, aliasing the top link like this:

[[1795|Notable historical events of 1795]]

…better complies with the WP:Principle of least astonishment; readers unfamiliar with Wikipedia can better anticipate what sort of article they will be taken to before clicking on it.

See also[edit]