Does this picture fill you with dread? Maybe you're struggling with erythrophobia. Don't worry! Help is available.
Erythrophobia is the fear of, or sensitivity to, the colour red. Recently, I have seen more and more erythrophobic Wikipedians; specifically, Wikipedians who are scared of red links. In Wikipedia's early days, red links were encouraged and well-loved, and when I started editing in 2006, this was still mostly the case. Jump forward to 2014, and many editors now have an aversion to red links.
In a few places, a dislike for red links has been codified. The featured list criteria require that "a minimal proportion of items are redlinked". The main page does not contain red links, even when they would otherwise be appropriate. Similarly, the featured portal criteria require that "[r]ed links are limited in number and restricted to aspects that encourage contribution". While these kinds of requirements are not found in the English Wikipedia's featured article criteria, they are found in the criteria on other Wikipedias. Moving away from written guidelines, through participation in review processes, I have encountered numerous editors nervous to add red links to articles they've written, and editors who have asked me to remove red links from articles I have written.
The aversion some people feel to red links is at odds with our central guidelines on the subject. To summarise Wikipedia:Red link:
Red links for subjects that should have articles but do not, are not only acceptable, but needed in the articles. They serve as a clear indication of which articles are in need of creation, and encourage it. Do not remove red links unless you are certain that Wikipedia should not have an article on that subject.
So, removing red links to topics which should have an article is contrary to our explicit guidelines on the topic, and red links should be added to articles where appropriate.
What's so great about red links?
It might be clear by now that I like red links, and I share the view common on Wikipedia several years ago that red links are a really good thing. Red links serve many important roles on Wikipedia, and any sentiment against red links will reduce their effectiveness and damage Wikipedia.
Red links "serve as a clear indication of which articles are in need of creation". Let's say I have a list of articles which have been requested for creation, but I am unsure where to start. WikiProject Kenya, for instance, has a list of requested articles. Leviathan Cave and Fred Kubai are both requested, but while Leviathan Cave has no incoming links from the article space, Fred Kubai has six. This gives me a quick indication that Fred Kubai may be a more important topic, or at least a more valuable addition to existing articles than Leviathan Cave.
Red links encourage article creation. When people see a red link to a topic they know or care about, they're more likely to create that article than if they don't see a red link. This is a common sense intuition, but has also been demonstrated in studies of Wikipedia, which have suggested that "the connection between redlinks and new articles is a collaborative one ... adding redlinks actually spurs others to create new articles".
Red links remind us that Wikipedia is a work in progress. Wikipedia will never be finished, as there will always be new topics to write about. New species will be described, new artists and sportspeople will come to prominence, new discoveries about human history and society will be made. Not only that, but there are a great number of articles on established topics yet to be created. I just opened a mushroom field guide, and at the top of the page was Russula badia. We shouldn't hide the fact that the project is not, and will never be, finished. Even our logo is incomplete. Red links are analogous to the missing puzzle pieces; just as the logo would lose its character if "completed", Wikipedia loses much when red links are perceived as undesirable.
Articles containing red links are ready for the target article's creation. If I were to create an article on Marton, Cumbria, I shouldn't have to search out pages which mention Marton, but which do not link to it. The links should already be there in the form of red links. I see a few articles already link to it, while other pages which should, including a template used on related articles, do not. This is regrettable. Why should we worry about updating articles and templates when we can just use red links?
Readers expect links. Say someone is reading about British band Curiosity Killed the Cat. They click to read about Keep Your Distance, the band's first album, but do not know why there is no link to the band's second album, Getahead. If there was a red link, the reader would know there was no article to find. If they didn't know what a red link was, they could click on the link, where they would see that there was no article there. And if that reader happens to think Getahead was one of the best albums ever made? Well, there's a nice explanation of how to write your first article right at their fingertips...
Why don't people like red links?
Like its logo, Wikipedia is, and always will be, incomplete. We gain nothing from pretending otherwise.
So, if red links are such an important and positive part of Wikipedia, why do some people dislike them? There seem to be a few reasons, but all, I think, are mistaken.
Red links show that Wikipedia is incomplete. This is actually one of the best things about red links. As above, Wikipedia will always be incomplete, and its logo is designed to reflect that. We should not be afraid of red links in our articles; they do not make our articles worse. Blue links are preferable to red links, but appropriate red links are preferable to no links.
Red links are ugly. This certainly sounds like a case of erythrophobia. If you have an aesthetic objection to red links, you are welcome to adjust your CSS file so that "red" links are a happier colour. (Okay, that was too sarcastic. Perhaps red links being ugly is a good thing, as it encourages both the editor and other potential article writers to turn those links blue.)
Red links affect the stability of articles. This seems to be motivation behind the failed proposal at Wikipedia:Stable versions, which, despite the fact it is contrary to our actual guidelines on red links, I have seen cited in discussions. While it is true that an article with red links will be "unstable" in the sense that linked articles might change drastically, this is just as true of articles with blue links.
There aren't many red links about any more. People will imitate the style of other articles they read, and, if prominent articles don't have red links, users will not add them to other articles. There aren't many red links about any more not only because more articles are getting written, but also because people are starting to believe that red links are a bad thing.
Guidelines discourage them. This simply isn't true; our guideline on red links actively encourages them.
What about lists and portals?
I have mostly focused on discussing articles up until this point, but articles are not the only kinds of content on Wikipedia. The featured list criteria and the featured portal criteria both contain mentions of how red links should be limited. It is worth asking whether that is a good thing. Perhaps lists and portals serve a particular navigational purpose to which red links can be detrimental. However, disambiguation pages and navigation templates, both of which serve a navigational purpose, routinely contain red links; indeed, it is one of their advantages that they can contain red links, while categories cannot.
Given that portals and red links share an aim of encouraging contribution, they should surely go together naturally. Restricting red links to areas of the portal specifically geared towards encouraging contributions means that portals follow the lead of the main page, which is really a portal itself. That said, some portals do contain red links, so it seems that the criterion is not too strictly enforced.
As for featured lists, the potential consequences of a requirement that "a minimal proportion of items are redlinked" are strange, if the criterion is properly enforced. An expert lichenologist could spend many hours producing a list of all known lichen species in Scandinavia. The list could contain all pertinent information, impeccably sourced to the most up-to-date literature on European lichen. Each species would warrant a link to its own article, but Wikipedia's coverage of lichen is a long way from complete. Would it really be right for us to deny this list featured status just because of the presence of red links? Surely not: red links are a part of Wikipedia, and a positive thing. This list would serve to encourage further work on Scandinavian lichens, and red links could only help with that.
What is to be done?
Red links are going the way of the dodo. But, together, we can save them!
"But wait," I hear you say. "That's all well and good, but what does it have to do with me?" Well, hopefully, you'll want to join me to bring red links back. There are three easy steps we can take.
Stop removing red links. If a link points to what could and should be a free-standing Wikipedia article, do not remove that link, even if it is a red link. If you really don't want to see the red link there, create a sourced stub. Sometimes, a red link is even preferable to a redirect, as redirects can be misleading, even when they point to the most sensible available target.
Start creating red links. While working on articles, if you see a location where there should be a link, add a link; even if the link will be red.
Educate. If you see someone removing red links, explain to them why this is a bad thing; show them Wikipedia:Red link, or even this page. If you're reviewing an article that has unlinked items, recommend that red links are introduced. If someone is reviewing an article you have written and suggests that red links be removed, explain to them why this is a bad idea.
And there we go. If we all take these simple steps, we can bring back red links, and all of the benefits they bring to Wikipedia. So, are you with me? Is it time to bring red links back into fashion?
^For example, on the Indonesian Wikipedia, featured articles cannot have "too many" red links (thanks to Crisco 1492 for translation), while on the Simple English Wikipedia, in very good articles, "there must be no red links left".
^ abcdeAt the time of writing, this link was red. By the time you read this, someone may have created this article.
Josh Milburn is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Queen's University Belfast. His research concerns animal rights and political philosophy. On Wikipedia, he has written 14 featured articles and has been involved with the good article process, the featured article process, the featured picture process and various other projects. He has been a WikiCup judge since 2009.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. Editors wishing to propose their own Signpost contribution should email the Signpost's editor in chief.