Wikipedia:"In popular culture" content

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It can be fun to pick through piles of stuff at a real rummage sale, but a Wikipedia article should not become an indiscriminate collection of stuff.

Many articles about subjects with broad cultural impact have sections titled "In popular culture", "Cultural references", or "In fiction", which exclusively contain references to the subject in popular culture. When these sections become lengthy, some Wikipedians spin them off into separate articles to keep main articles short.

When properly written, such sections can positively distinguish Wikipedia from more traditional encyclopedias. They should be verifiable and their sources should establish their significance. Detailing a topic's impact upon popular culture can be a worthwhile contribution to an article, provided that the content is properly sourced and consistent with policies and guidelines, such as neutral point of view, no original research, and what Wikipedia is not.

When poorly written or poorly maintained, however, these sections can devolve into indiscriminate collections of trivia or cruft. They should be carefully maintained, as they may attract trivial entries, especially if they are in list format.

Section title[edit]

The title "In popular culture" emerged in the early days of Wikipedia for this particular type of article content (along with "See also", "External links", etc.) and stuck here by the way of habit as the first title to effectively encompass it all: "in cinema", "in poetry", "in video games", ad infinitum. When these sections grew enormously, the phrase even made it into article titles: who would have thought that tunnels would attract enough interest to generate an entire article about tunnels in popular culture!

This title has some significant drawbacks:

  • The term "popular culture" has acquired a sense of something trivial or dumbed-down to be digestible for wide consumption (and because of this the section itself is often perceived as a collection of useless trivia).
  • The word "popular" unnecessarily restricts the culture in question, and often some items in this section are hardly ever called "popular culture", while being indisputably encyclopedic.
  • The divide between popular culture and elite culture is more permeable than in previous centuries. Nowadays even the very rich or the classically educated may read bestselling novels, listen to folk music, and watch Hollywood movies. There's no need for the "popular" qualifier anymore. It's just culture.

For this reason some Wikipedians look for alternative titles, such as "Cultural influence" or "Cultural impact". "Legacy" is also used.

More restrictive alternative titles include "In media", "In creative works", "In fiction", and "In literature and the arts". These would, if followed to the letter, exclude entities named after the subject, for instance, and some other instances. Still, they can be a good choice, since an influence of the subject in question on broader aspects of culture, such as religion or social structure, is usually notable enough to deserve a separate section.


Comedian and actor Simon Pegg is verifiably wearing an "Area 51" T-shirt in this photo; but this doesn't mean that the Wikipedia article on Area 51 should inform the reader that "Simon Pegg wore an Area 51 t-shirt in 2011."

"In popular culture" sections should contain verifiable information with sources that establish its significance to the article's subject.[1] Exhaustive, indiscriminate lists are discouraged, as are passing references to the article subject. For example, it is appropriate if a city's article mentions films, books or television series in which the city is itself a prominent setting, and a musician's article may name television series or films in which the performer appeared. However, a Wikipedia article about a city with an "in popular culture" section should not contain examples of films which make a one sentence reference to the city in dialogue, or songs which mention the name of the city in one sentence.

When fictional characters are modeled after notable people or celebrities, they can be mentioned in the article about the person when the connection is identified in the primary source or attributed by a secondary source. Major monuments dedicated to a person or significant locations named after a subject can be included (but this should not lead to a listing of all 100 elementary schools named after a certain president).

Passing mentions of the subject in books, television or film dialogue, or song lyrics should be included only when the significance of that mention is itself demonstrated with secondary sources. For example, a brief reference in film dialogue may be appropriate if the subject responds to it in a public fashion—such as a celebrity or official quoted as expressing pleasure or displeasure at the reference. As well, a brief reference in film or TV dialogue may be appropriate if secondary sources (film critics) write about the significance of this reference to the city.

Although some references may be plainly verified by primary sources, this does not demonstrate the significance of the reference. Furthermore, when the primary source in question only presents the reference, interpretation of this may constitute original research where the reference itself is ambiguous.[2] If a cultural reference is genuinely significant it should be possible to find a reliable secondary source that supports that judgment. Quoting a respected expert attesting to the importance of a subject as a cultural influence is encouraged. Absence of these secondary sources should be seen as a sign of limited significance, not an invitation to draw inference from primary sources.

In determining whether a reference is encyclopedic, one helpful test can be to look at whether a person who is familiar with the topic only through the reference in question has the potential to learn something meaningful about the topic from that work alone. For example, if a movie or a television series has been filmed in a town, the viewer is seeing a concrete representation of what the town actually looks like at street level; but if the town is merely mentioned in a single line of dialogue, the viewer hasn't learned anything except that the place exists.

When there are multiple copies of the subject item, references to it become less meaningful. For example, reference to a pickup truck in a movie is not a reason to include that reference in the Pickup truck article.

Good and bad popular culture references[edit]

The three most common forms of unencyclopedic pop-culture trivia, even when not in list form, are:

  • Unremarkable mentions or appearances – If an actor had a two-second cameo in a TV commercial, it is unlikely that anyone except that actor cares. If the film is one of thousands showing a particular major landmark in the background, don't bother mentioning it in the article about that landmark. Depth of treatment in the source (e.g., the landmark is a major plot element, or the importance of the landmark is explained at some length in secondary sources) is usually a strong determining factor in the distinction between relevance and triviality.
    • Don't include: Every time the Eiffel Tower appears briefly in the background of a film
    • Consider including: A film centered around a monument
  • Works of minor significance – There is no encyclopedic interest in a famous historical figure being featured prominently in someone's self-published webcomic. The source of an in-depth popular culture reference does not necessarily have to be notable by Wikipedia's definition, but the better known the source is, the less likely that its inclusion in a popular culture section is trivial.
    • Don't include: Self-published content, books almost no one has heard of
    • Consider including: Popular television shows and best-selling books
  • Inclusion of more and more pop-culture details the more influential or general the topic is – A litany of the innumerable novels, TV shows, and films featuring Julius Caesar, dogs, New Hampshire, World War II, wizards, or hip hop is not useful to anyone. Topics of this level of world importance or broad generality never need pop-culture bulleted lists. Lists with bullets tend to grow until they become an indiscriminate collection of trivia. If a cultural references section is present in an article on WWII, for example, it should be reserved for major, in-depth treatments of the subject that have had lasting significance. As well, it should be written in prose, in paragraph form. This "raises the bar" for contributing to the section, and makes editors less likely to add trivia.
    • Don't include: Any of the thousands of romance novels that mention Paris
    • Consider including: The only English-language novel that features this article's obscure subject

The importance of the works it may be reasonable to mention in a pop-culture section should rise commensurately with the level of notability of the subject of the article in which the section appears. A nonfiction best-seller, or film that won major awards, about a historical figure is more likely to be encyclopedically relevant than a special issue of a magazine, or a one-hour TV documentary. The relative importance of or focus on the Wikipedia subject in the works should also rise with the article subject's notability. It may be relevant that a band who barely pass the WP:General notability guideline got to perform a few songs on a late-night talk show, but this will just be trivia in an article about a major recording artist. And in the case of the more obscure band, it would be much better to work into the main flow the article what effect their TV appearance had on their career.

An example of a source which provides both good and bad pop culture references is xkcd, a webcomic that deals with subjects from obscure mathematics to ball pits. Some appropriate and inappropriate examples of xkcd being mentioned in Wikipedia articles are as follows:

  • Good example: Sean Tevis decided to promote his tech credentials by running an ad in an xkcd style during his 2008 State House race.[3] It attracted attention from sources who wouldn't ordinarily be interested in such a race,[4] and the campaign received over $100,000 from online donations.[5]
  • Poor example: A popular cartoon show depicts a minor character wearing a baseball cap with xkcd written on it for a few seconds. This should NOT be used as example of xkcd in popular culture, because it is a passing, insignificant reference.

On the other hand, xkcd routinely mentions dozens of other subjects without the reference impacting popular perception of the subject. Examples here would, sadly, basically be nose-beans, but at any given time there will usually be a few on special:WhatLinksHere/xkcd.

When trying to decide if a pop culture reference is appropriate to an article, ask yourself the following:

  1. Has the subject (if a person or organization) acknowledged the existence of the reference?
  2. Have multiple reliable sources pointed out the reference?
  3. Did any real-world event occur because of the cultural element covered by the reference?
  4. Did the referencing material significantly depend on the specific subject? For example, if the reference is to a specific model of car, did the material use that model car for some reason, or was it just a case of "use a well-known name of a car"?

If you cannot answer "yes" to at least one of these, you are probably just adding trivia. Get three or more, and you are probably adding genuinely encyclopedic content.


Information in a pop culture section should be presented in a logical and understandable way. Related items should be grouped together and the article should flow. Alphabetical, regional, date, media type and other forms of organization should be applied. Bulleted list format should be avoided when practical in favor of normal prose. Since it is easier to add bulleted points than it is to write in prose, having a pop culture section that uses bulleted points will tend to attract more trivia and cruft.


Sections or articles that list too many inappropriate popular culture or fiction references may be tagged with {{in popular culture}}, {{Cleanup section}} or {{Fiction trivia}}. In many cases an excessively long section can be trimmed by removing entries unlikely to have verifiable discussion of significance. Entries that make only passing reference to the subject can usually be removed.

Creating "In popular culture" articles[edit]

Per Wikipedia's summary style guidelines, when "In popular culture" sections grow excessively long they are split into subarticles. This allows the main article to stay at a reasonable length and focus on the most essential aspects of its subject. The new article is usually called "X in popular culture", "Cultural references to X", "Cultural depictions of X", or "X in fiction". Many of these articles can be found in Category:Topics in popular culture. Advantages of such a split include:

  1. The main article stays at a reasonable length.
  2. It keeps the main article focused on the most essential aspects of its subject.
  3. Editors are better able to maintain the main article if pop culture references are kept in another article, because pop culture sections tend to grow exponentially.
  4. Editors of a featured article or good article have one less variable to deal with in maintaining the article at that status.

Further addition of popular culture content can easily be discouraged with HTML comments in the areas of the article where cultural references are usually added, e.g. <!-- Please do not add cultural references to this section, and instead add them to the article [[TOPIC in popular culture]]. -->

Use caution in splitting out such articles:

  1. Attempt to pare the section down first. In some cases, the section is not so much a new article as it is just bloated. In others, the section should be split off, but paring down the section first will help the new article stand on its own. In addition, if there are any items in the section that can be integrated with the main article, try to do this before splitting, because it is less likely to happen afterward.
  2. Before splitting, familiarize yourself with some of the precedents found at Wikipedia:WikiProject Deletion sorting/Popular culture. Be sure to read the debates, don't look only at the outcomes. Don't split the section out if you think it would be likely to get deleted.
  3. Take responsibility for the new article. If you are considering creating a new article only to keep material you view as undesirable out of the main article, realize that this approach has been tried before, and can often backfire. One common pattern in such a circumstance is that the new article degenerates to the point where it gets deleted, and then the same content builds up in the main article again: the problem in the end remains unsolved and in the meantime, editor time is wasted.


The earliest known section for storing popular culture references, and titled "popular culture", was in the article Batman, in a diff from 21 December 2001 by User:CYD. Further research may yet uncover earlier instances; the first use may never be known due to lost data from the earliest days of Wikipedia. Nevertheless, usage was rare until sometime in 2004, after which it became more popular. The cause or nature of this increased popularity is still under research (see talk page August 2021).

In popular culture[edit]

Randall Munroe referenced the "In popular culture" section of Wikipedia articles in the July 7, 2008 xkcd comic.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ An October 2015 RfC was closed with: "The consensus is very clear that a secondary source is required in almost all cases. A tertiary source is even better, if available. In the rare case that a primary source is judged to be sufficient, it should be properly cited. The source(s) cited should not only establish the verifiability of the pop culture reference, but also its significance."
  2. ^ Not Another Teen Movie references teen movie director John Hughes, naming the high school where the movie is set after him. Inclusion of this particular reference, which requires little more than a familiarity with John Hughes movies and a DVD player, is probably not contentious. Other references that may be more opaque or subtextual, such as Sideshow Bob's underpinnings should be drawn from secondary sourcing.
  3. ^ "Running for Office: It's Like A Flamewar with a Forum Troll, but with an Eventual Winner". Archived from the original on 2009-10-25. Retrieved 2009-09-12.
  4. ^ "Strangely, I find myself wishing I lived in Kansas : Pharyngula". Retrieved 2013-03-18.
  5. ^ "Receipts and Expenditures Report of a Candidate for State Office, October 27, 2008" (PDF). Retrieved 2009-12-01.
  6. ^ Munroe, Randall (7 July 2008). "In Popular Culture". Retrieved 7 May 2015.