William Beutler on Wikipedia

Twitter and Wikipedia: Parallel Challenges

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on February 8, 2016 at 12:44 pm by William Beutler

Twitter-Wikipedia

Twitter has had an almost unprecedented run of bad press lately. Its stock is down, its executives are out, and uncertainty reigns. In recent weeks, Twitter has announced (or had leaked) plans to change the platform’s famous 140-character limit, its reverse-chronological order of messages, and the site’s most vocal users are fearing, and saying, the worst.

The more I read of it, the more I think about the bad press Wikipedia has received over the past few years, and I see some striking parallels.

To be sure, they are very different entities. Most importantly, Twitter Inc. is a publicly traded company, while the Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organization. But both are important platforms in the online information ecosystem facing significant questions about not just its future but even its present. Both have much in common in their history and structure, and in the challenges they now face:

  • Wikipedia and Twitter both started out as side projects of other projects that weren’t going anywhere: Wikipedia of traditionally-edited online encyclopedia Nupedia, and Twitter of possibly-before-its-time podcast directory Odeo.
  • Both are basically monopolies in their particular corner of the information ecosystem: Wikipedia has no competitor in collating “sum of all human knowledge” into readable text; Twitter is the only public, real-time conversation network (in perhaps this alone it has bested Facebook). Both have been described as a “utility” at one time or another.
  • Both are among the most-recognized, heavily-visited destinations on the web. Google pretty much points searchers to Wikipedia by default, and recently re-upped a deal to provide Twitter results in searches. Both are top 10 global websites: according to Alexa, Wikipedia is 7th and Twitter is 10th. In the U.S., Wikipedia is currently 6th and Twitter 8th.
  • Both are open publishing platforms, inviting its readers to be contributors. Even so, the vast majority of participants (broadly defined) choose only to consume. Wikipedia’s reader base has always vastly exceeded its editors, which isn’t a huge surprise. But Twitter has been trending this way for a number of years. (See also: the Pareto principle, the Internet’s 1% rule).
  • One possible reason why both have so few active contributors is that they are both notoriously difficult to use. This is rather obviously true for Wikipedia. It is, after all, an encyclopedia, and making beneficial contributions to it requires time, knowledge and inclination (not to mention persistence and thick skin). Twitter’s 140-character simplicity belies its true complexity, as Walt Mossberg has argued recently.
  • Both are organized as democratic, non-hierarchical platforms where everyone theoretically has an equal chance to be seen and heard. But of course invisible hierarchies emerge, as certain power users self-identify through the strength of social ties or canny dexterity with the platform. Twitter at least makes follower counts public, while Wikipedia is considerably more opaque.
  • For each, active users grew dramatically (even exponentially) until hitting a peak and then declining. This happened for Wikipedia in 2007, which happened to be the same year Twitter first started gaining traction. However, this growth ran out by 2009, making for a very similar looking user growth-and-decline charts:
  • Growth and decline: Wikipedia editors at left; Twitter audience at right.

    Growth and decline: Wikipedia editors at left; Twitter audience at right.

  • Both allow users anonymity—or, more accurately, pseudonymity—which arguably fosters a community culture suffering from a lack of responsibility and accountability. Relatedly, both have had significant trouble with the so-called Gamergate movement, and female users of both platforms have reported serious harassment issues.
  • Fallings out among top leadership have been the norm since the beginning. At Wikipedia, co-founder Larry Sanger became disillusioned with the project, leaving Jimmy Wales free to bask in the glory of being a “digital god” as the Evening Standard actually called him last week. As Nick Bilton described in his book, Hatching Twitter, Twitter’s most contentious co-founders, Jack Dorsey and Ev Williams, were at each other’s throats almost constantly. Multiple defenestrations later, Dorsey once again leads the company as CEO.
  • Besides the personal squabbles among its founders, both have experienced very recent and very concerning internal confusion at the company / parent organization, riven with conflicts about the future of the organization, and a revolving door of high-level executives. For Twitter, this has been in the tech press almost constantly. For Wikipedia, this has been covered most extensively by only The Wikipedia Signpost and a handful of blogs, including this one.
  • The direction of each has caused immense consternation in the community of power users who are conflicted about revisions to the platform, both rumored and launched. Impending changes to Twitter’s character limit and algorithmic order of tweets can be compared to community revolts over several recent software initiatives, especially the Visual Editor debacle, which sought to fundamentally change the nature of editors’ interaction with the site. At present, Wikipedians are anxious to know if this “Knowledge Engine” project is another.
  • For both, the silver lining is that their position is secure so long as arguments are being had there: that people care about what is being said on each website. No matter what ails each one, no competitor is likely to displace them, and their core function is likely to be relevant for the foreseeable future.

Are there lessons for one or the other? I’m not so sure. One conclusion that does occur to me as a longtime Wikipedia editor, observer and fan: how fortunate is Wikipedia to be a non-profit foundation right now! Whatever complaints one may have about Jimmy Wales, and there are many valid ones, his decision to forsake the chance to become “an Internet billionaire” on the back of Wikipedia, as The New York Times once put it, infelicitously, owes significantly to its central role on the Internet today. Had, for example, Wales insisted on monetizing Wikipedia with advertising (something Twitter once, long ago, promised it would never do, and only recently has begun turning off ads for power users) the rest of Wikipedia’s contributors might have walked out the door along with the 2002 “Spanish fork”.

Twitter, on the other hand, was founded by startup veterans who probably never seriously considered doing anything but become Internet billionaires. (For what it’s worth, Dorsey and Williams both achieved this goal.) I come here not to criticize the ambition, but to observe that it hasn’t worked out so well for the platform. In its attempts to generate revenue to match their brand recognition, Twitter has experimented with several different strategies and business models. Unfortunately, these often ran at cross-purposes to what Twitter was good at, as observers from Ben Thompson to Twitter investor Chris Sacca have both written. That it is now publicly traded is a worse headache, and places on it a burden of expectations that may ultimately spell its doom as an independent company.

Fortunately for Wikipedia, it has a clearer notion of what it should be. It is an encyclopedia. Its recent struggles may owe something to the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t always seem to recognize that. Twitter may have largely succeed at becoming “the pulse of the planet” but, for a company whose shareholders expect continuing growth, that isn’t enough.

Wikipedia at 15: How it Played in the Media

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on January 15, 2016 at 7:40 pm by William Beutler

Happy 15th birthday, Wikipedia! As any wiki-watcher surely expected, today’s milestone brought an avalanche of news coverage not seen since, well, the last round number anniversary, when Wikipedia turned ten in 2011. But Wikipedia journalism is hard (take it from me, I know) and when outsider scribes momentarily turn their keyboards to Wikipedia and try to write something meaningful, the results can be decidedly mixed. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at what some major news outlets are saying about Wikipedia today: what they led with, what they weirdly obsessed over, and how they wrapped things up. Let’s go!

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ABC News, “Wikipedia Gets Another Source of Cash for 15th Birthday”, Michael Liedtke

Lede:[1]Journo-speak, natch

Sadly, Wikipedia failed to create 15 million articles by its 15th birthday.

Sadly, Wikipedia failed to create 15 million
articles by its 15th birthday.


Wikipedia is getting another source of cash for its 15th birthday, expanding beyond fundraising drives that have already poured $250 million into the Internet’s leading encyclopedia.

Huh:

Wikipedia’s growth has spurred criticism that its parent foundation has become bloated and doesn’t need to raise so much money.

Upshot:

“We stay very mission-driven,” [Jimmy] Wales said. “One of the things that we are focused on is the idea of having an encyclopedia available for every person in the world in their own language. As you go in that direction, these (requests for money) are some of things you need to do to build that long-term dream.”

The Wikimedia Foundation’s (WMF) announcement earlier this week of its new endowment[2]as more or less predicted by yours truly just last month pays off here, giving journalists a solid hook for a story more substantial than “has it been 15 years already?” and less unpleasant than the troubled times at the WMF HQ in San Francisco. However, points subtracted, ABC News, for quoting Eric Barbour, arguably the least-insightful critic of Wikipedia on the Internet—and that’s really saying something.

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Washington Post, “Wikipedia just turned 15 years old. Will it survive 15 more?”, Andrew Lih

Lede:

On Jan. 15, Wikipedia officially celebrates 15 years as the Internet’s “free encyclopedia,” cataloging humankind’s achievements in real time and, more importantly, rescuing desperate students facing school assignment deadlines. In that time, it has hastened the end of Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia and supplanted Britannica as the dominant reference work in English. While the digital landscape has changed drastically over the last decade, Wikipedia has not, and still delivers that rare site that strives for neutrality and accuracy, all with no commercial advertisements.

Huh:

Unfortunately for Wikipedia, this global trend toward mobile could have a dramatic effect on the site’s volunteer contributions. Are people going to help edit text articles on mobile devices with tiny on-screen keyboards, or can the Wikimedia movement tap the potential of micro-contributions or use these multimedia-capable handsets for audio, video and photos from the crowd?

Upshot:

[T]echnology is not enough to keep the Wikimedia movement moving forward. Ultimately, Wikipedia was started by and still relies on the efforts of human volunteers. It will only thrive for another 15 years if that community can work cooperatively with the Wikimedia Foundation — and infighting doesn’t splinter the movement.

Good call by the Post to turn over its coverage to longtime editor and commentator Andrew Lih, the author of a 2009 book, The Wikipedia Revolution. Of all the pieces mentioned here, this is by far the most comprehensive, and does an admirable job balancing what’s great about Wikipedia as well as what ails it. Although it’s impossible to read everything written about Wikipedia published today, I feel safe saying if you can only read one column, this should be it.

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BBC News, “George W Bush tops Wikipedia 15th birthday list”, Zoe Kleinman

Lede:

The English language version of the site, which anyone can edit, has more than five million entries and has been edited around 808 million times.

Huh:

We're still talking about this guy?

We’re still talking about this guy?

A page about former US president George W Bush has attracted the most attention with 45,862 edits since its creation.

Upshot:

[Warwick Business School professor Aleksi Aaltonen:] “As Wikipedia has grown older, it has become progressively more difficult for contributors to improve content. At the same time, Wikipedia’s system of rules has become more burdensome. However, if Wikipedia can maintain its success, it will be remembered as a gift of an open internet that is now under attack from many directions.”

Yesterday, the WMF also published a blog post about the most-edited articles in Wikipedia’s history. So, you can see what’s going on here: many of the poor, beleagured hacks[3]See, I was once an actual working journalist, and I can tell you: it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re harried. tasked with writing something about Wikipedia just went to the nearest official source and piggybacked on whatever they were saying. So, nice work Wikimedia comms dept! That said, I could see the Independent or Guardian still being obsessed with George W. Bush all these years later, but et tu, BBC?

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TIME, “Wikipedia at 15: How the Concept of a Wiki Was Invented“, Lily Rothman

Lede:

Wikipedia went live on Jan. 15, 2001, but the now-omnipresent online reference couldn’t have existed without work that began years earlier, around the the dawn of the World Wide Web.

Huh:

Everybody loves Ward.

Everybody loves Ward.


Looking back, the extent of that sociological phenomenon is surprising even to [wiki-inventor Ward] Cunningham. “The Internet is a much more hostile place,” he says, acknowledging that the site he started in 1995 was a place for “computer people” to talk about computer programming, a context in which open collaboration wasn’t so scary. “They all felt like we were working together. Even so, I thought it was so open to abuse that if it only lasted six months it would still be a nice experiment.”

Upshot:

[H]ard work alone couldn’t have made Wikipedia what it is today. After all, without the collaborative feeling engendered by the wiki technology, it’d be hard to convince people to do that work. Cunningham sums up that allure thus: Before WikiWikiWeb, you might reach the end of a set of linked pages, and that was that. On a wiki, he says, “it says, ‘Now it’s your turn. You tell us.’ It’s an invitation. It says, ‘If you’ve gotten this far, we need your help building this.’”

Well done, Lily Rothman, for tracing Wikipedia’s history all the way back to Hypercard.[4]Ah, Hypercard, how I miss you. This super-fun and groundbreaking Apple-invented software could have been the World Wide Web, if only it was network-aware, but instead it was just great for building dumb games to amuse my friends while we should have been paying attention in class. Actually, the whole piece is really just an interview with Cunningham, but that’s more than all right. Everyone else was trying to write something “big picture” today, so, kudos to Rothman for picking up the phone and doing something a bit different.

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Scientific American, “Wikipedia Turns 15 [Q&A]”, Larry Greenemeier

Lede:

It must be difficult for the roughly half a billion people who visit Wikipedia every month to remember a world without the free online encyclopedia. Since co-founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia on January 15, 2001, the site has grown into a behemoth of information with about 35 million articles and 30 million images available in nearly 300 different languages. The English-language Wikipedia site alone features more than five million articles.

Huh:

[Scientific American:] Are you aiming to have a specific ratio of male to female editors for the site?

Upshot:

[Lila Tretikov, in response:] We did research on this in 2013 and a study by researchers Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw estimated that 23 percent of U.S. editors are women and 16 percent of global editors are women. We also try to target special programs on women, for example an education program in Arabic that is 80 percent women. Wikipedia is so diverse, which is why it’s hard to put just one number on it.

Everyone around Wikipedia loves Ward Cunningham, who made everything we do possible, and today is kind of an aloof, avuncular figure far-removed from the controversies constantly swirling around Wikipedia. The same is assuredly not the case with WMF executive director Lila Tretikov, who is deeply unpopular in the non-profit’s headquarters (and a mystery to the thousands of editors who never think twice about what happens in San Francisco). The most interesting part of this interview was the oddly-phrased question about Wikipedia’s difficult gender imbalance, and Tretikov’s accurate but evasive reply that closes the Q&A is barely worthy of a shrug.

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The Economist, “Wikipedia celebrates its first 15 years”, “A.E.S.”

Lede:

These people didn't mean to launch Wikipedia.

These people didn’t mean to launch Wikipedia.

Fifteen years ago today, on January 15th, 2001, Wikipedia was founded by two internet pioneers, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, although neither had any idea how ambitious their online encyclopedia would become. Today Wikipedia is the tenth most popular website in the world, with versions available in some 280 languages containing around 35m articles. Like the ancient library of Alexandria and Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia published during the Enlightenment, Wikipedia is an ever-evolving manifestation of its creators’ desire to preserve and compile knowledge.

Huh:

Wikipedia was early to anticipate three important digital trends. First, people are willing to participate in global forums for nothing. Wikipedia, which is written and edited by volunteers, was an early social network. Second, Wikipedia saw that the knowledge economy was heading online. In 2012 the “Encyclopedia Britannica” stopped printing and is now only available in digital form. Third, Wikipedia showed the importance of network effects to online ventures: the more people use Wikipedia and write entries, the more helpful it has become. Younger digital firms, like Facebook and Uber, are premised on this same concept.

Upshot:

Wikipedia has other challenges with which to reckon. … However, there is plenty of time. Wikipedia has built up a trove of information and become an invaluable resource to anyone with an internet connection. That is more than any teenager could hope for.

I love The Economist, but you don’t read it for the hot takes—nor the pithy quotes. It’s certainly not a perfect overview, and not even a great one, but if you didn’t have time to read Lih’s in-depth analysis, this wouldn’t do you too badly.[5]Which is pretty much The Economist‘s M.O., now that I think about it.

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The Guardian, “Wikipedia launching $100m fund to secure long-term future as site turns 15”, Stuart Dredge

Lede:

As Wikipedia turns 15, its operator The Wikimedia Foundation is hoping to secure its long-term future with a new endowment fund that aims to raise $100m over the next 10 years.

Huh:

A Google search for “death of Wikipedia” yields more than 72k results, with articles from 2006 onwards predicting that the online encyclopedia was on its way out for various reasons.

Upshot:

“We have a great fundraising model right now, but things on the Internet change so it’s not something we can count on forever,” said The Wikimedia Foundation’s chief advancement officer Lisa Gruwell.

A perfectly serviceable entry in the “big picture” genre, and another win for the timely endowment announcement.

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Wired, “At 15, Wikipedia Is Finally Finding Its Way to the Truth”, Cade Metz

Lede:

Today, Wikipedia celebrates its fifteenth birthday. In Internet years, that’s pretty old. But “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is different from services like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Though Wikipedia has long been one of Internet’s most popular sites—a force that decimated institutions like the Encyclopedia Britannica—it’s only just reaching maturity.

Huh:

As seen on many, many, many news stories about Wikipedia.

As seen on many, many, many news stories about Wikipedia.


If editors were required to provide real names, many would leave the site. And the decline would begin again. Wikipedia is dominated by people who embraced the Internet early, and that kind of person still holds tight to the idea of online anonymity.

Upshot:

Of course, the non-profit setup comes with its own advantages. Wikipedia doesn’t have ads. It doesn’t collect data about our online habits. It gives the power to the people—at least in theory. The result is a source of information that could never be duplicated by a Britannica or a World Book. “There are very few websites that make the world a better place,” [Overstock.com employee and “longtime critic” Judd] Bagley says. “And I’ve come to believe that the world is better off for Wikipedia.”

Wow, does anyone remember the Overstock.com controversy from 2007–8? Cade Metz—who used to cover Wikipedia for the always-antagonistic UK Register[6]aka El Reg—clearly does. Now writing at Wired, Metz is not above repeatedly linking to his old stories at that website, and I guess Wired is cool with that. To be fair, it’s perfectly fine that some of these overviews are hostile, and this one certainly is. And however much Metz has his thumb on the scale, he’s at least done his homework.

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Wired UK, “How Has Wikipedia Changed In The Last Fifteen Years?”, Emily Reynolds

Lede:

It’s hard to imagine a world before Wikipedia. Saviour of student deadlines everywhere and settler of endless pub arguments, Wikipedia is now a ubiquitous part of the online world. But it’s not been an entirely easy ride — beset by vandalism, Wikipedia has also had to ban users for secretly promoting brands and has been accused of being skewed by “rich, Western voices”.

Huh:

The most striking difference between early and late Wikipedia pages is in tone. Like a traditional encyclopaedia, Wikipedia strives to be neutral in tone and requires articles to be rigorously and extensively referenced. Early pages, often, do not reflect that mission.

Upshot:

This is NOT the most embarrassing photo of Jimbo I could have selected.

This is NOT the most embarrassing
photo of Jimbo I could have selected.

“Spot the Dog showcases Hemingway’s hallmark minimalism: ‘Where’s Spot? Is he under the stars? Is he in the box? No. He’s at the bar. Sipping whiskey. Sucking on cigarettes. Suffering’.” the page stated. Like the iPhone, though, the page has now been reverted to its (less existential) reality.

Wired‘s UK edition opted for a quick look at how certain prominent entries have changed over time, which is a neat idea. OK, that’s all I have to say here.

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Fortune, “Wikipedia Turns 15. Will It Manage to Make It to 30?”, Matthew Ingram

Lede:

After 15 years, Wikipedia has become one of those Internet services that is so central to the online world that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it. Would we go to the library to read physical books? Turn to a printed encyclopedia? Or just trust the information we find through a random web search?

Huh:

Those who have seen inside the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent entity that theoretically manages Wikipedia (to the extent that a massively crowdsourced phenomenon can be managed) say there is a lack of strong leadership. This threatens the organization’s ability to spend money wisely or come up with a coherent long-term vision, they say.

Upshot:

Will Wikipedia be able to survive the turmoil in its management ranks, and broaden its appeal and inclusiveness, while at the same time raising enough money to keep it operating for at least the next decade? The answer to those questions is unknowable. But it is definitely a site worth rooting for, in all of its troubled glory.

Fortune’s piece is another rather critical one, less detailed than that of Lih’s or Metz’s, but more open-minded than the latter. It also wins points for quoting from my post about recent WMF turmoil, not that it influenced my decision to include it or anything.

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Mental Floss, “15 Things That Share Wikipedia’s Birthday”, James Hunt

Lede:

Part Encyclopedia Britannica, Part Hitchhiker’s Guide, Wikipedia has proven itself an invaluable (and often entertaining) research tool since its creation 15 years ago today. It’s almost hard to imagine what life was like before it became the go-to source for articles on everything from A (the letter of the alphabet) to Zəfəran (the village in Azerbaijan).

Huh:

Our man Sully.

Our man Sully.

January 15th 1967: The first ever Super Bowl is played in Los Angeles, with the Green Bay Packers defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. It remains the only Super Bowl that was broadcast simultaneously by two television networks: NBC and CBS.

Upshot:

January 15th 2009: US Airways Flight 1549 makes an emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River, shortly after taking off from the nearby LaGuardia Airport. All passengers and crew survive.

Hey, as of this writing, a Chiefs–Packers Super Bowl is possible again this year! (Unlikely, though.) And Sully is the best, amirite?

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Fusion, “The website that helped you write every paper since 2001 turns 15!”, Sloane Steel

Lede:

Wikipedia, also known as Wiki, (wɪkɨˈpiːdiə / b. 2001), is a free access, free content encyclopedia. On January 14, 2015, Wikipedia celebrated its 15th anniversary (1).

Upshot:

[1] “Fusion Celebrates Wiki Anniversary” (Fusion.net, January 2015)

OK, this isn’t a real overview (it’s a quote graphic[7]Click through the headline to see it; I didn’t feel right hotlinking it and depriving Fusion of what little traffic it has. with clever copy), but that’s cool by me. After all, on the advent of Wikipeda’s 10th anniversary I wrote and executive-produced the following video, narrated by Jimmy Wales, which I think holds up well. In fact, is there anything in it that isn’t essentially true today?

Yeah, as Aaliyah said long before Wikipedia was a gleam in Jimmy Wales’ (or Larry Sanger’s!) eye: age ain’t nothing but a number.

All images c/o Wikimedia Commons. In order, copyrights belong to: Andrew Lih; N/A, work of U.S. government; Carrigg Photography; Edward O’Connor; Wikimedia Foundation; Zzyzx11; Ingrid Taylar.

Thanks to Emily Gaudette for research assistance.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Journo-speak, natch
2. as more or less predicted by yours truly just last month
3. See, I was once an actual working journalist, and I can tell you: it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re harried.
4. Ah, Hypercard, how I miss you. This super-fun and groundbreaking Apple-invented software could have been the World Wide Web, if only it was network-aware, but instead it was just great for building dumb games to amuse my friends while we should have been paying attention in class.
5. Which is pretty much The Economist‘s M.O., now that I think about it.
6. aka El Reg
7. Click through the headline to see it; I didn’t feel right hotlinking it and depriving Fusion of what little traffic it has.

The Crisis at New Montgomery Street

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on January 11, 2016 at 12:12 pm by William Beutler

Wikipedia officially turns 15 years old at the end of the week.[1]Friday, January 15 to be specific. The tone of the TV news segments, newspaper op-eds, and other media spotlights will be celebratory. However, the mood among Wikipedia insiders is anything but: the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), its Board of Trustees, and close observers within the community are entering the third week of a crisis that’s arguably more public and pointed than similar issues in years past.

The major events and themes seem to be as follows:

  1. In late December the Board of Trustees dismissed a well-liked community-elected trustee, Dr. James Heilman, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious
  2. WMF staff complaints about the performance of executive director Lila Tretikov, long simmering but never on-record, have now boiled over into public discussion
  3. Revelations about newly-appointed Board trustee Arnnon Geshuri’s involvement in an illegal anti-poaching scheme while at Google has drawn community outcry
  4. Besides failing to vet Geshuri, the WMF’s increasing tilt toward the Silicon Valley and focus on (perhaps) the wrong technology projects has come into sharper relief

Woven into each strand is a theme that The Wikipedian has covered since 2012 at least, each time with a few more data points and a little more urgency: that the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community it supposedly exists to serve have become increasingly at odds with one another. A deep exploration of why is beyond the remit of this post—for now, we just need to put everything that’s going on in one place.

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The Sacking of Doc James

On December 28, well-respected community leader Heilman announced via email to the Wikimedia-l public mailing list[2]The Wikimedia-l mailing list is an often tedious, intermittently fascinating semi-public discussion group where self-selected Wikipedians may opine. They include current and former Wikipedia editors, current and former WMF employees, and occasionally Board trustees. The frequency with which Wikimedians post to Wikimedia-l seems to have an inverse relationship with their power inside the Wikimedia Foundation. that he had been “removed” from the board. Heilman gave no initial reason for the announcement, guaranteeing a flurry of speculation and general disarray, not to mention the revelation came during that weird “office dead zone” week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Within the hour, Board chair Patricio Lorente confirmed the news in a follow-up email, providing scarcely any more context, and WMF’s legal department posted the full text of the resolution “James Heilman Removal” on the web:

Resolved, James Heilman is removed from the Board of Trustees, fully ending his term in office and appointment as a member or liaison for any Board committees.

Eight trustees voted to approve; only two voted against: fellow community representative Dariusz Jemielniak and Heilman himself.

Dr._James_HeilmanInto the contextual void spilled hundreds of replies even before the turn of the calendar three days later. Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, the longest-serving trustee, was the first to add a smidge of information. In response to the growing concern of commenters on his user page, Wales simply stated that Heilman’s removal was “for cause”.

On January 1, while the community was still searching for answers, Heilman posted a somewhat cryptic statement giving his side of the story, suggesting that the Board had sacked him for “[r]eleasing private board information”—even though, according to Heilman, he had only “pushed for greater transparency”. This view was largely adopted by other Wikimedia-l participants, who were already predisposed to side with him.[3]In later comments on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page, Heilman added more details about what he wanted to see made public (see: the fourth segment of this blog post). In their view, Heilman’s mysterious dismissal looked like the canonical example of the Board’s troubling lack of transparency.

On January 5, the Board published a FAQ explaining their rationale, although it’s doubtful that it satisfied many. It seemed to agree that some form of this “confidence vs. transparency” question was at the core:

Over time, his fellow Trustees came to the opinion that they lacked sufficient confidence in his discretion, judgment, and ability to maintain confidential Board information about the Wikimedia Foundation governance activities.

Later still, community-elected trustee Denny Vrandečić posted his own take on the dismissal, reinforcing this consensus. Even so, the underlying disagreement remained a mystery. To solve it, the first clue may be found in Heilman’s January 1 post, making a point that went unremarked-upon by the Board. Heilman wrote he had been “accused”—though not publicly to this point—of:

Giving staff unrealistic expectations regarding potential board decisions. I have always stated to staff that I only represented 10% of the board and have never given assurances that I could convince other trustees.

Well, now what does that mean? Convince them of what, exactly? Careful observers on the list had some idea:

For whatever reason James ended being ground zero for complaints by WMF
employees. … James handled these complaints in a way that the WMF management felt was undermining their authority/ability to lead and complained to the board. The board sided with management and removed James.

As far as I have seen, no Board member has disputed this. Then again, none has yet commented upon it in any way. Perhaps frustrated by this fact, last Friday[4]January 7 Heilman made public his final pre-removal letter to the Board—in which he admitted acting “out of process” and asked for a second chance:

Our board made the decision to give Lila a second chance in the face of staff mistrust. In the long road ahead to improve our movement, I would like to have the same opportunity to continue working together with you as well.

Ten days later, his request was denied and the whole thing broke wide open.

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The Trouble With Tretikov

The tenure of Lila Tretikov, the second major leader of the Wikimedia Foundation, got off to a rocky start even before she assumed the title of Executive Director in mid-2014: as The Wikipedian reluctantly chronicled at the time, her (rather eccentric) significant other had inserted himself, unbidden, into the Wikimedia-l mailing list and other forums for Wikipedia discussion, depriving her of the chance to set the tone of her own arrival.

Lila_TretikovBut everyone wanted her to succeed, she made good impressions, seemed to have the resume for the job, and so was given time to prove herself. However, as I wrote in my year-in-review last month, that honeymoon period is long over: very high turnover in top management, questionable hires, and emerging details of a staff revolt at the Foundation’s New Montgomery Street office have brought her leadership under close scrutiny.

Although staff discontent has been mostly the stuff of rumors over the past six months (at least), if you knew what to look for, you could find it in certain corners of the web. There was that one Quora thread, although it didn’t say very much. Somewhat more voluble is the Foundation’s entry on Glassdoor[5]Like Yelp but for workplaces., where reviews by anonymous current and former staffers provide clearer evidence of dissatisfaction among WMF employees. Of note, Tretikov holds just a 15% approval, and reviews have grown steadily more negative in recent months:

Unfortunately, the foundation is going through management turmoil. There is no strategy — or worse, a new strategic plan is rolled out every couple of months with no follow-through or accountability. … Please hire better executives and directors.

And:

The Executive Director unveils a new strategy every three months or so. She completely abandons the previous strategy and then does nothing to actually follow through on the strategy. … We need a new Executive Director. Most C-Level executives have fled. We will not be able to attract top talent until there is new leadership at the very top.

Although Glassdoor may present a skewed sample, this doesn’t appear to be the case. As Wikipedia Signpost contributor Andreas Kolbe points out, comparable non-profit organizations[6]NPR, for instance have much, much better employee ratings. And last week the Signpost reported on the existence of a yet-unreleased internal WMF survey from 2015 that found approximately 90% employee dissatisfaction. Yet when the turnover issue came up on the mailing list, Boryana Dineva, WMF’s new HR director, replied that everything was well within normal limits for the industry. This seems hard to believe.

♦     ♦     ♦

Arnnon Geshuri Agonistes

Amidst all this, the Board announced on January 6 the naming of two new appointed trustees: Kelly Battles and Arnnon Geshuri. Following some initial confusion as to whether either was a replacement for Heilman—they were not, but replacements for Jan Bart de Vreede and Stu West, whose terms had ended in December 2015—there came the usual round of congratulatory notices.

Arnnon_GeshuriBut the following day a regular list contributor raised a new issue: Geshuri had, in a previous role as Google’s Senior Staffing Strategist, actively participated in a rather infamous episode of recent Silicon Valley history: an illegal, collusive agreement among several leading firms—Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, eBay and others—to avoid recruiting each others’ employees. The overall effect was to restrain the career advancement (and hold down salaries) of thousands of tech workers, and the participating firms eventually agreed to pay $415 million to settle the class action lawsuit.

Geshuri’s role in all this? According to email from the unsealed case, as reported by Pando Daily, Geshuri acted decisively to fire a Google recruiter who had been reaching out to Apple employees—which would be, you know, par for the course. Apple’s Steve Jobs complained to Google’s Eric Schmidt, who passed it along to Geshuri. His reply back:

Eric,
On this specific case, the sourcer who contacted this Apple employee should not have and will be terminated within the hour. We are scrubbing the sourcer’s records to ensure she did not contact anyone else. …
Please extend my apologies as appropriate to Steve Jobs. This was an isolated incident and we will be very careful to make sure this does not happen again.

For more details, see this detailed summary by Wikipedian Jim Heaphy, whose Wikipedia article-styled summary ends with a call for Geshuri’s removal from the Board.

On the mailing list, criticism of Geshuri’s appointment came from none other than two former Board chairs: Florence Devouard (in a short comment) and Kat Walsh (in a longer one). Considering how slow current and former Board members were to chime in regarding Heilman’s dismissal[7]And when former members, like SJ Klein, did so, it was in support of Heilman. the swift and strong rejection of Geshuri by Devouard and Walsh underlines how seriously the Board screwed up.

In fact, Dariusz Jemielniak, who had first posted news of the appointment to the list, indicated in a subsequent comment that the Board had not discussed this aspect of Geshuri’s career at all. Wales, for his part, confirmed that he was aware at least of the broad outlines, which of course can be easily found—where else?—in Geshuri’s Google search results.[8]Where another gossipy Quora thread appears. Curiously, as of this writing, the anti-poaching scandal exists on Geshuri’s entry only as a single, carefully-phrased sentence.

At the time of this writing, no announcement about Geshuri’s continued trusteeship has been made, but it seems his tenure will be very short. Considering the nature of the scandal, and the strident opposition, it’s very difficult to see how he can remain. And if Geshuri somehow survives where Heilman did not, the chasm between the Foundation and community will become considerably wider.

♦     ♦     ♦

The Silicon Wiki

Besides Geshuri, the Wikipedia Signpost observed last week that at least five Board trustees have significant relationships with Google.[9]Possibly unnecessary but probably advisable disclosure: Google is a client of my firm, Beutler Ink, although I have not personally been involved with these projects and none of our work for Google relates in any way to Wikipedia. Likewise the WMF has some Board connections to Tesla, and somewhat weaker ties to Facebook. What of it? A few big issues come to mind.

The first is simply the question of diversity and representation: Wikipedia may have been founded in and is still operating out of the United States, but its reach is global and its underlying ethic is inclusive. This is rather hard to do, and gets into extraordinarily thorny questions of identity politics which even those who raise them are unprepared to answer. But until such a time as there is consensus that the WMF is sufficiently representative of its global audience, it will at least be mentioned.

The second is the always-present question of conflicts of interest. Not just the perennial “COI” question about Wikipedia content and publicity-motivated editing, but the big picture version of same: whether this public good, this collaborative, free-in-all-senses online knowledge repository is being manipulated by powerful insiders for private gain—especially in a way that steers Wikipedia and its sister projects in a direction that deprives others from making the most of their Wikipedia experience.

Downtown_San_FranciscoThis specific harm hasn’t been shown to be the case, but if anyone is going to do that, well, it’s entirely plausible[10]if not exactly obvious this may come from the Silicon Valley firms who are close to Wikipedia both in physical proximity (WMF is based in downtown San Francisco) and focus area (WMF all but owns the tech side of Wikipedia). Indeed, there have been calls for Board members to disclose their own conflicts and recuse themselves when relevant interests intersect.

Then again, there are now fears that something like this might be happening with an embryonic project called Search and Discovery. Last week the Wikimedia Foundation and Knight Foundation jointly announced a new partnership examining the search habits of Wikipedia users with an eye toward a later project that may eventually replace Wikipedia’s current internal search.[11]Formerly described as a “knowledge engine” in a semi-official FAQ, the project has in fact been developing in something like stealth mode in WMF’s Discovery department for several months now. It might even incorporate other databases—not just Wikidata, but non-Wikimedia data resources as well. (Big Data is the future, lest we forget.) It sounds like a plausible direction for WMF, but as Signpost reports, the staff morale problem is at least in part tied to concerns about the resources allocated to the project. And this, too, intersects with Heilman’s dismissal from the board: in recent days he has made comments suggesting that the grant—which was actually decided in September 2015—should have been announced earlier.

Other criticisms have come from former staffer Pete Forsyth, who has questioned the process whereby WMF accepted the “restricted grant” from Knight—a practice once opposed by Sue Gardner, Tretikov’s predecessor. And a highly thought-provoking argument comes from longtime Wikipedia veteran Liam Wyatt, who made this compelling observation in his own blog post about the controversial last few weeks:

[A] portion of the Board of Trustees and the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation believe that it should be treated as a technology organisation in the style of a dot-com company, out of step with the staff and without the awareness of the community. By contrast, it’s always been my belief that the Wikimedia Foundation is an education charity that happens to exist primarily in a technology field. Of course software engineering is crucial to the work we do and should represent the major proportion of staff and budget, but that is the means, not the end.

The contrary view is that the Wikimedia Foundation has long been heavy on technology—under Gardner, the WMF identified itself as a “grant-making and technology” organization—as these are roles the foundation can undertake without overstepping its charter, and for which of course it has sufficient funds. That said, there has been little clamor for this particular project, especially as the community has made different technology recommendations to the Foundation, such as better integration with the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine and improved UI in editor tools, which are arguably clearer and more achievable.

♦     ♦     ♦

As I post this on Monday, January 11, it’s entirely possible that new information about any or all of the above related controversies could appear and change the picture dramatically. Given the fact, I’d better post this before anything else happens that would require a massive rewrite. I’ll aim to save those for a subsequent update, whether below this inadequate summary or in a separate blog post. Either way, stay tuned. And if I’ve missed anything important, please add them in the comments.

N.B. This post marks the introduction of a new post category at The Wikipedian, named for a term whose coinage appears to have occurred this past July, by the above-mentioned Wyatt, in a tweet directed to yours truly.

All images via Wikimedia Commons; image credits in order: Victor Grigas, Lane Hartnell, Myleen Hollero, Tim Adams.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Friday, January 15 to be specific.
2. The Wikimedia-l mailing list is an often tedious, intermittently fascinating semi-public discussion group where self-selected Wikipedians may opine. They include current and former Wikipedia editors, current and former WMF employees, and occasionally Board trustees. The frequency with which Wikimedians post to Wikimedia-l seems to have an inverse relationship with their power inside the Wikimedia Foundation.
3. In later comments on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page, Heilman added more details about what he wanted to see made public (see: the fourth segment of this blog post).
4. January 7
5. Like Yelp but for workplaces.
6. NPR, for instance
7. And when former members, like SJ Klein, did so, it was in support of Heilman.
8. Where another gossipy Quora thread appears.
9. Possibly unnecessary but probably advisable disclosure: Google is a client of my firm, Beutler Ink, although I have not personally been involved with these projects and none of our work for Google relates in any way to Wikipedia.
10. if not exactly obvious
11. Formerly described as a “knowledge engine” in a semi-official FAQ, the project has in fact been developing in something like stealth mode in WMF’s Discovery department for several months now.

From the Annals of Bad Wikipedia Commentary

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on January 4, 2016 at 9:30 am by William Beutler

Wikipedia’s ubiquity in Internet culture is matched by its inscrutability to those looking from the outside in. This makes it an attractive topic for occasional visitation by journalists and public intellectuals alike, but it is not the easiest subject to write about. Bad Wikipedia journalism is abundant, although in my experience most journalists will try to learn something about Wikipedia before covering it.

Alas, the same does not seem to be true for Internet pundits.

This brings us to the long holiday weekend, when two widely-followed Internet writers found a real study—“The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s reaction to popularity is causing its decline”—by very wiki-knowledgeable academic researchers, linked to it for readers, added some well-meaning commentary, and curiosity-provoking headlines, and actually caused their readership to become less informed about the current state of Wikipedia as a result.

First up, “The rise and decline of Wikipedia?” by economist Tyler Cowen at his long-running blog, Marginal Revolution:

Halfaker, Geiger, Morgan, and Riedl have a new paper on this topic … This is an interesting paper, but I think it undervalues the hypothesis that potential contributors simply prefer to be in on things which are both new and cool. Wikipedia, which is no longer new, cannot be so cool. That is why Beethoven’s 5th does not top the pop charts, though if it were new it might.

And here’s The New Republic’s Jeet Heer, writing for the site’s blog, under the matter-of-fact header “Wikipedia is dying”:

And its treatment of volunteer editors is the culprit. The genius of Wikipedia has been its use of such editors, who do the grunt work that allows the site to maintain a consistent quality. Yet these very volunteers might be the undoing of the site. A new academic paper, flagged by economist Tyler Cowen, reveals that the number of volunteers peaked in March 2007 and has been in steady decline ever since.

So what’s wrong here? Simple: this study isn’t new! As one can verify quite easily on Aaron Halfaker’s website (and Stu Geiger’s as well) this study was published in 2013 (and circulated in late 2012).

Moreover, the question of what’s happening to Wikipedia’s community, particularly the overall number of active editors, has since then become less clear and perhaps more interesting. As first identified by editor WereSpielChequers, later examined by the community’s Wikipedia Signpost, and also by Halfaker himself in a post at the Wikimedia Foundation’s blog, Wikipedia’s “decline” is less obvious than it once was:

The English Wikipedia’s population of very active editors—registered contributors with more than 100 edits per month—appears to have stabilized after a period of decline. We’re seeing some of the same trends globally on other language Wikipedias. … Broadly speaking, it appears the number of very active editors has recovered from a mid-2013 drop and, for the moment, is continuing upward aseasonally.

You would not know this by reading Cowen and Heer! The former post has 76 comments, none of which (that I can tell) point out this survey isn’t new. And while TNR does not allow comments on posts, Heer’s tweet announcing the blog post has been liked, retweeted or replied to about fifty times, without anyone pointing this out, either.

To be sure, Wikipedia still has many problems that cannot alone be addressed by a modest uptick in active participation. That still doesn’t make it OK to pass off outdated scholarship as a new development, and without a considered appreciation of the topic—Wikipedia in 2015 had fewer editors than 2007, a new paper “reveals”!

It’s not hard to see how a dominant storyline about an interesting but little-understood phenomenon (like Wikipedia) can become an entrenched meme, easily passed along from writer to reader, reinforced by feedback and becoming resistant to new information. And we need public intellectuals to help correct this kind of misinformation. Cowen and Heer should update their blog posts, and I’ll update this one if and when they do.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2015

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on December 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm by William Beutler

Each year since 2010, The Wikipedian has looked back at the year on Wikipedia and taken a stab at determining which trends, milestones, and controversies most influenced the direction of Wikipedia in the twelve months preceding.

This is no easy task, considering the millions of articles, edits, and editors within the scope of Wikipedia and its sister projects, not to mention the off-wiki and even offline circumstances affecting them. The most important events may be overlooked, acknowledged major events can be misunderstood, and the significance of each can differ greatly depending on one’s viewpoint. No matter, The Wikipedian will make its best effort regardless.

This time around I’m pairing our retrospective with a post on the blog of my firm, Beutler Ink, called “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”. I recommend reading this one first: as we learn from the Bard, what’s past is prologue.

♦     ♦     ♦

10. Wikidata Rising

When Wikidata, the collaborative structured database project, first launched in 2012, it was difficult to summarize with any confidence. The Wikipedian covered it by carefully outlining its stated goals and quoting the speculative news and blog coverage. At the end of 2015, it’s not much easier to describe to a layperson, and many of its goals remain just that, but Wikidata’s growth is undeniable and the passion it inspires in the Wikipedia community is unmistakable. At this year’s Wikimania conference, Wikidata’s presence was felt like never before.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 10.39.33One big reason: Wikidata is unexplored territory in a way that Wikipedia no longer is. The encyclopedia project feels mature at 5 million articles (more about that below), but the database at only 15 million items has a long road ahead of it. For editors who joined the larger Wikimedia movement for the joy of discovery, Wikidata is where it’s at. The project still has some very real challenges, some of which unsurprisingly mirror those of Wikipedia, but it’s possible now to imagine that Wikidata, not Wikipedia, may prove to be the real “sum of all human knowledge”.

9. Exodus from New Montgomery Street

Has Wikipedia’s parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), seen a year with more comings and goings from its headquarters on San Francisco’s New Montgomery Street than 2015? It seems unlikely. The organization has seen admired veterans and high-level executives depart under different circumstances, and some touted recruits from Silicon Valley firms arrived to fanfare, only to exit quickly, and without comment. The only reason this exodus of talent isn’t higher on this list is because it’s one of 2015’s least-reported stories.

Approximately 18 months since Lila Tretikov became executive director, the WMF has experienced almost 100% turnover. For some longtime staff, it was probably time to move on anyway. And any incoming leader can be expected to make new hires and rearrange reports to their liking. But the very short tenures of some key hires, and mysterious circumstances surrounding some departures, can’t help but raise questions about whether Tretikov is in command of her personnel—and perhaps even if she’s the leader Wikipedia needs.

8. Community Tensions Felt in Trustee Elections

The Wikimedia Board of Trustees is the “ultimate corporate authority” of the Wikimedia Foundation, and its number includes three members elected from the volunteer community. The most recent election, held in May, was also the first since a major fight between the foundation and community over software implementation (Media Viewer) and platform control (Superprotect) in 2014. Against this backdrop, disagreements over Wikipedia’s next big software initiative, Flow, became increasingly increasingly pronounced—and a few months later, the project was shelved.

Perhaps it’s unfair to assume a direct cause-and-effect, but the result seemed to be a “throw the bums out” election. Ousted were Phoebe Ayers, Samuel Klein, and María Sefidari (in fairness, none were “bums”, nor particularly responsible for the problem). In are three respected veterans with the good fortune of non-incumbency: James Heilman, Dariusz Jemielniak, and Denny Vrandečić.

Oddly, the two women ousted received the first and third most votes in favor, but Wikimedia accounts for “oppose” votes, and they had too many of those. Today, just two Board members are women, the lowest representation in Wikipedia’s history.

7. “Wikipedia Hates Women”—or Maybe Just Lightbreather

Wikipedia’s alarmingly low female participation rate is decidedly not a new problem. The issue first came to attention in the late 2000s, as editor surveys confirmed suspicions that Wikipedia was a total brodown. Today, the gender gap remains a frequent topic of debate, including a much-discussed Cracked.com article whence this entry takes part of its name.

The other half of the title comes from what’s called the “Lightbreather” case, focusing on a female editor with this username, and her interactions with, among others, a (male) editor named Eric Corbett. A disinterested appraisal of the case would find plenty of fault with both, although there is not one person in the world who possesses the powers of concentration necessary to follow all of the rabbit holes leading from this single case. Notwithstanding the particulars, it became the subject of a provocative, error-ridden, five-times corrected but nevertheless widely read article in The Atlantic, held up as one example of Wikipedia’s “hostility” to women.

The myriad possible explanations for this problem only open doors to more complicated issues. How much of the gender balance can be attributed to Wikipedia’s rules? Its community? Where is the line between heated disagreements and harassment? How much can be explained by how the web influences behavior? How much is this reflective of the tech industry’s gender gap? Will understanding this question help to explain why other marginalized identities, from Latinos to Africans, contribute to Wikipedia in small numbers? The answers to these questions seem within the reach of comprehension, but beyond the grasp of consensus.

6. A Clockwork Orangemoody

OrangeMoody-BubbleGraphCombined-NolabelsAnother perennial topic on Wikipedia is conflict of interest (COI), usually playing out as someone inside Wikipedia or outside writing a self-serving autobiography, a low-rent marketing firm getting in trouble for editing clients’ pages, or sometimes more favorably, a group of PR firms coming together to try to make a good impression. This year, however, brought us something we never quite imagined: a massive extortion plot inverting the typical model of paid editing: rather than helping paying customers create Wikipedia entries, non-paying “customers” could simply be threatened with unflattering articles.

Orangemoody, as it was named for its “ringleader” account, was called the largest of its kind, but that merely counted the number of involved user accounts (nearly 400). The truth is, there has never been anything quite like it. Previous cases revolved around unscrupulous firms like Wiki-PR and WikiExperts who at least professed to be offering their clients a service. Orangemoody was a shakedown involving pages held for ransom, impersonation of Wikipedia administrators, and no real-world entity to absorb the blame. Orangemoody is so threatening because it suggests that Wikipedia’s open-editing model opens the door not just to unethical, if conceivable shenanigans, but also to transgressions that are much more horrifying.

5. The Luck of Grant Shapps

Next to Orangemoody, there’s something almost comforting about the familiar narrative of alleged self-interested editing of Wikipedia by Tory MP Grant Shapps and the plot twist that brought his accuser to (relative) ignominy and ruin.

Amid the UK parliamentary elections this spring, a report emerged in the left-leaning Guardian, prompted by an allegation by a Wikimedia UK administrator, that Shapps had used a pseudonymous account to massage his own Wikipedia profile while giving a drubbing to others. It seemed plausible: Shapps had admitted to editing his own biography years ago, and using assumed names in other circumstances, and his side career as an Internet executive aided the narrative.

But the tables soon turned: the right-leaning Telegraph revealed that there was no smoking gun connecting Shapps to the suspicious edits, that the Wikipedia administrator, Richard Symonds, was in fact a Lib Dem activist who had communicated with the Guardian prior to taking action, and Wikipedians soon became concerned that Symonds may have abused his administrative privileges in blocking the suspicious account.

In the end, Symonds lost his adminship, and Shapps exited a succession of positions within the Conservative Party and government. All that’s missing is Keyzer Soze shrugging off his limp and lighting a cigarette.

4. Wikipedia’s Big Picture Trends in Flux

editors-risingAfter a long period of sustained narratives about Wikipedia’s traffic and editing trends, this year things got a little interesting. Following unabated growth in global traffic to Wikipedia, given a boost in recent years by the proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices, overall traffic actually fell for the first time. Meanwhile, after almost a decade of resignation to Wikipedia’s ever-dwindling editor base—a decline perhaps also attributable to the adoption of mobile devices—the numbers ticked upward.

An August report from an SEO analysis firm showed that Wikipedia’s search referrals from Google fell by up to 20% since the beginning of the year. Most speculation focused on Google’s ever-advancing practice of answering search queries on the results page, obviating the need to click through to non-Google websites. This has bedeviled companies like Yelp, which compete with Google to serve up reviews while also depending upon it for traffic. For Wikipedia, the situation is more complicated, and perhaps less of an issue. After all, a significant portion of Google’s answers are powered by Wikimedia projects. In fact, beginning in late 2014, Google wound down its own open knowledge database, Freebase, in favor of Wikidata. And Google still recommends more Wikimedia sites than it recommends Google sites.

Also in August, the first hard data emerged to show that the long, slow decline of active (and “very active”) Wikipedia editors had been arrested—and is now trending the other way, if ever so slightly. As close Wikipedia observers know too well, Wikipedia attained its zenith participation rate in 2007, arguably the high point for the project’s activity and excitement overall, after which the lowering tide revealed consternation and even alarm, with nobody knowing where it would end. Well, maybe here? The number of very active editors—with at least 100 edits monthly—Wikipedia’s most valuable contributors, stabilized in 2014 and actually grew in 2015. The decline of administrators, coupled with the difficulty in admitting new ones in recent years, however, remains an issue.

In both cases, more data is surely needed before we can say what it really means.

3. English Wikipedia Hits 5 Million Articles

Wikipedia_5m_ArticlesAdmittedly, most of these top stories are unhappy ones, and the one just above is arguably mixed, but this one is unambiguously celebratory: on November 1, Wikipedia’s English language edition—by far its most popular, and synonymous with “Wikipedia” for most readers—notched its 5 millionth article.

Wikipedia has been the largest encyclopedia by any reasonable measure for a long while, so nothing has really changed. And it took seven years for Wikipedia to double in size, so if growth trends continue holding steady for now, we might not have a similar milestone to celebrate until sometime the next decade. Meanwhile, sheer heft is easier to measure than other important characteristics, like accuracy or completeness, so this benchmark will remain Wikipedia’s equivalent of McDonald’s “Billions Served” for the foreseeable future. It may be an arbitrary measurement, but it’s a damned impressive one.

Number 5,000,000 itself: Persoonia terminalis, a rare shrub native to eastern Australia. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the RfC debating which temporary logo Wikipedia should display on the joyous day, I very much recommend taking a look at the near misses. Perhaps it will instill some faith in Wikipedia’s community processes if you agree the best logo won (and you should).

2. It’s About Ethics in Gamergate Opposition

In late 2014 and into the start of this year, the loosely-affiliated right-wing counterpart to the left-ish Anonymous expanded its focus from video game journalists to include the Wikipedia entries where said journalists’ critical takes had accumulated. Organizing on Reddit and other forums, the ‘gaters created numerous throwaway Wikipedia accounts to first try swinging Wikipedia’s coverage of their movement and a few of their top targets around to their liking and, when that failed, they took on Wikipedia editors directly.

gamergatelogoWikipedians fought back hard—too hard, in some cases—and when Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee got around to handing out punishments, the only ones with anything to lose were the Wikipedia editors who cared. It also fed into the above-discussed ongoing trouble over Wikipedia’s treatment of gender issues, and was by far the year’s biggest blow-up along such lines, far greater than the argument over how to handle Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition, which still lay ahead.

It’s hard to say if Gamergate is a 100-year-flood (although on the Internet, the time frame may be more like 100 months) or a sign of things to come. Wikipedia has faced trolls before, but few have been as dedicated or as destructive as the ones beneath the Gamergate bridge. The best defense is a strong base of committed Wikipedians, and perhaps this year shows us they’ll probably still be around to carry the sand bags and shore up the levees.

1. China, Russia, and Completing the HTTPS Transition

One aspect of Wikipedia’s global prominence that the foundation and movement alike have struggled to fully grasp is the role it can, should, and does play on the international stage. This year, the Wikimedia Foundation joined forces with the ACLU to sue the National Security Agency over its mass surveillance practices, only for the case to be thrown out by a federal court. As important as that fight may be, it is but one jurisdiction of many where Wikipedia has become a proxy for privacy and free speech battles, not to mention authoritarian power grabs.

In 2015, Wikipedia’s multi-year plan to convert all traffic moving through Wikimedia servers to the HTTPS encryption protocol was finally completed. HTTPS was first enabled for WMF sites in 2011, then became the default for logged in users in 2013, and this year was finally made the default for all traffic, including readers without a Wikipedia account. This is a good thing for Internet users who wish to access Wikipedia without their governments knowing about it. But it’s complicated when governments decide to shut off access altogether.

Indeed, the full implementation of HTTPS prevents governments like China from blocking access to specific entries—such as Tiananmen Square protests of 1989—and instead they have to choose between allowing all traffic, or blocking the site entirely. China opted for the latter. To be sure, Wikipedia wasn’t the biggest collaborative online encyclopedia in the PRC—it wasn’t even the second—and China’s Communist Party seems to be perfectly TankMancontent promoting its homegrown versions of Google, Facebook and Twitter. In December, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, traveled to China to participate in an Internet conference, where his comments about the limitations of the state’s ability to control the Internet were intentionally lost in translation, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

A similar issue is ongoing in Russia, where the government’s media authority, Roskomnadzor, has weighed blocking access to the Russian-language Wikipedia based on its entries about illegal drugs, temporarily blocking reader access. In addition, it may also be attempting to co-opt Russian-language editors, presenting further challenges to the independence of the Wikimedia project among Russian language contributors.

It’s unclear what Russia will decide to do, but it seems safe to assume that China will hold the line for the foreseeable future. In both countries, and under still more repressive regimes—like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan—independent websites and even independent political parties and religious movements are allowed to operate only at these governments’ discretion. Why should Wikipedia be any different?

♦     ♦     ♦

And this seems like a perfectly good place to leave it. More often than not, Wikipedia’s issues reflect issues that animate and plague society and the Internet writ large. Open knowledge and digital discourse create incredible opportunities for research and innovation, but also bestow tremendous power to the platforms and communities that effectively control the gates. The problems on Wikipedia aren’t that different from those on Reddit or Twitter, they just feel more significant given the site’s mandate and perceived authority. To understand Wikipedia’s successes and failures, we have to look to ourselves for the answer.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to check out its companion piece at The Ink Tank: “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”.

All images via Wikimedia Commons except Gamergate logo, source unknown.

Mr. Robot’s Wikipedia Hoax: Right, Wrong, and Definitely Interesting

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on August 26, 2015 at 11:10 am by William Beutler

The first season finale of Mr. Robot airs tonight, and if you haven’t been watching already, it’s worth visiting soon. Not only is it a moody, cinematic, well-plotted, twist-springing suspense thriller, but it’s also the best depiction of hackers in popular entertainment yet.

As explained in better detail by others, Mr. Robot gets hacker subculture mostly right, and hews close enough to the technical details to be interesting where it doesn’t. Root kits are deployed, professionals use MacBooks, hackers use commodity PC hardware, Gnome and KDE desktop environments are referenced, and all of the code displayed on-screen (and there’s a lot) has at least some basis in reality. Spiking the football, two characters are seen deriding the movie Hackers for its many famous errors. The show knows what it’s doing.

This careful treatment even extends to Wikipedia, which comes up in the first half of the show’s fifth episode, eps1.4_3xpl0its.wmv (yes, that’s actually its title). In this scene, a Wikipedia hoax is used as a plot device to advance the show’s narrative, and I think it’s worth looking at closely.

Scene-level spoilers follow.

♦     ♦     ♦

In this episode, our troubled hero, Elliot (Rami Malek, pictured below), conspires with hacker group fsociety to infiltrate a data security firm based on the real life company Iron Mountain. To gain access, Elliot persuades a sales employee to believe that he is “Sam Sepiol”, a Zuckerbergian software tycoon (note the hoodie). Key to this scheme: a Wikipedia article purporting to verify this identity.

Mr_Robot_Wiki_1

Unable to get past the lobby, Elliot implores the salesman to look him up. As Elliot turns to walk away, the employee taps the fictitious name into his tablet (clearly an iPad, though most devices on the show are enclosed in third-party cases to avoid unduly promoting specific brands). The first result is Wikipedia, followed by a few supporting news stories.

Mr_Robot_Wiki_2

The sales employee clicks on Wikipedia first, and finds all the evidence he needs to decide Elliot is in fact Sam Sepiol, billionaire founder of “tech start-up company Bleetz”. The name and photo match, and this unique sales opportunity is about to walk right out the door.

Mr_Robot_Wiki_2a

Mr_Robot_Wiki_2b

Just before that happens, the employee shouts after him, and Elliot’s hack succeeds. Here the narration kicks in, as Elliot explains how an accomplice, a fellow hacker named Mobley, has pulled this off:

It’s no wonder Wikipedia is never accurate. Anyone can edit them. Well, not anyone. Nerds like Mobley built a lot of credit over the years with his 20,000 edits. And still people trust it, beholden to all the Mobleys of the world for their information.

Here’s Mobley, apparently editing the page from the van in the parking lot outside:

Mr_Robot_Wiki_2c

At this point, we are also shown two views of the edit page for the Sam Sepiol Wikipedia entry, one medium close-up and one close close-up, as Mobley prepares this Wikipedia-enabled social engineering:

Mr_Robot_Wiki_3

Mr_Robot_Wiki_4

I dunno about you, but I thought that was pretty cool. Some additional observations:

  • Like much else on the series that pertains to technology, Mr. Robot gets the social aspects of this correct. Despite exhortations from everyone to be careful about the information to be found on Wikipedia, the truth is we use it frequently to verify our hunches, and when the information sounds right, we go with it. Sometimes that’s a bad move! (I went several years thinking T. Boone Pickens’ real first name was “Thunder” because I’d visited the page when someone had messed with it.) Likewise, it’s much more likely that a dubious entry would be given benefit of the doubt if the creating editor has thousands of edits and years of editing history—at least long enough for the ruse to work.
  • You know what else is accurate, right? Yeah, I know plenty of Wikipedia editors who look just like Mobley.
  • I can’t tell what’s more absurd: that elements of everyday real life such as Google and Wikipedia logos cannot be used on TV without a license, or that production companies rarely if ever pay it (just like no one ever sings “Happy Birthday”). The motivations of both parties are not difficult to understand, but I fail to understand why a solution hasn’t been found. Mr. Robot is obviously not alone in this, and in fact they do a better job than most. Although Wikipedia is referenced in Elliot’s voiceover, on the page the would-be Wikipedia logo reads “The Knowledge Base” which is at least on point.
  • It’s never clarified whether Sam Sepiol is a real person in Mr. Robot‘s world whose article has been co-opted for the purposes of social engineering, or whether this page is a brand-new creation. I’m not certain the show’s producers know for sure themselves. After all, there are other news stories about Sepiol on the web, so if fsociety hacked Wikipedia, they somehow also hacked Google News or its equivalent. As suggested by the final still, Mobley’s final touch is adding Sepiol’s net worth to the introduction of the article. If Sepiol is a real entrepreneur, is it necessary for him to be one of the world’s richest men to get past security? On the other hand, it would be far easier to modify an existing entry, replace the photo, and embellish its claims. It could certainly be accomplished much faster than an all-new entry, which would require at least a couple of weeks to float to the top of Google’s search results. And in that time, you at least hope Wikipedia editors would have caught the hoax.
  • Following my comment above that the show isn’t always technically accurate, but is still interesting, the original mockup of the Sepiol page is an impressively faithful adaptation of Wikipedia’s mobile web display. The introductory paragraph reads like any one of probably hundreds of fawning biographies; the inbox contains the right information; the internal links and citations look right. Even the icons for editing the page and adding it to a watch list are where they should be. For comparison, I’ve uploaded the iPad view of actor Rami Malek’s Wikipedia bio.
  • Meanwhile, the desktop version of the edit page is pretty good, while the Wikipedia markup code depicted gets more right than not. Although most references have been reduced to what you would see on the rendered page itself—“[5]”—the double brackets around internal links is spot on. There are in fact some ref tags in evidence, the inbox template is stacked properly even if it’s missing some crucial markup, and (you have to squint) there is such thing as a “cite web” template. Whatever it gets wrong, it’s amazing how much it gets right.
  • The day the episode first aired in the U.S., July 22, a hard redirect for Sam Sepiol was created, sending anyone who searches for this article instead to—you guessed it—the Mr. Robot (TV series) Wikipedia entry.

Anything I’ve missed?

Wikimania 2015 in Words, Images, and Tweets

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on July 29, 2015 at 11:00 am by William Beutler

How could I possibly summarize Wikimania—the annual conference for Wikipedians, Wikimedians, wiki-enthusiasts, and open knowledge advocates—in a single blog post? I’ve done a few times before, or at least I’ve written something about attending since I began in 2012.[1]My first Wikimania was 2012 in DC, and I filed a detailed itinerary of panels I wanted to (and mostly did) attend. I wrote a single short post about 2013 in Hong Kong, mostly because I played tourist that weekend instead of focusing on the conference. And last year in London was my first Wikimania as a speaker, which became the focus of my recap post. Arguably, the best roundup post of a wiki conference I’ve assembled was not for a Wikimania but the annual event for US-based editors, WikiConference USA, last year. That one I structured around tweets and Instagram posts from the weekend. This one will be, too. In the interests of keeping this manageable, however, I’m going to build this around tweets from just the opening event (OK, and maybe a little before and after). Let’s see if we can use it as a window to discuss what worked—and what didn’t—at Wikimania 2015.

♦     ♦     ♦

The latest Wikimania conference was held July 17–19 in Mexico City. Each year a different host city is chosen, spreading the travel burden around the project’s global contributors. Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere (and in North America) but it’s a little far from the probable center of gravity of wiki activities (northern Europe). Given Mexico’s troubled reputation, the escape of notorious tunnel-favoring drug lord “El Chapo” barely a week before the conference hardly mattered. By then it was clear that turnout would land somewhere between Hong Kong 2013 (fairly small) and London 2014 (the record, I believe).

Absolutely the least-smoggy view of Mexico City from the 45th floor of the WTC on Insurgentes, looking over Zona Rosa.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on



The specific facilities originally named to hold the event was the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a visually striking library with hanging walkways and a dinosaur skeleton, but apparently scarce meeting space. It was moved a few blocks away to the Hilton on Alameda Central, which was modern and purpose-built for conferences, and probably for the best. However, students of literature might recognize this as a kind of foreshadowing…

Plenty had already occurred before I arrived, as it always does. Every Wikimania is precededed by two “hackathon” days, which I’ve never attended. Meanwhile, Wikimania volunteers—young people from the area, this time wearing yellow T-shirts with lucha libre masks—had already put everything in place:



I think it’s also custom for Jimmy Wales to make the rounds of local media, in whatever city or country is hosting, in the days before a Wikimania event. Here he is on CNN en Español:


Myself, I got in late Thursday, time enough to meet up with friends for pizza and a few beers at a restaurant across the park from the Hilton:

At Cancino Alameda on Alameda Central, the night before #Wikimania2015.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on



On the Friday morning itself, Wikimania began as it always does: with a keynote speech (for some reason Wikimania prefers “plenary”) by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) executive director. This year was the second for Lila Tretikov, the current ED and the third major leader of Wikipedia[2]Omitting Larry Sanger, who left a million years ago, but yes, counting Jimmy Wales, who was never ED, and Sue Gardner, who held the post for years..


Wikimania opening keynote by WMF exec director Lila Tretikov in Mexico City. #Wikimania2015

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on



This is the 11th annual Wikimania, and for at least the last few this one, Liam Wyatt and a few others made bingo cards celebrating (and gently ribbing) the event’s clichés:


In a prescient early tweet, Wikimedia stats guru Erik Zachte asked if there was video available of the proceedings. As it would emerge later: not only was there no live stream, but there would be no official recordings at all. What happened is not clear. Rumor had it that plans had initially been made, apparently lost amid a staffing change, and that was about all anyone knew for sure.[3]About staffing changes: the Wikimedia Foundation has seen quite a few of them in the year since Tretikov took charge. This is of course to be expected: when there’s a change at the top, the incoming leadership wants to put their own team in place. However, more than twelve months since she took over, people are still leaving.


As already covered by the Wikipedia Signpost, numerous community members were unhappy about this (particularly the Europeans who didn’t make the trip). The only upside really was that Andrew Lih, longtime Wikipedian and an advocate for video on Wikipedia, brought his camera and tripod to as many sessions as possible. Along with a few others, these are beginning to appear on a video page on the Wikimania site.

There is no small amount of irony here: it’s the Wikimedia Foundation’s job to provide support to the volunteer community. That is why it exists. Wikimania is obviously one of these things it has created to serve the community. Video recording for Wikipedians who cannot attend logically follows, and so it has been done before (albeit imperfectly). Instead, members of the community voluntarily filled in the gaps as best they could. Of course, the quality—especially sound quality—isn’t what it could have been. For most people, these videos will be of very limited use. Even for dedicated Wikipedians, it will be a chore.[4]Another snafu I don’t have anywhere else to explain: the Saturday night group event was a bus trip to the out-of-this-world Museo Soumaya (see photo near the end) for a party. However, upon arrival in the pouring rain, the only entrance was the one pictured, and the building’s unusual structure created a waterfall effect a few feet from the entrance, where many Wikimedians were tragically soaked. Once inside, it didn’t get much better: there was no indication of what we were supposed to do. Worse, there was no food. Worse still, no alcohol. A small group of friends and I—plus some very nice folks I’d just met from wikiHow—wandered over to the mall next door and found a decent-classy Mexican restaurant on the top level. We returned to the museum to find a VERY LOUD Beatles cover band, no more food, and there never was any alcohol. So we hopped an Uber back to the hotel, whereupon finding the hotel bar, we were greeted with cheers, like lost soldiers returning from the war. What we didn’t know was that our cheering section had themselves taken an early bus back from the party, which then broke down, in the rain. (Later, this message was posted to the Wikimania-l email list.)

But anyway, the presentation itself: always, always, Wikimania must begin by revisiting the core mission. It’s a bit ritualistic, and maybe even a little trite, but for a significant number of attendees, it’s exciting. After another year of putting up with all kinds of bullshit, it reconfirms why you got involved in the first place:



Here’s an early panel from Lila Tretikov’s talk, showing some of the top-line issues for the Wikimedia movement, as seen from 2015. You could probably knock a few items off your Wikimania bingo card with this:



Also bracing: real acknowledgment of problems faced by Wikipedia and the larger Wikimedia movement.[5]I said I was going to focus entirely on the opening keynote, but here (again) I am going to fail, because it’s important to note that in the closing keynote—sorry, plenary—Jimmy Wales came the closest to acknowledging the Kazakhstan controversy, along with other problems Wikipedia has experienced trying to create partnerships in the Caucuses, where authoritarian governments often control all of the language’s media. (See here for the tweet I can’t embed in this footnote.) He also devoted a bit of his speech to explaining what he is doing with all that troublesome prize money from yet another repressive regime. He certainly avoided putting it in that particular context, but instead talked up the promise of his new Jimmy Wales Foundation, focused on defending “freedom of expression”. I would link to the website, but it doesn’t seem to have one. Far from the self-satisfied Wikimania 2013 in Hong Kong, there was plenty of discussion about what challenges the movement—some in Lila’s talk, and much more in the days afterward. This one line, I think, serves as a fair justification for those who worry about even small issues:



Not that everything was addressed quite so plainly. At one point, Tretikov listed high voter turnout in the recent Board elections among the reasons for Wikipedia’s health. What she did not say, but regular Wikipedians in attendance recognized immediately, is that turnout for the election was almost certainly driven by community uproar over a recent series of events where WMF had forced through a controversial software update over the objections of the community.[6]This is too deep a rabbit hole to follow for now but, as usual, Signpost covered it well. It was a “throw the bums out” election, and a few longtime board members were indeed thrown out, even though they were not directly (or, so far as we know, indirectly) responsible for the change.


But all the WMF software initiatives have not been so controversial. One that’s had a good deal of success in the six months since it’s been rolled out is the Content Translation tool, and the early results are promising:



One more thing I noticed, toward the end of Lila Tretikov’s presentation:



But after the year Wikipedia just had—speaking of the bullshit[7]Not just the “superprotect” debate and subsequent Board election, but also the GamerGate controversy and recent decision in the so-called Lightbreather case.—not everyone was buying it:


Anyway, that’s not remotely an adequate summary, but it will have to do. Here’s one of the better photos of Lila addressing Wikimania:


♦     ♦     ♦

A few random thoughts, some of which I may expand upon in the near future:

  • Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw delivered an interesting presentation on a recent experiment to block IP editing on Wikia, the for-profit, pop culture-focused collection of wiki sites owned by Jimmy Wales. The question: would it curb vandalism and disruptive edits? The result, if my notes are accurate: yes, it certainly did. In fact, all edits went down. In my initial tweeting, I focused on the decline in vandalism. Speaking with Hill later, he focused more on the latter. A bit of a Rorschach test, perhaps. It’s not online yet, but I hope to study closely once it is.
  • Word has it that the loved-and-hated volunteer-run Wikipedia Article Traffic Statistics tool (available at stats.grok.se) will finally be replaced by a similar service from the Wikimedia Foundation, and it could happen as soon as the fall. However, it’s unlikely to include any past traffic. Also, a major upgrade to Wikimedia Statistics has been greenlit, but that will be much further away.
  • WikiProjects suck, but WikiProject X aims to make them better. If nothing else, it shows how WMF has been making good use of flat design techniques and more whitespace in recent years. (Update: as noted in the comments, design credit for WikiProject X belongs to the grantees, James Hare and Isarra.)
  • The Visual Editor is really good now, you guys! I’d given it a premature thumbs up when it first arrived, then all of the bad things happened, and meanwhile WMF has continued to develop it. And it’s really good. I mean it this time! Well, I missed James Forrester’s presentation Beyond VisualEditor, about design changes on Wikipedia, but his slides still get some of it across.
  • I haven’t even mentioned my own session! Like last year, it was about conflict-of-interest issues, co-organized with the above-mentioned Lih. Alas, we started late because the previous discussion group ran over, and then the volunteers told us our time was up 15 minutes early (we think). If I submit another Wikimania session next year, it won’t be a discussion.
  • Wikidata has arrived. Among the site’s grizzled veterans, many of whom burned out on creating new articles years ago, Wikidata is the new uncharted territory—in some ways, it’s what I suggested in my previous post about the Apple Watch—where topics and categories have yet to be fully defined, and much satisfying work remains to be done. I wrote about Wikidata in 2012, just ahead of its launch, when I didn’t really have any idea what it was or what it was good for. Well, this weekend I finally made my first edits, and I think it’s starting to come together:


    Yes, Wikidata is the new “cool” thing (relatively speaking, of course, this is still Wikipedia we’re talking about) and here is proof:


    In case you don’t get it, Q7565 is the entity ID for “father” on Wikidata. See what they did there?

♦     ♦     ♦

OK, that’s it for Wikimania commentary. Let’s close out with a bit of sightseeing.

Here is maybe the most amazing building I’ve ever visited in my life, the Museo Soumaya, supported by Carlos “the Mexican Warren Buffet” Slim, named for his late wife:

Evening #Wikimania at amazing museum. Also amazingly poor organization. We went to the mall next door to find a restaurant.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on



At one point, I wandered into a peaceful (and apparently permit-holding) protest at Hemiciclo a Juarez on Alameda Central, and when I emerged from the crowd I was confronted with the intimidating scene below. The only way out was through, and technically not through but right up to the line and then a left through the park. Police officers with riot shields is just everyday Mexico City, and the officers themselves seemed more interested in whatever conversations they were carrying on than the stray gringo taking photos of them.

Uh oh. Think I'm on the wrong side of this police line.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on



And here is a shot of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, which I visited on a Wikimedian bus trip the day after the conference. I climbed all the way to the top of this sucker, and I still have the shin bruises to prove it.

Pyramid of the Sun, not the only Aztec skyscraper I climbed today. #latergram and more to come.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on

Notes   [ + ]

1. My first Wikimania was 2012 in DC, and I filed a detailed itinerary of panels I wanted to (and mostly did) attend. I wrote a single short post about 2013 in Hong Kong, mostly because I played tourist that weekend instead of focusing on the conference. And last year in London was my first Wikimania as a speaker, which became the focus of my recap post.
2. Omitting Larry Sanger, who left a million years ago, but yes, counting Jimmy Wales, who was never ED, and Sue Gardner, who held the post for years.
3. About staffing changes: the Wikimedia Foundation has seen quite a few of them in the year since Tretikov took charge. This is of course to be expected: when there’s a change at the top, the incoming leadership wants to put their own team in place. However, more than twelve months since she took over, people are still leaving.
4. Another snafu I don’t have anywhere else to explain: the Saturday night group event was a bus trip to the out-of-this-world Museo Soumaya (see photo near the end) for a party. However, upon arrival in the pouring rain, the only entrance was the one pictured, and the building’s unusual structure created a waterfall effect a few feet from the entrance, where many Wikimedians were tragically soaked. Once inside, it didn’t get much better: there was no indication of what we were supposed to do. Worse, there was no food. Worse still, no alcohol. A small group of friends and I—plus some very nice folks I’d just met from wikiHow—wandered over to the mall next door and found a decent-classy Mexican restaurant on the top level. We returned to the museum to find a VERY LOUD Beatles cover band, no more food, and there never was any alcohol. So we hopped an Uber back to the hotel, whereupon finding the hotel bar, we were greeted with cheers, like lost soldiers returning from the war. What we didn’t know was that our cheering section had themselves taken an early bus back from the party, which then broke down, in the rain. (Later, this message was posted to the Wikimania-l email list.)
5. I said I was going to focus entirely on the opening keynote, but here (again) I am going to fail, because it’s important to note that in the closing keynote—sorry, plenary—Jimmy Wales came the closest to acknowledging the Kazakhstan controversy, along with other problems Wikipedia has experienced trying to create partnerships in the Caucuses, where authoritarian governments often control all of the language’s media. (See here for the tweet I can’t embed in this footnote.) He also devoted a bit of his speech to explaining what he is doing with all that troublesome prize money from yet another repressive regime. He certainly avoided putting it in that particular context, but instead talked up the promise of his new Jimmy Wales Foundation, focused on defending “freedom of expression”. I would link to the website, but it doesn’t seem to have one.
6. This is too deep a rabbit hole to follow for now but, as usual, Signpost covered it well.
7. Not just the “superprotect” debate and subsequent Board election, but also the GamerGate controversy and recent decision in the so-called Lightbreather case.

How the Apple Watch—and Ted Danson—Can Save Wikipedia

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on May 18, 2015 at 12:31 pm by William Beutler

Ted Danson on Apple Watch by The WikipedianAfter a week with an Apple Watch on my wrist, I’m leaning strongly toward the conclusion that the smartwatch (or something very much like it) is going to be part of our daily lives for a long time to come. Certain simple tasks are in fact more convenient if never more than an arm’s length away, with less fiddling than a smartphone requires. Right now, for me, it’s text messages. Soon, it could be any number of things.

I suspect that looking up basic facts on Wikipedia is a good candidate for this type of in-the-moment (and what-the-hell) information gathering:

What exactly was the Missouri Compromise again?

What is the capital of Bavaria?

What sitcom was Ted Danson on after Cheers?

After all, one of Wikipedia’s most common but least advertised purposes is the settling of bar bets.

If the Apple Watch had an app to facilitate quick information retrieval of this sort, I’d probably use it. And I’m intrigued by the New York Times watch app, for which the paper’s writers actually prepare brief, two to three sentence summaries of stories. If you want to read more, it’s no trouble to open it up on your phone, but you’ve already got the gist. By my count, the Apple Watch comfortably fits approximately 25 words on the screen at a time. Below, what a story looks like on my wrist in this morning’s edition:

NYT Apple Watch app

But Wikipedia sure isn’t set up to deliver information like this. Over time, in fact, Wikipedia entries have tended toward maximalism. To demonstrate the point, let’s return to Ted Danson because, well, why wouldn’t you be curious about Ted Danson? Here are the first 25 words of Danson’s Wikipedia biography as of this writing:

Edward Bridge “Ted” Danson III (born December 29, 1947) is an American actor, author, and producer, well known for his role as lead character Sam

What have we learned?

  1. Danson’s middle name is Bridge and he is a son of a Jr.—uh, I guess that’s some OK trivia
  2. His birthday is two days before New Year’s Eve—quickly, subtract his birthday from the current year!
  3. He is an author and a producer—although if I asked ten friends to describe Danson for me, not one would ever choose to include “author” or “producer”

And we haven’t even got to Cheers yet! (Since you’re slightly forgetful and obviously wondering, the name of Danson’s follow-up series was Becker.) Clearly, the goal here is not to impart information quickly. Thoroughness makes sense on the desktop, and does just fine on most mobile devices (the official Wikipedia mobile apps are quite nice, certainly to read on), but it makes no sense on the wrist.

This sounds to me like an amazing opportunity for the Wikipedia community. One problem in recent years has been the simple fact that most articles which should exist already do (4.83 million and slowing!). The software design and social dynamics of wikis are ideal for rapid collaboration and creation of articles, but maintenance, including updates, rewrites, and debates over specific content is much more frustrating and less obviously rewarding. No wonder editors are drifting away.

Apple Watch by Yasunobu IkedaBecause the wearable platform, to the extent that it has a significant future—and to be fair with you I don’t know for certain that it does, but yes, I am bullish—represents a different mode of information consumption, well, a whole new 4.83 million entries will need to be written. Instead of aiming for scientific exactitude, they’ll need to be informative and concise: topic summarized in 25 words, including as few sentences as possible for more context. Of course, a watch app would need to be created. (And the Wikimedia Foundation would probably develop first for Android Wear, but iOS and Watchkit wouldn’t be far behind.)

It might bring back former contributors, who had left after opportunities to create new things dried up. Better still, it might provide an easy point of access for new, younger contributors, who have never had the point of entry as those who started editing in the project’s early years. At last year’s Wikimania, game designer Raph Koster suggested (only half-joking) an occasional “forest fire” of content deletion, in order to create new tasks for restless editors. For those of us who attended, the appeal was obvious but the reasons it would never happen were even more so. But instead of clearing new land, we might instead have discovered an extensive new archipelago.

So, here’s my suggestion for Edward Bridge Danson III:

Ted Danson (age 67) is an American actor best known for his lead role as bartender Sam Malone for 11 seasons of TV sitcom Cheers.

Note, that’s 25 words exactly.

Danson currently stars on TV procedural CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and before that led the sitcom Becker for six seasons.

Other appearances include the film Three Men and a Baby, TV series Damages, and on Curb Your Enthusiasm (as himself).

Danson is married to actress Mary Steenburgen. In the 1990s, he was famously involved with comedian Whoopi Goldberg.

Note, each of those paragraphs is 20 words or fewer. Now, you may disagree with some detail selection. I haven’t told you he was born in San Diego, or about his early TV appearances, or about Three Men and a Little Lady, but that’s really not necessary and, besides, I think you’ve got a pretty good idea who Ted Danson is. Would you like to know more? Follow a link back to the full version on your phone.

Ted-Danson-Navigtation-PopupHow would this actually be implemented? I’ll be honest, someone more technically inclined than myself would have to figure this out. But it would minimally require the creation of a new parameter or sub-page associated with every public-facing article. A second step would be creating a user-friendly interface; perhaps a project page on Wikipedia that provides links to random articles needing the creation of short entries. It might be something to integrate with Wikidata, but I wouldn’t be the first to confess my ineptitude with Wikidata.

Does WMF’s engineering team have the wherewithal to make this happen? Good question! And one I cannot answer. However, with a staff including seven people on the mobile app team, plus eight more focused on desktop and mobile web experience, I’m going out on a limb and saying a new article sub-page, editor-facing project page, and watch app could be added to the workflow. (What’s that about Flow? Nothing… nothing…)

Isn’t this what navigation pop-ups and hovercards do? No, not really. The pop-ups are nice enough but are pre-populated from the intro to each entry itself. Perhaps the hovercards and pop-ups should actually display text from the wearable version instead, but perhaps not. They also are not enabled automatically, so most of you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

Isn’t this what Simple Wikipedia does? Sort of, but not quite. Simple Wikipedia indeed provides shorter versions of Wikipedia entries. Its target audience is supposed to be children and ESL students, although I suspect its primary use is Wikipedians amusing themselves. Twelve years into its existence, it only has about 113,000 entries. One of them in fact is Ted Danson, but his biography there was only visited about 70 times in April 2015, whereas his biography on the main English Wikipedia was accessed almost 35,000 times. Also, about that entry:

Screenshot 2015-05-18 11.03.45

Et tu, Simple Wikipedia?

Imagine: a project to write Wikipedia short! And to write part of Wikipedia that hasn’t been done yet! It wouldn’t require too much back end work, it would have Wikipedia boldly making a small bet on the big potential for a new platform, and it might even create a “new gold rush” of content creation across Wikipedia, both in English and its many foreign language projects.

And so I turn the question to the Wikipedians in my audience: what’s the next step?

Photo illustration by The Wikipedian; Apple Watch image by Justin14; Ted Danson photo by Rob Dicaterino; Apple Watch by Yasunobu Ikeda; Wikipedia images via Wikimedia Foundation and ⌘-⇧-4.

Some Thoughts on Gamergategate

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on February 26, 2015 at 11:31 am by William Beutler

It’s still early in 2015, yet Wikipedia’s volunteer community has already experienced one of its most traumatic events in recent memory. Not the most, mind you. Wikipedia is a fundamentally volatile place, as one might reasonably expect from a self-directed movement whose stated mission is to sort through all of the world’s knowledge and present it for universal consumption.

In recent months, however, Wikipedians have stared down a kind of invading army the likes it hasn’t seen in awhile—maybe ever.

Its name is Gamergate, and it too is an online movement of sorts: one that is either a roving band of anti-feminist thugs whose agitation started over a false story involving a sexual affair and a game review, or a broadly-engaged reformist coalition focused on ethically challenged video game journalists with some adherents prone to rhetorical excess. Readers will already know which side they take.[1]If you read any of the above and thought to yourself: Wait, isn’t a gamergate a reproductively viable female worker ant?, my hat’s off to you.

gamergatelogoI’ve struggled to write about this, because a proper accounting would require a blog post much longer than I am prepared to write or you are interested to read. Mid-procrastination, I was invited by Quartz to write a first-person column on another controversy, in which I couldn’t avoid including some limited thoughts on what I’ll now call “Gamergategate”[2]I will also accept “Gamergateghazi”. but here I’d like to expand on it. Although the relevant Arbitration Committee case has now been closed for several weeks, allowing some time for perspective, I am finding it still difficult to summarize adequately.[3]The best I’ve seen, as usual, can be found in The Wikipedia Signpost.

For the unitiated: late last year, Gamergate activists took their fight to Wikipedia, kicking off a massive edit war across several entries, including the all-important Gamergate controversy. The ensuing carnage involved several dozen Wikipedia stalwarts trying to prevent controversial and often unconstructive changes made by several dozen more[4]Maybe hundreds? An accurate count is likely an impossibility. Gamergate sympathizers, but also extended to personal attacks and much acrimony not strictly related to the substance of the debate.

Most of the Gamergate participants operated in guerrilla style, using just-created, easily disposed-of accounts, many of which were quickly blocked. But not all: unlike past battles between Wikipedians and antagonistic outside parties, there is some overlap between these two: Gamergate is primarily composed of video game enthusiasts, many of them technically-minded, something also true for no small number of longtime Wikipedians. If nothing else, they were a savvier opponent than, say, the #JusticeforBeyonce #BeyHive.

As if that wasn’t enough, once Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee decided to get involved, a preview of their final decision spooked some editors for appearing to level sanctions against the “good” Wikipedians trying to hold back the barbarians at the gate. One observer, described by The Verge in late January as a “former editor”, Mark Bernstein, sounded an alarm with four arrestingly titled blog posts—“Infamous”, “Careless”, “Thoughtless” and “Reckless”—picked up by a wide array of news outlets, claiming that Wikipedia was going to “ban feminist editors”, thereby delivering Gamergate to ultimate victory.

It was an irresistible story. Here’s a fairly representative headline from The Guardian: “Wikipedia votes to ban some editors from gender-related articles”. It was also wrong, or “too soon to say” at best. Bernstein’s essays were overwrought and oversold—reckless, if you will. Journalists have a difficult time enough writing about Wikipedia accurately; this certainly didn’t help. Yes, Bernstein identified some worthwhile questions about Wikipedia governance, but he also suggested it might “permanently discredit not only Wikipedia but the entire open Web”. That’s a bit much.

gamergate_wikipediaBernstein wasn’t completely out to lunch: eventually the committee did in fact come back with sanctions against “good” editors who overreacted to provocations. Several were “topic banned” meaning they are disallowed only from editing pages in this topic area; only one editor actually received a “site ban”, effectively kicking him off Wikipedia for the foreseeable future.

Well aware of the outside scrutiny, the Arbitration Committee took the unusual step of issuing a press release of sorts, explaining their decision in terms that outsiders could follow. The non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which always takes pains to stress that it has no role in policing the editorial community or the content it produces, also posted a comment to its blog. Both are recommended reading for the hyperventilating.

One really can’t understand this decision without knowing that the Arbitration Committee as organized is only charged with enforcing matters related to editor behavior, not site content. Perhaps there should be a body focused on content… but that’s an entirely different conversation. And it may well be that ArbCom members agreed with the Wikipedia editors who fought with Gamergate[5]I assume most or all do. but it did not mean they could ignore actual violations of site policy even by well-meaning editors.

On the other hand, critics have accurately pointed out that ArbCom spent little time with the matter of off-wiki coordination by Gamergate, much of which violated Wikipedia’s rules and then some. As Bernstein correctly noted, “It’s much easier to pick out isolated misjudgments culled from hundreds of thousands of words of discussion by an army of anonymous trolls”.

There’s another very good reason why they didn’t spend more time with this—and it’s a problem that no one can solve, even if ArbCom could weigh in on who was “right”.

To wit: the large majority of Gamergaters had little invested in Wikipedia outside of these topic areas, mostly using brand new accounts they did not mind having blocked when another one could be created within a matter of minutes. Longtime Wikipedians care a great deal about the project and have user accounts they have years invested in. This was asymmetrical warfare of the sort waged by stateless actors against major powers in the real world[6]I think I’m going to refrain from making specific analogies, sorry. and it worked here just as well as it has elsewhere.

AP_Chelsea_Bradley_ManningThe incident reminds me quite a bit of another traumatic episode in recent history: the battle over the article now called Chelsea Manning, previously known as Bradley Manning. To recap: after the convicted Private Manning announced her transgender status, the Wikipedia article very quickly converted over—and Wikipedia’s community was prematurely lauded in the media for doing so—only for the page to be summarily changed back, and fall into a contentious battle along a kind of right vs. left divide arguably similar to the dynamic here. Then as now, an editor making the supposedly progressive argument made waves for writing an impassioned blog post in protest; in that incident, the author was subsequently banned by ArbCom for violating a behavior policy separate from the underlying controversy. In the end, the pro-Chelsea forces prevailed, and the controversy eventually quieted down. On this issue, at least, the matter has been resolved for now.

Back to Gamergate, the story isn’t necessarily over. Have a look at the Gamergate controversy discussion page today and, while things seem to be somewhat more civil than before, you’ll see the debate continues apace. Also active[7]On this very topic, no less. as of late February? Mark Bernstein. When your mission is to sort and present all the world’s information, you always are.

Provenance of GamerGate images unknown; attribution available upon clarification. Bradley / Chelsea Manning juxtaposition by Associated Press.

Notes   [ + ]

1. If you read any of the above and thought to yourself: Wait, isn’t a gamergate a reproductively viable female worker ant?, my hat’s off to you.
2. I will also accept “Gamergateghazi”.
3. The best I’ve seen, as usual, can be found in The Wikipedia Signpost.
4. Maybe hundreds? An accurate count is likely an impossibility.
5. I assume most or all do.
6. I think I’m going to refrain from making specific analogies, sorry.
7. On this very topic, no less.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2014

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on January 5, 2015 at 1:54 pm by William Beutler

Every twelve months the Gregorian calendar resets itself, and I pull together a roundup of the most important events, happenings and newsworthy items that marked the previous year on Wikipedia. I’ve done this each year since 2010 and, the last two times, I went so long that I split the post into two. This time, I tried to keep it short. In the end, I just kept it to one post. Which I guess counts as short for The Wikipedian. So let’s get started!

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10. The Ballad of Wil Sinclair

Look, I don’t like it any more than you do that we’re beginning here, but we can’t pretend this didn’t happen. What happened? Soon after the Wikimedia Foundation picked its new executive director, Lila Tretikov, and before she actually took over from Sue Gardner, Tretikov’s spouse showed up on the foundation’s email list, and in other forums, and made his presence known. Wil came across as a decent fellow at first, then a bit obsessive, and then he made common cause with critics of the Wikimedia project at Wikipediocracy, and it threatened to overwhelm Tretikov’s tenure before it really got underway. By the summer, however, Wil Sinclair largely withdrew from online commentary about Wikipedia, and the controversy appears to have died with it.

9. Oh yeah, that Belfer Center thing…

320px-Belfer_CenterOne of Wikipedia’s eternal themes involves conflict of interest. As a public good, Wikipedia has significant potential to affect private fortunes, for good or ill, and this is not the last time you’ll hear about it in this list. One of the more unusual (and alarming) manifestations of the conundrum involved the Wikimedia Foundation working with the Stanton Foundation and Belfer Center at Harvard University to create a paid position, funded by mega-donor Stanton, coordinated by WMF, which had the effect of boosting the professional reputation of Belfer’s president. Oh, did you know the principals at Stanton and Belfer are husband and wife? Yeah, that kind of changes things. Blame seemed to follow Gardner out the door, but Wikipedia’s difficulty in forming partnerships with other non-profits continues.

8. Wikipedia gets a facelift

Nearly four years after Wikipedia updated its default look from the Monobook skin[1]Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me? to the current Vector, the site got another new look, albeit a more subtle one. Specifically, article titles and headings within pages were updated from a sans-serif typeface to a serif typeface. Goodbye Helvetica, hello Georgia! (At least in the headings.) You can never really underestimate Wikipedians’ resistance to change, and so a debate naturally ensued. Following the usual expected gripes, holdouts presumably switched their personal preferences to the old style, and the new look has become the accepted standard.

7. Jimbo’s UAE prize money

This is the most recent item on the list; in fact, I wrote about it just last week. In short, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, accepted a $500,000 cash prize from the government of the UAE, which has a dismal human rights record. Wales received criticism from members of the Wikipedia community and questions from at least one news outlet. Wales then announced he was going to give the money to charity, or maybe start a foundation, and claimed this was his plan all along, denying what seemed to everyone else like a simple matter of cause-and-effect. Even if Wales does start a new organization, there’s not much evidence to suggest it will go anywhere.

6. Wikipedia’s education program grows up

Wiki_Education_Foundation_logoIf there’s a happier balance to the unfortunate Belfer situation, let’s say it’s the maturation of the Wiki Education Foundation. Beginning as an in-house program in 2010, the organization spun off on its own in February 2014 under the leadership of WMF veteran Frank Schulenburg. In my 2010 list, “Wikipedia in education” was the fourth item, remarking that the two communities appeared to be at a turning point: back then, teachers’ attitude toward Wikipedia had until then been one of fear and loathing, but nowadays more and more universities are offering course credit for improving Wikipedia articles. While the WEF and its predecessor program can’t take all of the credit—and sure, student plagiarism is still an issue—it does go to show that the Wikipedia community can solve at least some of its problems, and well-considered partnerships can play an important role.

5. Who doesn’t love some CongressEdits?

It’s almost hard to believe it took until summer 2014 for someone to realize you could attach an RSS feed of changes to Wikipedia articles coming from IP addresses belonging to the U.S. Congress to a Twitter account, thereby publishing an obscure list in a very public way, but that’s exactly what happened. Actually, the UK-focused @ParliamentEdits account was first, and accounts focused on other countries’ legislatures soon followed, but @CongressEdits made the biggest splash. In each case, journalists latched on to amusing nonsense and legitimately concerning changes both, and the U.S. Congressional IP was blocked for a time. It wasn’t the first time this has happened; it wasn’t even a new revelation that congressional staffers edit Wikipedia for ill (and good!) but this was too much fun to ignore.

4. Can PR and Wikipedia just get along?

Full disclosure: I have a huge conflict of interest with this topic; as readers of this site are surely aware, this was a big project for me last year. Last February, I brought together an ad hoc group of digital PR executives, Wikipedia veterans, and interested academics (some folks fell into more than one category) for an all-day roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, to talk about the differences and commonalities between the Wikipedia community and communications industry. Out of that emerged a multi-agency statement spelling out a set of principles that participating firms would adopt, a sort of open letter to Wikipedia stating their intention to follow its rules and help their colleagues and clients do the same. We started with about 10 agencies signed, and the list more than tripled by late summer. It was a good start—but a significantly better situation is still a long way off.

3. New (and improved?) Terms of Use

240px-Wikimedia_Foundation_RGB_logo_with_textRelated to number 4, but developing separately, was the Wikimedia Foundation’s announcement—mere days after the multi-agency statement was published—that the non-profit was amending its Terms of Use for the first time since anyone could remember (give or take) in order to require anyone paid for their contributions to disclose their affiliations. The decision grew out of legal uncertainties revealed by the Wiki-PR controversy (covered in this list last year) and was not unanticipated. Like all other seemingly minor changes, it was challenged by community veterans who believed it would have negative consequences for non-marketers compensated for involvement in Wikipedia, among other complaints. But if that’s happened, it hasn’t been visible. Chilling effects are not to be discounted, but there’s no evidence yet that any worst case scenarios have come to pass. Instead, it merely codified best practices that have been around for years: it used to be, if you have a conflict of interest, you were best advised to disclose it. Now you must.

2. The Media Viewer controversy

It seems like every year now I have to reserve a prominent spot for a major argument between the Wikipedia community and the San Francisco-based software-development and outreach-focused non-profit created to support it (the WMF). Last year, my top story focused on the divisive internal battles over the Visual Editor—a big change that did not remain the default for long. The year before, it was a somewhat different argument over whether to take a stand on SOPA / PIPA legislation. This summer, the Visual Editor argument essentially repeated itself. This time the debate centered on the Media Viewer and whether it should be default for logged-in and non-logged-in users—that is, whether readers who clicked on an image should see it come up on a page with metadata readily visible, as it always had been, or whether they should see it in a lightbox, and if site editors and mere readers should see the same thing. No sense getting into the details, because I lack the six hours necessary to produce a worthwhile summary. However, let’s observe that consensus in July seemed to be that it should be turned off by default. But I just checked, and indeed it’s the default, logged-in or not. In other words: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

1. Lila Tretikov and Wikipedia’s uncertain future

It seems like you can’t so much as create a piped wikilink disambiguation redirect these days without running into another media think piece about the state of Wikipedia. MIT Technology Review was ahead of the curve with an October 2013 story on the “decline of Wikipeda”. In March, The Economist jumped in with the tortured coinage “WikiPeaks” (although they quoted me, so I nonetheless approve). Slate has gone in for this kind of coverage at least twice, first in June with a contribution by longtime Wikipedian Dariusz Jemielniak, and then from staff writer David Auerbach in December. In late 2014, former Reason editor Virginia Postrel turned it into a whodunnit: “Who Killed Wikipedia?

Lila_Tretikov_16_April_2014Am I missing any? Probably, but they mostly tell the same story: Wikipedia is too bureaucratic; its editors are rude to each other and more so to outsiders; that might have something to do with the fact that it’s pretty much all white guys; old editors are choosing to quit; new editors aren’t replacing them fast enough; the community and the foundation are at each others’ throats; Wikipedia has too much money and too little direction. Without further ado, let me say, welcome to your first year as Wikimedia Executive Director, Lila Tretikov!

Pretty much all of the questions that I asked upon Sue Gardner’s announced departure nearly two years ago are still in play, only more so. I summed up a lot of this in a post from November 2013, “Wikipedia on the Brink?” If there’s any good news, it’s that Wikipedia is still, well, on the brink. It hasn’t fallen off a cliff, certainly. In some ways it’s more successful than ever. But ask a longtime veteran of either the volunteer community or its San Francisco non-profit how things are going—catch them on their way out the door, if necessary—and you’ll find any number of concerns, including some I either haven’t heard or am simply forgetting.

It’s not entirely up to Lila Tretikov what Wikipedia’s future will be, however she has more power than anyone—including even Uncle Jimbo—to steer a new direction. Will the foundation keep making grants and developing software that its community doesn’t seem to like? Will she keep trying to grow the community as it currently exists, or seek to expand it in unexpected ways? Wikipedia is no longer a hot new (not-for-profit) startup, but a maturing organization stuck in comfortable old ways that may be holding it back. Here’s hoping some answers to these questions will start to emerge in 2015.

♦     ♦     ♦

Previous years’ top ten Wikipedia stories can be found here:

♦     ♦     ♦

Belfer Center image by Bostonian13; Wiki Education Foundation logo and Wikimedia Foundation logo courtesy the respective organization; Lila Tretikov photo by Lane Hartwell; all images via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me?

Jimmy Wales and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Prize Money

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on December 26, 2014 at 4:18 pm by William Beutler

“Jimmy Wales is Not an Internet Billionaire”

So went the tongue-in-cheek headline from a New York Times Magazine cover story about Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales in 2013—ill-treatment this blog mostly defended him from at the time. The profile included a (likely decontextualized) quote from then-Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner: “Everyone makes fun of Jimmy for leaving the money on the table.”

Eighteen months later, one has to think Wales would prefer the sort of light-hearted mockery received at the time to the kinds of questions being asked, albeit not too loudly at this point in time, about his current financial situation.

Jimmy Wales, 2013We pick up the story with this month’s comparatively under-reported news that Jimbo would split, with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a $1 million cash prize from the United Arab Emirates, pegged to a technology award named for the country’s monarch. One only has to skim the Wikipedia article “Human rights in the United Arab Emirates” to get an idea why some people, especially the idealistic sort who make up Wikipedia’s volunteer base, would find this so alarming.

On Jimmy Wales’ user page, the now-archived discussion ran to some 8,600 words, and the way it began—under the heading “Congratulations”, followed by cheery exhortations—differed greatly from how it ended—a contentious argument leading to the resurrection of old charges about Wales’ supposed ties to the government of Kazakhstan, which was eventually “closed” to further participation and “hatted”, i.e. hidden from view by default.

Soon after the well-wishes began piling up, the conversation abruptly shifted. An anonymous contributor claiming to be a student at the American University of Sharjah (with an IP address to match) chastised Wales for squandering an opportunity

to speak out for all Emiratis, and also those non-nationals who are forced into slave labour and have no rights. I am at risk by posting this very message. This is not how it should be Mr Wales. Instead, it appears you were bought for $500,000. You sold us out Mr Wales.

On December 11, below but not directly in reply, Wales wrote:

Every penny of the money will be used to combat human rights abuses worldwide with a specific focus on the Middle East and with a specific focus on freedom of speech / access to knowledge issues. Of course.

The first thing that I did upon returning to London was hire a human rights lawyer full-time to work for me for the next month on these issues. That may turn into a longer term thing, or it may not. As I say, I’m only at the beginning of figuring out the optimal strategic approach.

The mini-controversy was reported in The Daily Dot, a news publication focusing on the social Internet:

Wales made his intentions for the prize money public after pressure from Wikipedians who expressed dismay … In an email to the Daily Dot, Wales specifies that he never planned to keep the money and will use the funds to start his own foundation dedicated to furthering human rights.

But Wales objected to this description of events. Back on his own discussion page, Wales wrote on December 17:

I’ve written to [The Daily Dot] to correct the core error in the story – the false claim that this was done in response to pressure from Wikipedians. I started the process from the moment I was told about the prize, including hiring someone full-time to work on the question of how to best accomplish my goals.

As of this writing, the story has not been “corrected”, and there’s no reason to think one is warranted. If in fact there is no causal relationship, and Wales wants to be believed, he should produce some kind of evidence to substantiate his charges. With or without that, The Daily Dot’s story—that Wales announced his intentions after community pressure—would still have correlation going for it. After all, Wales’ first reply on his own discussion page was:

Thank you all. It’s pretty amazing. It’s actually split with Sir Tim Berners-Lee so not $1 million to me but still it’s impressive.

Does that sound like somebody who has hired a lawyer to help him start non-profit focused on human rights, or somebody contemplating the enjoyment of a sudden and unexpected windfall?

Of course.

Besides Burj Khalifathe Kazakhstan situation, which has always struck me like a misstep on the part of the Wikimedia Foundation and Wales both—seemingly a partnership entered into without a clear understanding of the situation—a few patterns are visible here.

Most superficially, Wales and The Daily Dot have a bit of history. While Wikipediocracy and The Register[1]Which at least thought to ask Sir Tim Berners-Lee how he planned to use the money, so give them credit for that. have self-identified themselves as Wikipedia critics and can therefore be dismissed more easily, The Daily Dot’s Wikipedia coverage has always struck me as skeptical and responsible, as a good news outlet should be.

That history involves The Daily Dot reporting, ironically, that Wales had not paid out prize money he had pledged to winners of his own “Wikipedian of the Year” award in years before. Based on my reading, it sounds like Wales, realizing he was called out, promised to correct the oversight without admitting he was doing so, choosing instead to insult the reporter as “not a real journalist”.[2]One of the award-winners was a Kazakh national, so the plot thickens, or maybe just congeals.

Similar to the above, I still remember at Wikimania 2013 in Hong Kong where, as I wrote in the days after:

    Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see.

Indeed, we’ve seen that Jimmy Wales has a way of letting things drop, and also his habit of handling criticism poorly. To be fair, I expect Jimmy Wales sees a ton of criticism almost every time he logs in to his Wikipedia account. Sometimes it’s justified, but plenty of it is nonsense. Putting up with irate Wikipedians for more than a decade must result in some kind of negative psychological build-up. On the other hand, it’s not a particularly good look for someone who is the public face of a globally-important non-profit.

While that hybrid journalism project never came to fruition, if I’m being honest, I doubt anyone really thought it would. Anyone who didn’t attend that Wikimania probably has no idea what I’m talking about. But hey, how about this human rights organization he’s talking about? No doubt, Wales has left himself an escape hatch, as he says the “full-time” (!) lawyer “may turn into a longer term thing, or it may not.” But if he is going to escape through it, let’s make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed.

And this non-profit, it has a chance, maybe? We don’t know what it would focus on, how it would go about doing so, or whether it could possibly be effective. But we can say this much: it has a famous spokesman, and it has a budget.

Jimmy Wales photo by Niccolò Caranti; Burj Khalifa photo by Nicolas Lannuzel; both via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Which at least thought to ask Sir Tim Berners-Lee how he planned to use the money, so give them credit for that.
2. One of the award-winners was a Kazakh national, so the plot thickens, or maybe just congeals.

History in the Making: The Tumblr That Explains Where Wikipedia Articles Come From

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on December 10, 2014 at 8:15 am by William Beutler

Journalism is the first rough draft of history, as the shopworn phrase goes, and it’s a clever one, but it’s never seemed quite right to me. Daily journalism is the reportage of events which may or may not be deemed worthy of reflection and remembrance; it’s in the subequent commentaries and essays—and even supposedly neutral online encyclopedias—where “History” begins to come together.

So I’m with John Overholt, a curator at Harvard’s Houghton Library, who launched a “concept Tumblr”[1]I’m coining that, by the way as a personal project, earlier this fall, devoted to the first version of Wikipedia entries: First Drafts of History. The idea is dead simple and all but infinitely replicable: for every subject Wikipedia covers, there was once a first version of this entry—and it’s just three clicks away from any Wikipedia article, so long as you know which three[2]“View history” > “Oldest” > First time-stamped entry.

That’s where Overholt began, as he told me last month: “I was suddenly struck by how interesting and unusual it is that Wikipedia’s entire (or mostly so) history is easily available and that you can peel back the layers of each article to its genesis. As someone with a keen interest in history, that’s very appealing to me, and I was curious to know what the articles were like in those early stages.”

Radiohead on WikipediaFunny enough, this is close to an idea that I once started to explore, in a post on this very site. Way back in May of 2009 I copied the text over from the first version of the entry about the rock band Radiohead and used it to muse about how Wikipedia’s standards have changed. I announced it as the first in a series, but I never did it again. Ideas are cheap, execution is what matters, and Overholt is executing it like crazy. Every day he posts screen shots with links to the the article and first version every single day, often matching entries to the calendar (Black Friday (shopping) on November 28) or focusing on pop culture goofery (Metal umlaut).

And looking back at the origins of entries reveals something about where Wikipedia came from. The second paragraph of the first Merlot article describes the varietal in three succinct sentences before concluding: “Merlot is also the name of an XML Editor….:-).”

Very, very early early articles, such as the first draft about Venezuela, are just one sentence. Others are written in in shorthand, omitting direct references to subject in a long-abandoned style, i.e. Putin: “Born October 7, 1952… KGB officer from 1975 to 1992…” and so forth.

iPhone on WikipediaIt also offers glimpses into recent-but-forever-ago history, when Facebook was Thefacebook.com, and the iPhone was just a nickname for an Apple partnership with Motorola (later redirected to Motorola ROKR, at least for a time), then rendered “IPhone” due to limitations of the software. This first concludes: “Note of author : please rewritting my article in a correct english. thank you”

I asked Overholt what his take on all of this was, and I’ll do no better than by quoting him at length:

Obviously it’s funny when articles have a really eccentric start, or a tone that’s very different from the standard style of Wikipedia today, but the thing I’m really struck by is how ambitious and difficult a task it is to think about, in essence, organizing all knowledge. It’s a problem that historians and philosophers have grappled with for centuries. I was tickled by the Pastrami article I posted the other day, which had the edit summary “What can one say about pastrami?” What indeed! But the important thing is thinking to say anything about pastrami at all. The genius of Wikipedia is that it didn’t really stop to solve the overarching problem of how to organize all knowledge first (because it’s all but unsolvable) but rather decided, “Well, we’ll just start with something, and hopefully make that something better little by little.” So even if the first draft of an article is terrible, it’s already done the very hardest thing just by existing.

What else I think is important about it Pastrami on Wikipediais that it might help to demystify the Wikipedia process, even if just a bit. Many readers have no idea how articles or written, and few probably ever think about what they once looked like, or what the best version may be.

An example I’ve considered with friends: do you prefer the version of the Wikipedia article Dog from 2014 or the article Dog from 2004? I’ll still take today’s entry for a number of reasons, but a decade ago it was arguably more accessible, and about one-quarter the size.

It makes you wonder: what should a Wikipedia article be? What’s the ideal Wikipedia article? The answer to that has changed over time, and probably will keep changing so long as it’s an active project. Reminding readers that Wikipedia once was very different is a good way to remind them that it can still be better.

All images ultimately via Wikipedia.org; first and third courtesy of Overholt.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I’m coining that, by the way
2. “View history” > “Oldest” > First time-stamped entry

Announcing “Wikipedia in 60 Seconds”

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on November 11, 2014 at 4:25 pm by William Beutler

After more than five years (!) of writing this blog, I am pleased to announce that I’ll be launching a new Wikipedia-related publication tomorrow. Don’t worry, The Wikipedian isn’t going anywhere! I’ll keep updating it as often (or not so often) as I always have. But it’s time to try something new—something a little closer to The Wikipedian’s intended mission than this site has evolved to become.
Wikipedia in 60 Seconds (logo)
The original idea, as I explained in my first blog post, was to explain Wikipedia to outsiders from the position of someone who was sort of an insider. At this point, I am more of an insider than I’ve ever been, and so the content of this blog tends to focus on various news, events and controversies mostly interesting to Wikipedia regulars but which I suspect might appeal to general readers.

But I think it’s time to return to the insight which inspired me first: for as much as people depend on Wikipedia, its inner-workings are inscrutable to most. One reason is because the rule set is not easy to understand. It takes time, and is best learned one small piece at a time. I didn’t become an expert on Wikipedia overnight, and no one can.

My solution is a brand new newsletter called “Wikipedia in 60 Seconds”—every Wednesday from now until probably forever, I will send out an email explaining just one policy or guideline from Wikipedia, or a concept related to the rules. Because I’m doing this as a project of Beutler Ink, the digital content agency I lead, you’ll have to sign up over there. The first one will be going out around lunchtime tomorrow, and I hope you’ll join us!

Making the Sausage: Dariusz Jemielniak on How to Think About Edit Wars

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on October 10, 2014 at 9:53 am by William Beutler

Only a handful of serious books about Wikipedia exist; one of the first, and arguably the only essential one, is Andrew Lih’s “The Wikipedia Revolution”—though it was published in 2009 and could surely use an update. Another one I liked is Andrew Dalby’s “The World and Wikipedia”, published the same year. To this short list, and far more current, let’s add Dariusz Jemielniak’s “Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia” published in May of this year.

Like the above authors, Jemielniak is well-positioned to write on this subject, being an academic and a longtime Wikipedia contributor (especially to the Polish language edition). I have to acknowledge that work and travel has conspired to keep me from reviewing this book for some months after Mr. Jemielniak’s publicist kindly sent me a copy for review, and that I am writing this post without having read it cover to cover. (But really, does anyone? How did Michiko Kakutani review Bill Clinton’s 1,000-page memoir in 24 hours? The same way I’m doing with this one!)

"Common Knowledge" by Dariusz JemielniakThat said, I chose one chapter that seemed especially interesting and relevant to me, chapter three’s “Conflict on Wikipedia: Why Die for Danzig?” Wikipedia veterans will instantly recognize this is going to be, in part, a retelling of the infamous Gdansk–Danzig edit war, considered the longest content dispute in Wikipedia’s history. It’s territory that Lih covered as well in his book, although he dispenses with most of the details in a handful of pages—Jemielniak gives it nearly 20.

It’s debatable how many readers want that, but I think I speak for many longtime Wikipedians in saying that it’s a story worth telling in a bit more depth. Here it is well told, and used to illustrate how Wikipedia resolves issues that lie beyond the letter of policy: painfully, in isolation from other topics, often at great length, and not always definitively.

To me it’s especially relevant, having recently written about the (as yet ongoing) fight over whether it should be noted on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Wikipedia article that he used anecdotes that proved to be, at best, misinterpreted. Or in a case that I only tweeted about, where I personally got involved in a debate over the alleged non-neutrality of the barely stub-length Apple Watch article. In either case, it can be a frustrating experience, to play a part in this process. This may all be part of the process, and eventually Wikipedia will get it right, but I can attest it is also absolutely no fun to be one of the gear-cogs grinding out the sausage.

Jemielniak doesn’t avoid the emotional side of this process entirely: the Prologue is about a wrenching debate he held with other editors, one which turned personal, and in which Jemielniak found himself writing more passionately and carelessly than even he would have liked. This is not a rare occurrence on Wikipedia.

In this chapter he eschews any personal view of the issues, taking the disinterested, academic view that one might expect, and creates a table called “Typology of conflict trajectories” that reads like a kind of a mirror-image Prisoner’s dilemma, accounting for whether disputants are confrontational or not, and whether or not they have an equal commitment to the rules. It’s a useful way to think about how these disagreements reach conclusion (or don’t) even if it’s difficult to see theory in practice. (Not his fault: you try parsing 50,000 words of argument over a single topic.)

If this reads as a criticism, it shouldn’t really. I would rather more Wikipedians took an observational, Sherlock-pipe-thoughtfully-in-hand approach to the “dirty work” (as one combatant recently described the process to me) of writing and debating Wikipedia content. Of course, as Jemielniak allows, even he found that very difficult. So long as humans are the principal actor in debates over Wikipedia, the emotional factor is going to play a significant role.

Jemielniak’s view, if I am not misrepresenting it, is that these processes generally work over time. My own view has grown somewhat more skeptical, and I find suitable outcomes to be increasingly topic-dependent—although I acknowledge that this is based on highly personal, anecdotal evidence. Because seriously, I am going to rewrite that Apple Watch “Reception” section just as soon as I find a free moment.

Briefly, the rest of the book focuses on Wikipedia (and Wikimedia) governance in theory and practice, some of which I’ve done a Kakutani “skip and skim” and seemed on point, on this pointillist basis. To the casual reader, I would probably still recommend Andrew Lih’s book, simply for being a more accessible entry point, albeit with a huge caveat that it is best read as history, not a current depiction of the Wikipedia community.

For those seriously interested in how Wikipedia works (or maybe doesn’t) and for anyone who wants an up-to-date view of the community, however, I’d certainly recommend it. In fact, I’ll recommend that I keep it on my own end table, and browse further when work and travel are next paused.

The Federalist Pages: What Neil deGrasse Tyson and Conservative Bloggers Tell Us About Wikipedia and US Politics

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on September 30, 2014 at 11:33 am by William Beutler

You might be surprised to learn that Wikipedia has a formal policy called “Wikipedia is not a battleground”. Not that anyone seems to have got the memo: although Wikipedia’s rules kindly suggest that its editors not use articles to advance ideological or partisan interests, in practice there’s no reason to think that it can work like that. And should we really want it to be otherwise?

This brings us to the latest partisan battle to make its way from the political blogosphere (if we still call it that?) to the pages of Wikipedia: Tyson-gate (or: Tyson-ghazi?). Earlier this month, a new-ish right-of-center web magazine called The Federalist (whose contributors, I should say, include several friends) started publishing a series of articles pointing out inaccuracies—or possibly fabrications—by the celebrated scientist, media personality and Colbert Report regular Neil deGrasse Tyson.

640px-Bill_Nye,_Barack_Obama_and_Neil_deGrasse_Tyson_selfie_2014Federalist co-founder Sean Davis made a pretty strong case that a quote Tyson attributed to former President George W. Bush did not in fact exist; Tyson eventually acknowledged the error, though it wasn’t quickly forthcoming. While subsequent events have made it clear that Davis had the goods on Tyson, his rhetorical style leaves much to be desired: Davis insists on words like “fabricated” implying an insight into the nature of Tyson’s error that he really can’t know. Davis isn’t alone in this; on the left, Media Matters routinely uses the unforgiving phrase “falsely claims” to describe conservative opinions all the time. This puts me in mind of another Wikipedia policy inconsistently observed: “Comment on content, not the contributor” Remember this point, because I’m going to come back to it.

Anyway, of course the battle made its way to the front lines of the war of ideas, Wikipedia. What happened over the last week was simple enough: one person added a lengthy summary of Davis’ allegations to Tyson’s Wikipedia bio; someone else reverted it very quickly, claiming that it went too far; another editor tried a shorter version; yet another editor removed it again for being “original research”; around and around it went like this from September 16 to 21. When I started compiling links on Tuesday the 29th, a fairly short, but also short-on-context version of this passage read:

Tyson has claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[59] Tom Jackson of the Tampa Tribune called it “… a vicious, gratuitous slander.”[60]

But then a longer version which appeared later in the day seemed like too much:

Tyson had claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[58] Neil Tyson has confirmed that he was actually referring to President Bush’s February 2003 speech on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and that he “transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote.” [59] In that speech then-President George W. Bush quotes Isaiah when he said “He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name.”[60] Then George W. Bush said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.” [61]

As of this writing, all mention of the controversy has been removed, and the article has been temporarily locked to prevent further edit warring. Meanwhile, the debate on the Neil deGrasse Tyson discussion page has run to some 50,000 (!) words since mid-September, comprising at least one Request for Comment where the only real conclusion so far is: “This has become unproductive.”

Meanwhile, someone put The Federalist’s own Wikipedia article up for deletion, possibly out of spite, but also possibly because it seemed like a borderline eligibility case based on included sources at the time. Nevertheless, it seems likely that a very short version of the article will be kept once the arguing here is through. (And as more than one contributor has noted, the more attention this gets in the political media, the more “Notable” The Federalist likely becomes.)

Throughout this debate, Davis and The Federalist haven’t been doing themselves any favors. Sean Davis of course is as much reporting on his own fight with Tyson as he is reporting on Tyson, including multiple articles about the debate on Wikipedia.
This included an initial summary on September 18 that continued blithely pushing the “fabrication” claim and proudly quoted an unnamed Wikipedian saying “no version of this event will be allowed into the article” as if this unnamed editor spoke for all of Wikipedia. Worse still was a follow-up by Davis called “9 Absurd Edit Justifications By Wikipedia’s Neil Tyson Truthers” that pointed to fairly standard considerations for inclusion or exclusion of controversial material as if it was patent nonsense. For instance, these two comments:

It doesn’t matter if we can demonstrate it happened or not, many things happen in many people lives, we don’t write each of them into every persons biography. …

[T]his is being kept off because Wikipedia is deeply conservative in the non-political meaning of the word.

Davis may not like these answers, but they are anything but unreasonable points to make in a content dispute, especially about a living person whose reputation is (to some degree) at stake. Indeed, the same policy that points out Wikipedia is not a battleground also points out: “[N]ot all verifiable events are suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia.”

The problem is not that Davis is wrong; in fact, some of the objections to the topic’s inclusion were possibly mistaken, arrived at prematurely, or later invalidated by the emergence of new sources. The problem is not even that Davis is treating Wikipedia as a battleground—after all, Wikipedia is where we go to argue about such things. If Wikipedia is to be the “sum of human knowledge”, that very much includes contentious material related to political and ideological battles.

The problem is actually one of good faith—and here we come to a policy that is also frequently ignored on Wikipedia, but would it be followed better, we could have all been saved a few weeks and tens of thousands of words: “Assume good faith”. And as problems go, it is one that exists on both sides, although it tends to be the case that one side usually goes further—which either produces a decisive political victory or defeat. Davis has this territory pretty well staked out with this column that doesn’t accomplish anything but to “falsely claim” Wikipedia is a single entity entirely comprising lying liars of the left.

The political blogosphere was a source of fascination for me in the early part of my career, in particular writing about it in a sadly departed column called The Blogometer for National Journal’s Hotline. Starting in the late 2000s, I turned my focus more to Wikipedia, in particular writing about it on this blog. There are numerous parallels, but the least savory is the tendency of both to bog down in bitter recrimination. Witness also the fight over the Chelsea Manning Wikipedia entry from late last year.

Part of me thinks that Wikipedia shouldn’t worry about these fights, only about whether or not they continue to occur at Wikipedia; even an ugly debate is better than none at all, right? But considering the voluminous anecdotal evidence that Wikipedia’s eroding editor base and absurd gender gap owe something to its tolerance for incivility—despite the existence of a policy stating otherwise and a speech by Jimmy Wales at Wikimania this year calling for a renewed emphasis upon it—this is something the Wikipedia community had better take seriously.

Of course, this doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Sean Davis, The Federalist, left-leaning Wikipedia editors, and even Neil deGrasse Tyson with his bullshit political anecdotes (I am using Harry Frankfurt’s precise definition) aren’t quite the problem; they are merely avatars of it. Everything that’s wrong with US politics—where to start!—eventually finds its way to Wikipedia.

But there remains one important difference between the blogosphere and Wikipedia: rules. The blogosphere does not have them; Wikipedia does, and these rules shape the debate that occurs on its talk pages. Without these rules, it would just be endless edit wars of attrition. The problem with Wikipedia, then, is not its rules but how it enforces them. Wikipedia’s community should be asking itself: what kind of battleground do we want to be?

Photo via the White House / Flickr.

Did Ye Ken Aboot the Scots Wikipaedia?

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on September 18, 2014 at 9:40 am by William Beutler

Scots Wikipedia

Today, residents of Scotland will decide whether their country will remain part of the United Kingdom or head out on its own, after 300 years of British rule. The Wikipedian has no particular opinion on the matter, except a slight bias toward curiosity, so if it does go through, at the very least I will be fascinated. According to the oddsmakers, though, it sounds like “No” might have the edge.

If it does happen, Wikipedia gets to claim that it was on the bandwagon of Scottish exceptionalism well before the vote: since 2005 a separate Scots language edition of Wikipedia has existed. But is Scots really a separate language? Slate’s Jane C. Hu examined the question in a short piece earlier this summer:

Depending on who you ask, Scots is a language, a dialect of English, or slang. It’s a part of the Germanic language family, which also includes modern German, Dutch, and English. Both modern English and Scots descended from Old English in the 1100s, and developed separately for hundreds of years.

Whether these different versions are considered distinct languages is largely political. Sociolinguist Max Weinreich is credited with popularizing a quote illustrating the blurry line between the two: “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

At least one half-hearted attempt has been made to move for its closure—which more or less happened to the Klingon Wikipedia (!)—but as a movement, Wikipedia is inclusionist at heart. So long as the Scots Wikipedia is taken seriously by someone, the larger Wikipedia community will honor that (though often not without argument).

Still, I’m not especially clear on what is considered acceptable spelling—and the indisputably-English Wikipedia is not much help. Certainly as one who has tried (more than once) to read Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, I can confirm that reading phonetic Scots is no easy task. But it also makes the Scots Wikipedia seem—I hope I am not terrible for saying this—rather comical when you read it back to yourself. Among highlights of today’s main page:

  • “Thare are several ongangin requests for comment that need yer input tae gain consensus.”
  • “The assassination attempt stairtit concern aboot gun control.”
  • “Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea an Khieu Samphan are foond guilty o crimes against humanity bi a UN-backed tribunal.”
  • “A 6.1-magnitude yirdquauk in Yunnan, Cheenae, kills at least 589 fowk an injures mair nor 2,400 ithers.”

After seeing that the “Did you know?” section of the English Wikipedia’s front page was here rendered as “Did ye ken?”, a colleague said to me this morning: “That’s brilliant.” But is that really something one says about a serious encyclopedia project? Probably not. And I’m quite sure I am not terrible for pointing out that there are usually fewer than fifty edits to the entire Scots Wikipedia on any given weekday.

There is probably something to be said here about how this cocked-eyebrow appraisal of the Scots language’s validity is synecdoche for the larger question of Scottish independence, although I think I will leave that for someone else to articulate.

Wikimania 2014: We Needed to Talk About Paid Editing, So We Did

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on August 12, 2014 at 9:23 am by William Beutler

This past weekend I attended Wikimania, the annual worldwide conference for Wikipedia and related wiki-sites, this time held in London and the third I’ve attended. And for the first time, this year, I was a speaker. The presentation was called “We Need to Talk About Paid Editing: Sorting Out Wikipedia’s Most Enduring Argument” and its subject matter is fairly self-evident: Wikipedia has struggled for years with the fact that its volunteer-first community attracts outside interests seeking (or offering) monetary recompense for changes to articles.

On the English Wikipedia, the operating consensus is that paid contributors should refrain from editing directly, and instead seek help from volunteers. The most important factor in this is the opinion of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and unofficial community leader—an unwritten rule often referred to as the “Bright Line”. Interestingly enough, this is not the case on other language editions: the French, German, and Swedish Wikipedias tend to be much more accommodating of companies and organizations that seek to change (sometimes even directly edit) the Wikipedia article about themselves.

The goal of myself and my co-presenters was to put all of this together for the first time in a public meeting of Wikipedians, to hold an open discussion about what it means, and to consider whether it is possible to agree on a unifying standard. And the result? Well, it was a very successful presentation, with a packed room (even though we were in the last block of time on the last day) and a lively conversation that could have gone much longer than the 90 minutes allotted. Below, our slides, and an explanation of what we discussed:

I had two co-presenters for the panel, and two guest presenters joined us as well. My main collaborators were longtime English Wikipedia contributor / chronicler Andrew Lih (User:Fuzheado), and French Wikipedia contributor / marketing executive Christophe Henner (Utilisateur:Schiste). The two others were former Wikimedia Italia VP Cristian Consonni (Utente:CristianCantoro), and Telecom Italia executive Federico Ascari.

The deck above is short on explanatory text—it was meant to support our speaking on the subject, of course—but it went a little something like this:

  • Slides 1–12 — Leading the way, Andrew delivered a whirlwind history of “paid editing” and other “conflict of interest” edits on Wikipedia, including several of the better known controversies. Most interesting, Andrew created a four quadrant chart showing how paid (and unpaid) editing differs based on whether it is perceived as “conflicted” or “unconflicted”.
  • Slides 13–23 — Here’s where I told a bit of my own story as a consultant on Wikipedia projects for clients, explained how we fit into the so-called Bright Line (short version: I follow it, but it doesn’t work as well as it should), and the Donovan House meeting of Wikipedians and PR thought leaders I convened in February, plus the multi-agency statement which came out of it. As of August 2014, following my lead, 35 companies including the very largest global firms, have pledged to follow Wikipedia’s rules and encourage clients and colleagues to do the same.
  • Slides 24-27 — Christophe described his past work with French telecom Orange to improve its Wikipedia presence, a debate among Wikipedians about whether this was handled correctly, and frustrations by his former client, Yamaha, which was less successful working with Wikipedia but instead created its own wiki.
  • Slides 28–34 — Cristian and Federico took turns explaining the project they undertook. In short, Telecom Italia partnered with a university class, recruiting 6 students completing their undergraduate work, to research and write improved versions of several articles about the company, with input from Cristian and the Italian chapter of Wikimedia.
  • Slides 35–40 — I previewed the next step in the process started with the Donovan House group: an ebook called “Wikipedia and the Communications Professional”, to be released in September 2014. After this, I moderated a free-flowing discussion of these issues among attendees.

And a very interesting discussion it was. I probably shouldn’t try to summarize the discussion, in part because I’ll forget things, in part because I wouldn’t want to characterize a discussion that is still evolving, and in part because this post is already plenty long enough. There will be much more to say in just a few weeks’ time.

Can Wikipedia and PR Just Get Along? Here’s a Possible New Way Forward

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on June 10, 2014 at 10:06 am by William Beutler

I think there is a good chance that today will prove to be a significant one—a dangerous thing to hope for, perhaps—but I’m optimistic that it will be, and for good reasons. I’ll explain.

♦     ♦     ♦

As a number of folks in my Wikipedia orbit have been aware for some time, in February of this year I organized a roundtable discussion, held in a conference room at the Donovan House hotel in Washington, DC, comprising: a) representatives of digital practices at some of the world’s largest PR and marketing firms, b) individual members of the Wikipedia community, and c) academics who follow Wikipedia closely. The conversation was intended to build on the dialogue begun in early 2012 via the Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE) Facebook group. Indeed, several participants in our conversation have been longtime contributors to that one.

In all we had 12 participants from both Wikipedia and the PR industry, and this was the first time to my knowledge that such a group had ever been convened, at least in United States, to discuss their perspectives on how the two have interacted previously, and how they might in the future. I would say that participants on both sides of the conversation were pleasantly surprised to find a real dialogue was possible, and they had more in common than some may have expected.

Many ideas about how communications professionals could meaningfully participate in—and improve—Wikipedia were raised in the discussion, but the first one that made sense to tackle is one we are announcing today. The agency participants, led by yours truly, collaborated on a multi-agency statement, for the first time expressing, in one voice, a respect for Wikipedia’s project, then intention to do right by it, to give good advice to colleagues and clients, and to continue the dialogue however possible. While the agencies and their representatives are the actual participants, it was shaped by ongoing conversation with these Wikipedians and others. It’s only an olive branch, but I believe it’s a necessary first step.

As of 10am Eastern Time we have posted this as an essay on Wikipedia with 11 agencies joining—nearly all who attended in February, plus a few more who agree with the effort and wish to adopt the same standard. Indeed, we hope this becomes an industry standard, and the basis for a new phase of, well, let’s call it perestroika for the Wikipedia community and communications professionals.

We shall see, of course. I do expect that many on both sides of this divide will be skeptical of this project. To this day, many are surprised to hear about the Wikipedia services offered by my firm, Beutler Ink. Me, I’m surprised that that there have not been more pro-community Wikipedia consultants. Instead, most are familiar with the kinds of stories that usually get the headlines: when someone like a Bell Pottinger or Portland Communications gets their hand stuck in the proverbial cookie jar.

Today’s announcement is the beginning of an effort to change that. If this is a topic of interest to you, I hope you’ll leave a comment on the statement’s discussion page, and join us in talking about how to move this project forward.

♦     ♦     ♦

The full statement and current list of signatory agencies follows:

Statement on Wikipedia from participating communications firms

On behalf of our firms, we recognize Wikipedia’s unique and important role as a public knowledge resource. We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of Wikipedia editors.

Our firms believe that it is in the best interest of our industry, and Wikipedia users at large, that Wikipedia fulfill its mission of developing an accurate and objective online encyclopedia. Therefore, it is wise for communications professionals to follow Wikipedia policies as part of ethical engagement practices.

We therefore publicly state and commit, on behalf of our respective firms, to the best of our ability, to abide by the following principles:

  • To seek to better understand the fundamental principles guiding Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.
  • To act in accordance with Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, particularly those related to “conflict of interest.”
  • To abide by the Wikimedia Foundation’s Terms of Use.
  • To the extent we become aware of potential violations of Wikipedia policies by our respective firms, to investigate the matter and seek corrective action, as appropriate and consistent with our policies.
  • Beyond our own firms, to take steps to publicize our views and counsel our clients and peers to conduct themselves accordingly.

We also seek opportunities for a productive and transparent dialogue with Wikipedia editors, inasmuch as we can provide accurate, up-to-date, and verifiable information that helps Wikipedia better achieve its goals.

A significant improvement in relations between our two communities may not occur quickly or easily, but it is our intention to do what we can to create a long-term positive change and contribute toward Wikipedia’s continued success.

Participating firms and individual representatives, as of June 10, 2014:

  • Beutler Ink (William Beutler)
  • Ogilvy & Mather (Marshall Manson)
  • FleishmanHillard (Sam Huxley)
  • Peppercomm (Sam Ford)
  • Burson-Marsteller (Patrick Kerley)
  • Ketchum (Tim Weinheimer)
  • Porter Novelli (Dave Coustan)
  • Voce Communications (Dave Coustan)
  • Edelman (Phil Gomes)
  • Allison+Partners (Jeremy Rosenberg)
  • MDC Partners (Michael Bassik)

Meet Lila Tretikov, Wikimedia’s New Leader… and Her Uninvited Plus-One

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on May 30, 2014 at 11:58 am by William Beutler

On May 1, the Wikimedia Foundation named a successor to Sue Gardner as executive director: Lila Tretikov, a “Russian-born technologist specialising in enterprise software”, as her newly-minted Wikipedia article begins. This followed a search that lasted more than a year, since Gardner announced her intention to move on in March 2013. What followed was a sigh of relief, at least at first.

Tretikov comes to the foundation from SugarCRM, a would-be competitor to Salesforce, where she’s held CIO and VP positions. She started her career as an engineer at Sun Microsystems, holds several patents, previously founded a company, is photogenic and just 36 years old. Not a bad resume at all. And her statement released to Re/code hit the right notes:

When I got the news, I thought, ‘This is big in every way: A big website — the fifth most popular in the world. A big community — 80,000 active Wikimedians from around the globe. And a big mission — nothing less than making the sum of all human knowledge freely available to all.’

It quotes Jimmy Wales’ most famous line, Wikipedia’s easiest to remember data point, and it cheerily overestimates the effective participation rate (in the latest official figures, the number of very active Wikipedians on the most active project, the English Wikipedia, dipped below 3,000 for the first time in nine years). [Edit: Lila’s figures are accurate for “active editors”; fair enough, although, pace Vilfredo Pareto, I would argue “very active” editors have far more impact than “active” editors.]

Lila TretikovBut the slow erosion of Wikipedia’s user base is just one reason why Wikipedians are apprehensive about their future and how the Foundation’s new leader fits into it. To get my Walter Winchell on, for one thing, word is that Tretikov’s appointment did not come out of the official executive search process. Although the firm Wikimedia retained, m/Oppenheim, proudly joined in the announcement fun earlier this month, do note that it doesn’t actually take credit for it. Apparently the Board was unhappy with the results, tapped their own personal networks instead, and Tretikov came out of Gardner’s own rolodex. [Edit: I’ve now been told that she came in from another referral, not Sue, serves me right I suppose.] All of which at least underscores how difficult the search proved to be.

Meanwhile, Tretikov arrives with a solid resume in open source projects, but exactly zero with the open-source project that matters most: Wikipedia. This lack of experience was not exactly unexpected—the Foundation purposefully, and smartly, wanted a new leader from outside the movement—but it made people awfully anxious to hear from her.

Instead, they heard from someone else first.

That someone is a Bay Area PHP programmer named Wil Sinclair, also Tretikov’s partner (“boyfriend” in flyover country-speak). Most notoriously (at least in the beginning) about a week to go before she officially took the helm, Sinclair took it upon himself to join Wikipediocracy, a website dedicated to criticism of Wikipedia, both responsible and otherwise. It’s a website that many Wikipedians loathe, although some grudgingly respect, and where a few even actively participate. Getting involved there requires a certain degree of care. And while Sinclair comes across as bright, articulate and polite in his postings, to a veteran observer he also comes across a bit clueless. It’s like entering a snake pit with only a textbook familiarity with the concept of a snakebite.

This didn’t sit well with many longtime Wikipedians and community observers, especially those who participate in wikimedia-l, a public mailing list also dedicated to Wikipedia discussion. Unlike Wikipediocracy, it’s hosted on a Wikimedia website, although it is likewise open to participation and is not infrequently the site of drama itself. Various “dramuh” from the week concluding:

  • Wil Sinclair and conversation about him completely dominated the email list for several days, initially regarding the propriety of his Wikipediocracy participation, but eventually moving on to other subjects, with several editors advising Wil in strong but even terms that he was setting himself up for trouble. After being advised he was well in excess of posting volume norms, of course he kept right on going.
  • Behind the scenes, much of the discussion focused on whether this would negatively impact the beginning of Lila’s tenure. Sometimes it wasn’t entirely behind the scenes… one veteran editor accidentally sent a private email to the whole list, comparing the chaos to an episode of The West Wing and suggesting Tretikov was an “amateur” ostensibly unfit to run the Foundation.
  • Pressing on, Sinclair raised questions about how some content on Wikimedia Commons is inappropriate for children and how some editors feel harassed by others, as if no one was aware of or willing to discuss these things, even though they are among the most frequently cited issues on Wikimedia projects, as was quickly pointed out.
  • He was also called out for once offering unguarded praise of Wikipedia’s least liked, most persistent critic—many would say troll—Greg Kohs, naturally a Wikipediocracy mainstay. Wil confirmed he’d said it and meant it, and if you can’t imagine how poorly this was received, then you don’t know a thing about Wikipedia. Obviously, this includes Wil Sinclair.
  • Eventually Wil decided the community should vote on whether he should stay or go, and started a thread dedicated to the topic. It was short-lived, however, as he later posted a simple statement that he would in fact cease communications on the list. It stands to reason Lila finally told him to can it, although I don’t have any way of knowing this for sure. [Edit: And in the comments here, Wil says she did not.]
  • In the midst of it all, Lila Tretikov finally made her first unofficial public communication to the Wikimedia community in the form of a message disclaiming any responsibility for Wil’s activity and promising: “I make my decisions using my own professional judgement in conjunction with input from the community and staff. I don’t consult Wil on these matters, ask him to do anything on my behalf or monitor his engagements with the community.” Later, after Wil stood down, she started a new thread announcing she had made her first-ever edits to Wikipedia, and wanted to hear from others newbies about their editing experiences. Sort of nothingburger of a project, but at least it might start to bring things back on-topic.

So, that may or may not be a good summary of events, but it’s already pushing the limits of how much space this whole thing really deserves. Lila Tretikov takes over the Wikimedia Foundation beginning June 1, and one hopes the next time we’re talking about her, we’re talking about her.

Update: Be sure to check the comments, where Wikipedia statistician Erik Zachte points out that Lila’s figures for “active” editors is correct (I’ve amended the post above to clarify my view) and where none other than Wil Sinclair offers some corrections and clarifying information, which readers of this post should see for full context.

Wikipedia’s Struggle with Self-Reference Amid the Passing of One of Its Own

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on April 22, 2014 at 11:54 am by William Beutler

Wikipedia intends to be a passive observer of world affairs and recorder of knowledge, so as a community and ruleset, it usually prefers to avoid referencing itself in its own articles. But Wikipedia too makes the news, so it’s unavoidable that sometimes Wikipedia has to write about Wikipedia—and you may not be surprised to find that Wikipedia has rules governing these circumstances. But sometimes this becomes a more sensitive issue, and more difficult to work through. This week is one of those times.

The current disagreement surrounds the recently-created article about Adrianne Wadewitz, a much admired Wikipedia veteran and Occidental College literature scholar, who died in a rock climbing accident earlier this month. A non-famous person in life, Wadewitz was subsequently the focus of an article by Noam Cohen, who writes about Wikipedia for the New York Times. Other obits appeared as well, from BuzzFeed and Jezebel, among others.

Yet the article was nominated for deletion on the same day this article was created—in fact, within four edits and 30 minutes of its creation. The nominating editor cited a plausible argument: Wikipedia’s guidance not to include articles about “People notable for only one event”—in this case, tragically, her death. The next editor to comment also pointed to a guideline advising that “Wikipedia is not a memorial site”. And so the early “voting”—strictly speaking, Wikipedians weighing in are not voting (or “!vote” as they like to call it) but this is a tricky concept so I’ll leave it for another time—ran toward deleting it. Then a string of editors made the case for keeping it. Here is a selection of thoughtful arguments on either side:

  • Delete This is a difficult time to have this [Articles for Deletion debate], and a hard position to take. My reasoning for voting delete is based on the context and encyclopedic value of her biography – years from now. Those who cite NYT piece as the sole test for notability should consider that she was described and considered notable as a wikipedian – which leads back to Wikipedia being the original source for notability. I know this vote is soon after her passing, probably not a good time to go through this – even if it is kept now, it’s likely it would be voted against in an year, or two or five. It’s sad but the encyclopedic value of her article is not going to change. This has nothing to do with sexism, her activism, opinions or her prolific output – purely about notability. General activism and prolific output have little to no correlation with notability. Besides that, it’s sad to lose one of our own, and she seemed like a great contributor.
  • Strong keep — obituaries in multiple reliable sources, including the NYT, convey notability by themselves, and she’s been featured in other articles published by reliable sources during her life. The content of the obits are largely about her achievements on Wikipedia, which clearly the NYT and other [reliable sources] cited consider significant, even if the commenters above do not.
  • Delete. I believe that awadewit was an incredibly valuable Wikipedia editor, and I cried buckets when I learned of her death. However, her academic career was in its youth and was not that remarkable. Her primary claim to notability is as a Wikipedia editor and activist, and I believe it is an inherent [conflict of interest] for Wikipedia to put up articles recognizing its prolific contributors. The sources may quote her, but they are not really about her. The exception is the obituaries, which were driven from Wikimedia sources. Even if we consider Wikimedia a reliable source, this is incredibly circular – Wikimedia talks lots about a topic, a third-party source picks it up, and now it is all of a sudden notable? I don’t agree. I do not agree that Wikipedia editing is grounds for conferring notability, whether multiple sources confirm that one was an editor or not. I do not agree that Wikimedia activism is grounds for notability, whether multiple sources confirm that fact that one was an activist or not. With all due respect to awadewit’s memory, I do not believe she was notable….and I don’t think she would have considered her life to be worthy of an article here either.
  • Keep – Defective nomination in the first place: BLP-1E [the guideline related to people notable for one event] is for living people. Passes GNG through sources already showing in the piece.

Interestingly, it’s those arguing “Delete” who offer the more carefully argued, more detailed cases. Perhaps it’s because they are motivated more by interpretation of guidelines than conviction that Wadewitz is deserving of an entry. Perhaps it’s because they don’t wish to offend those who have this conviction. Meanwhile, editors who knew her in life have taken both sides of the issue. One thing is clear: there is no consensus among Wikipedia editors whether this article should remain or not. And this leads to an obvious conclusion: when no consensus is met, Wikipedia guidelines default to “keep”. That’s what I expect to happen once the standard week-long discussion period has elapsed, and then I expect it to be re-argued again at some point in the future.

Recently, a biographical entry about a former Wikimedia Foundation employee was successfully nominated for deletion, partly upon her request, after she was publicly fired and this came to represent a disproportionate part of the entry. As it turned out, her eligibility for an article was at best “on the bubble” and hadn’t previously been scrutinized—in part, one imagines, because she is a well-liked member of the community. But once the article turned sour, and the subject wanted it gone, Wikipedians finally thought about it and decided: yeah, she didn’t really deserve one in the first place.

This situation is not even that simple. As one editor says above, I’ve heard that Wadewitz would not have wanted an article about herself. Unfortunately, she isn’t here to comment. In her place, a consensus of Wikipedia editors as influenced by their own self-determined guidelines will settle the matter definitively. Eventually.

Bats in the Belfer: A Beginner’s Guide to the Biggest Wikipedia Controversy You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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on April 2, 2014 at 7:47 pm by William Beutler

If you follow Wikipedia a bit more than casually, you might have heard something lately about nefarious goings on about the Wikimedia Foundation, a charitable trust called the Stanton Foundation, and something called the Belfer Center at Harvard University. If you follow Wikipedia in the news generally, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

The short version—if I can manage to pull this off—is that from 2012 to 2013 the Wikimedia Foundation (or WMF, which oversees Wikipedia) followed the request of a major donor (the Stanton Foundation) to coordinate the placement a paid editor (named Timothy Sandole) with the Belfer Center (at Harvard University) to directly edit articles (which WMF has always said it does not and would not do). The position was supposed to go to an experienced Wikipedia editor, but Sandole had no Wikipedia experience before he applied for the position.

The work he contributed over the course of the following year hardly seemed to justify his compensation, and some non-trivial edits were of direct benefit to the Belfer Center and Stanton Foundation. It’s probably worth noting at some point here that the principals at Belfer and Stanton are a married couple. It is also worth mentioning that several Wikipedia veterans privately criticized the initiative to Foundation employees and warned this would not go well. As you may have gathered, it did not go well.

I’m going to repeat myself and underline the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation has always said that it wants to stays out of content creation or editorial decisions on Wikipedia, and it’s frankly kind of boggling to find that’s exactly what happened here.

So, this all looks really bad. It is also complicated by a handful of other problems:

  • News broke at the same time as the Wikimedia Foundation considered an amendment to its Terms of Use intended to require greater disclosure by paid editors—a highly relevant situation, you might say.
  • Also concurrently, people associated with the Wikipedia watchdog Wikipediocracy had been hammering the Wikimedia Foundation for looking the other way when prominent Wikipedia donors had edited their own article—an even more relevant situation, clearly.
  • And of course, all of this coming at a time when WMF has been struggling to name a successor to long-serving executive director Sue Gardner, whom this blog has praised, but whose track record of success seems to be unraveling as the end of her term draws (presumably) nearer.

So there’s context and commentary, but if you’re intrigued, I promise there is a lot more to read. Here’s what you need to know, and then some:

  • April 26, 2012—Not quite two years ago, and long before this became a controversial matter, a post on the official Wikimedia blog—“Can you help Wikipedians collaborate with Harvard University?”—announced the initial call for Wikipedians to apply for a position to work with Harvard’s Belfer Center.

    You can actually still read the original job description on Jobvite, seeking a “Campus Wikipedian”. The position began August 2012, and concluded August 2013.

  • March 2, 2014—The first public report that something might have been amiss was published one month ago today, by a Polish editor best known as Odder, in a blog post titled “The pot and the kettle, the Wikimedia way”. This lays out a good deal of the key info, and its implications, but the connection between Belfer and Stanton had not yet been made. Still, Odder’s editorialization remains valid:

    The WMF’s unprecedented role in endorsing a project so negligent in adhering to broadly accepted ethical principles not only undermines the integrity and quality of Wikipedia, but also raises questions about the role of the Stanton Foundation and the Belfer Center in it.

  • March 19, 2014—After percolating in private discussions and email lists for a couple weeks, the matter was finally raised on the publicly accessible Wikimedia-l mailing list under the heading “Timothy Sandole and (apparently) $53,690 of WMF funding”, with a link to Odder’s post and some pointed questions about WMF’s handling of the matter. Want to read more from this thread? OK, you asked for it.
  • That same day, Wikipedia’s volunteer-written newsletter, the Signpost, put a spotlight on the issue, detailing the case as it was then understood. Following Wikipedia’s cautious, Timesian house style, it was titled “Foundation-supported Wikipedian in residence faces scrutiny”.
  • March 20, 2014—The next day, Liam Wyatt and Pete Forsyth, two editors who had warned against the Stanton-Belfer arrangement went public with their previously stated misgivings. Wyatt’s concluded:

    The WMF dug themselves into this hole despite the frantic attempts, which were largely rebuffed, of several of the GLAM-WIKI community help them fix it – or at least reduce the number of problems. Now, it’s up to the WMF to dig themselves out again. Ironic given the current attention being given by the WMF to paid editing…

  • March 21, 2014—Just one more day after that, a longtime Wikipedia antagonist published the findings of his own research on the same list, with the subject line “Belfer report – analysis from Russavia”. This posting finally connected the dots between Stanton’s Liz Allison and Belfer’s Graham Allison.
  • Finally the WMF was moved to respond, and deputy director Erik Moeller sent a fairly detailed, bulleted reply to the same list just a few hours later. It acknowledged some edits by Sandole seemed to favor Belfer and also Stanton in a way that raised exactly the kind of “conflict of interest” issues Wikipedia is often worried about.
  • April 1, 2014—Yesterday more details arrived with a blog post on Wikipediocracy titled “Business as Usual”, identifying even more problematic Belfer-Stanton edits (if less implicating of WMF) by individuals assoicated with it, and added substantially more detail to the record. As mentioned before, this is a website disliked by many in the Wikipedia community, and this post in particular written by Gregory Kohs, who has more than earned his reputation as Wikipedia’s #1 gadfly. Indeed, there is often too much innuendo floating around these parts, but they still do investigations that no one else does.
  • Finally, we come to the official report from the Foundation, written by a team and presented by none other than Sue Gardner herself. With an even more prosaic title than Signpost, Gardner laid out the “Wikipedian in Residence/Harvard University assessment”.
    • It acknowledged the “mistake” of combining “fundraising and programmatic work”, not listening to people like Wyatt and Forsyth, and that no course correction was done. The “decisions” made were mostly bureaucratic promises to apply more “scrutiny” and “process” and a tentative date for May 1 has been set for more information. We’ll see. But one decision is quite clear, so far as it goes:

      In the future, the Wikimedia Foundation will not support or endorse the creation of paid roles that have article writing as a core focus, regardless of who is initiating or managing the process.

      In other words, the Wikimedia Foundation has decided that it will not do the one thing it previously said it would not do, but that it just did anyway.

So there you have it. What happens next? Probably nothing regarding the above; an official report and an acknowledgment like the one which arrived yesterday is about as much as you can get. The person at the top is already leaving her position (eventually) and it seems very unlikely that anyone else who made “mistakes” is in line for that job anyway.

That said, it’s certainly not how Sue Gardner wanted the last chapter of her leadership at WMF to read. And whatever this means for the Terms of Use proposal, or the larger question of paid editors or “conflict of interest” on Wikipedia, will be written in the next.

The Wikipedian Interviews: At the Movies

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on February 28, 2014 at 4:28 pm by William Beutler

Every once in awhile, here at The Wikipedian we like to spotlight editors who have made a substantial impact on Wikipedia (previously: User:Esemono) by asking a willing editor to talk about the articles they’ve worked on, and how they think about the article writing process. With Oscar season coming to an end this Sunday, there’s no better time than now to share this e-mail interview with a longtime contributor to WikiProject Film, User:Erik. I sent him a few questions earlier in the week, and he was gracious enough to respond with his thoughtful answers presented, unedited, in this post. Thanks, Erik!

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How do you select specific topics for the film articles you work on?

I tend to choose topics that have underdeveloped articles or do not have articles. Most of my contributions are to articles about upcoming films, and I like to give these articles a good start by weaving together details about the films’ development and production process. The topics I choose can be of personal interest to me, can be those whose articles I rescue from AfD, or even just related to a bigger initiative of mine. Lately, I have been in the habit of creating articles about crew members because I’ve warmed up to the idea of crew lists in film articles. (The film infobox is restrictive in not having fields for some crew members, like the costume designer or the production designer.) I’ve also started to create list articles that can link together film articles, usually because they have something in common.

What’s your research process like? Any favorite sources or techniques for identifying encyclopedic information?

I use the advanced search operators in Google pretty frequently. One can filter for the domain (e.g., site:variety.com) and/or choose a date range to find results about a film during a certain time frame. I usually tend to find out the earliest coverage about a film and work forward from there. Most films will not be written about in books, so most of my contributions have been derived from news and magazine coverage. However, I do use Google Books and the book preview feature in Amazon.com to make a case for an older film’s notability or to help resolve a content-based dispute. One of my favorite sources was the British Film Institute’s Film Index International database, which could provide a list of periodical articles for a given film. Such lists have been of tremendous value in expanding Wikipedia articles. Unfortunately, I only had access to that database in college, and not anymore. I’ve learned to seek out information in different ways since.

One of your articles that really caught my eye was Interpretations of Fight Club. How did you come to decide to create that article?

Fight Club is a favorite film, so when I worked on its Wikipedia article to bring it up to Featured status, I came across academic analysis of the film. Originally, I thought that these sources were too high-brow to include in a film article, but another Wikipedia editor with a PhD in English literature told me about film theory — auteurship, intentional fallacy, and how a film could be interpreted independent of the original meaning. That really opened my eyes to the field of film criticism, and I think it has enriched my perspective of film. Anyway, unfortunately Fight Club is hugely popular to study. The article Interpretations of Fight Club currently has four references, but on the talk page, there are many more listed that I have not implemented. The four that I did implement were dense and very difficult for me to summarize, especially with so many good points made. The experience made me think more about incorporating film criticism in Wikipedia articles. I helped an editor improve the Wikipedia article for the film American Beauty to Featured status, and I think that outcome is what I want for film articles. I have also added similar analysis to the article for Apt Pupil, though I do not find it complete yet. I’m also working on a similar approach for the film Panic Room. I even have an itch to revisit Fight Club to incorporate that scholarship and not just write about the film’s themes as determined by the director and the stars.

Based on your selection of topics over time, I think you have pretty good taste in movies. And then there’s… Surf Ninjas. How did you decide to work on that one?

Surf Ninjas is a nostalgic favorite of mine, though not to the point that I would own the DVD. I expanded the Wikipedia article back in 2007, a time when I was probably hitting my stride as a Wikipedia editor. Surf Ninjas is a movie that predates the Internet, so that means most of the news coverage could only be found on internal databases. My work was a sort of experiment to see what I could find for a film that old, especially since at the time, working on articles about upcoming films, I could find headlines with ease. That is probably another reason why I continue to work with upcoming films; I do not have access to databases like I used to in college, so I depend a lot on what is publicly available.

Which article are you most proud of that does not get the kind of traffic or recognition that you wish it would?

In terms of balance, I would have to say Sea Shadow. It is a 2011 Emirati coming-of-age film for which I created a Wikipedia article a year after the film was first released. When I first started editing on Wikipedia, I liked to work on articles for films based on comic books. These films get so much news coverage because of the fan base, and I think that demographic overlapping with that of the “average Wikipedian” (explained at WP:BIAS) means that these articles continue to be the most well-developed film articles on Wikipedia. I’m supportive of this since readers know to go to Wikipedia to read in depth about a film. However, since I’ve moved on from these films to a more varied set, I’ve seen how much work there is to be done elsewhere.

So how did I get to Sea Shadow? I noticed a POV dispute at the article for the 2012 film Promised Land, and in the process of restructuring the article to satisfy all parties, I eventually created an article for Image Nation, which was one of the companies that financed the film. When I put together its filmography, I saw that Sea Shadow was a red link among a set of blue links, and I decided to create the article. Writing it made me realize how much I took movies for granted in the United States; Sea Shadow was the first movie to be filmed in the United Arab Emirates! It made me think about how much Wikipedia focuses on popular Western-produced films. I am more conscious of these filmmaking efforts that go on outside the mainstream — either efforts elsewhere or independent efforts. I admit I still Google the title Sea Shadow once in a while to see if it will ever appear on the first page of Google’s search results. Regardless, I’m happy to have told the story of this film on Wikipedia.

Is there an article or a list you would like to develop but haven’t yet had the time? In particular, what are your plans for Alcoholism in film?

There are so many articles I would like to write. I have learned over the years how to research a film, but the key obstacle is having the time to collect the information, digest it, and write a Wikipedia article based on all these findings. I can think of so many projects to do, but I try not to be too ambitious. Otherwise I am setting myself up for disappointment. Among less recent films, I would probably like to complete Panic Room and Apt Pupil, which have been perpetual works-in-progress. One goal I’ve considered setting is to get an article to Featured status and displayed on the Main Page for a certain anniversary. (I did that for Fight Club for its 10th anniversary.) Once in a while, I look up films that would be celebrating its 10th, 25th, or 50th anniversary in the next year. For example, Batman Begins will be 10 years old (and has a lot of fascinating critical analysis to go with it). Dances with Wolves (which I re-watched recently to see if it holds up) will be 25 years old. And so forth. I just wish I could devote more time to give these films their wiki-closeup! :)

Regarding the idea of alcoholism in film, I noticed that Wikipedia often writes about general topics and about individual films. I thought this was a gap that could be filled. My thinking may have started with superhero films being on-and-off in development, so it seemed better to define such an article about a set of films not as a film series but as the character in the context in film (e.g., “Batman in film”). I’ve also argued at AfD to keep articles like “Latinos in film” or “Vietnam War in film” since I found them to be valid topics that have potential. Unfortunately, I have not pursued this “in film” idea to its fullest, mainly due to time constraints. In a way, I have simplified this idea by creating list articles that can link together similar films. It’s not as prose-based and thus not in depth, but it is easier to put together and can give readers an idea of related films. The article “List of films featuring surveillance” is one of my favorites in this regard. I may create a similar “List of films featuring alcoholism” instead of “Alcoholism in film” at some point.

How did you get involved with Wikipedia in the first place, and how do you think it has changed over time?

I cannot remember what I thought of Wikipedia before I actually joined, but I started off with gnomish edits mostly focusing on film articles. (And the rest is history…) I think I enjoyed the idea that Wikipedia was an open space that was also very visible to Internet users. I liked sharing information about films (and still do), and I think I found films to be a “safe” topic as opposed to hot-button ones like political and religious issues.

In terms of what has changed, I have been a member of WikiProject Film for most of my time on Wikipedia. I served as coordinator for part of the time, but I think we tried too hard to emulate WikiProject Military History and found that initiative too ambitious. Quite a difference between dedicated military historians and casual moviegoers! We no longer have coordinators, and our primary initiative as a WikiProject is to maintain a balanced set of guidelines and to notify the community about specific disputes to help resolve. I helped write the guidelines, so it is nice to see new editors reference them. Sometimes the guidelines are misinterpreted from their original meaning, so we have to go back and clarify!

More in general, I have seen some editors retire and some persist. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that many who persist tend to be hard-headed, and I think that makes us a bit unwelcoming at times. Another observation I’ve made is that there seems to be less vandalism than before, and a recent New York Times article called “Wikipedia vs. the Small Screen” made an excellent point in that most people nowadays browse Wikipedia on their smartphones. This seems to cut both ways — less vandalizing and less beneficial editing.

If you could change one existing policy, guideline or community norm, what would it be?

I wish that the behavioral policy of WP:CIVIL had more teeth. Punitive action only takes place when a “bright line” is crossed. I recently saw a heated and increasingly personal exchange between two long-time editors. Only one of them was blocked because their words became explicit personal attacks. It was disheartening to read the exchange in which both editors’ tones became accusatory and unwilling to disengage, especially to have the last word. Along the same vein, punitive action in regard to the three-revert rule and edit warring operates by a similar “bright line”. I have seen the rule essentially gamed where a long-time editor knows when to stop where the other party may not. Tag-teaming is also a strategy, intentional or unintentional, where an assist by another editor can circumvent the rule, when the overall goal really should be starting a discussion to resolve the dispute. Unfortunately, I have seen too many discussions start only after both parties have reverted three times, and they are usually too hostile to each other by that point to engage in a conducive discussion. I personally strive to revert as little as possible, especially when looking at the big picture, that these are just words on a web page that are being fought over. Maybe a two-revert rule can prevent such hostility from escalating too much.

Who are some editors whose work or community-building efforts you admire?

I think that there are many editors that I admire in different ways. MichaelQSchmidt is one with whom I have disagreed at times about how to write about films in development, but I think in spite of that, we have cordial and productive discussions. He has striven to write useful essays to guide editors at AfD and elsewhere. At WikiProject Film, I can always count on Betty Logan to make sensible contributions to discussions. I notice certain editors who can put together excellent film articles even though they may not participate actively in the WikiProject Film community. Although he is retired from Wikipedia, Steve was a model editor who had a very collaborative demeanor and wrote the excellent articles American Beauty, Changeling, and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Got a favorite for Best Picture this year?

12 Years a Slave. While I have not had a chance to see all the Best Picture nominees, I have followed coverage about 12 Years a Slave very closely since it began development. I really enjoyed Steve McQueen’s previous films Hunger and Shame and looked forward to this one. I’ve read a lot of commentary about whether or not 12 Years a Slave deserves to win. I think Gravity is a technical wonder, like Avatar was, though with themes not as swallowed up by spectacle. However, 12 Years a Slave is important in the sense that it is a rare film about a key element of American history — slavery. I did research to put together a Wikipedia list of films featuring slavery as well as the article Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, which was a 1984 TV film by PBS based on the same source material as 12 Years a Slave. Knowing this background and the general skew of demographics in the film industry toward older white men, I think it’s important to recognize 12 Years a Slave for its creative merit and for representing an otherwise underrepresented aspect of American history.

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One last thing: for this year’s Oscar season, my team at Beutler Ink conceived and created a poster featuring an icon for each of the films to win the last 85 Oscars, plus an icon each for this year’s nominees. You can check it out here: The Best Pictures.

I Like Wikipedia Articles that Mention Abercrombie & Fitch

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on February 17, 2014 at 4:53 pm by William Beutler

The February 17 print edition of New York Magazine contains a profile of the notorious, once all-conquering, now-struggling mall-based U.S. clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, with particular focus on its longtime CEO, Mike Jeffries, now under fire as the company’s fortunes have declined.

Besides the company’s controversial public image—once cultivated and considered an asset, now perceived as turning into a serious liability—the article discusses its origins in the 19th century as a supplier of supplies for Most Interesting Men in the World, followed by a long mid-century decline, and then late-century emergence as a major apparel and pop culture force. It’s an interesting business profile as far as that goes, and largely an unflattering one. But it’s the very last paragraph that stuck with me, for reasons to become apparent shortly:

“I guarantee you, we’re already to the point where that resurgence in the nineties is a Wikipedia talking point,” says [industry observer Brian] Sozzi. “What we’ll remember Jeffries for now is for failing to change, for all the store closures, for the way employees were treated. And that’s unfortunate.”

Nothing major here, I just find it amusing that “a Wikipedia talking point” is how the interviewee chose to describe the company’s onetime glory—at one time the most salient fact of its existence—is described in relation to how it is depicted on Wikipedia.

I am also amused by the notion that Wikipedia has “talking points”, although I realize the term is used casually. The fact that Mr. Sozzi almost certainly used the phrase without deep consideration of how Wikipedia may have something to suggest about how the public views the information Wikipedia makes available, although I realize it may only suggest something about how Mr. Sozzi views Wikipedia.

Let’s do the obvious thing, and see what Wikipedia has to say (as of mid-February, 2014). From the History section:

In 1976, Abercrombie & Fitch filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, finally closing its flagship Manhattan store in 1977.[6] The name was revived shortly thereafter, when in 1978, Oshman’s Sporting Goods, a Houston-based chain, bought the defunct firm’s name and mailing list for $1.5 million[7] … Finally, in 1988, Oshman’s sold the company name and operations to The Limited, a clothing-chain operator based in Columbus, Ohio.[9]

The current version of A&F sells mostly clothes for the youth market, and describes its retailing niche as an aspirational “Casual Luxury” lifestyle brand.[10]

Especially since 1997, the company has consistently kept a high-profile in the public eye, due to its advertising, its philanthropy, and its involvement in legal conflicts over branding, clothing style and employment practices.

Interesting that, while it is consistent with Mr. Sozzi’s description, this is actually not a detail in Wikipedia—let alone a talking point.

Turning Pro: An Argument for Wikipedia’s Future

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on February 10, 2014 at 3:26 pm by William Beutler

Small announcement here: in the February issue of PR Week, you can read a column by none other than this Wikipedian here, making the case that Wikipedia’s long-term growth requires a reassessment of its volunteer culture.

I don’t mean to argue that Wikipedia should do away with volunteerism, but that recent developments to professionalize certain types of editing and Wikipedia-building activity should be expanded beyond the “cultural sector” to include professional organizations and even for-profit entities. (So now you can see why PR Week was interested.) And the model which Wikipedia should consider? Another open-source community with deep ties to the business world: Linux. An excerpt:

Like Wikipedia, Linux was released free on the Web without fanfare, caught on quickly, and within a decade was known around the world. While anyone can join the Linux community, you will not be much help if you cannot write code. …

Linux’s evolution from a small open-source experiment to a key part of today’s Internet was driven in part by upstart companies such as Red Hat and behemoths including IBM. …

Wikipedia’s volunteers and its nonprofit parent group, the Wikimedia Foundation, should seriously consider this example.

It’s no big deal that the Smithsonian has a “Wikipedian in Residence”. Why shouldn’t General Motors, or General Electric? Granted, there is much more trust with the Smithsonian because it is a like-minded institution, and the generalists of American business are certainly different. However, for Wikipedia to grow and improve, it needs to find new ways to encourage contributions that its volunteer model, by itself, has not.

P.S. The article is behind a paywall, so you may try plugging the title into Google News and seeing if that helps. Not that you heard it from me…