William Beutler on Wikipedia

A Note on Wikimania 2016, and a Small Request

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on June 21, 2016 at 2:52 pm by William Beutler
View from the road to Esino Lario. (Ed Erhart, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

View from the road to Esino Lario. (Ed Erhart, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

At this very moment, Wikimedians are traveling from all over the world to attend Wikimania, the annual conference for Wikipedia and its sister projects. When the main conference kicks off this weekend, for the first time in five years, I won’t be among them. The controversial selection of Esino Lario, a tiny Italian village in the Alps 40 miles outside of Milan, certainly figured into it, but for me it’s also a very busy summer, and one with plenty of other travel. I regret having to bail on it but, having heard about the touch-and-go logistics from the few I know who are following through, I can’t really say I regret the decision.

The biggest reason why I might is because a presentation I’d submitted was accepted. My absence interrupts what would have been a hat trick of delivering a presentation about the complicated matter of “paid editing”[1]To use just one several inadequate summary phrases for this multifaceted topic. at consecutive Wikimanias. Fortunately, it remains on the schedule, because my co-presenter, Andrew Lih, is committed to making the heroic journey to the Lake Como region of Italy.[2]I understand this is mostly to maintain his perfect Wikimania attendance, but it’s as good a reason as any. It is called “Found in Translation: Comparing paid editing policies in the top Wikipedia language editions” and if you are attending this Wikimania, I think that you should go see it!

You can read more about it at the link above, but the gist is this: the “conflict of interest” guideline on the English Wikipedia has been a matter of controversy and debate for at least a decade. When the self-reference averse Wikipedia actually has a long article on the topic, you know it’s a big deal. However, much less has been said about this issue on Wikipedia’s many other language editions, which are smaller and less prominent, but sometimes still deal with these issues. Since 2015, we have been reaching out to Wikipedians involved in the top 30 language editions of Wikipedia to find out: what official rules does each edition have about paid editing? What are the community norms? Have there been similar controversies?

As it turns out, this qualitative research is much harder to pull off than we’d first hoped. Whereas we had hoped to present our findings at this conference, instead we will be using this Wikimania to draw additional attention to the topic. And that is what this blog post seeks to do as well. If you are interested in helping us understand better how the multivarious Wikipedia communities approach this thorny topic, and you contribute to one of the top 30 language editions,[3]Besides English, of course. To see if yours is one, click here and sort by Active users. then please consider taking the survey here. And if you have any questions about the project overall, hit me up using the contact link above.

That’s all from me! Alas, my non-attendance at Wikimania means I am unlikely to write a summary post like I have in past years. Instead I’ll aim to stay part of the conversation on Twitter via @thewikipedian, and I’ll look forward to seeing you next year in Montreal.

Notes   [ + ]

1. To use just one several inadequate summary phrases for this multifaceted topic.
2. I understand this is mostly to maintain his perfect Wikimania attendance, but it’s as good a reason as any.
3. Besides English, of course. To see if yours is one, click here and sort by Active users.

InstallAware Unaware, or, How Not to Create a Wikipedia Entry About Your Company

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on June 2, 2016 at 4:38 pm by William Beutler

Unless you are a member of the small fellowship of netizens who keep a Google News search for “Wikipedia” bookmarked, chances are you missed out on a truly strange but totally real press release last month from a software company called InstallAware. Its headline: “InstallAware, the Only Alternative to InstallShield, Fails to Get Its Wikipedia Article Published Despite Years of Trying”.

Another reason you may have missed it is because no one picked it up. As far as I can tell, The Wikipedian is the first to write about it at length.[1]And, this being The Wikipedian, I do mean at length. If it’s a failure as a press release, it is a fitting capstone to a failed attempt on the company’s part to attain the exalted status of mattering on the Internet these days: having a Wikipedia entry of one’s own.

Before I go any further, I actually want to recognize InstallAware for trying, however imperfectly, to do the right thing. Instead of trying to sneak an entry into Wikipedia, they used the Articles for Creation (AfC) process as it is intended. Wikipedia has a big enough problem with anonymous PR activity that—regardless of other mistakes the company and its consultants made along the way—Wikipedians should be grateful they tried to follow the rules and use the appropriate channels.

That said, this is a hot mess of a situation. Eight times since September of last year, using two separate Wikipedia accounts, InstallAware has submitted a draft entry, in slightly different versions, to AfC for review. Eight times they have been rejected, with some reviewers offering a couple of jargon-laden phrases to explain the reason, or nothing more than the required template. Most companies in this situation would slink away, dejected and angry. InstallAware seems to feel that way, too—but took a different tack.

♦     ♦     ♦

InstallAware press release

The press release itself suggests a blithe unawareness of InstallAware’s position on Wikipedia, not to mention whether anyone would care. It includes cringe-worthy bravado such as “InstallAware’s significance is beyond question” and a ham-handed critique that “Wikipedia is out of touch with its original egalitarian ideals,” says the company founder himself, and even cites unrelated research by the Wikimedia Foundation’s own Aaron Halfaker in support of its claims. As InstallAware sees it:

InstallAware has been repeatedly frustrated in its efforts to contribute an article about itself to Wikipedia. InstallAware, the largest independent software installation vendor for Microsoft Windows, hired a specialist and conducted months of revisions, which ensured that the InstallAware article had more quantity and quality of citations than InstallShield, a similar product which does have a Wikipedia article.

There are two arguments here: a) InstallAware deserves a Wikipedia entry on its own merits, and b) InstallAware deserves a Wikipedia entry because InstallShield, a rival software tool, has one that contains fewer citations than the one they prepared for InstallAware.

To evaluate the first argument, we must consider the guideline Wikipedia editors use to determine whether a given subject should have its own page: Notability. As far as guideline names go, it’s an undeniably loaded word. If one is told “sorry, you’re not Notable” you can understand why they hear “you aren’t important enough”.[2]When discussing this topic with non-Wikipedians, I prefer to use the term “eligibility”. It’s a delicate message that is too often delivered with a one-size-fits-all template.[3]Don’t template the regulars”, says an essay familiar to Wikipedians. I think this is backward: don’t template the noobs.

The generalized version of the Notability requirement[4]“If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to be suitable for a stand-alone article or list.” is very broad and susceptible to interpretation based on wishful thinking. But it isn’t meaningless: it basically says that Wikipedia outsources its judgment about a topic’s significance to sources it considers reliable, which must have written about the subject more than once and with enough information to write a satisfactory entry. When it comes to extant organizations, this often means mainstream and industry news publications.

To apply this standard, we must consider the draft itself.

The draft is at least an honest attempt to reshape a press release into something resembling an encyclopedia entry. It simply tells the company’s story, plus contains some additional information about its software products. Of course it still makes lots of mistakes: toward the end it reads increasingly like a brochure, offering simply too many product details for an encyclopedia. It actually boldfaces InstallAware like that, which is pretty silly in the press release, and completely absurd for an encyclopedia entry. It’s almost a surprise there aren’t little ® symbols after the name of each product.

InstallAware software, via Google Images.

InstallAware software, via Google Images.

Those problems can be dealt with. The problem we can’t is the sources. The very first draft cited a couple of press releases, and called it good. Once InstallAware was informed they needed better references, what else did they do but add more. Unfortunately, these weren’t much better and the long list now included only makes them look desperate. Among the sources included: InstallAware’s own website (several times), the founder’s own resume, websites of InstallAware partner companies, SEO zombie sites, even Wikipedia itself.[5]In Wikipedia circles, this is just about the funniest mistake one can make. One thing is definitely missing: serious coverage from recognized news publications. As one Wikipedian put it:

Sorry but it seems the currently listed sources are simply not enough, what is needed is solid in-depth third-party sources such as news (any time of news is acceptable except press release and trivial passing mentions). If there’s not enough, then there’s simply not enough for a solidly acceptable article.

That sounds right. I ran my own search, on Google News and Lexis-Nexis, and I just found press releases. Curious whether they were aware of these issues, I reached out to InstallAware via the media contact listed on the press release. Over the course of a few polite if pithy emails, I got a better understanding of where they were coming from.[6]Among the questions I asked: Did they know about the WMF Terms of Use disclosure requirements? No, that one had escaped them, and earlier this week the consultant added a disclosure notice to the draft discussion page. An unfortunate error, but a fair course correction. What was their goal with the press release? “To pressure Wikipedia into accountability and rationality.” Which, fair enough.

Did they know about Wikipedia’s Notability requirement? Yes, they said, and pointed me back to some of the citations to InstallAware’s own website I had ignored. It turns out several of the articles they believe support their eligibility are quite old and no longer online. To make them available for inspection, InstallAware simply scanned them and posted them to their own website, without making this clear to anyone.[7]A simple rule of thumb: don’t expect Wikipedians to read past their initial assumptions, let alone spend time correcting your mistakes.

Did they attempt to discuss the article with Wikipedia editors? Yes, the specialist—whose expertise it turns out is SEO, not Wikipedia—had posted messages on an involved editor’s discussion page, and also the AfC help desk. Click through and you’ll see an unformatted wall of text that is a chore to read. So, guess what: no one read it.

You can find InstallAware’s collected list of sources here, and evaluate them as I have. I think you’ll find, as I did, that the longest article was written by the founder himself, while others are republished press releases, brief mentions in blog posts, pages on commercial websites, and a short product review. There is one bylined Microsoft publication that might be useful if better sources also existed, but it’s still a borderline call. Overall, it is not: InstallAware does not have sufficient coverage to meet the Notability requirement.

Let’s turn to InstallShield.

What’s interesting is that it sure looks like InstallAware has a point here. Indeed, the entry for InstallShield has only two citations, and one of them is actually a press release. The page was flagged more than four years ago for requiring additional citations. Otherwise, the page seems appropriate enough. It isn’t excessively detailed, and it’s reasonable to guess the article was created not by the company that sells it, but by Wikipedia editors who knew both about the software and also how to develop an entry. In fact, the entry has existed since 2004, long before Wikipedia was a place to be seen.

InstallShield software, via Wikipedia.

InstallShield software, via Wikipedia.

But that doesn’t seem fair. Should the page be retained simply because it has been around so long? Is the page somehow more acceptable because it was probably created without a marketing goal in mind? In strict terms the answer should be no, but in reality the answer is often yes. There is, in fact, a double-standard for content[8]and behavior, but that’s another post on Wikipedia: what the policies and guidelines say is ideal, and what Wikipedia editors will actually tolerate. This double-standard is consecrated by the long-established and completely necessary, yet unofficial compromise rule, called “Other stuff exists”, which basically says: just because we have some bad articles that is not a rationale to create more bad articles. InstallShield has been, er, shielded by these circumstances.

Then I ran the same search for InstallShield as I had for InstallAware. The results did not bolster their argument. Although the InstallShield entry contains inadequate citations now, they definitely exist. Some of the stories are quite old, so they are not online, but it’s my opinion there is enough substantial reporting to justify their inclusion. There’s Crain’s Chicago Business in November 1997 with “Installation-software firm set for leap into corporate arena: raising money to push beyond vendor market” and InfoWorld with “Installation software vendor to ship enterprise version” from June 1999, and more. The software has received less press recently, but the snarky IT news site El Reg has mentioned it twice in news stories this year. Taken as a whole, it’s my professional opinion[9]this note is either an appropriate disclosure that Wikipedia engagement is a key service at my firm, Beutler Ink, or an unsubtle advertisement that InstallShield meets the Notability requirement. “Other stuff exists” need not apply.

But there’s something else going on here. Most of InstallShield’s coverage is from the late 1990s, when they were an independent company putting out tons of press releases in an era with many more technology magazines being published than exist today. Do you think it’s possible that InstallAware is at a disadvantage because of the declining journalism industry, to say nothing of the utility of the press release? I do! As noted above, Wikipedia itself outsources many content decisions to the judgment of working journalists, of whom there are fewer than ever. Then again, maybe InstallAware just isn’t very interesting.

♦     ♦     ♦

None of this is to say all of the mistakes are on InstallAware’s side. Their errors are specific, attributable to individuals, and therefore simple to point out. What happened here was a failure of communication on both sides, and Wikipedia’s mistakes are long-term, systemic, with a collective responsibility that is all too easy to ignore.

Herewith, the most important mistakes I believe made on both sides:

  • No one at InstallAware, and neither their specialist, bothered to learn much about Wikipedia. Neither disclosed their conflict of interest nor made any kind of introductory statement to the community about their intention and perspectives. When they finally did try speaking with editors, they didn’t keep it brief, and they didn’t follow standard conventions.
  • On the other side of it, Wikipedia editors didn’t immediately offer useful feedback. Instead both InstallAware accounts received only templated messages. Even if they hadn’t responded, Wikipedians never tried to engage on a human level. Yet I noticed something else while researching this: in 2006 the consultant was in a similar COI situation, and at the time received a friendly response from an actual Wikipedia editor. Ten years later, Wikipedia is less hospitable.
  • InstallAware was unwilling to reconsider that the sources it proffered actually fit the standards Wikipedians ask for. Over the past several months, at least one Wikipedian declining their submission enumerated the ways in which the various sources were insufficient for the purposes of establishing Notability. Maybe these justifications seemed arbitrary, but they aren’t, and InstallAware should have educated itself after the first couple of rejections.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation has not done enough to publicize its disclosure requirements, added to the Terms of Use in 2014, to industry professionals. Likewise, Wikipedians haven’t made this clear enough. Even though the disclosure requirement is featured prominently at AfC, it’s hard to fault anyone for overlooking it. Wikipedia has so many points of advice, it can take years to get up to speed.
  • Independent PR consultants take on too many projects they’re not actually qualified for. Relatedly, advice to companies: don’t hire SEO consultants to run a Wikipedia project. SEO and Wikipedia occupy adjacent spaces, as Wikipedia is famously a top Google search result for nearly everything. But the actual knowledge and skills involved in one or the other are vastly different.
  • A successful Wikipedia consultant spends less time looking for ways to make something happen—the creation of a new article, for example—and more time looking out for things that may cause it not to happen.
  • AfC header

  • AfC doesn’t work when submitters don’t know anything about Wikipedia. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about AfC from Wikipedians over time, and they’re right that it often doesn’t work very well. The InstallAware situation is just a more emphatic version of the usual problem. Submitters don’t know what they’re doing, and Wikipedians are too busy to bother with bedside manner.
  • Likewise, Wikipedia should define more clearly which kind of publications it considers appropriate for verifying notability for extant companies and organizations. Besides the General notability guideline (GNG), applicable Wikipedia guidelines such as Notability (software) and Notability (organizations and companies) offer some wise and unavoidably vague advisories. After all, Wikipedians can’t anticipate future situations which might be ill-served by too-specific rules. But it could be clearer, and it might not hurt to include some examples of acceptable sources and why they are.

Ultimately, the most salient issue in this whole kerfuffle is that InstallAware was unwilling to take “no” for an answer. But a close second is the fact that Wikipedia editors made only a half-hearted effort to communicate with them, and third is that AfC is just about impossible to navigate for anyone. InstallAware is only one company, and if this is actually the end of the road for them at Wikipedia, there will still be countless more companies asking for an entry after them.

Working with companies may not be what gets Wikipedians out of bed in the morning, but so long as the site remains one of the Internet’s top destinations, and maintains its famously low barriers to entry, it’s in Wikipedia’s best interest to improve these processes. Yes, that process is still mostly going to reject drafts of articles about companies, who won’t be happy about it. Hopefully, they won’t feel like they have to write press releases.

Notes   [ + ]

1. And, this being The Wikipedian, I do mean at length.
2. When discussing this topic with non-Wikipedians, I prefer to use the term “eligibility”.
3. Don’t template the regulars”, says an essay familiar to Wikipedians. I think this is backward: don’t template the noobs.
4. “If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to be suitable for a stand-alone article or list.”
5. In Wikipedia circles, this is just about the funniest mistake one can make.
6. Among the questions I asked: Did they know about the WMF Terms of Use disclosure requirements? No, that one had escaped them, and earlier this week the consultant added a disclosure notice to the draft discussion page. An unfortunate error, but a fair course correction. What was their goal with the press release? “To pressure Wikipedia into accountability and rationality.” Which, fair enough.
7. A simple rule of thumb: don’t expect Wikipedians to read past their initial assumptions, let alone spend time correcting your mistakes.
8. and behavior, but that’s another post
9. this note is either an appropriate disclosure that Wikipedia engagement is a key service at my firm, Beutler Ink, or an unsubtle advertisement

Wikipedia is Not Therapy, but it Has its Benefits

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on May 20, 2016 at 4:20 pm by William Beutler

That Wikipedia can be a toxic environment is not lost on many editors who’ve stuck around awhile, and likely even fewer who decide to walk away from the project. Wikipedia has rules—mandatory policies, even—requiring civility and prohibiting harassment, but in a community that prizes free speech and values second chances, these admonitions to good behavior are rarely taken seriously.

The impact this can have on the mental health of key contributors became a heated topic this week, so in the spirit of contributing to a better environment, The Wikipedian is running this guest post—not our first, but it’s been awhile!—from friend of the blog and The Wikipedia Library founder Jake Orlowitz, in this memoir-commentary about the other half of the equation, Wikipedia’s ability to uplift:

♦     ♦     ♦

Journey of a Wikipedian

There’s no one moment when you go insane;

not when

you find yourself crying into a phone behind a closet door

or tapping your foot to neutralize thoughts you can’t handle

or sleeping on a bed of worn clothes on a hard floor

or when the police officer pulls you over again for driving

up and back the same stretch of highway, six times

and not when you physically crack the monitor in a dark room for no reason even though it was the only light left in a night’s center as you tap away at keys throughout the silence

But you occasionally get a glimpse of someone else realizing that, “you’ve lost it”.

It was probably fall 2010. My dad turned the knob on the attic bathroom door in the house where I had grown up, and the reaction on his face was devastated. He didn’t know that no other room in the house, or the country, felt safe to me, that the warm water soothed and wetted the dry, frigid air, that my laptop was balanced purposefully so that it would fall backwards onto the tile rather than into the hip-high water, and that I had chosen the back wall of the tub for its ergonomic watchlist-monitoring suitability.

He didn’t know that. He just saw his 27-year old son, feverishly tinkering with electronics on the edge of a full bath, completely nude, oblivious to anything else, or anything wrong. He also didn’t know that I was helping lead the Egyptian revolution.

That too sounds insane, but as the calendar flipped into January 2011, the new year brought millions to Egypt’s streets. A boy had gone missing, turned up in a morgue clearly beaten beyond breath by police. Facebook pages organized gatherings that filled immense public squares. Protests turned into uprising turned into revolution.

And I, alongside 4 exceptionally dedicated editors from 3 different continents, monitored the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Wikipedia article 24-hours-a-day with equipoise and fervor. We yearned for Mubarak to fall, but in the newsroom which the article’s talkpage had become, we were vigilantly checking multiple independent reports before inputting any new words onto the growing page, scouring the article for flourishes of revolutionary support. The world would come here to find the facts; those that would dispassionately drive understanding without embellishment or motivation, for the hundreds of thousands of people reading that page each day. And I would make sure of it. From my bathtub.

There’s also no one time when sanity returns, if there is such a defined state. But suffice to say that it builds upon moments.

Like the moment when you start chatting off-channel to a Wikipedian on irc-help, just to talk to someone again. Or when you put on a suit for the first time in 6 years, to give a talk on conflict-of-interest to a gathering of pr folks at a posh downtown bar. Or when you step into the hostel at Wikimania in 2012 in D.C. and meet Stu Geiger, your coincidental bunkmate, and instantly recognize his familiar, Wikipedian-ite, eclectic genius.

The moments gather momentum though. Soon you are calling up major media companies to ask for donations. Not as Jake, or that guy who lost a decade in his 20’s, or the model teenager who lapsed into dysfunction and veered ‘off course’. But calling rather, as a piece-of-Wikipedia… Do you know what doors that opens?

The drama of recovery shouldn’t be overly simplified into highlights. It was just as much my psychiatrist’s expert balancing — seeking of psychic neutrality — with a fine and formidable mix of anxiolytics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and sleep aids. Not too high, not too low. Not too moody, not too flat. Every pill presented a trade-off, but we found a consensus pharmacology that worked.

My parents made sure that my rock bottom was somewhere safe.

My friends’ surprise visits reminded me that there was fun yet to be had.

The diagnoses I received were varied and all increasingly off-the mark. I was bipolar, but generally calm through even the grittiest edit wars. I was agoraphobic and socially anxious, but traveling to Hong Kong and Quebec and Berlin for meetups with strangers from myriad countries. I was depressed, but could not control an urge to improve a bit of Wikipedia, every day, most of the day.

They say that Wikipedia is NotTherapy. It’s a serious place to write an encyclopedia, not to iron out one’s mental kinks or cracks. But I think that’s wrong. No one knew me on Wikipedia, except for my words, the wisdom of my input, and the value of my contributions. They couldn’t care less if I was manic, phobic, delusional, or hysterical. It just didn’t matter. They didn’t see that part of me.

So I got to build my identity, my confidence, my vocation — with longwinded eloquent analyses, meticulous bibliographies, and copious rewrites of difficult subjects.

They also say that Wikipedia is Not a social network, but that’s wrong too. In the 8 years since I started editing, first in my car outside a Starbucks, and then throughout the dull shifts of a mountain-town Staples store where I squatted for wifi, and then still more through 3 years back at home under blankets between dusk and dawn, I met hundreds of people with whom I shared the same passion. I received, quite marvelously, 49 barnstars from peers, friends, and fans. There wasn’t a bigger or better sense of validation.

Jake OrlowitzI received two incomparable partners, to build a Wikipedia Library that I created and had become the head of. I received a job offer, with wellness benefits. I also received, in the grand sense of things, an irrepressible, stunning and brilliant girlfriend and her exuberant 5-year old daughter into my life.

You see, Wikipedia brings people together. It brought me together. It just takes some time for everyone to get their heads on straight, before they can see that their lives too have a mission, and an [edit] button.

■     ■     ■

A few thoughts to remember, for online collaborators, or any collaborator, really:

  1. We are a community of very real people with deep emotions and human complexities.
  2. We are deeply invested in our project, so much so it hurts us at times even if it is also a passion or refuge for many.
  3. You never know what someone has been through, or is going through.
  4. We all need help at some point. There is no shame in needing help, asking for help, or receiving help.
  5. If you are ever feeling completely hopeless: Wait. Things really can get better. Talk to someone about it.
  6. Mental health carries a powerful stigma. The more we are open about it, the less that weighs all of us down.
  7. If we listen, we can learn from each other.
  8. We need to be kind. This is a higher calling than civility, and entirely compatible with achieving our goals.
  9. Our movement depends on its people. We are our most valuable resource.
  10. We are not finished products. With time, space, support, and practice — people can, and do, grow and change.

If you ever see someone in need of help, or are seeking it yourself, please contact one of many available 24-hour emergency hotlines, or just dial the local emergency number for your area.

— Jake Orlowitz, User:Ocaasi, @JakeOrlowitz

This text is licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0. It can be shared or reposted without permission under the terms of the Creative Commons license, which requires only attribution and that reusers keep the same license.

Orlowitz post originally published in a slightly different form on Medium.

Image by Christopher Schwarzkopf via Wikimedia Commons.

Everyone’s a Critic: Manson Family Murderer Tex Watson Doesn’t Like His Wikipedia Entry

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on April 4, 2016 at 3:00 pm by William Beutler

It’s not so weird for a prominent figure to solicit changes to their Wikipedia entry. After all, Wikipedia is the only reference website of its profile, thanks in no small part to its ubiquity in Google searches. For better or worse, what Wikipedia has to say overlaps with, and heavily influences, the public’s knowledge on many subjects.

But this one is weird, because the subject is convicted murderer and “Manson family” member Charles “Tex” Watson, currently serving a life sentence in California for his part in the 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate and several others.

At this writing, there isn’t much information to go on—and there may be none forthcoming (although I will certainly update this post if there is). But here’s what’s happened so far: last Thursday, a new message was posted to the discussion section of the Tex Watson Wikipedia entry. The post was not by Watson, nor an interested representative, but a member of Wikipedia’s Volunteer Response Team.[1]called OTRS, for reasons not all that important This included an embedded 5-page PDF featuring a scanned printout from two versions of the very same Wikipedia entry, with handwritten changes and corrections apparently by none other than Tex Watson himself.

A short discussion ensued, with some asking how they could tell for sure if the request came from Watson as claimed. That the PDF came via an official Wikipedia channel was taken as a likely sign of legitimacy, while others pointed out that it should matter less where the questions come from, and more whether any valid points were made. The final comment as of this writing notes that the existing entry lacks citations for many of its claims, so whatever the validity of Watson’s apparent requests, this is entry is not among Wikipedia’s better ones.

For your perusal, here is a link to PDF as hosted on Wikipedia, and below are thumbnails of each page (click on each to read at larger size):

Tex_Watson_1Tex_Watson_2
Tex_Watson_3Tex_Watson_4
Tex_Watson_5

So, what exactly does Tex Watson want? First of all, it’s worth noting that Watson seems to have been working primarily from a version of the entry from February 2016 (the first four pages above) so it doesn’t quite line up with what we see today. This version he compared to at least the first part of the article in August 2013 (the fifth page) which he liked better. Finally, some edits have occurred on the page since last week—but more about those below. Here are some of his specific requests:

  • The article to be returned to Charles “Tex” Watson; it was moved to Tex Watson about two years ago following a short discussion.
  • The nickname “Mad Charlie” removed from the infobox, which he claims is inaccurate.
  • The restoration of a paragraph in the introduction, deleted in August 2013, mentioning his book about the murders.
  • Basically a complete rewrite of his “Early life” section, including details about working at an “onion packing plant saving for college” and as a bag handler for Braniff Airlines.[2]best known to American audiences today as Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s production company on South Park
  • At one point he wasn’t satisfied with the section heading “Cielo Drive murders”, but then changed his mind.
  • Watson asserts that fellow Manson family member Patricia Krenwinkel was the primary killer of victim Abigail Folger, although he says he “assisted”, and denies taking $70 from Folger’s purse. He also disputes Sharon Tate’s last (?) words.
  • To omit the gender of four children he fathered through conjugal visits with his then-wife.
  • To delete an entire paragraph related to a citizen signature drive to oppose parole following the commutation of his sentence from death to life. As he notes in the margins, the section is unsupported by citations.
  • Watson has some kind of issue with the citations included. He actually suggests including the book Helter Skelter, written by the late Vincent Bugliosi, none other than the attorney who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson. He suggests removing a 2009 CNN web story for reasons I can’t quite discern.

And what should we make of all this? Well, I’ll start by taking the potentially controversial position that everyone deserves fair treatment in their Wikipedia biography, even a convicted murderer. As editors on the Watson talk page noted, a point may be valid regardless of where it comes from. This is a more difficult position to stick with when the details concern, you know, Watson’s murder victims. Therefore, determining whether the requests are valid or not may be tricky, but with so much written about the Manson family murders over the past forty-five years, it stands to reason the answers may be found.

And it does seem that Watson has done at least a bit of research into how Wikipedia works: he understands there should be citations, and knows he can lobby for the removal of uncited material—although it seems more likely someone will just find a news story about the signature drive than remove this detail. However, the request to remove details about Watson’s non-famous offspring is one frequently granted to less heinous public figures, so it will be interesting to see if that happens here as well.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out… bringing attention to a specific page can work! It worked for novelist Philip Roth, when he published “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” in The New Yorker in 2012, and it works for brands who post on-point, easy-to-understand requests on talk pages.[3]which, I hasten to add, is something my firm Beutler Ink has done with success for years—although Watson is probably a client we would choose not to take on For Watson, it has already resulted in a handful of edits by two different editors. One has added back a mention of Watson’s book, although not to the introduction. And, until such time as the issues raised by Watson (and others) are addressed, another has added a helpful advisory for readers to consider:

Tex_Watson_warning

Update: Lane Rasberry, the volunteer who handled Watson’s request, has now written a very thoughtful blog post explaining how he decided to take up the request and exploring some related issues, including whether or not prison inmates should have Wikipedia editing privileges. I highly recommend it.

All images via Wikipedia. Five likely also via Charles “Tex” Watson.

Notes   [ + ]

1. called OTRS, for reasons not all that important
2. best known to American audiences today as Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s production company on South Park
3. which, I hasten to add, is something my firm Beutler Ink has done with success for years—although Watson is probably a client we would choose not to take on

A Modest Proposal for Wikimedia’s Future

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on March 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm by William Beutler

On February 25, Lila Tretikov, the embattled executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), finally tendered her resignation. Though an interim successor would not be named until March 10,[1]it is Katherine Maher, previously WMF’s head of communications the Wikimedia movement breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Tretikov’s twenty-two month tenure produced the greatest organizational crisis in Wikimedia’s history.[2]For background, see: an exhaustive timeline by Molly White (User:Gorilla Warfare) with, as she writes, “immense help from many other people”; The Wikipedia Signpost‘s examination of the key issues, “The WMF’s age of discontent” (January 6); and two posts on this blog, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street” (January 11) and “Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov” (February 19). The full story is still the subject of intense disagreement, which later I will argue should be the focus of an official outside audit. Her leadership will be remembered for poor communication, worse management, rapid and unannounced changes in strategy, and a lack of transparency that produced an atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety, one which finally overwhelmed and brought the Tretikov era to an acrimonious end.

Most of all, Lila Tretikov will be remembered for the precipitous decline in staff morale that sent more than two dozen key employees and executives for the exits. The loss of talent, relationships, and institutional memory is devastating, and it is not something the Wikimedia Foundation will recover from soon.

I suggest maybe the WMF should not recover and rebuild itself, at least not exactly like it was. Acknowledging this modest proposal stands to be controversial,[3]possibly just ignored I believe in this tragedy lies an opportunity for the Wikimedia Foundation to reconstitute itself in a way better suited for the challenges facing it at this point in its history.

This would be a WMF that recognizes its primary mission is educational, one that is willing to reconsider what responsibilities it keeps for itself vs. what works better distributed among its affiliates. I argue in this post that it should split its executive leadership into two roles and spin off certain core functions into standalone organizations. Doing so would allow for better transparency, create more opportunities for “WMF-Community” cooperation, and perhaps offer a chance for volunteers to seek a career path within the movement.

The Wikimedia Foundation does not need to do big things. It needs to create an environment for big things to happen.

♦     ♦     ♦

If the WMF is going to reconsider its organizational structure, this is certainly the time to do it. The forest fire of Tretikov’s tenure creates a unique and unexpected opportunity to plant anew. Other questions are already being explored: what will Wikimedia’s next five-year-plan say?[4]The current draft is available for review, and is mostly interesting for its differences from the last version: gone are mentions of “innovation” and “infrastructure”—two things the ill-fated Knowledge Engine could plausibly be accused of representing—while notions of growing the user base and improving quality have been downplayed. Should Jimmy Wales continue to hold his semi-permanent seat on the Board? Are the processes for selecting and vetting the three groups of Board trustees still adequate, the underlying assumptions still operative? How can the Board be induced to act transparently? The Wikimedia Conference coming up in April should be interesting, if not explosive.

All of these are very difficult and important questions, and yet I strongly suggest opening another conversation about the size and scope of WMF responsibilities going forward.[5]I also think five years is too narrow a scope to best plan for the Wikimedia movement’s future, although the current draft says nothing about time frames. Why should the WMF consider radically re-envisioning its organizational structure? Because the WMF as it exists was created to solve a different problem than the one we have now.

When the WMF was launched in 2003, two years after Wikipedia’s creation, “Wikimedia” was a retconned neologism coined to describe a wide-ranging movement not yet fully baked. The WMF was needed to create a backbone for these efforts and give its global volunteer base a strong sense of direction. Under Sue Gardner, the WMF was successful in fulfilling this role.

The present WMF has become, in the pithiest description possible, a fundraising organization in support of a nonprofit web development company and a small-grant issuing organization. To a lesser degree, it has also funded community outreach and the development of membership chapters around the world.

Wikipedia, in its many languages and numerous sister projects—the larger Wikimedia movement with which this post is really concerned—has succeeded in becoming the world’s free resource for knowledge, however imperfect it can be. Maintaining this is a different kind of challenge, and it is inherently a defensive one. Indeed, there is much to defend, and the threats are not imagined.

The first challenge is the changing Internet: Wikipedia’s software and culture came from an Internet dominated by desktop computers accessing the World Wide Web. Today, Internet activity has moved to mobile devices, increasingly inside of apps, which are of course closed platforms. Though WMF’s mobile efforts have come a long way, they are fighting upstream against several currents no one imagined in 2001. The idea of collaboration is as strong as ever, but its tools become weaker all the time.

The second challenge is WMF culture. The Tretikov disaster reveals weaknesses in two of the WMF’s most important functions: the raising of money[6]Knight Foundation and the allocating of money.[7]Knowledge Engine In addition, as described in varying degrees of detail by former staffers, under Tretikov the Foundation had become a toxic workplace environment—but the truth is it had structural issues even before that. Finally, the edifice of a nearly 300-person staff created a kind of intrigue—“Montgomerology”[8]hat tip: Liam Wyatt—that plays out daily on Wikimedia-l,[9]for the uninitiated: a semi-public mailing list populated by Wikimedians; lately the semi-private Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group has formed another locus of discussion and which this blog is frankly obsessed with. Which, I acknowledge, isn’t exactly healthy.

The third challenge, not unrelated, is Wikimedia culture. The English Wikipedia’s volunteer community, the movement’s largest and most influential bloc, is deeply set in its ways. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s extraordinarily high profile contributes to a reluctance to tinker with, let alone radically rethink, how it conducts its business. And several bold initiatives developed within the WMF—including good ideas like the Visual Editor, debatable ideas like the Media Viewer, and bad ideas like the Knowledge Engine—have been received poorly by the community.

In all three cases, solving these problems are more than any one executive can handle alone.

♦     ♦     ♦

So what should happen? First, an apology from the Board of Trustees is definitely in order. Tretikov’s failure is entirely on them as Wikimedia’s ultimate corporate authority. Second, an audit / accounting of the failures of recent years. Wikimedia UK was required to do one following the Gibraltarpedia controversy; what’s good for the chapter is even better for the foundation.

Third, the Board of Trustees should split the role of executive director into two positions: a president and provost, like universities do.[10]Being an educational project, WMF should look to similar institutions for guidance. One becomes the “head of state”, handling the public and fundraising efforts, while the other handles administration and operations. Wikipedia’s high profile means that representing its value and values to the outside world is a full-time job. Regardless of whether Jimmy Wales remains a trustee, Wikipedia needs a new mascot, and it should identify a charismatic leader for this role, who may or may not come from the Wikimedia community. The provost position would be focused on grantmaking, community outreach, and long-term strategy. They must be a good manager and internal communicator, but need not be a big personality. And this person absolutely must come from the Wikimedia movement.

Fourth, and the really hard part, would be the voluntary dispossession of core Wikimedia movement functions from the central organization. The WMF should keep only what is mission critical—fundraising and grantmaking[11]legal and communications, too, of course—and spin off the rest.[12]It has done this once before: that’s the origin story of the Wiki Education Foundation. WMF grants should fund these newly independent foundations, encouraging a reinvigorated support for community-driven organizations.

What is the basis for considering smaller organization sizes? From a theoretical perspective, there’s Dunbar’s number. The larger an organization becomes, the harder it is for everyone to know everyone else and understand what they’re doing. In the business world, this has been seen in the arrested development of agglomeration, once large corporations realized they had become slow and bureaucracy-laden.[13]Anyone else remember The Onion‘s “Just Six Corporations Remain”? Critics of corporate consolidation were caught as flat-footed as the conglomerates they disdained when spin-offs became ever more popular. This is also an operating principle at Amazon, where they call it the “two-pizza rule”.[14]“Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.”

From a practical perspective, the WMF’s behemoth status suits neither its day-to-day operations nor its perceptions by the wider community. As detailed by recently departed veteran staffer Oliver Keyes in The Wikipedia Signpost last month, systemic problems with hiring, promotions, and HR in general were an issue at the WMF well before Tretikov’s arrival. Meanwhile, the WMF itself seems unapproachable, simply too much for anyone to wrap their heads around. Indeed the WMF itself is a conglomerate, of a kind. Creating more community space around its current departments would make each more accessible, generating more “WMF-Community” interactions. This would help greatly with transparency, and make it far easier to start new initiatives.

It all sounds pretty radical—and I’m not saying it isn’t!—but there are good reasons to think a new organizational structure could work. The argument against ultimately relies on an appeal to familiarity, bolstered by inertia.

♦     ♦     ♦

With the caveat that I have never worked at the Wikimedia Foundation, nor in non-profit governance even for a minute, I won’t let that stop me from taking a crack at some specifics. What I write below is merely one way to go about it, and I encourage others—especially those with real WMF experience—to offer their view in the comments. Let’s go:

Among the WMF’s first major grants should be to the new Wikimedia Technology Foundation, containing the current Technology and Product teams. There is no critical reason why it needs to live in the same house as fundraising, and it would benefit from a strong leader with community ties—which it has not had for a long time. After all, even as we’re now sure Discovery is working not on a Google-killer but merely improved site search, it still ranks very low compared to other community-enumerated goals. Doing so would make its efforts more useful to everyday editors, and give it the latitude to develop for the next generation of Wikipedia editors. An early initiative of this spinoff should be to think about how to position Wikipedia for the mobile web and even to consider partnerships with today’s media orgs—not so much the New York Times and CNN, but Facebook and Snapchat.

More complex would be the evolution of Community Engagement, encompassing grantmaking and outreach. WMF grantmaking has nearly always been hampered by thinking too small and funding projects too dispersed and under-staffed to be effective. Through its chapters, user groups, and various grantmaking committees it funds projects for not quite enough money which are basically nights-and-weekends projects, from which very few can draw compensation, thereby limiting their ambitions and achievements.

So while the core function of grantmaking should stay with the provost at the slimmed down WMF, the bulk of its activity should happen outside its walls. And the way this would happen is by the creation of a more ambitious grantmaking operation whose mission is to nurture and develop mini-foundations modeled on GLAM-Wiki US, the Wiki Education Foundation, and WikiProject Med Foundation. Rather than there being one new foundation for community outreach, this needs to be a core capability of every mini-foundation that receives WMF funding.

Among the key projects necessary to a healthy and functioning Wikimedia movement that could benefit from a devolved organization and dedicated funding: The Wikipedia Signpost, which is heroically staffed entirely by volunteers; the Wikimania conference, the locus of numerous organizational failures in recent years; Wikimedia chapter management: the model of volunteer support currently practiced focuses too much on geographic concerns at the expense of thematic topics, with considerable overlap.

Another might be content development: if you look at Wikipedia’s complete list of featured articles, it is arguable the only article categories supported by existing foundations are “art and architecture”, “education” and “health and medicine”, served, respectively, by the three model organizations listed above. Adapting from the list, this leaves dozens of top-level categories unserved by a formal organization, and decreasingly supported as the informal “wikiproject” has withered in recent years.[15]Very few wikiprojects continue to thrive, and the ones that do—Military history and Video games—inadvertently perpetuate Wikipedia’s problems with systemic bias. By creating formal structures with specific outreach to associations and universities along these lines, Wikipedia can create more opportunities for outreach and collaboration.

What’s more, it would create opportunities for Wikimedians, particularly its younger cohort, to choose a career within the movement. Presently, there are too few jobs at libraries and museums to make use of all this talent. While conflict of interest (COI) issues will be justifiably considered, these fears are generally overblown. Nowhere in Wikipedia’s policies or guidelines—and certainly not in the Five Pillars—does it say that Wikipedia must be volunteer-only, and creating staff positions will actually reduce the likelihood editors will “sell out”. Wikimedia has long passed a point of diminishing returns on the volunteer-only model. And you know what? It isn’t entirely that now. We already live in a “mixed economy”, and we owe it to our community members to expand their opportunities. There’s no reason software programmers should be the only ones to earn a living working on Wikimedia projects.

♦     ♦     ♦

Can I summarize all this in a paragraph? I think so: a small constellation of well-funded Wikimedia Foundation spinoffs, each with a strong sense of mission, focused narrowly on the movement’s needs stands a better chance of working more efficiently among themselves and offers many more touch points for the community itself to be involved. Through that, transparency can be improved, both at the WMF parent org and within a reinvigorated movement organized around professionally staffed, standalone foundations doing what each does best. In the gaps between them and the WMF, new opportunities for community involvement would arise for the benefit of all.

Wikimedia is vast, with an incredible diversity of talents and resources. It contains multitudes, and its organizational structure should reflect that.

Notes   [ + ]

1. it is Katherine Maher, previously WMF’s head of communications
2. For background, see: an exhaustive timeline by Molly White (User:Gorilla Warfare) with, as she writes, “immense help from many other people”; The Wikipedia Signpost‘s examination of the key issues, “The WMF’s age of discontent” (January 6); and two posts on this blog, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street” (January 11) and “Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov” (February 19). The full story is still the subject of intense disagreement, which later I will argue should be the focus of an official outside audit.
3. possibly just ignored
4. The current draft is available for review, and is mostly interesting for its differences from the last version: gone are mentions of “innovation” and “infrastructure”—two things the ill-fated Knowledge Engine could plausibly be accused of representing—while notions of growing the user base and improving quality have been downplayed.
5. I also think five years is too narrow a scope to best plan for the Wikimedia movement’s future, although the current draft says nothing about time frames.
6. Knight Foundation
7. Knowledge Engine
8. hat tip: Liam Wyatt
9. for the uninitiated: a semi-public mailing list populated by Wikimedians; lately the semi-private Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group has formed another locus of discussion
10. Being an educational project, WMF should look to similar institutions for guidance.
11. legal and communications, too, of course
12. It has done this once before: that’s the origin story of the Wiki Education Foundation.
13. Anyone else remember The Onion‘s “Just Six Corporations Remain”?
14. “Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.”
15. Very few wikiprojects continue to thrive, and the ones that do—Military history and Video games—inadvertently perpetuate Wikipedia’s problems with systemic bias.

Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov

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on February 19, 2016 at 11:00 am by William Beutler

The Wikimedia Foundation is in open revolt. While the day-to-day volunteer efforts of editing Wikipedia pages continue as ever, the non-profit Foundation, or WMF, is in the midst of a crisis it’s never seen before. In recent weeks, WMF staff departures have accelerated. And within just the past 48 hours, employees have begun speaking openly on the web about their lack of confidence in the leadership of its executive director, Lila Tretikov.

knowledge-engine-rocket

All in all, it’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start to 2016. Controversy in the first weeks of the year focused on the unexplained dismissal from the WMF Board of Trustees of James Heilman, a popular representative of Wikipedia’s volunteer base, before shifting to the unpopular appointment to the WMF Board of Arnnon Geshuri, whose involvement in an anti-competitive scheme as a Google executive led him to resign the position amidst outcry from the staff and community.[1]The denouement of Geshuri’s time at WMF might have been a great post of its own, but I didn’t get to it, and, as usual, Signpost has you covered.

But other issues remained unresolved: WMF employee dissatisfaction with Tretikov was becoming better known beyond the walls of its San Francisco headquarters, while questions mounted about the origin, status and intent of a little-known initiative officially called Discovery, but previously (and more notoriously) known as the “Knowledge Engine”. What was it all about? How do all these things tie together? What on Earth is going on here?

Deep breath.

The strange thing about the Knowledge Engine is that, until very recently, basically nobody knew anything about it—including the vast majority of WMF staff. Not until Heilman identified it as a central issue surrounding his departure from the Board had anyone outside the WMF staff ever heard of it—though in May 2015, a well-placed volunteer visiting HQ[2]specifically, User:Risker, a widely respected former member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee observed that a team called “Search and Discovery” was “extraordinarily well-staffed with a disproportionate number of engineers at the same time as other areas seem to be wanting for them”. This despite the fact that, as we know now, the WMF had sought funding from the Knight Foundation of many millions of dollars, receiving just $250,000 in a grant not disclosed until months later. As recently as this month, a well-considered but still in-the-dark Wikipedia Signpost article asked: “So, what’s a knowledge engine anyway?”

♦     ♦     ♦

After several months of not knowing anything was amiss, followed by weeks of painful acrimony, we think we have the answer: as of February 2016 the mysterious project is in fact a WMF staff-run project to improve Wikipedia’s on-site search with some modest outside funding, which sounds like a good idea, sure, Wikipedia’s on-site search engine isn’t maybe the best, but we also know at some point it was an ambitious project to create a brand new search engine as an alternative to Google. Sometime in 2015 the WMF submitted a proposal to the Knight Foundation asking for a substantial amount of money to fund this project. It is described in still-emerging documents from this grant request as a “search engine”, and several early mock-ups seemed to suggest this was in fact the idea (click through for higher resolution):

Knowledge Engine mid

Why would Wikipedia consider building a search engine, anyway? The most likely answer is fear of being too dependent on Google, which sends Wikipedia at least a third of its total traffic. In recent years, Google has started providing answers to queries directly on the search engine results page (SERPs), often powered by Wikipedia, thereby short-circuiting visits to Wikipedia itself. Tretikov herself, in a rambly January 29 comment on her Meta-Wiki[3]a wiki devoted to, well, meta-topics regarding Wikimedia projects account page, identified “readership decline” as Wikipedia’s most recent challenge.[4]“Our aim was to begin exploring new initiatives that could help address the challenges that Wikipedia is facing, especially as other sources and methods arise for people to acquire knowledge. If you haven’t yet, please have a look at the recent data and metrics which illustrate the downward trajectory our movement faces with readership decline (since 2013), editor decline (since 2007, which we stabilized for English Wikipedia in 2015), and our long standing struggle with conversion from reading to editing. These risks rank very high on my list of priorities, because they threaten the very core of our mission.”

It’s an understandable position: if you are the leader of an organization whose success has been largely described in terms of its overall traffic,[5]#6 in the U.S., #7 worldwide any decline in traffic may be equated with a decline in Wikimedia’s ability to fulfill its mission. I submit this is short-sighted: that Wikipedia has an educational mission whose impact cannot be measured solely in terms of traffic. That Google borrows information from Wikipedia—though they are not alone in this—in such a way that it answers people’s questions before they have to actually click through to en.wikipedia.org is still a win for Wikipedia, even if it reduces the (already low) probability that a reader will become a Wikipedia contributor.[6]See this comment from WMF’s Dario Taraborelli, who argues: “[T]raffic per se is not the goal, the question should be about how to drive back human attention to the source”.

The logic is twisted, but you can follow it: most readers find Wikipedia through a search engine, so if the search engine that helped make Wikipedia the success it is today changes its mind and starts pointing elsewhere, better to get ahead of things and create a new alternative that people will use. I guess? If we accept this reasoning, we still have to confront questions like: Is this actually something the WMF can accomplish? Is this within the WMF’s scope? Is this something that will help Wikipedia accomplish its mission? These are much harder questions for WMF to answer—in part because the answers are “no”, “no”, and “no”—and would absolutely have to be shared with the Wikimedia Board of Trustees ahead of time and, for political reasons, socialized within the Wikipedia community itself. The incident surrounding Heilman’s departure suggests the former was an issue, and the ongoing furor is because the latter obviously did not occur.

Meanwhile, the extreme unwillingness of Lila Tretikov and even Jimmy Wales to talk about it is, in fact, tearing the Wikimedia Foundation apart. Tretikov has lost all remaining credibility with Wikimedia staff and close community observers, not that she had much to begin with. As this week comes to an end, more staffers are quitting, remaining ones are complaining in public, and it seems impossible to imagine Lila Tretikov remaining in charge much longer.

♦     ♦     ♦

If you’ve come to expect a detailed timeline of events from The Wikipedian, I am pleased to say you’ll find just what you’re looking for below, although I’m afraid this whole thing is too large and multifaceted to do proper justice within the space of this already very long post. A full accounting may go back[7]as James Heilman does in his own timeline of events to the mid-2000s, when Jimmy Wales harbored ambitions of building his own search engine—Wikiasari in 2006 and Wikia Search in 2008. It certainly would include a full accounting of the many high-profile WMF staffers to leave since late 2014, and the role Tretikov played in each. It would include a careful examination of what the WMF can and should do in Wikipedia’s name, and an evaluation of how the evolving app-focused Internet raises questions about Wikipedia’s own future.

I think that’s more than I can accomplish in this post.

Instead I want to focus on what’s happening this week. But first we have to fill in some of the blanks. To do so, you’ll want to wind back the clock a few weeks:

  • Let’s start on January 25, when Jimmy Wales called Heilman’s claims that transparency issues were at the core of his dismissal “utter fucking bullshit”. Jimmy Wales is known for occasionally lashing out at pestering editors on his Talk page, and this certainly seems to be one of those times.
  • Jimmy Wales, 2013

  • On January 29, Tretikov made her first public, community-facing statement about the Knight Foundation grant, which was welcomed for showing some self-reflection[8]“It was my mistake to not initiate this ideation on-wiki. Quite honestly, I really wish I could start this discussion over in a more collaborative way, knowing what I know today.” but also raised more questions than it answered.
  • On February 1 WMF developer Frances Hocutt stated[9]on Tretikov’s discussion page, no less that employees were being “censured for speaking in ways that I have found sharply critical but still fundamentally honest and civil”.
  • Don’t skip the aforementioned “So, what’s a knowledge engine anyway?” investigation by Andreas Kolbe for The Signpost, published February 8, still the most comprehensive evaluation of this multifaceted controversy.
  • We then jump ahead to February 11, when Wales was still doing his “Baghdad Bob” routine, publicly insisting to Wikipedia editors that any suggestion WMF had ever considered building a search engine was “a total lie”.[10]Full quote: “To make this very clear: no one in top positions has proposed or is proposing that WMF should get into the general “searching” or to try to “be google”. It’s an interesting hypothetical which has not been part of any serious strategy proposal, nor even discussed at the board level, nor proposed to the board by staff, nor a part of any grant, etc. It’s a total lie.”
  • Just hours later, WMF comms uploaded the Knight Foundation grant agreement itself to the WMF’s own wiki, confirming for the first time, in public, that WMF was describing the project as “the Internet’s first transparent search engine”. The Signpost has the most detailed breakdown not only of the grant agreement, but also three supplemental documents which were leaked to the Signpost but have not been made public at this time.
  • Also read this powerfully-argued blog post by Wikipedia veteran Liam Wyatt about the poor strategic decision-making that led to the current controversy.[11]“It seems to me extremely damaging that Lila has approached an external organisation for funding a new search engine (however you want to define it), without first having a strategic plan in place. Either the Board knew about this and didn’t see a problem, or they were incorrectly informed about the grant’s purpose. Either is very bad.”
  • You might then have a look at The Register, always snarky, but with a decent summary of where things stood last week, just before it became newsworthy. I definitely recommend this February 15 story by Vice’s Motherboard about the fiasco (and this follow-up)[12]Both of which quote yours truly, so take that into consideration. but skip this Newsweek story except to see how the media was, for a brief moment, cluelessly reporting that Wikipedia was taking on Google.[13]This story has since been corrected, albeit on an insignificant, unrelated point.
  • However incomplete, I think this upshot from The Verge is a good enough summary, at least for public purposes:
    • Whether Wikimedia’s plans just naturally evolved [away from the search engine project] or whether it was responding to the community’s response is difficult to say, but the organization is now, at least, claiming it does not want to square up to Google, but just improve its own product.

  • As all this was unfolding, the exodus of key WMF staff was accelerating. On February 8, Tretikov announced on Wikimedia-l that Luis Villa, head of the Community Engagement department and previously a member of the WMF’s legal team, would be leaving.
  • At least Tretikov seemed to be in control of that one. Because the next day Anna Koval, a manager of the education program, announced her own departure on the mailing list.
  • And then on Friday, February 12, a very big resignation letter dropped on the Wikimedia-l: that of Siko Bouterse, another veteran leader who had long provided a crucial link between the Wikipedia volunteer community and the professional WMF staff. Careful with her words, Bouterse wrote:
    • Transparency, integrity, community and free knowledge remain deeply important to me, and I believe I will be better placed to represent those values in a volunteer capacity at this time.

  • Messing up my timeline a bit, but still worth noting: Hocutt, the developer who had made public internal fears about silencing dissent, announced her own (albeit temporary) departure in yet another Wikimedia-l post on February 17, noting her leave was “due in part to stress caused by the recent uncertainty and organizational departures.”

♦     ♦     ♦

Finally, on February 16, Lila Tretikov published an open letter[14]Co-authored by Vice President of Product Wes Moran on the Wikimedia blog titled “Clarity on the future of Wikimedia search”. Alas, it wasn’t terribly clarifying: it seemed aimed at the clueless mainstream journalists like the one at Newsweek, and not at the Wikipedia community who knew which information gaps actually needed to be filled in. It began:

Over the past few weeks, the Wikimedia community has engaged in a discussion of the Wikimedia Foundation’s plans for search and discovery on the Wikimedia projects.

Lila_Tretikov_16_April_2014Well, that is certainly one way to put it! Put another way, you have been backed into a corner defending the untenable proposition that Wikipedia has never considered building a search engine, and now that the mainstream press is reporting, based on your own documents, that you are building a search engine, one certainly has to say something about it.

After much boilerplate about the growth of Wikipedia and its many achievements, Tretikov and Moran finally get around to the point:

What are we not doing? We’re not building a global crawler search engine. We’re not building another, separate Wikimedia project. … Despite headlines, we are not trying to compete with other platforms, including Google.

This seems to be true, insofar as there is no search project currently. However, Wales had previously locked himself into the position that there was never a search project originating from WMF, and by now we know that is obviously false. Without any acknowledgement in this letter, it is useless. But it’s worse than that:

Community feedback was planned as part of the Knowledge Engine grant, and is essential to identifying the opportunities for improvement in our existing search capacity.

We are 10 months past the initial plans for this far-reaching, mission statement-busting project, six months past the award of a grant to pursue this quixotic effort, and not two months removed from the violent ejection of a Board trustee over the matter… and all you can say is “feedback was planned”?

Finally, the closest thing to acknowledging the Knowledge Engine was, at some point, actually a search engine:

It is true that our path to this point has not always been smooth, especially through the ideation phase.

And nothing more.

The first comment on the post was brutal, bordering on uncivil, from a retired editor. It concluded:

You are either:
a. Flat out lying, and hoping we don’t actually read the grant,
b. Have misled the Knight Foundation as to your intentions for their grant money, or
c. Seriously incompetent and should never be put in charge of writing a grant application
None of these options look good for the WMF.

A few hours later, a member of WMF’s Discovery team gamely stepped forward and tried to offer a plausible explanation for how the grant request did not necessarily imply a Google-competitive search engine project—damage control, essentially—but still had to concede the wording of the grant did not make Tretikov or WMF look good: “It is ambiguous. I can’t speak to the intent of the authors and while there are current WMF staff listed, they are not the sole authors of the document.”

Finally, a day later, a true hero emerged in Max Semenik, another Discovery team engineer, mostly unknown to the community, and who was willing to take off his PR hat to say what everyone pretty much knew:

Yes, there were plans of making an internet search engine. I don’t understand why we’re still trying to avoid giving a direct answer about it. …

The whole project didn’t live long and was ditched soon after the Search team was created, after FY15/16 budget was finalized, and it did not have the money allocated for such work … However, ideas and wording from that search engine plan made their way to numerous discovery team documents and were never fully expelled. …

In the hindsight, I think our continued use of Knowledge Engine name is misleading and should have ended when internet search engine plans were ditched. No, we’re really not working on internet search engine.

Now that sounds like a real answer! What’s more, it also provides the outlines of a believable story as to why the Knight Foundation grant included language about the search engine, even if it wasn’t then the plan. This is transparency of a sort! But it’s transparency of the last-ditch kind. That it had to come from a low-level engineer indicates there is a major problem, and speaks to the fact that the WMF simply cannot go on this way.

At a time when Wikipedia has already-existing problems, the WMF was asking for money to basically create a whole new set of problems. That is the mark of an organization, if not a movement, adrift. Clearly, they pitched a search engine to Knight, and they asked for millions—I have heard the number placed at $100 million over 5 years—later reduced to $12 million, of which Knight provided $250K to build a plan—essentially a pat on the head: ‘since we like you, here’s a few bucks to come up with a better idea’.

knowledge-engineMysteries remain: where did the idea come from, who championed it, when did it die—or when did it recede and what happened afterward? One answer is supplied in another comment on this public thread (!) from yet another WMF team member (!) pointing a finger at former VP of Engineering Damon Sicore as having “secretly shopped around grandiose ideas about a free knowledge search engine, which eventually evolved into the reorg creating the Discovery team.” Sicore left in July 2015. A big remaining question, for which there is no answer at this time: when the actual grant was submitted to the Knight Foundation.

An argument I have heard in recent days is that it’s common in grant-making to try for everything you can and see what actually sticks. This may be true, but if so, it doesn’t seem to have been worth it. That WMF leadership felt they had to hide the fact later on also underlines the mistake they knew they were making.

Another big question: how does this affect Wikipedia’s public reputation, particularly among donors, most especially among foundations? You have to think the answer is a lot. The WMF looks like the Keystone Kops. Why would you give it money? And right now, the Knight Foundation specifically must be asking what it’s got itself into.

♦     ♦     ♦

Within the last 24 hours, the trickle of public criticism about Tretikov has become a widening stream. Some of it is taking place in the above comment thread, plenty is still happening at Wikimedia-l, but a lot of it has moved to a semi-private Facebook group called Wikipedia Weekly, where staffers previously not known for voicing internal dissent have been speaking quite frankly about how bad things are at 149 New Montgomery Street.[15]Example: “Dozens of staff formally warned the Board and Leadership months ago that this would happen. Sadly, we were right. But it was entirely predictable, and preventable.”

Yesterday afternoon on the mailing list, a developer named Ori Livneh replied to a plea for calm by community Board trustee Dariusz Jemielniak by explaining why they could not remain silent:

My peers in the Technology department work incredibly hard to provide value for readers and editors, and we have very good results to show for it. Less than two years ago it took an average of six seconds to save an edit to an article; it is about one second now. (MediaWiki deployments are currently halted over a 200-300ms regression!). Page load times improved by 30-40% in the past year, which earned us plaudits in the press and in professional circles. …

This is happening in spite of — not thanks to — dysfunction at the top. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is wait: an exodus of people from Engineering won’t be long now. Our initial astonishment at the Board’s unwillingness to acknowledge and address this dysfunction is wearing off. The slips and failures are not generalized and diffuse. They are local and specific, and their location has been indicated to you repeatedly.

Shortly thereafter Asaf Bartov—one of WMF’s more outspoken staffers, even prior to the last 48 hours—voiced his agreement and turned his comments back to Jemielniak:

Thank you, Ori. +1 to everything you said. We have been laboring under significant dysfunction for more than a year now, and are now in crisis. We are losing precious colleagues, time, money, *even more* community trust than we had previously squandered, and health (literally; the board HR committee has been sent some details). Please act. If for some reason the board cannot act, please state that reason. Signal to us, community and staff, by concrete words if not by deeds, that you understand the magnitude of the problem.

And then, about 10 minutes later, Lila Tretikov posted to this very conversation thread, and this is all she had to say:

For a few 2015 accomplishments by the product/technical teams you can see them listed here:

https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/2015_Wikimedia_Foundation_Product_and_Technology_Highlights

That is the complete text of her emailed post. That is really all she had to say, in a public thread specifically criticizing her leadership and all but explicitly calling for her removal. One gets the feeling, at this point, even Lila Tretikov just wants it to be over.

♦     ♦     ♦

In the early morning hours of February 19, a WMF software engineer named Kunal Mehta wrote an impassioned, rather forlorn post on his personal blog, titled: “Why am I still here?”:

Honestly, I don’t understand why the current leadership hasn’t left yet. Why would you want to work at a place where 93% of your employees don’t believe you’re doing a good job, and others have called you a liar (with proof to back it up) to your face, in front of the entire staff? I don’t know everything that’s going on right now, but we’re sick right now and desperately need to move on. …

I love, and will always love Wikimedia, but I can’t say the same about the current state of the Wikimedia Foundation. I’ve been around for nearly nine years now (nearly half my life), and it feels like that world is slowly crumbling away and I’m powerless to stop it.

240px-Wikimedia_Foundation_RGB_logo_with_textAnd that’s why there is really just no way Lila Tretikov can continue to lead the WMF. A week ago, the thinking was: the Board of Trustees chose her over James Heilman, so they’re really sticking with her. At the time it also seemed like the Knowledge Engine was a going concern, and their support for her owed to their insistence on moving ahead with the project above community and staff objections. Knowing what we do now, it’s inexplicable. The thinking now is: she obviously has to go, and the only reason the Board might have for not acting on it would be legal considerations.

For the sake of Wikipedia’s future, the Wikimedia Foundation needs new leadership. Lila Tretikov must resign, or she must be replaced. This is the most challenging blog post I’ve ever had to write at The Wikipedian. The next one, I hope, will be about the start of the turnaround.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The denouement of Geshuri’s time at WMF might have been a great post of its own, but I didn’t get to it, and, as usual, Signpost has you covered.
2. specifically, User:Risker, a widely respected former member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee
3. a wiki devoted to, well, meta-topics regarding Wikimedia projects
4. “Our aim was to begin exploring new initiatives that could help address the challenges that Wikipedia is facing, especially as other sources and methods arise for people to acquire knowledge. If you haven’t yet, please have a look at the recent data and metrics which illustrate the downward trajectory our movement faces with readership decline (since 2013), editor decline (since 2007, which we stabilized for English Wikipedia in 2015), and our long standing struggle with conversion from reading to editing. These risks rank very high on my list of priorities, because they threaten the very core of our mission.”
5. #6 in the U.S., #7 worldwide
6. See this comment from WMF’s Dario Taraborelli, who argues: “[T]raffic per se is not the goal, the question should be about how to drive back human attention to the source”.
7. as James Heilman does in his own timeline of events
8. “It was my mistake to not initiate this ideation on-wiki. Quite honestly, I really wish I could start this discussion over in a more collaborative way, knowing what I know today.”
9. on Tretikov’s discussion page, no less
10. Full quote: “To make this very clear: no one in top positions has proposed or is proposing that WMF should get into the general “searching” or to try to “be google”. It’s an interesting hypothetical which has not been part of any serious strategy proposal, nor even discussed at the board level, nor proposed to the board by staff, nor a part of any grant, etc. It’s a total lie.”
11. “It seems to me extremely damaging that Lila has approached an external organisation for funding a new search engine (however you want to define it), without first having a strategic plan in place. Either the Board knew about this and didn’t see a problem, or they were incorrectly informed about the grant’s purpose. Either is very bad.”
12. Both of which quote yours truly, so take that into consideration.
13. This story has since been corrected, albeit on an insignificant, unrelated point.
14. Co-authored by Vice President of Product Wes Moran
15. Example: “Dozens of staff formally warned the Board and Leadership months ago that this would happen. Sadly, we were right. But it was entirely predictable, and preventable.”

Twitter and Wikipedia: Parallel Challenges

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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 the “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

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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!

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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?

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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

Tagged as , , , , , ,
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

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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!

♦     ♦     ♦

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)