William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for 2009

All the Rage: Raging Again

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on December 1, 2009 at 9:39 pm

When I launched The Wikipedian in the spring, one of my initial plans that fell by the wayside was the continuation of a weekly feature at my ever occasional political site, Blog P.I. called “All the Rage”. The feature, made possible by Craig Wood‘s WikiRage tool identifying the most-edited articles across Wikipedia according to various periods of time, sought to explain why certain articles happened to be trending during a given week. Today at last, “All the Rage” returns on a trial basis. (Let’s say for now, monthly?)

So let’s take a look at the ten-most edited articles* on the English Wikipedia for November 2009:

  1. 2012 (film) — The surprise fall box office hit is the surprise most-edited Wikipedia article for the month. And, apart from a one-week period in the middle of November (when the film was released) one of the most-vandalized.
  2. Assassin’s Creed II — The next installment in a video game series, the first of which I’d been led to believe received a mixed reaction from critics. No matter, Roland Emmerich’s previous films were no masterpieces either, and look how his latest did.
  3. Rated R (Rihanna album) — The first album from R&B singer Rihanna since the all-too-public incident wherein she suffered a brutal beating from then-boyfriend (and fellow R&B artist) Chris Brown debuted well in early release.
  4. The X Factor (UK series 6) — How long before this very popular UK talent show crosses the pond to the United States? Difficult to say. No doubt multi-millionaire host Simon Cowell could import it stateside alongside the Idol franchise if he cared to do so.
  5. Robert Enke — This 32-year-old German football (soccer) goalkeeper committed suicide on November 10. I’m not quite sure why this page, except that the obviously sudden news caused a sudden spike in traffic (and edits) suggesting his fame in Germany exceeded that of sportswriter Mike Penner in the United States or model Daul Kim in South Korea. Hidden in the revisions are clues to the possible motivations, however morbid. On a somewhat lighter note, I did just learn that Wikipedia has a category titled Suicides by jumping in front of a train.
  6. Berlin Wall — Did something happen with that twenty years ago this past month?
  7. Left 4 Dead 2 — Another video game sequel. Scoff if you must, but this zombie shoot-’em-up does feature one shockingly complete article after two weeks’ release.
  8. Dancing with the Stars (U.S. season 9) — This is the show that readers of Blog P.I. might remember as the one in which former House Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay took part. You may wish to forget, but YouTube never will.
  9. John & Edward — If you’ve been wondering what that “JEdward” phrase in Twitter’s top searches was all about (and are not yet hip to What the Trend) then wonder no more. And blame Simon Cowell.
  10. Kesha (singer) — Who? Another singer, this one with only a hit single to her name but also a deletion debate and argument over whether the article should be named Ke$ha like her stylized stage name. Current consensus: no. Check in after her first album debuts in early 2010.

That’s about all for now, folks. We’ll see you next time we play “All the Rage”.

___
*Almost. We will be doing a few things different this time around. One is that we will not profile articles scheduled for feature on the Main page — in most cases, these are Featured articles. We will, however, mention them in an “honorable mention”-type section here in the footer. One perennial, and the only article affected this time, is Deaths in 2009 (or soon enough, Deaths in 2010).

Who’s The Idiot?

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on November 30, 2009 at 9:28 pm

wikipedia-iggy-pop-idiotSo I’d thought that Stephen Colbert had finally quenched the national and political media’s thirst for amusement derived from Wikipedia vandalism, but The Hill newspaper has proved me wrong. If you are not following the 2012 presidential campaign three years out, you may have missed the storm today surrounding 2008 Republican dark horse (and arguable Romney spoiler) Mike Huckabee.

In 2000, serving in his capacity as governor of Arkansas, Huckabee granted clemency to a convicted felon who is currently a suspect in the murder of four police officers in a suburb of Tacoma, Washington. [Update: Was at the time. Hours later, Maurice Clemmons, the aforementioned felon, was killed by Seattle police.] Being a national news event, perhaps the best source of reported information is Wikipedia’s Lakewood police officer shooting article.

But it’s the article about Huckabee that caught The Hill’s attention, because earlier today, this was added to the lead paragraph:

WILL FOREVER BE KNOWN AS THE IDIOT WHO RELEASED THE COP KILLER MAURICE CLEMMONS HE WAS SERVING A 35 YEAR SENTENCE FOR ARMED ROBBERY THE IDIOT RELEASED HIM AFTER 9 YEARS

In addition, next to Huckabee’s name in the infobox sidebar, the following clarification was noted thusly:

THE IDIOT

Yep, that sure is Wikipedia vandalism. And The Hill had quite the hot scoop, because the vandalism was gone within 10 minutes, and The Hill’s date stamp is just three minutes before it was reverted.

The Hill’s Jordan Fabian commented:

Any Internet user can edit or write Wikipedia entries, it is not clear who edited the page under the site’s revision history.

Well, in fact we can know that the vandal is in Seattle, simply because that IP address traces to that area. We can also look at the IP user’s previous edits, which include the clumsy expansion / temporary vandalism of the article about South Puget Sound Community College (his alma mater?) and editing the article of Golden Girls actress Betty White (?) to note something clearly heard on Seattle radio.

And then, as Wikipedia would hope, it was removed by a user just as anonymous as the one who added it. Or to quote the first commenter on The Hill’s breakthrough story:

Non-story, welcome to Wikipedia.

What Does Objectivism Have to Do With Wikipedia?

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on November 28, 2009 at 10:25 am

Writer Evgeny Morozov has a long essay about Wikipedia, organized as a review of Andrew Lih‘s “The Wikipedia Revolution“, in the latest issue of Boston Review. Morozov identifies his chosen takeaway in a post on his blog, but I’m interested in what he has to say, via Lih’s book, about how Wikipedia’s co-founders first met through their shared regard for the philosophy of Ayn Rand:

wikipedia_randTwo of Wikipedia’s co-founders found each other on philosophy-related mailing lists. Indeed Sanger has a philosophy PhD (his Ohio State doctoral thesis is titled “Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-Justification”), while Wales almost completed a PhD in finance. They came to the project with assumptions about human cooperation that appear to be rooted in philosophy, economics, and evolutionary psychology (among other disciplines), but those ideas are poorly articulated in the book.

Lih does point out that Sanger and Wales were heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (shades of Alan Greenspan), according to which, reality exists independent of consciousness and life’s great purpose is the rational pursuit of self-interest. Wales’s fascination with Rand was so deep that he even named his daughter after a protagonist in one of Rand’s books. But Lih does not explain the steps from Objectivism to an encyclopedia that “could detail what is true in the world without judgments.” After all, didn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for that matter) aim to check judgments at the door and detail only “what is true in the world”? And isn’t that the aim of the new computational search engine, WolframAlpha? How does Objectivism enter the picture?

Maybe it doesn’t.

I’ve puzzled over this fact, as well. One of the core tenets of Objectivism is that altruism is no virtue. From Wikipedia’s Objectivism (Ayn Rand) entry:

A corollary to Rand’s endorsement of self-interest is her rejection of the ethical doctrine of altruism—which she defined in the sense of Auguste Comte’s altruism (he coined the term), as a moral obligation to live for the sake of others.

Yet Wikipedia’s volunteer-driven non-commercial nature seems the very definition of altruism. As an amateur observer of Objectivism and Objectivists — I ran a libertarian-leaning magazine in college — my best reconciliation is that so long as one’s motives for editing (or creating) Wikipedia are defined in terms of one’s own self-interest then there is no contradiction. If one derives personal value from research and writing for its own sake, or from esteem among one’s peers (fellow Wikipedians) then it makes perfect sense. In that case, production of an online encyclopedia useful to the world is a happy byproduct. However, If Wales or Sanger have discussed Wikipedia vis-à-vis Rand, it would be news to me.

So if the question is, how does Objectivism enter the picture, I presume that it doesn’t necessarily explain anything and that it’s entirely possible Wales and Sanger could have met on a listserv for almost any intellectual pursuit.

But Morozov is not done with Rand yet; his criticism of Lih’s book is that it raises a few theories about what motivates Wikipedians without arriving at a conclusion. Since Lih’s book is primarily a lay history of Wikipedia it doesn’t seem fair to me that Lih should have had a unified theory ahead of writing the book, though he did devote space to the subject. Morozov asks:

wikipedia_kropotkinLih relies on the work of Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler to address the puzzle. Benkler’s studies of “peer production” draw on the thought of Russian anarchist Piotr Kropotkin, who believed that cooperation is as important in the evolution of species as competition and that “mutual aid” is essential to human survival. Lih does not mention that Rand and Kropotkin are not exactly intellectual soulmates. Lih also does not explain how these two diverging philosophies—one prizing egoism, the other altruism—could live happily together in one site.

Morozov has been doing original research, because while Benkler and Kropotkin both appear in the book, they do not come within 65 pages of each other. Anyway, here is what Lih says about Benkler’s proposed explanation for Wikipedian motivations on p. 108:

He asserts that motivation comes from two main things other than money: the “socio-psychological” reward of interacting with others, and the “hedonic” personal gratification of the task.

Which is essentially identical to the rational self-interest described above; just because Randians are strong advocates for a capitalist economy does not mean they love only money. And even if there was a contradiction here, all one must do is look to Wikipedia’s pillars to see how the ideas of Rand and Kropotkin may coexist on Wikipedia in NPOV as a principle and policy.

That said, Morozov’s essay is otherwise well worth reading, as it delves into worthwhile questions about Wikipedia’s structural biases, such as its heavy reliance upon online sources (nearly always found via Google) and resulting quandaries such as determining whether a person from the 1920s may be considered Notable. Questions such as these, rather than the influence of Ayn Rand, are what keep Wikipedians up at night.

The Archangel, the Renaissance Master and the Ninja Turtle

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on November 22, 2009 at 3:37 pm

raphael-angel     raphael-painter     raphael-tmnt

Back in March I considered the subject of “wikigroaning”—a joke / criticism about Wikipedia popularized on the Something Awful Internet forum in 2007. The idea is this: Sometimes, Wikipedia articles on weighty subjects are shorter and less well-developed than articles about similar, less-weighty subjects.

What I found was that this critique no longer applied to a comparison of “Lightsaber combat” vs. “Modern warfare“; the former entry no longer strictly exists, as the page now redirects to the larger topic of “Lightsaber” while the latter is essentially a hub for accessing articles on various sub-topics (assymetric warfare, biological warfare, etc.).

Today, let’s look at another one suggested by Something Awful members: Raphael (archangel) vs. Raphael (ninja turtle). How do the two compare?

Superficially, the joke is on Wikipedia: the main text of the article about the comic book character is approximately 3,000 words long, whereas the one about the Judeo-Christian figure is about 1,350. But here’s the thing—the TMNT-related article is basically devoid of any citations, and was clearly written by fans of the various comic books, TV shows and movies in which he appears. One might assume that the details should be relatively accurate, as it doesn’t seem to be a contentious subject, but who is to say? One citation is provided for the entire article, and indeed the article has been tagged as needing citations since December 2007:

wiki-raphael-warning

That’s almost two years in which fans have been stopping by to work on the article, but no one has yet bothered to clean up problems identified by a non-fan editor, nor have they bothered to provide citations to verify any of it. From this we can infer that most editors on this particular article are focused on this particular topic and are not involved with Wikipedia otherwise.

Meanwhile there is another problem with this article. While much of it summarizes discrete events that occur in the TMNT series, other sections read as commentary on / interpretations of the character. For example:

He has an extremely loyal side and is the first to react when another of his brothers is in trouble. This happens on numerous occasions, like when he stops a blow from hitting Donatello using only his sais or kicks the Shredder away from Leonardo when the latter is about to attack.

So one could certainly verify the existence of a particular scene by citing directly from the comics. Yet the interpretation of Raphael’s actions is left to the reader, and adding this information directly to Wikipedia is a clear-cut case of original researchexpressly forbidden by Wikipedia guidelines.

What is one to do if there is no published commentary on this aspect of the character’s personality? Is it then to be left out of Wikipedia entirely? In theory, yes. In practice, no. I could remove this section immediately and much more of the article if it so pleased me. But you know what? I won’t do it. The article isn’t hurting anyone, so in that way its relative frivolity helps. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that many or most of these interpretations could be found in published reviews, and without having done this I’m disinclined to delete someone’s sincere work, however inexpert. As a known issue, Wikipedia has an informal term for this type of material: fancruft. Fancruft is often deleted, but this much is so far not offensive enough to merit outright deletion.

tmnt-coverAnd how about the archangel? For an article about a Biblical figure I am surprised that it is not better. Only seven citations have been provided, and sections including “Raphael in Islam” and “Raphael in Paradise Lost” have none whatsoever. The quality of the writing is likewise uneven. Clearly, different sections within the article are substantially the work of different editors, and I would probably base my trust in each section according to the quality of the prose. Unsurprisingly, the better-written sections are also the ones with more sources.

But let’s now finally address the obvious: Something Awful seems to have made a mistake, because the Raphael the turtle is not named for Raphael the archangel. He is named for the Renaissance artist, just like his ninja turtle brothers Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Donatello.

Before we come to a final conclusion, let us consider the article about the real person, which is simply titled Raphael. And guess what? It’s the best of the bunch, and it’s not even close. The article is more than 6,000 words, well-written, well-sourced (84 in-line citations, nearly all from serious biographies) and well-illustrated (easy to do when the subject’s work is all public domain). There is not even a mention of the TMNT character, although it has been suggested before and appropriately rejected.

Did Something Awful purposefully avoid making the comparison? Hard to say. In 2007 the article about the Renaissance master was much shorter and completely unsourced, though carefully-written. At that time, the article about the ninja turtle was certainly longer but also less sophisticated.

According to the original Something Awful post, the criteria was simply an assesment of which article is “longer.” But this is too simplistic—it should be obvious that not all words are equal. Just as Something Awful seeks to highlight the mistake of determine a subject’s importance by the space allotted on Wikipedia, it’s also a mistake to assume that the quality of an article is directly correlated with the number of words contained within.

Both are important to keep in mind when reading Wikipedia. How many readers approach the site with these considerations in mind? That’s what I’d like to know.

Images via Wikipedia.

Examples of Bias in Conservapedia’s Examples of Bias in Wikipedia

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on November 14, 2009 at 3:07 pm

conservapedia_logoI can’t say that I spend much time thinking about Conservapedia, the creationist wiki created as a counterpoint to Wikipedia, but today I happened to find myself on the page titled “Examples of Bias in Wikipedia“. As you might expect, it’s a fun one. The one-line introduction to the page states:

The following is a growing list of examples of liberal bias, deceit, frivolous gossip, and blatant errors on Wikipedia.

It certainly is growing. The list of examples stands at 150 and counting as of this writing, and it defies easy summary. Many relate to disagreements over the portrayal of religion and use of international or non-U.S. standards, or complaints that certain details they find important have not been included on certain pages. For example, one of the most recent (#150) states:

Wikipedia’s Nidal Malik Hasan article fails to mention any connection to Obama’s transition government.

It’s true that Hasan participated in a task force associated with a GWU think tank that offered advice to Obama’s transition team. In fact, the detail has been considered for inclusion on the article about Hasan. Maybe something about it will be, however if it does it will surely fail to imply… whatever it is that this factoid is supposed to imply.

And then there are some objections (#2) that would never have occurred to me:

Wikipedia’s article on engineering features a photo of … an offshore wind turbine, which is an inefficient liberal boondoggle and certainly not a representative example of engineering. None even exist off the shores of the United States because they are not competitive.

Actually, as of today there is no such photograph in that particular article. Victory for Conservapedia! As it happens, there are other cases where the Conservapedia perspective has “won”; here (#45) is another:

Wikipedia has once again deleted all content on the North American Union. The old pages are inaccessible, and re-creation is blocked.

Turns out, there is now a North American Union article, and has been since December 2007, following a period where it indeed had been deleted. This was certainly in error, as the concept has received plenty of coverage — the article has nearly 50 sources.

And then there are some examples (#14) which are not, in fact, genuine examples:

In his article entitled Wikipedia lies, slander continue, journalist Joseph Farah supports his observation that Wikipedia “is not only a provider of inaccuracy and bias. It is wholesale purveyor of lies and slander unlike any other the world has ever known.”

Well, I am sure he is sincere in this belief, but I would still have to tag that “citation needed”.

Conservapedia logo via Conservapedia.

Ken Auletta on Wikipedia

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on October 30, 2009 at 11:46 am

On Sunday November 1, New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta will appear on C-SPAN‘s “Q&A” with host and network founder Brian Lamb. In the three-minute excerpt below, Auletta talks about Google’s algorithm, search engine optimization, and Wikipedia:

Auletta’s expertise stretches far beyond the media mogul interviews he writes for his magazine’s editors — in 2001 he wrote a book on Microsoft and its enemies — but wait for the part where Lamb stumps Auletta on Google search results.

The CIA Director’s “Occasional” Wikipedia Habit

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on October 21, 2009 at 5:57 am

Via C-SPAN, here is a short clip of CIA director Michael Hayden speaking at Georgetown University‘s Center for Peace and Security Studies on Monday, October 19, in which he makes some generally on-point—if perhaps overly skeptical—observations regarding Wikipedia:

It’s a short clip, so I don’t know if he mentioned the U.S. government’s Intellipedia program or not. If you saw the full speech, please share your thoughts in the comments.

More Ironic than an Alanis Morissette Song

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on October 12, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Every once in awhile you just come across something like this which makes you out laugh out loud and start showing it to people sitting next to you. For me, this is such a something:

wikipedia-original-research

There is an explanation, and some additional curiosity, in the fact that the idea of “original research” as conceptually separable from “research” is primarily a concept at Wikipedia—namely that information in articles should be previously published in reliable sources, which makes this a self-referential article. Wikipedia usually tries to avoid having articles about Wikipedia-related subjects that have not gained currency off-site. For example, “Neutral point of view” has no dedicated article separate from Objectivity, while the Wikipedia biography controversy involving John Seigenthaler does. Should this article exist? It’s been debated before, and even put up for deletion before, but consensus has never been achieved, and others have floated potential sources for inclusion in the article.

Oh, and it doesn’t take all that much to be more ironic than the song referenced in the title; as the “Linguistic usage disputes” section of the Wikipedia article about the song notes, by most definitions the situations posited in Alanis’ song fail the requirements of irony. And that’s kind of ironic, don’t you think?

Change Your Wikitude

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on October 4, 2009 at 10:00 am

wikitude_itunesBecause I work in social media, every so often I’ll get the question: So, what’s the big new thing? For a couple of years now the answer has been “Twitter,” but the micro-blogging service finally “arrived” in early 2009, so I’ve needed a new answer. Lately, I’ve settled on “augmented reality.” As Wikipedia describes it:

Augmented reality (AR) is a term for a live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are merged with-, or augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery – creating a mixed reality.

I.e. Terminator-vision, more or less. Now that the iPhone, Android-enabled devices and many more smartphones on the way have cameras and GPS (and compass in the iPhone 3GS) it becomes possible to determine where someone is, what they are looking at and serve up information to them on the spot. And it’s a no-brainer to imagine that one of the first information resources likely to be used is Wikipedia—especially considering how many articles about real-world objects contain geographic coordinates for their subjects (for this you can thank the people at WikiProject Geographical coordinates).

Just this week a program called Wikitude, available to Android users for several months, hit the iTunes store. Wikitude actually pulls information from elsewhere too, but like the name implies, Wikipedia is a key resource. Ben Parr at Mashable explains:

The app, which only works on the iPhone 3GS model (since it has a compass), utilizes three layers of information and superimposes them on your iPhone: information from Wikipedia, local reviews from London-based Qype, and finally crowdsourced information from its Wikitude.me website. With it, you can tag any location with personal notes that others can see. You can’t tell me that isn’t awesome.

He is right. I can’t. And Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb writes:

It’s because Wikitude is so open to user generated content that I find it the most exciting of all the Augmented Reality apps. Unfortunately, none of these apps that I’ve tested on Android are performing fabulously yet – the GPS is just too imprecise and the data too sparse. These are early days though, and even today it’s a lot of fun to look at the world around you through Wiki articles.

As he indicates, Wikitude is not the only player in the game. Another one available for iPhone is Cyclopedia, which I didn’t focus on just because I didn’t want to pay for it (but here is Gizmodo’s review). Wikitude, on the other hand, is available for the low, low price of free. (And as Tom Peterson would say, “free is a very good price.”) I took it for a quick test run at the corner of 18th and Columbia in Washington, DC. Here’s what I saw looking south along 18th Street:

wikitude_admo_18th

And looking west in the direction of Columbia Heights:

wikitude_admo_columbia

Not displayed here is the ability to adjust the distance it will scan, a list-view of POIs (Points of Interest) and settings, which include the ability to turn on and off the different sources of information as well as different types of information. If you just want information from Wikipedia, it’s just a few taps away. If you want information about shopping and sights but not traffic or towns, you can adjust this as well.

I’m not likely to use this a great deal here in Washington, DC where I’d at least like to think I know what everything is. But when I’m traveling, such as when I visit San Francisco for the first time later this month, I can see myself not only making use of the program but using it enough to move it temporarily onto my first page of apps.

Have you used Wikitude or a similar application? Anything you like or dislike about them? Please share in the comments.

Jimmy Wales Weighs in on Flagged Revisions

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on September 22, 2009 at 11:14 am

My post this weekend made a point of separating uninformed Wikipedia criticism from informed Wikipedia criticism. One that I listed as meriting a response was the weirdly-titled article “Where Wikipedia Ends” by Farhad Manjoo in Time. In fact, only a day later Wikipedia co-founder and (these days mostly) spiritual leader Jimmy Wales took on the hype at Huffington Post. Here’s the core of his response:

[M]aybe you read this story on Time.com: “They recently instituted a major change, imposing a layer of editorial control on entries about living people. In the past, only articles on high-profile subjects like Barack Obama were protected from anonymous revisions. Under the new plan, people can freely alter Wikipedia articles on, say, their local officials or company head — but those changes will become live only once they’ve been vetted by a Wikipedia administrator.”

That’s all very interesting, albeit completely untrue.

Imagine if the stories told instead said things like this:

“In a major shift towards greater openness, Wikipedia is taking the first steps towards doing away with controls that kept certain pages ‘protected’ or ‘locked’ for many years. Previously, certain high profile and high risk biographies and other entries were kept locked to prevent vandalism by users who had not registered accounts on the site for a ‘waiting period’ of 4 days.”

“The new feature, long advocated by the site’s founder Jimmy Wales, eliminates that restriction by allowing anyone to edit these pages, even without logging in. The secret to being able to do this is that the new feature creates a queue where tens of thousands of longtime users of the site can approve these changes – changes that were previously completely forbidden.”

What? Really? The solution to the problem of bad speech is actually more speech? Openness and collaboration actually work?

Nevertheless, it is true. English Wikipedia will soon launch a new feature that will allow you to edit, as an inexperienced user, articles that have previously been locked more-or-less continuously for years.

To read more about flagged revisions, see Flagged Revisions Come to the English Wikipedia.

Super Mario Wiki?

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on September 20, 2009 at 2:18 pm

From the “merits no response” file:

Wikipedia, billed as the “free encyclopedia,” is not really an encyclopedia at all but an online magazine written by volunteers who do not need to have any specialized knowledge on anything at all.

The Web site says the content is mainly based on anonymous contributions. Anyone who can access the Web site can make changes to articles. I find it odd that someone who has extensive knowledge of a subject wouldn’t want the world to know his or her name. Wikipedia specifically states, “Visitors do not need specialized qualifications to contribute.” Does this make anyone else leery? This means an 11-year-old, who thinks Super Mario Galaxy is based on real planets, could write or edit the entry on the solar system.

Yes, well. This is an excerpt from a student newspaper column at the University of Idaho, so perhaps it’s not fair to pick on this particular individual. It is, however, quite obvious that she is not terribly familiar with how Wikipedia works. If the author wishes to believe that information from Super Mario Galaxy would be allowed to stand on the Solar System article, I am not about to disabuse her of this notion.

The rest of the column a) professes that students should not cite Wikipedia articles in class papers, and b) students should take advantage of the university library. I agree with both points, as I am sure do her professors and the Wikimedia Foundation as well.

More likely meriting a response, however, are critiques from a few higher-profile writers. One is Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has been writing for several years on what he believes is the impending demise of Wikipedia, as recently covered in Ars Technica. Another is tech writer Farhad Manjoo, who has an article in this week’s Time Magazine called “Where Wikipedia Ends”.

These deserve greater consideration because they are the work of individuals who have some academic knowledge of how Wikipedia works — not to mention the reach they enjoy. As time permits, I may get around to publishing them in this space. If you have any thoughts, drop me a line or leave a comment here.

How Did the New York Times Overestimate Wikipedia’s Popularity? [Corrected]

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on August 30, 2009 at 11:59 am

Update: Man, did I blow this one? Yeah, I think I did. David Gerard points out in the comments that updated gobal comScore figures — which are not easy to come by but which have been donated to Wikimedia and are available here — indeed show that the Foundation’s websites at #4 globally, with Wikipedia presumably the biggest traffic-driver by a long shot. So, hey, that’s great news. And that should be more widely-known. However, in the U.S. Wikipedia is still somewhere around #9 overall.

Which brings me to the mistake that got me here: I had misquoted ComScore and Quantcast numbers below as being global figures when in fact they were U.S. That’s just my mistake, and essentially the same mistake I had accused Cohen of making. So, there you have it. I will retreat now to the assertion that the New York Times should adopt Wikipedia’s inclusion of inline citations. Then maybe I wouldn’t make mistakes like this one.

New York Times tech correspondent Noam Cohen, reporting on the final day of the Wikimania conference in Buenos Aires for the NYT’s Bits blog, begins his most recent dispatch as such:

Considering that Wikipedia has reached Top Five world status among Web sites – with more than 330 million users – its annual Wikimania conference, which ended Friday night in BuenosAires, featured a lot of hand-wringing about all the problems the project faces.

What catches my attention is the assertion that Wikipedia has attained “Top Five” status worldwide. Cohen doesn’t provide a source (no small irony there) which makes his decision to uppercase the phrase “Top Five” all the more curious. According to what metric? There are several to choose from. And according to whose calculations? There are several competing firms who collect, analyze and determine such rankings, but none of them is necessarily authoritative.

The best-known but least-respected is Amazon-owned Alexa, which currently puts Wikipedia at #6 globally, according to a combination of users and pageviews counted by Alexa’s (somewhat murky) sources. That’s close, but it’s not in the top five.

Compete.com, a web metrics company which makes some public rankings available, lists Wikipedia at best #9 globally, according to Unique visitors. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t rank for their other metrics, such as Visits and Page views.

A similar company is Comscore (I mean, comScore) which releases such information on a press release basis. Their last report, in July, put Wikimedia Foundation Sites at #10 for Unique visitors — actually down one place from a few months earlier.

Another service is Quantcast, one of the newer entrants and also one of the most-praised. Quantcast currently puts Wikipedia at #8. Although I like that figure — it reflects figures I’ve seen in months past and have quoted numerous times — perhaps we can split the difference and say, right now, Wikipedia is #9 overall. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

But then where does Cohen’s “Top Five” claim derive? I tried Googling for the answer, and I think I might have it.

According to an August 8, 2009 entry published on the blog of a web design firm which may be called PJ Designs and Concepts, Wikipedia lands in the “top five Social Media websites in terms of Inbound Links, Google Page Rank, Alexa Rank, and U.S. traffic data from Compete and Quantcast.” In fact Wikipedia ranks second, behind only MySpace and ahead of YouTube, Facebook and Photobucket. I find this claim somewhat suspicious. For one thing, Facebook routinely ranks in the top three of rankings by Alexa, Compete and Quantcast (follow the above links). It also has an identical PageRank to MySpace: 9/10, which Wikipedia also enjoys. That the post is authored by “admin” does not especially inspire confidence, either. And of course, these are just “social media” sites and not all “Web sites.”

Granted, it’s possible that new scholarship was announced at Wikimania, but I think that would have been worth a headline itself. As much as I’d like to see Wikipedia at #5 (let alone #2) I think we’d know if this was the case. If there is another explanation for Cohen’s assertion than the one I propose above, I can’t find it. But I’ll let you know if I find out.

Flagged Revisions Come to the English Wikipedia

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on August 26, 2009 at 6:39 am

Earlier this week, New York Times web reporter Noam Cohen, who does some of the best Wikipedia reporting this side of The Register, broke the news about a decision by Wikipedia’s parent organization to instate tighter controls on some articles. Wrote Cohen:

Officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit in San Francisco that governs Wikipedia, say that within weeks, the English-language Wikipedia will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people.

The new feature, called “flagged revisions,” will require that an experienced volunteer editor for Wikipedia sign off on any change made by the public before it can go live. Until the change is approved — or in Wikispeak, flagged — it will sit invisibly on Wikipedia’s servers, and visitors will be directed to the earlier version.

The change is part of a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia’s leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature and dependable.

It’s worth pointing out early on, as Cohen’s story unfortunately did not, that these changes will apply only to biographies of living persons. In Wikipedia, that is a proper noun: Biography of Living Persons (BLP) is one of Wikipedia’s most strenuously enforced policies; earlier this year, Wikipedia veteran Newyorkbrad explained this in a series of posts on Volokh Conspiracy, which The Wikipedian previously discussed.

Blogosphere reaction has been much more widespread than any Wikipedia story that comes to mind from this past year. I think this is because everybody who uses Wikipedia has some opinion about the website’s curious balance between openness and reliability — and now the balance has shifted. I’d say reaction is roughly divisible into four quadrants: those who mourn Wikipedia’s openness vs. those who will continue to question Wikipedia’s reliability, with those who are optimistic about the change vs. those who are not. Here is a walk-through:

Among those who feel that Wikipedia’s openness is key to the site’s success, count Judd Antin at TechnoTaste, who is studying Wikipedia as part of his PhD work:

As part of my dissertation research I’ve been interviewing less experienced Wikipedians about their perceptions of the site. One constant theme has been the perception of a class system in Wikipedia. Casual editors worry that their edits aren’t good enough, and that they’ll be rebuked by Wikipedia’s upper-classes. They perceive a mystical group of higher-order contributors who make Wikipedia work. … This latest move is troubling in that it seems to represent a lack of faith in crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds, in the model that made Wikipedia what it is today. This change will also remove another of the important social-psychological incentives that draw new people into the Wikipedia fold: the instant gratification that comes from seeing your work reflected on a Wikipedia page.

This is not always a good thing; Kate McMillan at Small Dead Animals is an example of someone who is the subject of a Wikipedia article, but is not exactly pleased about the fact. She also isn’t exactly optimistic that things will change:

My own Wiki page was instigated by an internet “stalker”, in fact, the same individual who once authored a blogspot site using my stolen identity. Requests to Wikipedia to delete the page went unheeded, and it’s remained a reliable source of misinformation, false attribution of quotes, and drive-by smears ever since. … It wasn’t until I threatened a Wiki editor personally with legal action for restoring defamatory material to the page, that they began to take tighter control of the content.

Another skeptic is Ann Bartow at Madisonian.net:

I have doubts about how effective this is going to be in improving the reliability of the content of Wikipedia entries, but it is a great PR move by Jimmy Wales, that’s for sure.

From the perspective of a frustrated editor, here is Andy Merrett at The Blog Herald:

As someone not in the Wikipedia “elite”, I’ve long since given up trying to edit entries on the site, having already wasted not insignificant time adding information only to have it reversed. I foresee that Wikipedia will increasingly become a place where only a minority of privileged and “trusted” editors have the keys to the kingdom.

That is a plus to others. Among the critics of Wikipedia’s reliability was Lisa Gold at Research Maven, who nonetheless is a skeptic herself:

I’m glad there is finally some acknowledgment among the powers that be at Wikipedia that accuracy is important. But that’s not enough. If accuracy is important, you have to make it a priority and do things on many different levels to try to achieve it. You have to apply your policies to the entire site, not just some articles. You have to bring in people with knowledge, experience, and qualifications to do real editing and fact-checking. (With all of the unemployed editors, fact-checkers, and journalists out there, why not hire a few and let them work their magic.) This new policy is not really about making Wikipedia more accurate, it’s just about trying to stop the embarrassing vandalism stories that hit the news with disturbing regularity.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Dr. Jim West, who appears to have some experience arguing with an intellectual opponent about Wikipedia content. His reaction to the change:

In a word, duh. Now if you’ll do the same for every entry then perhaps your resource might be worth visiting some day. Until then, I think I’ll continue to abstain. I’m not really interested in reading an article on the Dead Sea Scrolls that Raphael Golb has edited using one of his 200 fake names.

While I understand the concerns of both above, I also think they go too far. Striking a balance and offering a more optimistic view is Ben Parr at Mashable:

[W]e can’t help but feel a bit sad that this change had to happen. Wikipedia was egalitarian in the spread and use of information, and it treated everyone as equal contributors of knowledge. While that may not necessarily be true in the real world, it still was the driving force behind the creation of 3 million articles, more than any other encyclopedia could ever hope to boast.

The move was necessary, but it does mark a new chapter in the Wikipedia information age and the end of an old one.

And here’s another philosophical take from Joe Windish at The Moderate Voice:

There is little doubt the debate will be passionate, but that’s exactly as it should be. Eight years into the incredible success of Wikipedia, long one of the 10 most popular sites on the Web, many of us still don’t understand it. … The thousands of volunteer Wikipedian editors take their responsibility seriously. Flagged revisions may or may not work. What’s best about it is that the Wikipedia editorial community will watch and wonder about and debate it. And if it should not succeed, they will try and try again.

My own take on the situation? I don’t know yet. As Andrew Lih explains in his book, The Wikipedia Revolution, the German-language edition has had this feature for several years, and it seems to work there. On the other hand, the English Wikipedia is much larger, and the possibility certainly exists that some articles will be left unchecked and un-updated for extended periods of time. Will the site grow stagnant? Will the vast majority of people who read but do not edit even notice? These are just a few of the operative questions.

WikiProject Flagged Revisions, which will try to keep articles current, was only established on the 19th of August and as yet has just four listed participants. It’s also worth noting, once the details are hammered out — which they are not just yet — the plan will be implemented on a two-month trial basis. And after that? Well, I’m very interested to find out myself.

Three Million Served

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on August 18, 2009 at 6:32 am

This week marks a milestone for the English-language Wikipedia that is both major and somewhat arbitrary: the creation of its 3 millionth article. If you visit the front page of Wikipedia now, you will see this message:

wiki-3-million

That article, about Norwegian actress Beate Eriksen is currently locked down to prevent vandals from messing it up, something that happens with nearly every article that gets widespread attention. Of course, usually it is because the subject was in the news, rather than the article itself.

As the chart below indicates (taken from here), Wikipedia passed 2 million articles in the third quarter of 2007. Will it take another 2 years for Wikipedia to reach 4 million?

wiki-article-growth

Actually, it may take a bit longer: Wikipedia’s article growth has been slowing down. This has been a topic for discussion on the Wikipedia Weekly podcast at least as far back as a year ago, and is inevitable. Given Wikipedia’s success and its strict rules on what qualifies for an article, there will come a point where most articles have already been created. We may have reached that point.

Or, as I think more likely, we have created most of the articles that can be assembled from web sources and in-print books. That’s why I think the next phase of Wikipedia’s growth will have to depend on archived materials involving historical subjects that are exactly the type of article Wikipedia does least well at. This wouldn’t stop Wikipedia’s growth from slowing, but it would keep its growth meaningful.

Update: From the comments, here are two thoughts from very smart and much more experienced Wikipedians than yours truly. First, David Gerard:

Actually, I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of books, in-print or not. What’s been done so far isn’t even the low-hanging fruit, it’s the fruit that’s actually sitting on the ground waiting to be picked up.

The growth curve so far looks like a logistic curve with a linear increase on top.

One interesting thing is that is the growth curves for the other large Wikipedias look similar. And the smaller Wikipedias are typically in early linear growth or the exponential upcurve of the logistic curve.

And from Sage Ross, a Wikipedia Weekly contributor:

“we have created most of the articles that can be assembled from web sources and in-print books”

That’s not nearly the case, especially if you count digitized scholarly journals as available sources too. Wikipedia could easily have another 3 million articles (probably more like 30 million) based on published sources. It’s just that the deeper you go into specialized areas where the untapped sources are rich, the fewer people there are who are interested in and/or capable of writing about those areas.

Bill Clinton’s Excellent Adventure

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on August 5, 2009 at 11:27 am

Update: Hmm, so it looks like I may have gotten out ahead of the details on this one. See the comments, where fellow Wikipedian Graham87 points out that the current Wikipedia database does not in fact include edits from the early months of Wikipedia. As he points out, here is an earlier version of the Bill Clinton article. And what does that mean for this particular series? Well… at least I will have to select articles from approximately 2002 on.

The 42nd president is enjoying a pretty good week, having returned this morning from North Korea with American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee free upon his successful negotiations with Kim Jong-Il. This seems as good a moment as any for the second installment in a series on the first versions of major Wikipedia articles.

Bill Clinton left office just five days after Wikipedia was founded in January 2001. Although one might think this would make him a strong candidate for being one of the first articles created, it so happens that no such article was created until November 17 that year. And even then another editor would not contribute again for nearly another month — coincidentally the same day a Wikipedia article was created for his successor.

The first version of the Bill Clinton article was fairly substantial: 979 words excluding the Table of Contents. This is less than a tenth of the 9,900-some words of the Bill Clinton article today — to say nothing of all the articles about the many peripheral articles such as Electoral history of Bill Clinton — but it’s still pretty good.

Here is the first paragraph (of a much longer intro) today:

William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton (born William Jefferson Blythe III, August 19, 1946)[1] served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. He was the third-youngest president; only Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were younger when entering office. He became president at the end of the Cold War, and as he was born in the period after World War II, he is known as the first Baby Boomer president.[2] His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is currently the United States Secretary of State. She was previously a United States Senator from New York, and also candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Both are graduates of Yale Law School.

Here is the first paragraph (of a much longer intro) then:

William Jefferson Clinton (Democrat) was the 42nd President of the United States, from 1993-2001. He was born August 19, 1946 in Hope, Arkansas. He was named after his father, William Jefferson Blythe II, who had been killed in a car accident just three months before his son was born.

In the original version, the Lewinsky scandal is handled in two short paragraphs in the intro section; by now Lewinsky and the subsequent impeachment trial have two short sections which link away to very comprehensive sections of their own.

While Wikipedia today strives to be non-partisan and avoid self-references, these concepts were less-developed early on, and this can be seen in how the original version closed. The last proper article sentence concluded:

There’s a great deal more to be said about him — let’s try to keep it non-partisan and encyclopedic.

And a deprecated link to the Talk page, at the time included in the text of the article itself, said:

/Talk (go ahead and be partisan there)

Not to worry — eight years later, they still are.

Too Hot to Handel? Wikipedia’s Troubled Role in State Political Campaigns Continues

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on July 6, 2009 at 8:59 am

As noted here recently in the case of Creigh Deeds, a well-written, informative Wikipedia article can have a positive impact on a candidate’s reputation. As noted here a couple months back in the case of Ryan Coonerty, a Wikipedia article edited primarily by opponents can have the opposite effect.

The case of Georgia secretary of state and gubernatorial hopeful Karen Handel is one of the latter, and it points to exactly why politicians should keep a close watch on their page as well as just what can happen when they do not.

In early June, a relatively new editor going by the name RomneyGingrich12 changed Handel’s article from…

She served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Vice-President Quayle’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, where she worked to promote breast cancer awareness.

to

She dropped out of highschool, but later got her GED. She forwent college to served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Vice-President Quayle’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, where she worked to promote breast cancer awareness.

Forget the typos. Forget the lack of a source. And forget the tendentious nature of the change. This was not obvious vandalism — the edit contained neither obscenity nor nonsense — and it remained on the page for 20 more days, until Georgia politico Erick Erickson — known nationally for editing the conservative website RedState — posted about it on his Peach Pundit blog:

In fact, Handel both graduated from high school and went on to college until getting a job in the White House.

Judging by RomneyGingrich12’s history on Wikipedia, he appears to be a big fan of John Oxendine, having edited the Ox’s bio religiously and also having made sure to point out in Ray McBerry’s biography that McBerry came in second in a straw poll to Oxendine. The original reference to McBerry just said he came in second.

And it so happens that Stu Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst, had already picked up the GED information from Handel’s Wikipedia article. Jim Galloway at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution questioned Rothenberg on the subject:

We called Rothenberg this afternoon. The political analyst said he picked up information about the GED by talking to his Georgia contacts. Rothenberg acknowledged that he saw the information on Wikipedia as well, but said that’s not what he based his reporting on.

“I may have made a mistake,” Rothenberg said. But the columnist said he has also asked Handel’s staff for more information. “I’m waiting for a response,” he said. “I’m waiting for data on the woman’s life.”

Granted, it’s hard to fault Rothenberg if a detail he found on Wikipedia was backed up by interviews in the state. The GED claim was finally removed on June 29, but by then it was too late for Handel to stay quiet. On July 3, WBS-TV in Atlanta ran a story titled “Karen Handel Upset Over Altered Wikipedia Entry” which begins:

Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican running for governor, wants to set the record straight about her education.

“For the record, yes, I have a high school diploma,” said Handel.

Yikes. Although Handel seems to have dealt with the situation appropriately, by the time this kind of thing gets into the press, the damage has been done. After all, one thing people know about her is a false story — and they may or may not know it is false. Now the page is attracting vandals from beyond Georgia, some of whom are writing much worse things.

Erickson claims to have identified RomneyGingrich12 as an Oxendine staffer, and while the circumstantial evidence is certainly there, it seems unlikely to hurt Oxendine as much without a smoking gun, resignation or firing — and one can expect the Oxendine camp to do whatever they can to avoid such a scenario. That may not be fair, but that’s politics.

If there is one leveler here, it is that now both the Oxendine and Handel pages currently are affixed with the same warning templates:

handel-oxendine-warnings

Those won’t last forever, and I have to wonder which article will be improved first. So far, all the news has not resulted in significant changes to either. Both campaigns need to have open representatives working through the Wikipedia community to make sure their articles are written as fairly as possible. Until then, the coverage will continue.

The King of Wikipedia Traffic

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on June 27, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Michael Jackson‘s sudden and shocking death just about blew up the Internet this past week, and Wikipedia was no exception, even getting briefly knocked offline. And as the New York Times’ tech reporter Noam Cohen reported, the stunning news produced another milestone for Wikipedia:

The Michael Jackson entry in Wikipedia Thursday evening appeared to have set the record as having the highest traffic in the eight-year history of the online encyclopedia.

In the 7 p.m. hour alone Thursday, shortly after Mr. Jackson’s death was confirmed, there were nearly one million visitors to that article. (In fact, for that hour more than 250,000 visitors went to the misspelled entry “Micheal Jackson.” Even his brother Randy Jackson had 25,000 visits that hour.)

“We suspect this is most in a one-hour period of any article in Wikipedia history,” said Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco.

The article goes on to note that this represented about 1 percent of Wikipedia’s total traffic on the day — this may not sound like much, until you recall the English Wikipedia has more than 2.9 million articles. Writing midday Friday, Cohen predicted that the article could surpass 5 million visits on Friday. As it happens, Cohen set his target a little too low:

traffic-spike-wikipedia-jackson

1.4 million visits is pretty remarkable, but 5.9 million visits in unprecendented. However, there is one discrepancy: yesterday’s estimates from User:Henrik‘s Wikipedia article traffic statistics tool (and Cohen’s article) put the figure at 1.8 million visits, which means the numbers where somehow reconciled downward in the interim. I’ll be looking to find out why. And while Cohen names as a point of comparison President Barack Obama‘s Wikipedia article, which received 2.3 million visits on Election Day, I know of a page that received more traffic still and offers a better comparison:

traffic-spike-wikipedia-palin

That spike you are looking at occurred on the day that Senator John McCain announced Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in the final days of August, 2008 (as previously discussed on Blog P.I.). Between Jackson and Palin we have one well-known but mysterious and one little-known but suddenly very public figure, thrust into the middle of a breaking news story. By comparison, Obama was a highly visible public figure and Election Day was known far in advance. Perhaps that actually makes the 2.3 million that day even more impressive. But it’s hard to read much more into bar graphs such as this beyond acknowledging they represent a sudden and externally-driven interest in the subject.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that the article containing the information people presumably want most, Death of Michael Jackson, has not recorded anything like the traffic of the primary MJ article:

traffic-spike-wikipedia-jackson-death

Why is this the case? Part of the answer is the power of Google, which is the overwhelming driver of traffic to Wikipedia. On that note, I don’t know about you, but in the past 24 hours, Michael Jackson’s official site and his Wikipedia article have traded places on Google, with Wikipedia now ranked first overall. Second, the link to this article is found deep in the primary one, albeit of course at the top of the section concerning his death. Still, 527 is a rounding error compared to 5.9 million. Perhaps the Michael Jackson article itself satisfied their curiosity, before clicking over to iTunes and downloading a copy of Thriller.

And one last, somewhat morbid note: it is strange indeed that the King of Pop is no longer covered by Wikipedia’s Biography of living persons guideline.

Update: In the comments, one of the more knowledegable Wikipedia editors, Tvoz, suggests I’m wrong on the last point:

One thing: actually Michael Jackson’s article *is* still covered by the “biographies of living people” guidelines. Those guidelines protect the integrity of Wikipedia’s articles and intend to thwart defamation, and it is expected that editors will continue to follow the policy and remove poorly sourced defamatory material immediately, even after the death. His family members are alive, and causes of action as a result of such defamatory material could still be brought.

An interesting point, and I think a fair clarification. My inclination is to say this means that Jackson’s family members are still covered by BLP, and this means that any material on the Michael Jackson page must conform to the policy in order to protect them, rather than MJ himself. And of course, spurious information shouldn’t be added at any time — and Jackson’s continued celebrity probably means that this page will be scrutinized more than most.

Watch Out, Laszlo Panaflex!

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on June 22, 2009 at 10:42 pm

laszlo_panaflexIn a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, washed-up movie star Troy McClure — you may remember him from such self-help videos as “Smoke Yourself Thin!” and “Get Confident, Stupid!” — enters a sham marriage with Aunt Selma to squash rumors about his sordid personal life and regain his former screen glory. As he is “romancing” Selma along a Simpsonized version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, McClure declares:

One day, my lady Selma’s gonna have a star right next to mine, so watch out [camera pans right] Laszlo Panaflex!

Like most throwaway Simpsons lines, it has faded from mainstream recognition — the episode’s imagined musical version of “Planet of the Apes” is surely better known — but lives on in offhand references made by those of us who have been watching long enough to remember the controversy over Bart Simpson and those “Underachiever and Proud Of It” T-shirts.

I thought of it again while watching Ghostbusters on TV last night, noticing that the cinematographer was László Kovács. Was Kovács’ the name Simpsons writers were riffing on? Following a well-established routine, I plugged his name — Panaflex’s of course — into Google, hoping for but not really expecting a Wikipedia article to pop up.

It turns out Wikipedia did show up first — but it wasn’t an article. Instead, it was a user page for someone using the fictional lenser’s moniker as a handle. It reads in full:

Nice. But this also got me wondering: is this a loophole in Wikipedia policy? Isn’t this a way to get an encyclopedic page on the site even if it would be otherwise deleted by Wikipedia’s relentless arbiters of significance? After, all articles appearing on what Wikipedians call the “mainspace” of Wikipedia are expected to satisfy a handful of core guidelines lest they be removed or radically altered.

First there is the general notability guideline requiring the subject to meet a certain threshhold of importance (often determined by news coverage). Articles failing the requirement are deleted, and relevant content is sometimes relocated to existing articles about the same topic. Laszlo Panaflex, as one joke in one episode, would never pass Wikipedia’s notability requirement because it would obviously belong on the page about the episode (and as of this writing, it is not even there). An example of a Simpsons reference that does meet this requirement is Homer Simpson’s ubiquitous “D’oh!

Other guidelines it could elide and does in this case: Verifiability and Reliable sources. Sure, it helps to confirm my suspicion that Laszlo Panaflex is inspired by the real cinematographer with the accented name discouraging me from Ctrl-C/V-ing it again. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it was named for him, but certainly doesn’t offer a citation for the claim. I need more proof, and articles in the Wikipedia mainspace do, too.* User pages have no such requirement.

On the other hand, I think it passes NPOV with flying colors.

But is it a loophole to treat a user page like an article? After all, Laszlo Panaflex ranked right at the top of Google; other articles on semi-obscure subjects could as well. I don’t believe there is a policy, guideline or essay that specifically addresses this, though I fully acknowledge I may be wrong. In that case that I am not, the possibility exists for unworthy (or even “unworthy”) articles to be given a second home on user pages.

I can say for certain — alas, without being able to summon a link (I’ll look) — that there are a number of editors whose user pages are written to resemble a Wikipedia article. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. However, I do think it could make the Wikipedia community uncomfortable if it became a widespread practice, and was seen as a gray hat SEO technique.

In that unlikely event, the first suggestion that comes to me would be requiring a banner on user pages that specifies that it is not an “article”. It would be phrased like the banner I keep atop my own page, included as a disclaimer in case the page is swiped by an unscrupulous mirror site. After all, this non-accusatory template puts even a flawed but useful article about one Laszlo Panaflex in the proper context:

This is a Wikipedia user page.

This is not an encyclopedia article. If you find this page on any site other than Wikipedia, you are viewing a mirror site. Be aware that the page may be outdated and that the user this page belongs to may have no personal affiliation with any site other than Wikipedia itself. The original page is located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:WWB.

Wikimedia Foundation

*It may be out there. Many other Simpsons-related Wikipedia articles, including “A Fish Called Selma”, are buttressed by citations to the commentary tracks on the official DVD releases. If anybody knows for sure, I’d be happy to help add the citation.

Wikipedia On Dead Tree Redux

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on June 20, 2009 at 3:31 pm

More than a week ago I posted a photo that’s been making the rounds lately — and even wound up as the basis for a joke on Conan O’Brien this past week — about a student artist who had created a physical book of Wikipedia’s Featured articles, one taking up approximately 5,000 pages. I noted at the time that the explanatory text

Reproducing Wikipedia in a dysfunctional physical form helps to question its use as an internet resource.

wasn’t terribly satisfying to me, and I asked at the time

Would printing all of Google’s search results also question its use as an Internet resource? Would printing an image of a sundial question its use as a physical timekeeping device?

and I resolved to find out more if I could. In fact I did hear back from the book’s creator, Rob Matthews, not long after. When posed with the question above, he responded at first:

I’m comparing the Internet Wikipedia to a traditional encyclopedia, by putting it in the same format, therefore suggesting that Wikipedia is dysfunctional compared to a normal encyclopedia. This is suggested by how I’ve conveyed Wikipedia physically.

I still wasn’t satisfied with this, but after a bit of back and forth, Matthews confirmed that his intention was to point out, compared to a traditional paper-based encyclopedia, it’s less reliable because of its radical openness, or hard to find what’s important among the incomplete and unbalanced articles that exist on the site. Those are my words, but he agreed with this much.

I actually do not agree with this view. Not that I don’t agree there is some truth to the point, because there is, but because I do not actually see how anyone is impeded from finding what they want because of Wikipedia. Moreover, “what’s important” is always in flux, and Wikipedia is a reflection of that.

wikipedia-in-print-rob-matthewsIt’s also nothing new. Those who lament the fact that Wkipedia gives disproportionate coverage to trivial matters — a criticism voiced by none other than Stephen Colbert, who sarcastically riffed on the subject, “any site that’s got a longer entry on ‘truthiness’ than on Lutherans has its priorities straight” — should also recognize that these imbalances are often corrected.

I’ve never been one to take my social commentary from visual art such as painting or sculpture, in significant part because it is rare that an image or an object can convey a subtle point while also succeeding as art. For such a purpose — in this case offering commentary on a subject which is overwhelmingly composed of words — I think nonverbal art is inferior to something like the novel, the essay or even the sitcom.

Even if I thought Matthews had a strong argument about Wikipedia to make, I think this fails as standalone commentary. But if Matthews does actually sell copies of this book, consider me interested (price dependent). Mr. Matthews doesn’t have answers for his questions, but his artwork would make for an excellent conversation piece.

Words and Deeds: Wikipedia and the Virginia Governor’s Race

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on June 14, 2009 at 8:03 am

The Democratic Party of Virginia settled on a nominee for governor this past week, choosing state senator Creigh Deeds over two better-known rivals, including former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe. (On the Republican side, Bob McDonnell was unopposed for the nomination.) Following the race, Virginia blogger and Wikipedia contributor Waldo Jaquith posted about “Wikipedia’s role in Sen. Deeds’ nomination“, featuring quotes from a live discussion WashingtonPost.com. Wrote one voter:

I voted for Deeds. The WaPo endorsement really helped. I started doing the research this weekend and was disappointed that the WaPo did not have a quick guide the issues. I searched for a half an hour and did not find a quick rundown of the candidates and the issues.

Also, Deeds had a wikipedia page about his past stances. That really helped. The other two did not have similar pages.

Interestingly, the specific page quoted — “Political positions of Creigh Deeds” — has been merged back into the main Deeds article, but the content appears intact. Jaquith writes:

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Wikipedia is going to play a large role in year’s Virginia elections. The campaigns that a) understand that, b) harness that and c) do so in a fair, unbiased way will reap the benefits. The campaigns that ignore Wikipedia or attempt to manipulate its information in a way that is anything less than fully truthful will be penalized accordingly.

In fact, that seems to have already occurred in the primary. As noted in an overexcited but basically correct diary at Daily Kos last week, ““You can’t handle the truth!” TMac’s dogs scrub Wikipedia of facts” supporters of McAuliffe did remove sourced information, none of which has been restored as of this writing.

In the first instance, material about a land deal and disgraced Democratic fundraiser John Huang because it “lacked NPOV” (i.e. not written from a neutral point of view), and in the second about business deals involving Telergy and inPhonic “for being unsourced.” Well. Lacking a neutral tone is cause to rewrite a section, but not a reason to delete — certainly not as a first resort. Second, the inPhonic material was properly sourced, and better than deleting the Telergy section would have been to find a citation. On the other hand, this goes both ways — the material was almost certainly added to cast doubt upon McAuliffe’s fitness for office, and according to the discussion page about McAuliffe’s article, much of this criticism popped up just days before the Tuesday primary vote. And so it goes.

So now the Commonwealth turns to the general election where, if Jaquith’s prediction is correct, the articles about Deeds and McDonnell will be both important resources as well as the locus of battles to establish narratives about each candidate. Indeed, both articles are the top non-official sites listed in Google searches for each candidate’s name. (Another important article will be Virginia gubernatorial election, 2009.)

As yet, Deeds’ article is the better one, in part because of the aforementioned section outlining Deeds’ political positions. His article is also somewhat more active, probably due to the active primary, and more experienced editors working on the page. Recent contributors to Deeds’ page include Virginia resident John Broughton, who literally wrote the book on editing Wikipedia, whereas most recent work on McDonnell’s page has been done from unregistered accounts represented only by the user’s IP address. Jaquith, for his part, has recently edited both.

It’s a good bet that, after the summer, editing on both articles will ramp up as November draws closer. It will be interesting to see how they develop.

Wikipedia On Dead Tree

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on June 10, 2009 at 6:35 pm

OK, now this is something else — artist Rob Matthews printed all of Wikipedia’s Featured articles as a 5,000 page book. It’s a great image:

wikipedia-in-print-rob-matthews

Which raises the question — what would a book containing every article from Wikipedia look like?

Meanwhile, Matthews doesn’t offer much explanation for the art or what it is supposed to mean, although he does offer this much:

Reproducing Wikipedia in a dysfunctional physical form helps to question its use as an internet resource.

Hmm… it does? Would printing all of Google’s search results also question its use as an Internet resource? Would printing an image of a sundial question its use as a physical timekeeping device? I love the book as an art piece, but I’m not entirely sold on this point. (No matter what, though, it’s still more constructive than the other Wikipedia art.)

I will drop Mr. Matthews an e-mail and ask both questions — and I’ll update if I find anything out.

The Wikipedia Haters Club

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on June 9, 2009 at 8:42 am

Count as one member Examiner.com personal finance columnist Steve Juetten, who writes in a review comparing Microsoft’s newly launched search engine, Bing, with old standby Google:

Before I started the search, I set two rules. First, I was looking for information from reliable sources. As a result, if a search placed information from Wikipedia high on the list, the search engine sank in my review. As with information from any source (human, web or book), trust but verify and Wikipedia is not trustworthy when it comes to your money.

Anyone who spends much time around Wikipedia is pretty familiar with complaints such as these, and to this end the Wikipedia community maintains a page called Replies to common objections. Juetten isn’t quite specific enough for me to highlight a particular section, but I’m pretty sure he will find some answers in the answers to “Wikipedia can never be high quality“.

Meanwhile, a few objections to his objection do occur to me. For one thing, who is to say that other sources will be more trustworthy? Juetten undoubtedly singles out Wikipedia for its high profile, but it’s difficult to see why it should be placed at a disadvantage to About.com, Answers.com or NNDB, all of which can rank well for certain terms.*

Are these other information resources likely to be more reliable? I know of no reason why they should be. And if About.com or NNDB does happen to be wrong, there’s not a thing you can do about it.

Lastly, I agree with Juetten that “trust but verify” is a good personal rule and a sound approach to research, but I don’t understand why he doesn’t extend it to Wikipedia when this is an area in which Wikipedia often shines. One of the site’s core content policies is in fact Verifiability, that articles need references. But Juetten’s objection becomes even more ironic when you consider that said references are required to meet another core policy: Reliable sources.

Juetten’s worldly cynicism is understandable but, in this case, selectively applied and ultimately misplaced. It is true that Wikipedia is not completely reliable, but it shouldn’t be penalized for being one of the few reference websites that actually admits the fact.

_____
*For example, try searching for Alan Greenspan on Google and Alan Greenspan on Bing. As of this morning, the top three results for each are: Wikipedia, Answers.com and NNDB.

Thoughts on Wikipedia and Scientology

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on June 8, 2009 at 9:21 am

scientology_symbol_logoIt’s unfortunate that The Wikipedian has been in suspended animation for the week or so, because it has been a big past week or so for Wikipedia in the news. On May 28, Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee — the court of last resort for Wikipedia disputes — banned all IP addresses associated with the Church of Scientology from editing Wikipedia for repeated disruptive editing and the use of “sock puppet” accounts to tilt Wikipedia consensus on Scientology-related articles.

The decision has been all over the tech and mainstream press since, from The Register’s first report on May 29 to the New York Times finally covering the story this morning. In between, Google News shows hundreds of results about the subject.

I have not looked closely at the decision, but my own general take on it is about what you might expect: Wikipedia reserves the right to regulate its own community and, upon fair consideration, expel those who are determined to prevent Wikipedia from operating. This was certainly the case here, as the deliberations ran for more than six months, reportedly the longest in Wikipedia history. It is not the case, as one Huffington Post contributor erroneously imagined, that “all members” of Scientology were banned from editing. Instead, Wikipedia merely banned IP addresses known to be controlled by Scientology. Any Scientologist can still log on from home and, one expects, have their individual account banned if they too persist in deleting good information that the Church does not like.

This is not the first time Wikipedia has taken such an action, and I’d say it’s easily less controversial than the ban on an entire Utah neighborhood in 2007 for incredibly involved reasons that you can read about here.

If I had an objection it would be that an indefinite block, which is what the ArbCom imposed here, should be less desirable than a period of one year or perhaps even two. However, it is probably the case that a year or two from now Scientology would be just as interested in deleting critical information about their organization from Wikipedia as they are now. And to some extent it is likely to continue in any case.

After all, the flagship Scientology article has a long history as one of the most contentious on Wikipedia. Visit the discussion page, and you’ll find 27 archive pages of discussion stretching back to 2001. (Few articles are so active as to need their discussions archived; and the Roman Catholic Church, with vastly millions more adherents, has just 26 archived pages of discussions associated ith its article) The very first, undated, comment on the Scientology Talk page was this one:

As in entries on like organizations such as The Local Church of Witness Lee and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, no fair discussion can take place on this topic. If anyone dare edit this article, it will be swiftly and aggressively reverted to reflect only the official point of view of Scientology. Try it.

And in the week since, more than 6200 words have been expended on the Scientology Talk page, as veteran and newbie editors alike — some of them undoubtedly Scientologists — continue argue over what the article should say.

Scientology logo via Wikipedia, reused here with the same non-free use rationale.

License to Chill: What Does Wikipedia’s Adoption of Creative Commons Mean to You?

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on May 25, 2009 at 7:15 am

Jay Walsh, head of communications at the Wikimedia Foundation — the organization which owns Wikipedia’s trademark and its equipment — announced on the Foundation’s official blog last week:

Today we announced some fantastic news. The proposal to see Wikimedia’s content adopt a new dual license system has been voted on and approved by the Wikimedia community. With the full approval of our Board of Trustees, this now means that the Wikimedia Foundation will proceed with the implementation of a CC-BY-SA/GFDL dual license system on all of our project’s content. The new dual license will begin to come into effect in June.

This is pretty inside baseball, but I can imagine the average Wikipedia reader would have at least two questions about this change: 1) Why did this change take place? and 2) How will this affect my experience at Wikipedia?

Fortunately, the Foundation released a FAQ answering those very questions (and many more, because many Wikipedia contributors may be unfamiliar with these issues). I will attempt to summarize:

    1) The GFDL, which refers to GNU Free Documentation License, was the original alternative to copyright. It was created by software developers who wanted something in between “All Rights Reserved” and total public domain (because others would take their public domain material, modify it, and copyright it all over again). Wikipedia was always meant to be free (as in speech and beer) and GFDL was the only way to make this happen. However, it also required that GFDL content quoted elsewhere carry about three pages of documentation — cumbersome for quoting Wikipedia in a book and impossible when said content is audio or video, among other problems. In recent years, an organization called Creative Commons has released a number of similar licenses which are better-suited to Wikipedia. The move has been a long time coming, held up only by bureaucratic negotiations. Technically, GFDL isn’t going away, but when those complicating issues arise, Creative Commons’ rules will take precedence.

I’m not sure I succeeded in making that simple. But I promise I can make the second one easy, and I can quote directly from the FAQ:

    2) “Our experience has been that relatively few editors and users are engaged enough with the licensing issues we’re discussing here to be affected in any significant way by the update.”

If most Wikipedia editors aren’t going to notice a difference, then neither will anyone who simply reads Wikipedia for fun and information. So rest easy — the new and improved Wikipedia and the familiar old Wikipedia are one and the same.

Newyorkbrad on “the BLP Problem”

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on May 24, 2009 at 6:57 pm

Newyorkbrad is a longtime Wikipedian, known very well to the most active of editors as one of their most creative and thoughtful cohort. To the extent that he is known externally, it is for leaving the site under threat of having his real identity exposed by off-site critics. As it happened, Newyorkbrad returned about three-and-a-half months later, whereupon he has resumed his former positions as an Administrator and member of Arbitration Committee.

His identity is of little interest to most Wikipedians, but two weeks ago he name-checked himself in a fascinating series of blog posts about Wikipedia and how it works at the Volokh Conspiracy. For what it’s worth — and only because he volunteered it — Newyorkbrad is Ira Metetsky, a New York City lawyer whose middle name is Brad, and whose presence on the site owes something to a childhood friendship with UCLA law professor and chief Conspirator Eugene Volokh.

While he started off with the still kind-of obligatory explanation of “what Wikipedia is all about,” most of his writing was devoted to a subject of internal debate at Wikipedia, which is commonly referred to as “the BLP problem“:

That is the problem of how easy it is, in the era of near-universal Internet access and instantaneous search engines, to inflict devastating and nearly irreversable damage to people’s privacy.

BLP stands for Biography of Living Persons, which informally can refer to any article about a living person and formally to the policy developed in 2005 following a couple of incidents in which people objected to biographical articles about them. One is very famous as far as Wikipedia goes, while the other is very much not, but that may be a subject for another post.

Beyond just explaining the controversy to the uninitiated, Newyorkbrad also proposed one part of the solution:

[T]he suggestion [has been] made that when an issue arises concerning whether a biographical article should be kept on Wikipedia or deleted, there be a presumption in favor of deletion unless there is a collective decision to keep it, rather than the other way around. (In Wikiparlance: when a BLP is AfD’d [nominated for deletion], “no consensus” would default to delete. In an ordinary deletion discussion, by policy, “no consensus” defaults to keep.)

This suggestion has been advanced and discussed on-wiki, and has won wide endorsements, but not quite enough to be adopted. A main sticking point is that a BLP can be nominated for deletion for reasons having nothing to do with defamation, privacy violation, or undue weight — say, a dispute whether an athlete or a performer is quite notable enough to warrant coverage. In many of these instances, ironically, if the article subject were asked, he or she might prefer that the article remain. …

I advanced a compromise proposal suggesting that deletion discussions on BLPs default to delete where the notability of the subject is not clear-cut (that would presumably be the case anytime the tentative AfD [Articles for deletion] result is “no consensus”) and (1) the article taken as a whole is substantially negative with respect to the reputation of the subject, (2) the article subject is a minor, or (3) the article subject is known to have himself or herself requested the article’s deletion. It may be time to revive discussion on-wiki of this suggestion.

Although I have not personally been involved in much policy discussion in my time on the English Wikipedia, that sounds like a policy proposal I could get behind. To this I may add a fourth: Articles about living persons should be removed as well. By definition, these articles have not yet passed the Notability requirement. In many cases when an article subject’s notability has yet to be verified, these articles may be saved (by Wikipedians of the “inclusionist” philosophy) from deletion. But given the particularly sensitive nature of BLPs, the unreferenced ones should simply go. If they are truly about notable subjects, they will be replaced sooner or later.

We don’t know just how big of a problem BLPs are but, in another post to come, I will discuss what we do.