William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for April 2009

The Kids are Alright

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on April 29, 2009 at 6:59 am

Straw man arguments against Wikipedia are fairly commonplace — it’s difficult to generalize accurately about a website with nearly 3 million pages and 65 million visitors (last month). Here’s just one, from University of Washington professors Michael Eisenberg and Alison J. Head, published in the Seattle Times last week. It’s about the research habits of students, and although the op-ed summarizes a paper about more than Wikipedia, you can tell it was a focal point:

The large majority of students we interviewed said they begin with Wikipedia, the vast, online peer-to-peer encyclopedia — despite professors’ cautions about Wikipedia as an authoritative source. As one student put it, Wikipedia is ideal for “presearch,” or big-picture background “in good English” before moving on to more serious research. Most students also said they don’t tell their professors they use Wikipedia; they simply avoid citing it in their reports.

But we’re not here to debate Wikipedia. We want students learning how to select the right sources and use them aware of limitations. Wikipedia, for example, may be suitable for presearch, but not for definitive judgments. Learning these differences is essential in our digital world because so much of what’s out there is flawed or incomplete.

Actually, it sounds like you are here to debate Wikipedia, especially as it seems that students have already figured out what it is you aim to show them, namely that Wikipedia is not to be relied upon for “definitive judgments.” So where’s the problem? And why complain about something that’s not?

I decided to have a look at the actual research paper, also produced by Eisenberg and Head. It turns out that there is more information there about how students really do seem to get this:

In our sessions, students also discussed concerns over Wikipedia and accuracy. However, most participants believed that they, themselves, had the ability to discern the credibility of a Wikipedia source, based on their “gut level” interpretation of Wikipedia’s rating system (e.g., posted notes by editors such as, “This article needs additional citations for verification”).

The report itself, “What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age” [PDF], provides a fascinating exploration of the way students do use Wikipedia, with interviews producing explanations of Wikipedia use by students like this:

I go to Wikipedia just so to get an understanding of a topic. Like, I did a paper on Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia and I went to Wikipedia first just to check it out. I looked at the history of Puerto Rico and then, Puerto Ricans in the United States. Just to get a basic understanding, so that, I could say to myself, okay, I know the beginning now, I know the current situation, I’m okay, and now I’ve got some citations and stuff, I’ve got a stepping stone to get deeper into the issue I’ve chosen.

I highly recommend “FIGURE 3: Why Do Students Use Wikipedia?”; I’d say it answers the question definitively. Among the reasons explained in the paper is that Wikipedia can provide students with access points into difficult topics:

Students who used scholarly databases after a Wikipedia search said that they avoided starting with scholarly databases first because it was “too much too soon.” Overall, students reported that scholarly articles had “too much technical jargoabout” and “were often not up to date as Wikipedia.”

All are great points. On the last one, Wikipedia is especially unique, and this really underscores the profound development Wikipedia represents. I am fairly certain I was not aware of Wikipedia by the time I graduated from college in early 2002, and I certainly didn’t use it in any research projects. But I know I’m far from alone from wishing I’d had it to consult when I was in school — far more than Facebook, to be sure.

If the professors have any complaint I agree with (from the paper, not the op-ed) it is this:

While some students mentioned the penalties for using Wikipedia for course-related research assignments (e.g., ranging from public humiliation in class to receiving a failing grade), we found the majority of students ignored the negatives and went to the site anyway. Most students depended on and used Wikipedia for information cited in papers, but just never included Wikipedia entries on their Works Cited page.

Interesting point. There should be a way to do this. I would certainly support a system, accepted by university professors, for students to acknowledge that Wikipedia helped shape their research. Wikipedia is no substitute, but it should be considered an aid at least on par with Cliffs Notes. Better still, if a professor challenged an assertion in a student’s work and the wrong bit came from Wikipedia, it would be a pedagogic bonus and true service to correct that error. And there are no better professors to start doing so than Michael Eisenberg and Alison J. Head.

You’re With Me, ESPNDB

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on April 26, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Last week, ESPN unveiled a new website self-consciously intended to compete with Wikipedia: ESPNDB. The website has not made any kind of splash with sports blogs nor many other news websites. To my knowledge, the only in-depth coverage comes from MediaPost, which reported on April 16:

Curious where Shaquille O’Neal went to college? How many seasons Mickey Mantle played? ESPN wants to break the Google-to-Wikipedia flow chart that so many sports fans turn to for those kinds of answers.

espndb-logoSo, it’s set to launch ESPNDB.com (the DB stands for database) — a site it hopes will serve as a sports encyclopedia-archive- statistical compendium. On one level, the goal is simply an ESPN-opedia — although the content would be thoroughly fact-checked and would come from professionals. (Like Wikipedia, however, there will be some user-generated aspects.)

As I said, ESPN doesn’t even try to conceal that Wikipedia is a serious competitor for providing sports fans with information about teams, players, statistics and, quite literally, the footnotes of sports history. Here is what the front page of the website says right now:

ESPNDB will be your definitive source for sports and sports-related information. We are building a product that combines the far-reaching resources of ESPN with the unique output of our industry-best Stats and Information Group to give you an immersive experience that no other site can provide. In months ahead, we’ll also employ some great new technologies to harness the collective knowledge of the world’s sports fans.

This strikes me as a worthy endeavor, one capable of real success. While sites like Citizendium and Google’s Knol have espoused ambitions to compete with Wikipedia in creating a comprehensive online reference website, ESPN is wise to focus on just one area of knowledge, naturally the one topic it understands very, very well.

Wikipedia is just one of many websites who dominate a category, where network effects and other social phenomena have bestowed a de facto monopoly: Google, YouTube, Twitter, Craigslist and Amazon are just a few others. Barnes & Noble has not had an easy time going head-to-head with Amazon online, but rare and out-of-print bookseller Alibris has carved itself a small but viable niche.

Another site with a relative monopoly in its particular category is IMDb, another site ESPNDB must owe something to, even if not candidly acknowledged. The continued success of IMDb (an Amazon subsidiary for more than a decade) should also be cause for encouragement, both for ESPNDB as well as Wikipedia. After all, IMDb still rates as high or higher than Wikipedia on Google searches for most movie titles. To be sure, IMDb launched a decade before Wikipedia and in fact predates the Internet as we know it today, and so has merely held on to its prominence, whereas ESPNDB has ahead of it the task of building its authority. Meanwhile, it shows that there is room for both “wiki” and “database” at the top of Google’s rankings.

And ESPN seems committed for the long term, or at least is taking their time in building out the site. The ESPNDB front page continues:

We begin by giving you a ton of information about the NFL Draft – about 500 pages’ worth! As we evolve, we will be adding many more cool features, so continue to check back with us.

There are indeed some hints of cool features to come, but ESPN’s plans remain unclear. For instance, right now one can “friend” or follow the Facebook profiles of NFL draft prospects. What I’d like to see them do is tap into Facebook Connect, which would basically mean anyone with a Facebook account is already signed up to participate — though there is not much to participate in just yet.

Also interesting is that ESPNDB pulls Twitter feeds onto its pages, which is something I doubt Wikipedia will ever consider even trying. Right now it’s very simplistic, just updates from the NFL Draft, on its second and final day as I type this now. Imagine, though, if each article or entry — like this one about the Detroit Lions — pulled recent tweets specific to that team or its players. That would be something interesting.

But these potential “cool features” don’t address the strengths of Wikipedia which ESPN ostensibly means for this website to answer. So let’s look at the actual pages themselves. Here’s a screen cap of the article about Oregon (Go Ducks!) wide receiver Jaison Williams:


Not much actual content so far, but the layout seems coherent and access to photos is a big strength ESPN has compared to Wikipedia. It has promise. Meanwhile, there is no Wikipedia entry for Williams, although that will probably change quickly once he is selected, which is expected sometime today. So the point goes to ESPNDB, at least in this narrow circumstance.

On the other hand, what’s the chance ESPNDB will ever allow users to write an article explaining the story behind “You’re with me, leather”?

The Wikipedia Story on Dead Tree

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on April 13, 2009 at 8:21 am

Just in the mail this past week: The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia by Andrew Lih.


Lih appears on the Wikipedia Weekly podcast and has been on Wikipedia since 2003 as the user Fuzheado, so he’s in a good position to be writing the first (to my knowledge) book-length history of Wikipedia. I’m only a couple chapters in as of yet, but I’ve already learned a few things I hadn’t known before, like the Spanish Fork and WP co-founder Larry Sanger’s Oregon connection. It also provides a useful overview of the encyclopedia market in the late 1990s around the time Jimmy Wales was running something called Bomis.com — which I distinctly remember having visited and not quite understood what was it was all about, a circumstance Lih more than explains to my satisfaction.

On the other hand, it does seem at times a bit self-congratulatory, especially the opening chapter, covering the Wikimania 2005 conference, and including narration of the Wikipedians present giving themselves a round of applause. This may not be the most inviting introduction for the Wikipedia newcomer, but it’s not a major distraction.

When I finish I’ll probably have something closer to a real book review, but for right now let me approvingly point out the very clever back cover:


Mr. Wales’ Neighborhood

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on April 12, 2009 at 10:13 am

For the fourth year in a row, a company named Information Architects has released what it calls a “Web Trend Map” — based loosely on the Tokyo subway map — that is nothing if not prime link bait, and The Wikipedian is unashamed to chomp down. Here is a crop from the much larger original showing Wikipedia’s “neighborhood”:


For the record, the four websites situated closest to Wikipedia are HowStuffWorks, the non-Bill O’Reilly, Twitter and Huffington Post. To which I can only say: sure, okay.

Wikipedia is on the “Knowledge Line” which explains its proximity to O’Reilly and HowStuffWorks, where its connection to Twitter and Wikipedia is based on their relative popularity on each “Line.” The size of the name and height of the station both correspond to Wikipedia’s influence as a function of the creators’ estimation. Wikipedia is in fact listed fifth overall, behind only Google, Yahoo, MSN and Apple. It’s a little arbitrary, but these things always are.

As for the tiny figures saying the names of “Trendsetters,” well, I wonder how either Jimmy Wales or Larry Sanger feel about the latter’s inclusion at this late date. But that’s a subject for another post.

Could Intellipedia Improve Wikipedia?

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on April 10, 2009 at 8:48 am

intellipedia-logoThe Intellipedia project is now a few years old, but the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (or CIA, which seems to get credit for these things on account of people knowing what it is) got a write-up in the latest Time magazine, so let’s agree for now to let Time continue its role as agenda-setters and quote from the article:

Intellipedia’s godfather is CIA analyst D. Calvin Andrus, who wrote a paper in 2004 titled “The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community.” For decades, the U.S. intelligence system had been structured to answer static Cold War–era questions, like how many missiles there are in Siberia. What the U.S. needed after Sept. 11, Andrus argued, was something that could handle rapidly changing, complicated threats. Intelligence organizations needed to become complex and adaptive, driven to judgments by bottom-up collaboration, like financial markets or ant colonies — or Wikipedia. …

Sean Dennehy, 39, and Don Burke, 43, used the Andrus paper to push the idea of an intelligence-community wiki on their superiors at the CIA. They didn’t get very far until the then newly organized Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that the idea had potential — and even then it faced stiff cultural resistance.

The resistance met sounds no different than any other bureaucratic or vertically-structured organization adapting to a “flatter” age, but the content is undoubtedly far more interesting than whatever your average corporate wiki might have (unless maybe you work for Wonka Chocolate).

Wikipedia having inspired Intellipedia, I wonder if there’s a chance Intellipedia could return the favor. As I wrote in a post last week at the New Media Strategies blog (and belatedly cross-posted here) on Encarta’s Wikipedia-overseen demise:

[W]hy not close the loop and allow Encarta’s knowledge to be used in building out Wikipedia? After all, one area where Wikipedia is deficient is material between the copyright of the last encyclopedia edition to go into public domain and the Internet age.

Same thing here: Wikipedia often takes information directly from government documents, so why not allow material declassified from Intellipedia be to be made available for use in Wikipedia? To be sure, this could be a long time off. But it undoubtedly has illuminating data that could enhance Wikipedia in ways I can’t imagine, mostly because I have never seen Intellipedia and, barring a sudden mid-career change, almost surely never will. But you know I want to.

Microsoft Closes Encarta, But this Doesn’t Have to be the End

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on April 10, 2009 at 8:38 am

Note: This was originally posted one week ago at the blog of my employer, New Media Strategies. This post is now dated if not out of date per se, but considering it’s about Wikipedia, better late to post it here than never.

Earlier this week Microsoft announced it will soon be shutting down its digital encyclopedia, Encarta. The official statement didn’t actually use the word “Wikipedia,” but then again, they didn’t really need to. Wikipedia has 97% of the online encyclopedia market, according to Hitwise, a share that makes Google seem to barely have a foothold.

But this was by no means a totally foregone conclusion — and it doesn’t necessarily mean the end.

Longtime Wikipedia editor Andrew Lih, originator of such indespensible articles as “Seven dirty words” and “Ana Marie Cox” and author of the new book “The Wikipedia Revolution,” explained at his own blog why the news caught him by surprise:

Because Microsoft could have kept it going indefinitely, given its cash pile and the “Windows Tax” paying for everything. With this being such a prominent example of “free” trumping commercial and proprietary, I do wonder if this makes for a victory that might give spiritual comfort to others in the free culture movement. What’s next in Microsoft vs Linux, Microsoft vs OpenOffice, MPEG vs Ogg and other battles? …

Interestingly, Encarta was a product that was always meant to be a throw-in: a me-too product that enticed consumers as part of the Microsoft suite when buying a Dell or Gateway PC. It was never destined to be a standalone moneymaker. Add to this, the fact that Bill Gates founded Corbis as a photo and video archive, and bought the prized Bettmann Archives, and Encarta suddenly had a wealth of visual multimedia features. Its rich interactive features were far ahead of others, and it had rights to the most important historical photos of the last century. It was more a showcase than a business. It was an old school model in a new media world.

How very appropriate, considering what Encarta did to Britannica 15 years ago:

Microsoft had originally approached Encyclopædia Britannica, the gold standard of encyclopedias for over a century, in the 1980s, but it declined, believing its print media sales would be hurt; however the Benton Foundation was forced to sell Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. at below book value in 1996 when the print sales could no longer compete with Encarta and the Microsoft distribution channel which gave away free copies with computer systems.

Are you wondering where that came from? Please don’t wonder too long: it’s from Wikipedia’s entry about Encarta. This actually got me wondering. What happens when you look up Wikipedia at Encarta? Although at first there appears to be an article there is not. When the apparition is clicked, one is diverted to an odd list that will (with enough clicking) eventually take you to the third page (!) of the “Encyclopedia” article, which has this to say about Wikipedia:

In the early 21st century a new type of online encyclopedia, known as Wikipedia, enabled readers to create and edit encyclopedia articles. A wiki is a type of server software that enables users to create or alter content on a Web page. Wikipedia was closely associated with the open source software movement and rapidly expanded to include hundreds of thousands of articles, many on popular culture topics, in a number of languages. The philosophy behind Wikipedia was that a community of volunteers could pool their knowledge and crosscheck their work to create a free encyclopedia. Articles may be written by enthusiasts, rather than experts, and they remain unsigned and “open” to revision. Due to Wikipedia’s open-access policy, it is sometimes the target of vandalism or abuse. However, a crew of volunteer editors polices the site, usually identifies malicious content quickly, and removes it. In cases where a subject is particularly controversial the article may be “locked” so that further alterations or amendments cannot be made.

Apart from the uncomfortably ironic past tense, this is pretty good. Nice dig about the pop culture emphasis, too. But it certainly could be improved, especially the overly simplistic gloss on when articles may be locked. And they should know, as Microsoft somewhat controversially once paid a third party to edit Wikipedia — coincidentally, about the open source movement. I guess you could look back to that 2007 incident and see Encarta’s demise. Not only would somebody from Wikipedia have been unable to pay for changes to Encarta, I can’t see why they would want to.

As Lih points out, Microsoft is frequently in conflict with the open source movement. Which is exactly why Microsoft should release Encarta under a free public license, under the GNU Free Documentation License (which Wikipedia currently uses) or Creative Commons’ Attribution-ShareAlike license (with which it is also compatible). Yes, their business plan was undercut by another model — in a manner similar to my “churn” semi-manifesto — as it had previously done to another. So why not close the loop and allow Encarta’s knowledge to be used in building out Wikipedia? After all, one area where Wikipedia is deficient is material between the copyright of the last encyclopedia edition to go into public domain and the Internet age.

I don’t think this will really happen, of course. And there could always be a hang-up with the non-exclusive rights from Funk & Wagnalls, upon which Microsoft itself built Encarta. But if Microsoft is looking for goodwill — and these days, they should be — letting Wikipedia absorb Encarta would be an act of magnanimity that could go a long way.

Is “Atlas Shrugged” Getting Fair Treatment on Wikipedia?

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on April 3, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Lead-ins don’t get much more intriguing than the one for an essay by EJ Moosa for a libertarian website (and subsequently picked up by Instapundit), titled “‘Atlas Shrugged’: Why has Wikipedia Removed Key Elements?”:

    What happens when you combine “1984” by George Orwell and “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand? You get a Wikipedia entry that begins to redefine what the key elements are. You get a level of censorship that defies belief. Why is this occurring?

OK, I’m hooked. The article specifically refers to a version of the article about the doorstop of a novel on Monday, so take for instance the last version of the article as it appeared on Sunday night. So what’s the specific complaint? Allegedly, there is

    a major theme that is missing: The Failure of Government.

    Search for the “Anti Dog Eat Dog rule”. Or for the “Equalization of Opportunity” bill. … Any references to them are gone from the Wikipedia entry. Search for any of the legislation passed to control private enterprise. It’s no longer there.

    What is the reason that the references to these failed government actions have been deleted from the Wikipedia page on “Atlas Shrugged”? I have my theories. I would like to hear yours

Using the handy WikiBlame tool, I decided to check the past 1,000 versions of the page for occurrences of the phrases “Equalization of Opportunity” and “dog-eat-dog” (“dog eat dog” as well, just to be sure). In fact these phrases have occured just twice and once, respectively, since July 2007.

Back in August 2008, someone added 3,200+ words of commentary that included mention of both fictional laws, Googling some of the text, was clearly unattributed from CliffsNotes. Even if it wasn’t plagiarized, it was still far too long for a Wikipedia summary, and was therefore reversed (or “reverted,” as Wikipedia says).

Then a few days later, someone added approximately seven hundred words of what appears to be a rant about the Illuminati, which also mentioned Equalization of Opportunity. Somewhere there may be a wiki for ravings about the Illuminati, but Wikipedia is not it. And so it was quickly removed as well.

But here’s the funny thing: after the Moosa essay appeared, someone got in and edited the article in question:

    The “Anti-dog-eat-dog” rule, as passed by the National Alliance of Railroads, is an example of this mooching becoming codified into law.

This time, it’s even cited to CliffsNotes. And so far it has remained. It’s not perfect, but I certainly don’t get the impression that anyone is trying to obscure the meaning behind “Atlas Shrugged,” let alone is anything like censorship happening. EJ Moosa would have been better served actually investigating the situation, rather than just asking questions and reaching for Orwell on his bookshelf.

Far from censorship, I’d say quite the opposite is happening: the article is longer than most at some 7,000+ words describing the novel in a variety of ways. If anybody is keeping this page from telling the whole story about Rand’s magnum opus, the blame lies squarely with her biggest fans.

April Fools! …or Not?

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on April 1, 2009 at 8:35 am

Today is April Fools’ Day, and among those getting in on the act are the Wikipedians who update the “In the news” section of the English Wikipedia‘s front page:


Ireland’s PM, naked? Diamonds in the sky? Hartford and New Orleans collide? Actually… yes, yes and yes. Where most April Fools jokes are invented from whole cloth — TechCrunch has a guide to many of the Internet’s more prominent hoaxes today — all of these stories are 100% true. They’ve just been couched in dubious language.

Click through the image today, or try here after April 1, to see the real stories for yourself.