William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for May 2009

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.

The Art of Editing Wikipedia

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on May 18, 2009 at 5:14 pm

At the moment I don’t have a great deal to say about the controversy over Wikipedia Art — with work being so busy, I haven’t had a great deal to say about anything lately — that hasn’t been said by TechDirt’s Mike Masnick or summarzied by Wikipedia itself. There are two primary, and primarily separate aspects to the controversy:

  1. The original concept, which was a Wikipedia article that was supposed to be the artwork itself, which was quickly deleted and isn’t especially controversial in itself but is sort of curious; and
  2. The lawsuit by Wikimedia Foundation against the Wikipedia Art creators over the website wikipediaart.org, which they subsequently created to document the situation as performance art, and remains an ongoing controversy.

The second part is too complicated for me to address just now, but I find the first part amusing enough, and it so happens that my former colleague Simon Owens interviewed the creators of the controversial website for his PBS MediaShift column, and his report explains what exactly the Wikipedia Art creators were going for in the first place:

Artists Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern developed the idea to create a self-referencing Wikipedia article late last year. The plan was to write a new article, titled Wikipedia Art that was wholly devoted to the fact that the page had been created — an article that was completely meta and self-referential.

Wikipedia Art logoThe axiom that all press is good press is especially apt when considering Wikipedia Art. The project is, in essence, the amalgamation of everything that references it. …

Because Wikipedia articles are strictly required to have citations (both to establish notability and to verify the facts they assert are true), the artists reached out before the article was published to several blogger and journalist friends, asking them to conduct interviews and write about the project, with the idea that those posts and articles would become fodder for citations.

“We knew when we put up the page we wouldn’t have any citations yet and it would be not notable,” Kildall told me. “But we simultaneously asked a number of people if they’d write about the project. We got about 15 to 20 people, some of whom wanted to do an interview with us based on the information we gave them. We had those ready to post at the time of the intervention. We didn’t know what they were going to write about beforehand, but we knew they were going to write something. So when we put up the page on Wikipedia, on Valentine’s Day, we simultaneously got everything released about a half hour from each other.”

As I said, it’s curious but there should be no surprise that the entry would be summarily deleted. The first pillar of Wikipedia is that it is an encyclopedia, and because one would not expect Britannica to play host to such a stunt, nor is Wikipedia going to go along with it.

I may write more about this subject as time permits, and perhaps as the case progresses, but for now let me conclude by pointing out that it reminds me greatly of the following recent XKCD comic:

Wikipedia Art logo courtesy wikipediaart.org. XKCD cartoon courtesy XKCD.

A Jarre-ing Experience

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on May 7, 2009 at 9:09 am

Wikipedia is in the news this morning for another hoax, although the “joke” was not meant to be on Wikipedia per se. Here a Slashdot contributor summarizes a story in the Irish Times:

A quote attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre was posted on wikipedia shortly after his death in March and later appeared in obituaries in mainstream media. ‘One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear,’ Jarre was quoted as saying. However, these words were not uttered by the Oscar-winning composer but written by Shane Fitzgerald, a final-year undergraduate student, who said he wanted to show how journalists use the internet as a primary source for their stories.

Here is the Wikipedia article for Maurice Jarre as it looks whenever you happen to come upon this blog post. At the time of this writing, someone has added a section describing the incident. I’m always ambivalent about meta-paragraphs of this sort — usually included when someone has tried to edit their own entry — and I am even more conflicted about this one. I would not be surprised if it gets the axe before long. And here is the precise edit as made by Fitzgerald, d/b/a The section read in full:


Nowadays, if a studio assumes that his film is bad, there is always an executive that gets more nervous than usual and thinks that if they change the music, the film will become a masterpiece.

One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.

When I was 15, I did not know nothing about what concerned the world of music

Soon I worked during twelve years in theater works of the prestigious Theatre National Populaire. It was the best time of my life, the most difficult, the most interesting, the most exciting.

Kudos are in order for editor RayAYang, who flagged the section as needing verification just two minutes later. Credit also goes to editor Cosprings, who removed the section, presumably after being unable to verify any of them.

But that wasn’t the end of it, because what Irish Times does not say is that Fitzgerald went back several hours later and again added the “one long soundtrack” quote to the page, where it then remained for about 24 hours before Cosprings removed it again for the same reason. Fitzgerald persisted, adding the quote a third time before being quickly reverted by another editor.

There’s a word for this at Wikipedia: vandal.

Shane Fitzgerald’s experiment probably runs afoul of the Wikipedia guideline Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point, except as noted before, Wikipedia is only an object — if a key one — of the subject being “studied.” That’s why he added it again; if Wikipedia was being tested on whether articles about people in the news would be closely edited, well, Fitzgerald already had that unsurprising answer. In fact, one could say that diligent Wikipedians tried to assist lazy journalists by removing information that wasn’t credible.

So which newspapers fell for the hoax? As far as I can tell, the only big one in the English-speaking world was The Guardian, although via content syndication the erroneous quote probably traveled much further. India’s Economic Times also was duped. However, I can find no evidence that mainstream American journalists were among the hoaxed.

So you’ll have to put me among the crowd that is not impressed with Fitzgerald’s “findings.” That British journalism has less than rigorous standards is not a new revelation, and obituary writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia and elsewhere in English-language media managed to resist the temptation to take a Wikipedia article at its word. Good for them and good for Wikipedia. And as I finish writing this post, the “Wikipedia Hoax” section has in fact already been removed.

Jigsaw Falling Into Place

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on May 3, 2009 at 11:52 am

I’m starting a new occasional series of posts here today — showing what the very first version of different Wikipedia articles looked like, one or two or a few at a time. After all, even the best had to begin somewhere, and it’s highly unlikely that they were delivered to Wikipedia as a fully formed article. This is partly because standards have improved over the years, but also just because of the nature of the wiki — most add just a little at a time, but over time those little bits and pieces turn into a complete article.

The first example is about Radiohead, the favorite rock band of yours truly since The Bends in 1995. The article today is ranked among Wikipedia’s best, and earlier this year was a Featured article, meaning featured on Wikipedia’s main page. But it wasn’t always so. Without further ado, here is the very first version of the Radiohead Wikipedia article from February 7, 2002:

Radiohead, British rock band.

Shot to critical acclaim with their third album, OK Computer, one of the best albums of the late nineties.

Others include:

* Pablo Honey
* The Bends
* OK Computer
* Kid A
* Amnesiac
* I Might Be Wrong (Live recordings)

Other decent artists include PJ Harvey, U2, Nirvana, and more recently, Ryan Adams.

Seriously, Ryan Adams? (Note: The original title for this post was I Might Be Wrong.) The notion that Nirvana, U2 or Radiohead may only be “decent” artists is amusing, too.

You may have also noticed that this version of the article would absolutely violate Wikipedia’s NPOV guideline, which proscribes editors from injecting their own opinions into Wikipedia articles, as it stands today. But it would also have run afoul of the much simpler guideline as it existed then, under the principal authorship of Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger and The Cunctator, an editor who is one of Wikipedia’s most veteran.

I undoubtedly agree that OK computer is one of the best albums of the late 1990s, and so this is present in the article as attributed to the music critics who said so, and in the section header which currently reads:

OK Computer, fame and critical acclaim (1996–1998)

That works for me.