William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for April 2010

Remainders in Light

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on April 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Because updating The Wikipedian necessarily takes a back seat to my day job — the one that pays me money I need to buy things to stay alive so I am able to keep updating The Wikipedian — I don’t get to write about every Wikipedia story that I might like.

Until now, these have languished in a Google Docs file, waiting for me to develop them into full posts with original commentary. And because this sadly will never happen for some deserving stories, it is better to clear the field / room / palate and look toward the future. So here is the first of an occasional series of remaindered post ideas. Let’s open up the file…

  • In late February I noticed a new blog about Wikipedia had launched. Called On Wikipedia, it presents a thoughtful take on Wikipedia. Except in early March, one of its contributors decided to make a point about Wikipedia’s unreliability by… adding unreliable information. In fact, they created an outright hoax: inventing a person to create an article about, claiming they were suspected of murder and pushing it through to a fairly prominent spot on the front page (the Did you know? section). The blogger then impersonated the non-existent person and contacted Wikipedia, upset about the murder allegations. They described the whole process in one long post announcing what they had done. All this, though the blogger / editor surely knew about the Wikipedia’s guideline “Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point“. It didn’t take long for Jimmy Wales to get involved, and a lengthy discussion was initiated at the Administrator’s noticeboard. I can’t say I’ve dove deeply into this one, but On Wikipedia wrote about it twice more, here and here.
  • On March 21, the German-language Wikipedia’s Featured article of the day was “Vulva” — with a photograph. Jimmy Wales asked for it to be removed, a request that was duly ignored. Wikipedia Signpost covered the story.
  • So Larry Sanger, estranged co-founder of Wikipedia, reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI over allegations of child pornography. This is an unusual development to a long-running debate about certain images’ propriety — and even legality — for inclusion. Then Sanger decided / realized / found out the images did not depict real people, which apparently presents a different legal case that reminds me of a philosophical argument I had with some friends back in college. The sardonic wiki-trackers at The Register covered the story, and here is Sanger’s original letter to the FBI.
  • Which government entity / famous person is getting hostile news coverage for “meddling” with their Wikipedia article this time? It’s the Government Information Service and the Dutch Royal Family.
  • Dan Lewis, who has the enviable job of being the new media guy for Sesame Street, recently proposed an interesting concept — the Wikipedia Reading Club. He reads an entry on a topic he should know more about but does not, takes notes and offers thoughts for others to comment upon. His first two are John Adams and Jackie Robinson. Those are both quality articles; he’d do best to stick with top-quality “Featured” articles — now at 2,800+ — to which the Adams article (surprisingly to me) does not belong.
  • Teaching Wikipedia in the classroom? Great! Teaching Wikipedia in the sixth grade? Maybe overly optimistic.
  • I never did get around to writing about my trip to Bangalore this January for the WikiWars conference, co-sponsored by the Centre for Internet & Society and the Institute of Network Cultures, though my Keynote presentation is on SlideShare. A follow-up conference was held this past week in Amsterdam, and one of the speakers was Scott Kildall, with whom I attended WikiWars. Here is a blog post about that.
  • I wrote an article for Politics Magazine, the trade magazine for political consultants and campaign professsionals, titled It’s a Wiki World. Here’s how it begins:

    Few websites present as many potential opportunities and pitfalls to the campaign professional as Wikipedia. Whether a Wikipedia article is friendly or unfriendly toward a candidate, it is going to be highly ranked on Google. But Wikipedia is unique among other influential websites because its content is not under one person’s control: Anyone can—and will—try to change what a given article says.

    I tell a few stories, well-known to Wikipedians, about failed (or questionable) Wikipedia engagement and offer some guidance on a better way to approach Wikipedia.

That’s all for now. Much more to come, very soon.

Edit Wikipedia on Facebook? Now You Can

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on April 22, 2010 at 10:19 am

This week Facebook is holding a developers’ conference, F8, in San Francisco, and they are using the occasion to announce some big changes. Now, Facebook is well known for being in a constant state of development, not just adding new features but also removing older ones that have become obsolete or undesirable. One of the big announcements is that Facebook is launching a feature called Community Pages — all of those TV shows, movies, books, bands and brands now have their own pages, kind of like the Fan Pages which have largely replaced Groups in recent years.*

This new feature has already been compared to Wikipedia, and with very good reason: Facebook has tried to answer the “empty room” problem by pre-populating the Community Pages with Wikipedia entries. Let’s turn to the 1996 David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest again for illustrative purposes — click the link following to visit the Facebook Community Page for Infinite Jest, or see below:

facebook-wikipedia-infinite-jest-75pct

That one can now read Wikipedia on Facebook is quite a big deal. Wikipedia is already one of the world’s top 10 websites (between fifth and eighth, depending) and now its content is being made available on the world’s single-most visited website. Needless to say, the Wikimedia Foundation is quite happy to dispel any reporters’ suspicions that they are unhappy with this development.

But that’s just part of the story. Look up to the right-hand corner for another potentially very significant aspect of this — here, let me zoom in and draw a little red box for you:

facebook-wikipedia-infinite-jest-detail

That’s right — as the headline on this blog post already gave away — you can now edit Wikipedia directly through Facebook. Or to be more accurate, one can easily access Wikipedia’s editing page through Facebook. Amidst all of the recent discussion of Wikipedia’s alleged participatory decline (very much disputed by Wikimedia) this could be a good thing: Facebook has just created a brand new channel for absolutely anyone who is a member of Facebook (that’s more than 400 million worldwide) to edit Wikipedia. At the very least, it is likely to have more impact on Wikipedia than just its increased visibility on Facebook. Most of these editors are likely to be unregistered “IP editors” — meaning they are identified by their IP address, because they have no user account — and the question of whether IP editors are beneficial to Wikipedia is open to debate. Perhaps the present number of unregistered editors is just fine now, but a new influx of amateur editors (some of whom are surely vandals) could tip the balance. Time will tell.

Time will also bring us a key aspect of the Community Page feature, announced but not yet available:

facebook-wikipedia-infinite-jest-community

That is the chance to edit / curate Community Pages themselves. In fact, right now each Community Page features Wikipedia in two tabs: Info and Wikipedia. While the Wikipedia tab appears set to mirror Wikipedia (and this is where the above-highlighted Edit button lives) the Info tab merely uses Wikipedia as a starting point. And this may end up mitigating the impact of Facebook’s direct line to Wikipedia edit pages: the option to edit Facebook will be more prominent, and one expects, less likely to be phased out in future development.

Facebook hasn’t offered many details, and I think they may be in for a nasty surprise. Wikipedia stays as clean as it does in part due to the tireless efforts of the volunteer Recent changes patrol (i.e. vandal patrol) but Facebook is unlikely to gather such a community of watchers. Instead they will have to rely upon individuals who are members of those Community Pages. Yeah, if anyone messes with Back to the Future (or Infinite Jest) I’ll kick their teeth in, but I’m not like most. I’m guessing Facebook hasn’t yet figured out how to make this work without it becoming anarchy — not only is the Wikipedia community a unique thing, the site’s policies and guidelines were not written overnight. Facebook should emulate Wikipedia where they can, and they should probably impose strict controls where they can’t, lest they become a repository for threats, libel and bitter acrimony. It may well become that in any case.

“Treme” vs. “Treme (TV series)”

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on April 18, 2010 at 10:04 am

In more than one post on this blog I’ve written skeptically about the concept of “Wikigroaning” — the notion that important subjects sometimes have shorter articles than arguably less-important subjects that appeal to geek sensibilities. In the case of Raphael (archangel, artist or ninja turtle) and lightsaber vs. modern warfare, the complaint did not quite hold up. But I don’t mean to indicate the charge is never without basis.

treme_neighborhood_wptreme_tv_series_wp

With the second episode of HBO’s latest dramatic series, “Treme,” set to air this evening, I decided to compare two related Wikipedia articles — one about the New Orleans neighborhood, and the new TV drama from David Simon. What did I find?

In the first place, Treme is currently 10 Kb long while Treme (TV series) is closer to 17 Kb. On the face of it, the article about the series is substantially longer at present. And this is the case even though the former article has existed since April 2004 whereas the latter was created in March 2009.

It’s fair to say that both articles are in decent shape. The article about the neighborhood has a quality infobox featuring geographic and demographic information, and a concise History section is informative, if perhaps too concise. I compare this to the article about my neighborhood of Adams Morgan in Washington, DC, which has much more information (though fewer references to support them) and no comparable infobox of data. Each article could stand to learn something from the other.

But there is no use arguing that Treme (TV series) is not the better article. It is simply more carefully and completely written, with a more sophisticated article structure utilizing subsections for more in-depth coverage of certain aspects of the show. Plus, it has already spawned a secondary page, List of Treme episodes.

Is there a silver lining here? I think there may be. If the show becomes popular — at least popular enough to inspire a following similar to Simon’s earlier work — then it may well inspire someone or a few someones to become more interested in the neighborhood itself. To be sure, the series itself has already caused a spike of interest in the subject. And all it takes is one person to make it a personal project. If “Treme (TV series)” can do that, “Treme” will be the better for it.

Images via Wikipedia. Neighborhood photograph licensed under Creative Commons by Wikipedia contributor Infrogmation.

A Potential Supreme Court Nominee Probably Edited Her Own Wikipedia Article. Is It a Big Deal?

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on April 13, 2010 at 9:30 am

leah_ward_sears_wikiNew York-based media blog Gawker is reporting that Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and potential nominee to the United States Supreme Court by President Obama, edited her own Wikipedia article in late 2008 and early 2009.

While the possibility exists that someone else used her initials, last name and year she became a state Supreme Court Justice as a username, it usually turns out that this type of account is exactly that person. Gawker is focusing primarily on an edit she made that was favorable toward herself:

On May 6th, a user named LWsears1992 edited Leah Ward Sears’ Wikipedia page, adding the clause “Based in large part on her highly regarded record” to a passage about how she defeated an opponent in the 2004 race for Georgia Supreme Court. (Georgia is one of eight states that have the sort of weird policy of electing Supreme Court justices.)

This is technically correct, but not exactly right. While Gawker does have a screen shot of an edit by Lwsears1992 “adding” this, all she did was restore a phrase that had existed on the page since June 2005, added in the first place by a technology consultant in Atlanta. The phrase was removed again a few days later for lacking a source, and Lwsears1992 did not press the case further. Not that Sears should necessarily be making direct edits on matters of disagreement, but these are considerations that few Wikipedia outsiders understand.

In total, Lwsears1992 made 36 edits to Wikipedia, all of them relating to this particular article. So how did she do? Did she make the page better or worse, overall? To find out, I went through each and every edit, starting with the article as it appeared before she started working on it, November 3, 2008 and concluding with the article after she completed her work, on November 13, 2008. Here is what I found:

Better:

  • The fact is that Sears is being called out because she attempted to be transparent about it. However, it’s probable that she made a single edit an hour before her first editing session from the IP address 167.192.61.254 in Atlanta, Georgia. Unfortunately, she screwed up a template, rendering the “Infobox” sidebar a mess of code. But I count this as a positive, because of what happened next. Once she had caused this error, she created an account and undertook the task of fixing it. Not only did she do so, but approximately a third of her edits were devoted to getting this one thing right.
  • She uploaded her own photo, taking the time to release it under two free licenses, the old GNU license Wikipedia used to use for everything, and the Creative Commons license it uses now. She experimented with the sizing of the photo she added, including trying it at full size before settling upon 155 pixels wide, which is the width still.
  • She added useful context, such as noting that her resignation from the Court would coincide with the end of her term; this is unambiguously more useful than simply ending the sentence on “she will resign from the State Supreme Court at the end of June 2009.”
  • Chances are good she made the article sturdier in the long run, changing the article to read that she was the “first” African-American female Chief Justice in a U.S. state instead of the “only” one. Assuming this is correct, the former will always be true though the latter assuredly will not be.
  • She tried to protect her own page from vandalism by experimenting with templates meant to indicate the page cannot be edited in some circumstances. But as she was not an administrator, she couldn’t do this anyway. Once she saw it wasn’t working, she took them down. One could almost file this as a negative, because trying to get a page locked from editing is a sure sign of not understanding Wikipedia. On the other hand, changing your own mistake is a sign that you do. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt here.

Worse:

  • She didn’t cite any source for the claim she is the first African-American female Chief Justice in a U.S. state, making the claim difficult to verify. Anytime one makes a claim of superiority or “firstness,” it helps to source the claim to avoid the dreaded “[citation needed]” tag.
  • She didn’t provide any edit summaries for her work, making it tedious to click through each and find out exactly what she did.
  • She made some changes that didn’t make the page better. In one edit, she edited internal site links embedded in the phrase “Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court” so that instead of directing people to articles about Chief Justices and the GA Supreme Court, it would go to a non-existent page that she probably assumed existed.
  • She also removed internal links to the names of her appointer (Zell Miller) and predecessor (Norman S. Fletcher) for no apparent reason; she also removed the link for “Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court” — perhaps after noticing that it did not lead anywhere. Odder still, she did replace some of this information, including Miller’s name, but removed Fletcher’s name after having initially sought to add it. In any case, he is back in the full article today.

What is the value of adding her photograph vs. removing the name of her predecessor? What is the value of adding new details which are presumably correct, but not citing independent sources? How bad is it to edit your Wikipedia article without seeking consensus of other editors? How should one seek to change their articles on Wikipedia in any case?

These questions and more like it have been coming up more often in recent months. It’s a subject recently addressed by the Wikimedia Foundation’s Jay Walsh in an interview with PR Week. It’s a subject that others are discussing, from law firms in the UK to PR firms around the world. It’s s a subject I weigh every day as a consultant on matters of Wikipedia, and in an article I just published in Politics Magazine.

My answer regarding Leah Ward Sears is that, she made the article better, but not much. She did not go about it the right way, but the right way is non-obvious to most, and the burden is on Wikipedia to make its rules understood by outsiders. While some of her edits were self-serving, they were of a mild sort. At most this was a venal sin, not a cardinal one. Gawker is turning this into a “gotcha” story on the implied theory that interacting with one’s own Wikipedia article is never acceptable. This is a myth, one widely believed and one propagated by many at Wikipedia simply to keep people from meddling with their pages en masse. This is understandable, but it won’t work out in the long term.

If Sears is Obama’s nominee and is further confirmed to the Supreme Court, perhaps it will help put an end to this kind of “gotcha”. I doubt this is significant enough to come up at confirmation hearings if she is nominated, and it should not be. But I will concede that would be kind of entertaining.

Image via Sears via Wikipedia.