William Beutler on Wikipedia

Remainders in Light

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on April 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm by William Beutler

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.

  1. Sorry that I don’t get to hear more about why you are not optimistic about teaching contributing to Wikipedia in the K-12 classroom.

    If I were designing such a program from scratch, I would have it clearly stepped. The first few years are clearly as a consumer, but teach the skills to watch for what needs participation. It’s guaranteed that a third grader will ask a question about a wikipedia page that is worth adding to the Talk: page for discussion. Not every third grader nor every page, but that’s not the goal. Let them see that they have a voice, however small, and a contribution to make, however minor. This is encouraging legitimate peripheral participation:


    With that underway already, by the time a child reaches 11 to 12 years old, the seeds are there for a more full, collaborative contributor. Again, not every 6th grader is going to be able to do the research and follow through for a proper article, but many of them will have reasonable contributions to make. Working together under the guidance of a mentor (not neccesarily a teacher, an older student works great), I can see a 6th graders being successful as contributors. Larger voice, larger contribution, less peripheral.

    By the time the majority can research, form opinions, and practice reasoning is about 14 (8th/9th grade), the plants are in place and strong. We would see a bigger crop of actual contributors who are used to putting their quality research under a free and open license.

    If I had to start today with a 6th grade class, I would set a minimal goal of trying to go through all that in an accelerated year or two. The key is, at these ages success is important and failure is see less as a chance to learn. We need to demonstrate the value of failure, but not in a way that turns off 50% of the class in the first week. I could make 12 year olds in to contributors within a year, but that would have to be a focused goal of a class and not the outfall of the longer-running method.

  2. It will certainly be a different world in a few years where social media becomes part of the middle school curriculum.

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