William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for June 2010

David Petraeus’ Big Month

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on June 28, 2010 at 8:34 am

In the views of many, Wikipedia tends toward frivolity. After all, the concept of Wikigroaning assumes that articles on pop culture subjects will be given less attention than articles on weighty subjects. While Wikipedia does include plenty of material that Britannica could and would never address, I’ve pointed out before that this isn’t always the case.

Here’s another reason to retain your faith in humanity, and this time not just Wikipedia’s contributors but also its visitors: this month’s traffic to the Wikipedia article about Gen. David Petraeus. He was in the news twice this month, and for very different reasons. First, on June 15, Petraeus fainted while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. It’s just the kind of TMZ DC-ready story that gets attention, including video, which always helps. Indeed, the story caused traffic on his Wikipedia article to spike.

But as the chart below indicates, that was only about a tenth of the traffic to his page once President Obama nominated him to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, following the latter general’s unsolicitous remarks about the Obama administration in Rolling Stone magazine. Perhaps this does not reveal too much, as this is undoubtedly the bigger news story, but it is also a much more complicated one, and at least indicates that no matter how many articles about Pokemon characters Wikipedia may hold, people can still find what’s important.

As for the fact that the top day for traffic to McChrystal’s Wikipedia article this month nearly doubled the traffic on Petraeus’ top day, well, I’ll let you judge that for yourself.

Snapshot of traffic to Wikipedia article about David Petraeus, June 2010.

Snapshot of traffic to Wikipedia article about David Petraeus, June 2010.

Traffic statistics courtesy User:Henrik.

The Wikipedian Becomes Eclectic: Pending Changes on KCRW

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on June 21, 2010 at 7:54 am

On Friday afternoon, I joined a panel of guests on the nationally-syndicated KCRW talk show To the Point with Warren Olney. My co-panelists included: Andrew Lih, who may be familiar to readers of this blog either as a Wikipedia editor or as author of The Wikipedia Revolution; Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin, who has written about Wikipedia’s apparent decline in active editors; and Lee Siegel, invited as a critic of Wikipedia and its processes. (Listen to the whole episode here.)

The ostensible topic was the new experiment with Pending changes, described by The Telegraph here, although these paragraphs appeared in opposite order there:

“[V]andalism” has been a particular problem for the online encyclopedia in recent years. The pages of some prominent figures, including Senator Edward Kennedy, were maliciously and falsely edited to claim that the subject of the Wikipedia page had died, when in fact they were alive and well. Many Wikipedia pages dealing with controversial topics have also been repeatedly edited by users with a vested interest in promoting a particular view about the incident or event.

The new system, known as pending changes, means that users will be able to submit changes for previously locked or protected articles. These suggested amendments will then be reviewed by senior editors before the changes go live.

It’s important to note that the new system only applies to about 2,000 articles during this trial run, and does not apply to anyone who has had an active account for more than a few days (a fairly low barrier to “autoconfirmed” status, if you ask me). I wrote about this last summer, when it was first announced and still called “flagged revisions” and at that time I thought the reaction was

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.

That is probably still operative, but with the program just rolling out in the past few days, there is a related yet more specific dynamic — a disagreement not about what will happen but what has already: do Pending changes make Wikipedia more open or more closed? An unscientific survey of recent headlines at least tells us which opinion is more pervasive:

  • ReadWriteWeb: “Wikipedia to Loosen Controls Tonight”
  • Slashdot: “Wikipedia To Unlock Frequently Vandalized Pages”
  • Resource Shelf: “New “Pending Changes” System Test Begins on Wikipedia, Will Make It Easier for Users to Edit/Change Controversial Entries”
  • Motherboard.tv: “‘Pending Changes': A Looser Wikipedia”
  • ComputerWorld: “Wikipedia confronts downside of ‘Net openness”
  • BBC: “Wikipedia unlocks divisive pages for editing”

In this summary, at least, only ComputerWorld comes at it from the “more closed” standpoint. (Did you notice that a good amount of the coverage so far has been from the British press? Yeah, so did I.) In a blog post summarizing the radio segment, Lih gave his view:

[M]y view is that the characterization of “pending changes” is relative. Julia Angwin, who I think is a great tech journalist, is of the opinion it represents an overall more closing-off of Wikipedia, and the move is an affirmation of a more conventional process that created traditional encyclopedias. On the other hand, folks like Jimmy Wales have regarded this as opening up — instead of having articles locked completely using full-protection, or to limit editing to existing registered and “aged” users by semi-protection, pending changes gives a way for anyone and everyone to participate, even if those edits are not completely viewable until later. Relative to full protection, it’s more open. Relative to the Wild West wiki way, it’s more closed.

Meanwhile on Wikipedia, a small group of dedicated programmers has been working to make it possible, the discussion has quieted down over the past few days. Wikipedia, it seems, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

As for the show itself, Lih and Angwin handled most of this material, while I was enlisted to do battle with Siegel. And this was quite an opportunity, given Siegel’s notoriety for having sock-puppeted his own blog in 2006, but in the end I kept it focused on Wikipedia. I still said he lived in a fantasy world, and then he said I lived in a fantasy world. Even so, I still should’ve stuck the knife in. And I even gave myself the opportunity, bringing up comment sections on blogs at one point. The fact of the matter is, few people are as wrong-headed about the Internet’s influence on society as Siegel, whose professional curmudgeonry seems as much personal pique as considered commentary.

So I will use the experience to remember that politeness isn’t always the best policy, and leave you with these thoughts from Denny Green:

GLAM Rock: The Wikipedian in Residence and the Race for the Prize

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on June 18, 2010 at 11:47 am

british_museum_cc_temporalataStarting in March, a longtime Wikipedian and co-host of the Wikipedia Weekly podcast, Liam Wyatt, began an unusual experiment: he has become, for a short while at least, a volunteer “Wikipedian in Residence” at the British Museum in London (which I visited in high school and where I touched the Rosetta Stone, when no one was looking, not that you care). It’s the first time such an institution has created such a position (voluntary though this arrangement is) and it points toward a future where organizations with significant cultural material (GLAMs, as this project calls them) may appoint or hire individuals to be representatives or ambassadors to Wikipedia.

Along the way, Wyatt and the British Museum are doing something very interesting: they are offering cash prizes for raising articles to Featured-level status on topics related to the British Museum. From the project page:

The British Museum is offering five prizes of £100 (≈$140USD/€120) at their shop/bookshop for new Featured Articles on topics related to the British Museum in any Wikipedia language edition. Ideally, the topics will be articles about collection items.

This is the first time an organisation in the UK has put out a prize that recognises the value of fine articles on Wikipedia. This is a recognition that Wikipedia work is not only good quality but is consistent with the outreach aspect of the Museum’s mission to engage the public.

It’s an inventive idea, even if some of the rules are a little unclear: it almost sounds like it requires the creation of a brand new article, though that doesn’t seem to be the case. Meanwhile, there are already a dozen or so articles on the English-language Wikipedia currently judged to be Good, B, or C-quality, according to Wikipedia’s internal rating system. Though the prize is pointedly offered in any language edition, most will surely be won in the English, German or French language versions, and at least a few of the aforementioned English articles will be the five ones improved by the winners.

And in keeping with Wikipedia’s “There is no deadline” ethos (related to the concept of “eventualism“), the competition runs until all prizes are claimed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went fast, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that leads to another interesting situation: most quality articles have several major contributors, as was pointed out on a Wikipedia mailing list this week.

the_great_court_mchohanAs Wyatt points out, getting an outside organization to care about “the value of good quality articles on Wikipedia in their own right” is a significant achievement, and the first of a kind. Now that the English-language Wikipedia has grown to include far more articles (3 million) than its veteran editors (a few thousand editing on a daily basis) can possibly handle, more ideas will be needed to generate new content for Wikipedia. Perhaps this represents the next step in the development of the human-powered “content management system” for Wikipedia. Wyatt hopes that other museums will follow in the British Museum’s lead; as someone who works with companies, associations and other organizations that are frequently concerned about how they are represented on Wikipedia, I think outposts for representatives to the Wikipedia community from many organizations can be a good idea, though sorting out the conflict of interest issues is likely to be different for each.

If you’re interested in joining the British Museum contest, you might start with one of the articles discussed above, or find your own in the Collection of the British Museum category. And if you’re looking for a curator at the British Museum to work with, here is the page to do that.

And for more information about Wyatt’s residency, see his personal blog posts here: Part 1: Making Wikipedia “GLAM-friendly”* and Part 2: Making Wikipedia “GLAM-friendly”.

Exterior of British Museum by temporalata on Flickr; Great Hall by M.Chohan.

*GLAM stands for “Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum”; I had to look it up, too.

The Vuvuzela Moment

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on June 14, 2010 at 8:40 am

Since the start of the World Cup last week, there has been no avoiding soccer — aka football, futbol, or as Wikipedia has it, Association football — and no avoiding the giant mosquito buzz sound of those damned horns. Those damned horns have a name: the Vuvuzela. The controversy surrounding them and whether they may be banned is getting a lot of attention on Google and, as a function of its #1 search result status for the word, Wikipedia. Here’s what Wikipedia traffic to the Vuvuzela article looks like right now:

Traffic to Vuvuzela Wikipedia article in June 2010

Traffic to Vuvuzela Wikipedia article in June 2010

This tracks pretty well with what Google Insights is seeing at the moment, although it’s interesting to note that Google still shows an exponential curve while Wikipedia’s numbers (which I trust more) have started to fall off a bit:

Searches for Vuvuzela on Google in June 2010

Searches for Vuvuzela on Google in June 2010

Although the World Cup is not nearly as popular in the U.S. as other countries, I was surprised, upon looking closer at the analytics, that American Googlers do not represent a significant percentage. Given the presumed uptick in U.S. interest in the World Cup this year, the large size of the American search market and U.S. media buzz around the horn (a sound metaphorically not dissimilar from the vuvuzela itself) this comes as some small surprise. In fact, nearly all of the searches are occurring in South Africa — whence they originate and where you’d think most people wouldn’t need to look it up — or Europe, none of them primarily English-speaking countries. Here’s the list:

1. Johannesburg, South Africa
2. Parow, South Africa
3. Pretoria, South Africa
4. Cape Town, South Africa
5. Lisbon, Portugal
6. Amsterdam, Netherlands
7. Hamburg, Germany
8. Rotterdam, Netherlands
9. Cologne, Germany
10. Frankfurt Am Main, Germany

So who is searching for information about the vuvuzela in the United States? Here’s that list, by state / district:

1. Virginia
2. California
3. District of Columbia
4. New York
5. Georgia
6. Massachusetts
7. Washington
8. New Jersey
9. Texas
10. Pennsylvania

If you ever wanted a list of which U.S. states are most closely following the World Cup (assuming that more causally-interested Americans may be Googling “World Cup”) then here you go. As a resident of Washington, DC, I can say that the MLS team D.C. United is sort of the Yankees of U.S. professional soccer and unusually popular here relative to the rest of the country, and California is home to the L.A. Galaxy, where Mr. Posh, David Beckham, plays (I think still?).

Meanwhile, my co-workers and I will keep the games on in the background (currently: a scintillating 0-0 tie between Japan and Cameroon) and we’ll be keeping it on mute.