William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for October 2010

Whither the WikiProject?

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on October 27, 2010 at 9:02 am

In the latest edition of the Wikipedia Signpost — Wikipedia’s community “newspaper” — contributor Mabeenot conducts a neat interview with editors from WikiProject Horror.

For those unfamiliar with the term WikiProject, it refers to an ad hoc committee of Wikipedia editors who collaborate on the development of articles by topic, according to their interests. Or, as the WikiProject page itself begins:

A WikiProject is a project to manage a specific topic or family of topics within Wikipedia. It is composed of a collection of pages and a group of editors who use those pages to collaborate on encyclopedic work.

I consider myself a member of WikiProject Oregon, although I tend to follow my own muse and rarely pitch in on assigned tasks (though I should) and was a member of WikiProject The Wire, until most of those articles were sufficiently developed and the project slowed down considerably.

That, actually, is the point of this blog post: speaking purely on an anecdotal level, it seems that more than a few WikiProjects I visit are dreadfully slow, if not actual ghost towns: questions are posted and not answered for days, or longer, and discussions may be very infrequent. Obviously, I stipulate that some research is necessary to determine the whether my experience is representative or not; I may just do that.

Meantime, I leave you with an excerpt from the aforementioned interview. Here’s Bignole, asked about difficulties involved in keeping the project active:

Bignole: The problem with keeping a project active is based primarily on how many members you have that are still editing. Many of the WikiProject Horror members no longer edit on Wikipedia, or simply do not edit for extended periods of time. Horror is a very special field, and one not as many people have a taste for. Thus, something as broad as “Film” is easier to keep active because it covers so many different forms and genres and thus attracts a more diverse field of editors who have an interest in those topics. As much as horror extends beyond simply horror film (e.g., books, games, etc.), the reality is that the primary coverage this project has provided. It’s the area that garners the most attention, as I said before, because film is a very popular medium. Just, finding active editors interested specifically in the horror aspect of any medium can sometimes be difficult. At one time the project has had upwards of 200 members, but even quite a few of the ones currently listed as “Active” have not truly been active editing any article for over a year. So, staying active in general is probably one of the biggest difficulties to keeping this project active. Though, like any great horror villain, this project seems to refuse to die and drags itself out of the mud every so often for a few more scares.

Horror fan yourself? Got a few spare cycles to donate? By all means, head on over to WikiProject Horror and lend a hand.

Banned from Wikipedia… Almost

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on October 20, 2010 at 10:29 am

I presume that a fair number of Wikipedia’s casual readers and participants are at least vaguely aware of the fact that bad behavior can get one banned from the site — of course I mean from editing it, not from reading it. But what I’ll bet is less known is that there is another type of punishment which is less extreme, but probably is no more fun to the punished: topic banning. Wikipedia defines this as follows:

The user is prohibited from editing either (1) making any edits in relation to a particular topic, (2) particular pages that are specified in the ban; and/or, (2) any page relating to a particular topic. Such a ban may include or exclude corresponding talk pages. Users who violate such bans may be blocked.

Wikipedia has other editing restrictions — article bans, requirements to discuss changes — but topic banning is the most common. At present, Wikipedia bars more than 100 editors from making certain types of edits.

And there is a pattern to topic bans as well, one that mirrors Wikipedia’s most controversial topics: balkanized Eastern Europe, disputed Israel and Palestinian territories, ever disputatious Scientology, and other topics also found on Wikipedia’s internal List of controversial issues.

It comes as no surprise that climate change is one of them, and it’s on that particular topic that Wikipedia has just topic-banned a long-time contributor. The person in question is William Connolley, a British writer, Scienceblogs contributor and former climate researcher. Unusual for most Wikipedia editors, Connolley is himself the subject of a Wikipedia article himself. As an aside, I’m not sure that Connolley is strictly “notable“, but he was featured briefly (and sympathetically) in a 2006 New Yorker article about Wikipedia.

Most of the commentary on Connolley comes from the political right, even to the point of inspiring his own watchdog site and the occasional newspaper column. However, the most consistent (persistent?) coverage of Connolley’s Wikipedia editing has undoubtedly been provided by Anthony Watts of the blog Watts Up With That? Watts’ take on Connolley’s banning is here.

I’m not particularly familiar with Connolley’s activity or the controversies extending therefrom, but more than a few dedicated Wikipedians certainly are. He is among the most carefully-scrutinized Wikipedia editors — the discussion page associated with his account is the 11th-most “watchlisted” Talk page, following only a couple of technical pages and those belonging to Wikipedia’s best-known contributors.

Getting to the bottom of this all is no simple matter, and I confess that I’m going to punt: Wikipedia’s arbitration committee took nearly two months and some 36,000 words to arrive at the decision. You can read the whole thing, or just the section where members of the committee voted to restrict his editing activity. If I understand it correctly, the ultimate reason for the actions taken was not the material he sought to introduce but the attitude he showed toward editors who disagreed with his point of view. For Connolley’s point of view, his commentary on the decision can be found on his own Talk page, and in a post at Scienceblogs.

If I’ve missed anything important, please add it in the comments.

The Earliest Known Record of Wikipedia Journalism

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on October 12, 2010 at 6:56 am

I’d gotten to wondering, recently, what was the first time Wikipedia was mentioned by a media source? The project began in January 2001, but I’m sure I wasn’t aware of it until sometime in 2003 at the earliest. I have no memory of first learning about it — only a recollection that sometime in the middle of the last decade, I was spending hours and hours, and entire days on some weekends, reading Wikipedia. I wasn’t too curious about where it came from then, but over the last few years, I clearly have been.

So I did what anyone with access to an online news database would do: I looked it up. And the winner appears to be a July 1, 2001 article in the Australian edition of PC World, by one Aldis Ozols. Here it is, in its entirety:

Roll-your-own fount of knowledge: www.wikipedia.com.; editor’s choice.

“A wiki is a collection of interlinked Web pages which can be visited and edited by anyone” goes the definition by Wikipedia. Rising to the challenge, I edited the page on which this statement was made, and behold, my contribution (all two words of it) became part of the Wikipedia.

This is a collaborative project intended to produce a usable encyclopedia through the efforts of many volunteers who surf in from the Net. While this makes it superficially similar to Everything2 (see June issue), there are differences. For instance, Everything2 seeks to be a live, interactive community as well as a reference, whereas Wildpedia [sic] has a more modest goal: to create a freely distributable 100,000 page encyclopedia online. In addition, where Everything2 has a complex system of user ranking and moderation which attempts to grade contributions and their authors, Wikipedia is wide open. Anyone can rock up and modify existing entries, or create new ones as I did.

Astonishingly, the result is not a pile of chaotic nonsense, as one might expect. Perhaps that’s because the project is still small, with only 6000 pages of text and a few dozen contributors, but something more seems to be at work here. Evidently, articles that start off with a one-sided viewpoint are edited and re-edited until they settle into a kind of consensus with which most people are satisfied. In anycase, this is an interesting experiment containing some surprisingly accurate articles.

Surprisingly prescient, if you ask me. Or perhaps just lucky — many a website that garners positive reviews in its early going nonetheless still folds, or descends into chaos. In any case, I’m surprised to find this article is not online — if I’d been first to report on Wikipedia, I’d want to take credit for the fact.

Looking a little further, it seems that most of the Anglosphere reported on Wikipedia before anyone in the U.S. had anything to say about it: England (London Free Press), Canada (Edmonton Sun), Wales (Wales on Sunday) and Northern Ireland (Irish News) all got there first.

Stateside, the first press mention of Wikipedia was in the Gray Lady herself, the New York Times, by someone named Peter Meyers. This story is online, so I will simply quote the lede (sorry, non-journos) and call it good:

Fact-Driven? Collegial? This Site Wants You

FOR all the human traffic that the Web attracts, most sites remain fairly solitary destinations. People shop by themselves, retrieve information alone and post messages that they hope others will eventually notice. But some sites are looking for ways to enable visitors not only to interact but even to collaborate to change the sites themselves.

Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) is one such site, a place where 100 or so volunteers have been working since January to compile a free encyclopedia. Using a relatively unknown and simple software tool called Wiki, they are involved in a kind of virtual barn-raising.

Their work, which so far consists of some 10,000 entries ranging from Abba to zygote, in some ways resembles the ad hoc effort that went into building the Linux operating system. What they have accomplished suggests that the Web can be a fertile environment in which people work side by side and get along with one another. And getting along, in the end, may ultimately be more remarkable than developing a full-fledged encyclopedia.

For the curious, here is what the ABBA entry looked like on the day the story ran, and here it is today. And here is something close to what the zygote article looked like then, and what it looks like now. One wonders what it will look like in another ten years.

Update: In the comments, Graham87 locates the exact zygote entry, from the so-called Nostalgia Wikipedia (a topic worthy of its own post, at some point).