William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for September 2011

Self-Reflexive Wikipedia is Self-Reflexive

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on September 26, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Earlier today, venerable linkblogger Jason Kottke posted a link to the Disambiguation page for Disambiguation itself. His headlined commentary: “Wikipedia will eat itself”.

While Wikipedia strives to avoid self-referentiality, sometimes it cannot avoid self-referentiality. Kottke’s example above is one that’s likely to stay, and for good reason. But another comes to mind, although you have to dial back the clock a few years:

Yes, the Wikipedia article “Original research” once carried a warning asserting that it contained original research (a big no-no on Wikipedia). Today, “Original research” is merely a heading within the larger article “Research”, which is probably as it should be.

The Guinness Book of Wikipedia

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on September 22, 2011 at 9:31 am

A few weeks back The Economist published a brief appreciation of Guinness World Records that included a perhaps-not-too-surprising nod to Wikipedia:

Created in Britain in 1955, the first edition, then known as the “Guinness Book of Records”, was a marketing tool: a compilation of interesting facts distributed to pub landlords to promote Guinness, an Irish drink. Now this encyclopedia of extremes draws its statistics from around the world and is the bestselling copyright title of all time (a category that excludes books such as the Bible and the Koran), selling 120m copies in over 100 countries and spawning all sorts of copycat miscellanies.

Before internet search engines or the omnivorous Wikipedia, the “Guinness Book of Records” was already a popular trove of trivia. Its success lay in tapping into man’s innate curiosity about the natural world around him: the first edition included details such as the brightest star in the heavens (the Dog Star) and the biggest spider’s body (9cm long).

I’d never really thought about a connection between Wikipedia and Guinness’ venerable collection of unusual achievements, but as I recall my devotion to the thick paperback editions of my childhood—which was published in the U.S. in the 1980s as the “Guinness Book of World Records” and that is what I still want to call it—this habit of devouring Guinness-curated facts is more like how I came to be so interested in Wikipedia than any other comparable activity. And that includes blogging and the blogosphere, which is what I typically consider a forerunner to my involvement with Wikipedia.

The Economist goes on to note how Guinness’ book has changed over time: where it once included feats of derring-do like sword swallowing, those categories have since been retired in favor of ephemeral team efforts, like building the world’s largest burrito, sundae, pizza, &c. It so happens that my friend Boaz holds a Guinness record related to high-fives.

And where Guinness’ book was once a handy compilation of extreme facts about the world’s oldest, tallest, biggest, smallest, heaviest and tiniest people, places and things, the Internet broadly and Wikipedia specifically have taken its place. A similar fate has befallen Trivial Pursuit, as pointed out in Slate a few years back. Unlike Trivial Pursuit, however, Guinness has a second life: on Wikipedia, as a reliable source.

Johann Hari and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Wikipedia Edits

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on September 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Unless you follow the media, and more specifically the British media, you may be wholly unaware that there is such a person named Johann Hari, or that he has been a wunderkind columnist and correspondent, or that a lot of people find him kind of insufferable, and in that case you almost certainly don’t know that he got himself in a big heap of trouble this summer, over charges of plagiarism and meddling with Wikipedia.

Understandably, most of the criticism has been focused on the plagiarism charges. After all, that’s a crime against journalism, and by definition journalists are the ones writing about it most widely. What he did in those cases was not remotely OK, but at the moment I’m a little more animated by his improper Wikipedia activity. After all, that’s a crime against Wikipedia, and by definition The Wikipedian blogs about Wikipedia.

The matter is news again today because Hari has published a public apology in the pages of The Independent, his employer. He is sorry for everything he has done, he’s returning his prestigious Orwell Prize (which he probably was going to lose anyway) and he’s taking a sabbatical to go back to journalism school. I guess it’s a start.

About the Wikipedia controversy, Hari devotes just one full paragraph:

The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.

Hari’s Wikipedia article contains this brief account:

Several journalists, including Cristina Odone in The Daily Telegraph and Nick Cohen in The Spectator, concluded that a Wikipedia editor, ‘David r from meth productions’, who claimed to be ‘David Rose’, were in fact made by Hari. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Odone noted that, after she had fallen out with Hari, Rose began making misleading edits to her Wikipedia article accusing her of anti-Semitism and homophobia. Nick Cohen said that misleading edits were made to his own Wikipedia article by the same editor after he had published criticism of Hari’s work. … The Times leader writer Oliver Kamm later attributed to ‘David Rose’ a change in his Wikipedia biography that he regarded as “merely an unsubstantiated judgement” but which had been made not long after a “spat” with Hari.

I am not one who believes, as a general rule, that someone should never edit their own Wikipedia article. Indeed, I’m kind of the expert on how to do it and not bring grief to yourself. But by his own admission, Hari’s editing of his own page amounts to what Wikipedia informally calls whitewashing. Hari also did not disclose that he was behind the “David r from meth productions” account, which is also, obviously, a problem. And it’s all the worse—and by worse I just mean “embarrassing”—if you’ve read any of his surreptitiously self-serving arguments in the archives of his Talk page.

But embarrassment is the bare minimum of regret Hari should feel about his “juvenile and malicious” edits to Wikipedia articles about his media adversaries. This is the part that really gets me. Others may disagree, but I see a vast gulf between sneakily trying to make yourself look better and sneakily making others look worse. And I think there’s a big difference between being an anonymous Internet critic—although it’s a type known to take things too far—and using the veil of anonymity (or in the case of Wikipedia, pseudonymity) to smear a person’s reputation.

Calling someone a “douchebag” is rude, and you may be wrong, but that’s your opinion. Calling someone a “drunk” is a specific charge of bad behavior, about which one is either right (and maybe still an asshole) or wrong, and that’s unforgivable. I don’t know which is the case, but either reflects very poorly on his character. This is the one thing that I think no apology, leave of absence, or media training, can fix.

Update: In the comments, a reader points out that Hari’s edits are even worse than I’ve described them, and he’s right. He points to apparent sustained anonymous vindictiveness on Hari’s part, and I add that Hari’s self-support included some rather absurd sock puppetry, neither of which I was aware of at the time I first wrote this. Had I the time, I would follow this up in more detail. But the upshot remains the same: as a public figure, Hari may or may not be finished—but as a respectable one, he certainly is.

This Wikipedia Article Is Not Yet Rated

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on September 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Even if you’re a very casual Wikipedia reader (which I assume is not the case, or you wouldn’t be here right now) you might have noticed a few new features* at Wikipedia in recent weeks and months. Most noticeably, the Article Feedback Tool, pictured below.

And it takes a single click to see the ratings on a given article. In the following example, a number of readers have already expressed their opinion of the (very short and currently unreferenced) article about the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album, which isn’t supposed to be released until later this month (thanks, Spotify / BitTorrent!).

It’s not entirely clear what the long-range prospects for the tool may be. Unlike flagged revisions, it isn’t slated for a vote and approval or removal; indeed, it’s now listed on every Wikipedia article that you visit, and it will continue to be for the indefinite future.

But that doesn’t mean it will necessarily remain static. An invitation to “please take a moment to rate this page” has already been changed. More questions are surely in store, especially as some very good questions have been raised, such as who’s to say what it means to be “highly knowledgable” in a given subject area?

Certain aspects of its implementation, though, are quite clever. For example, any rating assigned to an article that itself may change often cannot be considered good for long, right? This has been anticipated: ratings expire after 30 edits have been made on a given page, and if you’ve rated a page before, you can re-rate it then.

Some Wikipedians have also asked for a statistical tool charting the data over time, which would be very cool to see. Like most Wikipedia projects, all information captured is available through its API, so anyone could build one if they wanted. A good example of this kind of ad hoc service is User:Henrik’s Wikipedia article traffic statistics tool.

Meanwhile, it also opens a new Pandora’s box for Wikipedia (as if it didn’t already have plenty). Perhaps the biggest concern ahead is that the ratings can be gamed; as Liam “Wittylama” Wyatt (known particularly for his work with the British Museum) has pointed out, the top-rated article (4.9 out of 5 stars) is something called the VAD 43 MRC Klang Chapter. About which, well, have a look for yourself.

I think the concept of article ratings is an idea whose time is coming, if that time is not yet now. These ratings have a long way to go before they should be considered a barometer of anything. It’s a good start, but still just that.

*The other is one asking how you feel about editing Wikipedia, complete with a choice of smiley and frowny faces, but I haven’t seen it lately.