William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for December 2011

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2011

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on December 31, 2011 at 10:07 pm

A year ago, I wrote a blog post called “The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2010”. Perhaps, then, I should write a follow-up this year? For some reason, I’m having a harder time of it. Was 2011 less of a newsworthy year for Wikipedia? Not if this Google Insights for Search analysis of Wikipedia-related news stories is to be believed: if anything, Wikipedia was a more prominent news generator this year than last. Make what you will of the proprietary, nontransparent methodology of Google’s news judgment, but at least it seems Wikipedia has been plenty newsworthy.

It’s my personal judgment that Wikipedia was somehow less newsworthy than it was last year. Maybe that speaks to the absence of WikiLeaks / Wikipedia confusion in the public discussion, or maybe it speaks to the fact that I think some of the big topics simply repeat.

Whichever is the case, I say let’s do what we did last year, and count down through the most important and / or impactful news stories about the year in Wikipedia, using my own proprietary, nontransparent methodology, which is to say these are my personal judgments:

10. Superinjunctions — In May, Wikipedia was one of several websites (notably also Twitter) that came into conflict with UK court orders—”superinjunctions”—seeking to suppress scandalous gossip about sports and film celebrities (I know, right?). Wikipedia servers, like Twitter’s, are based in the U.S. and so are protected by the First Amendment. But that doesn’t mean some won’t try.

9. Wikipedia and education — This was on the list last year, and even though there was no singular event to point to, I’m going to include it again. Wikipedia remains a major subject of controversy at both the university and secondary levels, and while teacher attitudes are changing, and Wikipedia is making efforts to work with them, much confusion remains and resistance continues to exist. (But is probably futile.)

8. Wikipedia meddling — Politicians don’t fare well when they try to edit Wikipedia. Nor do some famous newspaper columnists. You know who seems to an even worse job of this? PR firms. As I’ve written about more than once, it’s not impossible to contribute to Wikipedia on a topic you are close to without getting burned, but those who are determined to subvert Wikipedia will keep getting burned.

7. Drawbacks of Wikipedia’s openness — It’s not just politicians who sometimes run afoul of Wikipedia… their supporters do, too. This summer, Sarah Palin said something about Paul Revere that was factually inaccurate, and anonymous someones presumed to be in her corner tried to change relevant Wikipedia articles… and then a few days later, Michele Bachmann said something about John Wayne’s hometown that was incorrect and John Quincy Adams’ status as a founding father that basically is too, and unhelpful Wikipedia edits commenced. Oh, and of course Stephen Colbert was there to fan the flames. To paraphrase a real founding father, if eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so too is it the price of an online encyclopedia anyone can edit.

6. But how open is it, really? — This will come up again later, but many Wikipedians have become concerned that Wikipedia is too difficult to use, both for reasons related to the community and the once-revolutionary but now-creaky collaborative tools (i.e. the MediaWiki software that powers Wikipedia and its sister sites) and the often-insular community that defines it. Over Thanksgiving weekend, search engine-focused blogger Danny Sullivan published a blog post blasting Wikipedia for being “closed” and “unfriendly” and, even though he wasn’t very friendly (read: a total jerk) in his brief on-site activity, his point that Wikipedia is difficult to use is not incorrect. Wikipedia volunteer developers have created multiple versions of an Article Feedback Tool, something called “WikiLove”, a rather condescending smiley face / frowny face tool still in testing, and there are more user interface (UI) changes in store. But if the community itself is the issue, that’s a much trickier question.

5. Integration with museums and archives — One of the most interesting things happening on Wikipedia these days is the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) project, in which researchers collaborate with the aforementioned institutions to make their material more easily accessed by Wikipedians for use on Wikipedia. Started by Liam Wyatt, who received considerable attention in 2010 for a stint as “Wikipedian in residence” at the British Museum, the project has grown far beyond him. In the U.S., the Smithsonian and National Archives are now participants, with attention paid by The Atlantic, among other news organizations. If Wikipedia’s reputation for accuracy and depth improves in the years ahead, the GLAM project will play a big part.

4. Wikipedia’s gender imbalance — As I asked in February: “Could it really be that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women?” Well, nobody knows for sure, but this is the percentage of women who participated in the Wikimedia Foundation’s most recent editors survey, and in 2011 the issue attracted renewed attention. A story in the New York Times by the publication’s lead wiki-watcher, Noam Cohen, led to new internal discussion over the site’s gender balance, a renewed outreach effort by Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardener, and and a Wikipedia “fork” of the Change the Ratio campaign spearheaded by my friend Amy Senger. Has it worked? Well… who’s to say just yet? It seems unlikely that Wikipedia participation will reflect the actual gender balance of the wider world—and I would say it needn’t actually do that—but all parties would probably be happy to see a measurable uptick when the next survey rolls around.

3. Wikipedia occupies itself — In early October, the Italian-language Wikipedia edition turned off the lights temporarily in protest against a proposed law that would require websites to issue corrections, or face penalties. The protest received worldwide coverage; the proposed law has not become law. According to Google Insights, this was in fact the most-searched Wikipedia-related news story of the year, but I’m exercising my own editorial discretion here. Meanwhile on the (much more widely read) English-language Wikipedia, similar measures have been considered in response to the U.S. Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) however nothing has come of it (yet).

2. Falling editor retention — I begin with the caveat that this should probably be number one; this might seem a bit esoteric to the outsider, but in fact this is a proxy for questions about the long-term survivability of Wikipedia as a project, and is such a huge topic that I can’t properly wrap my head around it.

In August, I wrote a response to a Gawker post titled “Wikipedia is Slowly Dying”, arguing that Wikipedia had lost its mojo, and the “cognitive surplus” that helped build it had now moved on to places like Facebook and Twitter. This is wrong for reasons I only partly articulated at the time, but there’s no question that Wikipedia has fewer editors than it did last year, and the year before, and the year before.

The Wikimedia Foundation’s own research shows that new editors face longer articles offering fewer clear opportunities to get involved (which shouldn’t be a surprise, given the site’s impressive growth) and have a harder time making their edits stick.

The above chart, also prepared by the Wikimedia Foundation, shows it is clearly in flux: the explosive growth of participation crested several years ago, has been in slow decline since. No one really knows what’s going on with the direction of Wikipedia’s participation rate—regardless of gender—but it has been a major topic of discussion and will continue to be.

1. Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary — My choice for the top story last year was also about Wikipedia—the controversy over its ubiquitous fundraising banners—and so it is again. As much as Wikipedia strives to avoid self-referentiality in its own encyclopedia pages, the one thing Wikipedians have in common (and they often do not have much) is a fascination with Wikipedia. And this year was a big milestone: the 10th anniversary since Jimmy Wales (and, oh yeah, Larry Sanger) started up a “wiki” encyclopedia, very much as an afterthought.

To celebrate the milestone, Wikipedia held events around the world, and it happened to be a good time to be a Wikipedia commentator: I was interviewed for Ukrainian TV, and I collaborated with the creative agency JESS3 to produce a web video called “The State of Wikipedia”, narrated by Jimbo himself. As of this writing, it has more than 135,000 views on YouTube, making it one of the bigger things I did this year. Here’s looking forward to an interesting 2012.

How to Stop the Next Bell Pottinger

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on December 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm

I’m somewhat late by now to one of the bigger Wikipedia-related stories to come along in recent months: the revelation of secretive Wikipedia edits by a London-based PR firm called Bell Pottinger. As reported by the BBC and The Independent and others, Bell Pottinger was caught airbrushing client entries, adding promotional material and removing critical information. Of course, the company’s own Wikipedia profile is now disproportionately about this incident, at least for the time being.

In a swift and thorough investigation, Wikipedia’s volunteers determined that Bell Pottinger employed at least ten accounts, and probably more, to edit more than 100 separate pages. These changes included adding “promotional/excessive language”, including “puffery” and in some cases “unambiguous advertising” by accounts with such innocuous-sounding names as “Biggleswiki”. (Ask not for whom the Bell Pottinger tolls, it tolls for Biggleswiki.)

In spite of myself, I was amused: why is it that supposedly smart, sophisticated PR professionals seem to think the best approach to Wikipedia is duplicity?

Problem is, I think that narrative may be driving the response a bit too much. While the coverage has been mostly responsible, noting that Bell Pottinger committed “possible breaches of conflict of interest guidelines”, it is easy to come away with the impression that any interaction with Wikipedia articles by interested parties is inherently illegitimate. Not unlike the widely-reported incidence of U.S. congressional staff edits to Wikipedia in 2006, or similar incidents uncovered with a tool called WikiScanner in 2007, it ends up stigmatizing editors who would make legitimate edits.

The BBC writes: “While anyone is free to edit the encyclopaedia, the site’s guidelines urge users to steer clear of topics in which they have a personal or business interest.” This is not true for personal interests, and while true for business interests, anyone who knows the site well also knows that it is not the full picture. At least the BBC also quoted Wikipedian David Gerard, noting the investigation would focus on whether the edits were carried out in “bad faith”. More Gerard: “We’re having a close look. What the team is going to do is look at Bell Pottinger’s clients and see what edits have been made.” It so happens these details actually do matter. And even Jimmy Wales, amid more forceful denunciations of the bad actors, told The Independent: “There are ethical PR companies out there.” Not that you ever hear about them.

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As some readers will know, I’ve long been interested in the topic of COI (“Conflict of interest”) editing at Wikipedia. I don’t spend a great deal of time dwelling on the topic here, but indeed it has been a professional focus as well. Over the past few years I have developed best practices for clients, mostly large companies and organizations with existing articles, to facilitate the improvement of those Wikipedia articles in a constructive manner, following Wikipedia’s rules. As noted on the About page of this blog: “My goal has been and will always be to improve such articles while working within consensus.” I’ve carried many of these on my back—these projects are not difficult to find—and helped clients engage under their own name as well. I’m proud of all these, not least because so many find it so surprising.

It shouldn’t be this way. Earlier this year, I teamed up with creative agency JESS3 and marketing automation firm Eloqua to produce a “white hat” guide for marketers and business professionals titled “The Grande Guide to Wikipedia”—a how-to for constructive interaction with the Wikipedia community. The feedback was positive, but I heard more from Wikipedians than from marketing professionals. I have no doubt that furtive, undisclosed edits are common at most firms, not because they seek to do harm (like Bell Pottinger), but because editing transparently seems like too much trouble.

Another reason, and I want to be careful here, is because statements by Jimmy Wales have created the impression that anyone who works for a marketing firm is unwelcome. This goes back to the business involving Gregory Kohs and the MyWikiBiz controversy, where Wales’ “shoot on sight” comments remained effectively the only quote on the matter for a long time. Kohs, openly hostile to Wikipedia and vocal about his intent to subvert Wikipedia was, for a long time, the only model. No doubt this unfortunate turn of history kept well-meaning COI editors in the shadows.

But I’m not alone in thinking that this needs to change. Recently, a social media marketer named David King wrote a very good blog post titled “Why Wikipedia Needs Marketers”, which included this astute observation:

The volume of [Wikipedia] content is growing, but the active contributors to maintain, update and police those articles is shrinking. As this trend continues, vandalism, bias, outdated information and blatant factual errors will run even more rampant.

Marketers are the most motivated to maintain Wikis on subjects important to them and invest the time in providing quality, well-verified content. We can fill this gap if we can learn to support Wikipedia’ s encyclopedic goals and follow the rules.

The response to his post was, perhaps surprisingly, very positive—with encouraging replies in the comments from respected editors including Lori Phillips, FT2 and Wikimedia Foundation reader relations head Philippe Beaudette. King was subsequently invited to expand on the theme at The Wikipedia Signpost, where he continued:

COI contributors introduce bias, but I’m also concerned of the bias without them. Some of our most knowledgeable and motivated contributors are COIs. Does that mean we open the doors wide? Absolutely not. COIs are like political lobbyists. We’re needed but our participation needs to be a delicate and well regulated one. But through teamwork, education, awareness, process, a better ecosystem we could change the tides.

I half-agree with this. I think the analogy of lobbyists is incorrect; “COI editors” should self-regulate their own contributions, as Wikipedia’s Conflict of interest guideline itself says: “Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.” Conflict of interest is not fait accompli; a conscientious editor can and should acknowledge the potential for conflict of interest, and take steps to mitigate that. This should include seeking consensus for making edits outside of what the COI guideline describes as patently “non-controversial edits”.

But he’s right that such edits should also be well-regulated, although they are not now. In practice, following the advice of the Paid editing essay and seeking consensus at the Conflict of interest/Noticeboard (COI/N) or at various WikiProjects can present significant delays, another non-trivial obstacle for marketing and PR professionals who might then choose to just edit without providing adequate disclosure.

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David King is also right that there needs to be a better ecosystem, both to support and to regulate such editing activity. But such a system is unlikely to happen on its own. The answer may lie in an accommodation not unlike the one that accepts the role of ethical PR professionals on Wikipedia. To wit: although the spirit of Wikipedia is for it to be volunteer-edited, there are cases where COI editors, whether paid representatives or smart employees, can help address problem areas with certain articles. Likewise, the Wikimedia Foundation plays no role in setting editorial policy, but it can and should play a role in facilitating responsible COI activity.

There are good, active editors at COI/N who frequently catch bad actors (and infrequently help good ones) but unless their ranks are expanded significantly, they would have a difficult time handling the volume, were marketers to wise up and learn to follow Wikipedia’s rules. Why not help them out?

I suggest that a model already exists: through outreach efforts described in the Wikimedia Foundation’s Strategic Plan (PDF) and embodied in the Wikimedia Ambassador Program, resources could be put toward meeting PR professionals halfway. I don’t think the Foundation needs to seek more such editors, in part because they are already here. But it can provide a safe harbor for assistance requests and advice to ensure COI compliance, and make it safe to follow the rules. Yes, there are plenty of how-tos on pages scattered around the website, but if Danny Sullivan is right about one thing, it’s that Wikipedia is confounding to the uninitiated.

Five years ago, Wikipedia was definitely not ready for this. Today I think it is. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it traditional public relations, and certainly not marketing, because Wikipedia is a unique medium with its own rules. I suggest thinking of it as Wikipedia relations, or wiki relations for short. Hesitant Wikipedians should see it as a mark of how far the project has come: while volunteers remain the core of Wikipedia’s community, there is room for professional representatives of outside interests to work constructively in this space.

Returning to Jimmy Wales’ comments above, ethical PR firms and COI editors do exist. With some effort by the Wikipedia community and the Wikimedia Foundation, more can be encouraged, and Wikipedia would be better for it.

Can UI Changes Transform Wikipedia from Call Center to Community?

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on December 1, 2011 at 2:29 pm

The following post was written by my friend, former colleague and fellow Wikipedia editor Jeff Taylor (Jeff Bedford). His opinions are his own, but they are also good ones.

Danny Sullivan made waves on the web last week with a blog post titled The Closed, Unfriendly World of Wikipedia.

Sullivan made a few honest mistakes in the way he approached the Wikipedia community.  Instead of easing his way into the community and learning its culture and norms, Sullivan moved quickly – perhaps a bit too quickly.  Yes, Wikipedia encouraged him to be WP:BOLD; however his approach at times came across as accusatory and unfriendly.  He inadvertently began treating other editors as if they had done great wrongs, expecting everyone to drop what they were doing to answer his requests.

Though not his (nor Wikipedia’s) intention, Sullivan’s experience with the Wikipedia community resembled that of dialing in to a tech support call center, with Wikipedia’s volunteer editors relegated to the unwanted role of customer service representative.  Sullivan even alludes to this call center vibe in his blog post, with section headings such as “At The Tone (If You Can Find It), Please Leave A Detailed Message” and “To Contact an Editor, Please Contact An Editor.” Much like a call center, he got the run-around, and this is not his fault.  It is the product of Wikipedia’s user interface and overall structure, which is truly showing its age in late 2011.

The Wikimedia Foundation has a very academic/university-like mindset, which has its benefits, but has also stifled change — including design updates — when change is absolutely necessary.  To be fair, the foundation is quite self-aware, as evident in their product whitepaper:

  • “Wikimedia’s editing environment, which fundamentally is based on 1995 technology, represents a highly complex and intimidating way for users to engage with content online. In usability studies, users themselves call out the editing environment as unusual, and ask why a rich-text editing environment as used in tools like Blogger or Google Docs is not present.”

The current discussion system is detached from the norms of the rest of the web, hindering the ability of otherwise intelligent users to collaborate productively:

  • “Usability issues mean that especially for new users, the interaction with advanced users is seriously impaired by their lack of a mental model of the discussion system. Paradigms that the user may be familiar with (forums, inboxes, social media feeds) do not apply. Indeed, it is challenging to find any discussion system that is willfully designed to resemble Wikimedia’s.”

The web is moving forward and Wikipedia is not moving forward at the same pace:

  • “User expectations have changed drastically as a result of the innovations that became mainstream during 2005-2007 and continue today. The studies conducted during the Usability Initiative provide evidence that the editing interface is confusing and does not match user expectations.”

A redesigned user interface will be critical for Wikipedia to pivot from call center back to productive and thriving community, and while the public at large may not be aware, a new design is already under construction.  If done right and deployed swiftly, this change – along with an update to the discussion interface – will ensure that users like Danny Sullivan encounter a community, not a call center, when shifting from reader to potential long-term contributor.

According to the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual plan, a target has been set for the “first opt-in user-facing production (to be in) usage by December 2011.” Today is December 1.  To the development team that is clearly hard at work, I ask, will we see a sneak preview, a screenshot, or an option to test this out before December 31st?  After all, this may be the catalyst to reversing Wikipedia’s editor decline.