William Beutler on Wikipedia

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2017

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on January 3, 2018 at 6:16 pm by William Beutler

Every year since 2010, The Wikipedian has delivered a roundup of the most interesting events, trends, situations, occasions, and general goings-on that marked the foregoing year on Wikipedia and in the broader Wikimedia community. Last year’s edition remarked upon the head-spinning series of events that made 2016 the “worst year ever”—or so we thought at the time—and now, looking ahead to 2018, we have a stronger sense that the most realistic expectation is more of the same.

Where does Wikipedia fit into that? Following the U.S. presidential election, it became briefly fashionable to see Wikipedia as a bulwark against “fake news”, but in a year where the new American president suffered vanishingly few consequences for his constant issuance of falsehoods, 2017 very much felt like a year when truth was under constant attack. These ten stories depict a Wikipedia editorial community and readership not necessarily in the midst of a crisis, but of life during informational wartime. Let’s go:

10. In the Wikimedia Year 2030…

Wikimedia 2030, photo by Avery JensenLast year’s list was dominated by a metastasizing organizational breakdown culminating in a change of leadership at the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF). Among many complaints about the non-profit’s former executive director, two of the most important were vision and communication, which is to say their lack. Katherine Maher, WMF’s current chief, seems determined not to let the same be said of her. In August 2017, a little over a year into her tenure, she announced an initiative called “Wikimedia 2030”, starting with a high-minded re-articulation of the Wikimedia movement’s mission statement and a series of commitments to (paraphrasing from the document itself) advancing the world through knowledge. It’s obviously operating on a very long time frame, and a lot depends on its implementation, which is yet to come. But the document received overwhelming support by community members in October, which is at least a positive sign in this otherwise fractured age.

9. The Daily Mail and Governance

Daily Mail clock, photo by Alex Muller / WikideaWikipedia’s quality is highly dependent on the sources it allows to verify its information. In February Wikipedia’s community decided it was fed up with the website of UK tabloid The Daily Mail for its mendacious unreliability, and so “voted” to “ban” its use. This apparent decision was widely reported, including by this blog. And yet, that’s not quite what happened. Rather than an official blacklisting, the Daily Mail was simply added to a list of potentially unreliable sources, and it’s possible to find instances of the website being used as a reference since, perhaps by contributors entirely unaware there was a controversy in the first place. This is how Wikipedia works: it has very few rules that cannot be overcome by editorial clout, determined obstinacy, continued evasion, or blithe disregard. On the whole, Wikipedia works pretty well, but breaks down at the edges: and that is still where the Daily Mail remains.

8. “Monkey Selfie” Reckoning

First, a mea culpa: as far as I can tell, The Wikipedian has never written a word about the Monkey selfie copyright dispute, as Wikipedia’s own article on the subject calls it.

Monkey selfie by David SlaterWikipedia played only a small role in the legal case, which primarily involved nature photographer David Slater being sued by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on behalf of a Celebes crested macaque who had no idea any of this was taking place. The legal matter isn’t quite settled, but as of September it seems close: Slater keeps the copyright, with concessions. Yet Wikipedia played a much larger role in the sense that there may never have been a case at all, or it would have remained quite obscure, had the WMF not refused to abide by Slater’s request and delete the photo from Wikimedia Commons. By virtue of its high profile, Wikipedia magnifies everything.

What’s more, the enthusiasm of its community also obscures: I remember the photo being everywhere at Wikimania 2014 in London and, being charmed like everyone else, I played along and used it in a slide presentation without looking into it further. I’m more regretful of this than my own non-coverage, and consider it still unresolved whether WMF is on the side of virtue in this matter. (Why am I using it here, then? For the same reason Wikipedia uses copyrighted logos: for identification.)

It seems indisputable to me that the copyright should belong with the human who went to considerable lengths at personal cost to facilitate its creation, regardless of which bipedal mammal clicked the button, and if the law is unclear on this, then the law should be clarified. If you haven’t listened to This American Life’s episode about the case from November, it’s worth your time—and Wikipedia doesn’t come across terribly well.

7. Burger King’s Way

Burger KingRemember this? In April, Burger King announced a television ad for the U.S. and UK markets featuring dialogue intended to activate Google Home and read out Wikipedia’s entry for the Whopper. Almost immediately, The Verge noticed that Burger King’s ad team had surreptitiously edited the Whopper entry from Wikipedia’s typical dispassionate summary “…signature hamburger product sold by the international fast-food restaurant chain…” to unambiguous marketing-speak “…flame-grilled patty made with 100 percent beef with no preservatives or fillers…” Then, predictably, unidentified randos joined in and hijacked the entry to disparage the mass-market burger, producing head-scratching headlines like this one from BBC: “Burger King advert sabotaged on Wikipedia”.

Although Burger King was probably unaware of Wikipedia’s policy “Wikipedia is not a soapbox or means of promotion” and practically guaranteed ignorant of the guideline “Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point” that should hardly matter; Burger King knew what it was doing, and figured the ensuing coverage was worth the cost. They were probably right. But I can’t not play the schoolmarm, and tsk-tsk: it’s one thing for a high-school student to vandalize Wikipedia for fun, but quite another for a multinational corporation.

6. Wikipedia Vandalism is Fun for All

Last year’s version of this column decried the phenomenon of lazy sports-bloggers leaning on blink-and-you-missed-it vandalism of sports-related Wikipedia articles for amusement and clicks, and this continued unabated throughout 2017. Most of these stories came from minor sports websites and local news teams, but just as Wikipedia’s prominence owes to its high Google search ranking, so too are these time-wasters afforded visibility by Google News. But this year, we got something else: ostensibly serious news publications marveling over a pattern of self-aware edits coming from U.S. congressional computers.

US CSince 2014, the automated Twitter account @CongressEdits has tracked and reposted every edit made from House and Senate offices; in October, BuzzFeed and CNN both noticed that someone on the Hill was editing articles from Carly Rae Jepsen to Chuck E. Cheese, and on subjects as ubiquitous as Star Wars to obscure as indie band The Mountain Goats. In December, a college student and former congressional aide claimed credit to The Daily Beast, which led to other former interns and anonymous persons crying out for recognition as well. Whether for the lulz, or as part of “the resistance”, these edits at least proved that curiosity about Wikipedia’s willful vulnerability to nonsense appeals to journalists and readers who should probably be focused on something else.

5. Signpost of the Times

WikipediaSignpostIcon.svgA year ago, this list bemoaned the decline of Wikipedia criticism, largely based on the departure of critical thinkers (or at least decent writers) from forums such as Wikipediocracy. This year, I find myself concerned with Wikipedia’s own community news source, The Signpost. A bi-weekly online “newspaper”, The Signpost has been around since 2005, written and edited by volunteers much as Wikipedia itself is. In early 2016 a new editor-in-chief took the reins, led with an ambitious and hopeful editor’s note, produced three issues by the end of February, and then simply stopped.

The editor, a longtime community veteran and onetime WMF staffer, in fact ceased editing Wikipedia almost entirely. I thought about investigating it at the time, but figured I already knew the basics: burnout is a natural occurrence and all but inevitable, although it’s less typical for a project leader to step away without so much as a “gone fishin'” sign. By June, a skeleton crew of former contributors had banded together to put out an edition on at least a once-per-month basis, with a new permanent editor named as of September. Here’s hoping they can return the Signpost to its former schedule and retain its high quality.

In the meantime, I’ll say again what I’ve said many times before: The Signpost is hard work and is a crucial service for the core Wikipedia community; its health is in some ways a measure of the health of the community itself. Its editorship should be a stipended position, funded by but free from oversight of the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia does not depend upon volunteer developers, nor should it depend on volunteer reporters.

4. Everipedia Stalking

What’s Everipedia? Oh, it’s just the latest upstart challenging Wikipedia, this time an actual startup: a rival wiki-based online encyclopedia launched in 2014 by a couple of UCLA students, which later attracted investment from excommunicated Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam, and in December also the involvement of expatriate Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger.

195px-L_SangerEveripedia is certainly audacious, calling itself the world’s biggest encyclopedia (for having exported all of Wikipedia’s entries and then adding more Wikipedia wouldn’t accept) and it projects a certain braggadocio not typically found in online knowledge repositories (at one time, its founders liked to call it “Thug Wikipedia”). It’s also not Sanger’s first attempt at a do-over, having left Wikipedia citing philosophical differences early on; his decidedly more staid Citizendium effort is itself now more than 10 years old, but with only a handful of active editors, is all but a dead project.

The most interesting thing about Everipedia, though, is its pivot to using blockchain technology and announced development of a cyrptocurrency with which to pay contributors. I’m curious to be sure, but even more sure of my skepticism. No question, Wikipedia is built on a relatively ancient software framework, and there is a case to be made that blockchain’s public ledger could represent an advancement in recording all “transactions”. But this is what Harvard’s Clayton Christensen would call a “sustaining innovation”, not a “disruptive innovation”—there’s no reason Wikipedia couldn’t adopt a blockchain ledger should the idea prove meritorious, meanwhile there’s very little chance that Everipedia can replace the day-to-day deliberations of an editorial community more than 15 years old. Culture is impossible to replicate, and extremely difficult to develop. I can’t promise an assortment of brogrammers and Wikipedia’s kooky uncle won’t pull it off, but I have my doubts.

3. Hey, Big Spenders

Wikimedia_Foundation_financial_development_multilanguage.svgWikipedia’s fundraising prowess, ever-growing expenses, and nevertheless-expanding bank account are a matter of interest year in and year out. From about $56,000 in the bank at the end of the 2004 fiscal year to more than $90 million by 2016, Wikipedia’s financial situation is still growing in a way that’s entirely divorced from the number of volunteers actively participating. In February, a 12-year veteran editor published an alarming (or alarmist) op-ed at the then-functioning Signpost with the unfortunate headline “Wikipedia Has Cancer”.

The controversial connotation (which I realize I’ve also made in #10) was very much intended: Wikipedia’s financial position has far exceeded what is necessary for the running of this non-profit, volunteer-driven project. What happens if (and presumably when) revenues slow—will the Wikimedia Foundation adjust spending downward, or start taking on debt? Pointing to recent failures in WMF software development initiatives as a reason to worry about Wikipedia’s leadership, the op-ed called for a spending freeze and greater transparency in financial matters. With some fiscal discipline, and Wikipedia’s newly-established endowment, Wikipedia could live comfortably off its prior fundraising indefinitely. Although the rhetoric was probably excessive, it struck a nerve, attracting an overwhelming number of comments in a discussion that continued for months. Soon after, an article in Quartz called the resulting frenzy “nuts”, and published a chart comparing Wikipedia favorably to similar institutions, including the New York Public Library and even the British Museum.

2. Slow Wiki Movement

Given the lack of high-impact news events surrounding Wikipedia, here is a new one: nothing really happened this year. That’s probably good news, but it doesn’t make for an exciting story. And for an avowed non-story, it’s relatively high-positioned as well. But as I contemplated the mood around Wikipedia over the past twelve months, I found it rather fitting.

320px-Wikidatacon_ux_participatorydesignworkshop_11Two items that just missed the cut: the WMF’s 2015 lawsuit against the NSA, dismissed by one court, was reinstated by another, and this could well be a standalone entry next year. And Wikipedia’s open database, Wikidata, continued to develop and grow, but all of this happened behind the scenes, without any single inflection point (though attendees of the first-ever Wikidatacon are free to disagree with me).

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s edit wars and paid editing scuffles continued, but few made actual news. Trolls, especially of the GamerGate variety, continued to be a nuisance, but (for now) are not an existential threat. Wikipedia’s gender imbalance barely registered a blip, Wikipedia’s editorship numbers again ticked upward, and Wikimania Montreal went off without a hitch. Other topics this year-end report card series has discussed before were also ho-hum: no major sock puppet networks detected, no major article-creation milestones (we’re just over halfway to 6 million), the detente between Wikipedia and education continues, and the Visual Editor continues to work even as most veterans ignore it. Yes, Turkey blocked Wikipedia, but following China and Russia having done so in previous years, it hardly made a dent.

This is what maturity looks like: Wikipedia is Wikipedia, and seems likely to continue doing what it does for a long time to come. So, does it feel like we’re celebrating?

1. WikiTribune’s Rocky Start

wikitribuneIn keeping with the somnolence of the previous item, this year’s top story isn’t even about Wikipedia: it’s about WikiTribune, the other new initiative from Wikipedia’s other co-founder, Jimmy Wales. Announced to great fanfare and no little skepticism in April, Wales’ long-dreamed wiki-based online news site finally launched at the end of October. Early reviews were not enthusiastic, and it has been little remarked-upon since. As of this writing, it has continued publishing a few stories a day, none with any apparent impact. WikiTribune offers little more than what other news operations are doing, and less of it.

In May, this blog offered advice about how it might stand out in a crowded online world: by focusing on developing news teams at the local level, and trial-run innovations that might be ported back Wikipedia. But WikiTribune seems determined to cover international news with no discernible viewpoint or special access, and has no connection to Wikipedia besides its name and famous founder. Why would anyone visit WikiTribune for news over any other publication? I have no idea. Alas, WikiTribune looks like just another much-heralded effort to reinvent news by doing the exact same thing that other news publications were already struggling to keep doing in seemingly impossible circumstances. Whether WikiTribune survives to see the end of 2018, or makes this list a year from now, I have no idea either.

Photo credits, in order: Avery Jensen; Alex Muller / Wikidea; David Slater; Restaurant Brands International; Public domain; Kjoonlee; Larry Sanger; Sameboat; Jan Dittrich; WikiTribune.

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