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Linux distributions vs. wedding dresses: the gender gap impact

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on November 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Editor’s note: The author of this post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette) and is part of a series on female editors of Wikipedia. Her most recent post—the first in the series—was “All The Women Who Edit Wiki, Throw Your Hands Up At Me” on November 8, 2012.

Continuing this series on women and Wikipedia, this week I’d like to give a quick overview of the gender gap and its impact. Let’s start with what we already know: female Wikipedia editors are in the minority of those making edits to the site’s articles and Talk pages on a regular basis. Earlier this year, a research project by Santiago Ortiz found that on average there are 12.9 male editors to each female editor editing a given article. This is an issue that Wikipedians are very familiar with. For many, the real concern is not just that women aren’t participating, but that their relative absence may have led to gaps in Wikipedia’s collective knowledge.

In early 2011, Noam Cohen wrote an oft-cited article for the New York Times which made the point that Wikipedia’s coverage of topics more likely to be of interest to women tended to be much less well developed than for corresponding topics of interest to men. Indeed, anecdotal evidence exists for a gendered take on notability: in some cases, articles on female-oriented topics have been nominated for deletion, not considered “notable” by (mostly) male editors. In particular, Torie Bosch wrote on Slate.com about the deletion debate around the Wikipedia article Wedding dress of Kate Middleton, which survived after editors including Jimbo Wales fought for it to remain. Bosch also described how several new articles on female historical figures created during a Smithsonian archives “edit-a-thon” were later nominated for deletion—one more than once.

(As an aside: I personally find it offputting how this gender gap topic is often addressed. For instance, Cohen’s article specifically mentions the poor state of the articles on the TV series Sex and the City and fashion designer Jimmy Choo as indicators of missing female editors. Examples like these are more than a little patronizing and hard to take seriously. I’m not the only one who feels this way.)

The gender gap doesn’t just affect what articles get created (and don’t get deleted): the quality of certain articles may be affected by the dearth of female editors, too. In January 2011, Wikipedia’s newsletter, The Signpost, included a piece in which Wikipedia article quality was compared between the most famous male and female scientists from Science magazine’s Science Hall of Fame. The author of the Signpost article found that the top ten male scientists’ articles are mostly rated a “B” on Wikipedia’s article quality grading scheme, and include one Good Article and one Featured Article, while the top ten female scientists’ articles are all rated Stub or Start class (with the exception of Marie Curie). Worth noting: the author explained the conclusion isn’t a clear cut case of gender imbalance, since the female scientists were generally less well-known than the men, which could have an impact on both number of editors interested in the articles and availability of material to improve them.

An interesting question in light of all the above: what exactly are women editing on Wikipedia? If we look at one of Wikipedia’s most well-known female editors, SlimVirgin, who’s had a key role in 10 Featured Articles—no mean feat—we can get an idea of what a prolific female editor works on. Her Featured Articles span a range of topics, from the biographical article for Palestinian political leader Abu Nidal to the article on the Brown Dog Affair, an Edwardian-era political controversy about vivisection. No obvious gender bias here. Nor is there any big difference between male and female editors in terms of types of edit according to a 2011 study titled Gender Differences in Wikipedia Editing. The study’s authors found there was no evidence that men and women tend to make different sized edits or that one gender prefers fixing text to adding new text. In short, it seems the gender gap issue isn’t as simple as “get female editors, solve knowledge gaps”; it may have a lot to do with the types of article or information that people drawn to Wikipedia editing are most interested in. (Yes, I’m saying that Wikipedia editors are likely to be more interested in Linux than dresses, sorry Jimmy Wales!)

While writing this post I was intrigued to see if picking 10 editors at random from the Female Wikipedians category and looking at their most recent edits would provide any insight. Disappointingly, seven out of the ten hadn’t edited in over two years, and of the remaining three only one had made an edit in article space in the last year. This result is certainly indicative of Wikipedia’s broader problem of editor retention, but it also speaks to the particular issues Wikipedia has had retaining female editors. Which leads nicely to the topic of my next post… the issues involved in recruitment and retention of female editors. Look for that here soon, meanwhile (for U.S. readers) have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

What You Missed at Wikimania 2017

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on August 18, 2017 at 4:39 pm

N.B. At the end of this post I’ve embedded a Spotify playlist for the delightful 2006 album “Trompe-l’oeil” by the Francophone Montreal indie rock band Malajube. It’s what I was listening to as I arrived at Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport last week, and I think it would make a nice soundtrack for reading this post.

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Wikimania 2017, the thirteenth annual global meeting of Wikipedia editors and the larger Wikimedia movement, was held in Montreal last weekend. For the fifth time overall, and the first time in two years, I was there. I’ve covered previously attended Wikimanias, sometimes glancingly, and sometimes day-by-day, and this time I’ll do something a little different as well.

One nice thing about a conference for a project focused on the internet: many of the presentations can be found on the internet! Some but not all were recorded and streamed; some but not all have slides available to revisit. The second half of this post is a roundup of presentations I attended, or wished I attended, with media available so you can follow up at your own pace.

But first, a note on a major theme of the conference: implicitly if not specifically called “Wikimedia 2030”, and a draft of a “strategic direction” document circulating by stapled printout from the conference start, later addressed specifically in a presentation by Wikimedia Foundation executive director Katherine Maher and board chair Christophe Henner. It’s available to read here, and I recommend it as a straightforward and clearly-described (if detail-deficient) summary of how Wikimedians understand their project, and where its most dedicated members want to take it.

Draft strategic direction at Wikimania 2017As one would expect, the memo acknowledges the many types of contributors and contributions, brought together by a belief in the power of freely shared knowledge, and a committment to helping organize it. It also focuses on developing infrastructure, building relationships, and strengthening networks. One thing it doesn’t talk much about is Wikipedia, which might be surprising to some. After all, Wikipedia is arguably more important to the movement than the iPhone is to Apple: Wikipedia receives 97.5% of all WMF site traffic, while the iPhone accounts for “only” 70% of Apple’s revenues.

I don’t wish to belabor the Apple analogy much, because there are too many divergences to be useful in a global analysis, but both were revolutionary within their markets, upset competitors, created a whole new participatory ecosystem in their wake, and each grew exponentially until they didn’t. Now the stewards of each are looking beyond the cash cow for new areas of growth. For Apple, it’s cloud-based Services revenue. For the WMF, it’s not quite as easily summarized. But the answer is also partly about building in the cloud, at least figuratively. Although both Wikipedia and the iPhone will remain the most publicly visible manifestations of each organization for the foreseeable future, the leadership of each is focused on what other services they enable, and how they can even make the core product more valuable.

I see two main themes in the memo, about how the Wikimedia movement can better develop that broad ecosystem beyond Wikimedia’s existing base, and how it can improve its underlying systems within movement technology and governance. The former is too big a subject to grapple with here, and I’ll share just a single thought about the latter.

One thing the document concerns itself with at least as much as with Wikipedia is “data structures”—and this nods to Wikidata, which has been the new hotness for awhile, but whose centrality to the larger project is becoming clearer all the time. Take just one easily overlooked line, about how most Wikimedia content is “long-text, unstructured articles”. You know, those lo-fi Wikipedia entries that remain so enduringly popular. They lack structure now, but they might not always. Imagine a future where Wikidata provides information not just to infoboxes (although that is a tricky subject) but also to boring old Wikipedia itself. Forget “red links”: every plain text noun in the whole project may be connected to its “Q number”. Using AI and machine learning, entire concepts can be quickly linked in a way that once required many lifetimes.

At present, Wikipedia is the closest thing we have to the “sum of all human knowledge” but in the future, it may only be the default user interface. Now more than ever, the real action is happening behind the scenes.

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Birth of Bias: implicit bias’ permanence on Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a project by and for human beings, and necessarily carries the implicit biases of those human beings, whether they’re mindful of the fact or not. This presentation, offered by San Francisco State visiting scholar Jackie Koerner, focused on how to recognize this and think about what to do about it. Slides are accessible by clicking on the image below, and notes from the presentation are here.

Koerner Implicit Bias Wikimania 2017

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Readership metrics: Trends and stories from our global traffic data

How much do people around the world look at Wikipedia? How much do they look at it on desktop vs. mobile device? How have things changed over time? All of this and more is found in this presentation from Tilman Bayer, accessible by clicking through the image below.

Readership metrics. Trends and stories from our global traffic data (Wikimania 2017 presentation)

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The Internet Archive and Wikimedia – Common Knowledge Goals

The Internet Archive is not a Wikimedia project, but it is a fellow nonprofit with a similar outlook, complementary mission and, over time, increasing synergy between the two institutions. Every serious Wikimedian should know about the Internet Archive. I didn’t attend the presentation by Wendy Hanamura and Mark Graham, but there’s a lot to be gleaned from the slides embedded below, and session notes here.

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State of Video in the Wikimedia Movement

You don’t watch a lot of video on Wikipedia, do you? It’s not for lack of interest on the part of Wikipedians. It’s for lack of media availability under appropriate licenses, technology and infrastructure to deliver it, and even community agreement about what kinds of videos would help Wikipedia’s mission. It’s an issue Andrew Lih has focused on for several years, and his slides are highly readable on the subject.

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The Keilana Effect: Visualizing the closing coverage gaps with ORES

As covered in this blog’s roundup of 2016’s biggest Wikipedia stories, one of Wikipedia’s more recent mini-celebrities is a twentysomething medical student named Emily Temple-Wood, who goes by the nom-de-wiki Keilana. Her response to each experienced instance of gender-based harassment on the internet was to create a new biographical article about another woman scientist on Wikipedia. But it’s not just an inspiring story greenlit by countless news editors in the last couple years: WikiProject Women Scientists, founded by Temple-Wood and Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, dramatically transformed the number and quality of articles within this subject area, taking them from a slight lag relative to the average article to dramatically outpacing them. Aaron Halfaker, a research scientist at the Wikimedia Foundation, crunched the numbers using the new-ish machine learning article quality evaluation tool ORES. Halfaker presented his findings, with Temple-Wood onstage to add context, on Wikimania’s final day. More than just a victory lap, the question they asked: can it be done again? Only Wikipedia’s contributors can answer that question.

The slides can be accessed by clicking through the image below, notes taken live can be found here, and for the academically inclined, you can also read Halfaker’s research paper: Interpolating Quality Dynamics in Wikipedia and Demonstrating the Keilana Effect.

Keilana Effect (Wikimania 2017)

That was fun! Let’s do this again next year.

Update: Looking for more slides and notes? There’s an “All Session Notes” page on the Wikimania site for your edification.

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The Top Ten Wikipedia Stories of 2016

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on January 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm

2016 was a hell of a year. In matters of war and peace, politics and governance, arts and celebrity culture—not to mention unexpected crossovers among them—it was a year that seemed to come off the swivel. Was this true on Wikipedia as well? In this post The Wikipedian will attempt, as it has done each year since 2010, to summarize the year in the Wikimedia movement by itemizing and ranking ten of the biggest trends and events.

The list this time may be noteworthy less for what is included than what is not: in 2016 there was no major sock puppet or COI scandal (hopefully that’s because there weren’t any, not just that they weren’t called out), no major milestone (Wikipedia turned 15 in 2016, but it felt less consequential than the 5 millionth article last year), no mention of perennial fears about a declining editor base (is it still actually declining?) and nothing about last year’s number one, the implementation of HTTPS (it’s a done deal, and China hasn’t changed its mind about unblocking Wikipedia on the mainland).

That said, in 2016 Wikipedia still had more than its share of turmoil, more ominous signs than one ever really wants to see, plus the occasional inspiring story that makes for much more pleasant anecdotes. In this post, we’ll attempt to do justice to them all, or at least the ten that made the biggest impressions on this blogger. Ready? Let’s go:

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10. Women Scientists Revolt

emily_temple-woodAmong Wikipedia’s more problematic systemic biases, the gender gap in participation and representation is one of the more frustrating. This year it was momentarily a bright spot, when Emily Temple-Wood, one of Wikipedia’s best known female editors, became a minor media sensation for a project with an irresistible hook: for every instance of online sexual harassment she experienced, she would create another Wikipedia article about a woman scientist. The story was picked up by the BBC, Washington Post, Guardian, New York, and Huffington Post, among many other outlets. The sudden micro-celebrity placed her in the unique category of Wikipedia editors with a Wikipedia biography earned as a result of their editing activities. Jimmy Wales also named her Wikipedian of the Year (along with Rosie Stephenson-Goodnight). And then she started med school.

9. Wikipedia Vandalism, Spectator Sport

lebron_jamesIf you’re the kind of person who searches Google News for “wikipedia” with any frequency, you have undoubtedly seen headlines like “Denver Broncos ‘own’ Carolina Panthers, according to Wikipedia edit”. Seriously, search “wikipedia sports owned” and you’ll find the same combination for Chase Utley and the Mets, LeBron James and the Bulls, Jürgen Klopp and Manchester City. And that’s just one gratingly common construction. Yes, sometimes it can actually be funny. Occasionally, even heartwarming. But no sport is safe, and the phenomenon is familiar enough for Fox Sports (a frequent offender) to have once created a list of “most entertaining” examples. In early 2016, former WSJ reporter and Wikimedia staffer Jeff Elder called out the trend, spotlighting the tedious extra work it creates for Wikipedia volunteers. VentureBeat followed up by making the argument it was time for sportswriters to move on. And so that put an end to it? Yeah, right. It’s not clear what will ever kill this “story”; there is almost certainly nothing within anyone’s actual control. While individual writers or readers may tire of it, the thing about sports is that every big win is a moment without precedent, that obliterates all reason, and naturally seeks a good, mean-spirited to laugh top it off. All things considered, better to vandalize Wikipedia than light a car on fire.

8. The Business of Wikipedia is Fundraising

wmf-fundraisingWikipedia is alone among the top 50 global websites (give or take) for the lack of advertising to be found on its pages. As a consequence, its funding model is the focus of fascination and frustration for both the editorial community and news media alike. And as you’re certainly well aware, every year the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) launches a fundraising drive featuring very prominent and slightly annoying banners—which look a lot like advertisements for Wikipedia itself—to raise money from its millions of readers. To be sure, Wikipedia also raises money via grants and gifts from wealthy donors, but the vast majority comes from the annual campaign.

Beginning in mid-November, the WMF stepped up its annual efforts with a persistent email campaign fronted by Wikipedia’s founder-mascot Jimmy Wales, using sophisticated techniques—variation, highlighting, boldfacing, talky subject lines, and more. WMF fundraising has been A/B tested for awhile, but this was undoubtedly the slickest incarnation yet. And what do you know, it worked: this year Wikipedia reached its annual goal faster than ever before. Such success cannot come sans scrutiny. An op-ed in The Wikipedia Signpost called for greater transparency, The Register needled Wikipedia about this as it does about pretty much everything, and philanthropic publications have second-guessed the WMF’s fundraising strategy writ large.[1]Update: This link previously went to an article on a different subject; this one is from late 2015 but illustrates the same point.

All of which is fair, and one should be so lucky as to have to answer for this kind of success. As The Wikipedian sees it, the question of how much money WMF raises should be secondary to how it is spent, a topic historically less-well reported.

7. ArbCom and the Alt-Right

feels_good_manWikipedia’s Arbitration Committees (ArbComs) are elected panels of dedicated volunteer Wikipedia editors who agree to take up the often unpleasant and always time-consuming task of reviewing disputes involving the behavior of fellow editors. About a dozen of the most-active Wikipedia language editions have one, and it is by its nature the locus of controversy, year in and year out (said fundamental dysfunction last made this list in 2013). Lucky us, now we get to merge that with the rise of an international right-wing movement represented on last year’s list by Gamergate, and which in 2016 we learned to call the “alt-right”.

This is based on two separate incidents on the two most prominent Wikipedias. Worse between them, the German ArbCom saw eight of its ten members resign in the last third of the year. The reasons are too complicated to recite here, but it concerns a single member who IRL is actively involved with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party but had previously hidden his offline political activities from fellow editors. The decimated German ArbCom now lacks a quorum to act, and seems likely to remain inactive at least until new elections are held in May. Second was the near-election to the English ArbCom of a Canadian editor with a troubling Reddit history that included activity on the Gamergate-affiliated WikiInAction subreddit, dedicated to promoting alt-right views on Wikipedia. This candidacy was not successful, but it was a nail-biter, and close ArbCom observers are not reassured about future elections.

Wikipedia has always had obnoxious contributors with noxious views, but their dispersal across the vast expanse of topics meant the problem areas were fairly isolated, and usually avoidable. But ArbCom is one of the few places on Wikipedia where actual power is concentrated. In a U.S. presidential election year (about which more later) in which anti-semitic tropes were promoted by the winning candidate, has there also been a concurrent rise in such views on Wikipedia? Some think so. And will ArbCom face an organized assault like the one the Hugo Awards has faced in recent years? It seems unlikely—but it’s definitely not impossible.

6. Wikipedia Needs Better Critics

Wikipediocracy_logoOur 2013 installment listed the rise of Wikipediocracy, a website devoted to criticism of the Wikimedia movement. This time we’re here not to praise it, but to bury it. The site’s multi-contributor blog has published exactly once in the second half of the year, while its once-lively (and sometimes disreputable) discussion forum has slowed to a crawl. What happened? The biggest factor was the departure of its most serious contributor, Andreas Kolbe, who took his talents to The Signpost. Second was an apparent falling out between mainstays Greg Kohs and Eric Barbour. The latter went on to create an alternative site named, hysterically, Wikipedia Sucks! (And So Do Its Critics.).

The decline of Wikipediocracy highlights the dearth of effective Wikipedia criticism. What have we got? There’s the UK IT news site The Register, which harps on a few recurring themes of narrow appeal. There’s WikiInAction, affiliated with Gamergate, focused even more narrowly. Wikipedia Sucks is a joke, itself barely registering a pulse. For what it’s worth, The Wikipedian does not consider itself to be among their ranks. This site offers Wikipedia criticism, but will admit to being pro-Wikipedia in most ways; The Wikipedian is an apologist, if also a realist. And to drop the pretense for a moment, I don’t post often enough for it to matter but a few times a year.

There is something about Wikipedia criticism that attracts people with fringe views, who are not always the most stable personalities, and whose obsessions tend toward the arcane. Of course this is generally true of the gadfly profession, but when you consider that Wikipedia owes its very existence to freaks and geeks, it shouldn’t be any wonder that participants who hold themselves apart from mainstream Wikipedia may be stranger still.

As of late, the best criticism happens at The Signpost, especially under former editor Kolbe, and now under Pete Forsyth. Given the competition, however, that isn’t necessarily saying much.

5. The Brief, Less Than Wondrous Board Membership of Arnnon Geshuri

Arnnon_GeshuriWe now arrive at the first of a few related topics which dominated the early months of the year, a series of interrelated controversies far greater than this annual list has previously contemplated. The least-related among them was the early January appointment of Arnnon Geshuri to the WMF board of trustees. Geshuri received no public vetting, as most appointed board members do not. However, other board appointees also had not played a public role in one of Silicon Valley’s biggest recent scandals.

To wit: Apple, Google, Intel and others secretly agreed (until, of course, it was found out) not to recruit each others’ employees, thereby holding back the careers, and holding down the salaries, of thousands of employees. As a Google executive, Geshuri had taken the initiative to fire a recruiter after then-CEO Eric Schmidt received an unhappy email from Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs. In his note back to Schmidt, Geshuri added: “Please extend my apologies as appropriate to Steve Jobs.” The U.S. Department of Justice eventually forced the firms to pay $415 million to settle class action claims.

Geshuri’s membership on the Wikimedia board proved to be short-lived. Facing public criticism by former board members, a debate over what to say about it on his own Wikipedia entry, a no-confidence petition signed by more than 200 editors, and probably his own realization that this just wasn’t worth all the trouble, Geshuri stepped aside only two weeks after accepting the position. In another year, this could have been a top story. But 2016 had only just begun.

4. Wikimedia’s New Leader

katherine_maherAnother contender for top story in a less eventful year: the Wikimedia Foundation got a new leader. Katherine Maher was named interim executive director (ED for short) in March, and was made permanent in June. She is the third person to hold the title—the third woman, in fact—and brings experience in global governance, international institutions, and even the Arabic language.[2]Yes, I’m looking at her Wikipedia entry as I write this. Maher also brings something her predecessor lacked: a great deal of experience with Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement.

I am burying the lede, of course: she was previously the WMF’s chief communications officer, a position she had held since 2014. Oh yeah, and about that predecessor… as Wikimedians have already realized, I’m leaving out a lot of back story, and it’s because there is more coming further down this list. All that said, the advent of a new ED is big news in any year, and that’s true this year as well. The fact that Maher’s ascendancy falls outside the top three stories of 2016 owes as much to the public drama leading to her promotion as the absence of drama characterizing the start of her tenure.

3. Fake News and the U.S. Presidential Election

donald_trumpThe U.S. presidential election was literally the biggest story on Wikipedia this year, if we mean the topic that received the most edits across multiple entries. The biographical entry for president-elect Donald Trump, plus articles about Hillary Clinton’s endorsements, the general election, and GOP primary occupy four of the top five slots on the list of most-edited articles.[3]Number one was Deaths in 2016, but that’s pretty much always the case. But there’s a lot more to be said about Wikipedia’s relationship to the craziest and most surprising U.S. election in living memory.

A chief attribute of Trumpism is, well, bullshit—in the Harry Frankfurt sense of the word—and anti-intellectualism as a virtue. As it became clear Trump’s victory was owed in part to falsehoods propagated on social media, the phrase “fake news” gained widespread currency among news commentators. With the mainstream[4]OK, fine, liberal media casting about for a better model, what better exemplar of valuing real facts over imagined realities than Wikipedia? Even before the election, Wikipedia’s model of requiring verification of information and allowing anyone to question received wisdom had garnered positive press attention. Afterward, Wikipedia’s commitment to veracity was held up as a kind of antidote to Facebook’s hands-off attitude toward the truth or falsity of claims shared by its users.[5]Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was initially dismissive of “fake news” concerns, only to do an abrupt about-face and announce plans for a fact-checking feature. The Wikimedia comms team took something of a victory lap in an early December post, declaring:

We are not in a post-fact world. Facts matter, and we are committed to this now more than ever.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that Wikipedia is free of falsehoods. It is only as good as its contributors and the reliability of the news sources they rely upon. Long-persisting hoaxes are not unheard of. Therein lie the biggest threats to Wikipedia: it must maintain an editorial community to uphold its own standards, and the media must keep up its end of the bargain with good reporting. Not unlike democracy, eternal vigilance is the price of an encyclopedia anyone can edit.

2. Lila Tretikov Resigns as Wikimedia ED

Right, so about Katherine Maher’s predecessor as executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation…

Lila_TretikovLast year, The Wikipedian included “Exodus from New Montgomery Street” at number nine in the top-stories list—i.e., the large number of staff departures from the organization since the appointment of Lila Tretikov in 2014. In retrospect, this should have been higher, but in my defense the whispers were rather quiet until the emergence of a matter that we’ll explain better in the next entry.[6]Yes, this year was largely dominated by one very big story at the beginning of the year which had enough distinct elements to be treated separately, making for a confusing narrative. Alas. Tretikov, whose tenure got off to a rocky start for reasons not entirely her own fault and not worth going into again here,[7]if you must, you can go here was eventually forced to resign after losing the confidence of Foundation staff. Morale fell to such depths, and management became so unresponsive that, once the dam burst, virtually the whole thing played out in public, online.

Low-level staffers came out of the woodwork to say what managers would or could not, and community observers filled in the gaps. Most persuasively, ArbCom member Molly White created a detailed timeline of Tretikov’s WMF leadership that presented the sequence of events without commentary—selectively perhaps, but damningly for sure. This very blog took the highly unusual step of actually calling for her ouster, a position this blogger never imagined when launching this site late last decade. Nobody wanted things to arrive at this dire situation, but once they had, Tretikov could no longer effectively lead the organization, and resign is what she did.

Anyway, we’re not quite done with this topic.

1. The Knowledge Engine and its Discontents

Dr._James_HeilmanThe biggest story of 2016 actually began unfolding in the waning days of 2015, when just-elected community board trustee James Heilman announced his resignation with a cryptic message on a community email list. Subsequent comments from other board members failed to resolve the ambiguity. Thus began the most tumultuous period in recent Wikimedia history, ultimately leading to Lila Tretikov’s jumped-before-she-could-be-pushed departure and the elevation of Katherine Maher to the executive director role.

Honestly, I’m kind of dreading the idea of recapping it all here. This blog expended 7,000 words[8]a conservative estimate on the topic earlier this year, and it’s a chore just to summarize. But let’s give it a try:

Heilman’s departure owed to a disagreement about how to handle sensitive information related to the secretive development (and eventual abandonment) of a misbegotten “Manhattan Project” to create a search engine intended to preserve Wikipedia’s prominence if Google ever stopped sending it traffic on its historically massive level. In its most ambitious form, it was called the Knowledge Engine, and Tretikov’s WMF sought a grant for it from the Knight Foundation, with which it previously had enjoyed a good relationship, without disclosing the precise nature of the project. When scaled back, it was called Discovery and was limited to Wikipedia’s on-site search, which isn’t a bad idea by itself but wasn’t clearly a top priority for the volunteer community at large, let alone the foundation staff. The lack of public discussion was echoed in the catastrophic appointment of Geshuri to the board, establishing a pattern that could no longer be overlooked.

knowledge-engine-rocketThe seriousness of the Knowledge Engine fiasco itself may have been overstated in terms of time and money allocated to it (and away from other projects) but it became emblematic of Tretikov’s ineffective leadership. More important probably was the botched Knight request, which contradicted good sense, and was seen to have damaged an important outside relationship. It wasn’t a crime, but it was covered up nonetheless, and Tretikov’s failure to communicate effectively—with external stakeholders, internal managers, staff throughout the organization—was what really did her in.

If you really must have the whole story, and you have a few hours to spare, I recommend the following links:

The regrettable history of the Knowledge Engine, the wasteful exit of Heilman from the board of trustees, the ill-advised appointment of Geshuri to same, the calamitous leadership of Lila Tretikov, the unfortunate departure of so many valuable foundation staffers, were separately and collectively the biggest story on Wikipedia this past year. Here’s hoping 2017 is just a bit less eventful.

All images via Wikipedia, and the copyrights held by their respective contributors.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Update: This link previously went to an article on a different subject; this one is from late 2015 but illustrates the same point.
2. Yes, I’m looking at her Wikipedia entry as I write this.
3. Number one was Deaths in 2016, but that’s pretty much always the case.
4. OK, fine, liberal
5. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was initially dismissive of “fake news” concerns, only to do an abrupt about-face and announce plans for a fact-checking feature.
6. Yes, this year was largely dominated by one very big story at the beginning of the year which had enough distinct elements to be treated separately, making for a confusing narrative. Alas.
7. if you must, you can go here
8. a conservative estimate

Everyone’s a Critic: Manson Family Murderer Tex Watson Doesn’t Like His Wikipedia Entry

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on April 4, 2016 at 3:00 pm

It’s not so weird for a prominent figure to solicit changes to their Wikipedia entry. After all, Wikipedia is the only reference website of its profile, thanks in no small part to its ubiquity in Google searches. For better or worse, what Wikipedia has to say overlaps with, and heavily influences, the public’s knowledge on many subjects.

But this one is weird, because the subject is convicted murderer and “Manson family” member Charles “Tex” Watson, currently serving a life sentence in California for his part in the 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate and several others.

At this writing, there isn’t much information to go on—and there may be none forthcoming (although I will certainly update this post if there is). But here’s what’s happened so far: last Thursday, a new message was posted to the discussion section of the Tex Watson Wikipedia entry. The post was not by Watson, nor an interested representative, but a member of Wikipedia’s Volunteer Response Team.[1]called OTRS, for reasons not all that important This included an embedded 5-page PDF featuring a scanned printout from two versions of the very same Wikipedia entry, with handwritten changes and corrections apparently by none other than Tex Watson himself.

A short discussion ensued, with some asking how they could tell for sure if the request came from Watson as claimed. That the PDF came via an official Wikipedia channel was taken as a likely sign of legitimacy, while others pointed out that it should matter less where the questions come from, and more whether any valid points were made. The final comment as of this writing notes that the existing entry lacks citations for many of its claims, so whatever the validity of Watson’s apparent requests, this is entry is not among Wikipedia’s better ones.

For your perusal, here is a link to PDF as hosted on Wikipedia, and below are thumbnails of each page (click on each to read at larger size):

Tex_Watson_1Tex_Watson_2
Tex_Watson_3Tex_Watson_4
Tex_Watson_5

So, what exactly does Tex Watson want? First of all, it’s worth noting that Watson seems to have been working primarily from a version of the entry from February 2016 (the first four pages above) so it doesn’t quite line up with what we see today. This version he compared to at least the first part of the article in August 2013 (the fifth page) which he liked better. Finally, some edits have occurred on the page since last week—but more about those below. Here are some of his specific requests:

  • The article to be returned to Charles “Tex” Watson; it was moved to Tex Watson about two years ago following a short discussion.
  • The nickname “Mad Charlie” removed from the infobox, which he claims is inaccurate.
  • The restoration of a paragraph in the introduction, deleted in August 2013, mentioning his book about the murders.
  • Basically a complete rewrite of his “Early life” section, including details about working at an “onion packing plant saving for college” and as a bag handler for Braniff Airlines.[2]best known to American audiences today as Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s production company on South Park
  • At one point he wasn’t satisfied with the section heading “Cielo Drive murders”, but then changed his mind.
  • Watson asserts that fellow Manson family member Patricia Krenwinkel was the primary killer of victim Abigail Folger, although he says he “assisted”, and denies taking $70 from Folger’s purse. He also disputes Sharon Tate’s last (?) words.
  • To omit the gender of four children he fathered through conjugal visits with his then-wife.
  • To delete an entire paragraph related to a citizen signature drive to oppose parole following the commutation of his sentence from death to life. As he notes in the margins, the section is unsupported by citations.
  • Watson has some kind of issue with the citations included. He actually suggests including the book Helter Skelter, written by the late Vincent Bugliosi, none other than the attorney who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson. He suggests removing a 2009 CNN web story for reasons I can’t quite discern.

And what should we make of all this? Well, I’ll start by taking the potentially controversial position that everyone deserves fair treatment in their Wikipedia biography, even a convicted murderer. As editors on the Watson talk page noted, a point may be valid regardless of where it comes from. This is a more difficult position to stick with when the details concern, you know, Watson’s murder victims. Therefore, determining whether the requests are valid or not may be tricky, but with so much written about the Manson family murders over the past forty-five years, it stands to reason the answers may be found.

And it does seem that Watson has done at least a bit of research into how Wikipedia works: he understands there should be citations, and knows he can lobby for the removal of uncited material—although it seems more likely someone will just find a news story about the signature drive than remove this detail. However, the request to remove details about Watson’s non-famous offspring is one frequently granted to less heinous public figures, so it will be interesting to see if that happens here as well.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out… bringing attention to a specific page can work! It worked for novelist Philip Roth, when he published “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” in The New Yorker in 2012, and it works for brands who post on-point, easy-to-understand requests on talk pages.[3]which, I hasten to add, is something my firm Beutler Ink has done with success for years—although Watson is probably a client we would choose not to take on For Watson, it has already resulted in a handful of edits by two different editors. One has added back a mention of Watson’s book, although not to the introduction. And, until such time as the issues raised by Watson (and others) are addressed, another has added a helpful advisory for readers to consider:

Tex_Watson_warning

Update: Lane Rasberry, the volunteer who handled Watson’s request, has now written a very thoughtful blog post explaining how he decided to take up the request and exploring some related issues, including whether or not prison inmates should have Wikipedia editing privileges. I highly recommend it.

All images via Wikipedia. Five likely also via Charles “Tex” Watson.

Notes   [ + ]

1. called OTRS, for reasons not all that important
2. best known to American audiences today as Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s production company on South Park
3. which, I hasten to add, is something my firm Beutler Ink has done with success for years—although Watson is probably a client we would choose not to take on

Wikipedia at 15: How it Played in the Media

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on January 15, 2016 at 7:40 pm

Happy 15th birthday, Wikipedia! As any wiki-watcher surely expected, today’s milestone brought an avalanche of news coverage not seen since, well, the last round number anniversary, when Wikipedia turned ten in 2011. But Wikipedia journalism is hard (take it from me, I know) and when outsider scribes momentarily turn their keyboards to Wikipedia and try to write something meaningful, the results can be decidedly mixed. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at what some major news outlets are saying about Wikipedia today: what they led with, what they weirdly obsessed over, and how they wrapped things up. Let’s go!

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ABC News, “Wikipedia Gets Another Source of Cash for 15th Birthday”, Michael Liedtke

Lede:[1]Journo-speak, natch

Sadly, Wikipedia failed to create 15 million articles by its 15th birthday.

Sadly, Wikipedia failed to create 15 million
articles by its 15th birthday.


Wikipedia is getting another source of cash for its 15th birthday, expanding beyond fundraising drives that have already poured $250 million into the Internet’s leading encyclopedia.

Huh:

Wikipedia’s growth has spurred criticism that its parent foundation has become bloated and doesn’t need to raise so much money.

Upshot:

“We stay very mission-driven,” [Jimmy] Wales said. “One of the things that we are focused on is the idea of having an encyclopedia available for every person in the world in their own language. As you go in that direction, these (requests for money) are some of things you need to do to build that long-term dream.”

The Wikimedia Foundation’s (WMF) announcement earlier this week of its new endowment[2]as more or less predicted by yours truly just last month pays off here, giving journalists a solid hook for a story more substantial than “has it been 15 years already?” and less unpleasant than the troubled times at the WMF HQ in San Francisco. However, points subtracted, ABC News, for quoting Eric Barbour, arguably the least-insightful critic of Wikipedia on the Internet—and that’s really saying something.

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Washington Post, “Wikipedia just turned 15 years old. Will it survive 15 more?”, Andrew Lih

Lede:

On Jan. 15, Wikipedia officially celebrates 15 years as the Internet’s “free encyclopedia,” cataloging humankind’s achievements in real time and, more importantly, rescuing desperate students facing school assignment deadlines. In that time, it has hastened the end of Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia and supplanted Britannica as the dominant reference work in English. While the digital landscape has changed drastically over the last decade, Wikipedia has not, and still delivers that rare site that strives for neutrality and accuracy, all with no commercial advertisements.

Huh:

Unfortunately for Wikipedia, this global trend toward mobile could have a dramatic effect on the site’s volunteer contributions. Are people going to help edit text articles on mobile devices with tiny on-screen keyboards, or can the Wikimedia movement tap the potential of micro-contributions or use these multimedia-capable handsets for audio, video and photos from the crowd?

Upshot:

[T]echnology is not enough to keep the Wikimedia movement moving forward. Ultimately, Wikipedia was started by and still relies on the efforts of human volunteers. It will only thrive for another 15 years if that community can work cooperatively with the Wikimedia Foundation — and infighting doesn’t splinter the movement.

Good call by the Post to turn over its coverage to longtime editor and commentator Andrew Lih, the author of a 2009 book, The Wikipedia Revolution. Of all the pieces mentioned here, this is by far the most comprehensive, and does an admirable job balancing what’s great about Wikipedia as well as what ails it. Although it’s impossible to read everything written about Wikipedia published today, I feel safe saying if you can only read one column, this should be it.

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BBC News, “George W Bush tops Wikipedia 15th birthday list”, Zoe Kleinman

Lede:

The English language version of the site, which anyone can edit, has more than five million entries and has been edited around 808 million times.

Huh:

We're still talking about this guy?

We’re still talking about this guy?

A page about former US president George W Bush has attracted the most attention with 45,862 edits since its creation.

Upshot:

[Warwick Business School professor Aleksi Aaltonen:] “As Wikipedia has grown older, it has become progressively more difficult for contributors to improve content. At the same time, Wikipedia’s system of rules has become more burdensome. However, if Wikipedia can maintain its success, it will be remembered as a gift of an open internet that is now under attack from many directions.”

Yesterday, the WMF also published a blog post about the most-edited articles in Wikipedia’s history. So, you can see what’s going on here: many of the poor, beleagured hacks[3]See, I was once an actual working journalist, and I can tell you: it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re harried. tasked with writing something about Wikipedia just went to the nearest official source and piggybacked on whatever they were saying. So, nice work Wikimedia comms dept! That said, I could see the Independent or Guardian still being obsessed with George W. Bush all these years later, but et tu, BBC?

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TIME, “Wikipedia at 15: How the Concept of a Wiki Was Invented“, Lily Rothman

Lede:

Wikipedia went live on Jan. 15, 2001, but the now-omnipresent online reference couldn’t have existed without work that began years earlier, around the the dawn of the World Wide Web.

Huh:

Everybody loves Ward.

Everybody loves Ward.


Looking back, the extent of that sociological phenomenon is surprising even to [wiki-inventor Ward] Cunningham. “The Internet is a much more hostile place,” he says, acknowledging that the site he started in 1995 was a place for “computer people” to talk about computer programming, a context in which open collaboration wasn’t so scary. “They all felt like we were working together. Even so, I thought it was so open to abuse that if it only lasted six months it would still be a nice experiment.”

Upshot:

[H]ard work alone couldn’t have made Wikipedia what it is today. After all, without the collaborative feeling engendered by the wiki technology, it’d be hard to convince people to do that work. Cunningham sums up that allure thus: Before WikiWikiWeb, you might reach the end of a set of linked pages, and that was that. On a wiki, he says, “it says, ‘Now it’s your turn. You tell us.’ It’s an invitation. It says, ‘If you’ve gotten this far, we need your help building this.’”

Well done, Lily Rothman, for tracing Wikipedia’s history all the way back to Hypercard.[4]Ah, Hypercard, how I miss you. This super-fun and groundbreaking Apple-invented software could have been the World Wide Web, if only it was network-aware, but instead it was just great for building dumb games to amuse my friends while we should have been paying attention in class. Actually, the whole piece is really just an interview with Cunningham, but that’s more than all right. Everyone else was trying to write something “big picture” today, so, kudos to Rothman for picking up the phone and doing something a bit different.

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Scientific American, “Wikipedia Turns 15 [Q&A]”, Larry Greenemeier

Lede:

It must be difficult for the roughly half a billion people who visit Wikipedia every month to remember a world without the free online encyclopedia. Since co-founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia on January 15, 2001, the site has grown into a behemoth of information with about 35 million articles and 30 million images available in nearly 300 different languages. The English-language Wikipedia site alone features more than five million articles.

Huh:

[Scientific American:] Are you aiming to have a specific ratio of male to female editors for the site?

Upshot:

[Lila Tretikov, in response:] We did research on this in 2013 and a study by researchers Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw estimated that 23 percent of U.S. editors are women and 16 percent of global editors are women. We also try to target special programs on women, for example an education program in Arabic that is 80 percent women. Wikipedia is so diverse, which is why it’s hard to put just one number on it.

Everyone around Wikipedia loves Ward Cunningham, who made everything we do possible, and today is kind of an aloof, avuncular figure far-removed from the controversies constantly swirling around Wikipedia. The same is assuredly not the case with WMF executive director Lila Tretikov, who is deeply unpopular in the non-profit’s headquarters (and a mystery to the thousands of editors who never think twice about what happens in San Francisco). The most interesting part of this interview was the oddly-phrased question about Wikipedia’s difficult gender imbalance, and Tretikov’s accurate but evasive reply that closes the Q&A is barely worthy of a shrug.

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The Economist, “Wikipedia celebrates its first 15 years”, “A.E.S.”

Lede:

These people didn't mean to launch Wikipedia.

These people didn’t mean to launch Wikipedia.

Fifteen years ago today, on January 15th, 2001, Wikipedia was founded by two internet pioneers, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, although neither had any idea how ambitious their online encyclopedia would become. Today Wikipedia is the tenth most popular website in the world, with versions available in some 280 languages containing around 35m articles. Like the ancient library of Alexandria and Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia published during the Enlightenment, Wikipedia is an ever-evolving manifestation of its creators’ desire to preserve and compile knowledge.

Huh:

Wikipedia was early to anticipate three important digital trends. First, people are willing to participate in global forums for nothing. Wikipedia, which is written and edited by volunteers, was an early social network. Second, Wikipedia saw that the knowledge economy was heading online. In 2012 the “Encyclopedia Britannica” stopped printing and is now only available in digital form. Third, Wikipedia showed the importance of network effects to online ventures: the more people use Wikipedia and write entries, the more helpful it has become. Younger digital firms, like Facebook and Uber, are premised on this same concept.

Upshot:

Wikipedia has other challenges with which to reckon. … However, there is plenty of time. Wikipedia has built up a trove of information and become an invaluable resource to anyone with an internet connection. That is more than any teenager could hope for.

I love The Economist, but you don’t read it for the hot takes—nor the pithy quotes. It’s certainly not a perfect overview, and not even a great one, but if you didn’t have time to read Lih’s in-depth analysis, this wouldn’t do you too badly.[5]Which is pretty much The Economist‘s M.O., now that I think about it.

♦     ♦     ♦

The Guardian, “Wikipedia launching $100m fund to secure long-term future as site turns 15”, Stuart Dredge

Lede:

As Wikipedia turns 15, its operator The Wikimedia Foundation is hoping to secure its long-term future with a new endowment fund that aims to raise $100m over the next 10 years.

Huh:

A Google search for “death of Wikipedia” yields more than 72k results, with articles from 2006 onwards predicting that the online encyclopedia was on its way out for various reasons.

Upshot:

“We have a great fundraising model right now, but things on the Internet change so it’s not something we can count on forever,” said The Wikimedia Foundation’s chief advancement officer Lisa Gruwell.

A perfectly serviceable entry in the “big picture” genre, and another win for the timely endowment announcement.

♦     ♦     ♦

Wired, “At 15, Wikipedia Is Finally Finding Its Way to the Truth”, Cade Metz

Lede:

Today, Wikipedia celebrates its fifteenth birthday. In Internet years, that’s pretty old. But “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is different from services like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Though Wikipedia has long been one of Internet’s most popular sites—a force that decimated institutions like the Encyclopedia Britannica—it’s only just reaching maturity.

Huh:

As seen on many, many, many news stories about Wikipedia.

As seen on many, many, many news stories about Wikipedia.


If editors were required to provide real names, many would leave the site. And the decline would begin again. Wikipedia is dominated by people who embraced the Internet early, and that kind of person still holds tight to the idea of online anonymity.

Upshot:

Of course, the non-profit setup comes with its own advantages. Wikipedia doesn’t have ads. It doesn’t collect data about our online habits. It gives the power to the people—at least in theory. The result is a source of information that could never be duplicated by a Britannica or a World Book. “There are very few websites that make the world a better place,” [Overstock.com employee and “longtime critic” Judd] Bagley says. “And I’ve come to believe that the world is better off for Wikipedia.”

Wow, does anyone remember the Overstock.com controversy from 2007–8? Cade Metz—who used to cover Wikipedia for the always-antagonistic UK Register[6]aka El Reg—clearly does. Now writing at Wired, Metz is not above repeatedly linking to his old stories at that website, and I guess Wired is cool with that. To be fair, it’s perfectly fine that some of these overviews are hostile, and this one certainly is. And however much Metz has his thumb on the scale, he’s at least done his homework.

♦     ♦     ♦

Wired UK, “How Has Wikipedia Changed In The Last Fifteen Years?”, Emily Reynolds

Lede:

It’s hard to imagine a world before Wikipedia. Saviour of student deadlines everywhere and settler of endless pub arguments, Wikipedia is now a ubiquitous part of the online world. But it’s not been an entirely easy ride — beset by vandalism, Wikipedia has also had to ban users for secretly promoting brands and has been accused of being skewed by “rich, Western voices”.

Huh:

The most striking difference between early and late Wikipedia pages is in tone. Like a traditional encyclopaedia, Wikipedia strives to be neutral in tone and requires articles to be rigorously and extensively referenced. Early pages, often, do not reflect that mission.

Upshot:

This is NOT the most embarrassing photo of Jimbo I could have selected.

This is NOT the most embarrassing
photo of Jimbo I could have selected.

“Spot the Dog showcases Hemingway’s hallmark minimalism: ‘Where’s Spot? Is he under the stars? Is he in the box? No. He’s at the bar. Sipping whiskey. Sucking on cigarettes. Suffering’.” the page stated. Like the iPhone, though, the page has now been reverted to its (less existential) reality.

Wired‘s UK edition opted for a quick look at how certain prominent entries have changed over time, which is a neat idea. OK, that’s all I have to say here.

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Fortune, “Wikipedia Turns 15. Will It Manage to Make It to 30?”, Matthew Ingram

Lede:

After 15 years, Wikipedia has become one of those Internet services that is so central to the online world that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it. Would we go to the library to read physical books? Turn to a printed encyclopedia? Or just trust the information we find through a random web search?

Huh:

Those who have seen inside the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent entity that theoretically manages Wikipedia (to the extent that a massively crowdsourced phenomenon can be managed) say there is a lack of strong leadership. This threatens the organization’s ability to spend money wisely or come up with a coherent long-term vision, they say.

Upshot:

Will Wikipedia be able to survive the turmoil in its management ranks, and broaden its appeal and inclusiveness, while at the same time raising enough money to keep it operating for at least the next decade? The answer to those questions is unknowable. But it is definitely a site worth rooting for, in all of its troubled glory.

Fortune’s piece is another rather critical one, less detailed than that of Lih’s or Metz’s, but more open-minded than the latter. It also wins points for quoting from my post about recent WMF turmoil, not that it influenced my decision to include it or anything.

♦     ♦     ♦

Mental Floss, “15 Things That Share Wikipedia’s Birthday”, James Hunt

Lede:

Part Encyclopedia Britannica, Part Hitchhiker’s Guide, Wikipedia has proven itself an invaluable (and often entertaining) research tool since its creation 15 years ago today. It’s almost hard to imagine what life was like before it became the go-to source for articles on everything from A (the letter of the alphabet) to Zəfəran (the village in Azerbaijan).

Huh:

Our man Sully.

Our man Sully.

January 15th 1967: The first ever Super Bowl is played in Los Angeles, with the Green Bay Packers defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. It remains the only Super Bowl that was broadcast simultaneously by two television networks: NBC and CBS.

Upshot:

January 15th 2009: US Airways Flight 1549 makes an emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River, shortly after taking off from the nearby LaGuardia Airport. All passengers and crew survive.

Hey, as of this writing, a Chiefs–Packers Super Bowl is possible again this year! (Unlikely, though.) And Sully is the best, amirite?

♦     ♦     ♦

Fusion, “The website that helped you write every paper since 2001 turns 15!”, Sloane Steel

Lede:

Wikipedia, also known as Wiki, (wɪkɨˈpiːdiə / b. 2001), is a free access, free content encyclopedia. On January 14, 2015, Wikipedia celebrated its 15th anniversary (1).

Upshot:

[1] “Fusion Celebrates Wiki Anniversary” (Fusion.net, January 2015)

OK, this isn’t a real overview (it’s a quote graphic[7]Click through the headline to see it; I didn’t feel right hotlinking it and depriving Fusion of what little traffic it has. with clever copy), but that’s cool by me. After all, on the advent of Wikipeda’s 10th anniversary I wrote and executive-produced the following video, narrated by Jimmy Wales, which I think holds up well. In fact, is there anything in it that isn’t essentially true today?

Yeah, as Aaliyah said long before Wikipedia was a gleam in Jimmy Wales’ (or Larry Sanger’s!) eye: age ain’t nothing but a number.

All images c/o Wikimedia Commons. In order, copyrights belong to: Andrew Lih; N/A, work of U.S. government; Carrigg Photography; Edward O’Connor; Wikimedia Foundation; Zzyzx11; Ingrid Taylar.

Thanks to Emily Gaudette for research assistance.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Journo-speak, natch
2. as more or less predicted by yours truly just last month
3. See, I was once an actual working journalist, and I can tell you: it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re harried.
4. Ah, Hypercard, how I miss you. This super-fun and groundbreaking Apple-invented software could have been the World Wide Web, if only it was network-aware, but instead it was just great for building dumb games to amuse my friends while we should have been paying attention in class.
5. Which is pretty much The Economist‘s M.O., now that I think about it.
6. aka El Reg
7. Click through the headline to see it; I didn’t feel right hotlinking it and depriving Fusion of what little traffic it has.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2015

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on December 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm

Each year since 2010, The Wikipedian has looked back at the year on Wikipedia and taken a stab at determining which trends, milestones, and controversies most influenced the direction of Wikipedia in the twelve months preceding.

This is no easy task, considering the millions of articles, edits, and editors within the scope of Wikipedia and its sister projects, not to mention the off-wiki and even offline circumstances affecting them. The most important events may be overlooked, acknowledged major events can be misunderstood, and the significance of each can differ greatly depending on one’s viewpoint. No matter, The Wikipedian will make its best effort regardless.

This time around I’m pairing our retrospective with a post on the blog of my firm, Beutler Ink, called “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”. I recommend reading this one first: as we learn from the Bard, what’s past is prologue.

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10. Wikidata Rising

When Wikidata, the collaborative structured database project, first launched in 2012, it was difficult to summarize with any confidence. The Wikipedian covered it by carefully outlining its stated goals and quoting the speculative news and blog coverage. At the end of 2015, it’s not much easier to describe to a layperson, and many of its goals remain just that, but Wikidata’s growth is undeniable and the passion it inspires in the Wikipedia community is unmistakable. At this year’s Wikimania conference, Wikidata’s presence was felt like never before.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 10.39.33One big reason: Wikidata is unexplored territory in a way that Wikipedia no longer is. The encyclopedia project feels mature at 5 million articles (more about that below), but the database at only 15 million items has a long road ahead of it. For editors who joined the larger Wikimedia movement for the joy of discovery, Wikidata is where it’s at. The project still has some very real challenges, some of which unsurprisingly mirror those of Wikipedia, but it’s possible now to imagine that Wikidata, not Wikipedia, may prove to be the real “sum of all human knowledge”.

9. Exodus from New Montgomery Street

Has Wikipedia’s parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), seen a year with more comings and goings from its headquarters on San Francisco’s New Montgomery Street than 2015? It seems unlikely. The organization has seen admired veterans and high-level executives depart under different circumstances, and some touted recruits from Silicon Valley firms arrived to fanfare, only to exit quickly, and without comment. The only reason this exodus of talent isn’t higher on this list is because it’s one of 2015’s least-reported stories.

Approximately 18 months since Lila Tretikov became executive director, the WMF has experienced almost 100% turnover. For some longtime staff, it was probably time to move on anyway. And any incoming leader can be expected to make new hires and rearrange reports to their liking. But the very short tenures of some key hires, and mysterious circumstances surrounding some departures, can’t help but raise questions about whether Tretikov is in command of her personnel—and perhaps even if she’s the leader Wikipedia needs.

8. Community Tensions Felt in Trustee Elections

The Wikimedia Board of Trustees is the “ultimate corporate authority” of the Wikimedia Foundation, and its number includes three members elected from the volunteer community. The most recent election, held in May, was also the first since a major fight between the foundation and community over software implementation (Media Viewer) and platform control (Superprotect) in 2014. Against this backdrop, disagreements over Wikipedia’s next big software initiative, Flow, became increasingly increasingly pronounced—and a few months later, the project was shelved.

Perhaps it’s unfair to assume a direct cause-and-effect, but the result seemed to be a “throw the bums out” election. Ousted were Phoebe Ayers, Samuel Klein, and María Sefidari (in fairness, none were “bums”, nor particularly responsible for the problem). In are three respected veterans with the good fortune of non-incumbency: James Heilman, Dariusz Jemielniak, and Denny Vrandečić.

Oddly, the two women ousted received the first and third most votes in favor, but Wikimedia accounts for “oppose” votes, and they had too many of those. Today, just two Board members are women, the lowest representation in Wikipedia’s history.

7. “Wikipedia Hates Women”—or Maybe Just Lightbreather

Wikipedia’s alarmingly low female participation rate is decidedly not a new problem. The issue first came to attention in the late 2000s, as editor surveys confirmed suspicions that Wikipedia was a total brodown. Today, the gender gap remains a frequent topic of debate, including a much-discussed Cracked.com article whence this entry takes part of its name.

The other half of the title comes from what’s called the “Lightbreather” case, focusing on a female editor with this username, and her interactions with, among others, a (male) editor named Eric Corbett. A disinterested appraisal of the case would find plenty of fault with both, although there is not one person in the world who possesses the powers of concentration necessary to follow all of the rabbit holes leading from this single case. Notwithstanding the particulars, it became the subject of a provocative, error-ridden, five-times corrected but nevertheless widely read article in The Atlantic, held up as one example of Wikipedia’s “hostility” to women.

The myriad possible explanations for this problem only open doors to more complicated issues. How much of the gender balance can be attributed to Wikipedia’s rules? Its community? Where is the line between heated disagreements and harassment? How much can be explained by how the web influences behavior? How much is this reflective of the tech industry’s gender gap? Will understanding this question help to explain why other marginalized identities, from Latinos to Africans, contribute to Wikipedia in small numbers? The answers to these questions seem within the reach of comprehension, but beyond the grasp of consensus.

6. A Clockwork Orangemoody

OrangeMoody-BubbleGraphCombined-NolabelsAnother perennial topic on Wikipedia is conflict of interest (COI), usually playing out as someone inside Wikipedia or outside writing a self-serving autobiography, a low-rent marketing firm getting in trouble for editing clients’ pages, or sometimes more favorably, a group of PR firms coming together to try to make a good impression. This year, however, brought us something we never quite imagined: a massive extortion plot inverting the typical model of paid editing: rather than helping paying customers create Wikipedia entries, non-paying “customers” could simply be threatened with unflattering articles.

Orangemoody, as it was named for its “ringleader” account, was called the largest of its kind, but that merely counted the number of involved user accounts (nearly 400). The truth is, there has never been anything quite like it. Previous cases revolved around unscrupulous firms like Wiki-PR and WikiExperts who at least professed to be offering their clients a service. Orangemoody was a shakedown involving pages held for ransom, impersonation of Wikipedia administrators, and no real-world entity to absorb the blame. Orangemoody is so threatening because it suggests that Wikipedia’s open-editing model opens the door not just to unethical, if conceivable shenanigans, but also to transgressions that are much more horrifying.

5. The Luck of Grant Shapps

Next to Orangemoody, there’s something almost comforting about the familiar narrative of alleged self-interested editing of Wikipedia by Tory MP Grant Shapps and the plot twist that brought his accuser to (relative) ignominy and ruin.

Amid the UK parliamentary elections this spring, a report emerged in the left-leaning Guardian, prompted by an allegation by a Wikimedia UK administrator, that Shapps had used a pseudonymous account to massage his own Wikipedia profile while giving a drubbing to others. It seemed plausible: Shapps had admitted to editing his own biography years ago, and using assumed names in other circumstances, and his side career as an Internet executive aided the narrative.

But the tables soon turned: the right-leaning Telegraph revealed that there was no smoking gun connecting Shapps to the suspicious edits, that the Wikipedia administrator, Richard Symonds, was in fact a Lib Dem activist who had communicated with the Guardian prior to taking action, and Wikipedians soon became concerned that Symonds may have abused his administrative privileges in blocking the suspicious account.

In the end, Symonds lost his adminship, and Shapps exited a succession of positions within the Conservative Party and government. All that’s missing is Keyzer Soze shrugging off his limp and lighting a cigarette.

4. Wikipedia’s Big Picture Trends in Flux

editors-risingAfter a long period of sustained narratives about Wikipedia’s traffic and editing trends, this year things got a little interesting. Following unabated growth in global traffic to Wikipedia, given a boost in recent years by the proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices, overall traffic actually fell for the first time. Meanwhile, after almost a decade of resignation to Wikipedia’s ever-dwindling editor base—a decline perhaps also attributable to the adoption of mobile devices—the numbers ticked upward.

An August report from an SEO analysis firm showed that Wikipedia’s search referrals from Google fell by up to 20% since the beginning of the year. Most speculation focused on Google’s ever-advancing practice of answering search queries on the results page, obviating the need to click through to non-Google websites. This has bedeviled companies like Yelp, which compete with Google to serve up reviews while also depending upon it for traffic. For Wikipedia, the situation is more complicated, and perhaps less of an issue. After all, a significant portion of Google’s answers are powered by Wikimedia projects. In fact, beginning in late 2014, Google wound down its own open knowledge database, Freebase, in favor of Wikidata. And Google still recommends more Wikimedia sites than it recommends Google sites.

Also in August, the first hard data emerged to show that the long, slow decline of active (and “very active”) Wikipedia editors had been arrested—and is now trending the other way, if ever so slightly. As close Wikipedia observers know too well, Wikipedia attained its zenith participation rate in 2007, arguably the high point for the project’s activity and excitement overall, after which the lowering tide revealed consternation and even alarm, with nobody knowing where it would end. Well, maybe here? The number of very active editors—with at least 100 edits monthly—Wikipedia’s most valuable contributors, stabilized in 2014 and actually grew in 2015. The decline of administrators, coupled with the difficulty in admitting new ones in recent years, however, remains an issue.

In both cases, more data is surely needed before we can say what it really means.

3. English Wikipedia Hits 5 Million Articles

Wikipedia_5m_ArticlesAdmittedly, most of these top stories are unhappy ones, and the one just above is arguably mixed, but this one is unambiguously celebratory: on November 1, Wikipedia’s English language edition—by far its most popular, and synonymous with “Wikipedia” for most readers—notched its 5 millionth article.

Wikipedia has been the largest encyclopedia by any reasonable measure for a long while, so nothing has really changed. And it took seven years for Wikipedia to double in size, so if growth trends continue holding steady for now, we might not have a similar milestone to celebrate until sometime the next decade. Meanwhile, sheer heft is easier to measure than other important characteristics, like accuracy or completeness, so this benchmark will remain Wikipedia’s equivalent of McDonald’s “Billions Served” for the foreseeable future. It may be an arbitrary measurement, but it’s a damned impressive one.

Number 5,000,000 itself: Persoonia terminalis, a rare shrub native to eastern Australia. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the RfC debating which temporary logo Wikipedia should display on the joyous day, I very much recommend taking a look at the near misses. Perhaps it will instill some faith in Wikipedia’s community processes if you agree the best logo won (and you should).

2. It’s About Ethics in Gamergate Opposition

In late 2014 and into the start of this year, the loosely-affiliated right-wing counterpart to the left-ish Anonymous expanded its focus from video game journalists to include the Wikipedia entries where said journalists’ critical takes had accumulated. Organizing on Reddit and other forums, the ‘gaters created numerous throwaway Wikipedia accounts to first try swinging Wikipedia’s coverage of their movement and a few of their top targets around to their liking and, when that failed, they took on Wikipedia editors directly.

gamergatelogoWikipedians fought back hard—too hard, in some cases—and when Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee got around to handing out punishments, the only ones with anything to lose were the Wikipedia editors who cared. It also fed into the above-discussed ongoing trouble over Wikipedia’s treatment of gender issues, and was by far the year’s biggest blow-up along such lines, far greater than the argument over how to handle Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition, which still lay ahead.

It’s hard to say if Gamergate is a 100-year-flood (although on the Internet, the time frame may be more like 100 months) or a sign of things to come. Wikipedia has faced trolls before, but few have been as dedicated or as destructive as the ones beneath the Gamergate bridge. The best defense is a strong base of committed Wikipedians, and perhaps this year shows us they’ll probably still be around to carry the sand bags and shore up the levees.

1. China, Russia, and Completing the HTTPS Transition

One aspect of Wikipedia’s global prominence that the foundation and movement alike have struggled to fully grasp is the role it can, should, and does play on the international stage. This year, the Wikimedia Foundation joined forces with the ACLU to sue the National Security Agency over its mass surveillance practices, only for the case to be thrown out by a federal court. As important as that fight may be, it is but one jurisdiction of many where Wikipedia has become a proxy for privacy and free speech battles, not to mention authoritarian power grabs.

In 2015, Wikipedia’s multi-year plan to convert all traffic moving through Wikimedia servers to the HTTPS encryption protocol was finally completed. HTTPS was first enabled for WMF sites in 2011, then became the default for logged in users in 2013, and this year was finally made the default for all traffic, including readers without a Wikipedia account. This is a good thing for Internet users who wish to access Wikipedia without their governments knowing about it. But it’s complicated when governments decide to shut off access altogether.

Indeed, the full implementation of HTTPS prevents governments like China from blocking access to specific entries—such as Tiananmen Square protests of 1989—and instead they have to choose between allowing all traffic, or blocking the site entirely. China opted for the latter. To be sure, Wikipedia wasn’t the biggest collaborative online encyclopedia in the PRC—it wasn’t even the second—and China’s Communist Party seems to be perfectly TankMancontent promoting its homegrown versions of Google, Facebook and Twitter. In December, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, traveled to China to participate in an Internet conference, where his comments about the limitations of the state’s ability to control the Internet were intentionally lost in translation, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

A similar issue is ongoing in Russia, where the government’s media authority, Roskomnadzor, has weighed blocking access to the Russian-language Wikipedia based on its entries about illegal drugs, temporarily blocking reader access. In addition, it may also be attempting to co-opt Russian-language editors, presenting further challenges to the independence of the Wikimedia project among Russian language contributors.

It’s unclear what Russia will decide to do, but it seems safe to assume that China will hold the line for the foreseeable future. In both countries, and under still more repressive regimes—like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan—independent websites and even independent political parties and religious movements are allowed to operate only at these governments’ discretion. Why should Wikipedia be any different?

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And this seems like a perfectly good place to leave it. More often than not, Wikipedia’s issues reflect issues that animate and plague society and the Internet writ large. Open knowledge and digital discourse create incredible opportunities for research and innovation, but also bestow tremendous power to the platforms and communities that effectively control the gates. The problems on Wikipedia aren’t that different from those on Reddit or Twitter, they just feel more significant given the site’s mandate and perceived authority. To understand Wikipedia’s successes and failures, we have to look to ourselves for the answer.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to check out its companion piece at The Ink Tank: “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”.

All images via Wikimedia Commons except Gamergate logo, source unknown.

Some Thoughts on Gamergategate

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on February 26, 2015 at 11:31 am

It’s still early in 2015, yet Wikipedia’s volunteer community has already experienced one of its most traumatic events in recent memory. Not the most, mind you. Wikipedia is a fundamentally volatile place, as one might reasonably expect from a self-directed movement whose stated mission is to sort through all of the world’s knowledge and present it for universal consumption.

In recent months, however, Wikipedians have stared down a kind of invading army the likes it hasn’t seen in awhile—maybe ever.

Its name is Gamergate, and it too is an online movement of sorts: one that is either a roving band of anti-feminist thugs whose agitation started over a false story involving a sexual affair and a game review, or a broadly-engaged reformist coalition focused on ethically challenged video game journalists with some adherents prone to rhetorical excess. Readers will already know which side they take.[1]If you read any of the above and thought to yourself: Wait, isn’t a gamergate a reproductively viable female worker ant?, my hat’s off to you.

gamergatelogoI’ve struggled to write about this, because a proper accounting would require a blog post much longer than I am prepared to write or you are interested to read. Mid-procrastination, I was invited by Quartz to write a first-person column on another controversy, in which I couldn’t avoid including some limited thoughts on what I’ll now call “Gamergategate”[2]I will also accept “Gamergateghazi”. but here I’d like to expand on it. Although the relevant Arbitration Committee case has now been closed for several weeks, allowing some time for perspective, I am finding it still difficult to summarize adequately.[3]The best I’ve seen, as usual, can be found in The Wikipedia Signpost.

For the unitiated: late last year, Gamergate activists took their fight to Wikipedia, kicking off a massive edit war across several entries, including the all-important Gamergate controversy. The ensuing carnage involved several dozen Wikipedia stalwarts trying to prevent controversial and often unconstructive changes made by several dozen more[4]Maybe hundreds? An accurate count is likely an impossibility. Gamergate sympathizers, but also extended to personal attacks and much acrimony not strictly related to the substance of the debate.

Most of the Gamergate participants operated in guerrilla style, using just-created, easily disposed-of accounts, many of which were quickly blocked. But not all: unlike past battles between Wikipedians and antagonistic outside parties, there is some overlap between these two: Gamergate is primarily composed of video game enthusiasts, many of them technically-minded, something also true for no small number of longtime Wikipedians. If nothing else, they were a savvier opponent than, say, the #JusticeforBeyonce #BeyHive.

As if that wasn’t enough, once Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee decided to get involved, a preview of their final decision spooked some editors for appearing to level sanctions against the “good” Wikipedians trying to hold back the barbarians at the gate. One observer, described by The Verge in late January as a “former editor”, Mark Bernstein, sounded an alarm with four arrestingly titled blog posts—“Infamous”, “Careless”, “Thoughtless” and “Reckless”—picked up by a wide array of news outlets, claiming that Wikipedia was going to “ban feminist editors”, thereby delivering Gamergate to ultimate victory.

It was an irresistible story. Here’s a fairly representative headline from The Guardian: “Wikipedia votes to ban some editors from gender-related articles”. It was also wrong, or “too soon to say” at best. Bernstein’s essays were overwrought and oversold—reckless, if you will. Journalists have a difficult time enough writing about Wikipedia accurately; this certainly didn’t help. Yes, Bernstein identified some worthwhile questions about Wikipedia governance, but he also suggested it might “permanently discredit not only Wikipedia but the entire open Web”. That’s a bit much.

gamergate_wikipediaBernstein wasn’t completely out to lunch: eventually the committee did in fact come back with sanctions against “good” editors who overreacted to provocations. Several were “topic banned” meaning they are disallowed only from editing pages in this topic area; only one editor actually received a “site ban”, effectively kicking him off Wikipedia for the foreseeable future.

Well aware of the outside scrutiny, the Arbitration Committee took the unusual step of issuing a press release of sorts, explaining their decision in terms that outsiders could follow. The non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which always takes pains to stress that it has no role in policing the editorial community or the content it produces, also posted a comment to its blog. Both are recommended reading for the hyperventilating.

One really can’t understand this decision without knowing that the Arbitration Committee as organized is only charged with enforcing matters related to editor behavior, not site content. Perhaps there should be a body focused on content… but that’s an entirely different conversation. And it may well be that ArbCom members agreed with the Wikipedia editors who fought with Gamergate[5]I assume most or all do. but it did not mean they could ignore actual violations of site policy even by well-meaning editors.

On the other hand, critics have accurately pointed out that ArbCom spent little time with the matter of off-wiki coordination by Gamergate, much of which violated Wikipedia’s rules and then some. As Bernstein correctly noted, “It’s much easier to pick out isolated misjudgments culled from hundreds of thousands of words of discussion by an army of anonymous trolls”.

There’s another very good reason why they didn’t spend more time with this—and it’s a problem that no one can solve, even if ArbCom could weigh in on who was “right”.

To wit: the large majority of Gamergaters had little invested in Wikipedia outside of these topic areas, mostly using brand new accounts they did not mind having blocked when another one could be created within a matter of minutes. Longtime Wikipedians care a great deal about the project and have user accounts they have years invested in. This was asymmetrical warfare of the sort waged by stateless actors against major powers in the real world[6]I think I’m going to refrain from making specific analogies, sorry. and it worked here just as well as it has elsewhere.

AP_Chelsea_Bradley_ManningThe incident reminds me quite a bit of another traumatic episode in recent history: the battle over the article now called Chelsea Manning, previously known as Bradley Manning. To recap: after the convicted Private Manning announced her transgender status, the Wikipedia article very quickly converted over—and Wikipedia’s community was prematurely lauded in the media for doing so—only for the page to be summarily changed back, and fall into a contentious battle along a kind of right vs. left divide arguably similar to the dynamic here. Then as now, an editor making the supposedly progressive argument made waves for writing an impassioned blog post in protest; in that incident, the author was subsequently banned by ArbCom for violating a behavior policy separate from the underlying controversy. In the end, the pro-Chelsea forces prevailed, and the controversy eventually quieted down. On this issue, at least, the matter has been resolved for now.

Back to Gamergate, the story isn’t necessarily over. Have a look at the Gamergate controversy discussion page today and, while things seem to be somewhat more civil than before, you’ll see the debate continues apace. Also active[7]On this very topic, no less. as of late February? Mark Bernstein. When your mission is to sort and present all the world’s information, you always are.

Provenance of GamerGate images unknown; attribution available upon clarification. Bradley / Chelsea Manning juxtaposition by Associated Press.

Notes   [ + ]

1. If you read any of the above and thought to yourself: Wait, isn’t a gamergate a reproductively viable female worker ant?, my hat’s off to you.
2. I will also accept “Gamergateghazi”.
3. The best I’ve seen, as usual, can be found in The Wikipedia Signpost.
4. Maybe hundreds? An accurate count is likely an impossibility.
5. I assume most or all do.
6. I think I’m going to refrain from making specific analogies, sorry.
7. On this very topic, no less.

The Federalist Pages: What Neil deGrasse Tyson and Conservative Bloggers Tell Us About Wikipedia and US Politics

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on September 30, 2014 at 11:33 am

You might be surprised to learn that Wikipedia has a formal policy called “Wikipedia is not a battleground”. Not that anyone seems to have got the memo: although Wikipedia’s rules kindly suggest that its editors not use articles to advance ideological or partisan interests, in practice there’s no reason to think that it can work like that. And should we really want it to be otherwise?

This brings us to the latest partisan battle to make its way from the political blogosphere (if we still call it that?) to the pages of Wikipedia: Tyson-gate (or: Tyson-ghazi?). Earlier this month, a new-ish right-of-center web magazine called The Federalist (whose contributors, I should say, include several friends) started publishing a series of articles pointing out inaccuracies—or possibly fabrications—by the celebrated scientist, media personality and Colbert Report regular Neil deGrasse Tyson.

640px-Bill_Nye,_Barack_Obama_and_Neil_deGrasse_Tyson_selfie_2014Federalist co-founder Sean Davis made a pretty strong case that a quote Tyson attributed to former President George W. Bush did not in fact exist; Tyson eventually acknowledged the error, though it wasn’t quickly forthcoming. While subsequent events have made it clear that Davis had the goods on Tyson, his rhetorical style leaves much to be desired: Davis insists on words like “fabricated” implying an insight into the nature of Tyson’s error that he really can’t know. Davis isn’t alone in this; on the left, Media Matters routinely uses the unforgiving phrase “falsely claims” to describe conservative opinions all the time. This puts me in mind of another Wikipedia policy inconsistently observed: “Comment on content, not the contributor” Remember this point, because I’m going to come back to it.

Anyway, of course the battle made its way to the front lines of the war of ideas, Wikipedia. What happened over the last week was simple enough: one person added a lengthy summary of Davis’ allegations to Tyson’s Wikipedia bio; someone else reverted it very quickly, claiming that it went too far; another editor tried a shorter version; yet another editor removed it again for being “original research”; around and around it went like this from September 16 to 21. When I started compiling links on Tuesday the 29th, a fairly short, but also short-on-context version of this passage read:

Tyson has claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[59] Tom Jackson of the Tampa Tribune called it “… a vicious, gratuitous slander.”[60]

But then a longer version which appeared later in the day seemed like too much:

Tyson had claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[58] Neil Tyson has confirmed that he was actually referring to President Bush’s February 2003 speech on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and that he “transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote.” [59] In that speech then-President George W. Bush quotes Isaiah when he said “He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name.”[60] Then George W. Bush said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.” [61]

As of this writing, all mention of the controversy has been removed, and the article has been temporarily locked to prevent further edit warring. Meanwhile, the debate on the Neil deGrasse Tyson discussion page has run to some 50,000 (!) words since mid-September, comprising at least one Request for Comment where the only real conclusion so far is: “This has become unproductive.”

Meanwhile, someone put The Federalist’s own Wikipedia article up for deletion, possibly out of spite, but also possibly because it seemed like a borderline eligibility case based on included sources at the time. Nevertheless, it seems likely that a very short version of the article will be kept once the arguing here is through. (And as more than one contributor has noted, the more attention this gets in the political media, the more “Notable” The Federalist likely becomes.)

Throughout this debate, Davis and The Federalist haven’t been doing themselves any favors. Sean Davis of course is as much reporting on his own fight with Tyson as he is reporting on Tyson, including multiple articles about the debate on Wikipedia.
This included an initial summary on September 18 that continued blithely pushing the “fabrication” claim and proudly quoted an unnamed Wikipedian saying “no version of this event will be allowed into the article” as if this unnamed editor spoke for all of Wikipedia. Worse still was a follow-up by Davis called “9 Absurd Edit Justifications By Wikipedia’s Neil Tyson Truthers” that pointed to fairly standard considerations for inclusion or exclusion of controversial material as if it was patent nonsense. For instance, these two comments:

It doesn’t matter if we can demonstrate it happened or not, many things happen in many people lives, we don’t write each of them into every persons biography. …

[T]his is being kept off because Wikipedia is deeply conservative in the non-political meaning of the word.

Davis may not like these answers, but they are anything but unreasonable points to make in a content dispute, especially about a living person whose reputation is (to some degree) at stake. Indeed, the same policy that points out Wikipedia is not a battleground also points out: “[N]ot all verifiable events are suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia.”

The problem is not that Davis is wrong; in fact, some of the objections to the topic’s inclusion were possibly mistaken, arrived at prematurely, or later invalidated by the emergence of new sources. The problem is not even that Davis is treating Wikipedia as a battleground—after all, Wikipedia is where we go to argue about such things. If Wikipedia is to be the “sum of human knowledge”, that very much includes contentious material related to political and ideological battles.

The problem is actually one of good faith—and here we come to a policy that is also frequently ignored on Wikipedia, but would it be followed better, we could have all been saved a few weeks and tens of thousands of words: “Assume good faith”. And as problems go, it is one that exists on both sides, although it tends to be the case that one side usually goes further—which either produces a decisive political victory or defeat. Davis has this territory pretty well staked out with this column that doesn’t accomplish anything but to “falsely claim” Wikipedia is a single entity entirely comprising lying liars of the left.

The political blogosphere was a source of fascination for me in the early part of my career, in particular writing about it in a sadly departed column called The Blogometer for National Journal’s Hotline. Starting in the late 2000s, I turned my focus more to Wikipedia, in particular writing about it on this blog. There are numerous parallels, but the least savory is the tendency of both to bog down in bitter recrimination. Witness also the fight over the Chelsea Manning Wikipedia entry from late last year.

Part of me thinks that Wikipedia shouldn’t worry about these fights, only about whether or not they continue to occur at Wikipedia; even an ugly debate is better than none at all, right? But considering the voluminous anecdotal evidence that Wikipedia’s eroding editor base and absurd gender gap owe something to its tolerance for incivility—despite the existence of a policy stating otherwise and a speech by Jimmy Wales at Wikimania this year calling for a renewed emphasis upon it—this is something the Wikipedia community had better take seriously.

Of course, this doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Sean Davis, The Federalist, left-leaning Wikipedia editors, and even Neil deGrasse Tyson with his bullshit political anecdotes (I am using Harry Frankfurt’s precise definition) aren’t quite the problem; they are merely avatars of it. Everything that’s wrong with US politics—where to start!—eventually finds its way to Wikipedia.

But there remains one important difference between the blogosphere and Wikipedia: rules. The blogosphere does not have them; Wikipedia does, and these rules shape the debate that occurs on its talk pages. Without these rules, it would just be endless edit wars of attrition. The problem with Wikipedia, then, is not its rules but how it enforces them. Wikipedia’s community should be asking itself: what kind of battleground do we want to be?

Photo via the White House / Flickr.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 2)

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on January 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

On Tuesday, this blog published the first half of our annual roundup of the biggest Wikipedia events over the past 12 months. In that post, we covered the untimely passing of Aaron Swartz, the launch of Wikivoyage, the rise of Wikipediocracy, battles at Wikimedia Commons, and problems that have followed Wikipedia’s impressive fundraising. Today we finish the job:

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5. Basically ArbCom will never get its act together

Fair warning: I am not an ArbCom insider, I rarely follow its various dramas, and so I am not going to even going to attempt a satisfactory summary of everything that happened with ArbCom this past year. But let’s start with some background: ArbCom is short for Arbitration Committee, a group which I’ve just discovered has its own Wikipedia article. It’s an elected volunteer panel of (generally) respected Wikipedians who weigh in on tough issues and make binding decisions. The comparison to a national Supreme Court is glib but not entirely wrong, especially as they can (and often do) refuse to take certain cases, not to mention set precedents affecting future decisions.

The problem with ArbCom, if I can describe it generally, is that the organization has long been characterized by turnover and chaos. Nothing that happened this year was especially new, but that’s also part of the problem. Back when Wikipedia was just an experimental project, it was plausible enough that ArbCom’s dysfunction was something Wikipedia could grow out of. But the opposite has proved to be the case—as far as I can tell, no one thinks it’s ever getting better.

Two major incidents were big enough to merit rate a mention in episodes later in this post. Among others which didn’t, one more or less started off the tone for the year when, in March, an ArbCom veteran resigned his position while excoriating his fellow members for “stonewalling, filibustering, and downright ‘bullying’” when they weren’t “getting their way”. And then 2013 ended with another bang, as the top vote-getter in the latest ArbCom election, conducted just weeks ago, resigned his position after admitting to maintaining a secret account on—wait for it—Wikipediocracy.

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4. Wikipedia has more than a gender problem…

Bradley_ManningIt won’t take us too long to get back to ArbCom, but first let’s observe that Wikipedia is well known to have a “gender problem”; as The Wikipedian (and many more mainstream publications) have written extensively, Wikipedia’s editorship is overwhelmingly male, and it doesn’t cover certain topics (like women scientists, for example) very well. But this year an ugly row exposed what seems to be a more localized but still serious problem with transgender issues.

In August, Private Bradley Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act, and subsequently announced a public transition from male to female and the intention to be known as Chelsea Manning. (As I’ve written before, Manning’s transgender status was known, but until this point unconfirmed by Manning herself.) Wikipedia is generally considered a more progressive community than most, and references on Wikipedia were changed more quickly than at most news organizations. In fact, some of those same mainstream news publications praised Wikipedia for being quick to act. As it turned out, they should have been slower to praise.

Chelsea_ManningThe move was challenged, and the article was even changed back to Bradley, where it stayed as the debate heated up. Some objections were made in good faith and based on interpretations of guidelines, but some people were just being assholes. And then some of some of Chelsea Manning’s defenders crossed the line as well, and of course it ended up at ArbCom, which could seem to make no one happy in its various conclusions. First, ArbCom decided that yes, “Chelsea Manning” would indeed be the article’s name going forward. But among the punishments handed out, a pro-Chelsea editor was banned over an issue many considered a technicality—specifically for writing this blog post. During the fracas, the media was still watching, and some of the headings stung. Indeed, a newspaper may be slower to change, but when it makes a decision, it usually sticks with it.

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3. What happens when the COI guideline is contested in court?

Some of the problems involving the Wikipedia community have to do with the unusual compensation-based class system that has evolved around its community and “conflict of interest” rules. The more important Wikipedia has become, the more reputational impact it has shown to have, and the more it has been seen as both an opportunity and problem for celebrities, semi-public figures, professionals, companies, brands, bands, campaigns and non-profits. Since this first became an issue in 2006, Wikipedia has never quite figured out what to do about it. At the risk of oversimplifying things, mostly it has done nothing.

This year the worst nightmare of many came true when it turned out that a little-known but ever-expanding investigation into a network of secretly connected “sock puppet” user accounts traced back to an obscure but apparently quite successful startup called Wiki-PR. The name was familiar to some Wikipedians, but no definitive link had been established between the company and these accounts, owing something to the community’s (inconsistently applied) hang-ups about identifying editors’ public identities.

The revelation prompted the Wikimedia Foundation to issue a strongly-worded cease-and-desist letter to the company, although the impact was blunted when it emerged that someone from the Foundation’s own law firm had once anonymously edited the company’s article, violating the same rules it was supposedly defending. One can almost start to understand why the issue has been allowed to slide for so long.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s volunteer community banned the company’s known accounts, and then Arbcom angered some editors when it ordered one of the volunteer investigators to back off for reasons it said it couldn’t explain. Legal action from the Wikimedia Foundation is still possible, which could put the Foundation on an uncertain path just as its longtime leader is about to leave (see next).

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2. Sue Gardner’s departure and the uncertain new era

Sue_GardnerSue Gardner is not exactly the only leader Wikipedia has ever known. After all, Jimmy Wales is still its most widely-recognized figure, and there was that guy who called the FBI on them, once, too. But Sue Gardner is (with one interim exception) the only executive director the Wikimedia Foundation has ever known.

In 2007 she left a position running the CBC’s web operations in Toronto to join the Wikimedia Foundation. By the end of that year she was in charge of the whole thing, at a time of significant growth and staff turmoil (does anyone remember Danny Wool? Carolyn Doran? no?). In the years since, it has grown considerably more (150+ staffers now vs. a handful at the beginning), and she has led the Foundation about as well as anyone could be imagined to do. Now she’s announced that she is leaving on an as-yet-unspecified date to pursue as-yet-unspecified plans. An decision about her replacement is expected by March 2014, though a presumptive favorite hasn’t publicly emerged.

Whomever gets the job in the end has a very difficult task ahead. In fact, asking how much the leader of this San Francisco non-profit is really in control of Wikipedia is really asking the wrong question. The executive director leads the Foundation’s staff, but that’s entirely different than saying she leads the Wikipedia community. Which, as a matter of fact, brings us to the biggest Wikipedia story of 2013…

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1. The Visual Editor debacle is also a potent metaphor for Wikipedia’s chief organizational dilemma

To conclude the thought above: the Wikipedia community does not always agree with the Wikimedia Foundation. Some Foundation initiatives have been met with a indifference at best (see last year’s #9, which is arguably the real predecessor entry to this one). Others have been rejected like antibodies to a transplanted organ.

Into this latter category falls the Visual Editor, a long-in-development software initiative which was rolled out this summer to mixed reviews (hey, I thought it was fun) followed by a backlash that grew and grew until a volunteer editor’s uncontested edit of the source code summarily immobilized the whole expensive project.

Maybe I’m overdoing it to place this at number one. Maybe the underlying issue is less than the existential struggle between those two classes of community members than I think; perhaps the issue was simply one of a botched deployment and avoidable toe-stepping that only temporarily poisoned the well.

But I believe no single event in the past year encapsulated the biggest challenge facing Wikipedia today: it seems no better able to organize itself now than when it was a freewheeling experiment stumbling into greater and greater success in its first seven years of its life. Seven years further on, Wikipedia is a different kind of community, one struggling to cope with its fantastic success, but which hasn’t yet learned to adapt.

Whether the Visual Editor itself ever finds its way into everyday usage—and I think it will, after a long “eventually”—it spotlights Wikipedia’s most critical challenges more than any other story, and that’s why it’s the most important Wikipedia story of 2013.

Photo credits: U.S. Army, Chelsea Manning, Wikimedia Foundation.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 1)

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on December 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

In late December for each of the past few years—2010, 2011, 2012A, 2012BThe Wikipedian has published a list of the most important, impactful, and memorable events concerning Wikipedia in the 12 months preceding, according to no one besides me.

Let’s make it four in a row, although like last year I failed to rein the list in, so I’ve again split it into two parts. The first is the post you are reading now; the second will go up on Thursday.

Compared to recent years, 2013 was arguably more eventful, which also sort of implies that that it was a more troubled year. Indeed, I think Wikipedia’s near term future is certain to include its greatest uncertainty yet. The list will show why.

For returning readers: Two stories which repeated in previous years are absent this time: Wikipedia’s role in education (where the situation seemed to get better) and Wikipedia’s gender imbalance (where it didn’t). In both cases, the exclusion simply reflects a lack of any singular newsworthy related event, especially compared with what did make the list. Other issues, relating to conflict of interest and community infighting, are more than represented in specific incidents, which you shall read (much) more about shortly.

Another important acknowledgment: Following the far-flung domains and disciplines Wikipedia contains, I’ve endeavored to research and provide useful information and links, but if I get anything wrong, just drop me a line; I’ll correct and annotate post haste.

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10. Losing Aaron Swartz

Aaron_Swartz-by-RagesossWe start with the year’s saddest event: Aaron Swartz, a widely-admired, long-contributing Wikipedian and a key member of many other important Internet communities from the early 2000s onward, took his own life at the age of 26 in January. I can’t do any better than his own Wikipedia article to give you an idea of how much he accomplished in his short time, but the big media profiles all mentioned his hand in developing RSS, Creative Commons, and even Reddit. Few will approach that over a significantly longer lifespan.

His prodigious intellect could put one in mind of David Foster Wallace with different interests and avocations. It may come as no surprise that Swartz was a DFW fan, and I actually consider Swartz’s early classic of Wikipedia commentary (written while running for the Wikimedia Board in 2006) to be arguably less important overall than his extraordinarily persuasive explanation of what happens at the end of Infinite Jest. Often, it can take a genius to understand one.

Meanwhile, Swartz’s strong belief in the free availability of information led him to a legally risky brand of non-violent direct action: downloading and releasing electronic archives for public consumption. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing prosecution, and potentially many years in prison, for “liberating” academic papers from the JSTOR archive via an MIT closet. Some close to Swartz even blamed his suicide on overzealous persecution. However, like his literary hero—who hanged himself in 2008—Swartz had earlier written of suffering from depression. The case itself was dropped, too late in any case.

What led Aaron Swartz to take his own life will always remain unknowable, but his legacy is secure.

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9. Wiki Trek Into Darkness

If, sometime in the last decade, you have visited a website called Wikitravel, you might’ve imagined it to be another Wikipedia sister project. After all, it has a similar name, it uses the same software, and anyone is invited to edit. This would be a fair assumption. It would also be wrong. Wikitravel is actually a commercial site with absolutely no connection to the Wikimedia Foundation; the most obvious tell is that it runs ads, which Wikimedia projects emphatically do not.

Some back story is in order: in 2006 Wikitravel was acquired by Internet Brands, a California-based web development company (think Barry Diller’s IAC, minus the websites you’ve heard of). Some community members were unhappy about it, and created a “fork” of the project under the name Wikivoyage. In 2012, the English-language Wikitravel community also said “enough” and decided to reconnect with Wikivoyage, which meanwhile decided to join forces with the WMF and make Wikivoyage the very thing you probably thought Wikitravel was all along. This is how, in January 2013, Wikivoyage was relaunched as the 12th official Wikimedia project.

The break was not a clean one. Internet Brands was already suing two Wikitravel contributors who supported the fork, a case the WMF settled in February 2013. Only then it turned out the new logo (which was pretty cool if you ask me) was too similar to the World Trade Organization’s logo (which was not nearly as cool if you ask me) and it was duly changed.

And yet, if Alexa is to be believed, Wikitravel remains the more popular website by far; Wikivoyage briefly enjoyed an impressive traffic spike upon relaunch, but it didn’t last. (Here is one rare occasion where a Wikimedia website has less SEO mojo than a rival site.) While Wikivoyage hasn’t become one of the community’s more successful projects, it still faces some of the same problems as its more popular siblings (see #7).

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8. Wikipediocracy rising

Wikipediocracy_logoWikipediocracy is a website dedicated to Wikipedia criticism, launched in early 2012 by a collection of current and former Wikipedia editors, some exiled and some in good standing. It’s not the first website of its kind; Wikipedia has attracted critics for years, and for most of that time an independent forum called Wikipedia Review played host to the cranks’ most fervent complaints. Wikipedia Review was all but persona non grata on Wikipedia, where it was considered the prototypical “WP:BADSITE”.

Yet Wikipediocracy has proved to be much more relevant. One reason may be structural: whereas its predecessor was merely a message board, Wikipediocracy puts its blog front and center, spotlighting its best arguments while making it easier for outsiders to follow. The net effect is a more insightful—if not always less hostile—critics’ forum, and perhaps this has led more who genuinely like Wikipedia to participate. Whether most Wikipediocracy members think they can make Wikipedia better is questionable, but it seems quite likely that Wikipedia has made Wikipediocracy better.

In just the past calendar year, Wikipediocracy’s distributed network of well-placed, often anonymous, usually pseudonymous observers have played an influential role moving several conflicts into mainstream view. Exposés from Salon about a fiction writer tormenting rivals with malicious edits (the Qworty case) and from Daily Dot about a clever hoax article (the Bicholim Conflict)—to say nothing of some controversies discussed elsewhere in this list—had their roots on Wikipediocracy.

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7. The tragicomedy of Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons is the archive where anyone can upload media files, the more-than-text counterpart to Wikipedia, and is the home to some 20 million images, moving pictures and sounds. As variously detailed by BuzzFeed and Daily Dot, the WikiCommons community’s tolerance of exhibitionists and avant-garde artists has tested Wikimedia’s dedication to freedom of expression. In 2010, this very list included estranged Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger’s call to the FBI about the site’s “lolicon” collection.

This year, an Australian editor who had tangled with Wikipedia’s remaining co-founder Jimmy Wales worked out a deal with an Australian artist calling himself “Pricasso” to paint a portrait of none other than Jimmy Wales using only his… yep, you guessed it. This was uploaded to Commons, along with: a video depicting Pricasso’s full frontal artistic process.

Wales called foul and begged for the deletion of both; after an exhaustive but not atypical debate in two parts, the video was eventually removed. The completely SFW—albeit still WTF—painting survived, and can still be found on Commons. In November, the Wikimedia board updated its strict guidance for biographies of living persons to include “media” and “images”. This was probably not a coincidence.

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6. Where the money is

Wikimedia_motivational_posterIn 2013 I’m still kind of surprised to meet people who don’t know that “anyone can edit” Wikipedia or that it’s operated by a non-profit called the Wikimedia Foundation. But I’m not at all surprised when I meet people who have no idea how much money the Foundation actually has. It’s a lot! According to its latest KPMG-audited financial report, the WMF will earn almost $51 million for the current period, spend $38.5 million, and have $37.8 million left over. Nearly all of the money comes from Wikipedia’s annual fundraising drive, probably the most effective in Internet history.

That’s incredible—everyone who is afraid Wikipedia will one day deploy banner ads, please take note—but it’s also a huge target for critics of the non-profit organization (you know, like those at Wikipediocracy). This year the Foundation has changed how it allocates those funds, allowing community members to join the Funds Dissemination Committee (FDC) for the first time, while discontinuing its centrally-chosen fellowship program in favor of an even more open process called Independent Engagement Grants (IEG).

Criticism also came from less expected quarters: outgoing Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner, who in October made waves for warning that the current FDC process “does not as currently constructed offer sufficient protection against log-rolling, self-dealing, and other corrupt practices.” Specifically, most FDC money goes to “chapters” representing countries or cities around the world, and FDC is heavily influenced by said chapters. Gardner did not call anyone out by name or group, and no one has leveled any kind of serious charges, but one can certainly entertain the possibility that her comment will have more than a slight ring of Ike’s “military-industrial complex” speech to it in years to come.

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The second half of this list followed on Thursday, January 2, 2014.

Photo credits: Aaron Swartz via User:Ragesoss; Wikipediocracy logo via Wikipediocracy; motivational poster via User:Hannibal.

Wikipedia on the Brink?

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on November 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a writer for a big magazine, asking for my take on the much-discussed MIT Technology Review article “The Decline of Wikipeda” by Tom Simonite. As far as I’ve seen, no article has yet appeared, so: I figured I would repurpose my comments for a blog post here, rewriting enough that my remarks remain exclusive, but my views are known. (If that article ever comes out, I’ll update this post.) Some of these topics I’ve previously discussed on Wikipedia Weekly, but a more comprehensive take is long overdue. So here it is.

mit_tech_review_logoFor those who haven’t read it, the Technology Review piece outlines a few reasons for concern about the long-term health of the Wikipedia community. The central points are not at all new: fewer new contributors are joining the site, many veterans are drifting away, the site’s culture and bureaucracy can be stifling, and a startlingly low percentage of contributors are women. All worthy topics, of course. Meanwhile, the piece does a good job of synthesizing these concerns, and explores some recent research that tries to make sense of them.

It also comes at a particularly apt time. In August, when I posted a summary of Wikimania Hong Kong, including Jimmy Wales’ keynote, the event projected something like satisfied aimlessness. Wikipedia was bigger and better than ever, such that the big question was: what would it do next? Wales had some vague ideas about saving journalism, but that’s been about all we’ve heard of it since.

Yet even at that time, and especially in the few months since, the community has experienced several controversies producing animosity and discord not seen since… OK, there is animosity and discord at Wikipedia every single day, especially if you follow the “drama boards”—but these incidents have been very high-profile, in some cases making news (like this Technology Review article), calling into question the community’s ability to reconcile its philosophical differences, spotlighting a rift between the Wikimedia Foundation and the community it serves, and raising doubts about the ability of Wikipedia’s highest judicial authority (the Arbitration Committee, or ArbCom) to make sound decisions. And while most participants would agree that these incidents represent legitimate issues, it’s also fair to say that there is disagreement about much else: how to prioritize issues, how to respond to each, and even what should be a desired outcome in each case. I owe you some details:

  • Visual Editor Debacle—in a post for this blog earlier in the summer, I offered early praise for the Visual Editor, a big initiative from the Foundation, a WYSIWYG version of the Wikipedia editing interface. The big idea was to make editing easier—the standard Wikipedia “markup” is more like computer programming than not—and that doing so might create a path for new people to get involved.

    Wikipedia_Visual_EditorBut this was an untested proposition, and anyway who was to say whether it would attract more helpful or unhelpful edits? Alas, my praise arrived too soon. Scratching a little deeper, the new software had bugs—lots of them. Besides which, existing contributors were unhappy to find that this new system was also the default, a huge change that hadn’t been clearly explained to them ahead of time. Following an extensive debate among the site’s core editors, and after a few strategic retreats by the Foundation’s developers, a single community member changed the code and disabled the Visual Editor for everyone. The Visual Editor is back in beta once again, and its near-term future is uncertain.

    While there were undeniable errors in the launch of this initiative, the Visual Editor’s misfire is less the disease and more the symptom of it. Of late, I’ve been telling anyone who cares to listen that major tensions between the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community pose serious doubts about Wikipedia’s ability to grow into the future. The former group comprises mostly paid professionals who may or may not have originated from the community, while the latter is composed of a vast, disparate, passionate, sometimes disagreeable group of not-quite-like-minded individuals. The formalized former has a greater ability to act in a concerted effort, yet its charter states that it must follow the lead of the leaderless community.

    While Wikipedia was still growing and expanding, rapid growth seemed to solve all problems. Now that the community is contracting and entrenching, it looks like a serious roadblock. How can Wikipedia and its community of editors take on big initiatives—such as revolutionizing journalism—when they can’t agree on something like this? Is consensus still working for Wikipedia at this point?

  • Chelsea / Bradley Manning—Following a high-profile conviction under the Espionage Act in a U.S. military court, the infamous Army Private Manning announced her transgender status (confirmed, really, for those paying close attention) and with it sought public acknowledgment for a name change from Bradley to Chelsea. Although transgender acceptance is rocky still in 2013, it wasn’t too long before most media outlets had adopted the feminine pronoun. Likewise, the Wikipedia entry for Pvt. Manning was updated to /Chelsea—and then it was rolled back to /Bradley—and then the fighting began.

    Manning_US_ArmyI’m not even going to get into the details, except to say that I’m still fairly stunned that the Wikipedia community had to argue about it at all, let alone that it got so ugly. After some debate, ArbCom stepped in. Eventually the entry was moved back to /Chelsea_Manning, and sanctions were imposed on some debate participants. Surprisingly, the heavier penalties were levied on pro-Chelsea editors over technical matters, while some more hostile pro-Bradley editors were let off more easily. A veteran editor named Phil Sandifer complained about this on his personal blog. Soon after, ArbCom returned to say Sandifer had revealed personal information about another participant in violation of Wikipedia’s policies, and he was subsequently banned from Wikipedia. This was a shocking outcome (and I hope I’m not risking my own standing on Wikipedia merely by linking to his post). Assuming ArbCom is correct in their reasoning, I see why they took the position they did—but the punishment seems much harsher than it should be.

    Given the above, it can be very easy to forget that one of Wikipedia’s “five pillars”—the most important organizing principles of the entire project—states: “Editors should treat each other with respect and civility”. Technology Review points out that acrimony among editors and complaints about the increasingly unpleasant and bureaucratic nature of Wikipedia is a reason editors are leaving. Given the above, it’s not difficult to see why.

  • Pets_com_sockPR Sock puppet scandal—This fall a long-running, low-profile, on-wiki investigation into a network of sock puppet Wikipedia accounts broke wide when several news outlets connected the anonymous accounts to a rogue PR company I’ll decline to give further publicity here (no, it’s not Pets.com, but wouldn’t that be great?). This company was not unknown to editors, but the specifics of their activity had been. All accounts known to be associated with the company were blocked, and while this one was not a tough call, much else in this topic area is. Wikipedia’s official guidelines say one thing, although Jimmy Wales has promoted stricter guidance.

    The terminology is a challenge, too: “conflict of interest editing”; “paid editing”; “paid advocacy” and “paid advocacy editing” are all similar terms often used to discuss this issue, although they are not identical and the widely different conclusions one may draw can be strongly influenced by unspoken assumptions related to each.

    A number of policy proposals were offered up, but at this time none has attained substantial support, and some are clearly dead in the water. The Wikipedia community has tried more than once in the past five years to draw up some rules to regulate this kind of activity, but nothing much has come of it. Meanwhile, individual editors have set up the occasional effort to assist PR representatives (and offer an alternative to direct edits), but these have always been understaffed. While not a new debate, it doesn’t seem like any new epiphanies will come of it this time.

    (Note: I have already written about this for the blog, and I have a greater involvement in this subject compared to the others.)

The above are all specific incidents with their own unique circumstances and complicated outcomes, but it’s not difficult to see how they point toward larger issues with the direction of Wikipedia. As it happens, the direction of Wikipedia is very much at issue right now. Sue Gardner, the first (and so far only*) executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, is leaving at the end of the year. She prepares to depart with significant respect and goodwill among a wide range of community members—and yet there’s also significant concern that Sue_Gardnerher successor is in for a really difficult time. Meanwhile, the Foundation is narrowing down its search, and a decision is expected soon. The name of this leader-to-be and his or her vision for Wikipedia is still a mystery.

One evening last week, I ran my views past another longtime member and leader (such as they are) of the Wikipedia community. While this person acknowledged the issues I raised, there was another aspect I had been overlooking. Is Wikipedia at a crisis moment? Not exactly—it’s been in crisis for awhile now. The problem is not that the disagreements are any worse than they were previously, but the difference is that these disagreements are now much higher profile than they were before.

Wikipedia was once able to grow its way out of its problems, but that hasn’t been an option for awhile: these issues have loomed larger ever since the growth of new editors slowed and turned into decline, and since Wikipedia found that it couldn’t avoid the public spotlight. Remember, the Technology Review article is literally called “The Decline of Wikipedia”. As I said at the beginning: there’s not much that’s new in the article. But it might just summarize the problem better than it realizes.

*It’s been pointed out to me that WMF had an interim executive director at one point, however this individual was basically a caretaker in the position. But the point stands: Sue Gardner is still—please forgive the forthcoming play on words—sue generis.

Images courtesy, respectively: MIT Technology Review, Wikimedia Foundation, U.S. Army, Jacob Bøtter, and Paula Wilson via Wikimedia Foundation.

The Wikimedia Foundation is Losing its Chief. What Happens Next?

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on March 28, 2013 at 9:35 am

Big news in the world of Wikipedia, yesterday: Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit behind Wikipedia and other wiki-based projects) announced she will be stepping down from the role, which she has held since June 2007. Gardner, in a post on the Wikimedia blog:

I feel that although [Wikipedia is] in good shape, with a promising future, the same is not true for the internet itself. (This is thing number two.) Increasingly, I’m finding myself uncomfortable about how the internet’s developing, who’s influencing its development, and who is not. Last year we at Wikimedia raised an alarm about SOPA/PIPA, and now CISPA is back. Wikipedia has experienced censorship at the hands of industry groups and governments, and we are –increasingly, I think– seeing important decisions made by unaccountable, non-transparent corporate players, a shift fromSue Gardner at Wikimania the open web to mobile walled gardens, and a shift from the production-based internet to one that’s consumption-based. There are many organizations and individuals advocating for the public interest online — what’s good for ordinary people — but other interests are more numerous and powerful than they are. I want that to change. And that’s what I want to do next.

In January 2012, you may remember that Wikipedia went into “blackout” mode for 24 hours in protest of legislation before the U.S. Congress (SOPA/PIPA), so this explains that much. The rest of the statement is a little harder to puzzle out; the “non-transparent corporate players” in those circumstances were opposed by other corporate players, and both were fighting over government regulations. The line about “mobile walled gardens” sounds like Facebook, and a “consumption-based” Internet sounds like a jab at tablets, of all things, but I suppose we’ll have to see. These are obviously broad statements, and Gardner hasn’t actually announced her next move.

The move won’t be happening too soon, yet: Gardner will be in the position for (at least) another six months, while she works with Wikipedia’s Board of Trustees to find a successor, she writes in the post.

Whether Wikipedia is really “in good shape” is a matter for debate, especially considering Gardner had made a personal cause of trying to fix Wikipedia’s absurd gender imbalance, not to mention the overall downward drift in editor retention and activity.

She also leaves with some organizational questions unresolved: just last October, the board approved her plan to shift and “narrow” the non-profit organization’s focus to primarily software development; whereas the foundation once had “fellows” focused on community-building, the Foundation has shifted to a grant-making process, which is still making a first go of it.

Speaking of development, the great white whale continues to be what’s called the VisualEditor, an editing interface intended to be much easier for users than the current system, which is fairly similar to coding HTML. (It’s not as difficult as real programming, but still too much effort for most.) It’s been nearly two years in the making, and has finally rolled out into testing just this year.

Speaking of whales, Sue was the first leader to follow the much better-known Jimmy Wales, who still sits on the Board of Trustees*. Gardner came from the CBC in Canada, and was not an original part of “the movement,” but she came to identify with it and become quite popular with the overall Wikimedia community. It’s not at all clear who should or will succeed her, but it is clear that a lot rides on the decision.

Photo licensed under Creative Commons by Ariel Kanterewicz, via Wikimedia Commons.

*This post originally stated that Wales rotates off the Board later this year; it’s since been pointed out to me that, while all members’ terms are limited, reappointments are allowed, which it is expected to do in Wales’ case again next time.

Get Your Freakonomics On

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on February 26, 2013 at 9:19 am

Wikipedia seems like an ideal topic for Freakonomics, the podcast based on the popular book(s) of the same name by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. But as long as I’ve been listening, this week’s episode—“Women Are Not Men”—is the first I can recall that includes Wikipedia as a focus. Given the title, you may have guessed the subject: Wikipedia’s gender gap (previously discussed on The Wikipedian).

The segment includes a nice bit on how editing of Wikipedia works, and it includes a brief interview with veteran Wikipedian Sarah Stierch, former Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Smithsonian and creator of the Wikipedia Teahouse, a project designed to help new editors. And she knows from the trials of being a new editor, as she freely admits:

My first article was deleted. I can proudly say that. I wrote about a guy in a band that I knew—that’s no longer on Wikipedia.

I’d be surprised if there are any longtime Wikipedia editors who have not had early articles deleted. Anyway, it’s a worthy segment, and I’m fairly sympathetic to its hypothesis about the gender gap at that. The Wikipedia segment begins at 4:50.

WikiFoolery

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on January 15, 2013 at 7:59 pm

April Fools’ Day is still about 2 1/2 months off, but Wikipedians are already planning for the big day. Every year, editors who maintain the front page arrange for silly, sometimes misleading, and even mildly offensive articles to run during the 24-hour period covering April 1st. But as we noted in April 2011, not everyone is happy that such a serious project as Wikipedia, one focused on curating the world’s knowledge, spends one day per year kind of, sort of, doing the opposite. And as of today, there’s a thread on Jimbo Wales’ Talk page hosting a debate on the practice. This time in the mix: whether the juvenile pranks contribute to Wikipedia’s noted gender imbalance. Best comments so far: from female editors standing up for “women’s ability to both use and appreciate dirty or giggle-inducing language”.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2012 (Part 2)

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on December 31, 2012 at 9:02 am

For the past two years The Wikipedian has compiled a list of the top 10 news stories about Wikipedia (2010, 2011), focusing on topics that made mainstream news coverage and those which affected Wikipedia and the larger Wikimedia community more than any other. Part 1 ran on Friday; here’s the dramatic conclusion:

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5. The Gibraltarpedia controversy — Like the tenth item in our list, file this one under prominent members of the UK Wikimedia chapter behaving badly. In September, board member Roger Bamkin resigned following complaints that he had used Wikipedia resources for personal gain—at just about the worst possible time.

Bamkin was the creator of an actually pretty interesting project, Gibraltarpedia, an effort to integrate the semi-autonomous territory of Gibraltar with Wikipedia as closely as possible, writing every possible Wikipedia article about the territory, and posting QR codes around the peninsula connecting visitors to those articles. It was closely modeled on a smiliar project, with which Bamkin was also involved, called Monmouthpedia, which had won acclaim for doing the same for the Welsh town of Monmouth.

Problem is, the government of Gibraltar was a client of Bamkin’s, and Bamkin arranged for many of these improved articles to appear on the front page of Wikipedia (through a feature of Wikipedia called “Did you know”). Too many of them, enough that restrictions were imposed on his ability to nominate new ones. At a time when the community was already debating the propriety of consultant relationships involving Wikipedia (more about this below) Bamkin’s oversight offended many within the community, and was even the subject of external news coverage (now of course the subject of a “Controversy” section on Gibraltarpedia’s own Wikipedia page).

(Note: A previous version of this section erroneously implied that Bamkin was not involved with Monmouthpedia, and was then board chair as opposed to trustee. Likewise, it suggested that disclosure was the primary concern regarding DYK, however the controversy focused on issues of volume and process. These errors have been corrected.)

4. Wikipedia’s gender imbalance — This one is down one spot from last year, but the undeniable fact that Wikipedia is overwhelmingly male (like 6-1 overwhelmingly) seems to have replaced Wikipedia’s falling editor retention as the primary focus of concerns about the long-term viability of Wikipedia’s mission. The topic was given center stage during the opening plenary at the annual Wikimedia conference, Wikimania DC, and has been the subject of continuing news coverage and even the focus of interesting-if-hard-to-decipher infographics. Like Wikipedia’s difficulty keeping and attracting new editors, the Wikimedia Foundation is working on addressing this as well, and no one knows precisely how much it matters or what to do about it. For further reading: over the last several weeks, my colleague Rhiannon Ruff has been writing an ongoing series about Wikipedia and women (here and here).

3. Wikipedia’s relationship with PR — I’m reluctant to put this one so high up, because one could say that I have a conflict of interest with “conflict of interest” as a topic (more here). But considering how much space this took up at the Wikipedia Signpost and on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page over the past 12 months, it would be a mistake to move it back.

This one is a continuation from last year’s #8, when a British PR firm called Bell Pottinger got caught making a wide range of anonymous edits to their client’s articles. The discussion continued into early 2012, including a smart blog post by Edelman’s Phil Gomes that focused the discussion on how Wikipedia and PR might get along, a public relations organizations in the UK developing a set of guidelines for the first time, and a similar organization in the US releasing a survey purporting to demonstrate problems with Wikipedia articles about companies, though it wasn’t quite that.

For the first time since 2009, the topics of “paid editing” and “paid advocacy” drew significant focus. New projects sprung up, including WikiProject Cooperation (to help facilitate outside requests) and WikiProject Paid Advocacy Watch (to keep tabs on said activity). Jimmy Wales spelled out his views in as much detail as he had before, and the Wikipedia Signpost ran a series of interviews over several months (called “Does Wikipedia Pay?”), covering the differing views and roles editors play around the topic. But after all that, no new policies or guidelines were passed, and discussion has quieted a bit for now.

2. Britannica admits defeat — In the year of our lord 2012, Encyclopædia Britannica announced that it would stop publishing a print edition and go online-only. Which means that Britannica essentially has ceased to exist. The 244-year-old encyclopedia, the world’s most famous until about 2005 or so, has no real web presence to speak of: its website (which is littered with annoying ads) only makes previews of articles available, and plans to allow reader input have never gone anywhere. Wikipedia actually had nothing to do with Britannica’s decline, as I pointed out earlier this month (Microsoft’s late Encarta started that), but the media narrative is already set: Britannica loses, Wikipedia wins. Britannica’s future is uncertain and the end is always near, while Wikipedia’s time horizon is very, very long.

Wikipedia SOPA blackout announcement

1. Wikipedia’s non-neutral protest on U.S. Internet law — Without question, the most significant and widely-covered Wikipedia-related topic in the past year was the 24-hour voluntary blackout of Wikipedia and its sister sites on Wednesday, January 18. Together with a few other websites, notably Reddit, Wikipedia shut itself down temporarily to protest a set of laws under consideration in the U.S. House and Senate, called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), supported by southern California (the music and movie industry) and opposed by northern California (i.e. the Silicon Valley).

The topic basically hit everyone’s hot buttons, and very different ones at that: the content companies who believe that online piracy is harming their business, and the Internet companies who feared that if the bills became law it would lead to censorship. You can imagine which side Wikipedia took.

But here’s the problem: Wikipedia is not one entity; it’s kind of two (the Foundation and volunteer community), and it’s kind of thousands (everyone who considers themselves a Wikipedian). While there seemed to be a majority in favor of the protest, the decision was arrived at very quickly, and many felt that even though they agreed with the message, it was not Wikipedia’s place to insert itself into a matter of public controversy. And one of Wikipedia’s core content policies is that it treats its subject matter with a “neutral point of view”—so how could anyone trust Wikipedia would be neutral about SOPA or PIPA?

But the decision had been made, and the Foundation (which controls the servers) had made the call, and even if you didn’t like it, it was only for 24 hours. And it certainly seemed to be effective: the blackout received the abovementioned crazy news attention, and both bills failed to win wide support in Congress (at least, for now). And it was a moment where Wikipedia both recognized its own power and, perhaps, was a little frightened of itself. For that alone, it was the biggest Wikipedia story of 2013.

All The Women Who Edit Wiki, Throw Your Hands Up At Me

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on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Editor’s note: The author of this post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette) who last wrote “Public Lives: Jim Hawkins and Wikipedia’s Privacy Dilemma” for The Wikipedian in April 2012.

It’s no secret that the majority of those editing Wikipedia on a regular basis are men. It’s one of the best-known facts about the Wikipedia community and a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing over time. In fact, from 2010 to 2011, the proportion of women editors actually dropped, from 13% to just 9%, according to an independent survey by Wikipedian Sarah Stierch. And it does seem, at least from the media coverage, that this contributes to some bias in content. This issue not taken lightly by the Wikimedia Foundation, which has set a goal of “doubling the percentage of female editors to 25 percent” by 2015, as part of its Strategic Plan.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing here about content bias and what women are actually editing on Wikipedia, and the issues involved in encouraging more women into such a male-dominated space. First, though, let’s round up recent efforts to get more women involved with Wikipedia.

  1. The Wikipedia gender gap mailing list: Founded back in January 2011, subscribers to the list offer up ideas, share experiences, discuss issues and help to develop events and programs. Among recent updates, the list shared news of the latest Wikipedia Editor Survey and the launch of the new WikiProject Women scientists. 295 people are subscribed to the list.
  2. WikiWomen Camp: The inaugural camp was held in Argentina in May 2012. While not focusing on the gender gap, the conference was for female Wikipedia editors to network and discuss projects. A total of twenty women from around the world attended.
  3. WikiWomen’s History Month: March 2012 was the first WikiWomen’s History Month, where editors were encouraged to improve articles related to women in history. During the month 119 new women’s history articles were created and 58 existing articles were expanded.
  4. Workshop for Women in Wikipedia: This project to create in-person workshops encouraging women to edit Wikipedia was started in 2011 and is ongoing. So far, workshops sharing technical tips and discussing women’s participation have been held as part of the WikiConferences in Mumbai (2011) and Washington, D.C. (2012), as well as individual workshops held in D.C., Pune and Mumbai.
  5. The WikiWomens Collaborative: Launched at the end of September 2012, the Collaborative is a Wikimedia community project with its own Facebook page and Twitter account, designed to create a collaborative (hence the name) and supportive working space for women. Participants share ideas for projects, knowledge about Wikipedia and particularly support efforts to improve content related to women. Projects promoted by the Collaborative include Ada Lovelace Day, when participants were encouraged to improve articles related to women in math and science, including via an edit-a-thon organized by Wikimedia UK and hosted by The Royal Society in London. So far, the Collaborative has over 500 Twitter followers and 414 Likes on Facebook.

With all this activity, it’ll be interesting to see the results of the 2012 Wikipedia Editor Survey to see whether there has been any positive shift in the numbers of female editors. Look for those results early next year. Meanwhile, stay tuned here for my next post discussing gendered patterns of editing and Wikipedia’s knowledge gaps.

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.

Is Wikipedia “Slowly Dying”?

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on August 5, 2011 at 11:27 am

Here’s a provocative blog post from Gawker’s Adrian Chen yesterday: “Is Wikipedia Slowly Dying?”. It’s based on a provocative comment by none other than Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales at Wikimania, the annual conference for Wikipedia and its sister wiki sites. Of course, that’s not quite what Wales said, but the Associated Press story Chen’s post is based on is not so far off:

“We are not replenishing our ranks,” said Wales. “It is not a crisis, but I consider it to be important.”

Administrators of the Internet’s fifth most visited website are working to simplify the way users can contribute and edit material. “A lot of it is convoluted,” Wales said. “A lot of editorial guidelines … are impenetrable to new users.”

It’s also not a new concern. In March the Wikimedia Foundation published its latest study of editor participation, showing a decline in editor participation compared with a couple years ago, although it certainly still has more contributors than a couple years before that. In my post on the subject, “Trendy Thinking: Contemplating Wikipedia Contributorship”, I included a Wikimedia-generated chart that shows what Wales is talking about:

From 2001 through 2006, participation grew exponentially, slowed at its peak in 2007, and has decreased at a steady rate in the years since. A number of theories have been floated to explain the decline. Via the AP, Wales offers a very common one: with almost 3.7 million articles in the English-language edition, the project of buiding Wikipedia has mostly already been done. But he also offers one that I hadn’t really considered before:

Wales said the typical profile of a contributor is “a 26-year-old geeky male” who moves on to other ventures, gets married and leaves the website.

There is some evidence for this in the survey results. Turn to page five of an earlier survey report (PDF) and you’ll see that more than 75% of editors (technically, survey respondents who called themselves editors) are younger than 30, and of the remaining quarter, half again are in their thirties. It may be that only 12.5% of Wikipedia editors are older than 40.

This situation points toward a perhaps unlikely but perhaps untapped editor group: retired persons. In fact, it was my expectation to find a higher percentage of older editors—something like a reverse bell curve—showing greater participation by the young and old, with those in the middle with careers and young children contributing less frequently. In my personal experience on the site, some dedicated editors—some of the best, in my estimation—are middle aged or older. Yet the survey plausibly explains why they are statistically less common:

The last group is characterised by the fact that its members started to use / contribute to Wikipedia at a comparably old age. However, since the age range of this group is very broad, it covers persons that grew up with the Internet as well as persons that had to learn to use new media past their school and university time.

Someone who was 39 when Wikipedia was created is now 49 or 50, and actuarial realities will continue to produce a general population that is ever-more Internet-savvy, and therefore ever-more inclined to edit Wikipedia. That is to say, those who were once young editors may return as old editors.

Back at Gawker, the comment section offers another complaint to which Wales only alludes. The pseudonymous SoCalMalaise writes:

I used to write and edit Wikipedia a lot. Some long articles are almost entirely written by me. It was a way to fine tune both my research and writing skills and enjoy the novelty of writing something that thousands (millions?) of people read. But soon I found that your work is frequently stifled by so-called “administrators” who are usually high school or college students with sub-par research and writing skills. These trolls have created a Kafka-esque labyrinth of self-contradictory “policies” and “guidelines” that they used to remove sentences, paragraphs, sections or even entire articles that skilled writers have volunteered to put down. They cherry-pick various parts of their rules as an excuse to act out their God complexes and strike out content. … And I’m not talking about a few bad apples. These people are everywhere! The whole writing-for-Wikipedia thing became very frustrating and just not worth my time.

It’s difficult to generalize from any one person’s experience, and who knows what common-but-non-obvious mistakes SoCalMalaise might have made, but the sentiment is certainly not unheard-of.

Thing is, for every complaint about overzealous editors and sticklers for arcane rules, there’s a complaint about uninformed editors who show little respect for common-sense rules. I have to admit, I’m more of the latter complaint—it is sticklers for policies and guidelines who enforce a minimum level of quality required for new additions, and therefore maintain a semblance of article quality. Myself, I spent a lot of time learning how Wikipedia works. It took several years before I was able to contribute at a high level, creating new entries or significantly improving existing ones. I am polite when I find someone is doing it wrong, although I know also that some are not.

Meanwhile, the organized core of the community has spent a lot of time, especially recently, trying to figure out how to retain those who give Wikipedia a try. There is the WikiLove campaign, which has received some media attention, but I’ll have to explain my skepticism another time. I’ve also heard that new account registrants are sometimes asked to identify areas of interest, which sounds like an interesting idea, but as far as I can tell it hasn’t been widely deployed.

Ultimately, whether Wikipedia’s declining user base represents a problem is not a question that exists in a vacuum. The question is really whether Wikipedia has enough editors to keep getting better or, at the very least, maintain its current level of quality. There are multiple answers here. As I’ve pointed out before, the Wikipedia community’s rapid response to breaking news is impressive: if you want a good primer on the United States debt ceiling crisis, Wikipedia has a very strong and evolving summary. But Wikipedia sometimes fares poorly with articles on many pre-Internet topics, especially in the social sciences: if you want to know about Money market funds, I’m not sure I can recommend Wikipedia.

It’s worth taking stock of the fact that Wikipedia’s decline among editors is a bit more than gradual, but does not now appear to be accelerating. The next two years will be telling, but I suspect that Wikipedia’s contributor base will find its floor, and my guess—though it is only that—is that we’re probably somewhere near it. Wikipedia is no longer the new hotness, and let’s face it, it’s an encyclopedia. To most it is far less thrilling and far more challenging than YouTube or Facebook, and we shouldn’t expect that Wikipedia’s participation will look anything like it. It’s no less popular as a destination for readers, and it would take a very significant drop in article quality for that to happen. (Like, say, if Wikipedia’s vandal patrol disappeared tomorrow… if anyone, send your WikiLove to them.)

I think the current situation also raises a question that many Wikipedians are loathe to consider, but that is the professionalization of some aspects of Wikipedia. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring editors, but it could mean working out partnerships to share in the responsibility of maintenance and development of software and perhaps even some content. It’s an article of faith that much of Wikipedia’s early growth and unique characteristics derive from its volunteer force, but as any business professor can tell you, the skill set that launches a viable company is not the same skill set that brings that company to maturity. There is precedent for this; Wikipedia needs the Wikimedia Foundation, which does have a paid staff, although they avoid organized involvement in matters of content, except as individuals. Ultimately, Wikipedia must remain in the hands of its volunteer editors—to change that would be too fundamental a shift. But as Wikipedia grows more complex, it’s not hard to think they could use greater support.

The Wikipedian Mystique: Do Women Participate Enough in Wikipedia?

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on February 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Could it really be that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women? That statistic comes from a survey of Wikipedia users (whether contributing or just reading) sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation, first previewed in fall 2009 and eventually published in full in March 2010. Last week, Wikimedia executive director Susan Gardner announced plans to try raising this number to 25% by 2015. Thanks to coverage by Noam Cohen in The New York Times, the topic has dominated Interweb discussion of Wikipedia since then.

This participatory imbalance is not a new phenomenon, and hardly unique to Wikipedia. Cohen points to op-ed pages, and the same is considered to be true in their virtual equivalent, the political blogosphere. While there are some very prominent female contributors to all of the above, most surveys tend to show that men nevertheless lead these sectors.

On the other hand, as a female colleague pointed out to me, if you were to look at online forums about health care, animals, or the environment, the gender balance is likely to flip. The same is true with regard to professions; some are predominantly male or female, and many fall somewhere in between. Some combination of biological programming and social reinforcement produces a society with masculine and feminine traits. However, just because many stereotypes have a basis in reality does not mean they should be taken for granted or used as an excuse. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it right.

Among the many words expended on the topic, probably the best is by veteran Wikipedia contributor Kat Walsh; the entirety of it is worth reading, but here is the conclusion:

The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally–trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change. How do you become more inclusive without breaking the qualities that make the project happen to begin with? (Any easy, obvious answer to this question is probably wrong.) That Wikipedia works at all is an improbable thing; that it works, for the most part, well, nearly miraculous. Wikipedia’s culture doesn’t have to be hostile or unfriendly to a group for it to be underrepresented–it merely has to be not one of the most attractive options.

It so happens that “unfriendliness” has been identified as one possible reason. And it’s not that Wikipedia doesn’t have policies designed to address this issue: Wikipedia:Civility and Wikipedia:No personal attacks are core, non-negotiable site policies, augmented by further guidelines such as Wikipedia:Please do not bite the newcomers. The message is simple: Be polite to other editors, or you can be blocked. However, any experienced editor also knows that enforcement is uneven. Wikipedia is a very big place, where many editors are used to working in isolation. If someone comes along and starts behaving abusively, it can often feel like there is nowhere to turn. Even if you do know where to go for help, one actually must petition for a resolution, and this can be an unpleasant process. It’s also probably worth pointing out that this is an already issue on the presumably male-dominated website, so it is far from just women who feel this way.

Another issue worth considering is that no one actually knows for sure how many women are on the site. Anonymity on Wikipedia is guaranteed; hence the survey. But it’s trickier than that still, as I found out personally.

An early draft of the script for The State of Wikipedia video included the same detail from the survey Cohen cites. To make sure I had the details right, I sought the input of Erik Zachte, a data analyst for the Wikimedia Foundation and curator of information at the great Infodisiac website.

What he pointed out is that the survey had a significant problem with self-selection bias; more than a quarter of survey respondents came from Russia, for example. Among survey respondents, it is true somewhat less than 13% were female contributors. Slice it another way, and among contributors to the website, slightly more than 16% were female. Meanwhile, just 25% of survey-takers identified themselves as female. Therefore, the information concerning women on WIkipedia is considerably less likely to be accurate compared with men, but it still seems probable the percentage of female contributors is somewhere south of the 25% Gardner would like it to be.

The question then is what exactly she plans to do about it, and that discussion is underway now. If you want to be part of it, the Wikimedia Foundation has set up a mailing list to address the topic that is open to the public, and the Wikipedians you will find there are likely to be among the most thoughtful and welcoming. I certainly have my doubts that much will come of it, or that we’ll be able to reliably measure it. Wikipedia is a challenge to most people, from all walks of life, and any effort to artificially boost participation from any one group over the other is likely bound to meet with failure. If any solutions do arise, my guess is that will not necessarily be gender-specific.

As a final note, I find some irony in the fact that one reason put forth to explain why women don’t participate in Wikipedia is that they may not feel confident in their contributions, because on this particular topic, I don’t feel confident in my observations. Just for the record, on one hand I find that I am writing something because it’s a big topic and I don’t want to let it pass me by entirely; on the other hand, I think there is far more to be said about the subject than even a lengthy blog post can address. So I publish this now, unsure whether I’ve actually said anything worthwhile. Or maybe I’m overthinking it.