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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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A Note on Wikimania 2016, and a Small Request

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on June 21, 2016 at 2:52 pm
View from the road to Esino Lario. (Ed Erhart, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

View from the road to Esino Lario. (Ed Erhart, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

At this very moment, Wikimedians are traveling from all over the world to attend Wikimania, the annual conference for Wikipedia and its sister projects. When the main conference kicks off this weekend, for the first time in five years, I won’t be among them. The controversial selection of Esino Lario, a tiny Italian village in the Alps 40 miles outside of Milan, certainly figured into it, but for me it’s also a very busy summer, and one with plenty of other travel. I regret having to bail on it but, having heard about the touch-and-go logistics from the few I know who are following through, I can’t really say I regret the decision.

The biggest reason why I might is because a presentation I’d submitted was accepted. My absence interrupts what would have been a hat trick of delivering a presentation about the complicated matter of “paid editing”[1]To use just one several inadequate summary phrases for this multifaceted topic. at consecutive Wikimanias. Fortunately, it remains on the schedule, because my co-presenter, Andrew Lih, is committed to making the heroic journey to the Lake Como region of Italy.[2]I understand this is mostly to maintain his perfect Wikimania attendance, but it’s as good a reason as any. It is called “Found in Translation: Comparing paid editing policies in the top Wikipedia language editions” and if you are attending this Wikimania, I think that you should go see it!

You can read more about it at the link above, but the gist is this: the “conflict of interest” guideline on the English Wikipedia has been a matter of controversy and debate for at least a decade. When the self-reference averse Wikipedia actually has a long article on the topic, you know it’s a big deal. However, much less has been said about this issue on Wikipedia’s many other language editions, which are smaller and less prominent, but sometimes still deal with these issues. Since 2015, we have been reaching out to Wikipedians involved in the top 30 language editions of Wikipedia to find out: what official rules does each edition have about paid editing? What are the community norms? Have there been similar controversies?

As it turns out, this qualitative research is much harder to pull off than we’d first hoped. Whereas we had hoped to present our findings at this conference, instead we will be using this Wikimania to draw additional attention to the topic. And that is what this blog post seeks to do as well. If you are interested in helping us understand better how the multivarious Wikipedia communities approach this thorny topic, and you contribute to one of the top 30 language editions,[3]Besides English, of course. To see if yours is one, click here and sort by Active users. then please consider taking the survey here. And if you have any questions about the project overall, hit me up using the contact link above.

That’s all from me! Alas, my non-attendance at Wikimania means I am unlikely to write a summary post like I have in past years. Instead I’ll aim to stay part of the conversation on Twitter via @thewikipedian, and I’ll look forward to seeing you next year in Montreal.

Notes   [ + ]

1. To use just one several inadequate summary phrases for this multifaceted topic.
2. I understand this is mostly to maintain his perfect Wikimania attendance, but it’s as good a reason as any.
3. Besides English, of course. To see if yours is one, click here and sort by Active users.

Wikimania 2015 in Words, Images, and Tweets

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on July 29, 2015 at 11:00 am

How could I possibly summarize Wikimania—the annual conference for Wikipedians, Wikimedians, wiki-enthusiasts, and open knowledge advocates—in a single blog post? I’ve done a few times before, or at least I’ve written something about attending since I began in 2012.[1]My first Wikimania was 2012 in DC, and I filed a detailed itinerary of panels I wanted to (and mostly did) attend. I wrote a single short post about 2013 in Hong Kong, mostly because I played tourist that weekend instead of focusing on the conference. And last year in London was my first Wikimania as a speaker, which became the focus of my recap post. Arguably, the best roundup post of a wiki conference I’ve assembled was not for a Wikimania but the annual event for US-based editors, WikiConference USA, last year. That one I structured around tweets and Instagram posts from the weekend. This one will be, too. In the interests of keeping this manageable, however, I’m going to build this around tweets from just the opening event (OK, and maybe a little before and after). Let’s see if we can use it as a window to discuss what worked—and what didn’t—at Wikimania 2015.

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The latest Wikimania conference was held July 17–19 in Mexico City. Each year a different host city is chosen, spreading the travel burden around the project’s global contributors. Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere (and in North America) but it’s a little far from the probable center of gravity of wiki activities (northern Europe). Given Mexico’s troubled reputation, the escape of notorious tunnel-favoring drug lord “El Chapo” barely a week before the conference hardly mattered. By then it was clear that turnout would land somewhere between Hong Kong 2013 (fairly small) and London 2014 (the record, I believe).

Absolutely the least-smoggy view of Mexico City from the 45th floor of the WTC on Insurgentes, looking over Zona Rosa.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on

The specific facilities originally named to hold the event was the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a visually striking library with hanging walkways and a dinosaur skeleton, but apparently scarce meeting space. It was moved a few blocks away to the Hilton on Alameda Central, which was modern and purpose-built for conferences, and probably for the best. However, students of literature might recognize this as a kind of foreshadowing…

Plenty had already occurred before I arrived, as it always does. Every Wikimania is precededed by two “hackathon” days, which I’ve never attended. Meanwhile, Wikimania volunteers—young people from the area, this time wearing yellow T-shirts with lucha libre masks—had already put everything in place:



I think it’s also custom for Jimmy Wales to make the rounds of local media, in whatever city or country is hosting, in the days before a Wikimania event. Here he is on CNN en Español:


Myself, I got in late Thursday, time enough to meet up with friends for pizza and a few beers at a restaurant across the park from the Hilton:

At Cancino Alameda on Alameda Central, the night before #Wikimania2015.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on



On the Friday morning itself, Wikimania began as it always does: with a keynote speech (for some reason Wikimania prefers “plenary”) by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) executive director. This year was the second for Lila Tretikov, the current ED and the third major leader of Wikipedia[2]Omitting Larry Sanger, who left a million years ago, but yes, counting Jimmy Wales, who was never ED, and Sue Gardner, who held the post for years..


Wikimania opening keynote by WMF exec director Lila Tretikov in Mexico City. #Wikimania2015

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on



This is the 11th annual Wikimania, and for at least the last few this one, Liam Wyatt and a few others made bingo cards celebrating (and gently ribbing) the event’s clichés:


In a prescient early tweet, Wikimedia stats guru Erik Zachte asked if there was video available of the proceedings. As it would emerge later: not only was there no live stream, but there would be no official recordings at all. What happened is not clear. Rumor had it that plans had initially been made, apparently lost amid a staffing change, and that was about all anyone knew for sure.[3]About staffing changes: the Wikimedia Foundation has seen quite a few of them in the year since Tretikov took charge. This is of course to be expected: when there’s a change at the top, the incoming leadership wants to put their own team in place. However, more than twelve months since she took over, people are still leaving.


As already covered by the Wikipedia Signpost, numerous community members were unhappy about this (particularly the Europeans who didn’t make the trip). The only upside really was that Andrew Lih, longtime Wikipedian and an advocate for video on Wikipedia, brought his camera and tripod to as many sessions as possible. Along with a few others, these are beginning to appear on a video page on the Wikimania site.

There is no small amount of irony here: it’s the Wikimedia Foundation’s job to provide support to the volunteer community. That is why it exists. Wikimania is obviously one of these things it has created to serve the community. Video recording for Wikipedians who cannot attend logically follows, and so it has been done before (albeit imperfectly). Instead, members of the community voluntarily filled in the gaps as best they could. Of course, the quality—especially sound quality—isn’t what it could have been. For most people, these videos will be of very limited use. Even for dedicated Wikipedians, it will be a chore.[4]Another snafu I don’t have anywhere else to explain: the Saturday night group event was a bus trip to the out-of-this-world Museo Soumaya (see photo near the end) for a party. However, upon arrival in the pouring rain, the only entrance was the one pictured, and the building’s unusual structure created a waterfall effect a few feet from the entrance, where many Wikimedians were tragically soaked. Once inside, it didn’t get much better: there was no indication of what we were supposed to do. Worse, there was no food. Worse still, no alcohol. A small group of friends and I—plus some very nice folks I’d just met from wikiHow—wandered over to the mall next door and found a decent-classy Mexican restaurant on the top level. We returned to the museum to find a VERY LOUD Beatles cover band, no more food, and there never was any alcohol. So we hopped an Uber back to the hotel, whereupon finding the hotel bar, we were greeted with cheers, like lost soldiers returning from the war. What we didn’t know was that our cheering section had themselves taken an early bus back from the party, which then broke down, in the rain. (Later, this message was posted to the Wikimania-l email list.)

But anyway, the presentation itself: always, always, Wikimania must begin by revisiting the core mission. It’s a bit ritualistic, and maybe even a little trite, but for a significant number of attendees, it’s exciting. After another year of putting up with all kinds of bullshit, it reconfirms why you got involved in the first place:



Here’s an early panel from Lila Tretikov’s talk, showing some of the top-line issues for the Wikimedia movement, as seen from 2015. You could probably knock a few items off your Wikimania bingo card with this:



Also bracing: real acknowledgment of problems faced by Wikipedia and the larger Wikimedia movement.[5]I said I was going to focus entirely on the opening keynote, but here (again) I am going to fail, because it’s important to note that in the closing keynote—sorry, plenary—Jimmy Wales came the closest to acknowledging the Kazakhstan controversy, along with other problems Wikipedia has experienced trying to create partnerships in the Caucuses, where authoritarian governments often control all of the language’s media. (See here for the tweet I can’t embed in this footnote.) He also devoted a bit of his speech to explaining what he is doing with all that troublesome prize money from yet another repressive regime. He certainly avoided putting it in that particular context, but instead talked up the promise of his new Jimmy Wales Foundation, focused on defending “freedom of expression”. I would link to the website, but it doesn’t seem to have one. Far from the self-satisfied Wikimania 2013 in Hong Kong, there was plenty of discussion about what challenges the movement—some in Lila’s talk, and much more in the days afterward. This one line, I think, serves as a fair justification for those who worry about even small issues:



Not that everything was addressed quite so plainly. At one point, Tretikov listed high voter turnout in the recent Board elections among the reasons for Wikipedia’s health. What she did not say, but regular Wikipedians in attendance recognized immediately, is that turnout for the election was almost certainly driven by community uproar over a recent series of events where WMF had forced through a controversial software update over the objections of the community.[6]This is too deep a rabbit hole to follow for now but, as usual, Signpost covered it well. It was a “throw the bums out” election, and a few longtime board members were indeed thrown out, even though they were not directly (or, so far as we know, indirectly) responsible for the change.


But all the WMF software initiatives have not been so controversial. One that’s had a good deal of success in the six months since it’s been rolled out is the Content Translation tool, and the early results are promising:



One more thing I noticed, toward the end of Lila Tretikov’s presentation:



But after the year Wikipedia just had—speaking of the bullshit[7]Not just the “superprotect” debate and subsequent Board election, but also the GamerGate controversy and recent decision in the so-called Lightbreather case.—not everyone was buying it:


Anyway, that’s not remotely an adequate summary, but it will have to do. Here’s one of the better photos of Lila addressing Wikimania:


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A few random thoughts, some of which I may expand upon in the near future:

  • Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw delivered an interesting presentation on a recent experiment to block IP editing on Wikia, the for-profit, pop culture-focused collection of wiki sites owned by Jimmy Wales. The question: would it curb vandalism and disruptive edits? The result, if my notes are accurate: yes, it certainly did. In fact, all edits went down. In my initial tweeting, I focused on the decline in vandalism. Speaking with Hill later, he focused more on the latter. A bit of a Rorschach test, perhaps. It’s not online yet, but I hope to study closely once it is.
  • Word has it that the loved-and-hated volunteer-run Wikipedia Article Traffic Statistics tool (available at stats.grok.se) will finally be replaced by a similar service from the Wikimedia Foundation, and it could happen as soon as the fall. However, it’s unlikely to include any past traffic. Also, a major upgrade to Wikimedia Statistics has been greenlit, but that will be much further away.
  • WikiProjects suck, but WikiProject X aims to make them better. If nothing else, it shows how WMF has been making good use of flat design techniques and more whitespace in recent years. (Update: as noted in the comments, design credit for WikiProject X belongs to the grantees, James Hare and Isarra.)
  • The Visual Editor is really good now, you guys! I’d given it a premature thumbs up when it first arrived, then all of the bad things happened, and meanwhile WMF has continued to develop it. And it’s really good. I mean it this time! Well, I missed James Forrester’s presentation Beyond VisualEditor, about design changes on Wikipedia, but his slides still get some of it across.
  • I haven’t even mentioned my own session! Like last year, it was about conflict-of-interest issues, co-organized with the above-mentioned Lih. Alas, we started late because the previous discussion group ran over, and then the volunteers told us our time was up 15 minutes early (we think). If I submit another Wikimania session next year, it won’t be a discussion.
  • Wikidata has arrived. Among the site’s grizzled veterans, many of whom burned out on creating new articles years ago, Wikidata is the new uncharted territory—in some ways, it’s what I suggested in my previous post about the Apple Watch—where topics and categories have yet to be fully defined, and much satisfying work remains to be done. I wrote about Wikidata in 2012, just ahead of its launch, when I didn’t really have any idea what it was or what it was good for. Well, this weekend I finally made my first edits, and I think it’s starting to come together:


    Yes, Wikidata is the new “cool” thing (relatively speaking, of course, this is still Wikipedia we’re talking about) and here is proof:


    In case you don’t get it, Q7565 is the entity ID for “father” on Wikidata. See what they did there?

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OK, that’s it for Wikimania commentary. Let’s close out with a bit of sightseeing.

Here is maybe the most amazing building I’ve ever visited in my life, the Museo Soumaya, supported by Carlos “the Mexican Warren Buffet” Slim, named for his late wife:

Evening #Wikimania at amazing museum. Also amazingly poor organization. We went to the mall next door to find a restaurant.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on



At one point, I wandered into a peaceful (and apparently permit-holding) protest at Hemiciclo a Juarez on Alameda Central, and when I emerged from the crowd I was confronted with the intimidating scene below. The only way out was through, and technically not through but right up to the line and then a left through the park. Police officers with riot shields is just everyday Mexico City, and the officers themselves seemed more interested in whatever conversations they were carrying on than the stray gringo taking photos of them.

Uh oh. Think I'm on the wrong side of this police line.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on



And here is a shot of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, which I visited on a Wikimedian bus trip the day after the conference. I climbed all the way to the top of this sucker, and I still have the shin bruises to prove it.

Pyramid of the Sun, not the only Aztec skyscraper I climbed today. #latergram and more to come.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on

Notes   [ + ]

1. My first Wikimania was 2012 in DC, and I filed a detailed itinerary of panels I wanted to (and mostly did) attend. I wrote a single short post about 2013 in Hong Kong, mostly because I played tourist that weekend instead of focusing on the conference. And last year in London was my first Wikimania as a speaker, which became the focus of my recap post.
2. Omitting Larry Sanger, who left a million years ago, but yes, counting Jimmy Wales, who was never ED, and Sue Gardner, who held the post for years.
3. About staffing changes: the Wikimedia Foundation has seen quite a few of them in the year since Tretikov took charge. This is of course to be expected: when there’s a change at the top, the incoming leadership wants to put their own team in place. However, more than twelve months since she took over, people are still leaving.
4. Another snafu I don’t have anywhere else to explain: the Saturday night group event was a bus trip to the out-of-this-world Museo Soumaya (see photo near the end) for a party. However, upon arrival in the pouring rain, the only entrance was the one pictured, and the building’s unusual structure created a waterfall effect a few feet from the entrance, where many Wikimedians were tragically soaked. Once inside, it didn’t get much better: there was no indication of what we were supposed to do. Worse, there was no food. Worse still, no alcohol. A small group of friends and I—plus some very nice folks I’d just met from wikiHow—wandered over to the mall next door and found a decent-classy Mexican restaurant on the top level. We returned to the museum to find a VERY LOUD Beatles cover band, no more food, and there never was any alcohol. So we hopped an Uber back to the hotel, whereupon finding the hotel bar, we were greeted with cheers, like lost soldiers returning from the war. What we didn’t know was that our cheering section had themselves taken an early bus back from the party, which then broke down, in the rain. (Later, this message was posted to the Wikimania-l email list.)
5. I said I was going to focus entirely on the opening keynote, but here (again) I am going to fail, because it’s important to note that in the closing keynote—sorry, plenary—Jimmy Wales came the closest to acknowledging the Kazakhstan controversy, along with other problems Wikipedia has experienced trying to create partnerships in the Caucuses, where authoritarian governments often control all of the language’s media. (See here for the tweet I can’t embed in this footnote.) He also devoted a bit of his speech to explaining what he is doing with all that troublesome prize money from yet another repressive regime. He certainly avoided putting it in that particular context, but instead talked up the promise of his new Jimmy Wales Foundation, focused on defending “freedom of expression”. I would link to the website, but it doesn’t seem to have one.
6. This is too deep a rabbit hole to follow for now but, as usual, Signpost covered it well.
7. Not just the “superprotect” debate and subsequent Board election, but also the GamerGate controversy and recent decision in the so-called Lightbreather case.

Wikimania 2014: We Needed to Talk About Paid Editing, So We Did

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on August 12, 2014 at 9:23 am

This past weekend I attended Wikimania, the annual worldwide conference for Wikipedia and related wiki-sites, this time held in London and the third I’ve attended. And for the first time, this year, I was a speaker. The presentation was called “We Need to Talk About Paid Editing: Sorting Out Wikipedia’s Most Enduring Argument” and its subject matter is fairly self-evident: Wikipedia has struggled for years with the fact that its volunteer-first community attracts outside interests seeking (or offering) monetary recompense for changes to articles.

On the English Wikipedia, the operating consensus is that paid contributors should refrain from editing directly, and instead seek help from volunteers. The most important factor in this is the opinion of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and unofficial community leader—an unwritten rule often referred to as the “Bright Line”. Interestingly enough, this is not the case on other language editions: the French, German, and Swedish Wikipedias tend to be much more accommodating of companies and organizations that seek to change (sometimes even directly edit) the Wikipedia article about themselves.

The goal of myself and my co-presenters was to put all of this together for the first time in a public meeting of Wikipedians, to hold an open discussion about what it means, and to consider whether it is possible to agree on a unifying standard. And the result? Well, it was a very successful presentation, with a packed room (even though we were in the last block of time on the last day) and a lively conversation that could have gone much longer than the 90 minutes allotted. Below, our slides, and an explanation of what we discussed:

I had two co-presenters for the panel, and two guest presenters joined us as well. My main collaborators were longtime English Wikipedia contributor / chronicler Andrew Lih (User:Fuzheado), and French Wikipedia contributor / marketing executive Christophe Henner (Utilisateur:Schiste). The two others were former Wikimedia Italia VP Cristian Consonni (Utente:CristianCantoro), and Telecom Italia executive Federico Ascari.

The deck above is short on explanatory text—it was meant to support our speaking on the subject, of course—but it went a little something like this:

  • Slides 1–12 — Leading the way, Andrew delivered a whirlwind history of “paid editing” and other “conflict of interest” edits on Wikipedia, including several of the better known controversies. Most interesting, Andrew created a four quadrant chart showing how paid (and unpaid) editing differs based on whether it is perceived as “conflicted” or “unconflicted”.
  • Slides 13–23 — Here’s where I told a bit of my own story as a consultant on Wikipedia projects for clients, explained how we fit into the so-called Bright Line (short version: I follow it, but it doesn’t work as well as it should), and the Donovan House meeting of Wikipedians and PR thought leaders I convened in February, plus the multi-agency statement which came out of it. As of August 2014, following my lead, 35 companies including the very largest global firms, have pledged to follow Wikipedia’s rules and encourage clients and colleagues to do the same.
  • Slides 24-27 — Christophe described his past work with French telecom Orange to improve its Wikipedia presence, a debate among Wikipedians about whether this was handled correctly, and frustrations by his former client, Yamaha, which was less successful working with Wikipedia but instead created its own wiki.
  • Slides 28–34 — Cristian and Federico took turns explaining the project they undertook. In short, Telecom Italia partnered with a university class, recruiting 6 students completing their undergraduate work, to research and write improved versions of several articles about the company, with input from Cristian and the Italian chapter of Wikimedia.
  • Slides 35–40 — I previewed the next step in the process started with the Donovan House group: an ebook called “Wikipedia and the Communications Professional”, to be released in September 2014. After this, I moderated a free-flowing discussion of these issues among attendees.

And a very interesting discussion it was. I probably shouldn’t try to summarize the discussion, in part because I’ll forget things, in part because I wouldn’t want to characterize a discussion that is still evolving, and in part because this post is already plenty long enough. There will be much more to say in just a few weeks’ time.

A Few Thoughts on Wikimania 2013

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on August 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Last year, I posted a recap of each day at Wikimania 2012. That’s far more output than you’ll usually see around here, and a big reason was that last year’s event occurred in the city where I live, Washington, DC. This year it’s more than two weeks since Wikimania 2013 closed, and I’m just going to share a few thoughts and photos and call it good. This is also partly a function of where the event was held.

This year, it was Hong Kong, a city I once lived in long ago, and had not visited since the 1990s, and I brought with me a friend who was there for Hong Kong, and not so much for the conference. So I mostly hit morning sessions on the first and final day, and tried to see as many people as I could (and didn’t always succeed in that).

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I attended the first morning session, where Jimmy Wales gave the most anticipated of the opening remarks. And the most interesting thing he said actually related not at all to Wikipedia, but to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor turned leaker of a great, great many government secrets, now on permanent vacation in Moscow. Anyone who follows Wales’ politics probably had an inkling that Wales was supportive—but he gave him a bigger endorsement than that:

“Love him or hate him—I think he’s awesome—he’s done something very important.”

He went on to say the same in a WSJ interview later that day. What did he say about Wikipedia? Well, it’s pretty good! Eight language editions now have more than a million articles, with Italian, Russian, Spanish and even Swedish joining the club. An asteroid was named for Wikipedia, too.

That’s nice, but nothing groundbreaking. Wikipedia will continue to extend its reach, improve its software, refine its processes, and find new ways to engage editors—but it doesn’t seem to excite him anymore, and after a decade-plus of involvement, who can blame him? The month before Wikimania, Wales took a one-month break from the Internet, asking Wikipedians to avoid asking him questions via his Wikipedia user account until he returned.

The biggest wiki-related news he made also had something to do with Snowden, or at least was inspired by it: Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see. Some raised the question of what will contributors to the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikinews project think of it, but the question kind of answers itself: Wikinews has never been a success, and is kept alive only by a few die-hards. An attempt was made to kill the project earlier this year, though it didn’t succeed. So maybe this will become that. Or maybe we’ll never hear about it again.

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Of the panel sessions I attended, there were two in a row, by a French Wikipedia editor, about a subject of great interest to me, personally and professionally. The first was about Wikipedia’s relationship to companies, and whether they can have a beneficial impact on Wikipedia. The second was whether there can be a framework for paid editors to contribute to Wikipedia. As I mention here from time to time, for several years now I’ve done this kind of work on a consulting basis. It can work out very well, but it’s not at all easy.

Although companies can successfully work with the community to improve articles of interest, it’s not widely discussed, except when someone gets caught trying to go about it the wrong way. These are sensitive topics in the Wikimedia community, which prizes its volunteer ethic, and commitment to neutrality, not to mention a suspicion of outside organizations, for-profit or non-profit, who might try to use Wikipedia to boost its own messaging.

I was a little surprised that the discussion didn’t arouse much emotion, or raised voices—maybe once toward the end of the end of the period—but the real reason, I think, is just because the presenter didn’t have a strong solution to propose—just a “framework”—and as someone who is very familiar with the arguments for and against different proposals around paid editing, I knew it wasn’t going anywhere.

The fact that Jimmy Wales’ so-called “bright line” rule (which advises “paid advocates” to stick to discussion areas of Wikipedia, is not a formal rule anyway) was not raised at all surprised me. I almost raised my hand and brought it up, and then decided against it. A wide range of views were shared, many of them more supportive of some cooperation with outside companies and organizations than I would have expected, but nothing here was going to be solved.

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For more photos and commentary, I tweeted the conference at my Twitter account associated with this address, @thewikipedian. Next year’s conference is in London. How will I cover that one? I am curious to find that out myself.

My Wikitinerary: Day 3 at Wikimania DC

Tagged as on July 14, 2012 at 6:22 am

Wikimania logoWe have arrived at the last day (of official events) at Wikimania, which begins shortly with an opening plenary by the Wikimedia Foundation’s executive director, Sue Gardner. As expected, my Wikimania attendance yesterday was limited on account of other obligations; today I’ll be around for most of the events. Here are a few of the panels and presentations I’m interested in today:

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10:30 – 11:50

Title: Getting elected thanks to Wikipedia. Social network influence on politics.
Speaker: Damian Finol
Category: Wikis and the Public Sector
Description: Wikipedia and politicians is a contentious topic—one I wrote about for Campaigns & Elections in April 2010. This seems to be a bit different: it will be focused on Venezuelan politics, but the question: does having a good Wikipedia page help win elections? is one I’d like to hear how others would answer.

Title: Iterate your cross-pollinated strategic synergy, just not on my Wikipedia!
Speaker: Tom Morris
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: Like any small community focused on a unique project, Wikipedia and its Wikimedia sister projects have developed a kind of jargon all its own. This talk will focus on the language used on WMF and how it can be simplified for clarity, especially to encourage participation of new editors and non-native English speakers.

Title: Wikimedia on social media
Speaker: Jeromy-Yu Chan, Tango Chan, Slobodan Jakoski, Kiril Simeonovski, Guillaume Paumier, Naveen Francis, Christophe Henner
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: As I tweeted the other day, English-speaking Wikipedians are often disdainful of Facebook, for reasons that would take some time to unpack. Twitter too was disfavored for the similar service Identi.ca—the latter is open source, a plus for many—although I think the Twitter has gained a share of acceptance by now. Indeed, the proceedings of Wikimania have been heavily tweeted, just like any conference. So: “The goal of this panel is to share experience on the use of social media throughout the Wikimedia movement, and to share best practices to collectively improve our use of these communication channels.” What are best practices now?

12:10 -13:30

Title: What does THAT mean? Engineering jargon and procedures explained
Speaker: Sumana Harihareswara and possibly Rob Lanphier or additional members of the engineering staff of the Wikimedia Foundation
Category: Technology and Infrastructure
Description: Speaking of jargon, this is supposed to be a non-techie explanation of the technical aspects of Wikimedia. As a non-techie, I could stand for someone to explain how Wikipedia uses squids to me again.

Title: The bad assumptions of the copyright discussion; Blacking out Wikipedia
Speaker: James Alexander; panel
Category: Wikis and the Public Sector
Description: January’s Wikipedia blackout in protest of proposed U.S. legislation tightening copyright and intellectual property enforcement on the web (SOPA and PIPA) was very controversial, and remains so. Jimmy Wales, in his opening plenary, addressed the issue, suggesting blackouts would be considered only for similar issues. The first talk is shorter and appears to be on the issue of copyright. The panel is longer and will discuss the decision to blackout, and how the blackout worked, how the blackout page was designed and the media’s response.

14:30 – 15:50

Title: 11 years of Wikipedia, or the Wikimedia history crash course you can edit
Speaker: Guillaume Paumier
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: Exactly what it sounds like, a history lesson on the last 11 year years of Wikimedia/pedia history. This is a 70 minute talk. Having read Andrew Lih’s “The Wikipedia Revolution” and Andrew Dalby’s “The World and Wikipedia” there is probably not much here I won’t know about already, but I still find it interesting nonetheless.

Title: The end of notability
Speaker: David Goodman
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: Notability, on Wikipedia, refers to a widely-discussed guideline which recommends whether a given subject deserves a standalone Wikipedia article or not. It is very contentious, it is the inspiration for the ideological split between inclusionists and deletionists, and was a key focus of John Siracusa in the “Hypercritical” podcast episode I wrote about earlier this year. This talk will focus on the topic of notability guidelines and how we can’t always find two reliable sources providing substantial coverage for some topics that probably should have articles. Goodman seems to be suggesting that we have articles on topics people want information about regardless of standard notability, but with a twist: should there be a “Wikipedia Two” to satisfy the many non-notable college athletes and politicians whose fans and supporters would like to create articles about them. Plus, Goodman (DGG on Wikipedia) is a bit of a character, so that should be interesting, too.

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OK, I’ve got to race down to the GWU campus now if I’m to catch Gardner’s talk. Look for me on Twitter as @thewikipedian, and I’ll write more here soon!

My Wikitinerary: Day 2 at Wikimania DC

Tagged as on July 13, 2012 at 2:19 am

Wikimania logoWikimania Day 1 is on the books, and it was a busy one. Mary Gardiner’s keynote delivered on the mostly-male Wikimedia community’s promise that they care about female participation (and as many noted, the female presence at Wikimania is very strong) while Jimmy Wales fulfilled his role as the conference touchstone, while adding a dose of levity, or two.

Although, did anyone else notice he was credited as “Founder” of Wikipedia and not “Co-founder”? Well, I did.

My coverage of the first day of the conference was doled out in 140-characters-or-fewer bursts on Twitter as @thewikipedian, and so it will be on subsequent days.

As to the first subsequent day ahead: as much as I’d like to give my full day over to Wikimania, regular readers will know that I live here, and Friday I’m still basically on the clock. So I may not get to all the sessions I would like. But here is what I’m hoping to attend:

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9:00 – 10:20

Time will tell if I make it to the first of the breakout sessions. If I do, it will probably be:

Title: Ask the Operators
Speaker: Leslie Carr, Ben Hartshorne, Jeff Green, Ryan Lane, Rob Halsell
Category: Technology and Infrastructure
Description: Just what it sounds like, a chance to ask the people who keep Wikipedia up and running about how it works, their jobs, and apparently… unicorns? I doubt this session will actually be dominated by bronies, but if it is, then I concede I have been sufficiently warned.

I may also attend:

Title: Giving readers a voice: Lessons from article feedback v5
Speaker: Fabrice Florin
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: I missed his presentation on new tools yesterday, and I’m intrigued by this as well. Good feedback is hard to come by, as a Wikipedia editor, and I’m curious to find out how those most involved think the current feedback tool is working. When I wrote about it last year, I was skeptically optimistic.

10:50 – 12:10

If you’re keeping score at home, it seems that I am most interested in the “WikiCulture and Community” sessions, and why shouldn’t I be? The Wikipedian tries to be about making Wikipedia’s goings-on understandable to the non-editor, so this track is a natural fit.

Title: Wikipedia in the Twitter age
Speaker: Panel moderated by Andrew Lih
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: How does Wikipedia handle the fast pace of information in the Twitter age? Can Twitter be a reliable source? (I think the correct answer is: generally, no.) The role Twitter played with Wikipedia in the 2011 Egyptian revolution and other breaking news events will be discussed here. And I’m always a fan of Andrew Lih’s take on Wikipedia.

13:10 – 14:30

One of the panels I wanted to see yesterday was rescheduled last-minute for this time period, and I very well may still try to check that out. But I’m also fascinated by this one:

Title: Eternal December: How awful arguments are killing the Wiki, and why not to make them
Speaker: Oliver Keyes
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: For good or ill, Wikipedia is a place that many people go to argue about all kinds of things—some very important, and others not so much. This talk will cover the resistance and curmudgeonliness of “Power Editors” and how they prevent the implementation of new developments on Wikipedia and discourage newbies from contributing.

There are other good panels in this time slot, so room-hopping again is a thing I would like to try, although on day one I found it a challenge. If I manage, I like:

Title: Hey, its trending! Let’s update that Wikipedia article!
Speaker: Arkaitz Zubiaga, Taylor Cassidy, Heng Ji
Category: Research, Analysis and Education
Description: This one is a discussion of a possible system that suggests revisions for Wikipedia based on Twitter activity; much Wikipedia editing activity is driven by the news, and Twitter often breaks news before the media has had a chance to write a full story. The panelists will outline goals, details of the system and progress of this research project.

Title: Bots and Wikipedia: It’s OK to be lazy!
Speaker: Gaëtan Landry
Category: Technology and Infrastructure
Description: Although I lack the technical skills to write a real software program myself, I love me some bots. I.e. automated programs that wander around Wikipedia making changes based on an algorithm—fixing common misspellings, reverting obvious vandalism, and the like. The submission says it won’t be highly technical, which is probably good for yours truly.

15:10 – 16:30

I said above that Friday will have to be a working day for me, and it’s very possible that I’ll cut out in the afternoon to wrap some things up for the week. But if I’m still around, I think I may visit:

Title: Refighting the War of 1812 on Wikipedia
Speaker: Richard Jensen
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: From the description: “This year is the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and my presentation will examine how Canadian and American editors have handled the war in the main article. Sometimes they re-fought the war, as they balanced scholarship/RS and patriotism in a quest to tell the world what really happened.” I can go in for that.

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One last shameless plug: and if you’re not following me as @thewikipedian on Twitter, then you’re missing out on a lot of interesting tweets, including some very smart people that I am dedicating, and some things that I hope other people are smart.

I’ll see you there in a few hours!

My Wikitinerary: Day 1 at Wikimania DC

Tagged as on July 12, 2012 at 5:15 am

Wikimania logoIn a few hours, the first day of general activities at Wikimania—the official annual conference of Wikimedia Foundation—begins right here in Washington, DC. It is a global conference, in fact this is the first time Wikimania is being held in the United States since 2006, when it was hosted on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This year, it just happens to be outside my front door. What’s more, it is being held on the campus of the George Washington University, precisely where I launched this very blog at a (much smaller) conference in March 2009.

So: it’s a big day ahead—big weekend, but I have to focus for now. A review of the official schedule reveals an almost overwhelming number of events. After reading through the various panels and presentations, I think I have a pretty good idea of my day ahead, which I’d like to share here now:

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09:00 – 11:10

The only place to be, indeed the only official event at this time, is the opening ceremony, keynote and plenary. Most of the wider media attention that Wikimania generates will be probably be focused on Wikipedia co-founder and unofficial mascot Jimmy Wales on “The State of the Wiki”, but I’ll be interested to see the opening keynote by Mary Gardiner, an Australian computer programmer who is also a leader in “increasing participation of women in open technology and culture”. Wikipedia editors have long skewed heavily toward men, but in recent years more attention has been focused on how to change that. I am a skeptic—Wikipedia is hardly alone in this fact, particularly among technology tactics—but I am also interested in hearing what she says, on this very high-profile stage for such a topic.

11:40 – 13:00

Here the breakout sessions begin, and it is truly a poverty of riches from a Wikipedian perspective; there is too much to possibly take all in. What follows is an estimation of the panels I am likely to check out:

Title: “This is my voice”: the motivations of highly active Wikipedians
Speaker: Maryana Pinchuk, Steven Walling
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description:One of the most common questions I am asked about Wikipedia, and also one of the hardest to answer with anything but anecdotal evidence, is why Wikipedians do what they do. Pinchuk and Walling have interviewed some of the most active Wikipedia editors to study the motives behind why they participate. Intriguingly, their submission includes the following teaser: “Note: after this talk, we will be making a special piece of conference swag available to any interested Wikipedians which will let them show off their own motivation for editing.”

Title: Engaging editors on Wikipedia: A roadmap of new features
Speaker: Fabrice Florin
Category: Technology and Infrastructure
Description: This talk will discuss new features on Wikipedia that make it easier to edit and the impact this will have on attracting new editors and retaining current ones. This follows a 20-minute talk so if I leave right after the Pinchuk / Walling’s talk and sneak in quietly I can probably catch most of this. At least, I presume this will work. You can never really tell how a conference will work until one arrives.

14:00 – 15:20

Title: A talk page is a broken message wall: Building a more efficient communication
Speaker: Danny Horn, Tomasz Odrobny
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: These days, I spend more time on Wikipedia’s discussion pages than I do editing the encyclopedia itself, so I am extremely familiar with how these pages work—and how they don’t. This presentation will demonstrate a new talk feature that will make it easier to track conversations you are interested in without receiving watchlist notifications about topics you don’t actually care about. Interesting! Although Wikipedia has put much more public attention on a forthcoming WYSIWYG editor, I think this could actually be a bigger deal. If it works, of course.

The above talk is followed by another one that I find fascinating for exploring the insider-outsider dynamic around Wikipedia, featuring the presenters from the first breakout session:

Title: Welcome to Wikipedia, now please go away? improving how we communicate with new editors
Speaker: Steven Walling, Maryana Pinchuk
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: On Wikipedia, veteran editors run across the same kind of activity by new editors so often that they have developed a deep reserve of templated messages—some friendly, many unfriendly. According to the session’s topic page, “On English Wikipedia and many other projects, automated warnings and welcomes currently make up about 80% of first messages to new editors.” Wow. I had not thought about it before, but it makes complete sense. I’ll be curious to see where the state-of-the-art thinking is on this topic.

15:40 – 17:00

For the final breakout session, there is one long sustained discussion of Wikidata that I am awfully tempted to spend my time at, but there is another talk that I find interesting within this period:

Title: How Wikidata fits into the global web of data; Wikidata implementation and integration; Wikidata as a platform
Speaker: Denny Vrandečić; Daniel Kinzler; Jeroen De Dauw
Category: Technology and Infrastructure
Description: What is Wikidata? Indeed, what is it precisely. It is only the most ambitious new Wikimedia Foundation project to launch in recent years. As the first panel description says: “Wikidata’s goal is to move the rich structured data currently encoded in Wikipedia templates into a central repository, which will be available for re-use on all Wikimedia projects, but also to 3rd party services. We will introduce what Wikidata aims to do and how: centralizing language links, centralizing data for the infoboxes, and all of that in the first new Wikimedia project since 2006.” Yeah, that’s not too ambitious. The first talk appears to be more of an overview and the two following it seem to be more technical.
Location: Grand Ballroom
Length: Each talk is 25 minutes

Title: Wikimedia relations with government, lobbying and public relations
Speaker: James Forrester, Philippe Beaudette
Category: Wikis and the Public Sector
Description: If Wikidata gets too technical for me, I’ll be heading over to this panel. In my professional life public relations is one of my primary activities, often involving Wikipedia—as I have written about before—and so I will be very interested to see where this discussion goes. If there is any presentation where I am likely to participate, this may be it, depending on where the discussion goes. Why not come find out?

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And that is the end of the official activities for the day. More events stretch into the evening, but I won’t be at them. Tonight, Roger Waters brings The Wall to the Verizon Center, which I will be seeing with a friend from high school and college in town just for this event. Actually, we’ll be seeing this if StubHub and FedEx combine to deliver these tickets during the day today, which they have so far been rather slow about.

I know… this has nothing to do with Wikipedia. But it’s highly relevant to my day ahead at Wikimania. Fingers crossed everything works out! Meantime, I will be tweeting the day’s activities from my @thewikipedian Twitter account, so please follow! And if all goes well I will post tomorrow’s wikitinerary here soon.

Does WikiTribune Even Stand a Chance?

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on May 12, 2017 at 1:05 pm

Almost four years ago, Jimmy Wales stood before an audience of Wikipedians at the 2013 Wikimania conference in Hong Kong, delivering his annual keynote address. Mere weeks had passed since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had become famous (or infamous) for releasing sensitive U.S. government documents and escaping to a hotel room just blocks away from the site of the conference. Given Wales’ status as the spokesperson for a movement based on free information, and the coincidence of shared location[1]Snowden’s hotel was in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Wikimania conference next door in Hung Hom, media coverage at the time largely focused on his remarks about Snowden.

But Wales had another topic in mind, inspired in part by then-current events, which media outlets mostly mentioned only in passing. Here, too. This is what The Wikipedian had to say, based on having witnessed the speech at the time:

Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see. Some raised the question of what will contributors to the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikinews project think of it, but the question kind of answers itself: Wikinews has never been a success, and is kept alive only by a few die-hards. … So maybe this will become that. Or maybe we’ll never hear about it again.

Credit where it’s due: although Wales had said nothing more about it publicly in the years since, and “Jimmy’s hybrid model” had become at best the source of an occasional snicker among Wikipedians skeptical of Wales’ follow-through (about which more later) now there is no question he really meant it. On April 24, Wales announced the creation of an ambitious newsgathering and reporting project called Wikitribune with the debut of a placeholder website, promotional video, crowdfunding campaign, and launch coverage led by NiemanLab.

Jimmy Wales keynote address at Wikimania Hong Kong, 2013Most of what’s been written so far has been positive, thanks to goodwill surrounding the Wikipedia project, and by extension to Wales, its credited founder. Following the lead from his intro video, a fair bit of Wikitribune coverage is centered on its stated goal of fighting fake news. Despite the term’s dilution and partial co-optation by President Trump, it remains the media evil du jourWashington Post executive editor Marty Baron recently called it “the greatest challenge we face in the industry at the moment”. The notion that Wikipedia is the remedy is one everyone is happy to play along with, though it’s more hypothesis than established fact.

The most critical perspective so far comes from Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic, questioning the volunteer-professional hybrid collaborative concept, i.e. that one “who is paid for doing journalistic work cannot be considered ‘equals’ with someone who is unpaid” and that it devalues the work of professionals to assume it can be done by volunteers. It’s partly a critique of the model, and partly a critique of the morality; it’s an important criticism, and one that should be taken seriously.[2]I do think these questions also have good answers, and it matters very much how the roles of each party are defined. There is a similarly important distinction to be made in managing paid vs. volunteer contributors to Wikipedia, although I suspect the best arrangement in each case are roughly opposite. A topic for exploration another time. Another cautious note was sounded by Mathew Ingram at Fortune, listing failed previous attempts to launch crowdsourced news sites.[3]Spot.us, Beacon Reader, Contributoria, and Grasswire, none of which I had previously heard of.

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In Wikipedia circles, there is considerable skepticism, and for entirely different reasons.

320px-WikiNews-Logo-en.svgThe first is that Wikipedia has tried this before, as briefly noted in my excerpt above: Wikinews launched in 2004, when Wikipedia was growing rapidly and adding new sister projects. But it never reached critical consensus, and few contributors ever produced meaningful original content for the site. These days, Wikinews has only a handful of active users. And it’s not hard to see why: Wikipedia already compiles digests of news coverage, and Google points readers to Wikipedia, so Wikinews is at best an afterthought. But it’s worse than that. Compare the Wikipedia article “Dismissal of James Comey” to the Wikinews article “President Trump fires FBI Director James Comey, raising questions about Russia investigation” and the problem is apparent. The Wikipedia entry does something that no other website on the internet does: it serves as a one-stop aggregator of everything important in the ongoing political crisis, first with a high-level but substantial summary in the introduction, and then a deep dive into the particulars. The Wikinews article is a rehash of a few other previously published stories from traditional news outlets, offering no new reporting, ending at less than 700 words, and on a fixed date, like an Associated Press wire story might because of real constraints on the AP that Wikinews imposes on itself arbitrarily. Wikinews offers nothing new, is less good than what it imitates, and frankly has no reason to exist. Also, the Wikinews article has four sources; the Wikipedia article has 114. Case closed. And yet past attempts to close Wikinews have been resisted, both by a handful of dead-enders, and by Wikipedians who hold out hope for a future renaissance. Its biggest impact in 2017 is that its continued existence requires Wales to call his new thing “Wikitribune” rather than the more straightforward name on which it’s unproductively squatting.

TPO-logo-compact.svgThe second reason, and I don’t mean to dwell too much here, is that there are good reasons to think that Jimmy Wales is not the right person to lead such a project, save for his internet celebrity as the online collaboration guy. Wales struck gold with Wikipedia—although not actual money, as a cheekily titled NYT Magazine profile once reminded everyone—and he hasn’t repeated the trick since. His next most successful venture is Wikia, a collection of wikis on entertainment topics, the best known of them probably being Wookiepedia but also including communities for fans of music, TV, movies, video games, comics, and other geek subcultures. It does rank in the top 100 websites, and it’s more than 10 years old, so it’s a legitimate business—and it’s also monetized with advertising, the one thing Wikipedia can never ever do. Wikia is fun and useful to fans of pop culture, but it’s hardly a world-beater. Other Wales enterprises have fizzled or faded: Wikia Search was a bust, and a MVNO called The People’s Operator[4]It is worth noting that the aforelinked Wikipedia article about Wales’ MVNO is highly negative. is heading that direction. Yet almost no one outside of the Wikipedia world is familiar with any of this; Ben Thompson, one of the smartest analysts writing about technology and media, recently wrote: “I don’t know if Wikitribune will work — but Jimmy Wales is one of the last people I would want to bet against.”

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But let’s talk about Wikitribune and its actual prospects. This is not easy, as many specifics about its plans have yet to be clarified; at the time this is written, Wikitribune had announced but a single hire and, with no disrespect intended, it wasn’t someone with a high-profile name or big reputation. Although analysis of Wales’ actual plans may be premature, it’s not too soon to assess its stated direction and speculate about what might actually work for it.

I will switch gears here for a moment and agree that Wales has identified a real problem that needs to be solved: he is correct to say that the news industry is in big trouble—“broken”, even. The internet has dealt a nearly lethal blow by creating effectively free distribution, both upending its advertising-based business model and subjecting it to competition from low-quality but highly engaging clickbait infotainment.[5]Facebook, of course, figures prominently in both.

He’s wrong, though, to say as he does in the video that “we’ve figured out how to fix it”. As Ingram documents, others have tried and failed. And there’s no reason to think that, just because Jimmy Wales is the wiki guy, his association with the project is going to be sufficient for it to reach critical mass. No, if Wikitribune is going to have even a chance of success, it needs to figure out where its comparative advantage lies, and design its plans accordingly.

Jimmy Wales in Hong Kong, 2013The Wikipedian posits that Wikitribune must absolutely learn the lesson of Wikinews: that loosely organized, come-and-go-as-you-please, volunteer-based networks are no way to develop in-depth, sustained news reporting of the investigative or beat varieties that are the principal job of national and international news organizations. To the extent that it succeeds in these areas, it must develop tight-knit reporting teams, who will be professionals, and largely based in London[6]where Wales resides and Wiktribune will presumably be headquartered, New York, and Washington. The role that volunteers will play here would be very similar to the one already played by volunteers at traditional news outlets, where they go by a different name: sources.

But Wikitribune has no advantage over traditional news organizations in this kind of reporting. While the news industry overall is doing poorly, some major publications like The New York Times have seen subscriptions soar as their value has become clearer to readers following the U.S. presidential election, The Washington Post is buoyed by soon-to-be-world’s-richest-man Jeff Bezos, and financial publications like the Wall Street Journal and The Economist serve affluent audiences with need-to-know information.[7]Like so much else in the new new economy, it is the middle class that has been thinned out: mid-tier newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, and their undifferentiated news sites that look more and more like blogs every day. So the opportunity to have a positive impact here is not clear, either.

The Wikipedian will therefore posit that Wikitribune’s best chance to succeed is in fact in local news.

♦     ♦     ♦

As for opportunity, no one else has yet cracked the code: in news circles, the term for this is “hyperlocal”, and it hasn’t worked all that well, nor has it ever really ever been “news”—Patch Media, founded by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, is technically still around but has zero impact on anything; NextDoor sounded promising when I first signed up for it, but in practice is just another place to ask about lost cats and free furniture; Backfence was a similar site that, now that I search the web for information about it, apparently never got very far. Somewhat better are local subreddits, like /r/Portland, focused on what’s happening in a given city, but the content is usually centered on photos and gossip and links to local news stories.

Thompson, quoted above offering his shrugging support for Wales’ initiative, has written a lot about local news in recent months, and likes to quote from a Warren Buffet shareholder letter about how local newspapers once enjoyed unique business advantages: its customers couldn’t do without it, and couldn’t satisfactorily replace it.[8]As a reminder of just how prescient Buffet can be, this letter was written in 1991. The problem for local news publications is that the internet has kicked its advertising base out from under it, beginning with classified ads in print newspapers and later extending to the problems of infinite supply of web advertising devaluing the ad unit, not to mention the challenges of attracting audiences big enough or targeted enough to be worth selling ads to. Earlier this week, Thompson wrote a long piece assessing the prospects of local news, arguing that local news publications would need to be subscription-based, rather than advertising-based, to succeed.

He’s right about advertising, for sure. But why should it even be subscription-based? Wikipedia succeeds with donations, in some years generated by putting Jimmy Wales’ own face at the top of every page, and in 2017 Wikipedia has more money than it knows what to do with. This is one way Wales’ celebrity could have a positive impact. The subscriptions could be donations, which might have the added benefit of generating investment beyond cash—even creating passionate user-contributors.

wikitribuneWikipedia has succeeded at harnessing passions in a way few other sites have, building miniature newsgathering communities around subjects like major weather events, geography and places, physics and astronomy, transportation and infrastructure, major sports leagues, etc. All are limited spheres of interest that more readily map onto a city or region than matters of national politics and international diplomacy, trade policy, or ongoing military conflicts.

The primary difference is that Wikipedia’s content guidelines explicitly disallows editors from doing original reporting, which is just as well, because almost no likely editors have such access to federal government officials or multinational business leaders, nor is there any effective mechanism to vet them in a distributed volunteer system. However, with a professional editor at the center of the operation—as Wikitribune seems like it might—well, that could actually work.

Such a project would benefit at scale the same way Wikipedia does, not in developing one large ecosystem of researchers, writers and editors collaborating on a medium-sized number of topics, but multitudes of ecosystems working in parallel across many, many topics. And the benefit to readers is obvious: the experience reading of Wikipedia pages on familiar topics in the past prepares one to navigate Wikipedia pages on less-understood subjects in the future. Likewise, reading Wikitribune Peoria could prepare one to read Wiktribune Palermo. Consistency not just of branding but of style—a style native to Wikitribune, not to existing wire services as Wikinews does—could be useful to readers and a valuable differentiator for Wikitribune itself.

What’s more, Wikitribune has an opportunity to try new things that the entrenched Wikipedia community hasn’t been able to bring itself to do. For example: implement a discussion system that was designed less than fifteen years ago. The Flow project, which once sought to overhaul Wikipedia’s outdated and clunky talk page format, was eventually abandoned due to resistance from veteran editors averse to change. Flow wasn’t perfect, but there wasn’t even political will to work through the rough patches. Wikitribune would be wise to resurrect it, and perhaps show Wikipedia how it could actually benefit the original project.

Wikia_Logo.svgAnd there’s another thing: Wales certainly has proved successful at creating new structures based on the Wikipedia model but tweaking the rules in order to incentivize different activities for communities with different expectations. Wikipedians didn’t want advertising supporting their educational mission, but Wikians[9]if that’s a word? don’t mind advertising supporting their entertainment mission. It’s no accident that “Wikia” is Wikipedia without the “ped”[10]as in learning and knowledge. Revisiting Wales’ post-Wikipedia career again, it is when he has strayed too far from his Wikipedia roots that he’s got into trouble. Wikis turned out not to be the way to build a search engine, and some lofty rhetoric about transparency aside, Wales had no background in mobile telephony that would make him suited to lead an MVNO. So while there are reasons to be cautious, the more like Wikipedia his subsequent projects are, the better their outlook.

Wikipedia succeeds without a profit motive, and local news is unprofitable now. By following the same model, Wikitribune has an opportunity to benefit from Wikipedia’s non-business model, and adapt its methods from pure aggregation to a hybrid of reporting and aggregation. But it’s vital that Wikitribune not try to compete with the Times of London or New York. Its real, and possibly only, chance for success lies in reinvigorating a diminished local news industry. I hope Jimmy Wales takes it.

All images via Wikipedia, copyright of their respective holders.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Snowden’s hotel was in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Wikimania conference next door in Hung Hom
2. I do think these questions also have good answers, and it matters very much how the roles of each party are defined. There is a similarly important distinction to be made in managing paid vs. volunteer contributors to Wikipedia, although I suspect the best arrangement in each case are roughly opposite. A topic for exploration another time.
3. Spot.us, Beacon Reader, Contributoria, and Grasswire, none of which I had previously heard of.
4. It is worth noting that the aforelinked Wikipedia article about Wales’ MVNO is highly negative.
5. Facebook, of course, figures prominently in both.
6. where Wales resides and Wiktribune will presumably be headquartered
7. Like so much else in the new new economy, it is the middle class that has been thinned out: mid-tier newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, and their undifferentiated news sites that look more and more like blogs every day.
8. As a reminder of just how prescient Buffet can be, this letter was written in 1991.
9. if that’s a word?
10. as in learning and knowledge

All I Really Needed to Know I Learned Editing Wikipedia

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on July 12, 2016 at 3:33 pm

10th-wikibirthday

Ten years ago today, I created a Wikipedia account for the very first time, and made a few small edits that I probably would not make exactly the same way in 2016. For those who know about my Wikipedia participation over the past decade, you may not be surprised to learn that my initial series of edits was made at the request of my boss. As it happens, my very first edit was in fact to a discussion page, explaining my rationale. In retrospect, this instinct served me well later on, in ways I couldn’t have known at the time.

But anyway, I came back the day after, and a few days after that, and started making edits based on my own interests. At the time these included: Michael Mann, The Crow (1994 film), Mike Bellotti, The Postal Service, Truthiness, and Ratfucking. So: action movies, college football, indie rock, and amusing political jargon. I have more interests today than I did when I started editing in my mid-20s—relatively late, compared to some editors I know—but I’m still interested in all of the above, even if some of the specific topics aren’t quite as relevant. I continued making small edits over the next two years, learning more as I went, until finally building up the confidence to create my very first article, about legendary Portland, Oregon retailer and TV pitchman Tom Peterson.

Looking back on these ten years, my contributions are rather modest compared with many, many other editors whom I’ve come to know. But here is a short recounting, both on-wiki and off: I’ve attended four Wikimania conferences and two WikiConference USAs; appeared as a speaker at four combined; made several thousand edits across primary and secondary accounts; created dozens and improved hundreds of articles; launched a business initially predicated on helping companies and organizations with COI compliance; and helped put the world’s largest PR companies on the record about following Wikipedia’s rules. Oh, and I started this blog, now more than seven years old.

To say that Wikipedia has changed me far more than I have changed it would be an understatement. I owe a great deal of this decade to Wikipedia and everyone there, and this put me in mind of what, specifically, I have learned from it. Dare I say, to finally invoke the title of this piece, all I really needed to know I learned editing Wikipedia.

♦     ♦     ♦

The following is an entirely non-comprehensive list of life principles as elucidated by the principles of Wikipedia as I’ve come to understand them. I’d love to hear feedback, whether you agree or disagree, and especially if you can think of any others:

  • Let’s first dispense with the obvious: there are many lifetimes worth of knowledge to be found in the 5.2 million entries on the English Wikipedia. In a very literal and obvious sense, of course it contains everything you need to know, especially if you need to know about footballers.
  • More to the point, Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, and the lessons one can learn from interactions with Wikipedia’s editors, are extremely useful if you’re willing to think about them and apply them to your own life. I can think of several… (WP:POLICYLIST)
  • Finding a balance between giving others benefit of the doubt while also being judicious in whom you trust is one of the most challenging tasks facing everyone, and making the right call can have a profound influence on what we believe and how we act upon these beliefs. (WP:AGF, WP:RELIABLE)
  • Building on the last one: be prepared to investigate your own opinions and beliefs. Just because you think something is true, there’s a decent chance you may be wrong, and the best way to handle any challenges is to soberly consider the evidence and determine if your conclusions hold up. (WP:VERIFY)
  • Sometimes the best way to understand what a thing is is to observe what it is not. By process of exclusion, one can arrive at more a objective assessment about the practical nature of a thing by determining first what it isn’t, than by trying to understand it solely for itself. (WP:NOT)
  • Not all principles should be accorded the same weight, and forming a coherent and defensible hierarchy for which values supersede others is necessary to conduct oneself morally. Rules should in general be followed, but well-intentioned rules can lead to bad outcomes if you don’t pay attention to the totality of their implications. (WP:GUIDES, WP:IGNORE)
  • Respect others’ intellectual contributions as you would their physical property. If you got a good idea from someone, give them fair credit. You’d want the same, and if you don’t there’s a very good chance it will catch up with you, especially on the Internet where everything is searchable. (WP:COPYVIO, WP:IUP)
  • Don’t be a jerk, don’t violate others’ space, and don’t cause anyone grief to make a point, even if you have one. It’s possible to disagree reasonably and with appropriate emphasis while upholding your dignity and allowing others’ theirs. Just be cool, OK? (WP:CIVIL, WP:PERSONAL, WP:BADGER)
  • If you want to get along with others and coexist in a world where there are many differences of opinion and belief, it’s important to have a good sense of how others came to those conclusions, be able to assess other opinions neutrally, and know not only when to give them their due but also how far is too far in polite society. (WP:NPOV, WP:UNDUE)
  • You can’t make rules for everything, and some degree of flexibility based on your surroundings will be necessary to thrive in surroundings you cannot control. Not every community will have the same standards, so it’s in your best interest to be alert for these differences and conduct oneself accordingly. (WP:CONSENSUS)
  • Finally, no matter how worthy the principles you decide to live by, it’s simply a fact that not everyone you’ll come across will agree to them, or act the same even if they voice agreement with them. When you’re dealing with human beings who have their own objectives, passions, prejudices and prerogatives, a certain comfortability with uncertainty and disagreement is as necessary as any of the rules preceding this one.

♦     ♦     ♦

So, does all this mean Wikipedia is perfect? Heck, no! What I mean is that it’s an excellent place not just to soak up the sum of all human knowledge, but also to learn how to conduct oneself in a society riven with conflict and ambiguity, where might sometimes seems to make right and in the end all one can really be certain about having the power to safeguard is one’s own integrity. Maybe that’s a dim view of the world, but when you consider all the bad things that happen every day, you know, getting into (and out of) an edit war on Wikipedia is a relatively safe and surprisingly practical way to learn some key lessons about life. In another ten years’ time, I’m sure I’ll have learned some more.

Wikipedia is Not Therapy, but it Has its Benefits

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on May 20, 2016 at 4:20 pm

That Wikipedia can be a toxic environment is not lost on many editors who’ve stuck around awhile, and likely even fewer who decide to walk away from the project. Wikipedia has rules—mandatory policies, even—requiring civility and prohibiting harassment, but in a community that prizes free speech and values second chances, these admonitions to good behavior are rarely taken seriously.

The impact this can have on the mental health of key contributors became a heated topic this week, so in the spirit of contributing to a better environment, The Wikipedian is running this guest post—not our first, but it’s been awhile!—from friend of the blog and The Wikipedia Library founder Jake Orlowitz, in this memoir-commentary about the other half of the equation, Wikipedia’s ability to uplift:

♦     ♦     ♦

Journey of a Wikipedian

There’s no one moment when you go insane;

not when

you find yourself crying into a phone behind a closet door

or tapping your foot to neutralize thoughts you can’t handle

or sleeping on a bed of worn clothes on a hard floor

or when the police officer pulls you over again for driving

up and back the same stretch of highway, six times

and not when you physically crack the monitor in a dark room for no reason even though it was the only light left in a night’s center as you tap away at keys throughout the silence

But you occasionally get a glimpse of someone else realizing that, “you’ve lost it”.

It was probably fall 2010. My dad turned the knob on the attic bathroom door in the house where I had grown up, and the reaction on his face was devastated. He didn’t know that no other room in the house, or the country, felt safe to me, that the warm water soothed and wetted the dry, frigid air, that my laptop was balanced purposefully so that it would fall backwards onto the tile rather than into the hip-high water, and that I had chosen the back wall of the tub for its ergonomic watchlist-monitoring suitability.

He didn’t know that. He just saw his 27-year old son, feverishly tinkering with electronics on the edge of a full bath, completely nude, oblivious to anything else, or anything wrong. He also didn’t know that I was helping lead the Egyptian revolution.

That too sounds insane, but as the calendar flipped into January 2011, the new year brought millions to Egypt’s streets. A boy had gone missing, turned up in a morgue clearly beaten beyond breath by police. Facebook pages organized gatherings that filled immense public squares. Protests turned into uprising turned into revolution.

And I, alongside 4 exceptionally dedicated editors from 3 different continents, monitored the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Wikipedia article 24-hours-a-day with equipoise and fervor. We yearned for Mubarak to fall, but in the newsroom which the article’s talkpage had become, we were vigilantly checking multiple independent reports before inputting any new words onto the growing page, scouring the article for flourishes of revolutionary support. The world would come here to find the facts; those that would dispassionately drive understanding without embellishment or motivation, for the hundreds of thousands of people reading that page each day. And I would make sure of it. From my bathtub.

There’s also no one time when sanity returns, if there is such a defined state. But suffice to say that it builds upon moments.

Like the moment when you start chatting off-channel to a Wikipedian on irc-help, just to talk to someone again. Or when you put on a suit for the first time in 6 years, to give a talk on conflict-of-interest to a gathering of pr folks at a posh downtown bar. Or when you step into the hostel at Wikimania in 2012 in D.C. and meet Stu Geiger, your coincidental bunkmate, and instantly recognize his familiar, Wikipedian-ite, eclectic genius.

The moments gather momentum though. Soon you are calling up major media companies to ask for donations. Not as Jake, or that guy who lost a decade in his 20’s, or the model teenager who lapsed into dysfunction and veered ‘off course’. But calling rather, as a piece-of-Wikipedia… Do you know what doors that opens?

The drama of recovery shouldn’t be overly simplified into highlights. It was just as much my psychiatrist’s expert balancing — seeking of psychic neutrality — with a fine and formidable mix of anxiolytics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and sleep aids. Not too high, not too low. Not too moody, not too flat. Every pill presented a trade-off, but we found a consensus pharmacology that worked.

My parents made sure that my rock bottom was somewhere safe.

My friends’ surprise visits reminded me that there was fun yet to be had.

The diagnoses I received were varied and all increasingly off-the mark. I was bipolar, but generally calm through even the grittiest edit wars. I was agoraphobic and socially anxious, but traveling to Hong Kong and Quebec and Berlin for meetups with strangers from myriad countries. I was depressed, but could not control an urge to improve a bit of Wikipedia, every day, most of the day.

They say that Wikipedia is NotTherapy. It’s a serious place to write an encyclopedia, not to iron out one’s mental kinks or cracks. But I think that’s wrong. No one knew me on Wikipedia, except for my words, the wisdom of my input, and the value of my contributions. They couldn’t care less if I was manic, phobic, delusional, or hysterical. It just didn’t matter. They didn’t see that part of me.

So I got to build my identity, my confidence, my vocation — with longwinded eloquent analyses, meticulous bibliographies, and copious rewrites of difficult subjects.

They also say that Wikipedia is Not a social network, but that’s wrong too. In the 8 years since I started editing, first in my car outside a Starbucks, and then throughout the dull shifts of a mountain-town Staples store where I squatted for wifi, and then still more through 3 years back at home under blankets between dusk and dawn, I met hundreds of people with whom I shared the same passion. I received, quite marvelously, 49 barnstars from peers, friends, and fans. There wasn’t a bigger or better sense of validation.

Jake OrlowitzI received two incomparable partners, to build a Wikipedia Library that I created and had become the head of. I received a job offer, with wellness benefits. I also received, in the grand sense of things, an irrepressible, stunning and brilliant girlfriend and her exuberant 5-year old daughter into my life.

You see, Wikipedia brings people together. It brought me together. It just takes some time for everyone to get their heads on straight, before they can see that their lives too have a mission, and an [edit] button.

■     ■     ■

A few thoughts to remember, for online collaborators, or any collaborator, really:

  1. We are a community of very real people with deep emotions and human complexities.
  2. We are deeply invested in our project, so much so it hurts us at times even if it is also a passion or refuge for many.
  3. You never know what someone has been through, or is going through.
  4. We all need help at some point. There is no shame in needing help, asking for help, or receiving help.
  5. If you are ever feeling completely hopeless: Wait. Things really can get better. Talk to someone about it.
  6. Mental health carries a powerful stigma. The more we are open about it, the less that weighs all of us down.
  7. If we listen, we can learn from each other.
  8. We need to be kind. This is a higher calling than civility, and entirely compatible with achieving our goals.
  9. Our movement depends on its people. We are our most valuable resource.
  10. We are not finished products. With time, space, support, and practice — people can, and do, grow and change.

If you ever see someone in need of help, or are seeking it yourself, please contact one of many available 24-hour emergency hotlines, or just dial the local emergency number for your area.

— Jake Orlowitz, User:Ocaasi, @JakeOrlowitz

This text is licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0. It can be shared or reposted without permission under the terms of the Creative Commons license, which requires only attribution and that reusers keep the same license.

Orlowitz post originally published in a slightly different form on Medium.

Image by Christopher Schwarzkopf via Wikimedia Commons.

A Modest Proposal for Wikimedia’s Future

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on March 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm

On February 25, Lila Tretikov, the embattled executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), finally tendered her resignation. Though an interim successor would not be named until March 10,[1]it is Katherine Maher, previously WMF’s head of communications the Wikimedia movement breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Tretikov’s twenty-two month tenure produced the greatest organizational crisis in Wikimedia’s history.[2]For background, see: an exhaustive timeline by Molly White (User:Gorilla Warfare) with, as she writes, “immense help from many other people”; The Wikipedia Signpost‘s examination of the key issues, “The WMF’s age of discontent” (January 6); and two posts on this blog, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street” (January 11) and “Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov” (February 19). The full story is still the subject of intense disagreement, which later I will argue should be the focus of an official outside audit. Her leadership will be remembered for poor communication, worse management, rapid and unannounced changes in strategy, and a lack of transparency that produced an atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety, one which finally overwhelmed and brought the Tretikov era to an acrimonious end.

Most of all, Lila Tretikov will be remembered for the precipitous decline in staff morale that sent more than two dozen key employees and executives for the exits. The loss of talent, relationships, and institutional memory is devastating, and it is not something the Wikimedia Foundation will recover from soon.

I suggest maybe the WMF should not recover and rebuild itself, at least not exactly like it was. Acknowledging this modest proposal stands to be controversial,[3]possibly just ignored I believe in this tragedy lies an opportunity for the Wikimedia Foundation to reconstitute itself in a way better suited for the challenges facing it at this point in its history.

This would be a WMF that recognizes its primary mission is educational, one that is willing to reconsider what responsibilities it keeps for itself vs. what works better distributed among its affiliates. I argue in this post that it should split its executive leadership into two roles and spin off certain core functions into standalone organizations. Doing so would allow for better transparency, create more opportunities for “WMF-Community” cooperation, and perhaps offer a chance for volunteers to seek a career path within the movement.

The Wikimedia Foundation does not need to do big things. It needs to create an environment for big things to happen.

♦     ♦     ♦

If the WMF is going to reconsider its organizational structure, this is certainly the time to do it. The forest fire of Tretikov’s tenure creates a unique and unexpected opportunity to plant anew. Other questions are already being explored: what will Wikimedia’s next five-year-plan say?[4]The current draft is available for review, and is mostly interesting for its differences from the last version: gone are mentions of “innovation” and “infrastructure”—two things the ill-fated Knowledge Engine could plausibly be accused of representing—while notions of growing the user base and improving quality have been downplayed. Should Jimmy Wales continue to hold his semi-permanent seat on the Board? Are the processes for selecting and vetting the three groups of Board trustees still adequate, the underlying assumptions still operative? How can the Board be induced to act transparently? The Wikimedia Conference coming up in April should be interesting, if not explosive.

All of these are very difficult and important questions, and yet I strongly suggest opening another conversation about the size and scope of WMF responsibilities going forward.[5]I also think five years is too narrow a scope to best plan for the Wikimedia movement’s future, although the current draft says nothing about time frames. Why should the WMF consider radically re-envisioning its organizational structure? Because the WMF as it exists was created to solve a different problem than the one we have now.

When the WMF was launched in 2003, two years after Wikipedia’s creation, “Wikimedia” was a retconned neologism coined to describe a wide-ranging movement not yet fully baked. The WMF was needed to create a backbone for these efforts and give its global volunteer base a strong sense of direction. Under Sue Gardner, the WMF was successful in fulfilling this role.

The present WMF has become, in the pithiest description possible, a fundraising organization in support of a nonprofit web development company and a small-grant issuing organization. To a lesser degree, it has also funded community outreach and the development of membership chapters around the world.

Wikipedia, in its many languages and numerous sister projects—the larger Wikimedia movement with which this post is really concerned—has succeeded in becoming the world’s free resource for knowledge, however imperfect it can be. Maintaining this is a different kind of challenge, and it is inherently a defensive one. Indeed, there is much to defend, and the threats are not imagined.

The first challenge is the changing Internet: Wikipedia’s software and culture came from an Internet dominated by desktop computers accessing the World Wide Web. Today, Internet activity has moved to mobile devices, increasingly inside of apps, which are of course closed platforms. Though WMF’s mobile efforts have come a long way, they are fighting upstream against several currents no one imagined in 2001. The idea of collaboration is as strong as ever, but its tools become weaker all the time.

The second challenge is WMF culture. The Tretikov disaster reveals weaknesses in two of the WMF’s most important functions: the raising of money[6]Knight Foundation and the allocating of money.[7]Knowledge Engine In addition, as described in varying degrees of detail by former staffers, under Tretikov the Foundation had become a toxic workplace environment—but the truth is it had structural issues even before that. Finally, the edifice of a nearly 300-person staff created a kind of intrigue—“Montgomerology”[8]hat tip: Liam Wyatt—that plays out daily on Wikimedia-l,[9]for the uninitiated: a semi-public mailing list populated by Wikimedians; lately the semi-private Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group has formed another locus of discussion and which this blog is frankly obsessed with. Which, I acknowledge, isn’t exactly healthy.

The third challenge, not unrelated, is Wikimedia culture. The English Wikipedia’s volunteer community, the movement’s largest and most influential bloc, is deeply set in its ways. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s extraordinarily high profile contributes to a reluctance to tinker with, let alone radically rethink, how it conducts its business. And several bold initiatives developed within the WMF—including good ideas like the Visual Editor, debatable ideas like the Media Viewer, and bad ideas like the Knowledge Engine—have been received poorly by the community.

In all three cases, solving these problems are more than any one executive can handle alone.

♦     ♦     ♦

So what should happen? First, an apology from the Board of Trustees is definitely in order. Tretikov’s failure is entirely on them as Wikimedia’s ultimate corporate authority. Second, an audit / accounting of the failures of recent years. Wikimedia UK was required to do one following the Gibraltarpedia controversy; what’s good for the chapter is even better for the foundation.

Third, the Board of Trustees should split the role of executive director into two positions: a president and provost, like universities do.[10]Being an educational project, WMF should look to similar institutions for guidance. One becomes the “head of state”, handling the public and fundraising efforts, while the other handles administration and operations. Wikipedia’s high profile means that representing its value and values to the outside world is a full-time job. Regardless of whether Jimmy Wales remains a trustee, Wikipedia needs a new mascot, and it should identify a charismatic leader for this role, who may or may not come from the Wikimedia community. The provost position would be focused on grantmaking, community outreach, and long-term strategy. They must be a good manager and internal communicator, but need not be a big personality. And this person absolutely must come from the Wikimedia movement.

Fourth, and the really hard part, would be the voluntary dispossession of core Wikimedia movement functions from the central organization. The WMF should keep only what is mission critical—fundraising and grantmaking[11]legal and communications, too, of course—and spin off the rest.[12]It has done this once before: that’s the origin story of the Wiki Education Foundation. WMF grants should fund these newly independent foundations, encouraging a reinvigorated support for community-driven organizations.

What is the basis for considering smaller organization sizes? From a theoretical perspective, there’s Dunbar’s number. The larger an organization becomes, the harder it is for everyone to know everyone else and understand what they’re doing. In the business world, this has been seen in the arrested development of agglomeration, once large corporations realized they had become slow and bureaucracy-laden.[13]Anyone else remember The Onion‘s “Just Six Corporations Remain”? Critics of corporate consolidation were caught as flat-footed as the conglomerates they disdained when spin-offs became ever more popular. This is also an operating principle at Amazon, where they call it the “two-pizza rule”.[14]“Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.”

From a practical perspective, the WMF’s behemoth status suits neither its day-to-day operations nor its perceptions by the wider community. As detailed by recently departed veteran staffer Oliver Keyes in The Wikipedia Signpost last month, systemic problems with hiring, promotions, and HR in general were an issue at the WMF well before Tretikov’s arrival. Meanwhile, the WMF itself seems unapproachable, simply too much for anyone to wrap their heads around. Indeed the WMF itself is a conglomerate, of a kind. Creating more community space around its current departments would make each more accessible, generating more “WMF-Community” interactions. This would help greatly with transparency, and make it far easier to start new initiatives.

It all sounds pretty radical—and I’m not saying it isn’t!—but there are good reasons to think a new organizational structure could work. The argument against ultimately relies on an appeal to familiarity, bolstered by inertia.

♦     ♦     ♦

With the caveat that I have never worked at the Wikimedia Foundation, nor in non-profit governance even for a minute, I won’t let that stop me from taking a crack at some specifics. What I write below is merely one way to go about it, and I encourage others—especially those with real WMF experience—to offer their view in the comments. Let’s go:

Among the WMF’s first major grants should be to the new Wikimedia Technology Foundation, containing the current Technology and Product teams. There is no critical reason why it needs to live in the same house as fundraising, and it would benefit from a strong leader with community ties—which it has not had for a long time. After all, even as we’re now sure Discovery is working not on a Google-killer but merely improved site search, it still ranks very low compared to other community-enumerated goals. Doing so would make its efforts more useful to everyday editors, and give it the latitude to develop for the next generation of Wikipedia editors. An early initiative of this spinoff should be to think about how to position Wikipedia for the mobile web and even to consider partnerships with today’s media orgs—not so much the New York Times and CNN, but Facebook and Snapchat.

More complex would be the evolution of Community Engagement, encompassing grantmaking and outreach. WMF grantmaking has nearly always been hampered by thinking too small and funding projects too dispersed and under-staffed to be effective. Through its chapters, user groups, and various grantmaking committees it funds projects for not quite enough money which are basically nights-and-weekends projects, from which very few can draw compensation, thereby limiting their ambitions and achievements.

So while the core function of grantmaking should stay with the provost at the slimmed down WMF, the bulk of its activity should happen outside its walls. And the way this would happen is by the creation of a more ambitious grantmaking operation whose mission is to nurture and develop mini-foundations modeled on GLAM-Wiki US, the Wiki Education Foundation, and WikiProject Med Foundation. Rather than there being one new foundation for community outreach, this needs to be a core capability of every mini-foundation that receives WMF funding.

Among the key projects necessary to a healthy and functioning Wikimedia movement that could benefit from a devolved organization and dedicated funding: The Wikipedia Signpost, which is heroically staffed entirely by volunteers; the Wikimania conference, the locus of numerous organizational failures in recent years; Wikimedia chapter management: the model of volunteer support currently practiced focuses too much on geographic concerns at the expense of thematic topics, with considerable overlap.

Another might be content development: if you look at Wikipedia’s complete list of featured articles, it is arguable the only article categories supported by existing foundations are “art and architecture”, “education” and “health and medicine”, served, respectively, by the three model organizations listed above. Adapting from the list, this leaves dozens of top-level categories unserved by a formal organization, and decreasingly supported as the informal “wikiproject” has withered in recent years.[15]Very few wikiprojects continue to thrive, and the ones that do—Military history and Video games—inadvertently perpetuate Wikipedia’s problems with systemic bias. By creating formal structures with specific outreach to associations and universities along these lines, Wikipedia can create more opportunities for outreach and collaboration.

What’s more, it would create opportunities for Wikimedians, particularly its younger cohort, to choose a career within the movement. Presently, there are too few jobs at libraries and museums to make use of all this talent. While conflict of interest (COI) issues will be justifiably considered, these fears are generally overblown. Nowhere in Wikipedia’s policies or guidelines—and certainly not in the Five Pillars—does it say that Wikipedia must be volunteer-only, and creating staff positions will actually reduce the likelihood editors will “sell out”. Wikimedia has long passed a point of diminishing returns on the volunteer-only model. And you know what? It isn’t entirely that now. We already live in a “mixed economy”, and we owe it to our community members to expand their opportunities. There’s no reason software programmers should be the only ones to earn a living working on Wikimedia projects.

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Can I summarize all this in a paragraph? I think so: a small constellation of well-funded Wikimedia Foundation spinoffs, each with a strong sense of mission, focused narrowly on the movement’s needs stands a better chance of working more efficiently among themselves and offers many more touch points for the community itself to be involved. Through that, transparency can be improved, both at the WMF parent org and within a reinvigorated movement organized around professionally staffed, standalone foundations doing what each does best. In the gaps between them and the WMF, new opportunities for community involvement would arise for the benefit of all.

Wikimedia is vast, with an incredible diversity of talents and resources. It contains multitudes, and its organizational structure should reflect that.

Notes   [ + ]

1. it is Katherine Maher, previously WMF’s head of communications
2. For background, see: an exhaustive timeline by Molly White (User:Gorilla Warfare) with, as she writes, “immense help from many other people”; The Wikipedia Signpost‘s examination of the key issues, “The WMF’s age of discontent” (January 6); and two posts on this blog, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street” (January 11) and “Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov” (February 19). The full story is still the subject of intense disagreement, which later I will argue should be the focus of an official outside audit.
3. possibly just ignored
4. The current draft is available for review, and is mostly interesting for its differences from the last version: gone are mentions of “innovation” and “infrastructure”—two things the ill-fated Knowledge Engine could plausibly be accused of representing—while notions of growing the user base and improving quality have been downplayed.
5. I also think five years is too narrow a scope to best plan for the Wikimedia movement’s future, although the current draft says nothing about time frames.
6. Knight Foundation
7. Knowledge Engine
8. hat tip: Liam Wyatt
9. for the uninitiated: a semi-public mailing list populated by Wikimedians; lately the semi-private Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group has formed another locus of discussion
10. Being an educational project, WMF should look to similar institutions for guidance.
11. legal and communications, too, of course
12. It has done this once before: that’s the origin story of the Wiki Education Foundation.
13. Anyone else remember The Onion‘s “Just Six Corporations Remain”?
14. “Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.”
15. Very few wikiprojects continue to thrive, and the ones that do—Military history and Video games—inadvertently perpetuate Wikipedia’s problems with systemic bias.

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.

How the Apple Watch—and Ted Danson—Can Save Wikipedia

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on May 18, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Ted Danson on Apple Watch by The WikipedianAfter a week with an Apple Watch on my wrist, I’m leaning strongly toward the conclusion that the smartwatch (or something very much like it) is going to be part of our daily lives for a long time to come. Certain simple tasks are in fact more convenient if never more than an arm’s length away, with less fiddling than a smartphone requires. Right now, for me, it’s text messages. Soon, it could be any number of things.

I suspect that looking up basic facts on Wikipedia is a good candidate for this type of in-the-moment (and what-the-hell) information gathering:

What exactly was the Missouri Compromise again?

What is the capital of Bavaria?

What sitcom was Ted Danson on after Cheers?

After all, one of Wikipedia’s most common but least advertised purposes is the settling of bar bets.

If the Apple Watch had an app to facilitate quick information retrieval of this sort, I’d probably use it. And I’m intrigued by the New York Times watch app, for which the paper’s writers actually prepare brief, two to three sentence summaries of stories. If you want to read more, it’s no trouble to open it up on your phone, but you’ve already got the gist. By my count, the Apple Watch comfortably fits approximately 25 words on the screen at a time. Below, what a story looks like on my wrist in this morning’s edition:

NYT Apple Watch app

But Wikipedia sure isn’t set up to deliver information like this. Over time, in fact, Wikipedia entries have tended toward maximalism. To demonstrate the point, let’s return to Ted Danson because, well, why wouldn’t you be curious about Ted Danson? Here are the first 25 words of Danson’s Wikipedia biography as of this writing:

Edward Bridge “Ted” Danson III (born December 29, 1947) is an American actor, author, and producer, well known for his role as lead character Sam

What have we learned?

  1. Danson’s middle name is Bridge and he is a son of a Jr.—uh, I guess that’s some OK trivia
  2. His birthday is two days before New Year’s Eve—quickly, subtract his birthday from the current year!
  3. He is an author and a producer—although if I asked ten friends to describe Danson for me, not one would ever choose to include “author” or “producer”

And we haven’t even got to Cheers yet! (Since you’re slightly forgetful and obviously wondering, the name of Danson’s follow-up series was Becker.) Clearly, the goal here is not to impart information quickly. Thoroughness makes sense on the desktop, and does just fine on most mobile devices (the official Wikipedia mobile apps are quite nice, certainly to read on), but it makes no sense on the wrist.

This sounds to me like an amazing opportunity for the Wikipedia community. One problem in recent years has been the simple fact that most articles which should exist already do (4.83 million and slowing!). The software design and social dynamics of wikis are ideal for rapid collaboration and creation of articles, but maintenance, including updates, rewrites, and debates over specific content is much more frustrating and less obviously rewarding. No wonder editors are drifting away.

Apple Watch by Yasunobu IkedaBecause the wearable platform, to the extent that it has a significant future—and to be fair with you I don’t know for certain that it does, but yes, I am bullish—represents a different mode of information consumption, well, a whole new 4.83 million entries will need to be written. Instead of aiming for scientific exactitude, they’ll need to be informative and concise: topic summarized in 25 words, including as few sentences as possible for more context. Of course, a watch app would need to be created. (And the Wikimedia Foundation would probably develop first for Android Wear, but iOS and Watchkit wouldn’t be far behind.)

It might bring back former contributors, who had left after opportunities to create new things dried up. Better still, it might provide an easy point of access for new, younger contributors, who have never had the point of entry as those who started editing in the project’s early years. At last year’s Wikimania, game designer Raph Koster suggested (only half-joking) an occasional “forest fire” of content deletion, in order to create new tasks for restless editors. For those of us who attended, the appeal was obvious but the reasons it would never happen were even more so. But instead of clearing new land, we might instead have discovered an extensive new archipelago.

So, here’s my suggestion for Edward Bridge Danson III:

Ted Danson (age 67) is an American actor best known for his lead role as bartender Sam Malone for 11 seasons of TV sitcom Cheers.

Note, that’s 25 words exactly.

Danson currently stars on TV procedural CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and before that led the sitcom Becker for six seasons.

Other appearances include the film Three Men and a Baby, TV series Damages, and on Curb Your Enthusiasm (as himself).

Danson is married to actress Mary Steenburgen. In the 1990s, he was famously involved with comedian Whoopi Goldberg.

Note, each of those paragraphs is 20 words or fewer. Now, you may disagree with some detail selection. I haven’t told you he was born in San Diego, or about his early TV appearances, or about Three Men and a Little Lady, but that’s really not necessary and, besides, I think you’ve got a pretty good idea who Ted Danson is. Would you like to know more? Follow a link back to the full version on your phone.

Ted-Danson-Navigtation-PopupHow would this actually be implemented? I’ll be honest, someone more technically inclined than myself would have to figure this out. But it would minimally require the creation of a new parameter or sub-page associated with every public-facing article. A second step would be creating a user-friendly interface; perhaps a project page on Wikipedia that provides links to random articles needing the creation of short entries. It might be something to integrate with Wikidata, but I wouldn’t be the first to confess my ineptitude with Wikidata.

Does WMF’s engineering team have the wherewithal to make this happen? Good question! And one I cannot answer. However, with a staff including seven people on the mobile app team, plus eight more focused on desktop and mobile web experience, I’m going out on a limb and saying a new article sub-page, editor-facing project page, and watch app could be added to the workflow. (What’s that about Flow? Nothing… nothing…)

Isn’t this what navigation pop-ups and hovercards do? No, not really. The pop-ups are nice enough but are pre-populated from the intro to each entry itself. Perhaps the hovercards and pop-ups should actually display text from the wearable version instead, but perhaps not. They also are not enabled automatically, so most of you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

Isn’t this what Simple Wikipedia does? Sort of, but not quite. Simple Wikipedia indeed provides shorter versions of Wikipedia entries. Its target audience is supposed to be children and ESL students, although I suspect its primary use is Wikipedians amusing themselves. Twelve years into its existence, it only has about 113,000 entries. One of them in fact is Ted Danson, but his biography there was only visited about 70 times in April 2015, whereas his biography on the main English Wikipedia was accessed almost 35,000 times. Also, about that entry:

Screenshot 2015-05-18 11.03.45

Et tu, Simple Wikipedia?

Imagine: a project to write Wikipedia short! And to write part of Wikipedia that hasn’t been done yet! It wouldn’t require too much back end work, it would have Wikipedia boldly making a small bet on the big potential for a new platform, and it might even create a “new gold rush” of content creation across Wikipedia, both in English and its many foreign language projects.

And so I turn the question to the Wikipedians in my audience: what’s the next step?

Photo illustration by The Wikipedian; Apple Watch image by Justin14; Ted Danson photo by Rob Dicaterino; Apple Watch by Yasunobu Ikeda; Wikipedia images via Wikimedia Foundation and ⌘-⇧-4.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2014

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on January 5, 2015 at 1:54 pm

Every twelve months the Gregorian calendar resets itself, and I pull together a roundup of the most important events, happenings and newsworthy items that marked the previous year on Wikipedia. I’ve done this each year since 2010 and, the last two times, I went so long that I split the post into two. This time, I tried to keep it short. In the end, I just kept it to one post. Which I guess counts as short for The Wikipedian. So let’s get started!

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10. The Ballad of Wil Sinclair

Look, I don’t like it any more than you do that we’re beginning here, but we can’t pretend this didn’t happen. What happened? Soon after the Wikimedia Foundation picked its new executive director, Lila Tretikov, and before she actually took over from Sue Gardner, Tretikov’s spouse showed up on the foundation’s email list, and in other forums, and made his presence known. Wil came across as a decent fellow at first, then a bit obsessive, and then he made common cause with critics of the Wikimedia project at Wikipediocracy, and it threatened to overwhelm Tretikov’s tenure before it really got underway. By the summer, however, Wil Sinclair largely withdrew from online commentary about Wikipedia, and the controversy appears to have died with it.

9. Oh yeah, that Belfer Center thing…

320px-Belfer_CenterOne of Wikipedia’s eternal themes involves conflict of interest. As a public good, Wikipedia has significant potential to affect private fortunes, for good or ill, and this is not the last time you’ll hear about it in this list. One of the more unusual (and alarming) manifestations of the conundrum involved the Wikimedia Foundation working with the Stanton Foundation and Belfer Center at Harvard University to create a paid position, funded by mega-donor Stanton, coordinated by WMF, which had the effect of boosting the professional reputation of Belfer’s president. Oh, did you know the principals at Stanton and Belfer are husband and wife? Yeah, that kind of changes things. Blame seemed to follow Gardner out the door, but Wikipedia’s difficulty in forming partnerships with other non-profits continues.

8. Wikipedia gets a facelift

Nearly four years after Wikipedia updated its default look from the Monobook skin[1]Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me? to the current Vector, the site got another new look, albeit a more subtle one. Specifically, article titles and headings within pages were updated from a sans-serif typeface to a serif typeface. Goodbye Helvetica, hello Georgia! (At least in the headings.) You can never really underestimate Wikipedians’ resistance to change, and so a debate naturally ensued. Following the usual expected gripes, holdouts presumably switched their personal preferences to the old style, and the new look has become the accepted standard.

7. Jimbo’s UAE prize money

This is the most recent item on the list; in fact, I wrote about it just last week. In short, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, accepted a $500,000 cash prize from the government of the UAE, which has a dismal human rights record. Wales received criticism from members of the Wikipedia community and questions from at least one news outlet. Wales then announced he was going to give the money to charity, or maybe start a foundation, and claimed this was his plan all along, denying what seemed to everyone else like a simple matter of cause-and-effect. Even if Wales does start a new organization, there’s not much evidence to suggest it will go anywhere.

6. Wikipedia’s education program grows up

Wiki_Education_Foundation_logoIf there’s a happier balance to the unfortunate Belfer situation, let’s say it’s the maturation of the Wiki Education Foundation. Beginning as an in-house program in 2010, the organization spun off on its own in February 2014 under the leadership of WMF veteran Frank Schulenburg. In my 2010 list, “Wikipedia in education” was the fourth item, remarking that the two communities appeared to be at a turning point: back then, teachers’ attitude toward Wikipedia had until then been one of fear and loathing, but nowadays more and more universities are offering course credit for improving Wikipedia articles. While the WEF and its predecessor program can’t take all of the credit—and sure, student plagiarism is still an issue—it does go to show that the Wikipedia community can solve at least some of its problems, and well-considered partnerships can play an important role.

5. Who doesn’t love some CongressEdits?

It’s almost hard to believe it took until summer 2014 for someone to realize you could attach an RSS feed of changes to Wikipedia articles coming from IP addresses belonging to the U.S. Congress to a Twitter account, thereby publishing an obscure list in a very public way, but that’s exactly what happened. Actually, the UK-focused @ParliamentEdits account was first, and accounts focused on other countries’ legislatures soon followed, but @CongressEdits made the biggest splash. In each case, journalists latched on to amusing nonsense and legitimately concerning changes both, and the U.S. Congressional IP was blocked for a time. It wasn’t the first time this has happened; it wasn’t even a new revelation that congressional staffers edit Wikipedia for ill (and good!) but this was too much fun to ignore.

4. Can PR and Wikipedia just get along?

Full disclosure: I have a huge conflict of interest with this topic; as readers of this site are surely aware, this was a big project for me last year. Last February, I brought together an ad hoc group of digital PR executives, Wikipedia veterans, and interested academics (some folks fell into more than one category) for an all-day roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, to talk about the differences and commonalities between the Wikipedia community and communications industry. Out of that emerged a multi-agency statement spelling out a set of principles that participating firms would adopt, a sort of open letter to Wikipedia stating their intention to follow its rules and help their colleagues and clients do the same. We started with about 10 agencies signed, and the list more than tripled by late summer. It was a good start—but a significantly better situation is still a long way off.

3. New (and improved?) Terms of Use

240px-Wikimedia_Foundation_RGB_logo_with_textRelated to number 4, but developing separately, was the Wikimedia Foundation’s announcement—mere days after the multi-agency statement was published—that the non-profit was amending its Terms of Use for the first time since anyone could remember (give or take) in order to require anyone paid for their contributions to disclose their affiliations. The decision grew out of legal uncertainties revealed by the Wiki-PR controversy (covered in this list last year) and was not unanticipated. Like all other seemingly minor changes, it was challenged by community veterans who believed it would have negative consequences for non-marketers compensated for involvement in Wikipedia, among other complaints. But if that’s happened, it hasn’t been visible. Chilling effects are not to be discounted, but there’s no evidence yet that any worst case scenarios have come to pass. Instead, it merely codified best practices that have been around for years: it used to be, if you have a conflict of interest, you were best advised to disclose it. Now you must.

2. The Media Viewer controversy

It seems like every year now I have to reserve a prominent spot for a major argument between the Wikipedia community and the San Francisco-based software-development and outreach-focused non-profit created to support it (the WMF). Last year, my top story focused on the divisive internal battles over the Visual Editor—a big change that did not remain the default for long. The year before, it was a somewhat different argument over whether to take a stand on SOPA / PIPA legislation. This summer, the Visual Editor argument essentially repeated itself. This time the debate centered on the Media Viewer and whether it should be default for logged-in and non-logged-in users—that is, whether readers who clicked on an image should see it come up on a page with metadata readily visible, as it always had been, or whether they should see it in a lightbox, and if site editors and mere readers should see the same thing. No sense getting into the details, because I lack the six hours necessary to produce a worthwhile summary. However, let’s observe that consensus in July seemed to be that it should be turned off by default. But I just checked, and indeed it’s the default, logged-in or not. In other words: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

1. Lila Tretikov and Wikipedia’s uncertain future

It seems like you can’t so much as create a piped wikilink disambiguation redirect these days without running into another media think piece about the state of Wikipedia. MIT Technology Review was ahead of the curve with an October 2013 story on the “decline of Wikipeda”. In March, The Economist jumped in with the tortured coinage “WikiPeaks” (although they quoted me, so I nonetheless approve). Slate has gone in for this kind of coverage at least twice, first in June with a contribution by longtime Wikipedian Dariusz Jemielniak, and then from staff writer David Auerbach in December. In late 2014, former Reason editor Virginia Postrel turned it into a whodunnit: “Who Killed Wikipedia?

Lila_Tretikov_16_April_2014Am I missing any? Probably, but they mostly tell the same story: Wikipedia is too bureaucratic; its editors are rude to each other and more so to outsiders; that might have something to do with the fact that it’s pretty much all white guys; old editors are choosing to quit; new editors aren’t replacing them fast enough; the community and the foundation are at each others’ throats; Wikipedia has too much money and too little direction. Without further ado, let me say, welcome to your first year as Wikimedia Executive Director, Lila Tretikov!

Pretty much all of the questions that I asked upon Sue Gardner’s announced departure nearly two years ago are still in play, only more so. I summed up a lot of this in a post from November 2013, “Wikipedia on the Brink?” If there’s any good news, it’s that Wikipedia is still, well, on the brink. It hasn’t fallen off a cliff, certainly. In some ways it’s more successful than ever. But ask a longtime veteran of either the volunteer community or its San Francisco non-profit how things are going—catch them on their way out the door, if necessary—and you’ll find any number of concerns, including some I either haven’t heard or am simply forgetting.

It’s not entirely up to Lila Tretikov what Wikipedia’s future will be, however she has more power than anyone—including even Uncle Jimbo—to steer a new direction. Will the foundation keep making grants and developing software that its community doesn’t seem to like? Will she keep trying to grow the community as it currently exists, or seek to expand it in unexpected ways? Wikipedia is no longer a hot new (not-for-profit) startup, but a maturing organization stuck in comfortable old ways that may be holding it back. Here’s hoping some answers to these questions will start to emerge in 2015.

♦     ♦     ♦

Previous years’ top ten Wikipedia stories can be found here:

♦     ♦     ♦

Belfer Center image by Bostonian13; Wiki Education Foundation logo and Wikimedia Foundation logo courtesy the respective organization; Lila Tretikov photo by Lane Hartwell; all images via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me?

Jimmy Wales and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Prize Money

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on December 26, 2014 at 4:18 pm

“Jimmy Wales is Not an Internet Billionaire”

So went the tongue-in-cheek headline from a New York Times Magazine cover story about Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales in 2013—ill-treatment this blog mostly defended him from at the time. The profile included a (likely decontextualized) quote from then-Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner: “Everyone makes fun of Jimmy for leaving the money on the table.”

Eighteen months later, one has to think Wales would prefer the sort of light-hearted mockery received at the time to the kinds of questions being asked, albeit not too loudly at this point in time, about his current financial situation.

Jimmy Wales, 2013We pick up the story with this month’s comparatively under-reported news that Jimbo would split, with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a $1 million cash prize from the United Arab Emirates, pegged to a technology award named for the country’s monarch. One only has to skim the Wikipedia article “Human rights in the United Arab Emirates” to get an idea why some people, especially the idealistic sort who make up Wikipedia’s volunteer base, would find this so alarming.

On Jimmy Wales’ user page, the now-archived discussion ran to some 8,600 words, and the way it began—under the heading “Congratulations”, followed by cheery exhortations—differed greatly from how it ended—a contentious argument leading to the resurrection of old charges about Wales’ supposed ties to the government of Kazakhstan, which was eventually “closed” to further participation and “hatted”, i.e. hidden from view by default.

Soon after the well-wishes began piling up, the conversation abruptly shifted. An anonymous contributor claiming to be a student at the American University of Sharjah (with an IP address to match) chastised Wales for squandering an opportunity

to speak out for all Emiratis, and also those non-nationals who are forced into slave labour and have no rights. I am at risk by posting this very message. This is not how it should be Mr Wales. Instead, it appears you were bought for $500,000. You sold us out Mr Wales.

On December 11, below but not directly in reply, Wales wrote:

Every penny of the money will be used to combat human rights abuses worldwide with a specific focus on the Middle East and with a specific focus on freedom of speech / access to knowledge issues. Of course.

The first thing that I did upon returning to London was hire a human rights lawyer full-time to work for me for the next month on these issues. That may turn into a longer term thing, or it may not. As I say, I’m only at the beginning of figuring out the optimal strategic approach.

The mini-controversy was reported in The Daily Dot, a news publication focusing on the social Internet:

Wales made his intentions for the prize money public after pressure from Wikipedians who expressed dismay … In an email to the Daily Dot, Wales specifies that he never planned to keep the money and will use the funds to start his own foundation dedicated to furthering human rights.

But Wales objected to this description of events. Back on his own discussion page, Wales wrote on December 17:

I’ve written to [The Daily Dot] to correct the core error in the story – the false claim that this was done in response to pressure from Wikipedians. I started the process from the moment I was told about the prize, including hiring someone full-time to work on the question of how to best accomplish my goals.

As of this writing, the story has not been “corrected”, and there’s no reason to think one is warranted. If in fact there is no causal relationship, and Wales wants to be believed, he should produce some kind of evidence to substantiate his charges. With or without that, The Daily Dot’s story—that Wales announced his intentions after community pressure—would still have correlation going for it. After all, Wales’ first reply on his own discussion page was:

Thank you all. It’s pretty amazing. It’s actually split with Sir Tim Berners-Lee so not $1 million to me but still it’s impressive.

Does that sound like somebody who has hired a lawyer to help him start non-profit focused on human rights, or somebody contemplating the enjoyment of a sudden and unexpected windfall?

Of course.

Besides Burj Khalifathe Kazakhstan situation, which has always struck me like a misstep on the part of the Wikimedia Foundation and Wales both—seemingly a partnership entered into without a clear understanding of the situation—a few patterns are visible here.

Most superficially, Wales and The Daily Dot have a bit of history. While Wikipediocracy and The Register[1]Which at least thought to ask Sir Tim Berners-Lee how he planned to use the money, so give them credit for that. have self-identified themselves as Wikipedia critics and can therefore be dismissed more easily, The Daily Dot’s Wikipedia coverage has always struck me as skeptical and responsible, as a good news outlet should be.

That history involves The Daily Dot reporting, ironically, that Wales had not paid out prize money he had pledged to winners of his own “Wikipedian of the Year” award in years before. Based on my reading, it sounds like Wales, realizing he was called out, promised to correct the oversight without admitting he was doing so, choosing instead to insult the reporter as “not a real journalist”.[2]One of the award-winners was a Kazakh national, so the plot thickens, or maybe just congeals.

Similar to the above, I still remember at Wikimania 2013 in Hong Kong where, as I wrote in the days after:

    Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see.

Indeed, we’ve seen that Jimmy Wales has a way of letting things drop, and also his habit of handling criticism poorly. To be fair, I expect Jimmy Wales sees a ton of criticism almost every time he logs in to his Wikipedia account. Sometimes it’s justified, but plenty of it is nonsense. Putting up with irate Wikipedians for more than a decade must result in some kind of negative psychological build-up. On the other hand, it’s not a particularly good look for someone who is the public face of a globally-important non-profit.

While that hybrid journalism project never came to fruition, if I’m being honest, I doubt anyone really thought it would. Anyone who didn’t attend that Wikimania probably has no idea what I’m talking about. But hey, how about this human rights organization he’s talking about? No doubt, Wales has left himself an escape hatch, as he says the “full-time” (!) lawyer “may turn into a longer term thing, or it may not.” But if he is going to escape through it, let’s make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed.

And this non-profit, it has a chance, maybe? We don’t know what it would focus on, how it would go about doing so, or whether it could possibly be effective. But we can say this much: it has a famous spokesman, and it has a budget.

Jimmy Wales photo by Niccolò Caranti; Burj Khalifa photo by Nicolas Lannuzel; both via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Which at least thought to ask Sir Tim Berners-Lee how he planned to use the money, so give them credit for that.
2. One of the award-winners was a Kazakh national, so the plot thickens, or maybe just congeals.

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.

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.

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:

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

What I Did This Summer

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on September 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm

It’s been a few weeks since I last posted on The Wikipedian—at the time I had just finished covering Wikimania right here in Washington, DC, and I had made at least one promise to write a wrap-up post. Alas, that never happened: between work and travel and other obligations, I’m afraid “August 2012” will forever remain a blank spot in my archives. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. But there is a good reason, and one related—just a bit—to Wikipedia.

Over the last two years, and more intensively during the past two months, I have been working on a very large, personal project, and on Monday it was finally ready for release. It’s called The Infinite Atlas Project. As I’ve described it elsewhere, the goal is to identify, place, and describe every cartographic point I could find in David Foster Wallace’s iconic 1996 novel Infinite Jest—whether real, fictional, real but fictionalized, defunct or otherwise.

The project is tripartite, and the first part launched in mid-July: Infinite Boston, a photo tour hosted by Tumblr, which I’m writing daily through the end of this month. Launched just this week are two more ambitious efforts: a 24″x36″ poster called Infinite Map, plotting 250 key locations from the novel’s futuristic North America (and available for purchase, just FYI); and one not constrained by the dimensions of paper: Infinite Atlas, an interactive world map powered by Google Maps including all 600+ global locations that I was able to find with the help of my researchers (i.e. friends who had also read the novel). You can read much more about this on the Infinite Boston announcement post or on the Infinite Atlas “About” page, but here are screen shots of each:

Infinite Map     

Meanwhile, there are some aspects to the project that I think will be of interest to Wikipedians. For example, on the Infinite Atlas website, every entry that has a relevant Wikipedia article links back to it—whether to the exact location, such as the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School—or to the closest approximation, like the Neponset exit ramp, I-93 South. Among the development projects related to the online atlas, this was one of the last, but I think one of the most helpful. Yes, it’s interesting to the reader to be reminded that a key character stays at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, but it’s even more useful to confirm that McLean Hospital is a real place with more than 200 years of history. And both sites will tell you that DFW himself was a notable former patient.

Additionally, and importantly, the site is published under a Creative Commons license. For a research and art project based on a copyrighted fictional work—quoting judiciously and keeping fair use in mind, I stress—I figured it was important to disclaim any interest in preventing people from using it how they see fit—so long as they attribute and share-alike, of course. And another big reason for doing so: readers are invited to submit their own photos, so long as they are willing to approve their usage under the less-restrictive CC-BY license. If you live in one of the many locations around the world (though mostly in the U.S. and Canada) featured in the book, and now in the atlas, consider yourself invited to participate.

Live though these projects are, they are not finished and might not ever be. Which is part of the fun. And in that way like Wikipedia itself. Now maybe I’ll finally get around to fixing up the Infinite Jest Wikipedia entry and taking it to FA…

Two Wikipedia Co-Founders, Two Very Different Causes

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on June 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm

The Wikipedian has been occupied with other projects, and fairly quiet as of late. The good news is that, with the Wikimania global conference just around the corner, I’ll be writing more here in the near future. And I really do mean just around the corner: Wikimania 2012 will be held in the city I call home, Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, here’s something I’ve noticed that I don’t think other Wikipedia commentators have remarked upon: the divergent activism of its two co-founders, its still closely involved spiritual leader and unofficial mascot Jimmy Wales, and estranged, erstwhile rival Larry Sanger. Although both men might be broadly described as libertarian—as legend has it, they first met on an Internet discussion forum for Objectivists—and yet their causes today are all but diametrically opposed.

In the last week, Wales has publicly opposed U.S. Department of Justice plans to extradite a British student, Richard O’Dwyer, for (allegedly) knowingly enabling copyright violations by users of a website he once operated (since shuttered). Although based in the UK, O’Dwyer’s domain was registered in the U.S.—hence the federal government’s interest. Wales’ point, made in a Guardian op-ed:

One of the important moral principles that has made everything we relish about the Internet possible, from Wikipedia to YouTube, is that Internet service providers need to have a safe harbour from what their users do.

A fair point? Sure. Self-serving? Most certainly! Wikipedia is always making someone mad because anonymous individuals use the site to spread malicious, sometimes defamatory, occasionally offensive material, true or false. In fact, someones like… none other than Larry Sanger.

In recent months, Larry Sanger has has taken up a more conservative cause, focused on some of Wikipedia’s more controversial content. Sanger is critical of Wikipedia for allowing the inclusion of sexually explicit photos on articles about sexually explicit topics, and moreso Wikipedia’s sister site Wikimedia Commons, for allowing users to upload even more graphic photos, many of which serve no purpose except to titillate the uploader, and disgust most others. Here’s an exhaustive report by Internet buzz beacon BuzzFeed, on one such example (highly NSFW, even with blurring).

Wales remains squarely within the camp of Internet libertarians, lending support to those who do things we may not like, but whom we may defend on principles of freedom. It is also consistent with his previous activism against U.S.-based SOPA and PIPA legislation, which I wrote about in January.

From a Wikipedia perspective, the key difference is this: in this case, Wales is seeking to use only his celebrity (which is considerable, in Internet terms) to draw attention to his cause, rather than enlisting the power of Wikipedia’s community as a force multiplier. The matter has been the subject of much discussion on Wales’ Talk page (basically a water cooler for Wikipedians) this week, led by the following comment:

As someone who strenuously opposed the political advocacy pursued by the Wikimedia Foundation early this year … I commend your decision to take action on the O’Dwyer case as Wikipedia founder and respected opinion leader as opposed to (additionally) trying to light a fire under the editing community.

Sanger has far less celebrity to wield (even in Internet cricles). Earlier in June, Sanger was interviewed by TechCrunch to discuss these topics, and as he said in a tweet aimed partially at yours truly:

Wikipedia, choose two: (1) call yourself kid-friendly; (2) host lots of porn; (3) be filter-free.

Not a bad point there, either.

I don’t mean to wade into this controversy myself. I find myself largely in agreement with both men on some broad points, contradictory as that may seem, although I think the long-run implications of both issues are more difficult to assess.

As for reservations about Wales’ petition: are we to be ISP freedom absolutists? Is there no “fire in a crowded theater” moment? As for reservations about Sanger’s cause: how are we to determine what serves a genuine informational purpose, and how do we balance this against Wikipedia’s longstanding and admirable policy that it is “not censored”?

I don’t know the answer, but if you think you do, I welcome your response in the comments.

Death of a Wikipedian

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on March 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Public memorials are a phenomenon found in every society and subset: from war memorials to police memorials and semi-permanent ghost bikes to impromptu, impermanent flower displays, mourning and remembrance are universal. Wikipedia is no exception.

Since early 2006, Wikipedia has maintained a public memorial page called Deceased Wikipedians. While public in the sense that it is accessible by anyone, it is perhaps useful to think of it as semi-public in that it’s not part of the actual encyclopedia. You won’t pass by it on your way to work, or to reading about (let’s say) the Syrian uprising. To date, 39 late Wikipedians have been added to the English version of this page. 14 other language editions have their own versions, including the German, French and even Esperanto editions.

The first added to the English-language Wikipedian memorial was Caroline Thompson, an Australian physics enthusiast who worked on articles about quantum mechanics. Afterward, other names were filled in. The earliest current listed was a French editor using the handle Treanna, who died in late summer 2005. Considering Wikipedia began in early 2001, surely some others passed before him, but we may never know who they were.

On a website where anonymity is granted to anyone who desires it, determining that an absent editor is deceased and not just one who has drifted away is a matter of luck, and sometimes detective work. The inclusion of an editor named Xulin depended on the synthesis of available information on external websites. As a contributor primarily to the French-language Wikipedia, a candlelight vigil of sorts remains in his userspace there.

Criteria for inclusion isn’t crystal clear, but the top of the page does give this advice:

People in this list are remembered as part of the Wikipedia community: they have made at least several hundred edits or are otherwise known for substantial contributions to Wikipedia.

The names included do not not appear to have been controversial to this point, although one stands out as different from the others: John Patrick Bedell, known less for his contributions as JPatrickBedell and more for his disturbing role in the 2010 Pentagon shooting (which I wrote about at the time: “John Patrick Bedell: Pentagon Shooter, Wikipedian”).

Two other deceased editors are the subjects of Wikipedia articles based on contributions to their fields outside of Wikipedia: Tron Øgrim, a Norwegian journalist and activist, and Steven Rubenstein, an American anthropologist.

The most recent addition is a young man named Ben Yates, better known around the site as Tlogmer, who passed away earlier this month. An active contributor from October 2003 to October 2008, he was known for several remarkable contributions to the community. This included the original design for the logo of Wikipedia’s annual gathering, Wikimania, still in use to this day. He was also a co-author on the book, How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It, published in 2008 (free web version here). On a humorous note, he was the originator of the Wikipedia article “Metrosexual”. He also created some hilarious (to a Wikipedian) bumper stickers, which seem to be still available.

Of particular interest to me, he was also at one point the author of a blog about Wikipedia, simply called Wikipedia Blog. Yates’ self-selected favorite posts were three: “The Future of Open Source”, about Wikipedia and Linux; “Wikipedia helps show the economic value of social interaction”, about just what it sounds like; and “Wikipedia and COMMUNISM!”, ruminating on Wikipedia’s comparison to various “isms”. In the last one, he wrote:

Wikipedia will never fade away … its memories will not die with its members. As an open source project, it can always be forked, tweaked, sifted through various filters, read and written anew.

Very well said, and correct he was. So it goes.

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.