William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘Direction of Wikipedia’ Category

What You Missed at Wikimania 2017

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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)

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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!

♦     ♦     ♦

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?

History in the Making: The Tumblr That Explains Where Wikipedia Articles Come From

Tagged as , , , , , , ,
on December 10, 2014 at 8:15 am

Journalism is the first rough draft of history, as the shopworn phrase goes, and it’s a clever one, but it’s never seemed quite right to me. Daily journalism is the reportage of events which may or may not be deemed worthy of reflection and remembrance; it’s in the subequent commentaries and essays—and even supposedly neutral online encyclopedias—where “History” begins to come together.

So I’m with John Overholt, a curator at Harvard’s Houghton Library, who launched a “concept Tumblr”[1]I’m coining that, by the way as a personal project, earlier this fall, devoted to the first version of Wikipedia entries: First Drafts of History. The idea is dead simple and all but infinitely replicable: for every subject Wikipedia covers, there was once a first version of this entry—and it’s just three clicks away from any Wikipedia article, so long as you know which three[2]“View history” > “Oldest” > First time-stamped entry.

That’s where Overholt began, as he told me last month: “I was suddenly struck by how interesting and unusual it is that Wikipedia’s entire (or mostly so) history is easily available and that you can peel back the layers of each article to its genesis. As someone with a keen interest in history, that’s very appealing to me, and I was curious to know what the articles were like in those early stages.”

Radiohead on WikipediaFunny enough, this is close to an idea that I once started to explore, in a post on this very site. Way back in May of 2009 I copied the text over from the first version of the entry about the rock band Radiohead and used it to muse about how Wikipedia’s standards have changed. I announced it as the first in a series, but I never did it again. Ideas are cheap, execution is what matters, and Overholt is executing it like crazy. Every day he posts screen shots with links to the the article and first version every single day, often matching entries to the calendar (Black Friday (shopping) on November 28) or focusing on pop culture goofery (Metal umlaut).

And looking back at the origins of entries reveals something about where Wikipedia came from. The second paragraph of the first Merlot article describes the varietal in three succinct sentences before concluding: “Merlot is also the name of an XML Editor….:-).”

Very, very early early articles, such as the first draft about Venezuela, are just one sentence. Others are written in in shorthand, omitting direct references to subject in a long-abandoned style, i.e. Putin: “Born October 7, 1952… KGB officer from 1975 to 1992…” and so forth.

iPhone on WikipediaIt also offers glimpses into recent-but-forever-ago history, when Facebook was Thefacebook.com, and the iPhone was just a nickname for an Apple partnership with Motorola (later redirected to Motorola ROKR, at least for a time), then rendered “IPhone” due to limitations of the software. This first concludes: “Note of author : please rewritting my article in a correct english. thank you”

I asked Overholt what his take on all of this was, and I’ll do no better than by quoting him at length:

Obviously it’s funny when articles have a really eccentric start, or a tone that’s very different from the standard style of Wikipedia today, but the thing I’m really struck by is how ambitious and difficult a task it is to think about, in essence, organizing all knowledge. It’s a problem that historians and philosophers have grappled with for centuries. I was tickled by the Pastrami article I posted the other day, which had the edit summary “What can one say about pastrami?” What indeed! But the important thing is thinking to say anything about pastrami at all. The genius of Wikipedia is that it didn’t really stop to solve the overarching problem of how to organize all knowledge first (because it’s all but unsolvable) but rather decided, “Well, we’ll just start with something, and hopefully make that something better little by little.” So even if the first draft of an article is terrible, it’s already done the very hardest thing just by existing.

What else I think is important about it Pastrami on Wikipediais that it might help to demystify the Wikipedia process, even if just a bit. Many readers have no idea how articles or written, and few probably ever think about what they once looked like, or what the best version may be.

An example I’ve considered with friends: do you prefer the version of the Wikipedia article Dog from 2014 or the article Dog from 2004? I’ll still take today’s entry for a number of reasons, but a decade ago it was arguably more accessible, and about one-quarter the size.

It makes you wonder: what should a Wikipedia article be? What’s the ideal Wikipedia article? The answer to that has changed over time, and probably will keep changing so long as it’s an active project. Reminding readers that Wikipedia once was very different is a good way to remind them that it can still be better.

All images ultimately via Wikipedia.org; first and third courtesy of Overholt.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I’m coining that, by the way
2. “View history” > “Oldest” > First time-stamped entry

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 2)

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on January 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

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

♦     ♦     ♦

5. Basically ArbCom will never get its act together

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

4. Wikipedia has more than a gender problem…

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 1)

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on December 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

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

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

10. Losing Aaron Swartz

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

9. Wiki Trek Into Darkness

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

8. Wikipediocracy rising

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

7. The tragicomedy of Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

6. Where the money is

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

Wikipedia on the Brink?

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , ,
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.

Adventures in Visual Editing

Tagged as , , ,
on July 2, 2013 at 5:30 pm


It’s a big week for Wikipedia, and maybe a bigger one for its developers. Starting Monday (although I only noticed today, EST) the long-in-the-works Visual Editor rolled out to all registered editors. On the Wikimedia Foundation blog, Philippe Beaudette explains the big deal:

There are various reasons that lead existing and prospective contributors not to edit; among them, the complexity of wiki markup is a major issue. One of VisualEditor’s goals is to empower knowledgeable and good-faith users to edit and become valuable members of the community, even if they’re not wiki markup experts. We also hope that, with time, experienced editors will find VisualEditor useful for some of their editing tasks.

In the past I’ve been a bit of a Visual Editor skeptic—the Wikimedia Foundation’s own research shows that not knowing how to edit is seventh among readers’ answers for why they don’t edit Wikipedia, cited by only 18% of respondents to the 2011 reader survey. Moreover, one still has to know to click on the “Edit” button to get started. And then there’s a question for which we currently have no empirical evidence: does making it theoretically easier to edit invite more productive contributors, or more troublemakers? We may well get an answer—though it will take time and, of course, more study.

All that said, I’ll be perfectly happy if my misgivings turn out to be misplaced. And today I finally took the thing out for a test drive. The Featured article today is Alec Douglas-Home, the United Kingdom’s prime minister for almost exactly one year in the early 1960s. At first I noticed some double-spaces after periods (or, given the subject matter, full stops) and went to change it. As soon as I clicked “Edit” button (and disappeared the notification pop-up seen at the top of this post) I saw this:


Yeah, OK, that’s an edit page, all right. Upon first impression, I have to say I was wrong about one thing: I was expecting a WYSIWYG editor that was a half-step up from editing code, but was still confined to an undersized edit box. Nope, this is editing right on the page. (Yes, I could have turned on the Visual Editor for awhile yet, but I’ve also become the sort of person who still waits for an album release even once it’s been leaked.)

So I removed the superfluous double-space, and went to hit “Save page”. So here’s my edit summary:


But hey, I came back awhile later, and noticed some joker had changed Douglas-Home’s honorific prefix from “The Right Honourable” to “The Right Bhuval” (?) as pictured here:


So I went to edit again, but this time I got the same old edit window:


What happened? I didn’t realize until later that I’d actually hit “Edit source”, which brings you to the same code-based editing window that Wikipedians have known for more than a decade—and which will surely be the choice of power editors for a long time to come. Alas, I didn’t realize that his first name had also been changed to “Bhuval”, but someone else did step in to fix that before long.

And… that’s my experience with the Visual Editor so far! It’s not much to go on. But I still have a few early takeaways:

  • I’ve been editing Wikipedia for the better part of a decade now, and I still had a bit of trouble. Also, pictured at the top of this post is the new pop-up alerting editors that they have entered the visual editor, which didn’t include a little x-box to close. I wasn’t stymied long, but it’s the experience that counts, right?
  • The Visual Editor really slows down the loading of the edit page. This isn’t any huge surprise, but the length of page loads is a matter of concern, especially considering the Wikimedia Foundation’s conscious push to improve participation in the developing world, where Internet speeds may be slower.
  • It doesn’t seem to work on Talk pages, which is a mixed blessing. As something of a Wikipedia elitist, I think the uninitiated may offer the best help by pointing things out on discussion pages. Then again, Wikipedia discussion pages being “broken” is a whole ‘nother topic.
  • Here’s my optimistic prediction for the Visual Editor: while I don’t see it encouraging significant contributions of quality new material from previous non-editors, I do think it can encourage more edits by those who already edit occasionally, but maybe can’t be bothered to hunt through markup to move a comma.

If the Visual Editor is not for you, here’s what you do: go to “Preferences” in the top right corner, select the “Gadgets” tab, look under the “Editing” header, and check the box which reads: “Remove VisualEditor from the user interface”. Then hit “Save”, and you’re good to go. But I think I’ll let it stand. It’s not a panacea for Wikipedia’s ills, and for complex edits the source code is always only a click away. Besides, I’m always looking for that comma—or superfluous double-space.

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

Tagged as , , , , , ,
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.

First Wikipedian (Officially Representing a Presidential Library)

Tagged as , , , ,
on January 24, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Via the NYT Arts Beat blog:

Gerald R. Ford may have governed during a time of economic stagnation, but his library has just laid claim to a cutting-edge distinction: becoming the first presidential depository to employ an official “Wikipedian in residence.”

Michael Barera, a master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School of Information who has been editing Wikipedia articles for five years, started the job last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. He is charged with improving the Wikipedia presence of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, which is housed at the university’s Ann Arbor campus.

He’s the first official representative to Wikipedia at a presidential library, and surely not the last. Since Liam Wyatt became the first Wikipedian-in-Residence (WiR) at the British Museum, in spring 2010, the concept of an in-house Wikipedian has spread far and wide. So far, these have all been at non-profits, but I won’t be surprised if that isn’t always the case.

(Hat tip: cultural-partners email list.)

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2012 (Part 2)

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , ,
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.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2012 (Part 1)

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on December 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm

In these waning days of 2012, let’s take this opportunity—for a third year in a row—to look back and come up with a list of the most important Wikipedia news and events in the last 12 months. Like our first installment in 2010 and our follow-up in 2011, the list will be arbitrary but hopefully also entertaining. There is no methodology to be found here, just my own opinion based on watching Wikipedia, its sister projects and parent organization, and also thumbing through the Wikipedia Signpost, Google News and other news sites this past week. So what are we waiting for?

Wait, wait, one more thing: this post ended up being much longer than I expected, and so I’ve decided to split this in two. Today we publish the first five items in the list, 10-6. On Monday 12/31 we’ll publish the final five. Enjoy!

♦     ♦     ♦

10. Wikipedia bans a prominent contributor — Let’s start with something that did not make the news outside of the Wikipedia / Wikimedia community at all, but which took up a great deal of oxygen within it. It’s the story of a prominent editor and administrator who goes by the handle Fæ. In April of this year, he was elected to lead a new organization within the community based on his leadership of the UK chapter. The move was not without controversy: Fæ’s actions both on Wikipedia and the sister site Wikimedia Commons (best known as a vast image repository) and interactions with editors became the subject of intense scrutiny, and even an ArbCom case (the Arbitration Committee is sort of like Wikipedia’s Supreme Court). Fæ ended up resigning his adminship—he basically jumped to avoid being pushed—and the end result had him banned from editing Wikipedia, which he still is. Not that he’s gone away—he’s still a contributor to Commons, and a very active one.

This might sound like a lot of insider nonsense, and I’m not about to dissuade you from this viewpoint. (Sayre’s law applies in spades.) But the key issue involved is about governance: is the Wikimedia community’s organizational structure and personnel capable of the kind of leadership necessary to maintain and build on this important project? The Fæ incident (along with other incidents in this list) suggests the answer may be no.

9. Confusing software development — Not all of Wikipedia’s contributors are focused on editing articles. Some are also developers, working on the open source software to keep Wikimedia sites running and, perhaps, improving. Some (but not all) are paid staff and contractors, and the hybrid part-volunteer, part-professional organizational structure can make it difficult to get projects off the ground.

One longtime project that has yet to see wide implementation is a “visual editor” for Wikipedia articles, to make editing much easier for users. Everyone knows that the editing interface for Wikipedia articles feels like software programming, and almost surely turns away some potential contributors (though it’s not the main reason people don’t contribute, as a 2011 Wikimedia survey showed). But the visual editor is a bigger technical challenge than one might think (as recently explained by The Next Web), and the outcome of a current trial run (also not the first) is anyone’s guess.

Another announced with a great deal of hype but which no one really seems to understand is Wikidata. It calls itself a “common data repository” which by itself sounds fairly reasonable, but no one really knows how it will work in practice, even those now developing it. Wikidata could be a terrifically innovative invention and the very future of Wikimedia… but first we need to find out what it does.

Other projects have been released, but have received thoughtful criticism for adding little value while diverting resources from more worthy projects. For example, a feature briefly existed asking you to choose whether a smiley face or frowny face best represented your Wikipedia experience. Uh, OK? Some projects have been better-received: the Wikipedia iPhone app, for example, is a definite improvement over the mobile site. But there are some odd decisions here, as well: does Wikipedia really need an app for the failed Blackberry Playbook?

8. Sum of human knowledge gets more human knowledge — If you’ve ever seen a [citation needed] tag on Wikipedia—and I know you have—then you know that, well, citations are needed. And while citations do actually kind of grow on trees (if by “trees” we mean “the Internet”) there is a lot of information out there which isn’t readily searchable on Google, and sometimes that information costs money. This year, some of those paid services cracked the door open just a bit.

The interesting story to the HighBeam Research partnership is that there really isn’t one. First of all, HighBeam is a news database which charges for reader access to its vast collection of articles. But in March, a volunteer Wikipedia editor who goes by the name Ocaasi reached out to HighBeam and asked if they would be willing to grant free access to Wikipedia editors. They said yes—and supplied one-year, renewable accounts to editors with at least one year’s experience and 1,000 edits. For Wikipedia, it meant greater access to information. For Highbeam, it meant a 600% increase in links to the site in the first few months of the project. Seems like a fair trade.

More recently, the Wikimedia Foundation announced an agreement with the academic paper storehouse JSTOR, making one-year accounts available to 100 of the most-active Wikipedia editors. With almost 240 editors petitioning for access, if you haven’t spoken up yet, chances are you’re a bit too late.

7. The first person to 1 million edits — OK, how about a fun one? In April, a Wikipedia editor named Justin Knapp, who uses the handle Koavf, became the first person to make 1 million edits to Wikipedia. To the surprise of everyone, perhaps none more than Knapp himself, this made him an overnight international celebrity of the Warhol variety. Jimmy Wales even declared April 20 “Justin Knapp Day” on Wikipedia.

It’s worth pointing out that most editors with many, many edits to their name typically are involved in janitorial-style editing activities, such as fighting vandals or re-organizing categories. And many very active editors spend a lot of time squabbling with others on the so-called “drama boards” such as Administrators’ noticeboard/Incidents. Not Knapp: his edits over time have overwhelmingly focused on creating new articles, plus researching and improving content in existing ones. In short: Wikipedia doesn’t need more editors—it needs more Justin Knapps.

Also, this is one I actually played a small role in, as verified by Knapp’s own timeline of events. I’d happened to see someone note the fact on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page that day, which I tweeted, and was then picked up by Gawker’s Adrian Chen, and the rest is history. Actually, then Knapp kept right on editing Wikipedia. As of this writing, he’s closing in on 1.25 million edits.

6. Philip Roth’s Complaint — Wikipedia has been extraordinarily sensitive to complaints by living people the subject of articles ever since a 2005 incident where a veteran newspaper editor found his article maliciously vandalized to implicate him in the murder of the brothers Kennedy.

In what was arguably the biggest row since then, in September 2007 the celebrated, prickly author of Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral and numerous other novels took to the pages of The New Yorker to issue “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” complaining that the site had the inspiration for his 2000 novel The Human Stain all wrong. And this wasn’t his first resort: Roth’s first attempt had been to authorize his biographer to change the article directly, which was rebuffed. His consternation here: not inexplicable.

But Roth’s complaint was not really with Wikipedia. Several book reviewers had speculated (apparently incorrectly) about the real-life basis for the novel’s central figure, and it was these speculations which had been introduced to Wikipedia. Roth’s publicity campaign brought the issue to much wider attention, which got his personal explanation of the novel’s inspiration into Wikipedia. However, in a twist on the Streisand effect, the controversy is now the subject of a longish and somewhat peevish section written by editors perhaps irked by Roth’s campaign. So he got what he wanted, plus more that he didn’t. Shall we call it the Roth effect?

♦     ♦     ♦

Look here on Monday for the thrilling conclusion to The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2012!

Wikipedia is Not Finished, But Its Needs are Changing

Tagged as , , , ,
on December 18, 2012 at 9:14 am

Earlier this fall, a very interesting and not too-academicky paper on how Wikipedia’s article about the War of 1812 (by historian and Wikipedian Richard Jensen) somehow begat an Atlantic web story with the wishy-washy subheading “Wikipedia is Nearing Completion, in a Sense” which begat this less subtle, more alarming headline in the UK Independent: “Is Wikipedia Complete?

Wikipedia doomsaying is a popular pastime among technology writers (one can’t exclusively rely on Apple doomsaying, after all) and this isn’t even the first go around for this particular variant. But this one is more annoying than the usual complaint that Wikipedia is losing editors, because proclaiming Wikipedia complete is more likely to suggest that one shouldn’t consider get involved. Why bother? Wikipedia’s finished.

Of course, it’s not. The Atlantic’s Rebecca J. Rosen acknowledges this briefly, quoting Jensen as follows:

Wikipedia is now a mature reference work with a stable organizational structure and a well-established reputation. The problem is that it is not mature in a scholarly sense.

Just so. Yes, Wikipedia already has more than 4 million articles in the English language. The problem is that a great many of them just aren’t very good. An article may exist, but it might not contain much information. It may contain some decent information, but some of it may be wrong. It may have been correct at one time, but has since become outdated. Or an article may have lots of information, but it may not be well-organized. Just because an article exists does not mean the job is done. What it really means is the job of cultivating that specific slice of human knowledge—whether about the War of 1812 or the 18½ minute gap or —has only just begun.

The problem Wikipedia faces is that it has many, many more readers than editors (only 6% of readers have ever tried, according to a 2011 survey) even if the line between them is supposedly no thicker than choosing to click the “Edit” button at the top of a page.

For almost any topic you can thing of, it can seem like there is already an article. What’s more, the topics which are most well-known, especially those related to current events, tend to be extremely well-developed and already saturated with editors. An edit on a page like President of the United States is likely not to last long before someone else comes along and changes it. The uncomfortable truth is that the veteran editor is probably right, insofar as Wikipedia’s standards are concerned. But that doesn’t make it any less discouraging to new editors.

♦     ♦     ♦

So, where can new Wikipedians gain confidence, knowledge of Wikipedia’s editing style, and make edits that really make a difference? The answer lies with Wikipedia’s vast collection of underdeveloped articles—those far outside of the daily news cycle, focused on topics dating to the pre-Wikipedia age, and which could be much better, but have lacked for sustained interest from foregoing editors.

As someone who reads Wikipedia daily, I come across these all the time. I also decided to ask some colleagues about what kind of article categories might be particularly neglected. Here are just a few topics that we see (and please note that we are all native English speakers from the U.S. and UK in our late 20s and early 30s, so YMMV) where new editors can dive in and start adding information and sources:

  1. 1990s rock albums: A surprisingly large number of rock albums from the ’90s have just a stub article—one that has very little information other than a basic description of the album. Follow the link, start by clicking on titles that you’re familiar with, and it won’t take long to find one that needs some help. The wider Internet has no shortage of reviews from music publications, which should be just what you need to add new details.
  2. 1990s comedy films: There’s a theme here, and one that speaks to the demographics of Wikipedia: the missing age group of 29- to 40-year-olds has left the encyclopedia with a gap in its collective knowledge: the 1990s! Once again, you can follow the link, pick any film and help improve it. Just remember: you can’t use IMDb (not a reliable source!) but you probably can use articles IMDb links to.
  3. Historical novels: If you’re not into reminiscing about the 1990s, perhaps you’d like to look back a bit further in time. In which case, the historical novel stubs listed here might be right up your alley—or galley, since there are a few of C.S. Forester’s nautical-themed Hornblower novels listed here…
  4. Fairy tales: Still on a literary note, a surprising number of articles on well-known fairy tales are lacking references or still in stub form. See if any of your childhood favorites need some work.
  5. Cartoonists: Biographies are a good topic area for any beginner on Wikipedia and there are no shortage of sub-topics to choose from that need development. There’s a whole list of cartoonists here whose articles are currently just stubs, why not dive in and see if there’s one you’re familiar with?

If you’re thinking about starting to edit Wikipedia and the thought of trying to improve a whole article seems overwhelming, here’s a few ideas for small fixes that you can make in any article of your choosing:

  1. Read through an article and fix any typos or formatting errors.
  2. Remove any obvious vandalism or pure nonsense you come across.
  3. Look at information in infoboxes (the sidebars that appear at the top right of articles) and check that it is correct and up-to-date.
  4. Rewrite sentences that don’t make sense or are obtusely worded.
  5. Fact-check: choose a claim from an article with no citation, then find a book or another quality source to verify the statement.

I fully acknowledge that all of the above is easier said than done. Even though Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, that doesn’t mean everyone does. But it is possible for anyone to learn, given the right inspiration. With this post—and who knows, maybe more like it to come?—I’d like to help others find it.

Thanks to Rhiannon Ruff, Morgan Wehling and Pete Hunt for help with this post.

Linux distributions vs. wedding dresses: the gender gap impact

Tagged as , ,
on November 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged as , , , ,
on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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:

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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:

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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:

♦     ♦     ♦

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?

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

Two Wikipedia Co-Founders, Two Very Different Causes

Tagged as , , , , ,
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.

Regarding the Uncertain Future of Encyclopædia Britannica

Tagged as , , , , , , ,
on March 14, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Yesterday, Encyclopædia Britannica made the startling announcement that they would discontinue their print edition after 244 years. Once the current edition has sold out, they’ll become a collector’s item. Which is essentially what they are now, if it’s not too uncharitable to point out. Britannica is not finished as an operation, however: it will continue to publish on the web. It’s a startling announcement, sure, but it makes more sense than if it went on as if nothing had changed. Britannica’s editors acknowledged as much in a post on their blog:

A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.

But Britannica’s grip on the evolution of human knowledge isn’t what it used to be—you can see where I’m going, right? As a well-known quote from Jimbo Wales goes:

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

Since its launch in 2001, and especially since a (much-debated) 2005 Nature article comparing the two, Wikipedia has been a thorn in Britannica’s side. And its influence has long since surpassed its much older rival. A Quantcast comparison suggests that Wikipedia’s traffic is 30x that of Britannica’s. And as I tweeted last night, news organizations have been quick to note the competition.

Under the title “Death By Wikipedia: Encyclopedia Britannica Stops Printing”, ReadWriteWeb observes:

The usefulness of such reference materials has been on the decline for years, especially since the advent of Wikipedia. Whatever flaws its open, crowd-sourced editorial model may invite, Wikipedia is generally regarded as a comprehensive and mostly-accurate source of information, which can be accessed for free.

And in a Venture Beat article titled “Encyclopaedia Britannica wiped out by Wikipedia, selling final print edition” we find:

The extremely thorough Wikipedia article on Encyclopaedia Britannica … serves as the perfect example of why Wikipedia is coming out on top.

It’s true—Wikipedia’s article about Encyclopædia Britannica is very thorough. Britannica’s article about Wikipedia is not bad, but it is far more limited than Wikipedia’s article about itself, and Britannica has those annoying pop-up advertisements that do nothing for readers.

Yet Britannica president Jorge Cauz tells the The Washington Post:

This has nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google. … This has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells its digital products to a large number of people.

This is a little bit like Microsoft saying Windows 8 has nothing to do with the the iPad, merely the shift in consumer purchasing habits toward the tablet and mobile markets. That’s not to say the statement isn’t necessarily untrue, just that it’s complete. I don’t know a great deal about Britannica’s current business model, but it’s safe to say that non-print revenues have become far more important, as Britannica’s print sales have fallen. Whether they will succeed is another question; PC World and doesn’t think so, pointing out the closure of—speak of the devil—Microsoft’s online encyclopedia Encarta in 2009 (which I wrote about at the time):

Microsoft shuttered its digital multimedia encyclopedia, Encarta, in 2009, and the last trace of it, the online dictionary, closed last year. Encarta, though a digital product, was also made obsolete by Wikipedia’s free availability, constantly updated content and thousands of editors, contributors and volunteers from around the world.

At The Atlantic, expert on evolution and Bloggingheads impresario Robert Wright offers this (small) consolation:

Maybe, long after even the electronic edition of Britannica is gone, the idea of Britannica can remain for us what it once was for me–a kind of Platonic ideal that we aspire to evolve toward even if we can never reach it, something that has a kind of reality even if we can never touch it.

As someone who devoured Britannica in my school library when growing up, not to mention someone who relied on Britannica as a college student in the late 1990s (before Britannica added a pay wall)—much the same way as students today (notoriously) rely on Wikipedia —I’m sorry to see it go. But we no longer live in a world where a 30,000 page, 15-volume encyclopedia can be printed on an annual basis for profit. In fact, even Britannica sees itself as a collector’s item now; as Cauz tells the News Observer:

This is going to be as rare as the first edition, because the last print run of our last copyright was one of the smallest print runs.”

I’d love to own one myself, but at $1,395.00 for the “Final Print Edition”, I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. And perhaps Cauz is wrong; maybe the death of Britannica will be more like the Death of Superman.

Verifiability and Truth: What John Siracusa Doesn’t Get About Wikipedia

Tagged as , , , , , , , , ,
on February 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm

One of my favorite podcasts is Hypercritical, co-hosted by and principally featuring the thoughtful criticisms of John Siracusa, a sometime columnist for Ars Technica and Internet-famous Apple pundit. The show’s tagline calls it: “A weekly talk show ruminating on exactly what is wrong in the world of Apple and related technologies and businesses. Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be complained about.” Last week’s edition—“Marked for Deletion”—was about something far from perfect, but of great interest to this blog: Wikipedia.

If you want to listen for yourself, jump to about 1:11:55 (yes, more than an hour into the show) where Siracusa and co-host Dan Benjamin turn the discussion to Wikipedia. And a warning: this is going to be long. Consider it homage.

♦     ♦     ♦

Promisingly, Siracusa begins by asking his co-host to answer, if he can, “what Wikipedia is”. The answer is pretty good for an outsider: it’s a place for sharing information and collaboratively building a resource for (hopefully) accurate information on almost any topic. In general, this will do. But it’s not quite right, as Siracusa explains by recounting his personal experience of trying, in vain, to defend an article from deletion. With five years to reflect on it, Siracusa describes his efforts as a “prototypical example of someone who does not understand what Wikipedia is, proving that he does not understand what Wikipedia is.”

All of this is a way of getting to Siracusa’s fascination—one might say morbid fascination—with Wikipedia’s policy of “Verifiability”. The first paragraph of the policy says:

Verifiability on Wikipedia is the ability to cite reliable sources that directly support the information in an article. All information in Wikipedia must be verifiable, but because other policies and guidelines also influence content, verifiability does not guarantee inclusion. The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether editors think unsourced material is true.

Or as Siracusa summarizes it: “Something can be as true as you want it to be, if it is not verifiable, it doesn’t go in.” Well said.

He also discusses the related policy of “No original research”. This includes a good explication of the different types of sources that may or may not be used on Wikipedia: primary sources (original documents and first-hand accounts), secondary sources (news articles interpreting primary sources) and tertiary sources (encyclopedias and academic articles summarizing the former). This is advanced stuff, and for a longtime Wikipedian, it’s no small thrill to hear a smart outsider explain why secondary sources are preferred, and work through the fundamental policies of Wikipedia. Siracusa correctly observes: “Wikipedia is not a place where you write down stuff that you know. … Wikipedia writes about other people writing about things.”

Except here’s the thing: Siracusa understands Wikipedia’s core content policies. He just doesn’t like them.

In his particular example, a former standalone article called FTFF (here’s what it used to look like) didn’t survive the process not because it wasn’t true, but (he says) because it contained material that wasn’t verifiable, and constituted original research. This is partly true, but it owes more to a guideline that got only passing mention on the show (and, frankly, in the deletion debate): “Notability”, and specifically the “General notability guideline”. It’s closely tied in with WP:VERIFY and WP:ORIGINAL, and basically says that a topic must have sufficient coverage in secondary sources to be given its own standalone page. FTFF was not, and the result of the debate was to merge the topic to Finder_(software)#Criticism.

Anyway, this pedantry about WP:NOTE and WP:GNG doesn’t affect Siracusa’s main point: If something is true but unverifiable, he would like to see it included in Wikipedia anyway. Nor does it affect his corollary argument, that Wikipedia’s complex rules discourage many would-be participants.

He’s undoubtedly right about the second point: many people try to get involved with Wikipedia who have no idea what it’s really about, and they tend to have a really bad experience. Wikipedia struggles to explain itself to outsiders, and it probably always will.

As to the former, the problem is that he fails to grapple with the implications of the Wikipedia he describes, and this is disappointing. By privileging “truth” above “verifiability”, one gets the impression he’s describing a Rashomon-like Wikipedia where all possible viewpoints are explored, and somehow eventually Wikipedia just makes the right call. This assumes a lot, not least that contentious topics wouldn’t simply devolve into edit wars of unchecked aggression. In a world where Wikipedia aims for truth but eschews verifiability, there are no footholds upon which to steady an argument. There is no way to know what should be considered credible or otherwise.

At times it actually sounds like he’s advocating something that already exists: reliance on “Consensus” for determining how Wikipedia will address the topics it covers. Wikipedia policies and guidelines don’t cover everything, and this is where consensus steps in, however imperfectly. If you’ve ever wondered why there is sometimes an observable discrepancy in the depth or quality of coverage between topics, consensus is the big reason why, and moreso the self-selection that shapes consensus. The current, real-world Wikipedia refers to outside authorities as well as consensus among editors; Siracusa’s Bizarro World Wikipedia would jettison the former and rely solely on the latter.

Meanwhile, Siracusa ascribes Wikipedia’s Byzantine rule structure to Wikipedians’ desire for approval from educators and academics, which he thinks is holding back Wikipedia from what it could become. He repeatedly says “Wikipedia should be something different” and refers to “what’s different about online” but he never gets prescriptive and never actually says why the old methods are outmoded. He does say his Wikipedia would seek to “arrive at truth using every tool necessary” and would, for example, allow original research… but what then is the mechanism for (dare I say) verifying it?

At one point, Siracusa compares the popular, widely-viewed Ars Technica forums to a hypothetical low-circulation print magazine, and complains that the widely-read former site is an invalid source while the unpopular latter publication is acceptable. It’s true that Wikipedia does not necessarily take a populist approach to evaluating sources, but he’s far off the mark in his attempt to explain this: “They’re not cool with the old librarians, because they’re not paper.”

I hope that he was just being lazy and doesn’t actually think that Wikipedia editors prefer paper (if anything they actually prefer online sources, which are easier to check) but he completely misses a key dynamic that ties back to verifiability: the paper magazine with poor circulation at least will have editors who are presumed to care about fact-checking and accuracy. A web forum, however popular it may be, may have moderators, but that’s not the same thing as having an editor. A discussion group is not an editorial operation, period. The forum is a primary source, and so should only be used to support reliable sources.

There are, however, reliable web sources. One of them is the editorial side of Ars Technica; no less an authority than John Siracusa has been cited in approximately 150 different Wikipedia articles about the Macintosh and other technology subjects.

♦     ♦     ♦

I’m sorry to say this, but in the show’s last fifteen minutes, Siracusa pretty much descends into total incoherence. Here’s his summary statement, close to verbatim:

[There are] many flaws in verifiability and reliability of sources. It’s built on a foundation of sand. Notability, what’s a reliable source, those things become so key to making Wikipedia crappy or good, and those sands are constantly always shifting, you know? And so if Wikipedia was centered on truth and that was its final goal, yeah, it would have to include citations and verifiability and stuff like that, but there would never be any argument when the two are in conflict. You know, if you could prove that a series of events happened here, then you could say, well, it’s verifiable, it appeared in a reliable source, but it’s not the truth. And so therefore we should expunge that. Because the final goal of Wikipedia is truth. But the final goal of Wikipedia is not truth, it’s verifiability.

There would “never be any argument” about what is the truth? In the parlance of Wikipedia: [citation needed].

Look, this is an epistemological issue, one much larger than just Wikipedia. The reason Wikipedia’s goal is verifiability, not truth, is because verifiability is an achievable goal. In fact, verifiability is a necessary step toward establishing truth, as Siracusa at this point seems to acknowledge in his imagined alternate, truth-seeking Wikipedia.

It’s not that Wikipedia is actively hostile to the truth: it’s just agnostic as to what it might be. Wikipedia articles are like road signs; truth itself may be unknowable, and we may never arrive at our destination, but Wikipedia can point in the right direction. Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines are designed to make sure that its content does that, although it’s fair to acknowledge that it’s not guaranteed. But what is? And what is truth?

Anyway, there’s a user essay on Wikipedia called “Verifiability, not truth” that says this better than I am going to. Here’s the key point:

That we have rules for the inclusion of material does not mean Wikipedians have no respect for truth and accuracy, just as a court’s reliance on rules of evidence does not mean the court does not respect truth. Wikipedia values accuracy, but it requires verifiability. Unlike some encyclopedias, Wikipedia does not try to impose “the truth” on its readers, and does not ask that they trust something just because they read it in Wikipedia. We empower our readers. We don’t ask for their blind trust.

If you want to upset the old system and do something new, you actually do need to think through what should replace it. Siracusa never does.

If he thinks Wikipedia’s adherence to “old world” rules is driving away contributors, he should consider what the free-for-all alternative would look like. It isn’t a Wikipedia I would spend any time with, it’s not one that Google would be eager to rank so highly, and it wouldn’t be the most important reference site on the Internet.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2011

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on December 31, 2011 at 10:07 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Wikipedia Article Is Not Yet Rated

Tagged as , ,
on September 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Wikipedia “Slowly Dying”?

Tagged as , , , , , , , ,
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.

Trendy Thinking: Contemplating Wikipedia Contributorship

Tagged as , , ,
on March 17, 2011 at 8:49 am

Last week, the Wikimedia Foundation published some early results in an ongoing study of trends in editor participation, both in a detailed analysis by the survey’s leaders and a general summary by Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner. I’d actually started writing a summary of my own before I read Gardner’s letter… only to find that Gardner had already made the exact same “Eternal September” comparison as I had planned. (Which makes sense, since I first learned of the term from Wikipedia.) Anyhow, both are worth reading if you are so inclined, but here’s a key excerpt from Gardner’s summary:

Between 2005 and 2007, newbies started having real trouble successfully joining the Wikimedia community. Before 2005 in the English Wikipedia, nearly 40% of new editors would still be active a year after their first edit. After 2007, only about 12-15% of new editors were still active a year after their first edit. Post-2007, lots of people were still trying to become Wikipedia editors. What had changed, though, is that they were increasingly failing to integrate into the Wikipedia community, and failing increasingly quickly. The Wikimedia community had become too hard to penetrate.

In the first half of Wikipedia’s first ten years, it experienced exponential growth in the absolute number of editors, from barely 100 active participants in 2001 to about 44,000 in 2006. The community continued to grow in 2007, cresting at nearly 52,000 active editors. Interestingly, though, 2007 brought fewer new editors: the peak owed to a one-year spike in retention. Thereafter, the number of total editors (and new editors) has dropped each year, with about 33,000 active contributors in 2010. Granted, that’s a pretty big drop. While it hasn’t bottomed out, it does seem to be stabilizing.

At the moment, Wikipedia has somewhat fewer editors than it had in 2006 and more than double the editors it had in 2005. But it only has slightly more new editors than it did that year: about 13,000 in 2010 compared to 12,200 new editors in 2005. For a better understanding of these trends, see this chart prepared for the survey:

Gardner continues:

Our new study shows that our communities are aging, probably as a direct result of these trends. I don’t mean that the average age of editors is increasing: I’m talking about tenure. Newbies are making up a smaller percentage of editors overall than ever before, and the absolute number of newbies is dropping as well. That’s a problem for everyone, because it means that experienced editors are needing to shoulder an ever-increasing workload, and bureaucrat and administrator positions are growing ever-harder to fill.

My initial reaction is to say this is not necessarily a problem. Yes, over time the proportion of new editors is shrinking, but this is the flipside of editor retention. The community “growing older” as a proportion of all editors does not necessarily mean number of editors is getting smaller, but that longtime editors are sticking around. Except that the community actually is getting smaller.

How many Wikipedians does the community really need to sustain itself? This is another open question. Some editors may point to the rapid development of impressive new articles such as Fukushima I nuclear accidents whereas interesting but less timely articles (let’s pick on the Assassination Records Review Board) languish.

If you joined Wikipedia in 2004, there is about a 40% chance you were still editing Wikipedia after one year. All things considered, that’s a pretty solid number, but that’s about as good as it got: by mid-2005 those retention rates started plummeting. If you joined in early 2007, there was about a 15% chance you were still editing after one year. Interestingly, the drop in retention more or less coincides with the explosion in new contributors: new editorship grew most between early 2005 and early 2007; the drop in retention begins about the same time and continued falling into the middle of 2007.

This makes some sense: those were the years with the greatest number of new editors, so it makes sense that a larger number would wash out. On the other hand, even as trends have stabilized, only about 10% of editors who joined in 2009 are still editing today. That’s a pretty remarkable drop-off in retention, and so the class of 2004 and 2009 today have about the same number of editors currently active.

Why the drop-off? Hard to say, but as the study’s authors put it: “[W]e do know something drastically changed during this time period, which corresponds to the period of massive influx of New Wikipedians.” This almost sounds like the influx of new editors drove the old ones out, although there’s no way to know that. So this raises an interesting question: were all those new editors necessarily good for the community?

For a snapshot of editor participation trends based on which year one joined, see this chart:

Wikipedia is an incredible resource and, like natural resources, it needs to be both developed and preserved. That means more editors are needed, and this study is just one step in a long process of figuring out how best to do that. Fortunately, there is time.