William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘Future of Wikipedia’ Category

Turning Pro: An Argument for Wikipedia’s Future

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on February 10, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Small announcement here: in the February issue of PR Week, you can read a column by none other than this Wikipedian here, making the case that Wikipedia’s long-term growth requires a reassessment of its volunteer culture.

I don’t mean to argue that Wikipedia should do away with volunteerism, but that recent developments to professionalize certain types of editing and Wikipedia-building activity should be expanded beyond the “cultural sector” to include professional organizations and even for-profit entities. (So now you can see why PR Week was interested.) And the model which Wikipedia should consider? Another open-source community with deep ties to the business world: Linux. An excerpt:

Like Wikipedia, Linux was released free on the Web without fanfare, caught on quickly, and within a decade was known around the world. While anyone can join the Linux community, you will not be much help if you cannot write code. …

Linux’s evolution from a small open-source experiment to a key part of today’s Internet was driven in part by upstart companies such as Red Hat and behemoths including IBM. …

Wikipedia’s volunteers and its nonprofit parent group, the Wikimedia Foundation, should seriously consider this example.

It’s no big deal that the Smithsonian has a “Wikipedian in Residence”. Why shouldn’t General Motors, or General Electric? Granted, there is much more trust with the Smithsonian because it is a like-minded institution, and the generalists of American business are certainly different. However, for Wikipedia to grow and improve, it needs to find new ways to encourage contributions that its volunteer model, by itself, has not.

P.S. The article is behind a paywall, so you may try plugging the title into Google News and seeing if that helps. Not that you heard it from me…

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 2)

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on January 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

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

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5. Basically ArbCom will never get its act together

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

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

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

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4. Wikipedia has more than a gender problem…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 1)

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on December 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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10. Losing Aaron Swartz

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

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

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

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

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9. Wiki Trek Into Darkness

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

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

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

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

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8. Wikipediocracy rising

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

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

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

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7. The tragicomedy of Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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6. Where the money is

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia is Not Finished, But Its Needs are Changing

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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.

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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

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on November 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agony and Ecstasy of Wikidata

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on April 12, 2012 at 8:31 am

Although Wikipedia is by far the best-known of the Wikimedia collaborative projects, it is just one of many. Just this last week, Wikimedia Deutschland announced its latest contribution: Wikidata (also @Wikidata, and see this interview in the Wikipedia Signpost). Still under development, its temporary homepage announces:

Wikidata aims to create a free knowledge base about the world that can be read and edited by humans and machines alike. It will provide data in all the languages of the Wikimedia projects, and allow for the central access to data in a similar vein as Wikimedia Commons does for multimedia files. Wikidata is proposed as a new Wikimedia hosted and maintained project.

Possible Wikidata logo

One of a few Wikidata logos under consideration.

Upon its announcement, I tweeted my initial impression, that it sounded like Wikipedia’s answer to Wolfram Alpha, the commercial “answer engine” created by Stephen Wolfram in 2009. It seems to partly be that but also more, and its apparent ambition—not to mention the speculation surrounding it—is causing a stir.

Already touted by TechCrunch as “Wikipedia’s next big thing” (incorrectly identifying Wikipedia as its primary driver, I pedantically note), Wikidata will create a central database for the countless numbers, statistics and figures currently found in Wikipedia’s articles. The centralized collection of data will allow for quick updates and uniformity of statistical information across Wikipedia.

Currently when new information replaces old, as is the case with census surveys, elections results and quarterly reports are published, Wikipedians must manually update the old data in all the articles in which it appears, across every language. Wikidata would create the possibility for a quick computer led update to replace all out of date information. Additionally, it is expected that Wikidata will allow visitors to search and access information in a less labor-intensive method. As TechCrunch suggests:

Wikidata will also enable users to ask different types of questions, like which of the world’s ten largest cities have a female mayor?, for example. Queries like this are today answered by user-created Wikipedia Lists – that is, manually created structured answers. Wikidata, on the hand, will be able to create these lists automatically.

Though this project—which is funded by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Google—is expected to take about a year to develop, but the blogosphere is already buzzing.

It’s probably fair to say that the overall response has been very positive. In a long post summarizing Wikidata’s aims, Yahoo! Labs researcher Nicolas Torzec identifies himself as one who excitedly awaits the changes Wikidata promises:

By providing and integrating Wikipedia with one common source of structured data that anyone can edit and use, Wikidata should enable higher consistency and quality within Wikipedia articles, increase the availability of information in and across Wikipedias, and decrease the maintenance effort for the editors working on Wikipedia. At the same time, it will also enable new types of Wikipedia pages and applications, including dynamically-generated timelines, maps, and charts; automatically-generated lists and aggregates; semantic search; light question & answering; etc. And because all these data will be available as Open Data in a machine-readable form, they will also benefit thrid-party [sic] knowledge-based projects at large Web companies such as Google, Bing, Facebook and Yahoo!, as well as at smaller Web startups…

Asked for comment by CNet, Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution, called it a “logical progression” for Wikipedia, even as he worries that Wikidata will drive away Wikipedians who are less tech-savvy, as it complicates the way in which information is recorded.

Also cautious is SEO blogger Pat Marcello, who warns that human error is still a very real possibility. She writes:

Wikidata is going to be just like Wikipedia in that it will be UGC (user-generated content) in many instances. So, how reliable will it be? I mean, when I write something — anything from a blog post to a book, I want the data I use in that work to be 100% accurate. I fear that just as with Wikipedia, the information you get may not be 100%, and with the volume of data they plan to include, there’s no way to vette [sic] all of the information.

Fair enough, but of course the upside is that corrections can be easily made. If one already uses Wikipedia, this tradeoff is very familiar.

The most critical voice so far is Mark Graham, an English geographer (and a fellow participant in the January 2010 WikiWars conference) who published “The Problem with Wikidata” on The Atlantic’s website this week:

This is a highly significant and hugely important change to the ways that Wikipedia works. Until now, the Wikipedia community has never attempted any sort of consistency across all languages. …

It is important that different communities are able to create and reproduce different truths and worldviews. And while certain truths are universal (Tokyo is described as a capital city in every language version that includes an article about Japan), others are more messy and unclear (e.g. should the population of Israel include occupied and contested territories?).

The reason that Wikidata marks such a significant moment in Wikipedia’s history is the fact that it eliminates some of the scope for culturally contingent representations of places, processes, people, and events. However, even more concerning is that fact that this sort of congealed and structured knowledge is unlikely to reflect the opinions and beliefs of traditionally marginalized groups.

The comments on the article are interesting, with some voices sharing Graham’s concerns, while others argue his concerns are overstated:

While there are exceptions, most of the information (and bias) in Wikipedia articles is contained within the prose and will be unaffected by Wikidata. … It’s quite possible that Wikidata will initially provide a lopsided database with a heavy emphasis on the developed world. But Wikipedia’s increasing focus on globalization and the tremendous potential of the open editing model make it one of the best candidates for mitigating that factor within the Semantic Web.

Wikimedia and Wikipedia’s slant toward the North, the West, and English speakers are well-covered in Wikipedia’s own list of its systemic biases, and Wikidata can’t help but face the same challenges. Meanwhile, another commenter argued:

The sky is falling! Or not, take your pick. Other commenters have made more informed posts than this, but does Wikidata’s existence force Wikipedia to use it? Probably not. … But if Wikidata has a graph of the Israel boundary–even multiple graphs–I suppose that the various Wikipedia authors could use one, or several, or none and make their own…which might get edited by someone else.

Under the canny (partial) title of “Who Will Be Mostly Right … ?” on the blog Data Liberate, Richard Wallis writes:

I share some of [Graham's] concerns, but also draw comfort from some of the things Denny said in Berlin – “WikiData will not define the truth, it will collect the references to the data…. WikiData created articles on a topic will point to the relevant Wikipedia articles in all languages.” They obviously intend to capture facts described in different languages, the question is will they also preserve the local differences in assertion. In a world where we still can not totally agree on the height of our tallest mountain, we must be able to take account of and report differences of opinion.

Evidence that those behind Wikidata have anticipated a response similar to Graham’s can be found on the blog Too Big to Know where technologist David Weinberger shared a snippet of an IRC chat with he had with a Wikimedian:

[11:29] hi. I’m very interested in wikidata and am trying to write a brief blog post, and have a n00b question.
[11:29] go ahead!
[11:30] When there’s disagreement about a fact, will there be a discussion page where the differences can be worked through in public?
[11:30] two-fold answer
[11:30] 1. there will be a discussion page, yes
[11:31] 2. every fact can always have references accompanying it. so it is not about “does berlin really have 3.5 mio people” but about “does source X say that berlin has 3.5 mio people”
[11:31] wikidata is not about truth
[11:31] but about referenceable facts

The compiled phrase “Wikidata is not about truth, but about referenceable facts” is an intentional echo of Wikipedia’s oft-debated but longstanding allegiance to “verifiability, not truth”. Unsurprisingly, this familiar debate is playing itself out around Wikidata already.

Thanks for research assistance to Morgan Wehling.

How to Stop the Next Bell Pottinger

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on December 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can UI Changes Transform Wikipedia from Call Center to Community?

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on December 1, 2011 at 2:29 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Wikipedia “Slowly Dying”?

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on August 5, 2011 at 11:27 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trendy Thinking: Contemplating Wikipedia Contributorship

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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.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part IV: If Personnel is Policy, then Userbase is Destiny

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on March 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

In three posts last week, I considered how buzzy Q&A website Quora is more like Wikipedia than not. In this post, I’ll address how the different organizations behind them may affect the communities surrounding each.

For all of Quora’s upbeat talk about wanting to become “the best place” for answering questions on any conceivable topic, it is first and foremost a for-profit enterprise, and one allegedly worth somewhere between $300 million and $1 billion. It’s not hard to imagine how outside pressures (such as those from investors) might eventually force Quora to choose between the best thing for its community’s experience and the best thing for its financial well-being.

In fact, this probably has already discouraged one type of editor: the free culture / free software crowd, who helped build Wikipedia. One would think these folks might otherwise be interested in building a universal repository of information—but not if it’s a closed system. As we’ve seen in the unhapphiness of some Huffington Post bloggers following that site’s sale to AOL, one needn’t be a close follower of Richard Stallman to have questions about spending a lot of time helping to build a resource that may never produce a monetary return. Now, I am not saying those complaining about HuffPo are right, or discounting that participation on such platforms can be rewarding for non-monetary reasons. But it’s something Quora will have to look out for.

Wikipedia and Quora logosA good example involves an incident well-known at Wikipedia where, in the site’s early years, a significant number of editors on Wikipedia’s nascent Spanish-language edition decamped over such concerns. Among several reasons for the split, the most significant involved a suggestion (not even a real proposal) that Wikipedia would pay the bills by selling ads on the website. At the time, Wikipedia belonged to a private company owned by Jimmy Wales, and its url was www.wikipedia.com. So they left and started a competitor, Enciclopedia Libre Universal. The Spanish-language Wikipedia eventually recovered and outpaced its rival, but not for several years. (Wikipedians call this the “Spanish Fork”; for more information see this Jauary 2011 interview and Andrew Lih’s book, The Wikipedia Revolution.)

It probably doesn’t matter whether Quora might one day include advertising, because these types of editors would never have showed up in the first place. Let’s imagine, just for the moment, that they did open up advertising. One way or another, that would end up influencing content, which would be hard to reconcile with their stated goal that “each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.” Even if advertising didn’t influence content, it would inevitably interfere with it.

A handy comparison is Twitter: a few years back, one of it co-founders inadvisably pledged the site would “never” have advertising. They came up with a clever solution in Promoted Tweets, but there are still backlashes in store, like the one this past weekend over the “quickbar” added to Twitter’s iPhone app. And remember, the question here is not whether Quora will alienate participants so much they all leave—but whether enough disengage or never show up to keep it from competing with Wikipedia for mindshare in a serious way.

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Of course, it must be acknowledged that Wikipedia’s being a non-profit foundation (taking over for Wales’ dot com in 2003) comes with its own drawbacks. Late last year, many readers expressed displeasure with the months-long banner campaign featuring Wales and others “begging” for money. But they say this about NPR, too. And while its listeners put up with it (even as they sometimes put in for it) there is a huge audience of people who like neither the content nor the management, and stay away.

Apple vs. AndroidOne thing about being a hot new startup does help Quora: it has a dedicated design team actively working on the site design, and can make decisions more quickly. Wikipedia often struggles to make big changes, and with implementation of Flagged revisions or the debate over paid editing, disagreement can lead to paralysis and a default to the status quo.

At the moment, which is better remains a philosophical question: Wikipedia’s open and free nature vs. Quora’s closed and proprietary model. If you think that sounds like an easy question, consider the debate between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The two operating systems are currently very competitive, and it’s an open question which will pull ahead. Applications within Apple’s closely-regulated App Store are far more reliable and considered to be of higher quality than those within Google’s open app marketplace.

For any number of reasons, this may not be a great analogy for discussing Wikipedia and Quora. But consider how competitive the Android platform might be if it had debuted not one year after Apple’s iPhone but ten years. If Quora had launched at the beginning of the 2000s instead of its end, we might be talking about a very different competition. Right now, it is difficult to see how Quora can close the gap (more like a vast gulf) between itself and Wikipedia. At least, it won’t happen anytime soon.

But perhaps the Wikipedia comparison is setting the bar too high. Quora is an interesting platform, and I don’t see why it needs to achieve a Wikipedia-like ubiquity to become useful. It certainly needs to displace Yahoo! Answers, and it needs to start showing up in Google search results. If its community continues to grow and build out its content in areas that Wikipedia doesn’t want to cover, then it just might have a chance. The philosophical difference is resolvable only with data: as Quora develops in months and years to come, we’ll see how it stacks up. I’ll still be spending most of my time on Wikipedia, both as a reader and an editor. But if I can’t find it there, my next stop will definitely be Quora.

Follow me on Quora, if you are so inclined.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part III: It’s the Little Differences

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on March 4, 2011 at 9:39 am

In two previous posts, I have explored a comparison between Wikipedia and the upstart platform Quora, the first setting the stage for discussion, and the second explaining the (acknowledged) debt one owes the other. In this post, I will discuss how they differ in ways you’ve surely noticed—and ways you might not.

Writing a detailed explanation of how Wikipedia and Quora differ is a foolhardy assignment (and an even more foolish self-assignment). Because one is descended from the paper encyclopedia and the other comes from the Q&A genre, it’s hard to know where to begin. But we can make some observations:

The most significant difference between Quora and Wikipedia is a philosophical one: they simply do not share the same definition of “knowledge”. As you might imagine, this matters quite a bit and, in fact, Jimmy Wales’ best-known quote is arguably the following:

“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.”

That is certainly what a Wikipedian might say he or she is doing. Your average Quoran (if that’s the preferred nomenclature) might not immediately find reason to disagree. But given further investigation they may find Wikipedia to be something less than that. Perhaps the best summary of these competing viewpoints comes from the Seb Paquet essay at The Quora Review linked in my first post. In it, he writes:

Wikipedia reflects consensus reality, or tries very hard to do so. In this respect, you could say that Wikipedia is past-bound: it offers knowledge of what has been known. However, there’s another segment of the world’s knowledge that is hazy and tentative. It is emphatically not validated. It is contentious. It is controversial. It’s messy. You could call it pre-knowledge.

On Wikipedia, the most concise definition of Wikipedia considers useful knowledge is encapsulated in the “General notability guideline”, which states:

If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to satisfy the inclusion criteria for a stand-alone article or stand-alone list.

Quora has yet to develop anything quite so pithy, although its About page contains numerous statements which altogether produce a clear vision. As “notability” is the primary basis for inclusion at Wikipedia, “reusability” seems to play the same role at Quora:

“Each question page on Quora is a reusable resource that should help everyone who has the question that the page is about. … There is only one version of each distinct question on the site, so everyone who is interested in or knows about that material is focused on that one place.”

We can leave aside a careful exploration of what consitutes “reusable”, in part because so has Quora: to date they have not placed too many limits on what readers can contribute, only in what format they may contribute it. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has already developed a lengthy list of things that it does not wish to do, helpfully titled “What Wikipedia is not”. Among these, Wikipedia is not a “publisher of original thought”, nor a “manual, guidebook” or “crystal ball”. Quora seems OK with all that.

One effect of Wikipedia’s “narrow” focus is that it serves as a handy guide for other websites (and their backers) to identify a niche that avoids competing directly with Wikipedia. While other electronic encyclopedias have fallen to Wikipedia, specialization has worked for other projects. A good example of how this works is Wikia, founded by none other than Jimbo Wales himself, which smartly capitalizes on “what Wikipedia is not” and finds opportunities on the other side; because Wikipedia policies imply a limited appetite and minimum standards for information about Star Wars, the Wikia-hosted Wookiepedia is there to take up the slack.

Wikipedia and Quora logosAn example from outside the family might be the Internet Movie Database. Although IMDb’s original incarnation predates Wikipedia by more than 20 years, the point is that it has survived, and even thrived. For all kinds of information about motion pictures, IMDb is better because it wants more of that kind of information than Wikipedia does.

Quora too wants more information than Wikipedia, except it wants more of everything. In some respects this has its advantages; as Paquet goes on to say, Wikipedia is “past-bound” whereas Quora is “future-oriented”. I think that may be a little too rosy an assessment; one cannot overlook the possibility that Quora won’t necessarily be good at either. If you want to be everything to everybody, pretty soon you’ll be nothing to nobody. But I do think Quora recognizes this, and is watching to see how things develop, and will probably introduce more restrictions as time goes on.

And that brings us to another key difference: the organizations behind the websites and their relationship to users. I’ll get to those in the fourth (and final?) installment of this series. Look for that next week.

Why not follow me on Quora? Indeed, why not.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part II: Follow the Leader

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on March 1, 2011 at 3:40 pm

The first part of this series is available here: Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part I.

I’m not persuaded that Quora is necessarily an attempt to displace Wikipedia, but I do believe it was designed to emulate aspects of “the encyclopedia anyone can edit” that make sense for Quora while trying a different approach. Mike Arrington has said that Quora is about creating a “better” Wikipedia, but it isn’t clear just yet that its approach is actually better. In some ways, I’ll bet it’s worse.
Wikipedia and Quora logos
But before we compare the pluses and minuses of each model, let’s first consider the ways in which Quora consciously follows Wikipedia’s lead.

First and foremost, Arrington and company aren’t making the comparison to Wikipedia without a strong hint from the site itself. Indeed, calling Quora a “Q&A website” is a bit like saying Bill Simmons is a “sportswriter”; no one will say you’re wrong, but that misses the bigger picture. And Quora doesn’t hide its ambitions; the very first paragraph of its About page declares:

“Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.”

Except for the “question” part, that sounds a heck of a lot like Wikipedia. A few paragraphs later:

“People use Quora to document the world around them. Over time, the database of knowledge should grow and grow until almost everything that anyone wants to know is available in the system.”

Other Quora policies clarify that, yes, you may ask easy questions and, yes, you may ask questions you already know the answer to. How else could the system grow to encompass virtually everything under the sun?

Based on the above and nothing more, I’d say one could describe Quora as a “reverse Wikipedia”: rather than presenting a set of facts on a general topic answering many hypothetical questions, as Wikipedia does, Quora wants to organize the same information around very non-hypothetical questions.

Read a little further into Quora’s list of policies and the hints go from “strong” to “explicit”. Asked about spelling and capitalization, Quora punts:

“When possible, use Wikipedia as a guide. … For things that Wikipedia doesn’t provide a model for, try to use the same pattern that Wikipedia uses for similar things.”

The same goes for naming topics:

“When there is controversy over a topic’s name, we generally prefer Wikipedia’s conventions.”

Asked about limits on acceptable user behavior, Quora policy states:

“Users are also not allowed to post content or adopt a tone that would be interpreted by a reasonable observer as [list of horribles]. This policy is based on Wikipedia’s policy on harassment.”

A related guideline points to Wikipedia’s policy on personal attacks. One can call it copy-catting, but I’d say it shows respect for the thought and effort Wikipedia’s contributors have put into the challenges of categorization and cultivation of community.

And there is more still. While Quora remains in the early stages of development, its creators have already declared some future plans. One is something no other Q&A site has attempted, and that is introducing a preferred format for citing sources. It’s currently quite primitive, and I have not much seen them much in use, but their intentions are clear. Quora policies allow that citations are optional, but promises their use will be rewarded:

A good reason [to use the format] is that when/if Quora adds real footnote support, footnotes following these guidelines will be automatically converted.

So far, Quora has proven to be extraordinarily well thought out. Of course they’ve had considerable help, but to their credit they’ve certainly nodded in the direction of their inspiration.

Now that we’ve established that Quora is indeed a lot like Wikipedia, we still need to analyze how the two platforms differ. Then we can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each. And that’s my next post.

If you are so inclined, you may follow me on Quora.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part I

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on February 28, 2011 at 10:13 am

In the past few months, I’ve become increasingly interested in the hit startup website Quora. If you’re not familiar with it, the simplest explanation is that it’s a Q&A website that gets right what earlier incarnations got wrong.* A longer explanation would include a discussion of why it is much more ambitious.

To expand on the point: Answers.com is a wasteland of unanswered questions and no visible community, while Quora has real enthusiasts. ChaCha has more reliable respondents, but they are paid generalists who may not know much about a given topic. Yahoo! Answers seems to have a genuine community, albeit one full of know-nothings. Quora, on the other hand, has attracted the participation of experts (at least in tech) who volunteer their time to create new content on topics of their own interest.

Does this sound like any other websites you know?

Quora’s strengths as a social media platform and Q&A site are evident: it looks sharp and stylish, seems to be well thought out, and has followed the Facebook-Twitter model of starting with a core group of likeminded users before gradually expanding its user base. While it is very far from being a household word, it is often enough compared to those two social media juggernauts, and in fact has early Facebook employees on board. But more and more it is being compared to Wikipedia, which answers the question (so to speak) about why I’ve become so fascinated by it.

To wit: A recent post by Techcrunch editor Mike Arrington declared that Quora was about building “a better Wikipedia”. John Keehler at Random Culture recently called it “Wikipedia, Evolved”. In response to these, Teluq-UQAM professor Seb Paquet published an essay at The Quora Review titled “Why Quora is Not Wikipedia”.

But if Quora’s goal is to “beat” Wikipedia—and I have not heard its founders claim this as a goal—it is very far from doing so now. For virtually every topic Wikipedia addresses, the site is usually found at or near the top of relevant search engine results. Its ubiquity is so great that some have speculated Google purposefully elevates Wikipedia in search results (the more likely reason is that wiki software does many things Google bots look for, and many people link to it). Quora, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found in most searches.

Wikipedia contains 3.5 million separate articles (in its English edition alone), each of which may cover several related topics in detail. And with a few million more “redirects” also catching the eye of Google’s crawlers, the number of opportunities for Wikipedia to land a prominent position on a search results page may be in the neighborhood of ten million. The number of questions on Quora is, at present, not public information.

Any way you slice the numbers, Wikipedia is one of the top ten websites in the United States and the entire world. According to Alexa, Quora is at best the 1,269th website in the United States, and is so far limited to the English language. Wikipedia has been around for more than ten years; Quora, less than two. Whatever Quora might achieve in the future, it has not yet. Wikipedia certainly has.

Quora and Wikipedia are unique in many ways, but to focus on where they are different is to gloss over what they have in common. Meanwhile, Arrington’s flat statement that Quora is “better” greatly oversimplifies the matter. Instead, I’d like to examine what they do have in common, and how they may compete with or complement each other.

In my next post, that’s just what I’ll do.

P.S. If you’d like, you can follow me on Quora.

* On Twitter, Matt Bucher reminds me of Ask MetaFilter, which is different in several ways from the sites discussed above. He is right to identify it as a quality site; the MetaFilter community has been well-cultivated in its decade-plus existence, and is a fine and frequently thoughtful resource for its community. However, I think that’s all it ever plans to be: one section of a larger online community.