William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘Influencing Wikipedia’ Category

Bats in the Belfer: A Beginner’s Guide to the Biggest Wikipedia Controversy You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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on April 2, 2014 at 7:47 pm

If you follow Wikipedia a bit more than casually, you might have heard something lately about nefarious goings on about the Wikimedia Foundation, a charitable trust called the Stanton Foundation, and something called the Belfer Center at Harvard University. If you follow Wikipedia in the news generally, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

The short version—if I can manage to pull this off—is that from 2012 to 2013 the Wikimedia Foundation (or WMF, which oversees Wikipedia) followed the request of a major donor (the Stanton Foundation) to coordinate the placement a paid editor (named Timothy Sandole) with the Belfer Center (at Harvard University) to directly edit articles (which WMF has always said it does not and would not do). The position was supposed to go to an experienced Wikipedia editor, but Sandole had no Wikipedia experience before he applied for the position.

The work he contributed over the course of the following year hardly seemed to justify his compensation, and some non-trivial edits were of direct benefit to the Belfer Center and Stanton Foundation. It’s probably worth noting at some point here that the principals at Belfer and Stanton are a married couple. It is also worth mentioning that several Wikipedia veterans privately criticized the initiative to Foundation employees and warned this would not go well. As you may have gathered, it did not go well.

I’m going to repeat myself and underline the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation has always said that it wants to stays out of content creation or editorial decisions on Wikipedia, and it’s frankly kind of boggling to find that’s exactly what happened here.

So, this all looks really bad. It is also complicated by a handful of other problems:

  • News broke at the same time as the Wikimedia Foundation considered an amendment to its Terms of Use intended to require greater disclosure by paid editors—a highly relevant situation, you might say.
  • Also concurrently, people associated with the Wikipedia watchdog Wikipediocracy had been hammering the Wikimedia Foundation for looking the other way when prominent Wikipedia donors had edited their own article—an even more relevant situation, clearly.
  • And of course, all of this coming at a time when WMF has been struggling to name a successor to long-serving executive director Sue Gardner, whom this blog has praised, but whose track record of success seems to be unraveling as the end of her term draws (presumably) nearer.

So there’s context and commentary, but if you’re intrigued, I promise there is a lot more to read. Here’s what you need to know, and then some:

  • April 26, 2012—Not quite two years ago, and long before this became a controversial matter, a post on the official Wikimedia blog—“Can you help Wikipedians collaborate with Harvard University?”—announced the initial call for Wikipedians to apply for a position to work with Harvard’s Belfer Center.

    You can actually still read the original job description on Jobvite, seeking a “Campus Wikipedian”. The position began August 2012, and concluded August 2013.

  • March 2, 2014—The first public report that something might have been amiss was published one month ago today, by a Polish editor best known as Odder, in a blog post titled “The pot and the kettle, the Wikimedia way”. This lays out a good deal of the key info, and its implications, but the connection between Belfer and Stanton had not yet been made. Still, Odder’s editorialization remains valid:

    The WMF’s unprecedented role in endorsing a project so negligent in adhering to broadly accepted ethical principles not only undermines the integrity and quality of Wikipedia, but also raises questions about the role of the Stanton Foundation and the Belfer Center in it.

  • March 19, 2014—After percolating in private discussions and email lists for a couple weeks, the matter was finally raised on the publicly accessible Wikimedia-l mailing list under the heading “Timothy Sandole and (apparently) $53,690 of WMF funding”, with a link to Odder’s post and some pointed questions about WMF’s handling of the matter. Want to read more from this thread? OK, you asked for it.
  • That same day, Wikipedia’s volunteer-written newsletter, the Signpost, put a spotlight on the issue, detailing the case as it was then understood. Following Wikipedia’s cautious, Timesian house style, it was titled “Foundation-supported Wikipedian in residence faces scrutiny”.
  • March 20, 2014—The next day, Liam Wyatt and Pete Forsyth, two editors who had warned against the Stanton-Belfer arrangement went public with their previously stated misgivings. Wyatt’s concluded:

    The WMF dug themselves into this hole despite the frantic attempts, which were largely rebuffed, of several of the GLAM-WIKI community help them fix it – or at least reduce the number of problems. Now, it’s up to the WMF to dig themselves out again. Ironic given the current attention being given by the WMF to paid editing…

  • March 21, 2014—Just one more day after that, a longtime Wikipedia antagonist published the findings of his own research on the same list, with the subject line “Belfer report – analysis from Russavia”. This posting finally connected the dots between Stanton’s Liz Allison and Belfer’s Graham Allison.
  • Finally the WMF was moved to respond, and deputy director Erik Moeller sent a fairly detailed, bulleted reply to the same list just a few hours later. It acknowledged some edits by Sandole seemed to favor Belfer and also Stanton in a way that raised exactly the kind of “conflict of interest” issues Wikipedia is often worried about.
  • April 1, 2014—Yesterday more details arrived with a blog post on Wikipediocracy titled “Business as Usual”, identifying even more problematic Belfer-Stanton edits (if less implicating of WMF) by individuals assoicated with it, and added substantially more detail to the record. As mentioned before, this is a website disliked by many in the Wikipedia community, and this post in particular written by Gregory Kohs, who has more than earned his reputation as Wikipedia’s #1 gadfly. Indeed, there is often too much innuendo floating around these parts, but they still do investigations that no one else does.
  • Finally, we come to the official report from the Foundation, written by a team and presented by none other than Sue Gardner herself. With an even more prosaic title than Signpost, Gardner laid out the “Wikipedian in Residence/Harvard University assessment”.
    • It acknowledged the “mistake” of combining “fundraising and programmatic work”, not listening to people like Wyatt and Forsyth, and that no course correction was done. The “decisions” made were mostly bureaucratic promises to apply more “scrutiny” and “process” and a tentative date for May 1 has been set for more information. We’ll see. But one decision is quite clear, so far as it goes:

      In the future, the Wikimedia Foundation will not support or endorse the creation of paid roles that have article writing as a core focus, regardless of who is initiating or managing the process.

      In other words, the Wikimedia Foundation has decided that it will not do the one thing it previously said it would not do, but that it just did anyway.

So there you have it. What happens next? Probably nothing regarding the above; an official report and an acknowledgment like the one which arrived yesterday is about as much as you can get. The person at the top is already leaving her position (eventually) and it seems very unlikely that anyone else who made “mistakes” is in line for that job anyway.

That said, it’s certainly not how Sue Gardner wanted the last chapter of her leadership at WMF to read. And whatever this means for the Terms of Use proposal, or the larger question of paid editors or “conflict of interest” on Wikipedia, will be written in the next.

Wiki-PR’s Case Study in Worst Practices and What Comes Next

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on October 23, 2013 at 4:13 pm

This entry is cross-posted from a similar blog post on the (new) blog of Beutler Ink, a content marketing firm owned and operated by yours truly. As dedicated readers are aware, I’ve long been an advocate and practitioner of “white hat” Wikipedia engagement for PR professionals, and this post represents my views on the matter.

This week so far has been a very interesting time for Wikipedia: mainstream press outlets, including the BBC, TimeThe Guardian, SlateCNET and more, have picked up on the story of “Wiki-PR”, first reported by The Daily Dot two weeks ago. For those readers not up to speed, Wiki-PR is a little-known company identified as the culprit behind several hundred deceptive Wikipedia accounts, whose purpose was surreptitiously creating and maintaining articles about the company’s clients. The Wikimedia Foundation, in a statement yesterday, described Wiki-PR’s alleged activities as a “Terms of Service” violation, and said it was “currently assessing all the options”.

This is an issue that matters a lot to me—both personally and professionally. If you’ve worked with Beutler Ink, you may know that I personally am a volunteer contributor to Wikipedia, someone who has been called to comment on the site in the media, and a provider of consulting services related to the website. At Beutler Ink, it is one of our more unusual service offerings—and it’s a fun one at that. Since I first learned of Wiki-PR, I’ve been certain that the company’s M.O. was to intentionally and systematically evade Wikipedia’s accepted rules. And how did I know this? Easy: I had always found it very curious that I’d never once crossed paths with the company’s representatives on Wikipedia.

As far as I can tell, Wiki-PR and Beutler Ink share exactly one thing in common: we both offer services focused on helping companies, organizations and individuals navigate Wikipedia. Literally everything else is different. Our approach to transparency, our methods of outreach, our attitudes toward the community, and the effects of our actions are night and day. At the present moment, Wiki-PR has shuttered its Twitter account, and is reduced to offering unpersuasive denials to major media outlets. Meanwhile, here I am writing in plain English about the tricky subject of public relations and Wikipedia. (Nor is it the first time I’ve written about it.)

The practice of helping outside organizations communicate with the Wikipedia community for the purpose of improving aspects of coverage is a legitimate enterprise, but it’s also a very complicated one. Few Wikipedians are really enthusiastic about companies and organizations having an influence over what Wikipedia articles say, but they also know that Wikipedia articles don’t always get things right, and the views of companies discussed in articles should be considered. Company representatives may have corrections to add, but these suggestions should be balanced with Wikipedia’s goals as an encyclopedia—and it’s always better to have these corrections made out in the open.

But Wikipedia is notoriously opaque—its rules are not easy for outsiders to find or follow—so it’s not at all surprising to learn that Wiki-PR (and other unethical firms like them) have been able to get away with telling their clients everything was on the up-and-up. By definition, these companies and individuals had hired Wiki-PR because they didn’t know anything about how Wikipedia worked. Unfortunately, Wiki-PR took advantage of the website’s obscure rules to deceive their clients.

As a matter of fact, a few times over the last few days, I’ve had friends and colleagues ask me: Hey, isn’t that what you do? I can’t respond fast enough with an emphatic No. There are several reasons we are different, but the two most important are ethics—especially with regard to transparency—and quality.

First and foremost, we are committed to following Wikipedia’s best practices for responsible Wikipedia engagement—such as the all-important “Conflict of interest” guideline, Jimmy Wales’ so-called “bright line” and the community information page “Plain and simple conflict of interest guide“—because it’s the best thing for the integrity of Wikipedia and the best way to protect our client partners from criticism. We take a hands-off approach to Wikipedia engagement: rather than making direct edits, we offer solutions that work for Wikipedia and our client partners both. Rather than hiding our affiliation, we make it crystal clear that we are paid consultants. We can’t promise that every Wikipedia editor will always be willing to work with us, but we aim to be “state of the art” and to respect the rules Wikipedia has adopted for itself. As these “best practices” will surely continue to evolve, so will we.

Second, a commitment to quality work serves everyone. Several of our articles have been listed as “Featured” or “Good” articles according to Wikipedia’s volunteer-based rating system—not an easy recognition to attain. We always make a point of saying that the reason we are so successful is because we place improvement of Wikipedia as a top goal. Where Wikipedia’s goals may differ from a client’s goals, we will not ask for that particular edit. And when this inevitably happens, we are confident that we can explain why. Since 2008, I’ve been doing some form of transparent Wikipedia public relations (I like to call it “wiki relations” although it hasn’t really caught on) so I know what works, and what doesn’t work. When I don’t know, I ask first. If you want to get away with something, you don’t come to us.

Ultimately, the big difference between Beutler Ink and companies like Wiki-PR is that we believe in Wikipedia’s mission and we want to help it become a better resource. That we can do this while also helping our client partners improve the information about them on the most important reference website in the world is something we’re very proud of.

It’s hard to predict what the Wiki-PR debacle will mean for the state of Wikipedia and public relations, although it seems we are closer to the beginning of this story than the end. But in my optimism, there are two things I would like to see happen next.

First, I’d love to see Wikipedia finally get serious about creating a unified request system for outside interests—a customer service desk, if you will—similar to the “Articles for Creation” process but for existing articles, and then stay serious about working through the inevitable backlog. Second, and just as importantly: when companies like Wiki-PR are caught trying to manipulate Wikipedia for their own benefits, they need to feel the pressure from not only the Wikipedia community, but also from PR professionals.

Yet so long as unethical practices like the ones in the news right continue to dominate the discussion, this only make it less likely that the Wikipedia community will take us seriously. As long as Wiki-PR and its ilk dominate the news, it’s hard to blame them if they don’t.

It’s the Law! Wikipedia, Cato Institute and the U.S. Congress

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on March 20, 2013 at 10:20 am

Last Thursday and Friday, I participated in an independently-organized Wikipedia-focused project right here in Washington, D.C., one highly relevant to the city where it took place. It was called a Legislative Data Workshop, organized by Jim Harper on behalf of the Cato Institute and led by Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies. Here’s the three-line pitch from the Wikipedia project page about it:

Interested in the bills making their way through Congress?

Think they should be covered well in Wikipedia?

Well, let’s do something about it!

To add a little more background: Cato, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a libertarian think tank based here in the District. Among many initiatives, some of their personnel have been working on a project to annotate legislation before the U.S. Congress, and because of Wikipedia’s reputation as “one of the most popular, if not the most popular” sources of non-partisan information on the web, they wanted to investigate possibilities for collaboration. Cato’s views on government transparency match well with the larger Wikipedia community’s goals of freely available information—even if there isn’t complete agreement on every issue, as Forsyth explained on his own blog, there’s more than grounds for cooperation.

The actual event was split into two days: an introduction to Wikipedia on Thursday afternoon, and a day-long work session on Friday.

Jim-Harper_Pete-ForsythOn Thursday, Forsyth explained to attendees how Wikipedia works: articles, discussion pages, history pages, etc. Half the crowd comprised experienced Wikipedians from the District and nearby area, who knew all of this in their sleep, but seemed valuable for the Cato staff, interns and other attendees. The day concluded with a work period where the veterans helped the newbies work on existing articles. In an era where jobs “created or saved” has become a commonly-recognized phrase, we worked with Cato interns to create and save a new (stub) article about Events DC, which owns RFK Stadium and the DC convention center. One attendee, a software developer and Cato donor visiting from L.A., created perhaps the single greatest first-article ever: Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013.

On Friday, it was the all-day strategy session. I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical: Wikipedia’s extensive “What Wikipedia is not” guideline, and my own experience as an editor, would suggest that every single bill introduced in Congress would not be deserving of its own Wikipedia article. But maybe my imagination was too limited—might there be a role for Wikidata in all this?

The result is a new on-site project called WikiProject United States Federal Government Legislative Data. If that’s a mouthful, you can also call it WP:LEGDATA Unsurprisingly, my own questions about following every bill was one of the first issues raised by an outside observer once the project was put into action “on-wiki”, as Wikipedians like to say. And so the project has listed “Targets for development” which do fit Wikipedia’s guidelines.

A more focused idea coming out of the project is to recommend a standardized page layout for articles about bills before Congress. I’m going to give that a try with a few bills myself. If this project sounds interesting, stop on by and propose a task or ask how you can help.

P.S. If you’re curious to see the notes developed during Friday’s session, you should be able to access them on Etherpad here.

Image via User:Slowking2 on Wikipedia.

International Women’s Day

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on March 8, 2013 at 9:24 am

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! As it has in previous years, the Wikipedia community has organized a number of events to celebrate both today and the rest of Women’s History Month, through the WikiWomen’s History Month. Women and feminism-focused edit-a-thons are taking place in countries including Brazil, Poland, Spain, and Sweden. Meanwhile, Wikimedia UK will be giving a talk at the Southbank Center in London, as part of the Women of the World Festival, to encourage women to become Wikipedia editors. Across the U.S. a variety of events are taking place, from edit-a-thons led by THATCamp Feminisms in Claremont, California and Atlanta, Georgia, to a Women in the Arts meet-up at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

If you’ve ever thought about editing but haven’t yet dived in, now is a great time to start. Wikipedia needs more ladies, so please consider getting involved!

The full list of events is available here.

This Wikipedia Article Is Not Yet Rated

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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.

Banned from Wikipedia… Almost

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on October 20, 2010 at 10:29 am

I presume that a fair number of Wikipedia’s casual readers and participants are at least vaguely aware of the fact that bad behavior can get one banned from the site — of course I mean from editing it, not from reading it. But what I’ll bet is less known is that there is another type of punishment which is less extreme, but probably is no more fun to the punished: topic banning. Wikipedia defines this as follows:

The user is prohibited from editing either (1) making any edits in relation to a particular topic, (2) particular pages that are specified in the ban; and/or, (2) any page relating to a particular topic. Such a ban may include or exclude corresponding talk pages. Users who violate such bans may be blocked.

Wikipedia has other editing restrictions — article bans, requirements to discuss changes — but topic banning is the most common. At present, Wikipedia bars more than 100 editors from making certain types of edits.

And there is a pattern to topic bans as well, one that mirrors Wikipedia’s most controversial topics: balkanized Eastern Europe, disputed Israel and Palestinian territories, ever disputatious Scientology, and other topics also found on Wikipedia’s internal List of controversial issues.

It comes as no surprise that climate change is one of them, and it’s on that particular topic that Wikipedia has just topic-banned a long-time contributor. The person in question is William Connolley, a British writer, Scienceblogs contributor and former climate researcher. Unusual for most Wikipedia editors, Connolley is himself the subject of a Wikipedia article himself. As an aside, I’m not sure that Connolley is strictly “notable“, but he was featured briefly (and sympathetically) in a 2006 New Yorker article about Wikipedia.

Most of the commentary on Connolley comes from the political right, even to the point of inspiring his own watchdog site and the occasional newspaper column. However, the most consistent (persistent?) coverage of Connolley’s Wikipedia editing has undoubtedly been provided by Anthony Watts of the blog Watts Up With That? Watts’ take on Connolley’s banning is here.

I’m not particularly familiar with Connolley’s activity or the controversies extending therefrom, but more than a few dedicated Wikipedians certainly are. He is among the most carefully-scrutinized Wikipedia editors — the discussion page associated with his account is the 11th-most “watchlisted” Talk page, following only a couple of technical pages and those belonging to Wikipedia’s best-known contributors.

Getting to the bottom of this all is no simple matter, and I confess that I’m going to punt: Wikipedia’s arbitration committee took nearly two months and some 36,000 words to arrive at the decision. You can read the whole thing, or just the section where members of the committee voted to restrict his editing activity. If I understand it correctly, the ultimate reason for the actions taken was not the material he sought to introduce but the attitude he showed toward editors who disagreed with his point of view. For Connolley’s point of view, his commentary on the decision can be found on his own Talk page, and in a post at Scienceblogs.

If I’ve missed anything important, please add it in the comments.

From the Mixed-Up Files…

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on September 29, 2010 at 8:04 pm

WBEZ in Chicago is probably best known for being home to the long-running radio series This American Life. But one of their most innovative offerings is an online video series first aired in April 2009 called The Wikipedia Files.

The idea is simple: WBEZ hosts interview entertainment celebrities by reading portions of the Wikipedia articles about them, simply to fact-check the articles within. More often than not, the articles are accurate enough, but they certainly have caught some interesting errors.

I think it’s an ingenious idea, and I hope that other media organizations follow, especially on other subjects. One of the biggest complaints about Wikipedia is that it’s difficult to tell what’s true and what is not. Although contributors are encouraged to add citations, the fact is many do not. In many cases, people add things they know, or think they know, and either cannot find a source or never bother to look one up. Some details may have originated on blogs, most of which Wikipedia generally does not consider to be reliable. This is all the more serious on articles about living persons, which Wikipedia takes more seriously than in other genres. The Wikipedia Files offers editors the chance to verify certain facts at the source, and to establish facts that were not previously known.

In one recent example, WBEZ’s Justin Kaufmann sat down with Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, one half of acclaimed American hip hop duo OutKast, now promoting his also-acclaimed solo debut, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty”. Here is Big Boi with Kaufmann:

Big Boi fact-checks his Wikipedia page from WBEZ on Vimeo.

And in fact, at least one fix did come of the interview. On July 20, the same day it was posted, an anonymous, to date one-time editor from Akron, Ohio made the following correction about how he started pursuing music and his early relationship with André “3000″ Benjamin:

wikipedia-files-big-boi-edit

Alas, this editor did not add a citation to go along with it (so I just did). Otherwise, who’s to know where to go and verify the information contained? This points to the fact that adding citations to Wikipedia is harder than it should be—but you can’t hold that against WBEZ.

GLAM Rock: The Wikipedian in Residence and the Race for the Prize

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on June 18, 2010 at 11:47 am

british_museum_cc_temporalataStarting in March, a longtime Wikipedian and co-host of the Wikipedia Weekly podcast, Liam Wyatt, began an unusual experiment: he has become, for a short while at least, a volunteer “Wikipedian in Residence” at the British Museum in London (which I visited in high school and where I touched the Rosetta Stone, when no one was looking, not that you care). It’s the first time such an institution has created such a position (voluntary though this arrangement is) and it points toward a future where organizations with significant cultural material (GLAMs, as this project calls them) may appoint or hire individuals to be representatives or ambassadors to Wikipedia.

Along the way, Wyatt and the British Museum are doing something very interesting: they are offering cash prizes for raising articles to Featured-level status on topics related to the British Museum. From the project page:

The British Museum is offering five prizes of £100 (≈$140USD/€120) at their shop/bookshop for new Featured Articles on topics related to the British Museum in any Wikipedia language edition. Ideally, the topics will be articles about collection items.

This is the first time an organisation in the UK has put out a prize that recognises the value of fine articles on Wikipedia. This is a recognition that Wikipedia work is not only good quality but is consistent with the outreach aspect of the Museum’s mission to engage the public.

It’s an inventive idea, even if some of the rules are a little unclear: it almost sounds like it requires the creation of a brand new article, though that doesn’t seem to be the case. Meanwhile, there are already a dozen or so articles on the English-language Wikipedia currently judged to be Good, B, or C-quality, according to Wikipedia’s internal rating system. Though the prize is pointedly offered in any language edition, most will surely be won in the English, German or French language versions, and at least a few of the aforementioned English articles will be the five ones improved by the winners.

And in keeping with Wikipedia’s “There is no deadline” ethos (related to the concept of “eventualism“), the competition runs until all prizes are claimed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went fast, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that leads to another interesting situation: most quality articles have several major contributors, as was pointed out on a Wikipedia mailing list this week.

the_great_court_mchohanAs Wyatt points out, getting an outside organization to care about “the value of good quality articles on Wikipedia in their own right” is a significant achievement, and the first of a kind. Now that the English-language Wikipedia has grown to include far more articles (3 million) than its veteran editors (a few thousand editing on a daily basis) can possibly handle, more ideas will be needed to generate new content for Wikipedia. Perhaps this represents the next step in the development of the human-powered “content management system” for Wikipedia. Wyatt hopes that other museums will follow in the British Museum’s lead; as someone who works with companies, associations and other organizations that are frequently concerned about how they are represented on Wikipedia, I think outposts for representatives to the Wikipedia community from many organizations can be a good idea, though sorting out the conflict of interest issues is likely to be different for each.

If you’re interested in joining the British Museum contest, you might start with one of the articles discussed above, or find your own in the Collection of the British Museum category. And if you’re looking for a curator at the British Museum to work with, here is the page to do that.

And for more information about Wyatt’s residency, see his personal blog posts here: Part 1: Making Wikipedia “GLAM-friendly”* and Part 2: Making Wikipedia “GLAM-friendly”.

Exterior of British Museum by temporalata on Flickr; Great Hall by M.Chohan.

*GLAM stands for “Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum”; I had to look it up, too.

Much Ado About Malamanteau

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on May 18, 2010 at 8:29 am

XKCD is a web comic written for math majors, web developers and related sub-groups classifiable as “nerds” by Randall Munroe, whom one presumes falls into one or more of the above categories. Among Munroe’s favorite topics is Wikipedia, and a few of his panels — “The Problem with Wikipedia” and “Wikipedian Protester” — are classics, inasmuch as a comic strip about a website can be so considered. Last week Munroe published a new panel cartoon about Wikipedia, reprinted below in accordance with Creative Commons:

I’m not sure I quite got this one, so I turned to a website called Toby, Dave & Ian Explain XKCD for their take:

The Author, a well-known fan of Wikipedia, has squeezed yet another joke from its bountiful bosom. This particular joke uses the clever linguistic trick of “word-play” as well as “meta-humor” to derive a new word: malamanteau. Malamanteau is a combination of the words “malapropism” (the substitution of a word for a word with a similar sound) and “portmanteau” (the combination of two words).

The creation of this new word or “neologism” is particularly humorous as the methods used to create it are the very words used in the process. This is called a meta or “self-referential” joke.

That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, either. XKCD Sucks, a similar blog with a somewhat different mandate, stated:

Today’s xkcd comic genuinely mystifies me. I’d like you to try to imagine me writing the following post (the beginning of it, at least) with a more honest voice, not the sarcastic one I usually employ. Today’s comic asks us a question: “Ever notice how Wikipedia has a few words it really likes?” And the thing is, I haven’t. I have never noticed that. Have you? … what word is he even referring to? It can’t be “Malamanteau,” since that isn’t a real word and isn’t on wikipedia (though of course some xkcdicks tried.

As much as I enjoy XKCD on occasion, this take made more sense. And indeed, someone did try to create a Wikipedia article for Malamanteau:

wiki-malamanteau
What followed was a debate, running to nearly 19,000 words, over what to do about it. Wikipedia has a clear guideline against the creation of articles about neologisms, and even most words unless there is more to be said than a dictionary entry might. In these cases, the term should become an article at Wiktionary, but having a Wiktionary article just isn’t the same, and in any case “Malamanteau” isn’t ready for that, either.

The discussion of what to do about Malamanteau ultimately was not about whether to have an article about the term — that was right out — but whether to create a “redirect” so that people who search for the term will find themselves on the Wikipedia article about XKCD. The best argument against creating the term is perhaps the first:

The target article holds no relevant information on the term currently, thus this redirect only serves to confuse. XKCD readers already know this originated there, thus with no relevant information on the target article, the redirect is purposeless. Non-XKCD readers who somehow find the term and search it won’t find any information on it at all, and will only become more confused.

And some of the arguments for keeping the term could be described as willfully encouraging Wikipedia to undermine its own goals:

Wikipedia’s editors are high on their own farts. Comics like the one that led to this redirect make that point, and the ensuing discussion drives it home expertly. Of course it will be deleted – why would the project suddenly have a sense of humor about itself, or allow contributions that encourage everyone’s involvement, rather than that of an elite few who “take the project seriously enough” to be endowed with its protection?

At least some of the votes to delete the redirect are based more on annoyance than anything else: because “Malamanteau” is supported by people who do not have Wikipedia’s best interests at heart, there is no reason to grant such leeway. Hence some editors weighing in to say: “Delete with a vengeance” and “Delete and salt” — as in salting the earth to prevent someone from recreating it again.

But in the end, the redirect stuck. The editor who closed the discussion explained at length; to the lay reader unfamiliar with the finer points of Wikipedia’s guidelines, here are the facts that mattered:

The threshold for a term being a redirect is substantially and intentionally lower than that for a separate article. As several keep !voters pointed out, redirects are supposed to be from any useful search term or likely mistake, to the proper destination. The traffic indicates that, while falling off by as much as 75% a day, the term “Malamanteau” has plenty of search traffic during its short life to establish that it is useful to some people. … Since XKCD maintains past archives of all its strips, it is likely that traffic will continue to seek this term even after this week’s furor has died down.

In fact, this isn’t even the first time Munroe has used his comic strip to poke at tender spots in Wikipedia’s organizing rule structure.

While there are many editors who feel that this only causes unnecessary problems — 19,000 words over a lousy redirect? — I think the better case to be made is that Wikipedia’s long-term success lies in a carefully considered approach to site policies. To the extent that Wikipedia’s policies are explored by outsiders and explained by insiders, this is a good thing. But it’s still a pain in the ass.

A Potential Supreme Court Nominee Probably Edited Her Own Wikipedia Article. Is It a Big Deal?

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on April 13, 2010 at 9:30 am

leah_ward_sears_wikiNew York-based media blog Gawker is reporting that Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and potential nominee to the United States Supreme Court by President Obama, edited her own Wikipedia article in late 2008 and early 2009.

While the possibility exists that someone else used her initials, last name and year she became a state Supreme Court Justice as a username, it usually turns out that this type of account is exactly that person. Gawker is focusing primarily on an edit she made that was favorable toward herself:

On May 6th, a user named LWsears1992 edited Leah Ward Sears’ Wikipedia page, adding the clause “Based in large part on her highly regarded record” to a passage about how she defeated an opponent in the 2004 race for Georgia Supreme Court. (Georgia is one of eight states that have the sort of weird policy of electing Supreme Court justices.)

This is technically correct, but not exactly right. While Gawker does have a screen shot of an edit by Lwsears1992 “adding” this, all she did was restore a phrase that had existed on the page since June 2005, added in the first place by a technology consultant in Atlanta. The phrase was removed again a few days later for lacking a source, and Lwsears1992 did not press the case further. Not that Sears should necessarily be making direct edits on matters of disagreement, but these are considerations that few Wikipedia outsiders understand.

In total, Lwsears1992 made 36 edits to Wikipedia, all of them relating to this particular article. So how did she do? Did she make the page better or worse, overall? To find out, I went through each and every edit, starting with the article as it appeared before she started working on it, November 3, 2008 and concluding with the article after she completed her work, on November 13, 2008. Here is what I found:

Better:

  • The fact is that Sears is being called out because she attempted to be transparent about it. However, it’s probable that she made a single edit an hour before her first editing session from the IP address 167.192.61.254 in Atlanta, Georgia. Unfortunately, she screwed up a template, rendering the “Infobox” sidebar a mess of code. But I count this as a positive, because of what happened next. Once she had caused this error, she created an account and undertook the task of fixing it. Not only did she do so, but approximately a third of her edits were devoted to getting this one thing right.
  • She uploaded her own photo, taking the time to release it under two free licenses, the old GNU license Wikipedia used to use for everything, and the Creative Commons license it uses now. She experimented with the sizing of the photo she added, including trying it at full size before settling upon 155 pixels wide, which is the width still.
  • She added useful context, such as noting that her resignation from the Court would coincide with the end of her term; this is unambiguously more useful than simply ending the sentence on “she will resign from the State Supreme Court at the end of June 2009.”
  • Chances are good she made the article sturdier in the long run, changing the article to read that she was the “first” African-American female Chief Justice in a U.S. state instead of the “only” one. Assuming this is correct, the former will always be true though the latter assuredly will not be.
  • She tried to protect her own page from vandalism by experimenting with templates meant to indicate the page cannot be edited in some circumstances. But as she was not an administrator, she couldn’t do this anyway. Once she saw it wasn’t working, she took them down. One could almost file this as a negative, because trying to get a page locked from editing is a sure sign of not understanding Wikipedia. On the other hand, changing your own mistake is a sign that you do. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt here.

Worse:

  • She didn’t cite any source for the claim she is the first African-American female Chief Justice in a U.S. state, making the claim difficult to verify. Anytime one makes a claim of superiority or “firstness,” it helps to source the claim to avoid the dreaded “[citation needed]” tag.
  • She didn’t provide any edit summaries for her work, making it tedious to click through each and find out exactly what she did.
  • She made some changes that didn’t make the page better. In one edit, she edited internal site links embedded in the phrase “Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court” so that instead of directing people to articles about Chief Justices and the GA Supreme Court, it would go to a non-existent page that she probably assumed existed.
  • She also removed internal links to the names of her appointer (Zell Miller) and predecessor (Norman S. Fletcher) for no apparent reason; she also removed the link for “Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court” — perhaps after noticing that it did not lead anywhere. Odder still, she did replace some of this information, including Miller’s name, but removed Fletcher’s name after having initially sought to add it. In any case, he is back in the full article today.

What is the value of adding her photograph vs. removing the name of her predecessor? What is the value of adding new details which are presumably correct, but not citing independent sources? How bad is it to edit your Wikipedia article without seeking consensus of other editors? How should one seek to change their articles on Wikipedia in any case?

These questions and more like it have been coming up more often in recent months. It’s a subject recently addressed by the Wikimedia Foundation’s Jay Walsh in an interview with PR Week. It’s a subject that others are discussing, from law firms in the UK to PR firms around the world. It’s s a subject I weigh every day as a consultant on matters of Wikipedia, and in an article I just published in Politics Magazine.

My answer regarding Leah Ward Sears is that, she made the article better, but not much. She did not go about it the right way, but the right way is non-obvious to most, and the burden is on Wikipedia to make its rules understood by outsiders. While some of her edits were self-serving, they were of a mild sort. At most this was a venal sin, not a cardinal one. Gawker is turning this into a “gotcha” story on the implied theory that interacting with one’s own Wikipedia article is never acceptable. This is a myth, one widely believed and one propagated by many at Wikipedia simply to keep people from meddling with their pages en masse. This is understandable, but it won’t work out in the long term.

If Sears is Obama’s nominee and is further confirmed to the Supreme Court, perhaps it will help put an end to this kind of “gotcha”. I doubt this is significant enough to come up at confirmation hearings if she is nominated, and it should not be. But I will concede that would be kind of entertaining.

Image via Sears via Wikipedia.

Four Thousand Editors in Real Lancashire

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on March 1, 2010 at 7:11 am

wikipedia-lancashireA unifying theme of The Wikipedian in the first year of its existence — and will be again now that its unscheduled hiatus comes to an end today — has been the lag between the public’s recognition of Wikipedia as an important if imperfect information resource and the public’s understanding of how Wikipedia works.

Illustrating the point perfectly is a clumsy news item in a small UK newspaper, the Southport Visiter, highlighting local complaints in late February about a perceived error concerning the boundaries of Lancashire. According to the Visiter, the following text from Wikipedia (still present at this writing) is the matter of some dispute:

The county was subject to a significant boundary reform in 1974, which removed Liverpool and Manchester with most of their surrounding conurbations to form part of the metropolitan counties of Merseyside and Greater Manchester. Today the county borders Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and North and West Yorkshire.

I say “some dispute” in part because I’m not quite clear on what the issue is. According to a group called the Friends of Real Lancashire, Wikipedia “leaves Southport off the … map.” But as far as I can tell, Wikipedia has already absorbed this perspective and includes the following sentence later in the article:

Pressure groups, including Friends of Real Lancashire and the Association of British Counties advocate the use of the historical boundaries of Lancashire for ceremonial and cultural purposes.

So it appears to me that Friends of Real Lancashire are unhappy with the representation of Lancashire’s borders on Wikipedia, and have gone to the press with their concerns. This is not such a crazy idea: oftentimes ensuring placement of a particular fact or viewpoint in Wikipedia requires validation in a newspaper or magazine article before Wikipedia editors are likely to agree the fact or viewpoint is true or significant enough for inclusion. Because their viewpoint is presented, at least in summary, this must be a dispute over facts.

Now, let’s say I am a Wikipedia editor who lives thousands of miles away from Lancashire and have no special knowledge of the area’s boundaries (which is in fact the case). A newspaper article pointing out a supposed error could be useful to me. Perhaps I’m inclined to update the article based on what I have learned. Except the article does not explain the dispute carefully enough for me to make a judgment; the impression I am left with is that some people are unhappy with the designated boundary and wish for Wikipedia to elevate their views over existing reality. In which case I will ignore them as soon as I figure this out. Or maybe I write this blog post.

That Friends of Real Lancashire and the Southport Visiter have little idea how Wikipedia works is also quite evident:

[Friends of Real Lancashire] has contacted the website on several occasions, are concerned that those wanting to learn about Lancashire will be given the wrong information. … Although comments and letters have been sent to the editor of Wikipedia, Mr Dawson said that no action has since been taken.

Letters to the editor? The editor? There is a fundamental disconnect here, one in fact so stark that one wonders whether Wikipedia’s structures are so vanguard as to be incomprehensible to the average user, or whether the Real Lancashirites are hopelessly behind the times. It’s one thing for people who don’t think much about Wikipedia to misunderstand it; it is quite another for an organized interest group to care what Wikipedia says but not take the time to understand why it says what it does.

This phenomenon is bigger than Wikipedia. From where I live and work in Washington, DC, I often see advocacy organizations that are so focused on advancing their viewpoint using a manner and technique which is advantageous to them in one venue (newspapers, radio, television) that they cannot adjust their approach to advance their viewpoint in another (weblogs, social networks, Wikipedia). Sometimes, this adjustment undermines their original point, in which case they were destined to lose, anyway. This happens all the time.

So Friends of Real Lancashire may lose no matter what; if I am correctly interpreting their case, they will. Even so, it does not appear they have even tried to make their case in the proper manner. At least they have not engaged the one forum in which they might make their case directly to Wikipedia’s contributors: the Talk page associated with the Lancashire article. It’s there for a reason, and if you don’t use it, those who do will probably have themselves a laugh at your expense and go right back to editing Wikipedia.

Lancashire map via Wikipedia.