William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘Popular culture’ Category

Breaking Bad <3 Wikipedia

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on September 3, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Here there be spoilers, so read on with caution: the U.S. television series Breaking Bad is known for its command of detail, especially in scientific matters. After all, its lead character (which is not to say hero) Walter White is a former chemistry teacher who becomes a meth cook after he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.

Besides the incredibly dangerous production of extremely dangerous street drugs, various deadly poisons appear throughout the show’s five tightly-wound seasons, and in Sunday’s episode a major character muses absent-mindedly about a few poisons she has been researching. As the AV Club’s Breaking Bad recapper, Donna Bowman, points out:

Marie quotes nearly exactly the Wikipedia entry for saxitoxin: “… [P]roduces a flaccid paralysis that leaves its victim calm and conscious through the progression of symptoms. Death often occurs from respiratory failure.” Also, when the FBI show up at my door and cite my incriminating search history, you are all my witnesses that I was just researching for this recap.

Plagiarism? Not in this case, I don’t think. As mentioned above, Marie explains she has been reading obsessively about poisons on the Internet—so what do you think she’s been reading? The article Saxitoxin is quite lengthy, if not necessarily well-written. The same goes for a few poisonous plants which play a much bigger role on the show, principally Ricin and Lily of the Valley: these articles seem informative, but sport a few too many [citation needed] tags for my liking. (Also, Breaking Bad is mentioned in a section of the former called “In popular culture”, which as a heading type is generally frowned upon.)

Meanwhile, it’s not the first time Wikipedia has been acknowledged on the show. Clearly, series creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff use it for research, and so their characters do, too. Toward the end of season three, as Walter’s wife Skyler White becomes more fully aware of her husband’s illegal activities, and decides against all better judgment to assist him, she turns to everyone’s favorite volunteer-written encyclopedia to learn more about a subject she needs to get better acquainted with:

Breaking Bad and money laundering on Wikipedia

P.S. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy Breaking Bad: A Periodic Table of Elements, created by my team at Beutler Ink.

Manti Te’o and the Bicholim Conflict

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on January 17, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Pseudonymously authoritarian Gawker columnist Mobuto Sese Seko today, on journalists passing on what they hear, in the wake of the Manti Te’o “girlfriend hoax” currently making headlines in U.S. sports:

[W]e all have to rely on something we heard. We reach a point where it becomes impractical to seek more references for any given act or statement. We surrender, eventually, to authority. When multiple journalistic outlets repeat a story enough times, re-verifying them just to add a few details for that day’s edition becomes a costly waste of time.

You have to play the odds. For reporters covering Te’o, everyone just assumed it had checked out. Same thing with Wikipedia editors and the “Bicholim Conflict”.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2012 (Part 1)

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on December 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Did This Summer

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on September 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm

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

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

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

Infinite Map     

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

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

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

30 for 30 (Divided by Ten)

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on May 25, 2012 at 4:46 pm

In Slovenian, the traditional name for the month of May translates to “the month when plants grow”, or so Wikipedia tells me. It’s apt then—if not altogether insufferable as a metaphor—that this month three “seedlings” I recently planted have all blossomed.

Horse ebooks Wikipedia article

First up is something I am almost embarrassingly prideful about: that I will go down in history as the person who created the Horse ebooks Wikipedia article. (The what, you ask? Read the article!)

Considering the meteoric rise to Internet fame of the Horse ebooks Twitter account—without a doubt, the most followed and most beloved Twitter spam account of all time—it’s rather surprising that when I first looked in late April, no such article existed. So, I wrote it. The article debuted on May 5, and graced Wikipedia’s front page with its presence—in the “Did you know” section—on May 12.

Read the Wikipedia article, follow the Twitter account, and then buy the T-shirt (note: I have no deal with the sellers, except that I did buy the shirt). And then take sides in the debate over whether the magic is gone since its automation became a subject of disagreement.

Best of Wikipedia Sandbox Tumblr screenshot

Another fun project that has taken off this month is The Best of Wikipedia:Sandbox, a Tumblr account.

There are many Tumblrs like it, but this one is mine. In fact, there are other Tumblrs about Wikipedia, including Best of Wikipedia, [Citation Needed], and—if you know Tumblr, you know this is coming—Fuck Yeah Wikipedia!

Ostensibly Wikipedia:Sandbox is a place to test edits and check formatting, but that’s not all it gets used for. What started out as a joke among my colleagues—sharing screen caps of the ridiculous things we’d seen in the Sandbox—has transformed into a Tumblr to share these largely unknown and unappreciated comic gems with the world. The Sandbox is an unlikely repository for strange world views, faceplam-worthy test edits, and—since this is the Internet—cat pictures.

I’ve saved the biggest announcement for last… this month I launched what is essentially my second Wikipedia-related website: Beutler Wiki Relations. Yes, it’s a business website.

Although I rarely write about my consultancy much here, close readers of The Wikipedian are likely aware that one of my professional focuses (focii?) is helping brands, companies and individuals work constructively with the Wikipedia community to improve articles. I’ve never sought to draw attention to this—and indeed, when I appeared on C-SPAN this January, the subject only came up briefly. But I feel like it’s worth posting a simple website explaining myself to skeptical Wikipedians and, sure, potential clients alike. Closer readers may recall the phrase “wiki relations” from my post about the Bell Pottinger mess, and how it could have been avoided.

Although “conflict of interest” and “paid advocacy” on Wikipedia remain contentious topics, I think it’s more important than ever to make them seem less mysterious. It won’t stop the Bell Pottingers, but it may stop people from hiring them to mess with Wikipedia.

And yes, I realize I have a conflict of interest in saying that. Can’t avoid it; might as well own it. Or as Horse ebooks says: “Discover the usefulness of wax.”

Disambiguate This!

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on April 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm

If the Wikipedia article titled “Wikipedia in culture” is to be believed, the free, online encyclopedia’s primary contribution to popular culture is as a humorous reference, particularly in U.S. cable television programming.

Topic-wise, sometimes the joke relates to Wikipedia’s uneasy relationship to education, including T-shirts featuring leaping graduates thanking Wikipedia. More often than not, Wikipedia’s uneven reliability is the joke, such as The Onion’s classic 2006 article: “Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence”.

If it has had any noticeable linguistic impact (aside from debate over the meaning of “Santorum”) it is probably in the phrase “Citation needed”. But the word that I wish Wikipedia could popularize is:


It’s a perfectly cromulent word, and can be found in the dictionary (or at least on Dictionary.com), apparently dating to the 1960s, and unsurprisingly means:

to remove the ambiguity from; make unambiguous

And yet it’s not a word that I can recall having seen prior to Wikipedia, even though I have a degree in English and very nearly earned one in journalism. In a world of ambiguity, what more could we want than disambiguation to help us understand what’s real, and what matters? Well, maybe therein lies the problem: there are no easy diambiguations in the real world. But are they so easy, even on Wikipedia?

If you don’t know what disambiguation is, it’s pretty simple. Wikipedia has articles about many people named John Smith, most real and even some fictional. So many, I’m not even going to bother counting. Because no John Smith is considered vastly more famous than the other, none of them gets this URL:

Nope, that’s the disambiguation page, where one can find, among many others:

And, for fans of The A-Team, there is also:

In many cases, a word will have one primary meaning, and then multiple secondary uses. This is when the parenthetical expression “(disambiguation)” comes in. One example:

Typically, articles requiring some form of disambiguation require a “disambig” note at the top of the page (called a “hatnote”). Frequently, the phrasing is “Not to be confused with…” and here is one example, which I enjoy more than most:

McGraw-Hill disambiguation

As you may expect, there is a lengthy guideline detailing how disambiguation pages are to be governed. But on a website where not everyone knows the rules, nor does everyone agree about the relative importance of similarly-named subjects, there can be some glitches. This is especially true when one is being implored by unknown advisers “not to be confused by” a deceptively unrelated topic.

One errant disambiguation comes to mind immediately, because I’m the one who undid it.

First, Bob Dole should well-known to any American over the age of 25, if not for being the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, then perhaps for that one Pepsi ad with Britney Spears. Meanwhile, Robert Dold is a U.S. congressman from Illinois, whom I had never heard of until very recently, although I live in DC and have worked in and around U.S. politics for a decade. (Dold has only been in Washington since 2010, so there’s that.)

Then what explains the admonition not to confuse this:

With this:

Yeah, I didn’t get it either. So I removed the unnecessary disambiguation from Dole’s page, and I seriously doubt anyone has been wondering “What about Bob (Dold)?

There are other interesting unbalances, however often more justified. As I recently tweeted:

Joe Plummer vs. Joe the Plumber on Wikipedia

Indeed, compare this:

With this:

But I’m sure that’s right. Joe the Plumber is far better known, following his stint as the semi-official mascot of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, than is Joe Plummer, who is probably a swell guy and earns bonus points from me for being from Portland. And with Mr. the Plumber now the Republican nominee to challenge Rep. Marcy Kaptur this fall, it’s looking even dimmer. Sorry, Joe (the Plummer).

But in the world of interesting disambiguations, undoubtedly this one is my favorite:

At least it doesn’t tell you to not to be confused.

The Guinness Book of Wikipedia

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on September 22, 2011 at 9:31 am

A few weeks back The Economist published a brief appreciation of Guinness World Records that included a perhaps-not-too-surprising nod to Wikipedia:

Created in Britain in 1955, the first edition, then known as the “Guinness Book of Records”, was a marketing tool: a compilation of interesting facts distributed to pub landlords to promote Guinness, an Irish drink. Now this encyclopedia of extremes draws its statistics from around the world and is the bestselling copyright title of all time (a category that excludes books such as the Bible and the Koran), selling 120m copies in over 100 countries and spawning all sorts of copycat miscellanies.

Before internet search engines or the omnivorous Wikipedia, the “Guinness Book of Records” was already a popular trove of trivia. Its success lay in tapping into man’s innate curiosity about the natural world around him: the first edition included details such as the brightest star in the heavens (the Dog Star) and the biggest spider’s body (9cm long).

I’d never really thought about a connection between Wikipedia and Guinness’ venerable collection of unusual achievements, but as I recall my devotion to the thick paperback editions of my childhood—which was published in the U.S. in the 1980s as the “Guinness Book of World Records” and that is what I still want to call it—this habit of devouring Guinness-curated facts is more like how I came to be so interested in Wikipedia than any other comparable activity. And that includes blogging and the blogosphere, which is what I typically consider a forerunner to my involvement with Wikipedia.

The Economist goes on to note how Guinness’ book has changed over time: where it once included feats of derring-do like sword swallowing, those categories have since been retired in favor of ephemeral team efforts, like building the world’s largest burrito, sundae, pizza, &c. It so happens that my friend Boaz holds a Guinness record related to high-fives.

And where Guinness’ book was once a handy compilation of extreme facts about the world’s oldest, tallest, biggest, smallest, heaviest and tiniest people, places and things, the Internet broadly and Wikipedia specifically have taken its place. A similar fate has befallen Trivial Pursuit, as pointed out in Slate a few years back. Unlike Trivial Pursuit, however, Guinness has a second life: on Wikipedia, as a reliable source.

Audrey Tomason: Newly Minted Star of Washington, and Wikipedia?

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on May 10, 2011 at 11:01 am

Washington, DC (and those outside the Beltway who share its mindset) can’t get enough of celebrity and celebrities. This is why it imports them each April for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This is why phrases such as “famous for DC” and the blog Famous DC and the saying “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people” exist. And it explains, at least in part, the sudden prominence of one Audrey Tomason, the subject of several recent “who is she?” news treatments from the Washington Post, Daily Beast, Daily Mail and elsewhere. She is also now the subject of a one week-old Wikipedia article that has been viewed more than 42,000 times:

Audrey Tomason Wikipedia article

And yet it’s not even agreed that she warrants a standalone Wikipedia article: there is so little information available that one of the few facts currently included is that she “regularly donates to the ‘Tufts Fund for Arts, Sciences and Engineering.’” An outright majority of sources in the article are from Tufts University (three annual report links, one alumni magazine) and one is simply a link to a brief appearance on C-SPAN in which she introduces somebody else. That’s awfully thin.

Wikipedia often chooses to delete articles about people notable for only one event, and in this case one might argue she is only possibly notable for appearing in a famous photograph. On the other hand, the Daily Mail reports that she is Director of Counterterrorism for the National Security Council, which sounds pretty important, although Wikipedia editors have expressed skepticism about the report. As one has pointed out, at this point she is more Internet meme than public figure.

So, will the article survive? It’s too soon to say; for now editors are taking a wait-and-see approach. The answer ultimately may be up to the United States federal government, and whether they are willing to let her talk to the press. Chances are slim, and as the Washington Post points out, Wikipedia itself could even play a role:

If it’s true that Tomason’s job is of the clandestine nature, it’s reasonable to think that this photo will not be good for her career. Neither will her new Wikipedia page.

Wikipedia is Everywhere: AT&T Edition

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on March 22, 2011 at 9:23 am

You might not have noticed, but it’s even in a recent AT&T television spot advertising the iPhone 4. Actually, let me phrase that differently. This is an iPhone 4 TV spot advertising AT&T. The point of the commercial is that one can use both voice and data simultaneously on AT&T’s network, which rival iPhone carrier Verizon presently does not.

In this case, the protagonist of our thirty-second tale is arguing about pop culture nostalgia with a friend—the release year of “Whoomp! (There It Is!)”—and you don’t need me to tell you which resource he consults to settle the question once and for all:

What I’d like to know is what browser or app he’s supposed to be using. As an iPhone user myself, I can verify that is not the Safari browser, nor is it the official Wikimedia Mobile app, nor popular alternatives Wikipanion or Articles. I suppose it could even be a made-up app, for obscure legal reasons. If you know the answer, please share in the comments.

Update: In the comments, Nihiltres has the answer: a relatively new (paid) app called iWiki. Looks nice, though I’ll probably just stick with the mobile site.

The State of The State of Wikipedia

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on January 25, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Chances are good that if you follow Wikipedia closely, then you have probably seen the following video:

The State of Wikipedia from JESS3 on Vimeo.

Last week, it was featured on both TechCrunch and Mashable and, on YouTube alone, it’s climbing toward 100,000 views as of this writing. And you might have missed the following infographic that went along with it, although I hope you didn’t:

Right-click to view at full size in another tab.

Meanwhile, if you happened to see Jay Walsh’s post on the Wikimedia blog last week—or you watched carefully through to the very end—you may have noticed that among those involved was yours truly.

The story of this video’s development began early in 2010 with the launching of the “State of” video series by my friends at the DC-based creative agency JESS3. The first in the series was “The State of the Internet“; more recently, they produced “The State of Cloud Computing” in association with Salesforce.com.

Seeking new topics, JESS3 invited me to develop a story concept for the video you see above. I talked with some influential wiki-thinkers, some of whose names appear in “Special Thanks” at the video’s end, to write a script for the eventual narrator. Not unlike Dan Aykroyd’s first draft of “The Blues Brothers”—and like it in only this regard—it was much longer than what you see above. Left out were asides on the cause (and effects) of the Spanish Fork, the German-language Wikipedia’s different way of doing things, the development of chapters, the invention of bots, the most-visited Wikipedia articles, the most-visited-in-a-single day Wikipedia article, and more.

In the end, it was a good thing they asked me to scale it back, especially once Jimmy Wales agreed to provide the voice as narrator. And the shorter version perhaps better accomplishes the goal of giving viewers a bit of an answer to the questions of where Wikipedia came from, and why it works the way it does. At the very least, I hope it sparks a deeper curiosity among viewers and, perhaps, sufficient interest to get involved themselves.

Who knows if it will have that effect, but it was a great experience to be part of. The effort put into this by the JESS3 team—on art direction, animation and sound—was tremendous, and took it far beyond any concept I had of what it could become. And maybe we’ll do it again in ten years.

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:


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.

The Vuvuzela Moment

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on June 14, 2010 at 8:40 am

Since the start of the World Cup last week, there has been no avoiding soccer — aka football, futbol, or as Wikipedia has it, Association football — and no avoiding the giant mosquito buzz sound of those damned horns. Those damned horns have a name: the Vuvuzela. The controversy surrounding them and whether they may be banned is getting a lot of attention on Google and, as a function of its #1 search result status for the word, Wikipedia. Here’s what Wikipedia traffic to the Vuvuzela article looks like right now:

Traffic to Vuvuzela Wikipedia article in June 2010

Traffic to Vuvuzela Wikipedia article in June 2010

This tracks pretty well with what Google Insights is seeing at the moment, although it’s interesting to note that Google still shows an exponential curve while Wikipedia’s numbers (which I trust more) have started to fall off a bit:

Searches for Vuvuzela on Google in June 2010

Searches for Vuvuzela on Google in June 2010

Although the World Cup is not nearly as popular in the U.S. as other countries, I was surprised, upon looking closer at the analytics, that American Googlers do not represent a significant percentage. Given the presumed uptick in U.S. interest in the World Cup this year, the large size of the American search market and U.S. media buzz around the horn (a sound metaphorically not dissimilar from the vuvuzela itself) this comes as some small surprise. In fact, nearly all of the searches are occurring in South Africa — whence they originate and where you’d think most people wouldn’t need to look it up — or Europe, none of them primarily English-speaking countries. Here’s the list:

1. Johannesburg, South Africa
2. Parow, South Africa
3. Pretoria, South Africa
4. Cape Town, South Africa
5. Lisbon, Portugal
6. Amsterdam, Netherlands
7. Hamburg, Germany
8. Rotterdam, Netherlands
9. Cologne, Germany
10. Frankfurt Am Main, Germany

So who is searching for information about the vuvuzela in the United States? Here’s that list, by state / district:

1. Virginia
2. California
3. District of Columbia
4. New York
5. Georgia
6. Massachusetts
7. Washington
8. New Jersey
9. Texas
10. Pennsylvania

If you ever wanted a list of which U.S. states are most closely following the World Cup (assuming that more causally-interested Americans may be Googling “World Cup”) then here you go. As a resident of Washington, DC, I can say that the MLS team D.C. United is sort of the Yankees of U.S. professional soccer and unusually popular here relative to the rest of the country, and California is home to the L.A. Galaxy, where Mr. Posh, David Beckham, plays (I think still?).

Meanwhile, my co-workers and I will keep the games on in the background (currently: a scintillating 0-0 tie between Japan and Cameroon) and we’ll be keeping it on mute.

“Treme” vs. “Treme (TV series)”

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on April 18, 2010 at 10:04 am

In more than one post on this blog I’ve written skeptically about the concept of “Wikigroaning” — the notion that important subjects sometimes have shorter articles than arguably less-important subjects that appeal to geek sensibilities. In the case of Raphael (archangel, artist or ninja turtle) and lightsaber vs. modern warfare, the complaint did not quite hold up. But I don’t mean to indicate the charge is never without basis.


With the second episode of HBO’s latest dramatic series, “Treme,” set to air this evening, I decided to compare two related Wikipedia articles — one about the New Orleans neighborhood, and the new TV drama from David Simon. What did I find?

In the first place, Treme is currently 10 Kb long while Treme (TV series) is closer to 17 Kb. On the face of it, the article about the series is substantially longer at present. And this is the case even though the former article has existed since April 2004 whereas the latter was created in March 2009.

It’s fair to say that both articles are in decent shape. The article about the neighborhood has a quality infobox featuring geographic and demographic information, and a concise History section is informative, if perhaps too concise. I compare this to the article about my neighborhood of Adams Morgan in Washington, DC, which has much more information (though fewer references to support them) and no comparable infobox of data. Each article could stand to learn something from the other.

But there is no use arguing that Treme (TV series) is not the better article. It is simply more carefully and completely written, with a more sophisticated article structure utilizing subsections for more in-depth coverage of certain aspects of the show. Plus, it has already spawned a secondary page, List of Treme episodes.

Is there a silver lining here? I think there may be. If the show becomes popular — at least popular enough to inspire a following similar to Simon’s earlier work — then it may well inspire someone or a few someones to become more interested in the neighborhood itself. To be sure, the series itself has already caused a spike of interest in the subject. And all it takes is one person to make it a personal project. If “Treme (TV series)” can do that, “Treme” will be the better for it.

Images via Wikipedia. Neighborhood photograph licensed under Creative Commons by Wikipedia contributor Infrogmation.

What Do David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Wikipedia Have in Common?

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on March 22, 2010 at 5:35 am

Here’s a fun passage from a forthcoming collection of essays, “Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays”, edited by David Hering and based on a conference for DFW scholars held in Liverpool last summer:

I want to suggest that modern conception of the encyclopedia, particularly Wikipedia, challenges earlier arboreal models. It is possible for the encyclopedia to no longer imply totalization and containment, but release and an enlargement of possibilities. Structurally, both Wikipedia and Infinite Jest are always threatening to overspill, to negate the purpose of their organizing principles, if indeed they ever really had any. At any moment, the encyclopedia may become the anti-encyclopedia, an infinite procession, similar, I would argue, to the “infinite”-ness of Infinite Jest. As always when one reaches the end of a novel of such magnitude, one asks, “Why did it stop exactly where it did?” and “Could it have continued for another thousand pages?”

infinite_jest_coverGranted, it’s just a tiny snippet sent to me by my friend and fellow DFW enthusiast Matt Bucher, who is also working on the book, but there are a few points worth considering here.

Although perhaps a bit superficial, I like the comparison between Wikipedia and Infinite Jest, a book whose description usually includes terms such as “sprawling” and “doorstop” and often contains references to its 1,079 pages and 388 endnotes. Not for nothing has Infinite Jest been considered an “encyclopedic novel“.

What’s more, the notion that “the encylopedia no longer impl[ies] totalization and containment” is mighty scary to those who grew up with (or work for) Britannica. It’s a paradigm shift which has already begat a philosophical divide frequently discussed here at The Wikipedian, although some nostalgists are changing their minds.

Infinite Jest surely could have kept on telling stories about the Incandenza family, the students at Enfield Tennis Academy, residents of the Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic] and geopolitical turmoil surrounding the Great Concavity for as long as Wallace liked. So too could many Wikipedia articles continue onward, except that their contributors decided they had said their piece. A casual connection to be sure, but a fun one to think about.

Infinite Jest dust jacket courtesy Wikipedia.