William Beutler on Wikipedia

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Meet Lila Tretikov, Wikimedia’s New Leader… and Her Uninvited Plus-One

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on May 30, 2014 at 11:58 am

On May 1, the Wikimedia Foundation named a successor to Sue Gardner as executive director: Lila Tretikov, a “Russian-born technologist specialising in enterprise software”, as her newly-minted Wikipedia article begins. This followed a search that lasted more than a year, since Gardner announced her intention to move on in March 2013. What followed was a sigh of relief, at least at first.

Tretikov comes to the foundation from SugarCRM, a would-be competitor to Salesforce, where she’s held CIO and VP positions. She started her career as an engineer at Sun Microsystems, holds several patents, previously founded a company, is photogenic and just 36 years old. Not a bad resume at all. And her statement released to Re/code hit the right notes:

When I got the news, I thought, ‘This is big in every way: A big website — the fifth most popular in the world. A big community — 80,000 active Wikimedians from around the globe. And a big mission — nothing less than making the sum of all human knowledge freely available to all.’

It quotes Jimmy Wales’ most famous line, Wikipedia’s easiest to remember data point, and it cheerily overestimates the effective participation rate (in the latest official figures, the number of very active Wikipedians on the most active project, the English Wikipedia, dipped below 3,000 for the first time in nine years). [Edit: Lila's figures are accurate for "active editors"; fair enough, although, pace Vilfredo Pareto, I would argue "very active" editors have far more impact than "active" editors.]

Lila TretikovBut the slow erosion of Wikipedia’s user base is just one reason why Wikipedians are apprehensive about their future and how the Foundation’s new leader fits into it. To get my Walter Winchell on, for one thing, word is that Tretikov’s appointment did not come out of the official executive search process. Although the firm Wikimedia retained, m/Oppenheim, proudly joined in the announcement fun earlier this month, do note that it doesn’t actually take credit for it. Apparently the Board was unhappy with the results, tapped their own personal networks instead, and Tretikov came out of Gardner’s own rolodex. [Edit: I've now been told that she came in from another referral, not Sue, serves me right I suppose.] All of which at least underscores how difficult the search proved to be.

Meanwhile, Tretikov arrives with a solid resume in open source projects, but exactly zero with the open-source project that matters most: Wikipedia. This lack of experience was not exactly unexpected—the Foundation purposefully, and smartly, wanted a new leader from outside the movement—but it made people awfully anxious to hear from her.

Instead, they heard from someone else first.

That someone is a Bay Area PHP programmer named Wil Sinclair, also Tretikov’s partner (“boyfriend” in flyover country-speak). Most notoriously (at least in the beginning) about a week to go before she officially took the helm, Sinclair took it upon himself to join Wikipediocracy, a website dedicated to criticism of Wikipedia, both responsible and otherwise. It’s a website that many Wikipedians loathe, although some grudgingly respect, and where a few even actively participate. Getting involved there requires a certain degree of care. And while Sinclair comes across as bright, articulate and polite in his postings, to a veteran observer he also comes across a bit clueless. It’s like entering a snake pit with only a textbook familiarity with the concept of a snakebite.

This didn’t sit well with many longtime Wikipedians and community observers, especially those who participate in wikimedia-l, a public mailing list also dedicated to Wikipedia discussion. Unlike Wikipediocracy, it’s hosted on a Wikimedia website, although it is likewise open to participation and is not infrequently the site of drama itself. Various “dramuh” from the week concluding:

  • Wil Sinclair and conversation about him completely dominated the email list for several days, initially regarding the propriety of his Wikipediocracy participation, but eventually moving on to other subjects, with several editors advising Wil in strong but even terms that he was setting himself up for trouble. After being advised he was well in excess of posting volume norms, of course he kept right on going.
  • Behind the scenes, much of the discussion focused on whether this would negatively impact the beginning of Lila’s tenure. Sometimes it wasn’t entirely behind the scenes… one veteran editor accidentally sent a private email to the whole list, comparing the chaos to an episode of The West Wing and suggesting Tretikov was an “amateur” ostensibly unfit to run the Foundation.
  • Pressing on, Sinclair raised questions about how some content on Wikimedia Commons is inappropriate for children and how some editors feel harassed by others, as if no one was aware of or willing to discuss these things, even though they are among the most frequently cited issues on Wikimedia projects, as was quickly pointed out.
  • He was also called out for once offering unguarded praise of Wikipedia’s least liked, most persistent critic—many would say troll—Greg Kohs, naturally a Wikipediocracy mainstay. Wil confirmed he’d said it and meant it, and if you can’t imagine how poorly this was received, then you don’t know a thing about Wikipedia. Obviously, this includes Wil Sinclair.
  • Eventually Wil decided the community should vote on whether he should stay or go, and started a thread dedicated to the topic. It was short-lived, however, as he later posted a simple statement that he would in fact cease communications on the list. It stands to reason Lila finally told him to can it, although I don’t have any way of knowing this for sure. [Edit: And in the comments here, Wil says she did not.]
  • In the midst of it all, Lila Tretikov finally made her first unofficial public communication to the Wikimedia community in the form of a message disclaiming any responsibility for Wil’s activity and promising: “I make my decisions using my own professional judgement in conjunction with input from the community and staff. I don’t consult Wil on these matters, ask him to do anything on my behalf or monitor his engagements with the community.” Later, after Wil stood down, she started a new thread announcing she had made her first-ever edits to Wikipedia, and wanted to hear from others newbies about their editing experiences. Sort of nothingburger of a project, but at least it might start to bring things back on-topic.

So, that may or may not be a good summary of events, but it’s already pushing the limits of how much space this whole thing really deserves. Lila Tretikov takes over the Wikimedia Foundation beginning June 1, and one hopes the next time we’re talking about her, we’re talking about her.

Update: Be sure to check the comments, where Wikipedia statistician Erik Zachte points out that Lila’s figures for “active” editors is correct (I’ve amended the post above to clarify my view) and where none other than Wil Sinclair offers some corrections and clarifying information, which readers of this post should see for full context.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2012 (Part 2)

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on December 31, 2012 at 9:02 am

For the past two years The Wikipedian has compiled a list of the top 10 news stories about Wikipedia (2010, 2011), focusing on topics that made mainstream news coverage and those which affected Wikipedia and the larger Wikimedia community more than any other. Part 1 ran on Friday; here’s the dramatic conclusion:

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5. The Gibraltarpedia controversy — Like the tenth item in our list, file this one under prominent members of the UK Wikimedia chapter behaving badly. In September, board member Roger Bamkin resigned following complaints that he had used Wikipedia resources for personal gain—at just about the worst possible time.

Bamkin was the creator of an actually pretty interesting project, Gibraltarpedia, an effort to integrate the semi-autonomous territory of Gibraltar with Wikipedia as closely as possible, writing every possible Wikipedia article about the territory, and posting QR codes around the peninsula connecting visitors to those articles. It was closely modeled on a smiliar project, with which Bamkin was also involved, called Monmouthpedia, which had won acclaim for doing the same for the Welsh town of Monmouth.

Problem is, the government of Gibraltar was a client of Bamkin’s, and Bamkin arranged for many of these improved articles to appear on the front page of Wikipedia (through a feature of Wikipedia called “Did you know”). Too many of them, enough that restrictions were imposed on his ability to nominate new ones. At a time when the community was already debating the propriety of consultant relationships involving Wikipedia (more about this below) Bamkin’s oversight offended many within the community, and was even the subject of external news coverage (now of course the subject of a “Controversy” section on Gibraltarpedia’s own Wikipedia page).

(Note: A previous version of this section erroneously implied that Bamkin was not involved with Monmouthpedia, and was then board chair as opposed to trustee. Likewise, it suggested that disclosure was the primary concern regarding DYK, however the controversy focused on issues of volume and process. These errors have been corrected.)

4. Wikipedia’s gender imbalance — This one is down one spot from last year, but the undeniable fact that Wikipedia is overwhelmingly male (like 6-1 overwhelmingly) seems to have replaced Wikipedia’s falling editor retention as the primary focus of concerns about the long-term viability of Wikipedia’s mission. The topic was given center stage during the opening plenary at the annual Wikimedia conference, Wikimania DC, and has been the subject of continuing news coverage and even the focus of interesting-if-hard-to-decipher infographics. Like Wikipedia’s difficulty keeping and attracting new editors, the Wikimedia Foundation is working on addressing this as well, and no one knows precisely how much it matters or what to do about it. For further reading: over the last several weeks, my colleague Rhiannon Ruff has been writing an ongoing series about Wikipedia and women (here and here).

3. Wikipedia’s relationship with PR — I’m reluctant to put this one so high up, because one could say that I have a conflict of interest with “conflict of interest” as a topic (more here). But considering how much space this took up at the Wikipedia Signpost and on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page over the past 12 months, it would be a mistake to move it back.

This one is a continuation from last year’s #8, when a British PR firm called Bell Pottinger got caught making a wide range of anonymous edits to their client’s articles. The discussion continued into early 2012, including a smart blog post by Edelman’s Phil Gomes that focused the discussion on how Wikipedia and PR might get along, a public relations organizations in the UK developing a set of guidelines for the first time, and a similar organization in the US releasing a survey purporting to demonstrate problems with Wikipedia articles about companies, though it wasn’t quite that.

For the first time since 2009, the topics of “paid editing” and “paid advocacy” drew significant focus. New projects sprung up, including WikiProject Cooperation (to help facilitate outside requests) and WikiProject Paid Advocacy Watch (to keep tabs on said activity). Jimmy Wales spelled out his views in as much detail as he had before, and the Wikipedia Signpost ran a series of interviews over several months (called “Does Wikipedia Pay?”), covering the differing views and roles editors play around the topic. But after all that, no new policies or guidelines were passed, and discussion has quieted a bit for now.

2. Britannica admits defeat — In the year of our lord 2012, Encyclopædia Britannica announced that it would stop publishing a print edition and go online-only. Which means that Britannica essentially has ceased to exist. The 244-year-old encyclopedia, the world’s most famous until about 2005 or so, has no real web presence to speak of: its website (which is littered with annoying ads) only makes previews of articles available, and plans to allow reader input have never gone anywhere. Wikipedia actually had nothing to do with Britannica’s decline, as I pointed out earlier this month (Microsoft’s late Encarta started that), but the media narrative is already set: Britannica loses, Wikipedia wins. Britannica’s future is uncertain and the end is always near, while Wikipedia’s time horizon is very, very long.

Wikipedia SOPA blackout announcement

1. Wikipedia’s non-neutral protest on U.S. Internet law — Without question, the most significant and widely-covered Wikipedia-related topic in the past year was the 24-hour voluntary blackout of Wikipedia and its sister sites on Wednesday, January 18. Together with a few other websites, notably Reddit, Wikipedia shut itself down temporarily to protest a set of laws under consideration in the U.S. House and Senate, called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), supported by southern California (the music and movie industry) and opposed by northern California (i.e. the Silicon Valley).

The topic basically hit everyone’s hot buttons, and very different ones at that: the content companies who believe that online piracy is harming their business, and the Internet companies who feared that if the bills became law it would lead to censorship. You can imagine which side Wikipedia took.

But here’s the problem: Wikipedia is not one entity; it’s kind of two (the Foundation and volunteer community), and it’s kind of thousands (everyone who considers themselves a Wikipedian). While there seemed to be a majority in favor of the protest, the decision was arrived at very quickly, and many felt that even though they agreed with the message, it was not Wikipedia’s place to insert itself into a matter of public controversy. And one of Wikipedia’s core content policies is that it treats its subject matter with a “neutral point of view”—so how could anyone trust Wikipedia would be neutral about SOPA or PIPA?

But the decision had been made, and the Foundation (which controls the servers) had made the call, and even if you didn’t like it, it was only for 24 hours. And it certainly seemed to be effective: the blackout received the abovementioned crazy news attention, and both bills failed to win wide support in Congress (at least, for now). And it was a moment where Wikipedia both recognized its own power and, perhaps, was a little frightened of itself. For that alone, it was the biggest Wikipedia story of 2013.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2012 (Part 1)

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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!

Two Wikipedia Co-Founders, Two Very Different Causes

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on June 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a bad point there, either.

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

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

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

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

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on February 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can UI Changes Transform Wikipedia from Call Center to Community?

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on December 1, 2011 at 2:29 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2010

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on December 30, 2010 at 6:50 pm

The year 2010 will be over and out in another day’s time, which means there is no time like the present to look back on the year that was at Wikipedia. Instead of some kind of highfalutin’ think piece on what the past year, like, meant, let’s make this an easy-to-write, easier-to-read listicle outlining the biggest stories of the year involving Wikipedia—at least from an English-speaking, North American perspective. (For it is this perspective from which I am most qualified to write.)

For better or worse, here are the stories that defined Wikipedia, on-site and off, in 2010:

10. Wikipedia backups discovered — This occurred just in the past few weeks, and has not received a great deal of attention outside of Wikipedia circles, but to Wikipedia enthusiasts, it’s a big one. In mid-December, Wikimedia Foundation developer Tim Starling found several files dating back to Wikipedia’s first three months of existence. These had long been presumed to be gone for good, but now Wikipedia’s earliest days are much easier to reconstruct. Joseph Reagle of Harvard’s Berkman Center extracted the first 10,000 edits and has placed them on his own website for viewing, and in the future a more accessible reconstruction may be created, similar to the one at nostalgia.wikipedia.org.

9. Cuba’s Wikipedia copycatEcuRed is the Castro regime’s attempt to emulate Wikipedia. At least, in terms of look and feel: EcuRed may well be built using wiki software, but content updates are strictly reserved for unknown pre-approved editors. The entry for Estados Unidos is amusing. Surprisingly, there is no entry for Capitalismo, only Imperialismo, fase superior del capitalismo. Translated from Spanish, the website’s front page proclaims it was “born from the desire to create and disseminate knowledge with everyone and for everyone from Cuba and the world.” It would probably more more correct to say that it was born of a desire to create and disseminate propaganda for Fidel and Raúl Castro and their cronies.

8. Mike Godwin vs. the FBIThis was just weird. During the summer, the FBI sent a cease-and-desist letter to Wikipedia demanding that they remove occurrences of the FBI seal from Wikipedia articles about the agency. According to the FBI, use of the logo conflicted with the law. According to Wikimedia Foundation general counsel Mike Godwin, the law cited was about preventing people from impersonating FBI officials. Godwin’s sardonic reply—”While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version”—amused many. Two months later, Godwin resigned his position at Wikimedia. Were the two incidents connected? That was the whisper, but neither Mike nor the Foundation have clarified the reasons for his departure. It’s entirely possible that the two are not connected, but the whispering hasn’t been refuted. The FBI seal’s presence on Wikipedia, and Mike Godwin’s famed wit elsewhere, live on.

7. Wikimedia expansion to India — Wikipedians are all too aware of the fact that most of their contributions come from the rich, Western nations in the Anglosphere and Western Europe, but they yearn for participation to grow much beyond. As in the global economy, much growth may be found in the BRICs. Among industrializing countries, interest in Wikipedia has been especially strong in India, which is being rewarded with the first non-U.S. office of the Wikimedia Foundation. (For what it’s worth, I myself attended a Wikipedia-oriented conference in Bangalore this past January.)

6. Wikipedia gets a new look — Bet you didn’t notice this until months after it happened, but in the first half of 2010, Wikipedia received its first major redesign in several years. Gone was the “Monobook” skin and in was the “Vector” look. Why change? Wikipedia is always looking for ways to make the site easier to read—and easier to edit—and there had been concern for some time that the site design was becoming outdated, even in some ways confusing. Perhaps the biggest change involved moving the search field from the lefthand sidebar to the top right corner, a placement more common among popular websites. And the result? The number of individuals contributing during the second half of 2010 has been mostly flat, and even down slightly. Whatever drives people to contribute to Wikipedia, or stay away, is a force more powerful than web design.

5. Flagged revisions, er, pending changes — For years, the German-language Wikipedia has maintained a unique system for improving the reliability of its pages: contributions by new and infrequent users are held for review by more trusted editors. The result has been an encyclopedia taken far more seriously by academics in that country, so Wikipedians on the larger (and looser) English Wikipedia decided to give it a try. First called “flagged revisions” and later changed to the arguably more intuitive “pending changes” (yes, there was a debate about this), a number of articles were protected in this manner. The result was inconclusive: while a clear majority of participants voted to continue employing some form of pending changes, there was no consensus on just how to do it. For now, the project lies dormant.

4. Wikipedia in education — This is not one story, and it’s not unique to the past calendar year: encyclopedias have been staples of term paper bibliographies for decades (at least) but the rise of Wikipedia has turned this on its head. Where teachers were once content to let students cite Britannica on any number of subjects, many (if not most) now ban students from using Wikipedia in assignments. But 2010 may be the year in which educators learned to stop worrying and accommodate (if not love) Wikipedia. Time and debate have allowed more professional educators to see that Wikipedia is a legitimate starting point for research, and Wikipedia’s own imperfections provide numerous teachable moments. ZDNet education writer Christopher Dawson’s well-argued “Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia” is a good example of the former, while classroom projects at UC Berkeley and the University of Rhode Island show there is great promise for the latter.

3. Larry Sanger reports Wikimedia to the FBI — The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Wikimedia Foundation sure got to know each other this year. In April, estranged Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger sent a missive to the FBI reporting the Wikimedia Foundation for hosting “child pornography” and other obscene images on Wikipedia sister site Wikimedia Commons. Among the contested images were nude artistic works depicting the underaged and sexually explicit images featuring adults. Wikipedia’s commitment to the free availability of information can be controversial; name a body part or disease and you are going to see a picture of it on that Wikipedia page. There is even a specific policy related to this question, called “Wikipedia is not censored“. But does this mean that anything goes? Even after Sanger clarified that he understood no actual prurient images photographs of child sexual molestation* were in the site’s collection, some images were deleted, and the FBI pursued no action in any case. Although resolved for now, you can bet the controversy over the line between “censorship” and “editorial policy” will come up again.

2. Wikileaks and Wikipedia confusion — You may protest that Wikileaks has nothing to do with Wikpedia. In fact, I wrote “Wikileaks: No Wiki, Just Leaks” over the summer, when the mysterious online outfit published its Afghan War Diary. But the mere presence of the word “wiki” in the the not-a-wiki site’s name has become a potential PR problem for Wikipedia. When Wikileaks re-entered the news with the publication of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables in the fall, Jimmy Wales openly criticized Wikileaks, telling Charlie Rose: “If I had some information, the last thing I would ever do with it is send it to Wiikileaks.” Even Larry Sanger published a critical commentary about Wikileaks on his own site; although Sanger only tangentially referenced Wikipedia in his comment, the press took up that angle regardless. As long as Wikileaks remains a well-known and much-criticized public entity, Wikipedia will have to keep repeating the message that the two organizations have nothing to do with one another. Which leads us to #1…

1. The face of Wikipedia fundraising — It was perhaps fortuitous that the latest round of Wikileaks debate occurred at the same time the Wikimedia Foundation was undertaking the most sustained and visible PR push in its history. Since late November, Wikimedia sites have featured large banners across the top, asking readers to donate money toward its goal of raising $16 million—the largest amount yet requested, though still not quite enough to cover 2011′s expected operating budget. Most banners featured Wales’ face prominently, asking readers to consider his “personal appeal” to contribute. While effective, they’ve also been a source of annoyance and subject of derision. The New York Observer headline, “Staring Contest with Jimmy Wales To Go On Indefinitely”, was among the politer expressions of this viewpoint. On the other hand, they are working: at the campaign’s outset, Wikimedia collected in one week what they took in over a month last year. As of this writing, the organization had just about a million dollars left to go. Not too shabby. And Henry Blodget will get a chance to recycle his call for Wikipedia to deploy advertising next year.

That was the year that was, at Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. Next year will be another. If you think I’ve missed or messed up anything important, please share in the comments. See you in 2011!

All images via Wikimedia Commons.

*Updated, per comments.

Google’s Gift to Wikipedia Probably Not Evil

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on March 3, 2010 at 11:29 pm

This is a few days old now, but if you haven’t already heard, Google gave Wikipedia $2 million dollars to help with its never-sated appetite for bandwidth and “increasing … multimedia needs.” Here are two of the Internet’s most important websites getting together, and I’d have thought it would’ve been worth more than a small roundup on Techmeme.

Reported the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 18:

Google Inc., the Internet’s most profitable company, is giving $2 million to support Wikipedia, a volunteer-driven reference tool that has emerged as one of the Web’s most-read sites.

Good.

Wikimedia Foundation, owner of Wikipedia, said Wednesday that Google has donated $2 million to further develop the popular encyclopedia and other projects.

Awesome. Right.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, broke the news on Twitter on Tuesday, followed by a formal announcement from the nonprofit organization.

Twitter, well played.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, in a statement, called Wikipedia “one of the greatest triumphs of the Internet…this vast repository of community-generated content is an invaluable resource to anyone who is online.”

You bet. Of course. But why now?

To some this raises the question of what Wikipedia might do for Google; after all, a sizable donation could be said to create the possibility of a Conflict of Interest. Previous donations, such as that from a conspicuous Silicon Valley VC and partner of Elevation Partners (not Bono), have raised eyebrows. And everyone knows about Jimmy Wales’ occasional willingness to cut special someones (and Google is) a break — at least until the community gets involved.

But this question is probably backward. Wikipedia already helps Google, and by helping Wikipedia, Google helps itself.

Google depends on Wikipedia to provide topical, authoritative results at the top of its search results pages (SERPs, in SEO-speak) on more subjects than any other website. One occasionally-discussed, conspiracy-tinged theory has Google purposefully privileging Wikipedia precisely because it “cleans up” their search results. That’s possible.

But that isn’t needed to explain Wikipedia’s prominence on Google. It guarantees, for a range of topics functionally as vast as Google searches are regularly performed, an end result that is usually informative, free (as in beer, but liberty too) and not-for-profit, “not evil” and reliably neutral in a Switzerland kind of way. From what we know about Google’s recommendations for webmasters, no website is so organized as well around the Google algorithm as Wikipedia, whether we’re talking about software, community or purpose. It’s basically Google’s perfect website.

Yeah, I would give Wikipedia $2 million, too. And even though it’s positively swimming in cash, I’d probably give it some more.

What Does Objectivism Have to Do With Wikipedia?

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on November 28, 2009 at 10:25 am

Writer Evgeny Morozov has a long essay about Wikipedia, organized as a review of Andrew Lih‘s “The Wikipedia Revolution“, in the latest issue of Boston Review. Morozov identifies his chosen takeaway in a post on his blog, but I’m interested in what he has to say, via Lih’s book, about how Wikipedia’s co-founders first met through their shared regard for the philosophy of Ayn Rand:

wikipedia_randTwo of Wikipedia’s co-founders found each other on philosophy-related mailing lists. Indeed Sanger has a philosophy PhD (his Ohio State doctoral thesis is titled “Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-Justification”), while Wales almost completed a PhD in finance. They came to the project with assumptions about human cooperation that appear to be rooted in philosophy, economics, and evolutionary psychology (among other disciplines), but those ideas are poorly articulated in the book.

Lih does point out that Sanger and Wales were heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (shades of Alan Greenspan), according to which, reality exists independent of consciousness and life’s great purpose is the rational pursuit of self-interest. Wales’s fascination with Rand was so deep that he even named his daughter after a protagonist in one of Rand’s books. But Lih does not explain the steps from Objectivism to an encyclopedia that “could detail what is true in the world without judgments.” After all, didn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for that matter) aim to check judgments at the door and detail only “what is true in the world”? And isn’t that the aim of the new computational search engine, WolframAlpha? How does Objectivism enter the picture?

Maybe it doesn’t.

I’ve puzzled over this fact, as well. One of the core tenets of Objectivism is that altruism is no virtue. From Wikipedia’s Objectivism (Ayn Rand) entry:

A corollary to Rand’s endorsement of self-interest is her rejection of the ethical doctrine of altruism—which she defined in the sense of Auguste Comte’s altruism (he coined the term), as a moral obligation to live for the sake of others.

Yet Wikipedia’s volunteer-driven non-commercial nature seems the very definition of altruism. As an amateur observer of Objectivism and Objectivists — I ran a libertarian-leaning magazine in college — my best reconciliation is that so long as one’s motives for editing (or creating) Wikipedia are defined in terms of one’s own self-interest then there is no contradiction. If one derives personal value from research and writing for its own sake, or from esteem among one’s peers (fellow Wikipedians) then it makes perfect sense. In that case, production of an online encyclopedia useful to the world is a happy byproduct. However, If Wales or Sanger have discussed Wikipedia vis-à-vis Rand, it would be news to me.

So if the question is, how does Objectivism enter the picture, I presume that it doesn’t necessarily explain anything and that it’s entirely possible Wales and Sanger could have met on a listserv for almost any intellectual pursuit.

But Morozov is not done with Rand yet; his criticism of Lih’s book is that it raises a few theories about what motivates Wikipedians without arriving at a conclusion. Since Lih’s book is primarily a lay history of Wikipedia it doesn’t seem fair to me that Lih should have had a unified theory ahead of writing the book, though he did devote space to the subject. Morozov asks:

wikipedia_kropotkinLih relies on the work of Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler to address the puzzle. Benkler’s studies of “peer production” draw on the thought of Russian anarchist Piotr Kropotkin, who believed that cooperation is as important in the evolution of species as competition and that “mutual aid” is essential to human survival. Lih does not mention that Rand and Kropotkin are not exactly intellectual soulmates. Lih also does not explain how these two diverging philosophies—one prizing egoism, the other altruism—could live happily together in one site.

Morozov has been doing original research, because while Benkler and Kropotkin both appear in the book, they do not come within 65 pages of each other. Anyway, here is what Lih says about Benkler’s proposed explanation for Wikipedian motivations on p. 108:

He asserts that motivation comes from two main things other than money: the “socio-psychological” reward of interacting with others, and the “hedonic” personal gratification of the task.

Which is essentially identical to the rational self-interest described above; just because Randians are strong advocates for a capitalist economy does not mean they love only money. And even if there was a contradiction here, all one must do is look to Wikipedia’s pillars to see how the ideas of Rand and Kropotkin may coexist on Wikipedia in NPOV as a principle and policy.

That said, Morozov’s essay is otherwise well worth reading, as it delves into worthwhile questions about Wikipedia’s structural biases, such as its heavy reliance upon online sources (nearly always found via Google) and resulting quandaries such as determining whether a person from the 1920s may be considered Notable. Questions such as these, rather than the influence of Ayn Rand, are what keep Wikipedians up at night.

Examples of Bias in Conservapedia’s Examples of Bias in Wikipedia

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on November 14, 2009 at 3:07 pm

conservapedia_logoI can’t say that I spend much time thinking about Conservapedia, the creationist wiki created as a counterpoint to Wikipedia, but today I happened to find myself on the page titled “Examples of Bias in Wikipedia“. As you might expect, it’s a fun one. The one-line introduction to the page states:

The following is a growing list of examples of liberal bias, deceit, frivolous gossip, and blatant errors on Wikipedia.

It certainly is growing. The list of examples stands at 150 and counting as of this writing, and it defies easy summary. Many relate to disagreements over the portrayal of religion and use of international or non-U.S. standards, or complaints that certain details they find important have not been included on certain pages. For example, one of the most recent (#150) states:

Wikipedia’s Nidal Malik Hasan article fails to mention any connection to Obama’s transition government.

It’s true that Hasan participated in a task force associated with a GWU think tank that offered advice to Obama’s transition team. In fact, the detail has been considered for inclusion on the article about Hasan. Maybe something about it will be, however if it does it will surely fail to imply… whatever it is that this factoid is supposed to imply.

And then there are some objections (#2) that would never have occurred to me:

Wikipedia’s article on engineering features a photo of … an offshore wind turbine, which is an inefficient liberal boondoggle and certainly not a representative example of engineering. None even exist off the shores of the United States because they are not competitive.

Actually, as of today there is no such photograph in that particular article. Victory for Conservapedia! As it happens, there are other cases where the Conservapedia perspective has “won”; here (#45) is another:

Wikipedia has once again deleted all content on the North American Union. The old pages are inaccessible, and re-creation is blocked.

Turns out, there is now a North American Union article, and has been since December 2007, following a period where it indeed had been deleted. This was certainly in error, as the concept has received plenty of coverage — the article has nearly 50 sources.

And then there are some examples (#14) which are not, in fact, genuine examples:

In his article entitled Wikipedia lies, slander continue, journalist Joseph Farah supports his observation that Wikipedia “is not only a provider of inaccuracy and bias. It is wholesale purveyor of lies and slander unlike any other the world has ever known.”

Well, I am sure he is sincere in this belief, but I would still have to tag that “citation needed”.

Conservapedia logo via Conservapedia.

Jimmy Wales Weighs in on Flagged Revisions

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on September 22, 2009 at 11:14 am

My post this weekend made a point of separating uninformed Wikipedia criticism from informed Wikipedia criticism. One that I listed as meriting a response was the weirdly-titled article “Where Wikipedia Ends” by Farhad Manjoo in Time. In fact, only a day later Wikipedia co-founder and (these days mostly) spiritual leader Jimmy Wales took on the hype at Huffington Post. Here’s the core of his response:

[M]aybe you read this story on Time.com: “They recently instituted a major change, imposing a layer of editorial control on entries about living people. In the past, only articles on high-profile subjects like Barack Obama were protected from anonymous revisions. Under the new plan, people can freely alter Wikipedia articles on, say, their local officials or company head — but those changes will become live only once they’ve been vetted by a Wikipedia administrator.”

That’s all very interesting, albeit completely untrue.

Imagine if the stories told instead said things like this:

“In a major shift towards greater openness, Wikipedia is taking the first steps towards doing away with controls that kept certain pages ‘protected’ or ‘locked’ for many years. Previously, certain high profile and high risk biographies and other entries were kept locked to prevent vandalism by users who had not registered accounts on the site for a ‘waiting period’ of 4 days.”

“The new feature, long advocated by the site’s founder Jimmy Wales, eliminates that restriction by allowing anyone to edit these pages, even without logging in. The secret to being able to do this is that the new feature creates a queue where tens of thousands of longtime users of the site can approve these changes – changes that were previously completely forbidden.”

What? Really? The solution to the problem of bad speech is actually more speech? Openness and collaboration actually work?

Nevertheless, it is true. English Wikipedia will soon launch a new feature that will allow you to edit, as an inexperienced user, articles that have previously been locked more-or-less continuously for years.

To read more about flagged revisions, see Flagged Revisions Come to the English Wikipedia.

Super Mario Wiki?

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on September 20, 2009 at 2:18 pm

From the “merits no response” file:

Wikipedia, billed as the “free encyclopedia,” is not really an encyclopedia at all but an online magazine written by volunteers who do not need to have any specialized knowledge on anything at all.

The Web site says the content is mainly based on anonymous contributions. Anyone who can access the Web site can make changes to articles. I find it odd that someone who has extensive knowledge of a subject wouldn’t want the world to know his or her name. Wikipedia specifically states, “Visitors do not need specialized qualifications to contribute.” Does this make anyone else leery? This means an 11-year-old, who thinks Super Mario Galaxy is based on real planets, could write or edit the entry on the solar system.

Yes, well. This is an excerpt from a student newspaper column at the University of Idaho, so perhaps it’s not fair to pick on this particular individual. It is, however, quite obvious that she is not terribly familiar with how Wikipedia works. If the author wishes to believe that information from Super Mario Galaxy would be allowed to stand on the Solar System article, I am not about to disabuse her of this notion.

The rest of the column a) professes that students should not cite Wikipedia articles in class papers, and b) students should take advantage of the university library. I agree with both points, as I am sure do her professors and the Wikimedia Foundation as well.

More likely meriting a response, however, are critiques from a few higher-profile writers. One is Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has been writing for several years on what he believes is the impending demise of Wikipedia, as recently covered in Ars Technica. Another is tech writer Farhad Manjoo, who has an article in this week’s Time Magazine called “Where Wikipedia Ends”.

These deserve greater consideration because they are the work of individuals who have some academic knowledge of how Wikipedia works — not to mention the reach they enjoy. As time permits, I may get around to publishing them in this space. If you have any thoughts, drop me a line or leave a comment here.

Flagged Revisions Come to the English Wikipedia

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on August 26, 2009 at 6:39 am

Earlier this week, New York Times web reporter Noam Cohen, who does some of the best Wikipedia reporting this side of The Register, broke the news about a decision by Wikipedia’s parent organization to instate tighter controls on some articles. Wrote Cohen:

Officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit in San Francisco that governs Wikipedia, say that within weeks, the English-language Wikipedia will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people.

The new feature, called “flagged revisions,” will require that an experienced volunteer editor for Wikipedia sign off on any change made by the public before it can go live. Until the change is approved — or in Wikispeak, flagged — it will sit invisibly on Wikipedia’s servers, and visitors will be directed to the earlier version.

The change is part of a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia’s leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature and dependable.

It’s worth pointing out early on, as Cohen’s story unfortunately did not, that these changes will apply only to biographies of living persons. In Wikipedia, that is a proper noun: Biography of Living Persons (BLP) is one of Wikipedia’s most strenuously enforced policies; earlier this year, Wikipedia veteran Newyorkbrad explained this in a series of posts on Volokh Conspiracy, which The Wikipedian previously discussed.

Blogosphere reaction has been much more widespread than any Wikipedia story that comes to mind from this past year. I think this is because everybody who uses Wikipedia has some opinion about the website’s curious balance between openness and reliability — and now the balance has shifted. I’d say reaction is roughly divisible into four quadrants: those who mourn Wikipedia’s openness vs. those who will continue to question Wikipedia’s reliability, with those who are optimistic about the change vs. those who are not. Here is a walk-through:

Among those who feel that Wikipedia’s openness is key to the site’s success, count Judd Antin at TechnoTaste, who is studying Wikipedia as part of his PhD work:

As part of my dissertation research I’ve been interviewing less experienced Wikipedians about their perceptions of the site. One constant theme has been the perception of a class system in Wikipedia. Casual editors worry that their edits aren’t good enough, and that they’ll be rebuked by Wikipedia’s upper-classes. They perceive a mystical group of higher-order contributors who make Wikipedia work. … This latest move is troubling in that it seems to represent a lack of faith in crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds, in the model that made Wikipedia what it is today. This change will also remove another of the important social-psychological incentives that draw new people into the Wikipedia fold: the instant gratification that comes from seeing your work reflected on a Wikipedia page.

This is not always a good thing; Kate McMillan at Small Dead Animals is an example of someone who is the subject of a Wikipedia article, but is not exactly pleased about the fact. She also isn’t exactly optimistic that things will change:

My own Wiki page was instigated by an internet “stalker”, in fact, the same individual who once authored a blogspot site using my stolen identity. Requests to Wikipedia to delete the page went unheeded, and it’s remained a reliable source of misinformation, false attribution of quotes, and drive-by smears ever since. … It wasn’t until I threatened a Wiki editor personally with legal action for restoring defamatory material to the page, that they began to take tighter control of the content.

Another skeptic is Ann Bartow at Madisonian.net:

I have doubts about how effective this is going to be in improving the reliability of the content of Wikipedia entries, but it is a great PR move by Jimmy Wales, that’s for sure.

From the perspective of a frustrated editor, here is Andy Merrett at The Blog Herald:

As someone not in the Wikipedia “elite”, I’ve long since given up trying to edit entries on the site, having already wasted not insignificant time adding information only to have it reversed. I foresee that Wikipedia will increasingly become a place where only a minority of privileged and “trusted” editors have the keys to the kingdom.

That is a plus to others. Among the critics of Wikipedia’s reliability was Lisa Gold at Research Maven, who nonetheless is a skeptic herself:

I’m glad there is finally some acknowledgment among the powers that be at Wikipedia that accuracy is important. But that’s not enough. If accuracy is important, you have to make it a priority and do things on many different levels to try to achieve it. You have to apply your policies to the entire site, not just some articles. You have to bring in people with knowledge, experience, and qualifications to do real editing and fact-checking. (With all of the unemployed editors, fact-checkers, and journalists out there, why not hire a few and let them work their magic.) This new policy is not really about making Wikipedia more accurate, it’s just about trying to stop the embarrassing vandalism stories that hit the news with disturbing regularity.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Dr. Jim West, who appears to have some experience arguing with an intellectual opponent about Wikipedia content. His reaction to the change:

In a word, duh. Now if you’ll do the same for every entry then perhaps your resource might be worth visiting some day. Until then, I think I’ll continue to abstain. I’m not really interested in reading an article on the Dead Sea Scrolls that Raphael Golb has edited using one of his 200 fake names.

While I understand the concerns of both above, I also think they go too far. Striking a balance and offering a more optimistic view is Ben Parr at Mashable:

[W]e can’t help but feel a bit sad that this change had to happen. Wikipedia was egalitarian in the spread and use of information, and it treated everyone as equal contributors of knowledge. While that may not necessarily be true in the real world, it still was the driving force behind the creation of 3 million articles, more than any other encyclopedia could ever hope to boast.

The move was necessary, but it does mark a new chapter in the Wikipedia information age and the end of an old one.

And here’s another philosophical take from Joe Windish at The Moderate Voice:

There is little doubt the debate will be passionate, but that’s exactly as it should be. Eight years into the incredible success of Wikipedia, long one of the 10 most popular sites on the Web, many of us still don’t understand it. … The thousands of volunteer Wikipedian editors take their responsibility seriously. Flagged revisions may or may not work. What’s best about it is that the Wikipedia editorial community will watch and wonder about and debate it. And if it should not succeed, they will try and try again.

My own take on the situation? I don’t know yet. As Andrew Lih explains in his book, The Wikipedia Revolution, the German-language edition has had this feature for several years, and it seems to work there. On the other hand, the English Wikipedia is much larger, and the possibility certainly exists that some articles will be left unchecked and un-updated for extended periods of time. Will the site grow stagnant? Will the vast majority of people who read but do not edit even notice? These are just a few of the operative questions.

WikiProject Flagged Revisions, which will try to keep articles current, was only established on the 19th of August and as yet has just four listed participants. It’s also worth noting, once the details are hammered out — which they are not just yet — the plan will be implemented on a two-month trial basis. And after that? Well, I’m very interested to find out myself.

Wikipedia On Dead Tree Redux

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on June 20, 2009 at 3:31 pm

More than a week ago I posted a photo that’s been making the rounds lately — and even wound up as the basis for a joke on Conan O’Brien this past week — about a student artist who had created a physical book of Wikipedia’s Featured articles, one taking up approximately 5,000 pages. I noted at the time that the explanatory text

Reproducing Wikipedia in a dysfunctional physical form helps to question its use as an internet resource.

wasn’t terribly satisfying to me, and I asked at the time

Would printing all of Google’s search results also question its use as an Internet resource? Would printing an image of a sundial question its use as a physical timekeeping device?

and I resolved to find out more if I could. In fact I did hear back from the book’s creator, Rob Matthews, not long after. When posed with the question above, he responded at first:

I’m comparing the Internet Wikipedia to a traditional encyclopedia, by putting it in the same format, therefore suggesting that Wikipedia is dysfunctional compared to a normal encyclopedia. This is suggested by how I’ve conveyed Wikipedia physically.

I still wasn’t satisfied with this, but after a bit of back and forth, Matthews confirmed that his intention was to point out, compared to a traditional paper-based encyclopedia, it’s less reliable because of its radical openness, or hard to find what’s important among the incomplete and unbalanced articles that exist on the site. Those are my words, but he agreed with this much.

I actually do not agree with this view. Not that I don’t agree there is some truth to the point, because there is, but because I do not actually see how anyone is impeded from finding what they want because of Wikipedia. Moreover, “what’s important” is always in flux, and Wikipedia is a reflection of that.

wikipedia-in-print-rob-matthewsIt’s also nothing new. Those who lament the fact that Wkipedia gives disproportionate coverage to trivial matters — a criticism voiced by none other than Stephen Colbert, who sarcastically riffed on the subject, “any site that’s got a longer entry on ‘truthiness’ than on Lutherans has its priorities straight” — should also recognize that these imbalances are often corrected.

I’ve never been one to take my social commentary from visual art such as painting or sculpture, in significant part because it is rare that an image or an object can convey a subtle point while also succeeding as art. For such a purpose — in this case offering commentary on a subject which is overwhelmingly composed of words — I think nonverbal art is inferior to something like the novel, the essay or even the sitcom.

Even if I thought Matthews had a strong argument about Wikipedia to make, I think this fails as standalone commentary. But if Matthews does actually sell copies of this book, consider me interested (price dependent). Mr. Matthews doesn’t have answers for his questions, but his artwork would make for an excellent conversation piece.

The Wikipedia Haters Club

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on June 9, 2009 at 8:42 am

Count as one member Examiner.com personal finance columnist Steve Juetten, who writes in a review comparing Microsoft’s newly launched search engine, Bing, with old standby Google:

Before I started the search, I set two rules. First, I was looking for information from reliable sources. As a result, if a search placed information from Wikipedia high on the list, the search engine sank in my review. As with information from any source (human, web or book), trust but verify and Wikipedia is not trustworthy when it comes to your money.

Anyone who spends much time around Wikipedia is pretty familiar with complaints such as these, and to this end the Wikipedia community maintains a page called Replies to common objections. Juetten isn’t quite specific enough for me to highlight a particular section, but I’m pretty sure he will find some answers in the answers to “Wikipedia can never be high quality“.

Meanwhile, a few objections to his objection do occur to me. For one thing, who is to say that other sources will be more trustworthy? Juetten undoubtedly singles out Wikipedia for its high profile, but it’s difficult to see why it should be placed at a disadvantage to About.com, Answers.com or NNDB, all of which can rank well for certain terms.*

Are these other information resources likely to be more reliable? I know of no reason why they should be. And if About.com or NNDB does happen to be wrong, there’s not a thing you can do about it.

Lastly, I agree with Juetten that “trust but verify” is a good personal rule and a sound approach to research, but I don’t understand why he doesn’t extend it to Wikipedia when this is an area in which Wikipedia often shines. One of the site’s core content policies is in fact Verifiability, that articles need references. But Juetten’s objection becomes even more ironic when you consider that said references are required to meet another core policy: Reliable sources.

Juetten’s worldly cynicism is understandable but, in this case, selectively applied and ultimately misplaced. It is true that Wikipedia is not completely reliable, but it shouldn’t be penalized for being one of the few reference websites that actually admits the fact.

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*For example, try searching for Alan Greenspan on Google and Alan Greenspan on Bing. As of this morning, the top three results for each are: Wikipedia, Answers.com and NNDB.