William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘Wikipedia culture’ Category

Wikimania 2014: We Needed to Talk About Paid Editing, So We Did

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on August 12, 2014 at 9:23 am

This past weekend I attended Wikimania, the annual worldwide conference for Wikipedia and related wiki-sites, this time held in London and the third I’ve attended. And for the first time, this year, I was a speaker. The presentation was called “We Need to Talk About Paid Editing: Sorting Out Wikipedia’s Most Enduring Argument” and its subject matter is fairly self-evident: Wikipedia has struggled for years with the fact that its volunteer-first community attracts outside interests seeking (or offering) monetary recompense for changes to articles.

On the English Wikipedia, the operating consensus is that paid contributors should refrain from editing directly, and instead seek help from volunteers. The most important factor in this is the opinion of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and unofficial community leader—an unwritten rule often referred to as the “Bright Line”. Interestingly enough, this is not the case on other language editions: the French, German, and Swedish Wikipedias tend to be much more accommodating of companies and organizations that seek change (sometimes even directly edit) the Wikipedia article about themselves.

The goal of myself and my co-presenters was to put all of this together for the first time in a public meeting of Wikipedians, to hold an open discussion about what it means, and to consider whether it is possible to agree on a unifying standard. And the result? Well, it was a very successful presentation, with a packed room (even though we were in the last block of time on the last day) and a lively conversation that could have gone much longer than the 90 minutes allotted. Below, our slides, and an explanation of what we discussed:

I had two co-presenters for the panel, and two guest presenters joined us as well. My main collaborators were longtime English Wikipedia contributor / chronicler Andrew Lih (User:Fuzheado), and French Wikipedia contributor / marketing executive Christophe Henner (Utilisateur:Schiste). The two others were former Wikimedia Italia VP Cristian Consonni (Utente:CristianCantoro), and Telecom Italia executive Federico Ascari.

The deck above is short on explanatory text—it was meant to support our speaking on the subject, of course—but it went a little something like this:

  • Slides 1–12 — Leading the way, Andrew delivered a whirlwind history of “paid editing” and other “conflict of interest” edits on Wikipedia, including several of the better known controversies. Most interesting, Andrew created a four quadrant chart showing how paid (and unpaid) editing differs based on whether it is perceived as “conflicted” or “unconflicted”.
  • Slides 13–23 — Here’s where I told a bit of my own story as a consultant on Wikipedia projects for clients, explained how we fit into the so-called Bright Line (short version: I follow it, but it doesn’t work as well as it should), and the Donovan House meeting of Wikipedians and PR thought leaders I convened in February, plus the multi-agency statement which came out of it. As of August 2014, following my lead, 35 companies including the very largest global firms, have pledged to follow Wikipedia’s rules and encourage clients and colleagues to do the same.
  • Slides 24-27 — Christophe described his past work with French telecom Orange to improve its Wikipedia presence, a debate among Wikipedians about whether this was handled correctly, and frustrations by his former client, Yamaha, which was less successful working with Wikipedia but instead created its own wiki.
  • Slides 28–34 — Cristian and Federico took turns explaining the project they undertook. In short, Telecom Italia partnered with a university class, recruiting 6 students completing their undergraduate work, to research and write improved versions of several articles about the company, with input from Cristian and the Italian chapter of Wikimedia.
  • Slides 35–40 — I previewed the next step in the process started with the Donovan House group: an ebook called “Wikipedia and the Communications Professional”, to be released in September 2014. After this, I moderated a free-flowing discussion of these issues among attendees.

And a very interesting discussion it was. I probably shouldn’t try to summarize the discussion, in part because I’ll forget things, in part because I wouldn’t want to characterize a discussion that is still evolving, and in part because this post is already plenty long enough. There will be much more to say in just a few weeks’ time.

Can Wikipedia and PR Just Get Along? Here’s a Possible New Way Forward

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on June 10, 2014 at 10:06 am

I think there is a good chance that today will prove to be a significant one—a dangerous thing to hope for, perhaps—but I’m optimistic that it will be, and for good reasons. I’ll explain.

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As a number of folks in my Wikipedia orbit have been aware for some time, in February of this year I organized a roundtable discussion, held in a conference room at the Donovan House hotel in Washington, DC, comprising: a) representatives of digital practices at some of the world’s largest PR and marketing firms, b) individual members of the Wikipedia community, and c) academics who follow Wikipedia closely. The conversation was intended to build on the dialogue begun in early 2012 via the Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE) Facebook group. Indeed, several participants in our conversation have been longtime contributors to that one.

In all we had 12 participants from both Wikipedia and the PR industry, and this was the first time to my knowledge that such a group had ever been convened, at least in United States, to discuss their perspectives on how the two have interacted previously, and how they might in the future. I would say that participants on both sides of the conversation were pleasantly surprised to find a real dialogue was possible, and they had more in common than some may have expected.

Many ideas about how communications professionals could meaningfully participate in—and improve—Wikipedia were raised in the discussion, but the first one that made sense to tackle is one we are announcing today. The agency participants, led by yours truly, collaborated on a multi-agency statement, for the first time expressing, in one voice, a respect for Wikipedia’s project, then intention to do right by it, to give good advice to colleagues and clients, and to continue the dialogue however possible. While the agencies and their representatives are the actual participants, it was shaped by ongoing conversation with these Wikipedians and others. It’s only an olive branch, but I believe it’s a necessary first step.

As of 10am Eastern Time we have posted this as an essay on Wikipedia with 11 agencies joining—nearly all who attended in February, plus a few more who agree with the effort and wish to adopt the same standard. Indeed, we hope this becomes an industry standard, and the basis for a new phase of, well, let’s call it perestroika for the Wikipedia community and communications professionals.

We shall see, of course. I do expect that many on both sides of this divide will be skeptical of this project. To this day, many are surprised to hear about the Wikipedia services offered by my firm, Beutler Ink. Me, I’m surprised that that there have not been more pro-community Wikipedia consultants. Instead, most are familiar with the kinds of stories that usually get the headlines: when someone like a Bell Pottinger or Portland Communications gets their hand stuck in the proverbial cookie jar.

Today’s announcement is the beginning of an effort to change that. If this is a topic of interest to you, I hope you’ll leave a comment on the statement’s discussion page, and join us in talking about how to move this project forward.

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The full statement and current list of signatory agencies follows:

Statement on Wikipedia from participating communications firms

On behalf of our firms, we recognize Wikipedia’s unique and important role as a public knowledge resource. We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of Wikipedia editors.

Our firms believe that it is in the best interest of our industry, and Wikipedia users at large, that Wikipedia fulfill its mission of developing an accurate and objective online encyclopedia. Therefore, it is wise for communications professionals to follow Wikipedia policies as part of ethical engagement practices.

We therefore publicly state and commit, on behalf of our respective firms, to the best of our ability, to abide by the following principles:

  • To seek to better understand the fundamental principles guiding Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.
  • To act in accordance with Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, particularly those related to “conflict of interest.”
  • To abide by the Wikimedia Foundation’s Terms of Use.
  • To the extent we become aware of potential violations of Wikipedia policies by our respective firms, to investigate the matter and seek corrective action, as appropriate and consistent with our policies.
  • Beyond our own firms, to take steps to publicize our views and counsel our clients and peers to conduct themselves accordingly.

We also seek opportunities for a productive and transparent dialogue with Wikipedia editors, inasmuch as we can provide accurate, up-to-date, and verifiable information that helps Wikipedia better achieve its goals.

A significant improvement in relations between our two communities may not occur quickly or easily, but it is our intention to do what we can to create a long-term positive change and contribute toward Wikipedia’s continued success.

Participating firms and individual representatives, as of June 10, 2014:

  • Beutler Ink (William Beutler)
  • Ogilvy & Mather (Marshall Manson)
  • FleishmanHillard (Sam Huxley)
  • Peppercomm (Sam Ford)
  • Burson-Marsteller (Patrick Kerley)
  • Ketchum (Tim Weinheimer)
  • Porter Novelli (Dave Coustan)
  • Voce Communications (Dave Coustan)
  • Edelman (Phil Gomes)
  • Allison+Partners (Jeremy Rosenberg)
  • MDC Partners (Michael Bassik)

The Wikipedian Interviews: At the Movies

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on February 28, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Every once in awhile, here at The Wikipedian we like to spotlight editors who have made a substantial impact on Wikipedia (previously: User:Esemono) by asking a willing editor to talk about the articles they’ve worked on, and how they think about the article writing process. With Oscar season coming to an end this Sunday, there’s no better time than now to share this e-mail interview with a longtime contributor to WikiProject Film, User:Erik. I sent him a few questions earlier in the week, and he was gracious enough to respond with his thoughtful answers presented, unedited, in this post. Thanks, Erik!

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How do you select specific topics for the film articles you work on?

I tend to choose topics that have underdeveloped articles or do not have articles. Most of my contributions are to articles about upcoming films, and I like to give these articles a good start by weaving together details about the films’ development and production process. The topics I choose can be of personal interest to me, can be those whose articles I rescue from AfD, or even just related to a bigger initiative of mine. Lately, I have been in the habit of creating articles about crew members because I’ve warmed up to the idea of crew lists in film articles. (The film infobox is restrictive in not having fields for some crew members, like the costume designer or the production designer.) I’ve also started to create list articles that can link together film articles, usually because they have something in common.

What’s your research process like? Any favorite sources or techniques for identifying encyclopedic information?

I use the advanced search operators in Google pretty frequently. One can filter for the domain (e.g., site:variety.com) and/or choose a date range to find results about a film during a certain time frame. I usually tend to find out the earliest coverage about a film and work forward from there. Most films will not be written about in books, so most of my contributions have been derived from news and magazine coverage. However, I do use Google Books and the book preview feature in Amazon.com to make a case for an older film’s notability or to help resolve a content-based dispute. One of my favorite sources was the British Film Institute’s Film Index International database, which could provide a list of periodical articles for a given film. Such lists have been of tremendous value in expanding Wikipedia articles. Unfortunately, I only had access to that database in college, and not anymore. I’ve learned to seek out information in different ways since.

One of your articles that really caught my eye was Interpretations of Fight Club. How did you come to decide to create that article?

Fight Club is a favorite film, so when I worked on its Wikipedia article to bring it up to Featured status, I came across academic analysis of the film. Originally, I thought that these sources were too high-brow to include in a film article, but another Wikipedia editor with a PhD in English literature told me about film theory — auteurship, intentional fallacy, and how a film could be interpreted independent of the original meaning. That really opened my eyes to the field of film criticism, and I think it has enriched my perspective of film. Anyway, unfortunately Fight Club is hugely popular to study. The article Interpretations of Fight Club currently has four references, but on the talk page, there are many more listed that I have not implemented. The four that I did implement were dense and very difficult for me to summarize, especially with so many good points made. The experience made me think more about incorporating film criticism in Wikipedia articles. I helped an editor improve the Wikipedia article for the film American Beauty to Featured status, and I think that outcome is what I want for film articles. I have also added similar analysis to the article for Apt Pupil, though I do not find it complete yet. I’m also working on a similar approach for the film Panic Room. I even have an itch to revisit Fight Club to incorporate that scholarship and not just write about the film’s themes as determined by the director and the stars.

Based on your selection of topics over time, I think you have pretty good taste in movies. And then there’s… Surf Ninjas. How did you decide to work on that one?

Surf Ninjas is a nostalgic favorite of mine, though not to the point that I would own the DVD. I expanded the Wikipedia article back in 2007, a time when I was probably hitting my stride as a Wikipedia editor. Surf Ninjas is a movie that predates the Internet, so that means most of the news coverage could only be found on internal databases. My work was a sort of experiment to see what I could find for a film that old, especially since at the time, working on articles about upcoming films, I could find headlines with ease. That is probably another reason why I continue to work with upcoming films; I do not have access to databases like I used to in college, so I depend a lot on what is publicly available.

Which article are you most proud of that does not get the kind of traffic or recognition that you wish it would?

In terms of balance, I would have to say Sea Shadow. It is a 2011 Emirati coming-of-age film for which I created a Wikipedia article a year after the film was first released. When I first started editing on Wikipedia, I liked to work on articles for films based on comic books. These films get so much news coverage because of the fan base, and I think that demographic overlapping with that of the “average Wikipedian” (explained at WP:BIAS) means that these articles continue to be the most well-developed film articles on Wikipedia. I’m supportive of this since readers know to go to Wikipedia to read in depth about a film. However, since I’ve moved on from these films to a more varied set, I’ve seen how much work there is to be done elsewhere.

So how did I get to Sea Shadow? I noticed a POV dispute at the article for the 2012 film Promised Land, and in the process of restructuring the article to satisfy all parties, I eventually created an article for Image Nation, which was one of the companies that financed the film. When I put together its filmography, I saw that Sea Shadow was a red link among a set of blue links, and I decided to create the article. Writing it made me realize how much I took movies for granted in the United States; Sea Shadow was the first movie to be filmed in the United Arab Emirates! It made me think about how much Wikipedia focuses on popular Western-produced films. I am more conscious of these filmmaking efforts that go on outside the mainstream — either efforts elsewhere or independent efforts. I admit I still Google the title Sea Shadow once in a while to see if it will ever appear on the first page of Google’s search results. Regardless, I’m happy to have told the story of this film on Wikipedia.

Is there an article or a list you would like to develop but haven’t yet had the time? In particular, what are your plans for Alcoholism in film?

There are so many articles I would like to write. I have learned over the years how to research a film, but the key obstacle is having the time to collect the information, digest it, and write a Wikipedia article based on all these findings. I can think of so many projects to do, but I try not to be too ambitious. Otherwise I am setting myself up for disappointment. Among less recent films, I would probably like to complete Panic Room and Apt Pupil, which have been perpetual works-in-progress. One goal I’ve considered setting is to get an article to Featured status and displayed on the Main Page for a certain anniversary. (I did that for Fight Club for its 10th anniversary.) Once in a while, I look up films that would be celebrating its 10th, 25th, or 50th anniversary in the next year. For example, Batman Begins will be 10 years old (and has a lot of fascinating critical analysis to go with it). Dances with Wolves (which I re-watched recently to see if it holds up) will be 25 years old. And so forth. I just wish I could devote more time to give these films their wiki-closeup! :)

Regarding the idea of alcoholism in film, I noticed that Wikipedia often writes about general topics and about individual films. I thought this was a gap that could be filled. My thinking may have started with superhero films being on-and-off in development, so it seemed better to define such an article about a set of films not as a film series but as the character in the context in film (e.g., “Batman in film”). I’ve also argued at AfD to keep articles like “Latinos in film” or “Vietnam War in film” since I found them to be valid topics that have potential. Unfortunately, I have not pursued this “in film” idea to its fullest, mainly due to time constraints. In a way, I have simplified this idea by creating list articles that can link together similar films. It’s not as prose-based and thus not in depth, but it is easier to put together and can give readers an idea of related films. The article “List of films featuring surveillance” is one of my favorites in this regard. I may create a similar “List of films featuring alcoholism” instead of “Alcoholism in film” at some point.

How did you get involved with Wikipedia in the first place, and how do you think it has changed over time?

I cannot remember what I thought of Wikipedia before I actually joined, but I started off with gnomish edits mostly focusing on film articles. (And the rest is history…) I think I enjoyed the idea that Wikipedia was an open space that was also very visible to Internet users. I liked sharing information about films (and still do), and I think I found films to be a “safe” topic as opposed to hot-button ones like political and religious issues.

In terms of what has changed, I have been a member of WikiProject Film for most of my time on Wikipedia. I served as coordinator for part of the time, but I think we tried too hard to emulate WikiProject Military History and found that initiative too ambitious. Quite a difference between dedicated military historians and casual moviegoers! We no longer have coordinators, and our primary initiative as a WikiProject is to maintain a balanced set of guidelines and to notify the community about specific disputes to help resolve. I helped write the guidelines, so it is nice to see new editors reference them. Sometimes the guidelines are misinterpreted from their original meaning, so we have to go back and clarify!

More in general, I have seen some editors retire and some persist. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that many who persist tend to be hard-headed, and I think that makes us a bit unwelcoming at times. Another observation I’ve made is that there seems to be less vandalism than before, and a recent New York Times article called “Wikipedia vs. the Small Screen” made an excellent point in that most people nowadays browse Wikipedia on their smartphones. This seems to cut both ways — less vandalizing and less beneficial editing.

If you could change one existing policy, guideline or community norm, what would it be?

I wish that the behavioral policy of WP:CIVIL had more teeth. Punitive action only takes place when a “bright line” is crossed. I recently saw a heated and increasingly personal exchange between two long-time editors. Only one of them was blocked because their words became explicit personal attacks. It was disheartening to read the exchange in which both editors’ tones became accusatory and unwilling to disengage, especially to have the last word. Along the same vein, punitive action in regard to the three-revert rule and edit warring operates by a similar “bright line”. I have seen the rule essentially gamed where a long-time editor knows when to stop where the other party may not. Tag-teaming is also a strategy, intentional or unintentional, where an assist by another editor can circumvent the rule, when the overall goal really should be starting a discussion to resolve the dispute. Unfortunately, I have seen too many discussions start only after both parties have reverted three times, and they are usually too hostile to each other by that point to engage in a conducive discussion. I personally strive to revert as little as possible, especially when looking at the big picture, that these are just words on a web page that are being fought over. Maybe a two-revert rule can prevent such hostility from escalating too much.

Who are some editors whose work or community-building efforts you admire?

I think that there are many editors that I admire in different ways. MichaelQSchmidt is one with whom I have disagreed at times about how to write about films in development, but I think in spite of that, we have cordial and productive discussions. He has striven to write useful essays to guide editors at AfD and elsewhere. At WikiProject Film, I can always count on Betty Logan to make sensible contributions to discussions. I notice certain editors who can put together excellent film articles even though they may not participate actively in the WikiProject Film community. Although he is retired from Wikipedia, Steve was a model editor who had a very collaborative demeanor and wrote the excellent articles American Beauty, Changeling, and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Got a favorite for Best Picture this year?

12 Years a Slave. While I have not had a chance to see all the Best Picture nominees, I have followed coverage about 12 Years a Slave very closely since it began development. I really enjoyed Steve McQueen’s previous films Hunger and Shame and looked forward to this one. I’ve read a lot of commentary about whether or not 12 Years a Slave deserves to win. I think Gravity is a technical wonder, like Avatar was, though with themes not as swallowed up by spectacle. However, 12 Years a Slave is important in the sense that it is a rare film about a key element of American history — slavery. I did research to put together a Wikipedia list of films featuring slavery as well as the article Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, which was a 1984 TV film by PBS based on the same source material as 12 Years a Slave. Knowing this background and the general skew of demographics in the film industry toward older white men, I think it’s important to recognize 12 Years a Slave for its creative merit and for representing an otherwise underrepresented aspect of American history.

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One last thing: for this year’s Oscar season, my team at Beutler Ink conceived and created a poster featuring an icon for each of the films to win the last 85 Oscars, plus an icon each for this year’s nominees. You can check it out here: The Best Pictures.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 2)

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on January 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

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

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5. Basically ArbCom will never get its act together

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

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

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

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4. Wikipedia has more than a gender problem…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 1)

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on December 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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10. Losing Aaron Swartz

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

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

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

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

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9. Wiki Trek Into Darkness

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

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

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

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

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8. Wikipediocracy rising

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

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

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

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7. The tragicomedy of Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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6. Where the money is

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

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

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

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

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

Look Ma, I’m On Wikipedia Weekly!

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on September 25, 2013 at 10:57 am

On Wikipedia, every contributor is granted their pseudonymity if they want it—and many do—yet some step out from behind their usernames to participate in a podcast (and now YouTube series) called Wikipedia Weekly. The series, which ran continuously from 2006 through 2009 before hitting a sporadic period, is back as of this summer, hosted as always by Andrew “Fuzheado” Lih.

And on Monday, for its 101st installment, the panel of participants included none other than yours truly. We talked about a lawsuit seeking to uncover the identity of a Wikipedia editor, conflict of interest and PR practicioners, Wikipedia articles about breaking news events, “Good articles”, systemic bias on Wikipedia, and a little bit about Grand Theft Auto V and Breaking Bad (after all, those were some of the most popular articles of the past week).

Bloggingheads.tv: “Wikipedia’s Newbie Problem”

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on September 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm

In the past few weeks, I’ve begun hosting a new maybe-series on Bloggingheads.tv covering technology, tech policy, business and media. For my second installment, I decided to ask Andrew “Fuzheado” Lih—a longtime Wikimedian and author of the first book-length treatment of Wikipedia’s origins—to join me.

He graciously accepted, and we discussed the Wikipedia community’s reaction to the Visual Editor, whether Wikipedia might be “disrupted”, and how to add more video to the site. You can watch it here, and it’s about 54 minutes:

The Wikipedian Interviews: Esemono

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on April 30, 2013 at 11:42 am

Today The Wikipedian launches the first in what we hope will be an occasional series: an interview with a Wikipedia editor about his or her work and views on Wikipedia. First up is Esemono, a contributor to the English-language Wikipedia since 2006. He first caught my attention for being the originator and primary contributor to List of helicopter prison escapes, one of my favorite Wikipedia articles of all time (and one I see making the rounds on social media every few months or so). Other prominent articles Esemono has created and developed include Longest recorded sniper kills, List of people who have died climbing Mount Everest, and List of hospital ships sunk in World War I. The following interview was conducted via email during the week of April 22:

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How do you select topics for the articles you decide to work on?

It usually starts with an interesting article I read and then think, “Wow, I wish everyone knew this,” then I check if it’s on Wikipedia. If it’s not I write the article and if there is an article I will try and improve it. I like to create lists because I enjoy the list format and because I am horrible at writing. The lists allow me to provide info to the world without allowing too many chances for me to mess up my grammar. Hopefully you’ll clean up the grammar in these answers, so I don’t look too bad!

Your lists are very well-sourced. What’s your research process, and what tools or websites do you use most?

My go-to site is the BBC but if I can’t find it there then I just do a Google search and then scan through the results until I find a reliable source. Using Google Books is also a useful tool that I spend a lot of time mining.

The most popular article you’ve started is “List of people who died climbing Mount Everest”, but it didn’t exist until you created it in May 2012. Why do you think this was, and why did you decide to create it?

I don’t think anyone wanted to sit down and do it. There was a less detailed article talking about deaths on all mountains over I think 8000m but no one had tackled just Everest. I read an article about how there are over 200 bodies on Mount Everest, just laying exposed but mummified by the harsh environment. It’s too dangerous to bring them down and so they sit on the mountain forever. People climbing see them all the time and actually use them for landmarks, “turn left at the American, follow the path past green boots and you will reach the summit.” This was fascinating to me and a great opportunity to make a list.

The amount of bodies / entries was a reasonable amount, a couple hundred, and when people die on Everest its usually in the news so there would be lots of RS news articles I could mine. For more info I actually bought a book, Everest, that had a complete list up to the early 90s. It actually took a long time and I would belt out 20 more at a time until I finished the whole list.

This shows the great power of Wikipedia. The list in the Everest book was great but it would always be dated and you would need to buy a new edition to get the latest list. By creating the list on Wikipedia there is a publicly updated list, easily sortable and has all sorts of extra info including the chance to click on the individuals to find out more information.

The subject matter of “Longest recorded sniper kills”, another of your creations, is arguably the most macabre. How did you get the idea, and what was the process like?

That list was me appealing to my patriotic side. During the Afghan war two Canadians broke the record and the whole incident was covered up by the Canadian government (they were afraid the Canadian public would get angry that their soldiers kill people) and the snipers were actually forced out of the military because they dared to excel at what they were trained to do. Searching around I couldn’t find any info on previous record-holders, so I created the list. It’s actually in the “All-time DYK page view leaders” page, I don’t mean to pat my own back but pat, pat.

The article now is a good example of the challenges Wikipedia faces in the future. Recently an unnamed Australian broke the record. A reliable source reported this and that is usually good enough to be included into a Wikipedia article, but there are all sorts of sniper “experts” claiming that the shot hasn’t been recognized by the sniper community so they want the entry pulled. Yet Wikipedia policy states that it’s verifiability, not the truth that should be published on a Wikipedia article, which understandably is hard for many to swallow.

My favorite article that you’ve created and developed is “List of helicopter prison escapes“. Where did this idea come from, and what challenges did you face developing it? And how about those success / failure icons?

"List of helicopter prison escapes" success / failure iconsI read about that French guy who had escaped something like 4 times from prison by helicopter. I think he recently did it again. This type of high-profile event is usually covered by the news, so I knew there would be lots of RS talking about the escapes. At the time I was learning how to handle svg files and I created the helicopter icon you see there. I thought it was cool but a lot of editors didn’t like it and wanted them removed, luckily the effort to remove a column in a list that size is pretty high, so laziness on their behalf saved the icon.

Which article are you most proud of, and why? Is there one you wish was better known?

I made an animated gif about the political boundaries of North America.

To accompany it I created an article Territorial evolution of North America which I think is pretty cool. There used to be an animated gif with all the slides at the top of the page but the wiki admins shut down large gifs. Smaller gifs still work but larger ones like my North American animation were shut down a few years ago because smart phones then couldn’t handle the large file sizes. Now though things have changed, with faster and faster phones. The wiki powers that be turned gifs back on but the turning gifs on and off broke something and so large animated gifs don’t work for some reason. Hopefully they can sort it out.

Is there an article or a list you would like to develop but haven’t yet had the time?

I would love to do an article and animated gif similar to the North American one but showing Native American kingdoms / tribal areas.

How did you choose your username?

Just sounded cool in Japanese.

If you could change one existing policy, guideline or community norm, what would it be?

Clarification of the status of the copyright of military images. There is a huge segment of wiki users that insists that personal pictures taken by military servicemen while on duty, on their personal cameras are in the Public Domain (PD). They trawl Facebook, Flickr, and take these pictures and put them on the Commons but I can’t see how they are PD. I think it will be a real problem in the future. Don’t get me wrong, if they are PD, then great! What a great resource! But when anyone questions this the issue is just swept under the rug.

Who are some editors whose work or community-building efforts you admire?

The admins in DYK who put up with crabby, chafe-at-all-the-rules editors like me. Also User:Golbez inspired me by doing a territorial evolution of Canada and other regions too that are far superior articles and animations than mine.

Images by User:Esemono via Wikipedia.

Get Your Freakonomics On

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on February 26, 2013 at 9:19 am

Wikipedia seems like an ideal topic for Freakonomics, the podcast based on the popular book(s) of the same name by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. But as long as I’ve been listening, this week’s episode—“Women Are Not Men”—is the first I can recall that includes Wikipedia as a focus. Given the title, you may have guessed the subject: Wikipedia’s gender gap (previously discussed on The Wikipedian).

The segment includes a nice bit on how editing of Wikipedia works, and it includes a brief interview with veteran Wikipedian Sarah Stierch, former Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Smithsonian and creator of the Wikipedia Teahouse, a project designed to help new editors. And she knows from the trials of being a new editor, as she freely admits:

My first article was deleted. I can proudly say that. I wrote about a guy in a band that I knew—that’s no longer on Wikipedia.

I’d be surprised if there are any longtime Wikipedia editors who have not had early articles deleted. Anyway, it’s a worthy segment, and I’m fairly sympathetic to its hypothesis about the gender gap at that. The Wikipedia segment begins at 4:50.

WikiFoolery

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on January 15, 2013 at 7:59 pm

April Fools’ Day is still about 2 1/2 months off, but Wikipedians are already planning for the big day. Every year, editors who maintain the front page arrange for silly, sometimes misleading, and even mildly offensive articles to run during the 24-hour period covering April 1st. But as we noted in April 2011, not everyone is happy that such a serious project as Wikipedia, one focused on curating the world’s knowledge, spends one day per year kind of, sort of, doing the opposite. And as of today, there’s a thread on Jimbo Wales’ Talk page hosting a debate on the practice. This time in the mix: whether the juvenile pranks contribute to Wikipedia’s noted gender imbalance. Best comments so far: from female editors standing up for “women’s ability to both use and appreciate dirty or giggle-inducing language”.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

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on January 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm

In certain corners of the Internet, it’s nearly impossible at the moment to avoid discussion of the death on Friday of Aaron Swartz, the “American computer programmer, writer, archivist, political organizer, and Internet activist”—to quote the current iteration of his rapidly-expanding Wikipedia article. Really, make that many corners of the Internet: from technology blogs to online magazines to mainstream newspapers, Swartz’s apparent suicide has been felt widely. And there’s good reason: Swartz’s career would be incredible even if he had not accomplished it all by the age of 26. But there is one reason why I’m writing about him now, in this space, and that’s because he was a Wikipedian.

Aaron_Swartz_at_Boston_Wikipedia_Meetup,_2009-08-18Aaron Swartz (User:AaronSw) was not just any Wikipedian. He was one of the longest running contributors, first joining Wikipedia in August 2003 and making his last edit just the day before he died. Using a tool for the analysis of Wikipedia user accounts, I found the complete list of articles he created—a total of 199, including some fairly important ones. Among them: Civil liberties in the United States, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and
Arrested Development (TV series). He’s also the creator of dozens of articles about political and policy figures, writers, lawyers and government officials. Like most Wikipedia editors who are content creators, his Wikipedia interests matched his real-life ones. (He even edited his own biography at least once, although unlike most he left an exceedingly polite and deferential note about it.)

Speaking of content creators, in late 2006—around the time that I first began editing Wikipedia—Swartz published a widely-read and influential essay series, arguably titled “Wikimedia at the Crossroads”, after the first installment. However, it is best-known for its second, “Who Edits Wikipedia?”, in which Swartz analyzed the number of characters added by different editors, using code of his own writing, looking to answer his essay’s titular question. One of his most startling findings was that the contributors with the most edits across all of Wikipedia in fact added the least content to the analyzed page (Alan Alda, amusingly enough) while editors with fewer edits added more content:

Edit by edit, I watched the page evolve. The changes I saw largely fell into three groups. A tiny handful — probably around 5 out of nearly 400 — were “vandalism”: confused or malicious people adding things that simply didn’t fit, followed by someone undoing their change. The vast majority, by far, were small changes: people fixing typos, formatting, links, categories, and so on, making the article a little nicer but not adding much in the way of substance. Finally, a much smaller amount were genuine additions: a couple sentences or even paragraphs of new information added to the page.

…Almost every time I saw a substantive edit, I found the user who had contributed it was not an active user of the site. They generally had made less than 50 edits (typically around 10), usually on related pages. Most never even bothered to create an account.

Thus was born the observation that Wikipedia’s editorial community includes both highly active, long-serving facilitators and itinerant, subject matter-expert writers, and their interplay is crucial to Wikipedia’s continued development and its future. When we talk about the lack of new editors (or trouble retaining current editors) on Wikipedia, we’re still talking about this very subject—or at least we should be. The fact that Aaron Swartz was 19 or 20 at the time he wrote this nearly boggles the mind. What he might have contributed under different circumstances, and that we’ll never know what he might have done, boggles too.

As a brief aside, Swartz’s last sustained edits to Wikipedia in November were to Wikipedia’s bibliography of David Foster Wallace, a favorite author of Swartz’s and also mine. Swartz once even wrote a brilliant essay attempting to explain what happens after the end of Wallace’s 1,000-page novel Infinite Jest, which nearly everyone who reads it comes away persuaded and envious (and yes, I mean myself). Like Wallace, Swartz suffered from depression and wrote about it—more openly than DFW ever did—but couldn’t write his way out of it, and it eventually overtook him.

Aaron Swartz’s untimely passing is devastating for those who knew and loved him, and disconcerting for those who knew him only through his public career. You can read rememberences by many of them, including Wikimedia deputy director Erik Moeller (once the winner of a Wikimedia Foundation board election Swartz contested), Wikimedia board member Samuel Klein, and dozens of Wikipedia regulars commenting on the Talk page of Swartz’s Wikipedia account. And anyone who likes can add the following box to their own:

Aaron Swartz Wikipedia memorial

Many more remembrances can be found online, including comments from friends and acquaintances beyond Wikipedia, including Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, John Gruber, Matthew Yglesias, Matt Stoller, from his family, and a page for anyone who wants to contribute something. Sure, it’s not quite “anyone can edit” like the online encyclopedia he cared deeply about and strived to make better, but it will have to do. And Wikipedia will, too.

Related: Death of a Wikipedian; March 23, 2012

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!

Wikipedia is Not Finished, But Its Needs are Changing

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on December 18, 2012 at 9:14 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linux distributions vs. wedding dresses: the gender gap impact

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on November 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Public Lives: Jim Hawkins and Wikipedia’s Privacy Dilemma

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on April 6, 2012 at 9:15 am

Editor’s note: The author of this blog post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette), a friend and colleague, in what I hope is a continuing series. The Wikipedian published a previous guest blog post in December 2011.

Introduction to Jim Hawkins Wikipedia article.

As an occasional Wikipedian, I like to check out Jimmy Wales’ user Talk page every now and again; while user Talk pages are generally where editors leave messages for each other, notes of support, or even warnings, Jimbo Wales’ page is a hot-bed of intrigue, gossip and debate. It’s Wikipedia’s water cooler. And it’s the perfect place to go if you’re looking to find an example of the confusion that can result from the occasional collision of hot-headed editors, complex guidelines and individuals who are themselves the subjects of articles. Just today I came across a discussion that mentioned Jim Hawkins, a radio-presenter in the UK who has been struggling to deal with Wikipedia editors, and Jimmy himself, over privacy issues raised by his biographical article.

Contrary to what many people believe, the Wikipedia community and Wikimedia Foundation are very keen to protect individuals’ privacy. There’s a common misunderstanding that if you edit Wikipedia, anyone can find out who you are—an idea proliferated by media coverage of incidents where editors’ IP addresses were traced and companies outed for editing their own articles (or, worse, those of competitors). But there’s actually a simple solution: creating an account on the site hides your IP address when you edit. And as long as you only edit while logged into that account, there’s no way for anyone to find out who or where you are through your IP. There are also very strong rules against “outing” the real life identities of editors by posting their personal information on the site.

But what if you’re the subject of a Wikipedia article? Getting back to Jim Hawkins, here’s the real dilemma that people in the public eye are faced with: anyone can create an article about them, but how do they go about preventing their personal details from being included in it? Hawkins certainly wasn’t happy about the creation of an article about him, and he was even less impressed that it included details such as the county where he lives and his exact birthdate. He’s been trying to get the article deleted for five years now. Over time, his frustration in dealing with the Wikipedia community has led to increasing antagonism on both sides.

After a recent “edit war” where his birthdate was repeatedly added and removed, the date was removed once and for all after an official request was made on behalf of Hawkins. The edit was made in line with a privacy policy that allows subjects of biographical articles to request the removal of their date of birth from the site. But, the county remained and Hawkins continued to rail against the system on the article’s Talk page:

Why should the people who’ve been stalking, bullying and harassing me – and have been doing so again today! – have any say in what happens to the article?
Hooray for policies. Does common human decency come into this anywhere? Or am I going to get the same response I’ve had for five years, the borderline-fundamentalist ‘that’s not how Wikipedia works’?

In a lively discussion on Jimmy Wales’ User Talk page beginning on April 1, editors were divided over two issues:

  1. Should an individual who is on the cusp of notability (i.e. just about eligible for a Wikipedia article, according to guidelines) be allowed to choose whether or not they have an article?
  2. If personal information about a subject has been published in public sources, does it contravene Wikipedia’s privacy rules to include it in the article?

There’s no simple answer to either of these. The first one in particular is really rather tricky. It’s true that if an article about someone hasn’t been created, there’s nothing that says that it has to exist. If an article has been created, though, it isn’t clear whether there should be the option to delete if the subject isn’t very strongly notable. Wikipedians seem to fall into two roughly two camps on the issue: those with sympathy towards article subjects and those who are concerned with ensuring that information is available on Wikipedia, if sources exist to support it.

The main question that Hawkins raised was why there had to be an article about him, if he felt that it was unnecessary, inaccurate and infringed upon his privacy. At one point in discussion he asks:

Can I point out that the whole damn thing is an invasion of privacy?

And an experienced editor replies, summarising the crux of the issue here:

An invasion of privacy is, by definition, the release of private information. This information, however, is not private, but is stated by the subject in the very show he hosts.

So, the issue is: if information exists in the public sphere, why should it not be included in a Wikipedia article? The details are already out there, some editors argue, so adding it to a Wikipedia article can’t be infringing on the subject’s privacy as the information wasn’t private to begin with. The bright line that exists on Wikipedia is its governing principle of verifiability: information included in articles must always be verifiable, that is, they must be supported by reliable sources. So, if personal information about a subject isn’t supported by a reliable source—even if it’s true—it can’t be included. Unfortunately, as Hawkins has discovered, if the information does appear in a reliable source (in this case, in a local magazine and on the BBC website), whether it is included or not comes down largely to editors’ discretion.

In short, the lesson Jim Hawkins has learned the hard way is: if you don’t want something included in your Wikipedia article, make sure it isn’t published in the first place.

Death of a Wikipedian

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on March 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Public memorials are a phenomenon found in every society and subset: from war memorials to police memorials and semi-permanent ghost bikes to impromptu, impermanent flower displays, mourning and remembrance are universal. Wikipedia is no exception.

Since early 2006, Wikipedia has maintained a public memorial page called Deceased Wikipedians. While public in the sense that it is accessible by anyone, it is perhaps useful to think of it as semi-public in that it’s not part of the actual encyclopedia. You won’t pass by it on your way to work, or to reading about (let’s say) the Syrian uprising. To date, 39 late Wikipedians have been added to the English version of this page. 14 other language editions have their own versions, including the German, French and even Esperanto editions.

The first added to the English-language Wikipedian memorial was Caroline Thompson, an Australian physics enthusiast who worked on articles about quantum mechanics. Afterward, other names were filled in. The earliest current listed was a French editor using the handle Treanna, who died in late summer 2005. Considering Wikipedia began in early 2001, surely some others passed before him, but we may never know who they were.

On a website where anonymity is granted to anyone who desires it, determining that an absent editor is deceased and not just one who has drifted away is a matter of luck, and sometimes detective work. The inclusion of an editor named Xulin depended on the synthesis of available information on external websites. As a contributor primarily to the French-language Wikipedia, a candlelight vigil of sorts remains in his userspace there.

Criteria for inclusion isn’t crystal clear, but the top of the page does give this advice:

People in this list are remembered as part of the Wikipedia community: they have made at least several hundred edits or are otherwise known for substantial contributions to Wikipedia.

The names included do not not appear to have been controversial to this point, although one stands out as different from the others: John Patrick Bedell, known less for his contributions as JPatrickBedell and more for his disturbing role in the 2010 Pentagon shooting (which I wrote about at the time: “John Patrick Bedell: Pentagon Shooter, Wikipedian”).

Two other deceased editors are the subjects of Wikipedia articles based on contributions to their fields outside of Wikipedia: Tron Øgrim, a Norwegian journalist and activist, and Steven Rubenstein, an American anthropologist.

The most recent addition is a young man named Ben Yates, better known around the site as Tlogmer, who passed away earlier this month. An active contributor from October 2003 to October 2008, he was known for several remarkable contributions to the community. This included the original design for the logo of Wikipedia’s annual gathering, Wikimania, still in use to this day. He was also a co-author on the book, How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It, published in 2008 (free web version here). On a humorous note, he was the originator of the Wikipedia article “Metrosexual”. He also created some hilarious (to a Wikipedian) bumper stickers, which seem to be still available.

Of particular interest to me, he was also at one point the author of a blog about Wikipedia, simply called Wikipedia Blog. Yates’ self-selected favorite posts were three: “The Future of Open Source”, about Wikipedia and Linux; “Wikipedia helps show the economic value of social interaction”, about just what it sounds like; and “Wikipedia and COMMUNISM!”, ruminating on Wikipedia’s comparison to various “isms”. In the last one, he wrote:

Wikipedia will never fade away … its memories will not die with its members. As an open source project, it can always be forked, tweaked, sifted through various filters, read and written anew.

Very well said, and correct he was. So it goes.

Wikipedia Gets on its SOPA Box

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on January 17, 2012 at 9:46 am

Wikipedia SOPA blackout announcement
The Wikimedia Foundation announced on Monday that the English-language Wikipedia will go offline for 24 hours, starting at midnight tonight on the East Coast, in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and a related bill, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). The move follows a similar protest by the Italian-language Wikipedia last year, protesting proposed anti-privacy laws in Italy.

Over the past week, volunteer Wikipedia editors debated the proposition and, ultimately decided to go forward. The decision was accepted by the Foundation, which will implement it late tonight. An official public explanation includes the following:

Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a “blackout” of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support.

The decision is not one that all are happy about. After all, Wikipedia’s core content guidelines emphasize a Neutral point of view in its approach to encyclopedia topics, so isn’t this a questionable decision?

Just this morning, a participant on a Wikipedia-related discussion group wrote:

Now that we have taken the necessary first step to regard the English Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects as high-profile platforms for political statements, we ought to consider what other critical humanitarian problems we could use our considerable visibility and reputation to address. We could draw attention to the crises in Sudan or Nigeria, drone attacks against civilians in Afghanistan, the permanent occupation of the Palestinian territories, the Iranian effort to develop nuclear capabilities, police misconduct in virtually any country, the treatment of women and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and the list could go on and on.

Well, considering that it was a matter of debate, it surely is questionable and does not reflect the views of all Wikipedians. But I think it’s also fair to say that it reflects the majority of participants.

Wikipedia has its philosophical roots in the free software movement, which is the very antithesis of what SOPA and PIPA are about, so this particular viewpoint should surprise no one. Meanwhile, Wikipedia is well aware that it has its own systemic biases and has organized a project to answer them. In this case, however, Wikipedia’s bias shows through and most participants find this to be a good thing.

I’ll have to put myself more in the skeptic’s camp—not because I support SOPA, which I’m pretty sure I don’t—but because I would prefer that Wikipedia not become a platform for political activism. That said, I don’t think it will lead to similar efforts in the near future and, considering it’s already received significant news coverage, I think there is no question it will be effective in raising awareness about the issue.

For Wikipedians who are uncomfortable with the effort, there’s not much else to do. The band they’re in is playing a different tune, and we’ll see you on the dark side of the Wikipedia blackout.

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.

Trick or Treat! “The Human Centipede” and the Making of an Unpopular Featured Article

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on October 31, 2011 at 11:08 am

Editors on the English-language Wikipedia often like to choose “Featured articles” (FA)—the best articles Wikipedia has to offer—for appearance on the website’s front page to coincide with relevant dates, including holidays and anniversaries. This is called “Today’s Featured article” (TFA), and while all Featured articles are eligible (and only those articles) it is not automatic and not necessarily a given. For example, two articles shared featured status on the day of the U.S. presidential election in 2008: John McCain and Barack Obama. To coincide with Halloween in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) Wikipedia editors have chosen “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” as the day’s Featured article. And not without some controversy.

If you don’t know what this film about… I suggest that ignorance may in fact be bliss. But the chances are pretty good that you do; “The Human Centipede” is a film that many more people know about than will ever choose to see, so there was more than enough independent coverage to write extensively about it, and there were in fact serious horror fans who were so moved to write it. So it exists. And according to those who have reviewed it closely (I am not one of them) it’s quite well done.

This doesn’t mean everyone was happy that the article was granted Featured status, nor that it was actually chosen to be featured on Wikipedia’s front page. In fact, when it was first nominated for Today’s Featured article—by its originator and chief contributor, Coolug—to coincide with the sequel’s release earlier this month, it didn’t go over so well. One editor replied:

Using Wikipedia’s main page to promote the sequel, which features even more depraved torture of pregnant women, rape of children, etc., would be despicable. The nominator should quickly remove this nomination with an apology (for his own good) and then observe a self-imposed (unofficial) “block” as penance (again for his own good).

Another:

Oppose due to my personal belief that this is a disgusting topic, although I think Kiefer goes way too far in suggesting Coolug owes us an apology. He has as much right as anyone to be proud of his efforts and wish to see them on the main page.

And another:

Quite apart from the obvious dubious moral grounds in featuring this article, it also amounts to giving free advertising to The Human Centipede II, a film so questionable in its content that it is actually illegal to supply in the UK. “Highlights” of Centipede II include [Editor’s note: Wow, I’m really not going to quote that here.] I am sorry, but giving the kind of exposure the main page of Wikipedia provides to this apocalyptic level of filth is just not on. I am therefore posting a firm oppose.

So the article was shot down, and Coolug replied:

I suspected this might be the reaction to this nomination, but I thought I would give it a try anyway, oh well never mind :) Maybe in a few months I will try and get a more traditional article on the main page. I’m writing something very boring about the Soviet Union and who knows where that might end up? I didn’t nominate this to try and help Tom Six sell tickets for his horrible sequel, but I can see why editors might see things that way. I must admit I am very amused by the suggestion that by nominating this I am essentially a bad person. Thanks for the comments congratulating me on getting the article to FA by the way.

But with Halloween on the horizon, he tried again, and this time the reaction was not too much warmer—just enough to get it through. The opponents led early:

I restate opposition to featuring Human Centipede on the main page, because its sadistic content and the worse content of its sequel, which includes murdering of a mother, torturing a pregnant woman, etc. A few minutes exposure gave me nightmares, honestly. The British authorities have banned the latter film because it threatens to cause harm to the public.

Second, I believe that everybody but myself stated (some) appreciation for Coolug’s efforts, so it is an exaggeration to say that “his head was handed to him”. Nonetheless, the community overwhelmingly opposed featuring Human Centipede on the main page, with many stating an objection based on its sadism, albeit apologetically, alas. Those objections will remain.

Although it was pointed out:

The Brits reversed their ban on the second film after filmmakers did a little more editing. This article is also not about the second film, but about the first one – thoughts on the content of the second film (or its article here) should not weigh into the decision. Our precedent has not been to wait a year after the release of a sequel to have other movies/video games/tv shows on the main page.

I’d be much more inclined to hold my objections if Human Centipede were on the main page on Halloween instead of a different date. I still wish I’d never read it, but that’s not due to the quality of the article.

And support did emerge:

OK Coolug, I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that you go ahead and nominate this for Hallowe’en. There seems to be some support building for this here, and on your user talk page. While I still think that the subject matter is horrible, it’s a very popular and widely-read article, and it is one of a tiny number of featured articles about horror movies. On Hallowe’en, readers will be less shocked to see the article on the main page, and I think that any concerns about promoting the sequel are even less relevant now that it no longer coincides with the release date. Finally, noting that a precedent exists for articles about distasteful subjects and extreme horror films on the main page, I can offer my support for a nomination in this date context.

More:

Support. Agree with Papa November. Coolug’s article is an accomplishment, well done! Nothing in the article nor the film is distasteful except the concept. Is Wikipedia going to disregard Raul’s (and the general readership of Wikipedia’s) opinion? Are we such prudes that we censor what the public finds fascinating? Halloween is the ideal choice. What else could be such a match? (Most past Halloween choices have been quite boring.)

Not that everyone agreed:

Strong Oppose, on any date The subject matter of the article is frankly extremely disturbing and filthy. I don’t deny that this is out of personal interest. My little sister views Wikipedia’s main page on a regular basis. I don’t want her to see this, and I’m fairly certain that the majority of readers wouldn’t want to read this either. This would also generally reflect very badly on the project.

But if I had to choose one quote that summarizes why the article was approved, it would be this:

I do not oppose the article (or indeed, any article) being banned from TFA [Today’s Featured article] at any point in time. I think it would be insulting to an editor who put so much work into an FA to be told “no, we won’t allow your article on the main page because the subject matter is icky” (which is what this ultimately boils down to), especially when such a thing is anathema to Wikipedia culture.

The point about Wikipedia culture links to a Wikipedia guideline called “Wikipedia is not censored“, which generally means that just because content may be conisdered “objectionable” is not a reason to remove it. Whether that means such material should be actively promoted is another issue entirely.

Other featured articles were suggested for the date, including Bride of Frankenstein and London Necropolis Company (this one would have had my vote) but “The Human Centipede” was on a roll. Today, some opposition is apparent on the article’s discussion page. The heading of one editor’s reply: “On What Planet Did Making This A Featured Article Seem Like A Good Idea?” You have to expand a hidden section to read all of the protest, so I can’t actually link it, but here is one that’s readily visible:

Wow. What a troll. How in the hell did this article become a Featured article? It’s not exactly morally right and this doesn’t make a good impression of Wikipedia to the masses who come here everyday. I hope the (old, resident) Wikipedians here are not becoming weird (if they aren’t already). Please reconsider and remove the Featured article nomination… this has NOTHING to do with Halloween, it is NOT FITTING; the subject of the article isn’t morally right and this kind of stuff shouldn’t be known by young kids who might come here. Oh what have you guys done? :O

And Coolug has set up a page to collect “Human Centipede related hate mail”—although no one has taken up the offer just yet. And has posted a note on his user page explaining the article’s history:

I started this article for a bit of a joke back in 2009 when I had for the most part only really used Wikipedia to mess about with articles and cause general low level mischief. I ended up taking the whole thing a little bit too seriously and out of it somehow became a pretty serious Wikipedian. I suspect this is quite a common editing progression and therefore I’m always loathe to treat the vandals too harshly. We can always revert their rubbish and hey, maybe one day they might write something really good?

After three attempts at FAC [Featured article candidates] this eventually passed, however, the attempt to immediately shove it onto the main page was as predicted an absolute disaster, with one editor observing that I should apologise and then leave Wikipedia temporarily “for (my) own good”.

However, bizarrely quite a few editors thought it would be a good idea to nominate the article again, this time for Halloween 2011. And even more bizarrely, it actually got selected!

You may not care for the subject matter—I’m not planning to read the article, let alone see the film—but I think that makes it all the more interesting a Wikipedia success story.

Self-Reflexive Wikipedia is Self-Reflexive

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on September 26, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Earlier today, venerable linkblogger Jason Kottke posted a link to the Disambiguation page for Disambiguation itself. His headlined commentary: “Wikipedia will eat itself”.

While Wikipedia strives to avoid self-referentiality, sometimes it cannot avoid self-referentiality. Kottke’s example above is one that’s likely to stay, and for good reason. But another comes to mind, although you have to dial back the clock a few years:

Yes, the Wikipedia article “Original research” once carried a warning asserting that it contained original research (a big no-no on Wikipedia). Today, “Original research” is merely a heading within the larger article “Research”, which is probably as it should be.

The Grande Guide to Wikipedia

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on May 3, 2011 at 8:14 am

In line with my cryptic tweet of yesterday afternoon (owing to an early scoop by The Next Web) here’s the big reveal: in the past few months I’ve been working with the marketing automation company Eloqua and design firm JESS3 (with whom I worked on “The State of Wikipedia” video) to write a new entry in their “Grande Guide” series of how-to manuals. Of course, I wrote about Wikipedia: “The Grande Guide to Wikipedia”:

Because Eloqua’s audience is marketers, they are also the focus of this guide. One of the first (rhetorical) questions raised in this guide is this: “Is Wikipedia a marketing opportunity?” The answer, more or less, is: “No, but…” While trying to use Wikipedia as a marketing tool is one of the surest ways to find yourself in trouble with Wikipedia editors, there are times where it is appropriate for someone who works with or for a company to make positive suggestions and even some non-controversial edits.

This subject makes Wikipedians understandably nervous. As evidence, consider the many tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of words expended on debating the propriety and rules surrounding paid editing—without coming to a resolution. The result is a confusing place where contributors with a financial interest are not exactly welcome, but also not disqualified. It can be very confusing. As Eloqua’s Joe Chernov writes:

It’s also important to note that we worked hard to preserve the integrity of the Wikipedia community throughout our Guide. We aimed to share how Wikipedia truly works, so that marketers can understand and appreciate it – not so they can game the system. We hope and trust that respect comes through in the content.

I hope you’ll read “The Grande Guide to Wikipedia” and, whether you’re a marketer curious about Wikipedia (more than a few of you, I know) or a Wikipedia editor skeptical of marketers (and not without reason!), I hope you’ll learn something new.

USA Congressional Staff Edits to Wikipedia: The Saga Continues

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on April 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Last week I was asked by Politico’s Marin Cogan to provide some commentary about a situation on Wikipedia whereby a congressional staffer had tampered with her boss’ entry. This became “Rep. David Rivera’s war with Wikipedia” in last Thursday’s paper.

As the article explained, David Rivera’s press secretary, Leslie Veiga, had created an account using her real initials and last name (otherwise, she would’ve gotten away with it) in order to delete a number of negative subjects from the entry and replace them with conspicuously favorable language. Both actions are officially discouraged by site policies, but no official action was needed: the changes were rolled back, the offending account was issued a warning, and the unhelpful editing activity ceased.

Now a new section about the incident has been added to Rivera’s article, although its inclusion has been disputed (Wikipedia dislikes self-referentiality unless unavoidable, and its relevance to Rivera’s overall career is unclear) so it’s not necessarily there “forever,” as Gawker suggested. Then again, as I told Cogan: “All Wikipedia aims to do is reflect what is public knowledge and has been widely reported.” And it seems to have been covered widely enough.

As hinted above, the cynical view is that Veiga’s biggest mistake was the one thing that was laudable about her actions: her transparency. The truth is that she could have been transparent and made helpful suggestions in accordance with Wikipedia’s conflict of interest guideline… but this requires much more knowledge about Wikipedia than most staffers have. (As Politico mentions, I deal with this subject professionally and written about how it can be done it properly.) And none of this is new: the fact of congressional staff editing Wikipedia was first widely reported in early 2006 and is now memorialized in the Wikipedia article “USA Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia”.

What most staffers seem to do instead is what most uninitiated contributors do, and that is edit without creating an account, thereby displaying their IP address. The U.S. House and U.S. Senate have dedicated IP addresses serving members’ offices on Capitol Hill (I used to think there was a single IP address for each, but now I’m not so sure; if anyone knows for sure, please speak up in the comments). As Cogan writes:

The House IP address … frequently shows up in the edit histories of members, committees and constitutional amendments. Wiki editors repeatedly blocked the House IP for limited periods of time until 2009, when they apparently gave up the effort.

By following these edit histories, you can make some guesses about which offices might be doing the same as Rivera’s staffer. To be clear: most of these edits are not so blatantly self-serving as were Veiga’s; most are only mildly self-serving, such as the staffer from Rep. Jimmy Duncan’s office, who apparently tried to add his Facebook page and YouTube channel (for which one could actually make a decent case, but few know to do) only to be reverted and warned.

The Talk page associated with the IP address is also enlightening (that’s how I found the Duncan edits) and sometimes amusing; this comment (under the header “Wow”) is my favorite:

Look at all those edits of mudslinging your opponents and painting yourselves in some golden light. I expected better from our government.

Uh huh… right. And of course there is the page listing all contributions made from the House IP address, where one can find all manner of subjects that Hill staffers are interested in, besides just their bosses. Among non-political recent edits:

As you can see by the repetition of collegiate topics, one may surmise that more than a few are largely concerned with themselves. One edit from late March was undoubtedly self-centered: Congressional staffer. But their bosses do seem to be among the greatest focus. And about the fact that, in late March, edits were made to the article titled Liar, perhaps the less said the better.

P.S. Just over two years ago, I covered this topic in a post titled “Did Rep. Hinojosa Get a Free Pass on Biased Wikipedia Edits?” (Yes, for awhile.)

P.P.S. Just over one year ago, I had an article published in Campaigns & Elections’ Politics Magazine about very nearly the same topic: edits made by political campaigns, how they are most often bad and some pointers about how to make them good.