William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘Wikipedia in the news’ Category

Some Thoughts on Gamergategate

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on February 26, 2015 at 11:31 am

It’s still early in 2015, yet Wikipedia’s volunteer community has already experienced one of its most traumatic events in recent memory. Not the most, mind you. Wikipedia is a fundamentally volatile place, as one might reasonably expect from a self-directed movement whose stated mission is to sort through all of the world’s knowledge and present it for universal consumption.

In recent months, however, Wikipedians have stared down a kind of invading army the likes it hasn’t seen in awhile—maybe ever.

Its name is Gamergate, and it too is an online movement of sorts: one that is either a roving band of anti-feminist thugs whose agitation started over a false story involving a sexual affair and a game review, or a broadly-engaged reformist coalition focused on ethically challenged video game journalists with some adherents prone to rhetorical excess. Readers will already know which side they take.[1]If you read any of the above and thought to yourself: Wait, isn’t a gamergate a reproductively viable female worker ant?, my hat’s off to you.

gamergatelogoI’ve struggled to write about this, because a proper accounting would require a blog post much longer than I am prepared to write or you are interested to read. Mid-procrastination, I was invited by Quartz to write a first-person column on another controversy, in which I couldn’t avoid including some limited thoughts on what I’ll now call “Gamergategate”[2]I will also accept “Gamergateghazi”. but here I’d like to expand on it. Although the relevant Arbitration Committee case has now been closed for several weeks, allowing some time for perspective, I am finding it still difficult to summarize adequately.[3]The best I’ve seen, as usual, can be found in The Wikipedia Signpost.

For the unitiated: late last year, Gamergate activists took their fight to Wikipedia, kicking off a massive edit war across several entries, including the all-important Gamergate controversy. The ensuing carnage involved several dozen Wikipedia stalwarts trying to prevent controversial and often unconstructive changes made by several dozen more[4]Maybe hundreds? An accurate count is likely an impossibility. Gamergate sympathizers, but also extended to personal attacks and much acrimony not strictly related to the substance of the debate.

Most of the Gamergate participants operated in guerrilla style, using just-created, easily disposed-of accounts, many of which were quickly blocked. But not all: unlike past battles between Wikipedians and antagonistic outside parties, there is some overlap between these two: Gamergate is primarily composed of video game enthusiasts, many of them technically-minded, something also true for no small number of longtime Wikipedians. If nothing else, they were a savvier opponent than, say, the #JusticeforBeyonce #BeyHive.

As if that wasn’t enough, once Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee decided to get involved, a preview of their final decision spooked some editors for appearing to level sanctions against the “good” Wikipedians trying to hold back the barbarians at the gate. One observer, described by The Verge in late January as a “former editor”, Mark Bernstein, sounded an alarm with four arrestingly titled blog posts—“Infamous”, “Careless”, “Thoughtless” and “Reckless”—picked up by a wide array of news outlets, claiming that Wikipedia was going to “ban feminist editors”, thereby delivering Gamergate to ultimate victory.

It was an irresistible story. Here’s a fairly representative headline from The Guardian: “Wikipedia votes to ban some editors from gender-related articles”. It was also wrong, or “too soon to say” at best. Bernstein’s essays were overwrought and oversold—reckless, if you will. Journalists have a difficult time enough writing about Wikipedia accurately; this certainly didn’t help. Yes, Bernstein identified some worthwhile questions about Wikipedia governance, but he also suggested it might “permanently discredit not only Wikipedia but the entire open Web”. That’s a bit much.

gamergate_wikipediaBernstein wasn’t completely out to lunch: eventually the committee did in fact come back with sanctions against “good” editors who overreacted to provocations. Several were “topic banned” meaning they are disallowed only from editing pages in this topic area; only one editor actually received a “site ban”, effectively kicking him off Wikipedia for the foreseeable future.

Well aware of the outside scrutiny, the Arbitration Committee took the unusual step of issuing a press release of sorts, explaining their decision in terms that outsiders could follow. The non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which always takes pains to stress that it has no role in policing the editorial community or the content it produces, also posted a comment to its blog. Both are recommended reading for the hyperventilating.

One really can’t understand this decision without knowing that the Arbitration Committee as organized is only charged with enforcing matters related to editor behavior, not site content. Perhaps there should be a body focused on content… but that’s an entirely different conversation. And it may well be that ArbCom members agreed with the Wikipedia editors who fought with Gamergate[5]I assume most or all do. but it did not mean they could ignore actual violations of site policy even by well-meaning editors.

On the other hand, critics have accurately pointed out that ArbCom spent little time with the matter of off-wiki coordination by Gamergate, much of which violated Wikipedia’s rules and then some. As Bernstein correctly noted, “It’s much easier to pick out isolated misjudgments culled from hundreds of thousands of words of discussion by an army of anonymous trolls”.

There’s another very good reason why they didn’t spend more time with this—and it’s a problem that no one can solve, even if ArbCom could weigh in on who was “right”.

To wit: the large majority of Gamergaters had little invested in Wikipedia outside of these topic areas, mostly using brand new accounts they did not mind having blocked when another one could be created within a matter of minutes. Longtime Wikipedians care a great deal about the project and have user accounts they have years invested in. This was asymmetrical warfare of the sort waged by stateless actors against major powers in the real world[6]I think I’m going to refrain from making specific analogies, sorry. and it worked here just as well as it has elsewhere.

AP_Chelsea_Bradley_ManningThe incident reminds me quite a bit of another traumatic episode in recent history: the battle over the article now called Chelsea Manning, previously known as Bradley Manning. To recap: after the convicted Private Manning announced her transgender status, the Wikipedia article very quickly converted over—and Wikipedia’s community was prematurely lauded in the media for doing so—only for the page to be summarily changed back, and fall into a contentious battle along a kind of right vs. left divide arguably similar to the dynamic here. Then as now, an editor making the supposedly progressive argument made waves for writing an impassioned blog post in protest; in that incident, the author was subsequently banned by ArbCom for violating a behavior policy separate from the underlying controversy. In the end, the pro-Chelsea forces prevailed, and the controversy eventually quieted down. On this issue, at least, the matter has been resolved for now.

Back to Gamergate, the story isn’t necessarily over. Have a look at the Gamergate controversy discussion page today and, while things seem to be somewhat more civil than before, you’ll see the debate continues apace. Also active[7]On this very topic, no less. as of late February? Mark Bernstein. When your mission is to sort and present all the world’s information, you always are.

Provenance of GamerGate images unknown; attribution available upon clarification. Bradley / Chelsea Manning juxtaposition by Associated Press.

Notes   [ + ]

1. If you read any of the above and thought to yourself: Wait, isn’t a gamergate a reproductively viable female worker ant?, my hat’s off to you.
2. I will also accept “Gamergateghazi”.
3. The best I’ve seen, as usual, can be found in The Wikipedia Signpost.
4. Maybe hundreds? An accurate count is likely an impossibility.
5. I assume most or all do.
6. I think I’m going to refrain from making specific analogies, sorry.
7. On this very topic, no less.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2014

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on January 5, 2015 at 1:54 pm

Every twelve months the Gregorian calendar resets itself, and I pull together a roundup of the most important events, happenings and newsworthy items that marked the previous year on Wikipedia. I’ve done this each year since 2010 and, the last two times, I went so long that I split the post into two. This time, I tried to keep it short. In the end, I just kept it to one post. Which I guess counts as short for The Wikipedian. So let’s get started!

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10. The Ballad of Wil Sinclair

Look, I don’t like it any more than you do that we’re beginning here, but we can’t pretend this didn’t happen. What happened? Soon after the Wikimedia Foundation picked its new executive director, Lila Tretikov, and before she actually took over from Sue Gardner, Tretikov’s spouse showed up on the foundation’s email list, and in other forums, and made his presence known. Wil came across as a decent fellow at first, then a bit obsessive, and then he made common cause with critics of the Wikimedia project at Wikipediocracy, and it threatened to overwhelm Tretikov’s tenure before it really got underway. By the summer, however, Wil Sinclair largely withdrew from online commentary about Wikipedia, and the controversy appears to have died with it.

9. Oh yeah, that Belfer Center thing…

320px-Belfer_CenterOne of Wikipedia’s eternal themes involves conflict of interest. As a public good, Wikipedia has significant potential to affect private fortunes, for good or ill, and this is not the last time you’ll hear about it in this list. One of the more unusual (and alarming) manifestations of the conundrum involved the Wikimedia Foundation working with the Stanton Foundation and Belfer Center at Harvard University to create a paid position, funded by mega-donor Stanton, coordinated by WMF, which had the effect of boosting the professional reputation of Belfer’s president. Oh, did you know the principals at Stanton and Belfer are husband and wife? Yeah, that kind of changes things. Blame seemed to follow Gardner out the door, but Wikipedia’s difficulty in forming partnerships with other non-profits continues.

8. Wikipedia gets a facelift

Nearly four years after Wikipedia updated its default look from the Monobook skin[1]Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me? to the current Vector, the site got another new look, albeit a more subtle one. Specifically, article titles and headings within pages were updated from a sans-serif typeface to a serif typeface. Goodbye Helvetica, hello Georgia! (At least in the headings.) You can never really underestimate Wikipedians’ resistance to change, and so a debate naturally ensued. Following the usual expected gripes, holdouts presumably switched their personal preferences to the old style, and the new look has become the accepted standard.

7. Jimbo’s UAE prize money

This is the most recent item on the list; in fact, I wrote about it just last week. In short, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, accepted a $500,000 cash prize from the government of the UAE, which has a dismal human rights record. Wales received criticism from members of the Wikipedia community and questions from at least one news outlet. Wales then announced he was going to give the money to charity, or maybe start a foundation, and claimed this was his plan all along, denying what seemed to everyone else like a simple matter of cause-and-effect. Even if Wales does start a new organization, there’s not much evidence to suggest it will go anywhere.

6. Wikipedia’s education program grows up

Wiki_Education_Foundation_logoIf there’s a happier balance to the unfortunate Belfer situation, let’s say it’s the maturation of the Wiki Education Foundation. Beginning as an in-house program in 2010, the organization spun off on its own in February 2014 under the leadership of WMF veteran Frank Schulenburg. In my 2010 list, “Wikipedia in education” was the fourth item, remarking that the two communities appeared to be at a turning point: back then, teachers’ attitude toward Wikipedia had until then been one of fear and loathing, but nowadays more and more universities are offering course credit for improving Wikipedia articles. While the WEF and its predecessor program can’t take all of the credit—and sure, student plagiarism is still an issue—it does go to show that the Wikipedia community can solve at least some of its problems, and well-considered partnerships can play an important role.

5. Who doesn’t love some CongressEdits?

It’s almost hard to believe it took until summer 2014 for someone to realize you could attach an RSS feed of changes to Wikipedia articles coming from IP addresses belonging to the U.S. Congress to a Twitter account, thereby publishing an obscure list in a very public way, but that’s exactly what happened. Actually, the UK-focused @ParliamentEdits account was first, and accounts focused on other countries’ legislatures soon followed, but @CongressEdits made the biggest splash. In each case, journalists latched on to amusing nonsense and legitimately concerning changes both, and the U.S. Congressional IP was blocked for a time. It wasn’t the first time this has happened; it wasn’t even a new revelation that congressional staffers edit Wikipedia for ill (and good!) but this was too much fun to ignore.

4. Can PR and Wikipedia just get along?

Full disclosure: I have a huge conflict of interest with this topic; as readers of this site are surely aware, this was a big project for me last year. Last February, I brought together an ad hoc group of digital PR executives, Wikipedia veterans, and interested academics (some folks fell into more than one category) for an all-day roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, to talk about the differences and commonalities between the Wikipedia community and communications industry. Out of that emerged a multi-agency statement spelling out a set of principles that participating firms would adopt, a sort of open letter to Wikipedia stating their intention to follow its rules and help their colleagues and clients do the same. We started with about 10 agencies signed, and the list more than tripled by late summer. It was a good start—but a significantly better situation is still a long way off.

3. New (and improved?) Terms of Use

240px-Wikimedia_Foundation_RGB_logo_with_textRelated to number 4, but developing separately, was the Wikimedia Foundation’s announcement—mere days after the multi-agency statement was published—that the non-profit was amending its Terms of Use for the first time since anyone could remember (give or take) in order to require anyone paid for their contributions to disclose their affiliations. The decision grew out of legal uncertainties revealed by the Wiki-PR controversy (covered in this list last year) and was not unanticipated. Like all other seemingly minor changes, it was challenged by community veterans who believed it would have negative consequences for non-marketers compensated for involvement in Wikipedia, among other complaints. But if that’s happened, it hasn’t been visible. Chilling effects are not to be discounted, but there’s no evidence yet that any worst case scenarios have come to pass. Instead, it merely codified best practices that have been around for years: it used to be, if you have a conflict of interest, you were best advised to disclose it. Now you must.

2. The Media Viewer controversy

It seems like every year now I have to reserve a prominent spot for a major argument between the Wikipedia community and the San Francisco-based software-development and outreach-focused non-profit created to support it (the WMF). Last year, my top story focused on the divisive internal battles over the Visual Editor—a big change that did not remain the default for long. The year before, it was a somewhat different argument over whether to take a stand on SOPA / PIPA legislation. This summer, the Visual Editor argument essentially repeated itself. This time the debate centered on the Media Viewer and whether it should be default for logged-in and non-logged-in users—that is, whether readers who clicked on an image should see it come up on a page with metadata readily visible, as it always had been, or whether they should see it in a lightbox, and if site editors and mere readers should see the same thing. No sense getting into the details, because I lack the six hours necessary to produce a worthwhile summary. However, let’s observe that consensus in July seemed to be that it should be turned off by default. But I just checked, and indeed it’s the default, logged-in or not. In other words: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

1. Lila Tretikov and Wikipedia’s uncertain future

It seems like you can’t so much as create a piped wikilink disambiguation redirect these days without running into another media think piece about the state of Wikipedia. MIT Technology Review was ahead of the curve with an October 2013 story on the “decline of Wikipeda”. In March, The Economist jumped in with the tortured coinage “WikiPeaks” (although they quoted me, so I nonetheless approve). Slate has gone in for this kind of coverage at least twice, first in June with a contribution by longtime Wikipedian Dariusz Jemielniak, and then from staff writer David Auerbach in December. In late 2014, former Reason editor Virginia Postrel turned it into a whodunnit: “Who Killed Wikipedia?

Lila_Tretikov_16_April_2014Am I missing any? Probably, but they mostly tell the same story: Wikipedia is too bureaucratic; its editors are rude to each other and more so to outsiders; that might have something to do with the fact that it’s pretty much all white guys; old editors are choosing to quit; new editors aren’t replacing them fast enough; the community and the foundation are at each others’ throats; Wikipedia has too much money and too little direction. Without further ado, let me say, welcome to your first year as Wikimedia Executive Director, Lila Tretikov!

Pretty much all of the questions that I asked upon Sue Gardner’s announced departure nearly two years ago are still in play, only more so. I summed up a lot of this in a post from November 2013, “Wikipedia on the Brink?” If there’s any good news, it’s that Wikipedia is still, well, on the brink. It hasn’t fallen off a cliff, certainly. In some ways it’s more successful than ever. But ask a longtime veteran of either the volunteer community or its San Francisco non-profit how things are going—catch them on their way out the door, if necessary—and you’ll find any number of concerns, including some I either haven’t heard or am simply forgetting.

It’s not entirely up to Lila Tretikov what Wikipedia’s future will be, however she has more power than anyone—including even Uncle Jimbo—to steer a new direction. Will the foundation keep making grants and developing software that its community doesn’t seem to like? Will she keep trying to grow the community as it currently exists, or seek to expand it in unexpected ways? Wikipedia is no longer a hot new (not-for-profit) startup, but a maturing organization stuck in comfortable old ways that may be holding it back. Here’s hoping some answers to these questions will start to emerge in 2015.

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Previous years’ top ten Wikipedia stories can be found here:

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Belfer Center image by Bostonian13; Wiki Education Foundation logo and Wikimedia Foundation logo courtesy the respective organization; Lila Tretikov photo by Lane Hartwell; all images via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me?

Jimmy Wales and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Prize Money

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on December 26, 2014 at 4:18 pm

“Jimmy Wales is Not an Internet Billionaire”

So went the tongue-in-cheek headline from a New York Times Magazine cover story about Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales in 2013—ill-treatment this blog mostly defended him from at the time. The profile included a (likely decontextualized) quote from then-Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner: “Everyone makes fun of Jimmy for leaving the money on the table.”

Eighteen months later, one has to think Wales would prefer the sort of light-hearted mockery received at the time to the kinds of questions being asked, albeit not too loudly at this point in time, about his current financial situation.

Jimmy Wales, 2013We pick up the story with this month’s comparatively under-reported news that Jimbo would split, with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a $1 million cash prize from the United Arab Emirates, pegged to a technology award named for the country’s monarch. One only has to skim the Wikipedia article “Human rights in the United Arab Emirates” to get an idea why some people, especially the idealistic sort who make up Wikipedia’s volunteer base, would find this so alarming.

On Jimmy Wales’ user page, the now-archived discussion ran to some 8,600 words, and the way it began—under the heading “Congratulations”, followed by cheery exhortations—differed greatly from how it ended—a contentious argument leading to the resurrection of old charges about Wales’ supposed ties to the government of Kazakhstan, which was eventually “closed” to further participation and “hatted”, i.e. hidden from view by default.

Soon after the well-wishes began piling up, the conversation abruptly shifted. An anonymous contributor claiming to be a student at the American University of Sharjah (with an IP address to match) chastised Wales for squandering an opportunity

to speak out for all Emiratis, and also those non-nationals who are forced into slave labour and have no rights. I am at risk by posting this very message. This is not how it should be Mr Wales. Instead, it appears you were bought for $500,000. You sold us out Mr Wales.

On December 11, below but not directly in reply, Wales wrote:

Every penny of the money will be used to combat human rights abuses worldwide with a specific focus on the Middle East and with a specific focus on freedom of speech / access to knowledge issues. Of course.

The first thing that I did upon returning to London was hire a human rights lawyer full-time to work for me for the next month on these issues. That may turn into a longer term thing, or it may not. As I say, I’m only at the beginning of figuring out the optimal strategic approach.

The mini-controversy was reported in The Daily Dot, a news publication focusing on the social Internet:

Wales made his intentions for the prize money public after pressure from Wikipedians who expressed dismay … In an email to the Daily Dot, Wales specifies that he never planned to keep the money and will use the funds to start his own foundation dedicated to furthering human rights.

But Wales objected to this description of events. Back on his own discussion page, Wales wrote on December 17:

I’ve written to [The Daily Dot] to correct the core error in the story – the false claim that this was done in response to pressure from Wikipedians. I started the process from the moment I was told about the prize, including hiring someone full-time to work on the question of how to best accomplish my goals.

As of this writing, the story has not been “corrected”, and there’s no reason to think one is warranted. If in fact there is no causal relationship, and Wales wants to be believed, he should produce some kind of evidence to substantiate his charges. With or without that, The Daily Dot’s story—that Wales announced his intentions after community pressure—would still have correlation going for it. After all, Wales’ first reply on his own discussion page was:

Thank you all. It’s pretty amazing. It’s actually split with Sir Tim Berners-Lee so not $1 million to me but still it’s impressive.

Does that sound like somebody who has hired a lawyer to help him start non-profit focused on human rights, or somebody contemplating the enjoyment of a sudden and unexpected windfall?

Of course.

Besides Burj Khalifathe Kazakhstan situation, which has always struck me like a misstep on the part of the Wikimedia Foundation and Wales both—seemingly a partnership entered into without a clear understanding of the situation—a few patterns are visible here.

Most superficially, Wales and The Daily Dot have a bit of history. While Wikipediocracy and The Register[1]Which at least thought to ask Sir Tim Berners-Lee how he planned to use the money, so give them credit for that. have self-identified themselves as Wikipedia critics and can therefore be dismissed more easily, The Daily Dot’s Wikipedia coverage has always struck me as skeptical and responsible, as a good news outlet should be.

That history involves The Daily Dot reporting, ironically, that Wales had not paid out prize money he had pledged to winners of his own “Wikipedian of the Year” award in years before. Based on my reading, it sounds like Wales, realizing he was called out, promised to correct the oversight without admitting he was doing so, choosing instead to insult the reporter as “not a real journalist”.[2]One of the award-winners was a Kazakh national, so the plot thickens, or maybe just congeals.

Similar to the above, I still remember at Wikimania 2013 in Hong Kong where, as I wrote in the days after:

    Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see.

Indeed, we’ve seen that Jimmy Wales has a way of letting things drop, and also his habit of handling criticism poorly. To be fair, I expect Jimmy Wales sees a ton of criticism almost every time he logs in to his Wikipedia account. Sometimes it’s justified, but plenty of it is nonsense. Putting up with irate Wikipedians for more than a decade must result in some kind of negative psychological build-up. On the other hand, it’s not a particularly good look for someone who is the public face of a globally-important non-profit.

While that hybrid journalism project never came to fruition, if I’m being honest, I doubt anyone really thought it would. Anyone who didn’t attend that Wikimania probably has no idea what I’m talking about. But hey, how about this human rights organization he’s talking about? No doubt, Wales has left himself an escape hatch, as he says the “full-time” (!) lawyer “may turn into a longer term thing, or it may not.” But if he is going to escape through it, let’s make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed.

And this non-profit, it has a chance, maybe? We don’t know what it would focus on, how it would go about doing so, or whether it could possibly be effective. But we can say this much: it has a famous spokesman, and it has a budget.

Jimmy Wales photo by Niccolò Caranti; Burj Khalifa photo by Nicolas Lannuzel; both via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Which at least thought to ask Sir Tim Berners-Lee how he planned to use the money, so give them credit for that.
2. One of the award-winners was a Kazakh national, so the plot thickens, or maybe just congeals.

The Federalist Pages: What Neil deGrasse Tyson and Conservative Bloggers Tell Us About Wikipedia and US Politics

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on September 30, 2014 at 11:33 am

You might be surprised to learn that Wikipedia has a formal policy called “Wikipedia is not a battleground”. Not that anyone seems to have got the memo: although Wikipedia’s rules kindly suggest that its editors not use articles to advance ideological or partisan interests, in practice there’s no reason to think that it can work like that. And should we really want it to be otherwise?

This brings us to the latest partisan battle to make its way from the political blogosphere (if we still call it that?) to the pages of Wikipedia: Tyson-gate (or: Tyson-ghazi?). Earlier this month, a new-ish right-of-center web magazine called The Federalist (whose contributors, I should say, include several friends) started publishing a series of articles pointing out inaccuracies—or possibly fabrications—by the celebrated scientist, media personality and Colbert Report regular Neil deGrasse Tyson.

640px-Bill_Nye,_Barack_Obama_and_Neil_deGrasse_Tyson_selfie_2014Federalist co-founder Sean Davis made a pretty strong case that a quote Tyson attributed to former President George W. Bush did not in fact exist; Tyson eventually acknowledged the error, though it wasn’t quickly forthcoming. While subsequent events have made it clear that Davis had the goods on Tyson, his rhetorical style leaves much to be desired: Davis insists on words like “fabricated” implying an insight into the nature of Tyson’s error that he really can’t know. Davis isn’t alone in this; on the left, Media Matters routinely uses the unforgiving phrase “falsely claims” to describe conservative opinions all the time. This puts me in mind of another Wikipedia policy inconsistently observed: “Comment on content, not the contributor” Remember this point, because I’m going to come back to it.

Anyway, of course the battle made its way to the front lines of the war of ideas, Wikipedia. What happened over the last week was simple enough: one person added a lengthy summary of Davis’ allegations to Tyson’s Wikipedia bio; someone else reverted it very quickly, claiming that it went too far; another editor tried a shorter version; yet another editor removed it again for being “original research”; around and around it went like this from September 16 to 21. When I started compiling links on Tuesday the 29th, a fairly short, but also short-on-context version of this passage read:

Tyson has claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[59] Tom Jackson of the Tampa Tribune called it “… a vicious, gratuitous slander.”[60]

But then a longer version which appeared later in the day seemed like too much:

Tyson had claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[58] Neil Tyson has confirmed that he was actually referring to President Bush’s February 2003 speech on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and that he “transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote.” [59] In that speech then-President George W. Bush quotes Isaiah when he said “He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name.”[60] Then George W. Bush said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.” [61]

As of this writing, all mention of the controversy has been removed, and the article has been temporarily locked to prevent further edit warring. Meanwhile, the debate on the Neil deGrasse Tyson discussion page has run to some 50,000 (!) words since mid-September, comprising at least one Request for Comment where the only real conclusion so far is: “This has become unproductive.”

Meanwhile, someone put The Federalist’s own Wikipedia article up for deletion, possibly out of spite, but also possibly because it seemed like a borderline eligibility case based on included sources at the time. Nevertheless, it seems likely that a very short version of the article will be kept once the arguing here is through. (And as more than one contributor has noted, the more attention this gets in the political media, the more “Notable” The Federalist likely becomes.)

Throughout this debate, Davis and The Federalist haven’t been doing themselves any favors. Sean Davis of course is as much reporting on his own fight with Tyson as he is reporting on Tyson, including multiple articles about the debate on Wikipedia.
This included an initial summary on September 18 that continued blithely pushing the “fabrication” claim and proudly quoted an unnamed Wikipedian saying “no version of this event will be allowed into the article” as if this unnamed editor spoke for all of Wikipedia. Worse still was a follow-up by Davis called “9 Absurd Edit Justifications By Wikipedia’s Neil Tyson Truthers” that pointed to fairly standard considerations for inclusion or exclusion of controversial material as if it was patent nonsense. For instance, these two comments:

It doesn’t matter if we can demonstrate it happened or not, many things happen in many people lives, we don’t write each of them into every persons biography. …

[T]his is being kept off because Wikipedia is deeply conservative in the non-political meaning of the word.

Davis may not like these answers, but they are anything but unreasonable points to make in a content dispute, especially about a living person whose reputation is (to some degree) at stake. Indeed, the same policy that points out Wikipedia is not a battleground also points out: “[N]ot all verifiable events are suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia.”

The problem is not that Davis is wrong; in fact, some of the objections to the topic’s inclusion were possibly mistaken, arrived at prematurely, or later invalidated by the emergence of new sources. The problem is not even that Davis is treating Wikipedia as a battleground—after all, Wikipedia is where we go to argue about such things. If Wikipedia is to be the “sum of human knowledge”, that very much includes contentious material related to political and ideological battles.

The problem is actually one of good faith—and here we come to a policy that is also frequently ignored on Wikipedia, but would it be followed better, we could have all been saved a few weeks and tens of thousands of words: “Assume good faith”. And as problems go, it is one that exists on both sides, although it tends to be the case that one side usually goes further—which either produces a decisive political victory or defeat. Davis has this territory pretty well staked out with this column that doesn’t accomplish anything but to “falsely claim” Wikipedia is a single entity entirely comprising lying liars of the left.

The political blogosphere was a source of fascination for me in the early part of my career, in particular writing about it in a sadly departed column called The Blogometer for National Journal’s Hotline. Starting in the late 2000s, I turned my focus more to Wikipedia, in particular writing about it on this blog. There are numerous parallels, but the least savory is the tendency of both to bog down in bitter recrimination. Witness also the fight over the Chelsea Manning Wikipedia entry from late last year.

Part of me thinks that Wikipedia shouldn’t worry about these fights, only about whether or not they continue to occur at Wikipedia; even an ugly debate is better than none at all, right? But considering the voluminous anecdotal evidence that Wikipedia’s eroding editor base and absurd gender gap owe something to its tolerance for incivility—despite the existence of a policy stating otherwise and a speech by Jimmy Wales at Wikimania this year calling for a renewed emphasis upon it—this is something the Wikipedia community had better take seriously.

Of course, this doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Sean Davis, The Federalist, left-leaning Wikipedia editors, and even Neil deGrasse Tyson with his bullshit political anecdotes (I am using Harry Frankfurt’s precise definition) aren’t quite the problem; they are merely avatars of it. Everything that’s wrong with US politics—where to start!—eventually finds its way to Wikipedia.

But there remains one important difference between the blogosphere and Wikipedia: rules. The blogosphere does not have them; Wikipedia does, and these rules shape the debate that occurs on its talk pages. Without these rules, it would just be endless edit wars of attrition. The problem with Wikipedia, then, is not its rules but how it enforces them. Wikipedia’s community should be asking itself: what kind of battleground do we want to be?

Photo via the White House / Flickr.

Did Ye Ken Aboot the Scots Wikipaedia?

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on September 18, 2014 at 9:40 am

Scots Wikipedia

Today, residents of Scotland will decide whether their country will remain part of the United Kingdom or head out on its own, after 300 years of British rule. The Wikipedian has no particular opinion on the matter, except a slight bias toward curiosity, so if it does go through, at the very least I will be fascinated. According to the oddsmakers, though, it sounds like “No” might have the edge.

If it does happen, Wikipedia gets to claim that it was on the bandwagon of Scottish exceptionalism well before the vote: since 2005 a separate Scots language edition of Wikipedia has existed. But is Scots really a separate language? Slate’s Jane C. Hu examined the question in a short piece earlier this summer:

Depending on who you ask, Scots is a language, a dialect of English, or slang. It’s a part of the Germanic language family, which also includes modern German, Dutch, and English. Both modern English and Scots descended from Old English in the 1100s, and developed separately for hundreds of years.

Whether these different versions are considered distinct languages is largely political. Sociolinguist Max Weinreich is credited with popularizing a quote illustrating the blurry line between the two: “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

At least one half-hearted attempt has been made to move for its closure—which more or less happened to the Klingon Wikipedia (!)—but as a movement, Wikipedia is inclusionist at heart. So long as the Scots Wikipedia is taken seriously by someone, the larger Wikipedia community will honor that (though often not without argument).

Still, I’m not especially clear on what is considered acceptable spelling—and the indisputably-English Wikipedia is not much help. Certainly as one who has tried (more than once) to read Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, I can confirm that reading phonetic Scots is no easy task. But it also makes the Scots Wikipedia seem—I hope I am not terrible for saying this—rather comical when you read it back to yourself. Among highlights of today’s main page:

  • “Thare are several ongangin requests for comment that need yer input tae gain consensus.”
  • “The assassination attempt stairtit concern aboot gun control.”
  • “Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea an Khieu Samphan are foond guilty o crimes against humanity bi a UN-backed tribunal.”
  • “A 6.1-magnitude yirdquauk in Yunnan, Cheenae, kills at least 589 fowk an injures mair nor 2,400 ithers.”

After seeing that the “Did you know?” section of the English Wikipedia’s front page was here rendered as “Did ye ken?”, a colleague said to me this morning: “That’s brilliant.” But is that really something one says about a serious encyclopedia project? Probably not. And I’m quite sure I am not terrible for pointing out that there are usually fewer than fifty edits to the entire Scots Wikipedia on any given weekday.

There is probably something to be said here about how this cocked-eyebrow appraisal of the Scots language’s validity is synecdoche for the larger question of Scottish independence, although I think I will leave that for someone else to articulate.

Wikipedia’s Struggle with Self-Reference Amid the Passing of One of Its Own

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on April 22, 2014 at 11:54 am

Wikipedia intends to be a passive observer of world affairs and recorder of knowledge, so as a community and ruleset, it usually prefers to avoid referencing itself in its own articles. But Wikipedia too makes the news, so it’s unavoidable that sometimes Wikipedia has to write about Wikipedia—and you may not be surprised to find that Wikipedia has rules governing these circumstances. But sometimes this becomes a more sensitive issue, and more difficult to work through. This week is one of those times.

The current disagreement surrounds the recently-created article about Adrianne Wadewitz, a much admired Wikipedia veteran and Occidental College literature scholar, who died in a rock climbing accident earlier this month. A non-famous person in life, Wadewitz was subsequently the focus of an article by Noam Cohen, who writes about Wikipedia for the New York Times. Other obits appeared as well, from BuzzFeed and Jezebel, among others.

Yet the article was nominated for deletion on the same day this article was created—in fact, within four edits and 30 minutes of its creation. The nominating editor cited a plausible argument: Wikipedia’s guidance not to include articles about “People notable for only one event”—in this case, tragically, her death. The next editor to comment also pointed to a guideline advising that “Wikipedia is not a memorial site”. And so the early “voting”—strictly speaking, Wikipedians weighing in are not voting (or “!vote” as they like to call it) but this is a tricky concept so I’ll leave it for another time—ran toward deleting it. Then a string of editors made the case for keeping it. Here is a selection of thoughtful arguments on either side:

  • Delete This is a difficult time to have this [Articles for Deletion debate], and a hard position to take. My reasoning for voting delete is based on the context and encyclopedic value of her biography – years from now. Those who cite NYT piece as the sole test for notability should consider that she was described and considered notable as a wikipedian – which leads back to Wikipedia being the original source for notability. I know this vote is soon after her passing, probably not a good time to go through this – even if it is kept now, it’s likely it would be voted against in an year, or two or five. It’s sad but the encyclopedic value of her article is not going to change. This has nothing to do with sexism, her activism, opinions or her prolific output – purely about notability. General activism and prolific output have little to no correlation with notability. Besides that, it’s sad to lose one of our own, and she seemed like a great contributor.
  • Strong keep — obituaries in multiple reliable sources, including the NYT, convey notability by themselves, and she’s been featured in other articles published by reliable sources during her life. The content of the obits are largely about her achievements on Wikipedia, which clearly the NYT and other [reliable sources] cited consider significant, even if the commenters above do not.
  • Delete. I believe that awadewit was an incredibly valuable Wikipedia editor, and I cried buckets when I learned of her death. However, her academic career was in its youth and was not that remarkable. Her primary claim to notability is as a Wikipedia editor and activist, and I believe it is an inherent [conflict of interest] for Wikipedia to put up articles recognizing its prolific contributors. The sources may quote her, but they are not really about her. The exception is the obituaries, which were driven from Wikimedia sources. Even if we consider Wikimedia a reliable source, this is incredibly circular – Wikimedia talks lots about a topic, a third-party source picks it up, and now it is all of a sudden notable? I don’t agree. I do not agree that Wikipedia editing is grounds for conferring notability, whether multiple sources confirm that one was an editor or not. I do not agree that Wikimedia activism is grounds for notability, whether multiple sources confirm that fact that one was an activist or not. With all due respect to awadewit’s memory, I do not believe she was notable….and I don’t think she would have considered her life to be worthy of an article here either.
  • Keep – Defective nomination in the first place: BLP-1E [the guideline related to people notable for one event] is for living people. Passes GNG through sources already showing in the piece.

Interestingly, it’s those arguing “Delete” who offer the more carefully argued, more detailed cases. Perhaps it’s because they are motivated more by interpretation of guidelines than conviction that Wadewitz is deserving of an entry. Perhaps it’s because they don’t wish to offend those who have this conviction. Meanwhile, editors who knew her in life have taken both sides of the issue. One thing is clear: there is no consensus among Wikipedia editors whether this article should remain or not. And this leads to an obvious conclusion: when no consensus is met, Wikipedia guidelines default to “keep”. That’s what I expect to happen once the standard week-long discussion period has elapsed, and then I expect it to be re-argued again at some point in the future.

Recently, a biographical entry about a former Wikimedia Foundation employee was successfully nominated for deletion, partly upon her request, after she was publicly fired and this came to represent a disproportionate part of the entry. As it turned out, her eligibility for an article was at best “on the bubble” and hadn’t previously been scrutinized—in part, one imagines, because she is a well-liked member of the community. But once the article turned sour, and the subject wanted it gone, Wikipedians finally thought about it and decided: yeah, she didn’t really deserve one in the first place.

This situation is not even that simple. As one editor says above, I’ve heard that Wadewitz would not have wanted an article about herself. Unfortunately, she isn’t here to comment. In her place, a consensus of Wikipedia editors as influenced by their own self-determined guidelines will settle the matter definitively. Eventually.

I Like Wikipedia Articles that Mention Abercrombie & Fitch

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on February 17, 2014 at 4:53 pm

The February 17 print edition of New York Magazine contains a profile of the notorious, once all-conquering, now-struggling mall-based U.S. clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, with particular focus on its longtime CEO, Mike Jeffries, now under fire as the company’s fortunes have declined.

Besides the company’s controversial public image—once cultivated and considered an asset, now perceived as turning into a serious liability—the article discusses its origins in the 19th century as a supplier of supplies for Most Interesting Men in the World, followed by a long mid-century decline, and then late-century emergence as a major apparel and pop culture force. It’s an interesting business profile as far as that goes, and largely an unflattering one. But it’s the very last paragraph that stuck with me, for reasons to become apparent shortly:

“I guarantee you, we’re already to the point where that resurgence in the nineties is a Wikipedia talking point,” says [industry observer Brian] Sozzi. “What we’ll remember Jeffries for now is for failing to change, for all the store closures, for the way employees were treated. And that’s unfortunate.”

Nothing major here, I just find it amusing that “a Wikipedia talking point” is how the interviewee chose to describe the company’s onetime glory—at one time the most salient fact of its existence—is described in relation to how it is depicted on Wikipedia.

I am also amused by the notion that Wikipedia has “talking points”, although I realize the term is used casually. The fact that Mr. Sozzi almost certainly used the phrase without deep consideration of how Wikipedia may have something to suggest about how the public views the information Wikipedia makes available, although I realize it may only suggest something about how Mr. Sozzi views Wikipedia.

Let’s do the obvious thing, and see what Wikipedia has to say (as of mid-February, 2014). From the History section:

In 1976, Abercrombie & Fitch filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, finally closing its flagship Manhattan store in 1977.[6] The name was revived shortly thereafter, when in 1978, Oshman’s Sporting Goods, a Houston-based chain, bought the defunct firm’s name and mailing list for $1.5 million[7] … Finally, in 1988, Oshman’s sold the company name and operations to The Limited, a clothing-chain operator based in Columbus, Ohio.[9]

The current version of A&F sells mostly clothes for the youth market, and describes its retailing niche as an aspirational “Casual Luxury” lifestyle brand.[10]

Especially since 1997, the company has consistently kept a high-profile in the public eye, due to its advertising, its philanthropy, and its involvement in legal conflicts over branding, clothing style and employment practices.

Interesting that, while it is consistent with Mr. Sozzi’s description, this is actually not a detail in Wikipedia—let alone a talking point.

Turning Pro: An Argument for Wikipedia’s Future

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on February 10, 2014 at 3:26 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia on the Brink?

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on November 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a writer for a big magazine, asking for my take on the much-discussed MIT Technology Review article “The Decline of Wikipeda” by Tom Simonite. As far as I’ve seen, no article has yet appeared, so: I figured I would repurpose my comments for a blog post here, rewriting enough that my remarks remain exclusive, but my views are known. (If that article ever comes out, I’ll update this post.) Some of these topics I’ve previously discussed on Wikipedia Weekly, but a more comprehensive take is long overdue. So here it is.

mit_tech_review_logoFor those who haven’t read it, the Technology Review piece outlines a few reasons for concern about the long-term health of the Wikipedia community. The central points are not at all new: fewer new contributors are joining the site, many veterans are drifting away, the site’s culture and bureaucracy can be stifling, and a startlingly low percentage of contributors are women. All worthy topics, of course. Meanwhile, the piece does a good job of synthesizing these concerns, and explores some recent research that tries to make sense of them.

It also comes at a particularly apt time. In August, when I posted a summary of Wikimania Hong Kong, including Jimmy Wales’ keynote, the event projected something like satisfied aimlessness. Wikipedia was bigger and better than ever, such that the big question was: what would it do next? Wales had some vague ideas about saving journalism, but that’s been about all we’ve heard of it since.

Yet even at that time, and especially in the few months since, the community has experienced several controversies producing animosity and discord not seen since… OK, there is animosity and discord at Wikipedia every single day, especially if you follow the “drama boards”—but these incidents have been very high-profile, in some cases making news (like this Technology Review article), calling into question the community’s ability to reconcile its philosophical differences, spotlighting a rift between the Wikimedia Foundation and the community it serves, and raising doubts about the ability of Wikipedia’s highest judicial authority (the Arbitration Committee, or ArbCom) to make sound decisions. And while most participants would agree that these incidents represent legitimate issues, it’s also fair to say that there is disagreement about much else: how to prioritize issues, how to respond to each, and even what should be a desired outcome in each case. I owe you some details:

  • Visual Editor Debacle—in a post for this blog earlier in the summer, I offered early praise for the Visual Editor, a big initiative from the Foundation, a WYSIWYG version of the Wikipedia editing interface. The big idea was to make editing easier—the standard Wikipedia “markup” is more like computer programming than not—and that doing so might create a path for new people to get involved.

    Wikipedia_Visual_EditorBut this was an untested proposition, and anyway who was to say whether it would attract more helpful or unhelpful edits? Alas, my praise arrived too soon. Scratching a little deeper, the new software had bugs—lots of them. Besides which, existing contributors were unhappy to find that this new system was also the default, a huge change that hadn’t been clearly explained to them ahead of time. Following an extensive debate among the site’s core editors, and after a few strategic retreats by the Foundation’s developers, a single community member changed the code and disabled the Visual Editor for everyone. The Visual Editor is back in beta once again, and its near-term future is uncertain.

    While there were undeniable errors in the launch of this initiative, the Visual Editor’s misfire is less the disease and more the symptom of it. Of late, I’ve been telling anyone who cares to listen that major tensions between the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community pose serious doubts about Wikipedia’s ability to grow into the future. The former group comprises mostly paid professionals who may or may not have originated from the community, while the latter is composed of a vast, disparate, passionate, sometimes disagreeable group of not-quite-like-minded individuals. The formalized former has a greater ability to act in a concerted effort, yet its charter states that it must follow the lead of the leaderless community.

    While Wikipedia was still growing and expanding, rapid growth seemed to solve all problems. Now that the community is contracting and entrenching, it looks like a serious roadblock. How can Wikipedia and its community of editors take on big initiatives—such as revolutionizing journalism—when they can’t agree on something like this? Is consensus still working for Wikipedia at this point?

  • Chelsea / Bradley Manning—Following a high-profile conviction under the Espionage Act in a U.S. military court, the infamous Army Private Manning announced her transgender status (confirmed, really, for those paying close attention) and with it sought public acknowledgment for a name change from Bradley to Chelsea. Although transgender acceptance is rocky still in 2013, it wasn’t too long before most media outlets had adopted the feminine pronoun. Likewise, the Wikipedia entry for Pvt. Manning was updated to /Chelsea—and then it was rolled back to /Bradley—and then the fighting began.

    Manning_US_ArmyI’m not even going to get into the details, except to say that I’m still fairly stunned that the Wikipedia community had to argue about it at all, let alone that it got so ugly. After some debate, ArbCom stepped in. Eventually the entry was moved back to /Chelsea_Manning, and sanctions were imposed on some debate participants. Surprisingly, the heavier penalties were levied on pro-Chelsea editors over technical matters, while some more hostile pro-Bradley editors were let off more easily. A veteran editor named Phil Sandifer complained about this on his personal blog. Soon after, ArbCom returned to say Sandifer had revealed personal information about another participant in violation of Wikipedia’s policies, and he was subsequently banned from Wikipedia. This was a shocking outcome (and I hope I’m not risking my own standing on Wikipedia merely by linking to his post). Assuming ArbCom is correct in their reasoning, I see why they took the position they did—but the punishment seems much harsher than it should be.

    Given the above, it can be very easy to forget that one of Wikipedia’s “five pillars”—the most important organizing principles of the entire project—states: “Editors should treat each other with respect and civility”. Technology Review points out that acrimony among editors and complaints about the increasingly unpleasant and bureaucratic nature of Wikipedia is a reason editors are leaving. Given the above, it’s not difficult to see why.

  • Pets_com_sockPR Sock puppet scandal—This fall a long-running, low-profile, on-wiki investigation into a network of sock puppet Wikipedia accounts broke wide when several news outlets connected the anonymous accounts to a rogue PR company I’ll decline to give further publicity here (no, it’s not Pets.com, but wouldn’t that be great?). This company was not unknown to editors, but the specifics of their activity had been. All accounts known to be associated with the company were blocked, and while this one was not a tough call, much else in this topic area is. Wikipedia’s official guidelines say one thing, although Jimmy Wales has promoted stricter guidance.

    The terminology is a challenge, too: “conflict of interest editing”; “paid editing”; “paid advocacy” and “paid advocacy editing” are all similar terms often used to discuss this issue, although they are not identical and the widely different conclusions one may draw can be strongly influenced by unspoken assumptions related to each.

    A number of policy proposals were offered up, but at this time none has attained substantial support, and some are clearly dead in the water. The Wikipedia community has tried more than once in the past five years to draw up some rules to regulate this kind of activity, but nothing much has come of it. Meanwhile, individual editors have set up the occasional effort to assist PR representatives (and offer an alternative to direct edits), but these have always been understaffed. While not a new debate, it doesn’t seem like any new epiphanies will come of it this time.

    (Note: I have already written about this for the blog, and I have a greater involvement in this subject compared to the others.)

The above are all specific incidents with their own unique circumstances and complicated outcomes, but it’s not difficult to see how they point toward larger issues with the direction of Wikipedia. As it happens, the direction of Wikipedia is very much at issue right now. Sue Gardner, the first (and so far only*) executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, is leaving at the end of the year. She prepares to depart with significant respect and goodwill among a wide range of community members—and yet there’s also significant concern that Sue_Gardnerher successor is in for a really difficult time. Meanwhile, the Foundation is narrowing down its search, and a decision is expected soon. The name of this leader-to-be and his or her vision for Wikipedia is still a mystery.

One evening last week, I ran my views past another longtime member and leader (such as they are) of the Wikipedia community. While this person acknowledged the issues I raised, there was another aspect I had been overlooking. Is Wikipedia at a crisis moment? Not exactly—it’s been in crisis for awhile now. The problem is not that the disagreements are any worse than they were previously, but the difference is that these disagreements are now much higher profile than they were before.

Wikipedia was once able to grow its way out of its problems, but that hasn’t been an option for awhile: these issues have loomed larger ever since the growth of new editors slowed and turned into decline, and since Wikipedia found that it couldn’t avoid the public spotlight. Remember, the Technology Review article is literally called “The Decline of Wikipedia”. As I said at the beginning: there’s not much that’s new in the article. But it might just summarize the problem better than it realizes.

*It’s been pointed out to me that WMF had an interim executive director at one point, however this individual was basically a caretaker in the position. But the point stands: Sue Gardner is still—please forgive the forthcoming play on words—sue generis.

Images courtesy, respectively: MIT Technology Review, Wikimedia Foundation, U.S. Army, Jacob Bøtter, and Paula Wilson via Wikimedia Foundation.

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

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on October 23, 2013 at 4:13 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

The Unbearable Lightness of Jimbo

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on June 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Is it time for another lengthy profile of Jimmy Wales already? The New York Times Magazine says yes, and so this Sunday’s edition will carry a story now already out on the web under the snarky headline “Jimmy Wales Is Not an Internet Billionaire”.

It’s mostly a catch-up with Wales—a.k.a. Jimbo—now that he’s moved to London, married (for the third time it is noted) to a former Tony Blair aide, and living the jetset life, even if he is not mega-rich. Some of it seems a bit unfair:

His income is a topic of constant fascination. Type “Jimmy Wales” into Google and “net worth” is the first pre-emptive search to pop up. “Everyone makes fun of Jimmy for leaving the money on the table,” says Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia.

I don’t know, I can’t say that I’ve thought that much about Jimmy Wales’ net worth. Wikipedia is unique among the top 10 global sites in that it’s a foundation-backed non-profit, and if you’re telling me the founder of such a website does not have Rockefeller money, I am not going to puzzle about why.

But some have wondered if Wales, who couldn’t figure out a way to become rich off his innovation, was cynically making a play to cash in on being a great humanitarian.

Are the two mutually exclusive? Is there anything less noble about stumbling into a calling that one never sought, but following it where it leads? (Which itself is a much better story, by the way.) Nor is any evidence presented that Wales’ efforts on behalf of Internet freedom is insincere. His libertarian leanings are well-known and pre-dated the establishment of Wikipedia, so why would his interest in this cause be a surprise?

Anyway, the story touches on a number of minor Wikipedia controversies, but gets the closest to saying something interesting about Wales’ actual role on the site when it addresses how Wales’ (not that new) proximity to the rich and famous has occasionally impacted his role at Wikipedia.

Several contributors protested that Wales had used a firsthand, unsourced experience to change Will.i.am’s entry. A user called Fram said Wales had violated Wikipedia protocol, which requires factual information be attributed to published materials. … The same rule applied when Wales tried to get his own birthday changed, from Aug. 8, 1966 (as his passport and driver’s license used to read) to his actual birthday, Aug. 7. “This is unverifiable information, I’m sorry to say,” he wrote on his entry’s talk page. “Maybe I’ll have to upload a signed note from my mom as documentary evidence.”

This scratches at the surface of one of Wikipedia’s thorniest philosophical questions—the Ouroboros nature of verifiability on Wikipedia—but going any further would probably be too much for the Times’ audience.

Meanwhile, the more localized question of Jimbo’s access to power—or maybe that’s power’s access to Jimbo—came up again this past week, when he posed a question on his own user page about whether evidence existed that former NSA contractor turned leaker turned fugitive Edward Snowden had edited Wikipedia under one of his known screen names. Although this was the extent of his asking, some editors (including Fram again) took the issue up as a possible violation of the site’s well-intentioned but oft-excepted policy against “outing” the identities of Wikipedia’s pseudonymous editors. None of this went anywhere, but editors could be forgiven for wondering: who was really asking?

The Wikimedia Foundation is Losing its Chief. What Happens Next?

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on March 28, 2013 at 9:35 am

Big news in the world of Wikipedia, yesterday: Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit behind Wikipedia and other wiki-based projects) announced she will be stepping down from the role, which she has held since June 2007. Gardner, in a post on the Wikimedia blog:

I feel that although [Wikipedia is] in good shape, with a promising future, the same is not true for the internet itself. (This is thing number two.) Increasingly, I’m finding myself uncomfortable about how the internet’s developing, who’s influencing its development, and who is not. Last year we at Wikimedia raised an alarm about SOPA/PIPA, and now CISPA is back. Wikipedia has experienced censorship at the hands of industry groups and governments, and we are –increasingly, I think– seeing important decisions made by unaccountable, non-transparent corporate players, a shift fromSue Gardner at Wikimania the open web to mobile walled gardens, and a shift from the production-based internet to one that’s consumption-based. There are many organizations and individuals advocating for the public interest online — what’s good for ordinary people — but other interests are more numerous and powerful than they are. I want that to change. And that’s what I want to do next.

In January 2012, you may remember that Wikipedia went into “blackout” mode for 24 hours in protest of legislation before the U.S. Congress (SOPA/PIPA), so this explains that much. The rest of the statement is a little harder to puzzle out; the “non-transparent corporate players” in those circumstances were opposed by other corporate players, and both were fighting over government regulations. The line about “mobile walled gardens” sounds like Facebook, and a “consumption-based” Internet sounds like a jab at tablets, of all things, but I suppose we’ll have to see. These are obviously broad statements, and Gardner hasn’t actually announced her next move.

The move won’t be happening too soon, yet: Gardner will be in the position for (at least) another six months, while she works with Wikipedia’s Board of Trustees to find a successor, she writes in the post.

Whether Wikipedia is really “in good shape” is a matter for debate, especially considering Gardner had made a personal cause of trying to fix Wikipedia’s absurd gender imbalance, not to mention the overall downward drift in editor retention and activity.

She also leaves with some organizational questions unresolved: just last October, the board approved her plan to shift and “narrow” the non-profit organization’s focus to primarily software development; whereas the foundation once had “fellows” focused on community-building, the Foundation has shifted to a grant-making process, which is still making a first go of it.

Speaking of development, the great white whale continues to be what’s called the VisualEditor, an editing interface intended to be much easier for users than the current system, which is fairly similar to coding HTML. (It’s not as difficult as real programming, but still too much effort for most.) It’s been nearly two years in the making, and has finally rolled out into testing just this year.

Speaking of whales, Sue was the first leader to follow the much better-known Jimmy Wales, who still sits on the Board of Trustees*. Gardner came from the CBC in Canada, and was not an original part of “the movement,” but she came to identify with it and become quite popular with the overall Wikimedia community. It’s not at all clear who should or will succeed her, but it is clear that a lot rides on the decision.

Photo licensed under Creative Commons by Ariel Kanterewicz, via Wikimedia Commons.

*This post originally stated that Wales rotates off the Board later this year; it’s since been pointed out to me that, while all members’ terms are limited, reappointments are allowed, which it is expected to do in Wales’ case again next time.

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.

The Other Senkaku Islands Dispute

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on February 5, 2013 at 2:52 pm

My friend and colleague Pete Hunt writes in Foreign Policy today about the dispute on Wikipedia about the Senkaku Islands, and how they parallel the real world. An excerpt:

Regular editing dust-ups might suggest that the Senkaku Islands article and its “dispute” offshoot are dubious resources of little value. In fact, both articles nicely summarize the controversy and provide a long list of citations and references that can advance further research. While news accounts of the islands focus on recent diplomatic incidents and their international implications, these Wikipedia articles provide historical context and a more detailed explanation of the arguments underlying each side’s claims to the territory. The vitriol exchanged by editors might be ugly, but it’s also evidence of a transparent and ongoing screening process.

Actually, now that I think about it, the Wikipedia dispute may be going better than the one in real life.

First Wikipedian (Officially Representing a Presidential Library)

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on January 24, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Via the NYT Arts Beat blog:

Gerald R. Ford may have governed during a time of economic stagnation, but his library has just laid claim to a cutting-edge distinction: becoming the first presidential depository to employ an official “Wikipedian in residence.”

Michael Barera, a master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School of Information who has been editing Wikipedia articles for five years, started the job last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. He is charged with improving the Wikipedia presence of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, which is housed at the university’s Ann Arbor campus.

He’s the first official representative to Wikipedia at a presidential library, and surely not the last. Since Liam Wyatt became the first Wikipedian-in-Residence (WiR) at the British Museum, in spring 2010, the concept of an in-house Wikipedian has spread far and wide. So far, these have all been at non-profits, but I won’t be surprised if that isn’t always the case.

(Hat tip: cultural-partners email list.)

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!

The Agony and Ecstasy of Wikidata

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on April 12, 2012 at 8:31 am

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

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

Possible Wikidata logo

One of a few Wikidata logos under consideration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for research assistance to Morgan Wehling.

Regarding the Uncertain Future of Encyclopædia Britannica

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on March 14, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Yesterday, Encyclopædia Britannica made the startling announcement that they would discontinue their print edition after 244 years. Once the current edition has sold out, they’ll become a collector’s item. Which is essentially what they are now, if it’s not too uncharitable to point out. Britannica is not finished as an operation, however: it will continue to publish on the web. It’s a startling announcement, sure, but it makes more sense than if it went on as if nothing had changed. Britannica’s editors acknowledged as much in a post on their blog:

A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.

But Britannica’s grip on the evolution of human knowledge isn’t what it used to be—you can see where I’m going, right? As a well-known quote from Jimbo Wales goes:

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

Since its launch in 2001, and especially since a (much-debated) 2005 Nature article comparing the two, Wikipedia has been a thorn in Britannica’s side. And its influence has long since surpassed its much older rival. A Quantcast comparison suggests that Wikipedia’s traffic is 30x that of Britannica’s. And as I tweeted last night, news organizations have been quick to note the competition.

Under the title “Death By Wikipedia: Encyclopedia Britannica Stops Printing”, ReadWriteWeb observes:

The usefulness of such reference materials has been on the decline for years, especially since the advent of Wikipedia. Whatever flaws its open, crowd-sourced editorial model may invite, Wikipedia is generally regarded as a comprehensive and mostly-accurate source of information, which can be accessed for free.

And in a Venture Beat article titled “Encyclopaedia Britannica wiped out by Wikipedia, selling final print edition” we find:

The extremely thorough Wikipedia article on Encyclopaedia Britannica … serves as the perfect example of why Wikipedia is coming out on top.

It’s true—Wikipedia’s article about Encyclopædia Britannica is very thorough. Britannica’s article about Wikipedia is not bad, but it is far more limited than Wikipedia’s article about itself, and Britannica has those annoying pop-up advertisements that do nothing for readers.

Yet Britannica president Jorge Cauz tells the The Washington Post:

This has nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google. … This has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells its digital products to a large number of people.

This is a little bit like Microsoft saying Windows 8 has nothing to do with the the iPad, merely the shift in consumer purchasing habits toward the tablet and mobile markets. That’s not to say the statement isn’t necessarily untrue, just that it’s complete. I don’t know a great deal about Britannica’s current business model, but it’s safe to say that non-print revenues have become far more important, as Britannica’s print sales have fallen. Whether they will succeed is another question; PC World and doesn’t think so, pointing out the closure of—speak of the devil—Microsoft’s online encyclopedia Encarta in 2009 (which I wrote about at the time):

Microsoft shuttered its digital multimedia encyclopedia, Encarta, in 2009, and the last trace of it, the online dictionary, closed last year. Encarta, though a digital product, was also made obsolete by Wikipedia’s free availability, constantly updated content and thousands of editors, contributors and volunteers from around the world.

At The Atlantic, expert on evolution and Bloggingheads impresario Robert Wright offers this (small) consolation:

Maybe, long after even the electronic edition of Britannica is gone, the idea of Britannica can remain for us what it once was for me–a kind of Platonic ideal that we aspire to evolve toward even if we can never reach it, something that has a kind of reality even if we can never touch it.

As someone who devoured Britannica in my school library when growing up, not to mention someone who relied on Britannica as a college student in the late 1990s (before Britannica added a pay wall)—much the same way as students today (notoriously) rely on Wikipedia —I’m sorry to see it go. But we no longer live in a world where a 30,000 page, 15-volume encyclopedia can be printed on an annual basis for profit. In fact, even Britannica sees itself as a collector’s item now; as Cauz tells the News Observer:

This is going to be as rare as the first edition, because the last print run of our last copyright was one of the smallest print runs.”

I’d love to own one myself, but at $1,395.00 for the “Final Print Edition”, I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. And perhaps Cauz is wrong; maybe the death of Britannica will be more like the Death of Superman.

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.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2011

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on December 31, 2011 at 10:07 pm

A year ago, I wrote a blog post called “The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2010”. Perhaps, then, I should write a follow-up this year? For some reason, I’m having a harder time of it. Was 2011 less of a newsworthy year for Wikipedia? Not if this Google Insights for Search analysis of Wikipedia-related news stories is to be believed: if anything, Wikipedia was a more prominent news generator this year than last. Make what you will of the proprietary, nontransparent methodology of Google’s news judgment, but at least it seems Wikipedia has been plenty newsworthy.

It’s my personal judgment that Wikipedia was somehow less newsworthy than it was last year. Maybe that speaks to the absence of WikiLeaks / Wikipedia confusion in the public discussion, or maybe it speaks to the fact that I think some of the big topics simply repeat.

Whichever is the case, I say let’s do what we did last year, and count down through the most important and / or impactful news stories about the year in Wikipedia, using my own proprietary, nontransparent methodology, which is to say these are my personal judgments:

10. Superinjunctions — In May, Wikipedia was one of several websites (notably also Twitter) that came into conflict with UK court orders—”superinjunctions”—seeking to suppress scandalous gossip about sports and film celebrities (I know, right?). Wikipedia servers, like Twitter’s, are based in the U.S. and so are protected by the First Amendment. But that doesn’t mean some won’t try.

9. Wikipedia and education — This was on the list last year, and even though there was no singular event to point to, I’m going to include it again. Wikipedia remains a major subject of controversy at both the university and secondary levels, and while teacher attitudes are changing, and Wikipedia is making efforts to work with them, much confusion remains and resistance continues to exist. (But is probably futile.)

8. Wikipedia meddling — Politicians don’t fare well when they try to edit Wikipedia. Nor do some famous newspaper columnists. You know who seems to an even worse job of this? PR firms. As I’ve written about more than once, it’s not impossible to contribute to Wikipedia on a topic you are close to without getting burned, but those who are determined to subvert Wikipedia will keep getting burned.

7. Drawbacks of Wikipedia’s openness — It’s not just politicians who sometimes run afoul of Wikipedia… their supporters do, too. This summer, Sarah Palin said something about Paul Revere that was factually inaccurate, and anonymous someones presumed to be in her corner tried to change relevant Wikipedia articles… and then a few days later, Michele Bachmann said something about John Wayne’s hometown that was incorrect and John Quincy Adams’ status as a founding father that basically is too, and unhelpful Wikipedia edits commenced. Oh, and of course Stephen Colbert was there to fan the flames. To paraphrase a real founding father, if eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so too is it the price of an online encyclopedia anyone can edit.

6. But how open is it, really? — This will come up again later, but many Wikipedians have become concerned that Wikipedia is too difficult to use, both for reasons related to the community and the once-revolutionary but now-creaky collaborative tools (i.e. the MediaWiki software that powers Wikipedia and its sister sites) and the often-insular community that defines it. Over Thanksgiving weekend, search engine-focused blogger Danny Sullivan published a blog post blasting Wikipedia for being “closed” and “unfriendly” and, even though he wasn’t very friendly (read: a total jerk) in his brief on-site activity, his point that Wikipedia is difficult to use is not incorrect. Wikipedia volunteer developers have created multiple versions of an Article Feedback Tool, something called “WikiLove”, a rather condescending smiley face / frowny face tool still in testing, and there are more user interface (UI) changes in store. But if the community itself is the issue, that’s a much trickier question.

5. Integration with museums and archives — One of the most interesting things happening on Wikipedia these days is the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) project, in which researchers collaborate with the aforementioned institutions to make their material more easily accessed by Wikipedians for use on Wikipedia. Started by Liam Wyatt, who received considerable attention in 2010 for a stint as “Wikipedian in residence” at the British Museum, the project has grown far beyond him. In the U.S., the Smithsonian and National Archives are now participants, with attention paid by The Atlantic, among other news organizations. If Wikipedia’s reputation for accuracy and depth improves in the years ahead, the GLAM project will play a big part.

4. Wikipedia’s gender imbalance — As I asked in February: “Could it really be that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women?” Well, nobody knows for sure, but this is the percentage of women who participated in the Wikimedia Foundation’s most recent editors survey, and in 2011 the issue attracted renewed attention. A story in the New York Times by the publication’s lead wiki-watcher, Noam Cohen, led to new internal discussion over the site’s gender balance, a renewed outreach effort by Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardener, and and a Wikipedia “fork” of the Change the Ratio campaign spearheaded by my friend Amy Senger. Has it worked? Well… who’s to say just yet? It seems unlikely that Wikipedia participation will reflect the actual gender balance of the wider world—and I would say it needn’t actually do that—but all parties would probably be happy to see a measurable uptick when the next survey rolls around.

3. Wikipedia occupies itself — In early October, the Italian-language Wikipedia edition turned off the lights temporarily in protest against a proposed law that would require websites to issue corrections, or face penalties. The protest received worldwide coverage; the proposed law has not become law. According to Google Insights, this was in fact the most-searched Wikipedia-related news story of the year, but I’m exercising my own editorial discretion here. Meanwhile on the (much more widely read) English-language Wikipedia, similar measures have been considered in response to the U.S. Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) however nothing has come of it (yet).

2. Falling editor retention — I begin with the caveat that this should probably be number one; this might seem a bit esoteric to the outsider, but in fact this is a proxy for questions about the long-term survivability of Wikipedia as a project, and is such a huge topic that I can’t properly wrap my head around it.

In August, I wrote a response to a Gawker post titled “Wikipedia is Slowly Dying”, arguing that Wikipedia had lost its mojo, and the “cognitive surplus” that helped build it had now moved on to places like Facebook and Twitter. This is wrong for reasons I only partly articulated at the time, but there’s no question that Wikipedia has fewer editors than it did last year, and the year before, and the year before.

The Wikimedia Foundation’s own research shows that new editors face longer articles offering fewer clear opportunities to get involved (which shouldn’t be a surprise, given the site’s impressive growth) and have a harder time making their edits stick.

The above chart, also prepared by the Wikimedia Foundation, shows it is clearly in flux: the explosive growth of participation crested several years ago, has been in slow decline since. No one really knows what’s going on with the direction of Wikipedia’s participation rate—regardless of gender—but it has been a major topic of discussion and will continue to be.

1. Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary — My choice for the top story last year was also about Wikipedia—the controversy over its ubiquitous fundraising banners—and so it is again. As much as Wikipedia strives to avoid self-referentiality in its own encyclopedia pages, the one thing Wikipedians have in common (and they often do not have much) is a fascination with Wikipedia. And this year was a big milestone: the 10th anniversary since Jimmy Wales (and, oh yeah, Larry Sanger) started up a “wiki” encyclopedia, very much as an afterthought.

To celebrate the milestone, Wikipedia held events around the world, and it happened to be a good time to be a Wikipedia commentator: I was interviewed for Ukrainian TV, and I collaborated with the creative agency JESS3 to produce a web video called “The State of Wikipedia”, narrated by Jimbo himself. As of this writing, it has more than 135,000 views on YouTube, making it one of the bigger things I did this year. Here’s looking forward to an interesting 2012.

How to Stop the Next Bell Pottinger

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on December 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm

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

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

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

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

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

Johann Hari and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Wikipedia Edits

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on September 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Unless you follow the media, and more specifically the British media, you may be wholly unaware that there is such a person named Johann Hari, or that he has been a wunderkind columnist and correspondent, or that a lot of people find him kind of insufferable, and in that case you almost certainly don’t know that he got himself in a big heap of trouble this summer, over charges of plagiarism and meddling with Wikipedia.

Understandably, most of the criticism has been focused on the plagiarism charges. After all, that’s a crime against journalism, and by definition journalists are the ones writing about it most widely. What he did in those cases was not remotely OK, but at the moment I’m a little more animated by his improper Wikipedia activity. After all, that’s a crime against Wikipedia, and by definition The Wikipedian blogs about Wikipedia.

The matter is news again today because Hari has published a public apology in the pages of The Independent, his employer. He is sorry for everything he has done, he’s returning his prestigious Orwell Prize (which he probably was going to lose anyway) and he’s taking a sabbatical to go back to journalism school. I guess it’s a start.

About the Wikipedia controversy, Hari devotes just one full paragraph:

The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.

Hari’s Wikipedia article contains this brief account:

Several journalists, including Cristina Odone in The Daily Telegraph and Nick Cohen in The Spectator, concluded that a Wikipedia editor, ‘David r from meth productions’, who claimed to be ‘David Rose’, were in fact made by Hari. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Odone noted that, after she had fallen out with Hari, Rose began making misleading edits to her Wikipedia article accusing her of anti-Semitism and homophobia. Nick Cohen said that misleading edits were made to his own Wikipedia article by the same editor after he had published criticism of Hari’s work. … The Times leader writer Oliver Kamm later attributed to ‘David Rose’ a change in his Wikipedia biography that he regarded as “merely an unsubstantiated judgement” but which had been made not long after a “spat” with Hari.

I am not one who believes, as a general rule, that someone should never edit their own Wikipedia article. Indeed, I’m kind of the expert on how to do it and not bring grief to yourself. But by his own admission, Hari’s editing of his own page amounts to what Wikipedia informally calls whitewashing. Hari also did not disclose that he was behind the “David r from meth productions” account, which is also, obviously, a problem. And it’s all the worse—and by worse I just mean “embarrassing”—if you’ve read any of his surreptitiously self-serving arguments in the archives of his Talk page.

But embarrassment is the bare minimum of regret Hari should feel about his “juvenile and malicious” edits to Wikipedia articles about his media adversaries. This is the part that really gets me. Others may disagree, but I see a vast gulf between sneakily trying to make yourself look better and sneakily making others look worse. And I think there’s a big difference between being an anonymous Internet critic—although it’s a type known to take things too far—and using the veil of anonymity (or in the case of Wikipedia, pseudonymity) to smear a person’s reputation.

Calling someone a “douchebag” is rude, and you may be wrong, but that’s your opinion. Calling someone a “drunk” is a specific charge of bad behavior, about which one is either right (and maybe still an asshole) or wrong, and that’s unforgivable. I don’t know which is the case, but either reflects very poorly on his character. This is the one thing that I think no apology, leave of absence, or media training, can fix.

Update: In the comments, a reader points out that Hari’s edits are even worse than I’ve described them, and he’s right. He points to apparent sustained anonymous vindictiveness on Hari’s part, and I add that Hari’s self-support included some rather absurd sock puppetry, neither of which I was aware of at the time I first wrote this. Had I the time, I would follow this up in more detail. But the upshot remains the same: as a public figure, Hari may or may not be finished—but as a respectable one, he certainly is.