William Beutler on Wikipedia

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

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on April 13, 2010 at 9:30 am

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

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

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

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

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

Better:

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

Worse:

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Sears via Wikipedia.

Watch Out, Laszlo Panaflex!

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on June 22, 2009 at 10:42 pm

laszlo_panaflexIn a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, washed-up movie star Troy McClure — you may remember him from such self-help videos as “Smoke Yourself Thin!” and “Get Confident, Stupid!” — enters a sham marriage with Aunt Selma to squash rumors about his sordid personal life and regain his former screen glory. As he is “romancing” Selma along a Simpsonized version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, McClure declares:

One day, my lady Selma’s gonna have a star right next to mine, so watch out [camera pans right] Laszlo Panaflex!

Like most throwaway Simpsons lines, it has faded from mainstream recognition — the episode’s imagined musical version of “Planet of the Apes” is surely better known — but lives on in offhand references made by those of us who have been watching long enough to remember the controversy over Bart Simpson and those “Underachiever and Proud Of It” T-shirts.

I thought of it again while watching Ghostbusters on TV last night, noticing that the cinematographer was László Kovács. Was Kovács’ the name Simpsons writers were riffing on? Following a well-established routine, I plugged his name — Panaflex’s of course — into Google, hoping for but not really expecting a Wikipedia article to pop up.

It turns out Wikipedia did show up first — but it wasn’t an article. Instead, it was a user page for someone using the fictional lenser’s moniker as a handle. It reads in full:

Nice. But this also got me wondering: is this a loophole in Wikipedia policy? Isn’t this a way to get an encyclopedic page on the site even if it would be otherwise deleted by Wikipedia’s relentless arbiters of significance? After, all articles appearing on what Wikipedians call the “mainspace” of Wikipedia are expected to satisfy a handful of core guidelines lest they be removed or radically altered.

First there is the general notability guideline requiring the subject to meet a certain threshhold of importance (often determined by news coverage). Articles failing the requirement are deleted, and relevant content is sometimes relocated to existing articles about the same topic. Laszlo Panaflex, as one joke in one episode, would never pass Wikipedia’s notability requirement because it would obviously belong on the page about the episode (and as of this writing, it is not even there). An example of a Simpsons reference that does meet this requirement is Homer Simpson’s ubiquitous “D’oh!

Other guidelines it could elide and does in this case: Verifiability and Reliable sources. Sure, it helps to confirm my suspicion that Laszlo Panaflex is inspired by the real cinematographer with the accented name discouraging me from Ctrl-C/V-ing it again. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it was named for him, but certainly doesn’t offer a citation for the claim. I need more proof, and articles in the Wikipedia mainspace do, too.* User pages have no such requirement.

On the other hand, I think it passes NPOV with flying colors.

But is it a loophole to treat a user page like an article? After all, Laszlo Panaflex ranked right at the top of Google; other articles on semi-obscure subjects could as well. I don’t believe there is a policy, guideline or essay that specifically addresses this, though I fully acknowledge I may be wrong. In that case that I am not, the possibility exists for unworthy (or even “unworthy”) articles to be given a second home on user pages.

I can say for certain — alas, without being able to summon a link (I’ll look) — that there are a number of editors whose user pages are written to resemble a Wikipedia article. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. However, I do think it could make the Wikipedia community uncomfortable if it became a widespread practice, and was seen as a gray hat SEO technique.

In that unlikely event, the first suggestion that comes to me would be requiring a banner on user pages that specifies that it is not an “article”. It would be phrased like the banner I keep atop my own page, included as a disclaimer in case the page is swiped by an unscrupulous mirror site. After all, this non-accusatory template puts even a flawed but useful article about one Laszlo Panaflex in the proper context:

This is a Wikipedia user page.

This is not an encyclopedia article. If you find this page on any site other than Wikipedia, you are viewing a mirror site. Be aware that the page may be outdated and that the user this page belongs to may have no personal affiliation with any site other than Wikipedia itself. The original page is located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:WWB.

Wikimedia Foundation

*It may be out there. Many other Simpsons-related Wikipedia articles, including “A Fish Called Selma”, are buttressed by citations to the commentary tracks on the official DVD releases. If anybody knows for sure, I’d be happy to help add the citation.

Searching for Wikipedia Assistance on Craigslist

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on March 22, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Here’s an interesting request for Wikipedia assistance on Craigslist, sent to me by a friend and former colleague from my hometown of Portland, Oregon — coincidentally, also the birthplace of the wiki — just a few days ago:

some wikipedia help (SW Portland)  Date: 2009-03-18, 11:01PM PDT  I am looking for help with wikipedia. I could really use a good wikipedia editor willing to help and post what seems reasonable on Wikipedia within the rules. The topic is "string matching algorithms and structured data". You need to have a basic undertsnading of this topic.  Your need to be an experienced wiki editor and have credit in the wikipedia community regarding such topics.

I’ve clipped a bit from the bottom, but it also includes this:

* Location: SW Portland
* it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
* Compensation: $25+ depends on qualifications.

With the math knowledge requirement and low monetary offer, I am not surprised that the ad remains at the time of this writing.

The mention of compensation could well raise concerns among editors who are wary of financial interests influencing content on Wikipedia. While I am sympathetic to this point of view for the simple reason that they are often correct — people who are willing to put money against getting something changed on Wikipedia are likely to be willing to pay for edits that satisfy their interests but fall short of Wikipedia’s goals — this is also why the Conflict of Interest guideline specifically states: Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest. How serious is the advertiser about following this? I’d say the phrase “what seems reasonable on Wikipedia within the rules” has to be pretty close, but what may seem “reasonable” to someone unfamiliar with Wikipedia guidelines may nevertheless conflict with them.

While this request appears to be small ball, it does remind me of the time when a Microsoft employee offered Australian programmer Rick Jelliffe money to edit a Wikipedia article of interest to the company. Presumably knowing he would be sympathetic, Microsoft instructed Jelliffe to use his best judgment, and the controversy only kicked off once Jelliffe himself wrote a blog post about it. Notwithstanding comments from the likes of Jimmy Wales saying he was “disappointed” in the situation, it is unrealistic to expect that interested parties cannot seek to correct inaccurate or incomplete information — which is what Microsoft says it was doing. Lost in the controversy was the possibility that IBM, Microsoft’s rival, may have had people anonymously weighting the article in question.

Ultimately, Jelliffe’s biggest mistake was not disclosing the arrangement on the article’s Talk page at the time of his edits. This may have meant additional scrutiny on the page, but that comes with the territory. And if anyone takes up this guy’s offer, I’d recommend they do the same.