William Beutler on Wikipedia

The Wikipedian Interviews: Esemono

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on April 30, 2013 at 11:42 am by William Beutler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you choose your username?

Just sounded cool in Japanese.

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

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

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

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

Images by User:Esemono via Wikipedia.

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

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on March 28, 2013 at 9:35 am by William Beutler

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.

It’s the Law! Wikipedia, Cato Institute and the U.S. Congress

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on March 20, 2013 at 10:20 am by William Beutler

Last Thursday and Friday, I participated in an independently-organized Wikipedia-focused project right here in Washington, D.C., one highly relevant to the city where it took place. It was called a Legislative Data Workshop, organized by Jim Harper on behalf of the Cato Institute and led by Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies. Here’s the three-line pitch from the Wikipedia project page about it:

Interested in the bills making their way through Congress?

Think they should be covered well in Wikipedia?

Well, let’s do something about it!

To add a little more background: Cato, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a libertarian think tank based here in the District. Among many initiatives, some of their personnel have been working on a project to annotate legislation before the U.S. Congress, and because of Wikipedia’s reputation as “one of the most popular, if not the most popular” sources of non-partisan information on the web, they wanted to investigate possibilities for collaboration. Cato’s views on government transparency match well with the larger Wikipedia community’s goals of freely available information—even if there isn’t complete agreement on every issue, as Forsyth explained on his own blog, there’s more than grounds for cooperation.

The actual event was split into two days: an introduction to Wikipedia on Thursday afternoon, and a day-long work session on Friday.

Jim-Harper_Pete-ForsythOn Thursday, Forsyth explained to attendees how Wikipedia works: articles, discussion pages, history pages, etc. Half the crowd comprised experienced Wikipedians from the District and nearby area, who knew all of this in their sleep, but seemed valuable for the Cato staff, interns and other attendees. The day concluded with a work period where the veterans helped the newbies work on existing articles. In an era where jobs “created or saved” has become a commonly-recognized phrase, we worked with Cato interns to create and save a new (stub) article about Events DC, which owns RFK Stadium and the DC convention center. One attendee, a software developer and Cato donor visiting from L.A., created perhaps the single greatest first-article ever: Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013.

On Friday, it was the all-day strategy session. I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical: Wikipedia’s extensive “What Wikipedia is not” guideline, and my own experience as an editor, would suggest that every single bill introduced in Congress would not be deserving of its own Wikipedia article. But maybe my imagination was too limited—might there be a role for Wikidata in all this?

The result is a new on-site project called WikiProject United States Federal Government Legislative Data. If that’s a mouthful, you can also call it WP:LEGDATA Unsurprisingly, my own questions about following every bill was one of the first issues raised by an outside observer once the project was put into action “on-wiki”, as Wikipedians like to say. And so the project has listed “Targets for development” which do fit Wikipedia’s guidelines.

A more focused idea coming out of the project is to recommend a standardized page layout for articles about bills before Congress. I’m going to give that a try with a few bills myself. If this project sounds interesting, stop on by and propose a task or ask how you can help.

P.S. If you’re curious to see the notes developed during Friday’s session, you should be able to access them on Etherpad here.

Image via User:Slowking2 on Wikipedia.

International Women’s Day

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on March 8, 2013 at 9:24 am by Rhiannon Ruff

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! As it has in previous years, the Wikipedia community has organized a number of events to celebrate both today and the rest of Women’s History Month, through the WikiWomen’s History Month. Women and feminism-focused edit-a-thons are taking place in countries including Brazil, Poland, Spain, and Sweden. Meanwhile, Wikimedia UK will be giving a talk at the Southbank Center in London, as part of the Women of the World Festival, to encourage women to become Wikipedia editors. Across the U.S. a variety of events are taking place, from edit-a-thons led by THATCamp Feminisms in Claremont, California and Atlanta, Georgia, to a Women in the Arts meet-up at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

If you’ve ever thought about editing but haven’t yet dived in, now is a great time to start. Wikipedia needs more ladies, so please consider getting involved!

The full list of events is available here.

Get Your Freakonomics On

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on February 26, 2013 at 9:19 am by William Beutler

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 by William Beutler

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 by William Beutler

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.)

I Swear I Had Something For This

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on January 23, 2013 at 11:15 am by William Beutler

Archer, the TV series that’s like an animated Arrested Development-meets-James Bond returned to U.S. airwaves last week. A discussion of the debut episode on Slate reminded me of an interview with the AV Club last year in which he revealed superspy Sterling Archer’s secret weapon:

AVC: Did you do any research into modern piracy?
AR: I did. One of my weird things is that I constantly, constantly use Wikipedia on these Archer scripts. If a bad guy draws a gun on Archer, I start thinking, “What kind of gun would this guy have? Let’s go look… What’s a creepy, weird, sort of rare gun?” And I’m on Wikipedia looking up Mauser C96 pistols, and then click, click, click, click, and I’m reading about Family Feud, and just hours go by. So I did actually read a lot about pirates, old and new, but especially the new pirates.

Manti Te’o and the Bicholim Conflict

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on January 17, 2013 at 2:12 pm by William Beutler

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

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

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

Why can’t we have a better Wikipedia dialogue?

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on January 17, 2013 at 10:38 am by William Beutler

Earlier this week, Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner explained how Wikipedia works (and sometimes doesn’t) in a Los Angeles Times op-ed:

Our weakest articles are those on obscure topics, where subtle bias and small mistakes can sometimes persist for months or even years. But Wikipedians are fierce guardians of quality, and they tend to challenge and remove bias and inaccuracy as soon as they see it.

The article on Barack Obama is a great example of this. Because it’s widely read and frequently edited, over the years it’s become comprehensive, objective and beautifully well sourced.

Using the Barack Obama article is cherry-picking, but it’s true: articles are generally as good as they have contributors for them. Yesterday the Times’ Letters section published a response from a (wait for it) high school teacher, arguing against taking Wikipedia seriously:

Why use Wikipedia when library databases such as Proquest and Opposing Viewpoints, which contain PDF files of peer-reviewed, scholarly articles, are available? When given a choice between an article written by an unknown Internet user and one written by an expert, shouldn’t the choice be obvious?

Wikipedia is the lazy researcher’s source of information. It’s useful for a quick answer to a trivia question or resolving a bet, but it should not be used for serious research.

I thought we stopped arguing about the content of Wikipedia as a source of information awhile back, with the standard reply “look to the sources used as references,” but apparently that hasn’t got around the school district yet.

The problem is that they’re both right as far as it goes, and we don’t really know how far that is.

Maybe what we need to figure out is: what’s the proportion of well-developed, well-cited articles to mediocre-to-worse articles covering important subjects, and how do we determine what that means and how to measure it? What this debate needs is some empirical data.

A new fragrance by Calvin Klein?

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on January 16, 2013 at 4:00 pm by William Beutler

From Best of Wikipedia Sandbox

Political bias on Wikipedia: in the eye of the beholder?

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on January 16, 2013 at 9:30 am by Rhiannon Ruff

Editor’s note: Another feature of the sort-of-new The Wikipedian is author bios. This post is authored by occasional contributor Rhiannon Ruff, but from here on make sure to look for the author byline above to see who’s writing.

Earlier this week, The Daily Dot reported on a new study that found Wikipedia has become less politically biased over time, at least where U.S. politics are concerned. The study contrasts with previous data such as mid-2012 research by Engage DC which found that Wikipedia was slightly skewed towards liberal viewpoints.

Researchers Shane Greenstein and Feng Zhu analysed over 70,000 Wikipedia articles for phrases that indicate either Democratic or Republican bias including “Obamacare,” “civil rights” and “illegal immigration”. Their findings indicated that since 2001, Wikipedia has become more neutral as a wider range of editors have become involved in the project. Versions of articles from Wikipedia’s early days in 2001 tended to be slanted towards Democratic viewpoints. More recently, their analysis found Wikipedia shows a balance of views.

However, the findings come with a caveat: it may be that increase in the overall number of articles is balancing out the encyclopedia’s political leaning, such that overall the site is less biased, but individual articles could be slanted to any particular viewpoint.

The new research is particularly interesting coming after heated debates on Wikipedia in 2012 over bias in political articles. For instance, on the Paul Ryan Wikipedia article, editors clashed over perceived bias on both sides: arguments arose that detractors were adding negative information, while at other points editors argued there was too much “puff” being added. Around the same time, Wikiproject Conservatism came under fire from some editors for perceptions that its members had been attempting to insert Republican viewpoints and counter liberal views in political articles. More recently, questions have been raised about “whitewashing” of controversies from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s biography.

Could it be that political biases vary by article, or perhaps such bias is in the eye of the beholder?


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on January 15, 2013 at 7:59 pm by William Beutler

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

Bon WikiVoyage

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on January 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm by William Beutler

You know, The Wikipedian isn’t the only Wikipedia-related thing with an announcement today: by far the bigger development is the long-anticipated launch of the Wikimedia Foundation’s newest standalone project, Wikivoyage.

And unlike most other community projects, Wikivoyage has a big head start: the vast majority of its content has been ported over from Wikitravel, a decade-old site inspired by Wikipedia but never affiliated with it. Wikitravel still exists, and the migration of content (possible because that site also publishes under a Creative Commons license) and users to Wikivoyage has not been without controversy—as you might expect, there’s a pretty good roundup of the circumstances on Wikipedia’s article about Wikitravel.

For now, for most users, Wikivoyage is little more than a mirror of Wikitravel. (Compare: Washington, D.C. on Wikitravel, Washington, D.C. on Wikivoyage.) As of Tuesday afternoon, Wikivoyage is averaging 6 edits per minute, significantly less than the English Wikipedia but significantly more than Wikitravel.

The (Kind of) New Wikipedian

Tagged as on January 15, 2013 at 12:59 pm by William Beutler

Today I’m excited to announce that The Wikipedian is relaunching as something a bit different. Not very different, mind you. Since March 2009, the focus of this blog has been explaining Wikipedia (and other projects of the Wikimedia Foundation) to the non-insider. We’ve covered minor controversies, major news stories, and how the project is growing and evolving. That’s not going to change.

What is changing is the format: for the past four years, The Wikipedian has mostly consisted of long, essay-like posts, often published weeks—or months—apart. And that’s just no way to run a blog. Meanwhile, I’ve missed out on writing about many interesting stories. More often than not, I’ve given them a link over at this site’s related Twitter account. Yet some topics deserve more than 140 characters but fewer than 500 words.

Drawing inspiration from John Gruber’s Daring Fireball and Jason Kottke’s kottke.org, as of this post The Wikipedian has jettisoned its clunky, tri-column front page. We’re going single column, baby! Essay-length posts are not going away entirely; when there’s time and inspiration, I’ll write them. However, importantly, The Wikipedian will not go silent. Perhaps long overdue, we’re getting into the whole brevity thing. More to come—soon.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

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on January 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm by William Beutler

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 by William Beutler

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 by Rhiannon Ruff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia is Not Finished, But Its Needs are Changing

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on December 18, 2012 at 9:14 am by Rhiannon Ruff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia Didn’t Kill Britannica—It Saved the Encyclopedia

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on December 11, 2012 at 11:40 am by William Beutler

Mary Meeker is a venture capitalist associated with the famous Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins who is—as Wikipedia describes her—“primarily associated with the Internet”. Indeed, her annual “Internet Trends” report is highly anticipated in the Valley. Her 2012 report is no different, and it includes a couple of slides focused on Wikipedia vs. Britannica (see also: “Regarding the Uncertain Future of Encyclopædia Britannica”, March 14, 2012). Here’s the important one:

My first reaction, as I tweeted last week, was to be fairly unimpressed:

But looking at it again, it’s quite obvious that for all the discussion of Wikipedia “killing” Britannica, this is not the case at all. First of all, as Wired’s Tim Carmody correctly observed earlier this year, Britannica’s sales began to falter with the introduction of Microsoft Encarta in 1993. If Meeker’s numbers are accurate, then the debut of Wikipedia in 2001 had no impact whatsoever on Britannica’s declining fortunes. Nor does Britannica’s downward slope appear to have accelerated with the rapid adoption of the Internet from the late 1990s onward.

The y-axis of Meeker’s chart, if anything, downplays Wikipedia’s ubiquity compared to Britannica’s sales. Being logarithmic scales charting different numbers, truth be told, I think it’s kind of a terrible chart, but it’s still readily apparent that Wikipedia is vastly more accessible to readers than Britannica ever was. Anecdotal evidence obviously supports this: I’ll bet anything you look at Wikipedia more now than you ever did Britannica, and there are millions who never had access to Britannica before, but can read Wikipedia now.

One thing I would have liked to see here is Britannica.com’s online traffic; writing as one who was in college during the late 1990s and used Britannica.com when it was a free resource, I’d imagine its true relevance nosedived when the site erected a paywall sometime around the year 2000, not that this would necessarily influence print sales.

The bottom line is clear: Britannica’s failure and Wikipedia’s triumph have nothing to do with one another, apart from the inexorable migration of information from analog to digital, and from physical to cloud-based storage. And here is the vastly more interesting trend question: what will eventually replace that?

For the full Meeker report, click here.

Linux distributions vs. wedding dresses: the gender gap impact

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on November 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm by Rhiannon Ruff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm by Rhiannon Ruff

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

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

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

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

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

What I Did This Summer

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on September 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm by William Beutler

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

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

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

Infinite Map     

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

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

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

My Wikitinerary: Day 3 at Wikimania DC

Tagged as on July 14, 2012 at 6:22 am by William Beutler

Wikimania logoWe have arrived at the last day (of official events) at Wikimania, which begins shortly with an opening plenary by the Wikimedia Foundation’s executive director, Sue Gardner. As expected, my Wikimania attendance yesterday was limited on account of other obligations; today I’ll be around for most of the events. Here are a few of the panels and presentations I’m interested in today:

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10:30 – 11:50

Title: Getting elected thanks to Wikipedia. Social network influence on politics.
Speaker: Damian Finol
Category: Wikis and the Public Sector
Description: Wikipedia and politicians is a contentious topic—one I wrote about for Campaigns & Elections in April 2010. This seems to be a bit different: it will be focused on Venezuelan politics, but the question: does having a good Wikipedia page help win elections? is one I’d like to hear how others would answer.

Title: Iterate your cross-pollinated strategic synergy, just not on my Wikipedia!
Speaker: Tom Morris
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: Like any small community focused on a unique project, Wikipedia and its Wikimedia sister projects have developed a kind of jargon all its own. This talk will focus on the language used on WMF and how it can be simplified for clarity, especially to encourage participation of new editors and non-native English speakers.

Title: Wikimedia on social media
Speaker: Jeromy-Yu Chan, Tango Chan, Slobodan Jakoski, Kiril Simeonovski, Guillaume Paumier, Naveen Francis, Christophe Henner
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: As I tweeted the other day, English-speaking Wikipedians are often disdainful of Facebook, for reasons that would take some time to unpack. Twitter too was disfavored for the similar service Identi.ca—the latter is open source, a plus for many—although I think the Twitter has gained a share of acceptance by now. Indeed, the proceedings of Wikimania have been heavily tweeted, just like any conference. So: “The goal of this panel is to share experience on the use of social media throughout the Wikimedia movement, and to share best practices to collectively improve our use of these communication channels.” What are best practices now?

12:10 -13:30

Title: What does THAT mean? Engineering jargon and procedures explained
Speaker: Sumana Harihareswara and possibly Rob Lanphier or additional members of the engineering staff of the Wikimedia Foundation
Category: Technology and Infrastructure
Description: Speaking of jargon, this is supposed to be a non-techie explanation of the technical aspects of Wikimedia. As a non-techie, I could stand for someone to explain how Wikipedia uses squids to me again.

Title: The bad assumptions of the copyright discussion; Blacking out Wikipedia
Speaker: James Alexander; panel
Category: Wikis and the Public Sector
Description: January’s Wikipedia blackout in protest of proposed U.S. legislation tightening copyright and intellectual property enforcement on the web (SOPA and PIPA) was very controversial, and remains so. Jimmy Wales, in his opening plenary, addressed the issue, suggesting blackouts would be considered only for similar issues. The first talk is shorter and appears to be on the issue of copyright. The panel is longer and will discuss the decision to blackout, and how the blackout worked, how the blackout page was designed and the media’s response.

14:30 – 15:50

Title: 11 years of Wikipedia, or the Wikimedia history crash course you can edit
Speaker: Guillaume Paumier
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: Exactly what it sounds like, a history lesson on the last 11 year years of Wikimedia/pedia history. This is a 70 minute talk. Having read Andrew Lih’s “The Wikipedia Revolution” and Andrew Dalby’s “The World and Wikipedia” there is probably not much here I won’t know about already, but I still find it interesting nonetheless.

Title: The end of notability
Speaker: David Goodman
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: Notability, on Wikipedia, refers to a widely-discussed guideline which recommends whether a given subject deserves a standalone Wikipedia article or not. It is very contentious, it is the inspiration for the ideological split between inclusionists and deletionists, and was a key focus of John Siracusa in the “Hypercritical” podcast episode I wrote about earlier this year. This talk will focus on the topic of notability guidelines and how we can’t always find two reliable sources providing substantial coverage for some topics that probably should have articles. Goodman seems to be suggesting that we have articles on topics people want information about regardless of standard notability, but with a twist: should there be a “Wikipedia Two” to satisfy the many non-notable college athletes and politicians whose fans and supporters would like to create articles about them. Plus, Goodman (DGG on Wikipedia) is a bit of a character, so that should be interesting, too.

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OK, I’ve got to race down to the GWU campus now if I’m to catch Gardner’s talk. Look for me on Twitter as @thewikipedian, and I’ll write more here soon!

My Wikitinerary: Day 2 at Wikimania DC

Tagged as on July 13, 2012 at 2:19 am by William Beutler

Wikimania logoWikimania Day 1 is on the books, and it was a busy one. Mary Gardiner’s keynote delivered on the mostly-male Wikimedia community’s promise that they care about female participation (and as many noted, the female presence at Wikimania is very strong) while Jimmy Wales fulfilled his role as the conference touchstone, while adding a dose of levity, or two.

Although, did anyone else notice he was credited as “Founder” of Wikipedia and not “Co-founder”? Well, I did.

My coverage of the first day of the conference was doled out in 140-characters-or-fewer bursts on Twitter as @thewikipedian, and so it will be on subsequent days.

As to the first subsequent day ahead: as much as I’d like to give my full day over to Wikimania, regular readers will know that I live here, and Friday I’m still basically on the clock. So I may not get to all the sessions I would like. But here is what I’m hoping to attend:

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9:00 – 10:20

Time will tell if I make it to the first of the breakout sessions. If I do, it will probably be:

Title: Ask the Operators
Speaker: Leslie Carr, Ben Hartshorne, Jeff Green, Ryan Lane, Rob Halsell
Category: Technology and Infrastructure
Description: Just what it sounds like, a chance to ask the people who keep Wikipedia up and running about how it works, their jobs, and apparently… unicorns? I doubt this session will actually be dominated by bronies, but if it is, then I concede I have been sufficiently warned.

I may also attend:

Title: Giving readers a voice: Lessons from article feedback v5
Speaker: Fabrice Florin
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: I missed his presentation on new tools yesterday, and I’m intrigued by this as well. Good feedback is hard to come by, as a Wikipedia editor, and I’m curious to find out how those most involved think the current feedback tool is working. When I wrote about it last year, I was skeptically optimistic.

10:50 – 12:10

If you’re keeping score at home, it seems that I am most interested in the “WikiCulture and Community” sessions, and why shouldn’t I be? The Wikipedian tries to be about making Wikipedia’s goings-on understandable to the non-editor, so this track is a natural fit.

Title: Wikipedia in the Twitter age
Speaker: Panel moderated by Andrew Lih
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: How does Wikipedia handle the fast pace of information in the Twitter age? Can Twitter be a reliable source? (I think the correct answer is: generally, no.) The role Twitter played with Wikipedia in the 2011 Egyptian revolution and other breaking news events will be discussed here. And I’m always a fan of Andrew Lih’s take on Wikipedia.

13:10 – 14:30

One of the panels I wanted to see yesterday was rescheduled last-minute for this time period, and I very well may still try to check that out. But I’m also fascinated by this one:

Title: Eternal December: How awful arguments are killing the Wiki, and why not to make them
Speaker: Oliver Keyes
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: For good or ill, Wikipedia is a place that many people go to argue about all kinds of things—some very important, and others not so much. This talk will cover the resistance and curmudgeonliness of “Power Editors” and how they prevent the implementation of new developments on Wikipedia and discourage newbies from contributing.

There are other good panels in this time slot, so room-hopping again is a thing I would like to try, although on day one I found it a challenge. If I manage, I like:

Title: Hey, its trending! Let’s update that Wikipedia article!
Speaker: Arkaitz Zubiaga, Taylor Cassidy, Heng Ji
Category: Research, Analysis and Education
Description: This one is a discussion of a possible system that suggests revisions for Wikipedia based on Twitter activity; much Wikipedia editing activity is driven by the news, and Twitter often breaks news before the media has had a chance to write a full story. The panelists will outline goals, details of the system and progress of this research project.

Title: Bots and Wikipedia: It’s OK to be lazy!
Speaker: Gaëtan Landry
Category: Technology and Infrastructure
Description: Although I lack the technical skills to write a real software program myself, I love me some bots. I.e. automated programs that wander around Wikipedia making changes based on an algorithm—fixing common misspellings, reverting obvious vandalism, and the like. The submission says it won’t be highly technical, which is probably good for yours truly.

15:10 – 16:30

I said above that Friday will have to be a working day for me, and it’s very possible that I’ll cut out in the afternoon to wrap some things up for the week. But if I’m still around, I think I may visit:

Title: Refighting the War of 1812 on Wikipedia
Speaker: Richard Jensen
Category: WikiCulture and Community
Description: From the description: “This year is the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and my presentation will examine how Canadian and American editors have handled the war in the main article. Sometimes they re-fought the war, as they balanced scholarship/RS and patriotism in a quest to tell the world what really happened.” I can go in for that.

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One last shameless plug: and if you’re not following me as @thewikipedian on Twitter, then you’re missing out on a lot of interesting tweets, including some very smart people that I am dedicating, and some things that I hope other people are smart.

I’ll see you there in a few hours!