William Beutler on Wikipedia

Bloggingheads.tv: “Wikipedia’s Newbie Problem”

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on September 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm by William Beutler

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

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

Breaking Bad <3 Wikipedia

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on September 3, 2013 at 2:48 pm by William Beutler

Here there be spoilers, so read on with caution: the U.S. television series Breaking Bad is known for its command of detail, especially in scientific matters. After all, its lead character (which is not to say hero) Walter White is a former chemistry teacher who becomes a meth cook after he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.

Besides the incredibly dangerous production of extremely dangerous street drugs, various deadly poisons appear throughout the show’s five tightly-wound seasons, and in Sunday’s episode a major character muses absent-mindedly about a few poisons she has been researching. As the AV Club’s Breaking Bad recapper, Donna Bowman, points out:

Marie quotes nearly exactly the Wikipedia entry for saxitoxin: “… [P]roduces a flaccid paralysis that leaves its victim calm and conscious through the progression of symptoms. Death often occurs from respiratory failure.” Also, when the FBI show up at my door and cite my incriminating search history, you are all my witnesses that I was just researching for this recap.

Plagiarism? Not in this case, I don’t think. As mentioned above, Marie explains she has been reading obsessively about poisons on the Internet—so what do you think she’s been reading? The article Saxitoxin is quite lengthy, if not necessarily well-written. The same goes for a few poisonous plants which play a much bigger role on the show, principally Ricin and Lily of the Valley: these articles seem informative, but sport a few too many [citation needed] tags for my liking. (Also, Breaking Bad is mentioned in a section of the former called “In popular culture”, which as a heading type is generally frowned upon.)

Meanwhile, it’s not the first time Wikipedia has been acknowledged on the show. Clearly, series creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff use it for research, and so their characters do, too. Toward the end of season three, as Walter’s wife Skyler White becomes more fully aware of her husband’s illegal activities, and decides against all better judgment to assist him, she turns to everyone’s favorite volunteer-written encyclopedia to learn more about a subject she needs to get better acquainted with:

Breaking Bad and money laundering on Wikipedia

P.S. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy Breaking Bad: A Periodic Table of Elements, created by my team at Beutler Ink.

A Few Thoughts on Wikimania 2013

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on August 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm by William Beutler

Last year, I posted a recap of each day at Wikimania 2012. That’s far more output than you’ll usually see around here, and a big reason was that last year’s event occurred in the city where I live, Washington, DC. This year it’s more than two weeks since Wikimania 2013 closed, and I’m just going to share a few thoughts and photos and call it good. This is also partly a function of where the event was held.

This year, it was Hong Kong, a city I once lived in long ago, and had not visited since the 1990s, and I brought with me a friend who was there for Hong Kong, and not so much for the conference. So I mostly hit morning sessions on the first and final day, and tried to see as many people as I could (and didn’t always succeed in that).


I attended the first morning session, where Jimmy Wales gave the most anticipated of the opening remarks. And the most interesting thing he said actually related not at all to Wikipedia, but to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor turned leaker of a great, great many government secrets, now on permanent vacation in Moscow. Anyone who follows Wales’ politics probably had an inkling that Wales was supportive—but he gave him a bigger endorsement than that:

“Love him or hate him—I think he’s awesome—he’s done something very important.”

He went on to say the same in a WSJ interview later that day. What did he say about Wikipedia? Well, it’s pretty good! Eight language editions now have more than a million articles, with Italian, Russian, Spanish and even Swedish joining the club. An asteroid was named for Wikipedia, too.

That’s nice, but nothing groundbreaking. Wikipedia will continue to extend its reach, improve its software, refine its processes, and find new ways to engage editors—but it doesn’t seem to excite him anymore, and after a decade-plus of involvement, who can blame him? The month before Wikimania, Wales took a one-month break from the Internet, asking Wikipedians to avoid asking him questions via his Wikipedia user account until he returned.

The biggest wiki-related news he made also had something to do with Snowden, or at least was inspired by it: Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see. Some raised the question of what will contributors to the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikinews project think of it, but the question kind of answers itself: Wikinews has never been a success, and is kept alive only by a few die-hards. An attempt was made to kill the project earlier this year, though it didn’t succeed. So maybe this will become that. Or maybe we’ll never hear about it again.


Of the panel sessions I attended, there were two in a row, by a French Wikipedia editor, about a subject of great interest to me, personally and professionally. The first was about Wikipedia’s relationship to companies, and whether they can have a beneficial impact on Wikipedia. The second was whether there can be a framework for paid editors to contribute to Wikipedia. As I mention here from time to time, for several years now I’ve done this kind of work on a consulting basis. It can work out very well, but it’s not at all easy.

Although companies can successfully work with the community to improve articles of interest, it’s not widely discussed, except when someone gets caught trying to go about it the wrong way. These are sensitive topics in the Wikimedia community, which prizes its volunteer ethic, and commitment to neutrality, not to mention a suspicion of outside organizations, for-profit or non-profit, who might try to use Wikipedia to boost its own messaging.

I was a little surprised that the discussion didn’t arouse much emotion, or raised voices—maybe once toward the end of the end of the period—but the real reason, I think, is just because the presenter didn’t have a strong solution to propose—just a “framework”—and as someone who is very familiar with the arguments for and against different proposals around paid editing, I knew it wasn’t going anywhere.

The fact that Jimmy Wales’ so-called “bright line” rule (which advises “paid advocates” to stick to discussion areas of Wikipedia, is not a formal rule anyway) was not raised at all surprised me. I almost raised my hand and brought it up, and then decided against it. A wide range of views were shared, many of them more supportive of some cooperation with outside companies and organizations than I would have expected, but nothing here was going to be solved.


For more photos and commentary, I tweeted the conference at my Twitter account associated with this address, @thewikipedian. Next year’s conference is in London. How will I cover that one? I am curious to find that out myself.

Adventures in Visual Editing

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on July 2, 2013 at 5:30 pm by William Beutler


It’s a big week for Wikipedia, and maybe a bigger one for its developers. Starting Monday (although I only noticed today, EST) the long-in-the-works Visual Editor rolled out to all registered editors. On the Wikimedia Foundation blog, Philippe Beaudette explains the big deal:

There are various reasons that lead existing and prospective contributors not to edit; among them, the complexity of wiki markup is a major issue. One of VisualEditor’s goals is to empower knowledgeable and good-faith users to edit and become valuable members of the community, even if they’re not wiki markup experts. We also hope that, with time, experienced editors will find VisualEditor useful for some of their editing tasks.

In the past I’ve been a bit of a Visual Editor skeptic—the Wikimedia Foundation’s own research shows that not knowing how to edit is seventh among readers’ answers for why they don’t edit Wikipedia, cited by only 18% of respondents to the 2011 reader survey. Moreover, one still has to know to click on the “Edit” button to get started. And then there’s a question for which we currently have no empirical evidence: does making it theoretically easier to edit invite more productive contributors, or more troublemakers? We may well get an answer—though it will take time and, of course, more study.

All that said, I’ll be perfectly happy if my misgivings turn out to be misplaced. And today I finally took the thing out for a test drive. The Featured article today is Alec Douglas-Home, the United Kingdom’s prime minister for almost exactly one year in the early 1960s. At first I noticed some double-spaces after periods (or, given the subject matter, full stops) and went to change it. As soon as I clicked “Edit” button (and disappeared the notification pop-up seen at the top of this post) I saw this:


Yeah, OK, that’s an edit page, all right. Upon first impression, I have to say I was wrong about one thing: I was expecting a WYSIWYG editor that was a half-step up from editing code, but was still confined to an undersized edit box. Nope, this is editing right on the page. (Yes, I could have turned on the Visual Editor for awhile yet, but I’ve also become the sort of person who still waits for an album release even once it’s been leaked.)

So I removed the superfluous double-space, and went to hit “Save page”. So here’s my edit summary:


But hey, I came back awhile later, and noticed some joker had changed Douglas-Home’s honorific prefix from “The Right Honourable” to “The Right Bhuval” (?) as pictured here:


So I went to edit again, but this time I got the same old edit window:


What happened? I didn’t realize until later that I’d actually hit “Edit source”, which brings you to the same code-based editing window that Wikipedians have known for more than a decade—and which will surely be the choice of power editors for a long time to come. Alas, I didn’t realize that his first name had also been changed to “Bhuval”, but someone else did step in to fix that before long.

And… that’s my experience with the Visual Editor so far! It’s not much to go on. But I still have a few early takeaways:

  • I’ve been editing Wikipedia for the better part of a decade now, and I still had a bit of trouble. Also, pictured at the top of this post is the new pop-up alerting editors that they have entered the visual editor, which didn’t include a little x-box to close. I wasn’t stymied long, but it’s the experience that counts, right?
  • The Visual Editor really slows down the loading of the edit page. This isn’t any huge surprise, but the length of page loads is a matter of concern, especially considering the Wikimedia Foundation’s conscious push to improve participation in the developing world, where Internet speeds may be slower.
  • It doesn’t seem to work on Talk pages, which is a mixed blessing. As something of a Wikipedia elitist, I think the uninitiated may offer the best help by pointing things out on discussion pages. Then again, Wikipedia discussion pages being “broken” is a whole ‘nother topic.
  • Here’s my optimistic prediction for the Visual Editor: while I don’t see it encouraging significant contributions of quality new material from previous non-editors, I do think it can encourage more edits by those who already edit occasionally, but maybe can’t be bothered to hunt through markup to move a comma.

If the Visual Editor is not for you, here’s what you do: go to “Preferences” in the top right corner, select the “Gadgets” tab, look under the “Editing” header, and check the box which reads: “Remove VisualEditor from the user interface”. Then hit “Save”, and you’re good to go. But I think I’ll let it stand. It’s not a panacea for Wikipedia’s ills, and for complex edits the source code is always only a click away. Besides, I’m always looking for that comma—or superfluous double-space.

The Unbearable Lightness of Jimbo

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on June 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm by William Beutler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edit the Vote: It’s Election Season at Wikipedia

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on June 13, 2013 at 4:58 pm by William Beutler

I had dinner last night with some friends, and the question arose: So, do you donate to Wikipedia during the fundraising drives? That was an easy answer—I do, and have for at least three years running. My friends were split: whether they did or not seemed to correlate roughly to how much they use it (and specifically how much they use it at work).

How much money Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation behind it has and how it spends that money is not necessarily as well understood. (I consider myself a Wikipedian, and I found myself doing plenty of research for this post.) And the question of Wikimedia’s future is especially interesting, since long-serving executive director Sue Gardner announced she’ll be leaving the post sometime this year.


Some answers about specific outlays can be found in the 2011-12 Annual Report (PDF) and the 2012-13 Annual Plan (PDF), but the “how” depends a lot on who is actually making the decisions. Well, decisions about who is making those decisions are being made right now. Voting in a community-wide election began on June 8, and is not quite half-over, continuing until June 22. Do you want to vote? If you’re an editor in good standing with at least 300 edits before April 15, and at least 20 edits since December 15 (good criteria, I think) then you can.

Interestingly, three seats on the Board of Trustees are reserved for members of the Wikipedia community, joining others selected by the Wikimedia Foundation—and one set aside, of course, is Jimbo Wales himself. And starting this year, there’s a new advisory committee, of which a majority will be composed of community-elected volunteers. This is called the Funds Dissemination Committee. Finally, there’s an FDC Ombudsperson, whose role will be monitoring the new committee. Considering how the backstage area at Wikipedia is prone to drama, it could always get interesting.

Plus, it’s not Monopoly money: the money you throw at Jimmy Wales’ face every November has been increasing: from the last period to the current, both revenue and expenses are expected to make a big jump: $42 million expenditures on $46 million revenue, with almost $32 million banked.

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So that’s the background. Here’s a rundown of the community candidates for positions on Wikimedia Foundation committees:

Board of Trustees

Funds Dissemination Committee & Ombudsperson

  • Here are the 7 Candidates for the FDC board. Being a more advisory committee, they don’t necessarily have to provide their full names, though some have. But their usernames are: Smallbones, CristianCantoro, notafish, ImperfectlyInformed, Abbasjnr, MikyM and Aegis Maelstrom.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, the FDC members have not been subject to as extensive a list of Questions. At this time, the formatting of the list is a bit wonky, and one of the two questions is simply: “Why do you want to be on the FDC”.
  • So far, Discussion of the FDC candidates has been somewhat limited.
  • The FDC Ombudsperson role has received even less attention: there are just two Candidates—MBisanz and Lusitana—so far answering just one Question(s), and no Discussion of the Ombudsperson candidates yet.
  • On May 27, The Signpost also published a less wide-ranging Interview with the Committee and Ombudsperson candidates.

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So there you have it. If you plan to voite, begin here. Voting closes June 22, and and results will be announced sometime between June 25 and June 28, 2013. Happy campaigning!

P.S. Lots of details above, so if I’ve missed anything, please leave a comment or email me!

Wiki: The Story of a Word

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on June 3, 2013 at 3:13 pm by William Beutler

Only very occasionally do I write about myself or business pursuits, and I won’t waste too much of your time here, but those of you who follow me in a non-The Wikipedian capacity may be aware that the small company I began a few years ago has become just a bit less small in recent months, and that we’ve rebranded as Beutler Ink. (You’ll notice that link goes to our Facebook page; our new website is still about a week away.)

Along with our new name comes expanded offerings in creative services and visual communication. Today we’ve launched a project for our own fun and your edification, which has a decidedly Wikimedia-friendly angle. It’s a vertical infographic about the evolution of the meaning and usage of the word “wiki” called Wiki: A Word’s Journey. Click on the title, or the preview graphic below and see the full thing—along with a blog post expanding on the topic at the Beutler Ink Tumblr:


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!