William Beutler on Wikipedia

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 1)

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
on December 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm by William Beutler

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

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

10. Losing Aaron Swartz

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

9. Wiki Trek Into Darkness

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

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

8. Wikipediocracy rising

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

7. The tragicomedy of Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

6. Where the money is

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

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

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

♦     ♦     ♦

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

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

Wikipedia on the Brink?

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , ,
on November 18, 2013 at 9:36 am by William Beutler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged as , , , , , , , ,
on October 23, 2013 at 4:13 pm by William Beutler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look Ma, I’m On Wikipedia Weekly!

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , ,
on September 25, 2013 at 10:57 am by William Beutler

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

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

Bloggingheads.tv: “Wikipedia’s Newbie Problem”

Tagged as , , ,
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

Tagged as , , , , , , ,
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

Tagged as , , , ,
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).

20130825-161518.jpg

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.

20130825-161536.jpg

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.

20130825-161546.jpg

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

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

visual-editor-notification

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:

alec-featured-visual-editing

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:

alec-featured-minor-edit

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:

alec-featured-vandalism

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

alec-old-school-editing

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

Tagged as , , , , , ,
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

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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.

Wikimedia_Elections_2013

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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.

♦     ♦     ♦

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

Tagged as , , , , ,
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:

Wiki-Journey-teaser

The Wikipedian Interviews: Esemono

Tagged as , , , , , , , , , , ,
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:

♦     ♦     ♦

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?

Tagged as , , , , , ,
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

Tagged as , , , , , , , ,
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

Tagged as , , ,
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

Tagged as , , , , , , ,
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

Tagged as , , , , ,
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)

Tagged as , , , ,
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

Tagged as , , , ,
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

Tagged as , , , , ,
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?

Tagged as , , , , , ,
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?

Tagged as ,
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?

Tagged as , , , , , , , ,
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?

WikiFoolery

Tagged as , , , ,
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

Tagged as , , ,
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.