William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Lih’

Wikipedia at 15: How it Played in the Media

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on January 15, 2016 at 7:40 pm

Happy 15th birthday, Wikipedia! As any wiki-watcher surely expected, today’s milestone brought an avalanche of news coverage not seen since, well, the last round number anniversary, when Wikipedia turned ten in 2011. But Wikipedia journalism is hard (take it from me, I know) and when outsider scribes momentarily turn their keyboards to Wikipedia and try to write something meaningful, the results can be decidedly mixed. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at what some major news outlets are saying about Wikipedia today: what they led with, what they weirdly obsessed over, and how they wrapped things up. Let’s go!

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ABC News, “Wikipedia Gets Another Source of Cash for 15th Birthday”, Michael Liedtke

Lede:[1]Journo-speak, natch

Sadly, Wikipedia failed to create 15 million articles by its 15th birthday.

Sadly, Wikipedia failed to create 15 million
articles by its 15th birthday.

Wikipedia is getting another source of cash for its 15th birthday, expanding beyond fundraising drives that have already poured $250 million into the Internet’s leading encyclopedia.


Wikipedia’s growth has spurred criticism that its parent foundation has become bloated and doesn’t need to raise so much money.


“We stay very mission-driven,” [Jimmy] Wales said. “One of the things that we are focused on is the idea of having an encyclopedia available for every person in the world in their own language. As you go in that direction, these (requests for money) are some of things you need to do to build that long-term dream.”

The Wikimedia Foundation’s (WMF) announcement earlier this week of its new endowment[2]as more or less predicted by yours truly just last month pays off here, giving journalists a solid hook for a story more substantial than “has it been 15 years already?” and less unpleasant than the troubled times at the WMF HQ in San Francisco. However, points subtracted, ABC News, for quoting Eric Barbour, arguably the least-insightful critic of Wikipedia on the Internet—and that’s really saying something.

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Washington Post, “Wikipedia just turned 15 years old. Will it survive 15 more?”, Andrew Lih


On Jan. 15, Wikipedia officially celebrates 15 years as the Internet’s “free encyclopedia,” cataloging humankind’s achievements in real time and, more importantly, rescuing desperate students facing school assignment deadlines. In that time, it has hastened the end of Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia and supplanted Britannica as the dominant reference work in English. While the digital landscape has changed drastically over the last decade, Wikipedia has not, and still delivers that rare site that strives for neutrality and accuracy, all with no commercial advertisements.


Unfortunately for Wikipedia, this global trend toward mobile could have a dramatic effect on the site’s volunteer contributions. Are people going to help edit text articles on mobile devices with tiny on-screen keyboards, or can the Wikimedia movement tap the potential of micro-contributions or use these multimedia-capable handsets for audio, video and photos from the crowd?


[T]echnology is not enough to keep the Wikimedia movement moving forward. Ultimately, Wikipedia was started by and still relies on the efforts of human volunteers. It will only thrive for another 15 years if that community can work cooperatively with the Wikimedia Foundation — and infighting doesn’t splinter the movement.

Good call by the Post to turn over its coverage to longtime editor and commentator Andrew Lih, the author of a 2009 book, The Wikipedia Revolution. Of all the pieces mentioned here, this is by far the most comprehensive, and does an admirable job balancing what’s great about Wikipedia as well as what ails it. Although it’s impossible to read everything written about Wikipedia published today, I feel safe saying if you can only read one column, this should be it.

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BBC News, “George W Bush tops Wikipedia 15th birthday list”, Zoe Kleinman


The English language version of the site, which anyone can edit, has more than five million entries and has been edited around 808 million times.


We're still talking about this guy?

We’re still talking about this guy?

A page about former US president George W Bush has attracted the most attention with 45,862 edits since its creation.


[Warwick Business School professor Aleksi Aaltonen:] “As Wikipedia has grown older, it has become progressively more difficult for contributors to improve content. At the same time, Wikipedia’s system of rules has become more burdensome. However, if Wikipedia can maintain its success, it will be remembered as a gift of an open internet that is now under attack from many directions.”

Yesterday, the WMF also published a blog post about the most-edited articles in Wikipedia’s history. So, you can see what’s going on here: many of the poor, beleagured hacks[3]See, I was once an actual working journalist, and I can tell you: it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re harried. tasked with writing something about Wikipedia just went to the nearest official source and piggybacked on whatever they were saying. So, nice work Wikimedia comms dept! That said, I could see the Independent or Guardian still being obsessed with George W. Bush all these years later, but et tu, BBC?

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TIME, “Wikipedia at 15: How the Concept of a Wiki Was Invented“, Lily Rothman


Wikipedia went live on Jan. 15, 2001, but the now-omnipresent online reference couldn’t have existed without work that began years earlier, around the the dawn of the World Wide Web.


Everybody loves Ward.

Everybody loves Ward.

Looking back, the extent of that sociological phenomenon is surprising even to [wiki-inventor Ward] Cunningham. “The Internet is a much more hostile place,” he says, acknowledging that the site he started in 1995 was a place for “computer people” to talk about computer programming, a context in which open collaboration wasn’t so scary. “They all felt like we were working together. Even so, I thought it was so open to abuse that if it only lasted six months it would still be a nice experiment.”


[H]ard work alone couldn’t have made Wikipedia what it is today. After all, without the collaborative feeling engendered by the wiki technology, it’d be hard to convince people to do that work. Cunningham sums up that allure thus: Before WikiWikiWeb, you might reach the end of a set of linked pages, and that was that. On a wiki, he says, “it says, ‘Now it’s your turn. You tell us.’ It’s an invitation. It says, ‘If you’ve gotten this far, we need your help building this.’”

Well done, Lily Rothman, for tracing Wikipedia’s history all the way back to Hypercard.[4]Ah, Hypercard, how I miss you. This super-fun and groundbreaking Apple-invented software could have been the World Wide Web, if only it was network-aware, but instead it was just great for building dumb games to amuse my friends while we should have been paying attention in class. Actually, the whole piece is really just an interview with Cunningham, but that’s more than all right. Everyone else was trying to write something “big picture” today, so, kudos to Rothman for picking up the phone and doing something a bit different.

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Scientific American, “Wikipedia Turns 15 [Q&A]”, Larry Greenemeier


It must be difficult for the roughly half a billion people who visit Wikipedia every month to remember a world without the free online encyclopedia. Since co-founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia on January 15, 2001, the site has grown into a behemoth of information with about 35 million articles and 30 million images available in nearly 300 different languages. The English-language Wikipedia site alone features more than five million articles.


[Scientific American:] Are you aiming to have a specific ratio of male to female editors for the site?


[Lila Tretikov, in response:] We did research on this in 2013 and a study by researchers Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw estimated that 23 percent of U.S. editors are women and 16 percent of global editors are women. We also try to target special programs on women, for example an education program in Arabic that is 80 percent women. Wikipedia is so diverse, which is why it’s hard to put just one number on it.

Everyone around Wikipedia loves Ward Cunningham, who made everything we do possible, and today is kind of an aloof, avuncular figure far-removed from the controversies constantly swirling around Wikipedia. The same is assuredly not the case with WMF executive director Lila Tretikov, who is deeply unpopular in the non-profit’s headquarters (and a mystery to the thousands of editors who never think twice about what happens in San Francisco). The most interesting part of this interview was the oddly-phrased question about Wikipedia’s difficult gender imbalance, and Tretikov’s accurate but evasive reply that closes the Q&A is barely worthy of a shrug.

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The Economist, “Wikipedia celebrates its first 15 years”, “A.E.S.”


These people didn't mean to launch Wikipedia.

These people didn’t mean to launch Wikipedia.

Fifteen years ago today, on January 15th, 2001, Wikipedia was founded by two internet pioneers, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, although neither had any idea how ambitious their online encyclopedia would become. Today Wikipedia is the tenth most popular website in the world, with versions available in some 280 languages containing around 35m articles. Like the ancient library of Alexandria and Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia published during the Enlightenment, Wikipedia is an ever-evolving manifestation of its creators’ desire to preserve and compile knowledge.


Wikipedia was early to anticipate three important digital trends. First, people are willing to participate in global forums for nothing. Wikipedia, which is written and edited by volunteers, was an early social network. Second, Wikipedia saw that the knowledge economy was heading online. In 2012 the “Encyclopedia Britannica” stopped printing and is now only available in digital form. Third, Wikipedia showed the importance of network effects to online ventures: the more people use Wikipedia and write entries, the more helpful it has become. Younger digital firms, like Facebook and Uber, are premised on this same concept.


Wikipedia has other challenges with which to reckon. … However, there is plenty of time. Wikipedia has built up a trove of information and become an invaluable resource to anyone with an internet connection. That is more than any teenager could hope for.

I love The Economist, but you don’t read it for the hot takes—nor the pithy quotes. It’s certainly not a perfect overview, and not even a great one, but if you didn’t have time to read Lih’s in-depth analysis, this wouldn’t do you too badly.[5]Which is pretty much The Economist‘s M.O., now that I think about it.

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The Guardian, “Wikipedia launching $100m fund to secure long-term future as site turns 15”, Stuart Dredge


As Wikipedia turns 15, its operator The Wikimedia Foundation is hoping to secure its long-term future with a new endowment fund that aims to raise $100m over the next 10 years.


A Google search for “death of Wikipedia” yields more than 72k results, with articles from 2006 onwards predicting that the online encyclopedia was on its way out for various reasons.


“We have a great fundraising model right now, but things on the Internet change so it’s not something we can count on forever,” said The Wikimedia Foundation’s chief advancement officer Lisa Gruwell.

A perfectly serviceable entry in the “big picture” genre, and another win for the timely endowment announcement.

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Wired, “At 15, Wikipedia Is Finally Finding Its Way to the Truth”, Cade Metz


Today, Wikipedia celebrates its fifteenth birthday. In Internet years, that’s pretty old. But “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is different from services like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Though Wikipedia has long been one of Internet’s most popular sites—a force that decimated institutions like the Encyclopedia Britannica—it’s only just reaching maturity.


As seen on many, many, many news stories about Wikipedia.

As seen on many, many, many news stories about Wikipedia.

If editors were required to provide real names, many would leave the site. And the decline would begin again. Wikipedia is dominated by people who embraced the Internet early, and that kind of person still holds tight to the idea of online anonymity.


Of course, the non-profit setup comes with its own advantages. Wikipedia doesn’t have ads. It doesn’t collect data about our online habits. It gives the power to the people—at least in theory. The result is a source of information that could never be duplicated by a Britannica or a World Book. “There are very few websites that make the world a better place,” [Overstock.com employee and “longtime critic” Judd] Bagley says. “And I’ve come to believe that the world is better off for Wikipedia.”

Wow, does anyone remember the Overstock.com controversy from 2007–8? Cade Metz—who used to cover Wikipedia for the always-antagonistic UK Register[6]aka El Reg—clearly does. Now writing at Wired, Metz is not above repeatedly linking to his old stories at that website, and I guess Wired is cool with that. To be fair, it’s perfectly fine that some of these overviews are hostile, and this one certainly is. And however much Metz has his thumb on the scale, he’s at least done his homework.

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Wired UK, “How Has Wikipedia Changed In The Last Fifteen Years?”, Emily Reynolds


It’s hard to imagine a world before Wikipedia. Saviour of student deadlines everywhere and settler of endless pub arguments, Wikipedia is now a ubiquitous part of the online world. But it’s not been an entirely easy ride — beset by vandalism, Wikipedia has also had to ban users for secretly promoting brands and has been accused of being skewed by “rich, Western voices”.


The most striking difference between early and late Wikipedia pages is in tone. Like a traditional encyclopaedia, Wikipedia strives to be neutral in tone and requires articles to be rigorously and extensively referenced. Early pages, often, do not reflect that mission.


This is NOT the most embarrassing photo of Jimbo I could have selected.

This is NOT the most embarrassing
photo of Jimbo I could have selected.

“Spot the Dog showcases Hemingway’s hallmark minimalism: ‘Where’s Spot? Is he under the stars? Is he in the box? No. He’s at the bar. Sipping whiskey. Sucking on cigarettes. Suffering’.” the page stated. Like the iPhone, though, the page has now been reverted to its (less existential) reality.

Wired‘s UK edition opted for a quick look at how certain prominent entries have changed over time, which is a neat idea. OK, that’s all I have to say here.

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Fortune, “Wikipedia Turns 15. Will It Manage to Make It to 30?”, Matthew Ingram


After 15 years, Wikipedia has become one of those Internet services that is so central to the online world that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it. Would we go to the library to read physical books? Turn to a printed encyclopedia? Or just trust the information we find through a random web search?


Those who have seen inside the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent entity that theoretically manages Wikipedia (to the extent that a massively crowdsourced phenomenon can be managed) say there is a lack of strong leadership. This threatens the organization’s ability to spend money wisely or come up with a coherent long-term vision, they say.


Will Wikipedia be able to survive the turmoil in its management ranks, and broaden its appeal and inclusiveness, while at the same time raising enough money to keep it operating for at least the next decade? The answer to those questions is unknowable. But it is definitely a site worth rooting for, in all of its troubled glory.

Fortune’s piece is another rather critical one, less detailed than that of Lih’s or Metz’s, but more open-minded than the latter. It also wins points for quoting from my post about recent WMF turmoil, not that it influenced my decision to include it or anything.

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Mental Floss, “15 Things That Share Wikipedia’s Birthday”, James Hunt


Part Encyclopedia Britannica, Part Hitchhiker’s Guide, Wikipedia has proven itself an invaluable (and often entertaining) research tool since its creation 15 years ago today. It’s almost hard to imagine what life was like before it became the go-to source for articles on everything from A (the letter of the alphabet) to Zəfəran (the village in Azerbaijan).


Our man Sully.

Our man Sully.

January 15th 1967: The first ever Super Bowl is played in Los Angeles, with the Green Bay Packers defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. It remains the only Super Bowl that was broadcast simultaneously by two television networks: NBC and CBS.


January 15th 2009: US Airways Flight 1549 makes an emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River, shortly after taking off from the nearby LaGuardia Airport. All passengers and crew survive.

Hey, as of this writing, a Chiefs–Packers Super Bowl is possible again this year! (Unlikely, though.) And Sully is the best, amirite?

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Fusion, “The website that helped you write every paper since 2001 turns 15!”, Sloane Steel


Wikipedia, also known as Wiki, (wɪkɨˈpiːdiə / b. 2001), is a free access, free content encyclopedia. On January 14, 2015, Wikipedia celebrated its 15th anniversary (1).


[1] “Fusion Celebrates Wiki Anniversary” (Fusion.net, January 2015)

OK, this isn’t a real overview (it’s a quote graphic[7]Click through the headline to see it; I didn’t feel right hotlinking it and depriving Fusion of what little traffic it has. with clever copy), but that’s cool by me. After all, on the advent of Wikipeda’s 10th anniversary I wrote and executive-produced the following video, narrated by Jimmy Wales, which I think holds up well. In fact, is there anything in it that isn’t essentially true today?

Yeah, as Aaliyah said long before Wikipedia was a gleam in Jimmy Wales’ (or Larry Sanger’s!) eye: age ain’t nothing but a number.

All images c/o Wikimedia Commons. In order, copyrights belong to: Andrew Lih; N/A, work of U.S. government; Carrigg Photography; Edward O’Connor; Wikimedia Foundation; Zzyzx11; Ingrid Taylar.

Thanks to Emily Gaudette for research assistance.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Journo-speak, natch
2. as more or less predicted by yours truly just last month
3. See, I was once an actual working journalist, and I can tell you: it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re harried.
4. Ah, Hypercard, how I miss you. This super-fun and groundbreaking Apple-invented software could have been the World Wide Web, if only it was network-aware, but instead it was just great for building dumb games to amuse my friends while we should have been paying attention in class.
5. Which is pretty much The Economist‘s M.O., now that I think about it.
6. aka El Reg
7. Click through the headline to see it; I didn’t feel right hotlinking it and depriving Fusion of what little traffic it has.

Wikimania 2015 in Words, Images, and Tweets

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on July 29, 2015 at 11:00 am

How could I possibly summarize Wikimania—the annual conference for Wikipedians, Wikimedians, wiki-enthusiasts, and open knowledge advocates—in a single blog post? I’ve done a few times before, or at least I’ve written something about attending since I began in 2012.[1]My first Wikimania was 2012 in DC, and I filed a detailed itinerary of panels I wanted to (and mostly did) attend. I wrote a single short post about 2013 in Hong Kong, mostly because I played tourist that weekend instead of focusing on the conference. And last year in London was my first Wikimania as a speaker, which became the focus of my recap post. Arguably, the best roundup post of a wiki conference I’ve assembled was not for a Wikimania but the annual event for US-based editors, WikiConference USA, last year. That one I structured around tweets and Instagram posts from the weekend. This one will be, too. In the interests of keeping this manageable, however, I’m going to build this around tweets from just the opening event (OK, and maybe a little before and after). Let’s see if we can use it as a window to discuss what worked—and what didn’t—at Wikimania 2015.

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The latest Wikimania conference was held July 17–19 in Mexico City. Each year a different host city is chosen, spreading the travel burden around the project’s global contributors. Mexico City is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere (and in North America) but it’s a little far from the probable center of gravity of wiki activities (northern Europe). Given Mexico’s troubled reputation, the escape of notorious tunnel-favoring drug lord “El Chapo” barely a week before the conference hardly mattered. By then it was clear that turnout would land somewhere between Hong Kong 2013 (fairly small) and London 2014 (the record, I believe).

Absolutely the least-smoggy view of Mexico City from the 45th floor of the WTC on Insurgentes, looking over Zona Rosa.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on

The specific facilities originally named to hold the event was the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a visually striking library with hanging walkways and a dinosaur skeleton, but apparently scarce meeting space. It was moved a few blocks away to the Hilton on Alameda Central, which was modern and purpose-built for conferences, and probably for the best. However, students of literature might recognize this as a kind of foreshadowing…

Plenty had already occurred before I arrived, as it always does. Every Wikimania is precededed by two “hackathon” days, which I’ve never attended. Meanwhile, Wikimania volunteers—young people from the area, this time wearing yellow T-shirts with lucha libre masks—had already put everything in place:

I think it’s also custom for Jimmy Wales to make the rounds of local media, in whatever city or country is hosting, in the days before a Wikimania event. Here he is on CNN en Español:

Myself, I got in late Thursday, time enough to meet up with friends for pizza and a few beers at a restaurant across the park from the Hilton:

At Cancino Alameda on Alameda Central, the night before #Wikimania2015.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on

On the Friday morning itself, Wikimania began as it always does: with a keynote speech (for some reason Wikimania prefers “plenary”) by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) executive director. This year was the second for Lila Tretikov, the current ED and the third major leader of Wikipedia[2]Omitting Larry Sanger, who left a million years ago, but yes, counting Jimmy Wales, who was never ED, and Sue Gardner, who held the post for years..

Wikimania opening keynote by WMF exec director Lila Tretikov in Mexico City. #Wikimania2015

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on

This is the 11th annual Wikimania, and for at least the last few this one, Liam Wyatt and a few others made bingo cards celebrating (and gently ribbing) the event’s clichés:

In a prescient early tweet, Wikimedia stats guru Erik Zachte asked if there was video available of the proceedings. As it would emerge later: not only was there no live stream, but there would be no official recordings at all. What happened is not clear. Rumor had it that plans had initially been made, apparently lost amid a staffing change, and that was about all anyone knew for sure.[3]About staffing changes: the Wikimedia Foundation has seen quite a few of them in the year since Tretikov took charge. This is of course to be expected: when there’s a change at the top, the incoming leadership wants to put their own team in place. However, more than twelve months since she took over, people are still leaving.

As already covered by the Wikipedia Signpost, numerous community members were unhappy about this (particularly the Europeans who didn’t make the trip). The only upside really was that Andrew Lih, longtime Wikipedian and an advocate for video on Wikipedia, brought his camera and tripod to as many sessions as possible. Along with a few others, these are beginning to appear on a video page on the Wikimania site.

There is no small amount of irony here: it’s the Wikimedia Foundation’s job to provide support to the volunteer community. That is why it exists. Wikimania is obviously one of these things it has created to serve the community. Video recording for Wikipedians who cannot attend logically follows, and so it has been done before (albeit imperfectly). Instead, members of the community voluntarily filled in the gaps as best they could. Of course, the quality—especially sound quality—isn’t what it could have been. For most people, these videos will be of very limited use. Even for dedicated Wikipedians, it will be a chore.[4]Another snafu I don’t have anywhere else to explain: the Saturday night group event was a bus trip to the out-of-this-world Museo Soumaya (see photo near the end) for a party. However, upon arrival in the pouring rain, the only entrance was the one pictured, and the building’s unusual structure created a waterfall effect a few feet from the entrance, where many Wikimedians were tragically soaked. Once inside, it didn’t get much better: there was no indication of what we were supposed to do. Worse, there was no food. Worse still, no alcohol. A small group of friends and I—plus some very nice folks I’d just met from wikiHow—wandered over to the mall next door and found a decent-classy Mexican restaurant on the top level. We returned to the museum to find a VERY LOUD Beatles cover band, no more food, and there never was any alcohol. So we hopped an Uber back to the hotel, whereupon finding the hotel bar, we were greeted with cheers, like lost soldiers returning from the war. What we didn’t know was that our cheering section had themselves taken an early bus back from the party, which then broke down, in the rain. (Later, this message was posted to the Wikimania-l email list.)

But anyway, the presentation itself: always, always, Wikimania must begin by revisiting the core mission. It’s a bit ritualistic, and maybe even a little trite, but for a significant number of attendees, it’s exciting. After another year of putting up with all kinds of bullshit, it reconfirms why you got involved in the first place:

Here’s an early panel from Lila Tretikov’s talk, showing some of the top-line issues for the Wikimedia movement, as seen from 2015. You could probably knock a few items off your Wikimania bingo card with this:

Also bracing: real acknowledgment of problems faced by Wikipedia and the larger Wikimedia movement.[5]I said I was going to focus entirely on the opening keynote, but here (again) I am going to fail, because it’s important to note that in the closing keynote—sorry, plenary—Jimmy Wales came the closest to acknowledging the Kazakhstan controversy, along with other problems Wikipedia has experienced trying to create partnerships in the Caucuses, where authoritarian governments often control all of the language’s media. (See here for the tweet I can’t embed in this footnote.) He also devoted a bit of his speech to explaining what he is doing with all that troublesome prize money from yet another repressive regime. He certainly avoided putting it in that particular context, but instead talked up the promise of his new Jimmy Wales Foundation, focused on defending “freedom of expression”. I would link to the website, but it doesn’t seem to have one. Far from the self-satisfied Wikimania 2013 in Hong Kong, there was plenty of discussion about what challenges the movement—some in Lila’s talk, and much more in the days afterward. This one line, I think, serves as a fair justification for those who worry about even small issues:

Not that everything was addressed quite so plainly. At one point, Tretikov listed high voter turnout in the recent Board elections among the reasons for Wikipedia’s health. What she did not say, but regular Wikipedians in attendance recognized immediately, is that turnout for the election was almost certainly driven by community uproar over a recent series of events where WMF had forced through a controversial software update over the objections of the community.[6]This is too deep a rabbit hole to follow for now but, as usual, Signpost covered it well. It was a “throw the bums out” election, and a few longtime board members were indeed thrown out, even though they were not directly (or, so far as we know, indirectly) responsible for the change.

But all the WMF software initiatives have not been so controversial. One that’s had a good deal of success in the six months since it’s been rolled out is the Content Translation tool, and the early results are promising:

One more thing I noticed, toward the end of Lila Tretikov’s presentation:

But after the year Wikipedia just had—speaking of the bullshit[7]Not just the “superprotect” debate and subsequent Board election, but also the GamerGate controversy and recent decision in the so-called Lightbreather case.—not everyone was buying it:

Anyway, that’s not remotely an adequate summary, but it will have to do. Here’s one of the better photos of Lila addressing Wikimania:

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A few random thoughts, some of which I may expand upon in the near future:

  • Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw delivered an interesting presentation on a recent experiment to block IP editing on Wikia, the for-profit, pop culture-focused collection of wiki sites owned by Jimmy Wales. The question: would it curb vandalism and disruptive edits? The result, if my notes are accurate: yes, it certainly did. In fact, all edits went down. In my initial tweeting, I focused on the decline in vandalism. Speaking with Hill later, he focused more on the latter. A bit of a Rorschach test, perhaps. It’s not online yet, but I hope to study closely once it is.
  • Word has it that the loved-and-hated volunteer-run Wikipedia Article Traffic Statistics tool (available at stats.grok.se) will finally be replaced by a similar service from the Wikimedia Foundation, and it could happen as soon as the fall. However, it’s unlikely to include any past traffic. Also, a major upgrade to Wikimedia Statistics has been greenlit, but that will be much further away.
  • WikiProjects suck, but WikiProject X aims to make them better. If nothing else, it shows how WMF has been making good use of flat design techniques and more whitespace in recent years. (Update: as noted in the comments, design credit for WikiProject X belongs to the grantees, James Hare and Isarra.)
  • The Visual Editor is really good now, you guys! I’d given it a premature thumbs up when it first arrived, then all of the bad things happened, and meanwhile WMF has continued to develop it. And it’s really good. I mean it this time! Well, I missed James Forrester’s presentation Beyond VisualEditor, about design changes on Wikipedia, but his slides still get some of it across.
  • I haven’t even mentioned my own session! Like last year, it was about conflict-of-interest issues, co-organized with the above-mentioned Lih. Alas, we started late because the previous discussion group ran over, and then the volunteers told us our time was up 15 minutes early (we think). If I submit another Wikimania session next year, it won’t be a discussion.
  • Wikidata has arrived. Among the site’s grizzled veterans, many of whom burned out on creating new articles years ago, Wikidata is the new uncharted territory—in some ways, it’s what I suggested in my previous post about the Apple Watch—where topics and categories have yet to be fully defined, and much satisfying work remains to be done. I wrote about Wikidata in 2012, just ahead of its launch, when I didn’t really have any idea what it was or what it was good for. Well, this weekend I finally made my first edits, and I think it’s starting to come together:

    Yes, Wikidata is the new “cool” thing (relatively speaking, of course, this is still Wikipedia we’re talking about) and here is proof:

    In case you don’t get it, Q7565 is the entity ID for “father” on Wikidata. See what they did there?

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OK, that’s it for Wikimania commentary. Let’s close out with a bit of sightseeing.

Here is maybe the most amazing building I’ve ever visited in my life, the Museo Soumaya, supported by Carlos “the Mexican Warren Buffet” Slim, named for his late wife:

Evening #Wikimania at amazing museum. Also amazingly poor organization. We went to the mall next door to find a restaurant.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on

At one point, I wandered into a peaceful (and apparently permit-holding) protest at Hemiciclo a Juarez on Alameda Central, and when I emerged from the crowd I was confronted with the intimidating scene below. The only way out was through, and technically not through but right up to the line and then a left through the park. Police officers with riot shields is just everyday Mexico City, and the officers themselves seemed more interested in whatever conversations they were carrying on than the stray gringo taking photos of them.

Uh oh. Think I'm on the wrong side of this police line.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on

And here is a shot of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, which I visited on a Wikimedian bus trip the day after the conference. I climbed all the way to the top of this sucker, and I still have the shin bruises to prove it.

Pyramid of the Sun, not the only Aztec skyscraper I climbed today. #latergram and more to come.

A photo posted by William Beutler (@williambeutler) on

Notes   [ + ]

1. My first Wikimania was 2012 in DC, and I filed a detailed itinerary of panels I wanted to (and mostly did) attend. I wrote a single short post about 2013 in Hong Kong, mostly because I played tourist that weekend instead of focusing on the conference. And last year in London was my first Wikimania as a speaker, which became the focus of my recap post.
2. Omitting Larry Sanger, who left a million years ago, but yes, counting Jimmy Wales, who was never ED, and Sue Gardner, who held the post for years.
3. About staffing changes: the Wikimedia Foundation has seen quite a few of them in the year since Tretikov took charge. This is of course to be expected: when there’s a change at the top, the incoming leadership wants to put their own team in place. However, more than twelve months since she took over, people are still leaving.
4. Another snafu I don’t have anywhere else to explain: the Saturday night group event was a bus trip to the out-of-this-world Museo Soumaya (see photo near the end) for a party. However, upon arrival in the pouring rain, the only entrance was the one pictured, and the building’s unusual structure created a waterfall effect a few feet from the entrance, where many Wikimedians were tragically soaked. Once inside, it didn’t get much better: there was no indication of what we were supposed to do. Worse, there was no food. Worse still, no alcohol. A small group of friends and I—plus some very nice folks I’d just met from wikiHow—wandered over to the mall next door and found a decent-classy Mexican restaurant on the top level. We returned to the museum to find a VERY LOUD Beatles cover band, no more food, and there never was any alcohol. So we hopped an Uber back to the hotel, whereupon finding the hotel bar, we were greeted with cheers, like lost soldiers returning from the war. What we didn’t know was that our cheering section had themselves taken an early bus back from the party, which then broke down, in the rain. (Later, this message was posted to the Wikimania-l email list.)
5. I said I was going to focus entirely on the opening keynote, but here (again) I am going to fail, because it’s important to note that in the closing keynote—sorry, plenary—Jimmy Wales came the closest to acknowledging the Kazakhstan controversy, along with other problems Wikipedia has experienced trying to create partnerships in the Caucuses, where authoritarian governments often control all of the language’s media. (See here for the tweet I can’t embed in this footnote.) He also devoted a bit of his speech to explaining what he is doing with all that troublesome prize money from yet another repressive regime. He certainly avoided putting it in that particular context, but instead talked up the promise of his new Jimmy Wales Foundation, focused on defending “freedom of expression”. I would link to the website, but it doesn’t seem to have one.
6. This is too deep a rabbit hole to follow for now but, as usual, Signpost covered it well.
7. Not just the “superprotect” debate and subsequent Board election, but also the GamerGate controversy and recent decision in the so-called Lightbreather case.

Making the Sausage: Dariusz Jemielniak on How to Think About Edit Wars

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on October 10, 2014 at 9:53 am

Only a handful of serious books about Wikipedia exist; one of the first, and arguably the only essential one, is Andrew Lih’s “The Wikipedia Revolution”—though it was published in 2009 and could surely use an update. Another one I liked is Andrew Dalby’s “The World and Wikipedia”, published the same year. To this short list, and far more current, let’s add Dariusz Jemielniak’s “Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia” published in May of this year.

Like the above authors, Jemielniak is well-positioned to write on this subject, being an academic and a longtime Wikipedia contributor (especially to the Polish language edition). I have to acknowledge that work and travel has conspired to keep me from reviewing this book for some months after Mr. Jemielniak’s publicist kindly sent me a copy for review, and that I am writing this post without having read it cover to cover. (But really, does anyone? How did Michiko Kakutani review Bill Clinton’s 1,000-page memoir in 24 hours? The same way I’m doing with this one!)

"Common Knowledge" by Dariusz JemielniakThat said, I chose one chapter that seemed especially interesting and relevant to me, chapter three’s “Conflict on Wikipedia: Why Die for Danzig?” Wikipedia veterans will instantly recognize this is going to be, in part, a retelling of the infamous Gdansk–Danzig edit war, considered the longest content dispute in Wikipedia’s history. It’s territory that Lih covered as well in his book, although he dispenses with most of the details in a handful of pages—Jemielniak gives it nearly 20.

It’s debatable how many readers want that, but I think I speak for many longtime Wikipedians in saying that it’s a story worth telling in a bit more depth. Here it is well told, and used to illustrate how Wikipedia resolves issues that lie beyond the letter of policy: painfully, in isolation from other topics, often at great length, and not always definitively.

To me it’s especially relevant, having recently written about the (as yet ongoing) fight over whether it should be noted on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Wikipedia article that he used anecdotes that proved to be, at best, misinterpreted. Or in a case that I only tweeted about, where I personally got involved in a debate over the alleged non-neutrality of the barely stub-length Apple Watch article. In either case, it can be a frustrating experience, to play a part in this process. This may all be part of the process, and eventually Wikipedia will get it right, but I can attest it is also absolutely no fun to be one of the gear-cogs grinding out the sausage.

Jemielniak doesn’t avoid the emotional side of this process entirely: the Prologue is about a wrenching debate he held with other editors, one which turned personal, and in which Jemielniak found himself writing more passionately and carelessly than even he would have liked. This is not a rare occurrence on Wikipedia.

In this chapter he eschews any personal view of the issues, taking the disinterested, academic view that one might expect, and creates a table called “Typology of conflict trajectories” that reads like a kind of a mirror-image Prisoner’s dilemma, accounting for whether disputants are confrontational or not, and whether or not they have an equal commitment to the rules. It’s a useful way to think about how these disagreements reach conclusion (or don’t) even if it’s difficult to see theory in practice. (Not his fault: you try parsing 50,000 words of argument over a single topic.)

If this reads as a criticism, it shouldn’t really. I would rather more Wikipedians took an observational, Sherlock-pipe-thoughtfully-in-hand approach to the “dirty work” (as one combatant recently described the process to me) of writing and debating Wikipedia content. Of course, as Jemielniak allows, even he found that very difficult. So long as humans are the principal actor in debates over Wikipedia, the emotional factor is going to play a significant role.

Jemielniak’s view, if I am not misrepresenting it, is that these processes generally work over time. My own view has grown somewhat more skeptical, and I find suitable outcomes to be increasingly topic-dependent—although I acknowledge that this is based on highly personal, anecdotal evidence. Because seriously, I am going to rewrite that Apple Watch “Reception” section just as soon as I find a free moment.

Briefly, the rest of the book focuses on Wikipedia (and Wikimedia) governance in theory and practice, some of which I’ve done a Kakutani “skip and skim” and seemed on point, on this pointillist basis. To the casual reader, I would probably still recommend Andrew Lih’s book, simply for being a more accessible entry point, albeit with a huge caveat that it is best read as history, not a current depiction of the Wikipedia community.

For those seriously interested in how Wikipedia works (or maybe doesn’t) and for anyone who wants an up-to-date view of the community, however, I’d certainly recommend it. In fact, I’ll recommend that I keep it on my own end table, and browse further when work and travel are next paused.

Wikimania 2014: We Needed to Talk About Paid Editing, So We Did

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on August 12, 2014 at 9:23 am

This past weekend I attended Wikimania, the annual worldwide conference for Wikipedia and related wiki-sites, this time held in London and the third I’ve attended. And for the first time, this year, I was a speaker. The presentation was called “We Need to Talk About Paid Editing: Sorting Out Wikipedia’s Most Enduring Argument” and its subject matter is fairly self-evident: Wikipedia has struggled for years with the fact that its volunteer-first community attracts outside interests seeking (or offering) monetary recompense for changes to articles.

On the English Wikipedia, the operating consensus is that paid contributors should refrain from editing directly, and instead seek help from volunteers. The most important factor in this is the opinion of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and unofficial community leader—an unwritten rule often referred to as the “Bright Line”. Interestingly enough, this is not the case on other language editions: the French, German, and Swedish Wikipedias tend to be much more accommodating of companies and organizations that seek to change (sometimes even directly edit) the Wikipedia article about themselves.

The goal of myself and my co-presenters was to put all of this together for the first time in a public meeting of Wikipedians, to hold an open discussion about what it means, and to consider whether it is possible to agree on a unifying standard. And the result? Well, it was a very successful presentation, with a packed room (even though we were in the last block of time on the last day) and a lively conversation that could have gone much longer than the 90 minutes allotted. Below, our slides, and an explanation of what we discussed:

I had two co-presenters for the panel, and two guest presenters joined us as well. My main collaborators were longtime English Wikipedia contributor / chronicler Andrew Lih (User:Fuzheado), and French Wikipedia contributor / marketing executive Christophe Henner (Utilisateur:Schiste). The two others were former Wikimedia Italia VP Cristian Consonni (Utente:CristianCantoro), and Telecom Italia executive Federico Ascari.

The deck above is short on explanatory text—it was meant to support our speaking on the subject, of course—but it went a little something like this:

  • Slides 1–12 — Leading the way, Andrew delivered a whirlwind history of “paid editing” and other “conflict of interest” edits on Wikipedia, including several of the better known controversies. Most interesting, Andrew created a four quadrant chart showing how paid (and unpaid) editing differs based on whether it is perceived as “conflicted” or “unconflicted”.
  • Slides 13–23 — Here’s where I told a bit of my own story as a consultant on Wikipedia projects for clients, explained how we fit into the so-called Bright Line (short version: I follow it, but it doesn’t work as well as it should), and the Donovan House meeting of Wikipedians and PR thought leaders I convened in February, plus the multi-agency statement which came out of it. As of August 2014, following my lead, 35 companies including the very largest global firms, have pledged to follow Wikipedia’s rules and encourage clients and colleagues to do the same.
  • Slides 24-27 — Christophe described his past work with French telecom Orange to improve its Wikipedia presence, a debate among Wikipedians about whether this was handled correctly, and frustrations by his former client, Yamaha, which was less successful working with Wikipedia but instead created its own wiki.
  • Slides 28–34 — Cristian and Federico took turns explaining the project they undertook. In short, Telecom Italia partnered with a university class, recruiting 6 students completing their undergraduate work, to research and write improved versions of several articles about the company, with input from Cristian and the Italian chapter of Wikimedia.
  • Slides 35–40 — I previewed the next step in the process started with the Donovan House group: an ebook called “Wikipedia and the Communications Professional”, to be released in September 2014. After this, I moderated a free-flowing discussion of these issues among attendees.

And a very interesting discussion it was. I probably shouldn’t try to summarize the discussion, in part because I’ll forget things, in part because I wouldn’t want to characterize a discussion that is still evolving, and in part because this post is already plenty long enough. There will be much more to say in just a few weeks’ time.

Look Ma, I’m On Wikipedia Weekly!

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on September 25, 2013 at 10:57 am

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

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

Bloggingheads.tv: “Wikipedia’s Newbie Problem”

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on September 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm

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:

The Agony and Ecstasy of Wikidata

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on April 12, 2012 at 8:31 am

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

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

Possible Wikidata logo

One of a few Wikidata logos under consideration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for research assistance to Morgan Wehling.

The State of The State of Wikipedia

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on January 25, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Chances are good that if you follow Wikipedia closely, then you have probably seen the following video:

The State of Wikipedia from JESS3 on Vimeo.

Last week, it was featured on both TechCrunch and Mashable and, on YouTube alone, it’s climbing toward 100,000 views as of this writing. And you might have missed the following infographic that went along with it, although I hope you didn’t:

Right-click to view at full size in another tab.

Meanwhile, if you happened to see Jay Walsh’s post on the Wikimedia blog last week—or you watched carefully through to the very end—you may have noticed that among those involved was yours truly.

The story of this video’s development began early in 2010 with the launching of the “State of” video series by my friends at the DC-based creative agency JESS3. The first in the series was “The State of the Internet“; more recently, they produced “The State of Cloud Computing” in association with Salesforce.com.

Seeking new topics, JESS3 invited me to develop a story concept for the video you see above. I talked with some influential wiki-thinkers, some of whose names appear in “Special Thanks” at the video’s end, to write a script for the eventual narrator. Not unlike Dan Aykroyd’s first draft of “The Blues Brothers”—and like it in only this regard—it was much longer than what you see above. Left out were asides on the cause (and effects) of the Spanish Fork, the German-language Wikipedia’s different way of doing things, the development of chapters, the invention of bots, the most-visited Wikipedia articles, the most-visited-in-a-single day Wikipedia article, and more.

In the end, it was a good thing they asked me to scale it back, especially once Jimmy Wales agreed to provide the voice as narrator. And the shorter version perhaps better accomplishes the goal of giving viewers a bit of an answer to the questions of where Wikipedia came from, and why it works the way it does. At the very least, I hope it sparks a deeper curiosity among viewers and, perhaps, sufficient interest to get involved themselves.

Who knows if it will have that effect, but it was a great experience to be part of. The effort put into this by the JESS3 team—on art direction, animation and sound—was tremendous, and took it far beyond any concept I had of what it could become. And maybe we’ll do it again in ten years.

The Wikipedian Becomes Eclectic: Pending Changes on KCRW

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on June 21, 2010 at 7:54 am

On Friday afternoon, I joined a panel of guests on the nationally-syndicated KCRW talk show To the Point with Warren Olney. My co-panelists included: Andrew Lih, who may be familiar to readers of this blog either as a Wikipedia editor or as author of The Wikipedia Revolution; Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin, who has written about Wikipedia’s apparent decline in active editors; and Lee Siegel, invited as a critic of Wikipedia and its processes. (Listen to the whole episode here.)

The ostensible topic was the new experiment with Pending changes, described by The Telegraph here, although these paragraphs appeared in opposite order there:

“[V]andalism” has been a particular problem for the online encyclopedia in recent years. The pages of some prominent figures, including Senator Edward Kennedy, were maliciously and falsely edited to claim that the subject of the Wikipedia page had died, when in fact they were alive and well. Many Wikipedia pages dealing with controversial topics have also been repeatedly edited by users with a vested interest in promoting a particular view about the incident or event.

The new system, known as pending changes, means that users will be able to submit changes for previously locked or protected articles. These suggested amendments will then be reviewed by senior editors before the changes go live.

It’s important to note that the new system only applies to about 2,000 articles during this trial run, and does not apply to anyone who has had an active account for more than a few days (a fairly low barrier to “autoconfirmed” status, if you ask me). I wrote about this last summer, when it was first announced and still called “flagged revisions” and at that time I thought the reaction was

roughly divisible into four quadrants: those who mourn Wikipedia’s openness vs. those who will continue to question Wikipedia’s reliability, with those who are optimistic about the change vs. those who are not.

That is probably still operative, but with the program just rolling out in the past few days, there is a related yet more specific dynamic — a disagreement not about what will happen but what has already: do Pending changes make Wikipedia more open or more closed? An unscientific survey of recent headlines at least tells us which opinion is more pervasive:

  • ReadWriteWeb: “Wikipedia to Loosen Controls Tonight”
  • Slashdot: “Wikipedia To Unlock Frequently Vandalized Pages”
  • Resource Shelf: “New “Pending Changes” System Test Begins on Wikipedia, Will Make It Easier for Users to Edit/Change Controversial Entries”
  • Motherboard.tv: “‘Pending Changes': A Looser Wikipedia”
  • ComputerWorld: “Wikipedia confronts downside of ‘Net openness”
  • BBC: “Wikipedia unlocks divisive pages for editing”

In this summary, at least, only ComputerWorld comes at it from the “more closed” standpoint. (Did you notice that a good amount of the coverage so far has been from the British press? Yeah, so did I.) In a blog post summarizing the radio segment, Lih gave his view:

[M]y view is that the characterization of “pending changes” is relative. Julia Angwin, who I think is a great tech journalist, is of the opinion it represents an overall more closing-off of Wikipedia, and the move is an affirmation of a more conventional process that created traditional encyclopedias. On the other hand, folks like Jimmy Wales have regarded this as opening up — instead of having articles locked completely using full-protection, or to limit editing to existing registered and “aged” users by semi-protection, pending changes gives a way for anyone and everyone to participate, even if those edits are not completely viewable until later. Relative to full protection, it’s more open. Relative to the Wild West wiki way, it’s more closed.

Meanwhile on Wikipedia, a small group of dedicated programmers has been working to make it possible, the discussion has quieted down over the past few days. Wikipedia, it seems, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

As for the show itself, Lih and Angwin handled most of this material, while I was enlisted to do battle with Siegel. And this was quite an opportunity, given Siegel’s notoriety for having sock-puppeted his own blog in 2006, but in the end I kept it focused on Wikipedia. I still said he lived in a fantasy world, and then he said I lived in a fantasy world. Even so, I still should’ve stuck the knife in. And I even gave myself the opportunity, bringing up comment sections on blogs at one point. The fact of the matter is, few people are as wrong-headed about the Internet’s influence on society as Siegel, whose professional curmudgeonry seems as much personal pique as considered commentary.

So I will use the experience to remember that politeness isn’t always the best policy, and leave you with these thoughts from Denny Green:

What Does Objectivism Have to Do With Wikipedia?

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on November 28, 2009 at 10:25 am

Writer Evgeny Morozov has a long essay about Wikipedia, organized as a review of Andrew Lih‘s “The Wikipedia Revolution“, in the latest issue of Boston Review. Morozov identifies his chosen takeaway in a post on his blog, but I’m interested in what he has to say, via Lih’s book, about how Wikipedia’s co-founders first met through their shared regard for the philosophy of Ayn Rand:

wikipedia_randTwo of Wikipedia’s co-founders found each other on philosophy-related mailing lists. Indeed Sanger has a philosophy PhD (his Ohio State doctoral thesis is titled “Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-Justification”), while Wales almost completed a PhD in finance. They came to the project with assumptions about human cooperation that appear to be rooted in philosophy, economics, and evolutionary psychology (among other disciplines), but those ideas are poorly articulated in the book.

Lih does point out that Sanger and Wales were heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (shades of Alan Greenspan), according to which, reality exists independent of consciousness and life’s great purpose is the rational pursuit of self-interest. Wales’s fascination with Rand was so deep that he even named his daughter after a protagonist in one of Rand’s books. But Lih does not explain the steps from Objectivism to an encyclopedia that “could detail what is true in the world without judgments.” After all, didn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for that matter) aim to check judgments at the door and detail only “what is true in the world”? And isn’t that the aim of the new computational search engine, WolframAlpha? How does Objectivism enter the picture?

Maybe it doesn’t.

I’ve puzzled over this fact, as well. One of the core tenets of Objectivism is that altruism is no virtue. From Wikipedia’s Objectivism (Ayn Rand) entry:

A corollary to Rand’s endorsement of self-interest is her rejection of the ethical doctrine of altruism—which she defined in the sense of Auguste Comte’s altruism (he coined the term), as a moral obligation to live for the sake of others.

Yet Wikipedia’s volunteer-driven non-commercial nature seems the very definition of altruism. As an amateur observer of Objectivism and Objectivists — I ran a libertarian-leaning magazine in college — my best reconciliation is that so long as one’s motives for editing (or creating) Wikipedia are defined in terms of one’s own self-interest then there is no contradiction. If one derives personal value from research and writing for its own sake, or from esteem among one’s peers (fellow Wikipedians) then it makes perfect sense. In that case, production of an online encyclopedia useful to the world is a happy byproduct. However, If Wales or Sanger have discussed Wikipedia vis-à-vis Rand, it would be news to me.

So if the question is, how does Objectivism enter the picture, I presume that it doesn’t necessarily explain anything and that it’s entirely possible Wales and Sanger could have met on a listserv for almost any intellectual pursuit.

But Morozov is not done with Rand yet; his criticism of Lih’s book is that it raises a few theories about what motivates Wikipedians without arriving at a conclusion. Since Lih’s book is primarily a lay history of Wikipedia it doesn’t seem fair to me that Lih should have had a unified theory ahead of writing the book, though he did devote space to the subject. Morozov asks:

wikipedia_kropotkinLih relies on the work of Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler to address the puzzle. Benkler’s studies of “peer production” draw on the thought of Russian anarchist Piotr Kropotkin, who believed that cooperation is as important in the evolution of species as competition and that “mutual aid” is essential to human survival. Lih does not mention that Rand and Kropotkin are not exactly intellectual soulmates. Lih also does not explain how these two diverging philosophies—one prizing egoism, the other altruism—could live happily together in one site.

Morozov has been doing original research, because while Benkler and Kropotkin both appear in the book, they do not come within 65 pages of each other. Anyway, here is what Lih says about Benkler’s proposed explanation for Wikipedian motivations on p. 108:

He asserts that motivation comes from two main things other than money: the “socio-psychological” reward of interacting with others, and the “hedonic” personal gratification of the task.

Which is essentially identical to the rational self-interest described above; just because Randians are strong advocates for a capitalist economy does not mean they love only money. And even if there was a contradiction here, all one must do is look to Wikipedia’s pillars to see how the ideas of Rand and Kropotkin may coexist on Wikipedia in NPOV as a principle and policy.

That said, Morozov’s essay is otherwise well worth reading, as it delves into worthwhile questions about Wikipedia’s structural biases, such as its heavy reliance upon online sources (nearly always found via Google) and resulting quandaries such as determining whether a person from the 1920s may be considered Notable. Questions such as these, rather than the influence of Ayn Rand, are what keep Wikipedians up at night.

Flagged Revisions Come to the English Wikipedia

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on August 26, 2009 at 6:39 am

Earlier this week, New York Times web reporter Noam Cohen, who does some of the best Wikipedia reporting this side of The Register, broke the news about a decision by Wikipedia’s parent organization to instate tighter controls on some articles. Wrote Cohen:

Officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit in San Francisco that governs Wikipedia, say that within weeks, the English-language Wikipedia will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people.

The new feature, called “flagged revisions,” will require that an experienced volunteer editor for Wikipedia sign off on any change made by the public before it can go live. Until the change is approved — or in Wikispeak, flagged — it will sit invisibly on Wikipedia’s servers, and visitors will be directed to the earlier version.

The change is part of a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia’s leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature and dependable.

It’s worth pointing out early on, as Cohen’s story unfortunately did not, that these changes will apply only to biographies of living persons. In Wikipedia, that is a proper noun: Biography of Living Persons (BLP) is one of Wikipedia’s most strenuously enforced policies; earlier this year, Wikipedia veteran Newyorkbrad explained this in a series of posts on Volokh Conspiracy, which The Wikipedian previously discussed.

Blogosphere reaction has been much more widespread than any Wikipedia story that comes to mind from this past year. I think this is because everybody who uses Wikipedia has some opinion about the website’s curious balance between openness and reliability — and now the balance has shifted. I’d say reaction is roughly divisible into four quadrants: those who mourn Wikipedia’s openness vs. those who will continue to question Wikipedia’s reliability, with those who are optimistic about the change vs. those who are not. Here is a walk-through:

Among those who feel that Wikipedia’s openness is key to the site’s success, count Judd Antin at TechnoTaste, who is studying Wikipedia as part of his PhD work:

As part of my dissertation research I’ve been interviewing less experienced Wikipedians about their perceptions of the site. One constant theme has been the perception of a class system in Wikipedia. Casual editors worry that their edits aren’t good enough, and that they’ll be rebuked by Wikipedia’s upper-classes. They perceive a mystical group of higher-order contributors who make Wikipedia work. … This latest move is troubling in that it seems to represent a lack of faith in crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds, in the model that made Wikipedia what it is today. This change will also remove another of the important social-psychological incentives that draw new people into the Wikipedia fold: the instant gratification that comes from seeing your work reflected on a Wikipedia page.

This is not always a good thing; Kate McMillan at Small Dead Animals is an example of someone who is the subject of a Wikipedia article, but is not exactly pleased about the fact. She also isn’t exactly optimistic that things will change:

My own Wiki page was instigated by an internet “stalker”, in fact, the same individual who once authored a blogspot site using my stolen identity. Requests to Wikipedia to delete the page went unheeded, and it’s remained a reliable source of misinformation, false attribution of quotes, and drive-by smears ever since. … It wasn’t until I threatened a Wiki editor personally with legal action for restoring defamatory material to the page, that they began to take tighter control of the content.

Another skeptic is Ann Bartow at Madisonian.net:

I have doubts about how effective this is going to be in improving the reliability of the content of Wikipedia entries, but it is a great PR move by Jimmy Wales, that’s for sure.

From the perspective of a frustrated editor, here is Andy Merrett at The Blog Herald:

As someone not in the Wikipedia “elite”, I’ve long since given up trying to edit entries on the site, having already wasted not insignificant time adding information only to have it reversed. I foresee that Wikipedia will increasingly become a place where only a minority of privileged and “trusted” editors have the keys to the kingdom.

That is a plus to others. Among the critics of Wikipedia’s reliability was Lisa Gold at Research Maven, who nonetheless is a skeptic herself:

I’m glad there is finally some acknowledgment among the powers that be at Wikipedia that accuracy is important. But that’s not enough. If accuracy is important, you have to make it a priority and do things on many different levels to try to achieve it. You have to apply your policies to the entire site, not just some articles. You have to bring in people with knowledge, experience, and qualifications to do real editing and fact-checking. (With all of the unemployed editors, fact-checkers, and journalists out there, why not hire a few and let them work their magic.) This new policy is not really about making Wikipedia more accurate, it’s just about trying to stop the embarrassing vandalism stories that hit the news with disturbing regularity.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Dr. Jim West, who appears to have some experience arguing with an intellectual opponent about Wikipedia content. His reaction to the change:

In a word, duh. Now if you’ll do the same for every entry then perhaps your resource might be worth visiting some day. Until then, I think I’ll continue to abstain. I’m not really interested in reading an article on the Dead Sea Scrolls that Raphael Golb has edited using one of his 200 fake names.

While I understand the concerns of both above, I also think they go too far. Striking a balance and offering a more optimistic view is Ben Parr at Mashable:

[W]e can’t help but feel a bit sad that this change had to happen. Wikipedia was egalitarian in the spread and use of information, and it treated everyone as equal contributors of knowledge. While that may not necessarily be true in the real world, it still was the driving force behind the creation of 3 million articles, more than any other encyclopedia could ever hope to boast.

The move was necessary, but it does mark a new chapter in the Wikipedia information age and the end of an old one.

And here’s another philosophical take from Joe Windish at The Moderate Voice:

There is little doubt the debate will be passionate, but that’s exactly as it should be. Eight years into the incredible success of Wikipedia, long one of the 10 most popular sites on the Web, many of us still don’t understand it. … The thousands of volunteer Wikipedian editors take their responsibility seriously. Flagged revisions may or may not work. What’s best about it is that the Wikipedia editorial community will watch and wonder about and debate it. And if it should not succeed, they will try and try again.

My own take on the situation? I don’t know yet. As Andrew Lih explains in his book, The Wikipedia Revolution, the German-language edition has had this feature for several years, and it seems to work there. On the other hand, the English Wikipedia is much larger, and the possibility certainly exists that some articles will be left unchecked and un-updated for extended periods of time. Will the site grow stagnant? Will the vast majority of people who read but do not edit even notice? These are just a few of the operative questions.

WikiProject Flagged Revisions, which will try to keep articles current, was only established on the 19th of August and as yet has just four listed participants. It’s also worth noting, once the details are hammered out — which they are not just yet — the plan will be implemented on a two-month trial basis. And after that? Well, I’m very interested to find out myself.

The Wikipedia Story on Dead Tree

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on April 13, 2009 at 8:21 am

Just in the mail this past week: The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia by Andrew Lih.


Lih appears on the Wikipedia Weekly podcast and has been on Wikipedia since 2003 as the user Fuzheado, so he’s in a good position to be writing the first (to my knowledge) book-length history of Wikipedia. I’m only a couple chapters in as of yet, but I’ve already learned a few things I hadn’t known before, like the Spanish Fork and WP co-founder Larry Sanger’s Oregon connection. It also provides a useful overview of the encyclopedia market in the late 1990s around the time Jimmy Wales was running something called Bomis.com — which I distinctly remember having visited and not quite understood what was it was all about, a circumstance Lih more than explains to my satisfaction.

On the other hand, it does seem at times a bit self-congratulatory, especially the opening chapter, covering the Wikimania 2005 conference, and including narration of the Wikipedians present giving themselves a round of applause. This may not be the most inviting introduction for the Wikipedia newcomer, but it’s not a major distraction.

When I finish I’ll probably have something closer to a real book review, but for right now let me approvingly point out the very clever back cover:


Microsoft Closes Encarta, But this Doesn’t Have to be the End

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on April 10, 2009 at 8:38 am

Note: This was originally posted one week ago at the blog of my employer, New Media Strategies. This post is now dated if not out of date per se, but considering it’s about Wikipedia, better late to post it here than never.

Earlier this week Microsoft announced it will soon be shutting down its digital encyclopedia, Encarta. The official statement didn’t actually use the word “Wikipedia,” but then again, they didn’t really need to. Wikipedia has 97% of the online encyclopedia market, according to Hitwise, a share that makes Google seem to barely have a foothold.

But this was by no means a totally foregone conclusion — and it doesn’t necessarily mean the end.

Longtime Wikipedia editor Andrew Lih, originator of such indespensible articles as “Seven dirty words” and “Ana Marie Cox” and author of the new book “The Wikipedia Revolution,” explained at his own blog why the news caught him by surprise:

Because Microsoft could have kept it going indefinitely, given its cash pile and the “Windows Tax” paying for everything. With this being such a prominent example of “free” trumping commercial and proprietary, I do wonder if this makes for a victory that might give spiritual comfort to others in the free culture movement. What’s next in Microsoft vs Linux, Microsoft vs OpenOffice, MPEG vs Ogg and other battles? …

Interestingly, Encarta was a product that was always meant to be a throw-in: a me-too product that enticed consumers as part of the Microsoft suite when buying a Dell or Gateway PC. It was never destined to be a standalone moneymaker. Add to this, the fact that Bill Gates founded Corbis as a photo and video archive, and bought the prized Bettmann Archives, and Encarta suddenly had a wealth of visual multimedia features. Its rich interactive features were far ahead of others, and it had rights to the most important historical photos of the last century. It was more a showcase than a business. It was an old school model in a new media world.

How very appropriate, considering what Encarta did to Britannica 15 years ago:

Microsoft had originally approached Encyclopædia Britannica, the gold standard of encyclopedias for over a century, in the 1980s, but it declined, believing its print media sales would be hurt; however the Benton Foundation was forced to sell Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. at below book value in 1996 when the print sales could no longer compete with Encarta and the Microsoft distribution channel which gave away free copies with computer systems.

Are you wondering where that came from? Please don’t wonder too long: it’s from Wikipedia’s entry about Encarta. This actually got me wondering. What happens when you look up Wikipedia at Encarta? Although at first there appears to be an article there is not. When the apparition is clicked, one is diverted to an odd list that will (with enough clicking) eventually take you to the third page (!) of the “Encyclopedia” article, which has this to say about Wikipedia:

In the early 21st century a new type of online encyclopedia, known as Wikipedia, enabled readers to create and edit encyclopedia articles. A wiki is a type of server software that enables users to create or alter content on a Web page. Wikipedia was closely associated with the open source software movement and rapidly expanded to include hundreds of thousands of articles, many on popular culture topics, in a number of languages. The philosophy behind Wikipedia was that a community of volunteers could pool their knowledge and crosscheck their work to create a free encyclopedia. Articles may be written by enthusiasts, rather than experts, and they remain unsigned and “open” to revision. Due to Wikipedia’s open-access policy, it is sometimes the target of vandalism or abuse. However, a crew of volunteer editors polices the site, usually identifies malicious content quickly, and removes it. In cases where a subject is particularly controversial the article may be “locked” so that further alterations or amendments cannot be made.

Apart from the uncomfortably ironic past tense, this is pretty good. Nice dig about the pop culture emphasis, too. But it certainly could be improved, especially the overly simplistic gloss on when articles may be locked. And they should know, as Microsoft somewhat controversially once paid a third party to edit Wikipedia — coincidentally, about the open source movement. I guess you could look back to that 2007 incident and see Encarta’s demise. Not only would somebody from Wikipedia have been unable to pay for changes to Encarta, I can’t see why they would want to.

As Lih points out, Microsoft is frequently in conflict with the open source movement. Which is exactly why Microsoft should release Encarta under a free public license, under the GNU Free Documentation License (which Wikipedia currently uses) or Creative Commons’ Attribution-ShareAlike license (with which it is also compatible). Yes, their business plan was undercut by another model — in a manner similar to my “churn” semi-manifesto — as it had previously done to another. So why not close the loop and allow Encarta’s knowledge to be used in building out Wikipedia? After all, one area where Wikipedia is deficient is material between the copyright of the last encyclopedia edition to go into public domain and the Internet age.

I don’t think this will really happen, of course. And there could always be a hang-up with the non-exclusive rights from Funk & Wagnalls, upon which Microsoft itself built Encarta. But if Microsoft is looking for goodwill — and these days, they should be — letting Wikipedia absorb Encarta would be an act of magnanimity that could go a long way.