William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Chelsea Manning’

Some Thoughts on Gamergategate

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on February 26, 2015 at 11:31 am

It’s still early in 2015, yet Wikipedia’s volunteer community has already experienced one of its most traumatic events in recent memory. Not the most, mind you. Wikipedia is a fundamentally volatile place, as one might reasonably expect from a self-directed movement whose stated mission is to sort through all of the world’s knowledge and present it for universal consumption.

In recent months, however, Wikipedians have stared down a kind of invading army the likes it hasn’t seen in awhile—maybe ever.

Its name is Gamergate, and it too is an online movement of sorts: one that is either a roving band of anti-feminist thugs whose agitation started over a false story involving a sexual affair and a game review, or a broadly-engaged reformist coalition focused on ethically challenged video game journalists with some adherents prone to rhetorical excess. Readers will already know which side they take.[1]If you read any of the above and thought to yourself: Wait, isn’t a gamergate a reproductively viable female worker ant?, my hat’s off to you.

gamergatelogoI’ve struggled to write about this, because a proper accounting would require a blog post much longer than I am prepared to write or you are interested to read. Mid-procrastination, I was invited by Quartz to write a first-person column on another controversy, in which I couldn’t avoid including some limited thoughts on what I’ll now call “Gamergategate”[2]I will also accept “Gamergateghazi”. but here I’d like to expand on it. Although the relevant Arbitration Committee case has now been closed for several weeks, allowing some time for perspective, I am finding it still difficult to summarize adequately.[3]The best I’ve seen, as usual, can be found in The Wikipedia Signpost.

For the unitiated: late last year, Gamergate activists took their fight to Wikipedia, kicking off a massive edit war across several entries, including the all-important Gamergate controversy. The ensuing carnage involved several dozen Wikipedia stalwarts trying to prevent controversial and often unconstructive changes made by several dozen more[4]Maybe hundreds? An accurate count is likely an impossibility. Gamergate sympathizers, but also extended to personal attacks and much acrimony not strictly related to the substance of the debate.

Most of the Gamergate participants operated in guerrilla style, using just-created, easily disposed-of accounts, many of which were quickly blocked. But not all: unlike past battles between Wikipedians and antagonistic outside parties, there is some overlap between these two: Gamergate is primarily composed of video game enthusiasts, many of them technically-minded, something also true for no small number of longtime Wikipedians. If nothing else, they were a savvier opponent than, say, the #JusticeforBeyonce #BeyHive.

As if that wasn’t enough, once Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee decided to get involved, a preview of their final decision spooked some editors for appearing to level sanctions against the “good” Wikipedians trying to hold back the barbarians at the gate. One observer, described by The Verge in late January as a “former editor”, Mark Bernstein, sounded an alarm with four arrestingly titled blog posts—“Infamous”, “Careless”, “Thoughtless” and “Reckless”—picked up by a wide array of news outlets, claiming that Wikipedia was going to “ban feminist editors”, thereby delivering Gamergate to ultimate victory.

It was an irresistible story. Here’s a fairly representative headline from The Guardian: “Wikipedia votes to ban some editors from gender-related articles”. It was also wrong, or “too soon to say” at best. Bernstein’s essays were overwrought and oversold—reckless, if you will. Journalists have a difficult time enough writing about Wikipedia accurately; this certainly didn’t help. Yes, Bernstein identified some worthwhile questions about Wikipedia governance, but he also suggested it might “permanently discredit not only Wikipedia but the entire open Web”. That’s a bit much.

gamergate_wikipediaBernstein wasn’t completely out to lunch: eventually the committee did in fact come back with sanctions against “good” editors who overreacted to provocations. Several were “topic banned” meaning they are disallowed only from editing pages in this topic area; only one editor actually received a “site ban”, effectively kicking him off Wikipedia for the foreseeable future.

Well aware of the outside scrutiny, the Arbitration Committee took the unusual step of issuing a press release of sorts, explaining their decision in terms that outsiders could follow. The non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which always takes pains to stress that it has no role in policing the editorial community or the content it produces, also posted a comment to its blog. Both are recommended reading for the hyperventilating.

One really can’t understand this decision without knowing that the Arbitration Committee as organized is only charged with enforcing matters related to editor behavior, not site content. Perhaps there should be a body focused on content… but that’s an entirely different conversation. And it may well be that ArbCom members agreed with the Wikipedia editors who fought with Gamergate[5]I assume most or all do. but it did not mean they could ignore actual violations of site policy even by well-meaning editors.

On the other hand, critics have accurately pointed out that ArbCom spent little time with the matter of off-wiki coordination by Gamergate, much of which violated Wikipedia’s rules and then some. As Bernstein correctly noted, “It’s much easier to pick out isolated misjudgments culled from hundreds of thousands of words of discussion by an army of anonymous trolls”.

There’s another very good reason why they didn’t spend more time with this—and it’s a problem that no one can solve, even if ArbCom could weigh in on who was “right”.

To wit: the large majority of Gamergaters had little invested in Wikipedia outside of these topic areas, mostly using brand new accounts they did not mind having blocked when another one could be created within a matter of minutes. Longtime Wikipedians care a great deal about the project and have user accounts they have years invested in. This was asymmetrical warfare of the sort waged by stateless actors against major powers in the real world[6]I think I’m going to refrain from making specific analogies, sorry. and it worked here just as well as it has elsewhere.

AP_Chelsea_Bradley_ManningThe incident reminds me quite a bit of another traumatic episode in recent history: the battle over the article now called Chelsea Manning, previously known as Bradley Manning. To recap: after the convicted Private Manning announced her transgender status, the Wikipedia article very quickly converted over—and Wikipedia’s community was prematurely lauded in the media for doing so—only for the page to be summarily changed back, and fall into a contentious battle along a kind of right vs. left divide arguably similar to the dynamic here. Then as now, an editor making the supposedly progressive argument made waves for writing an impassioned blog post in protest; in that incident, the author was subsequently banned by ArbCom for violating a behavior policy separate from the underlying controversy. In the end, the pro-Chelsea forces prevailed, and the controversy eventually quieted down. On this issue, at least, the matter has been resolved for now.

Back to Gamergate, the story isn’t necessarily over. Have a look at the Gamergate controversy discussion page today and, while things seem to be somewhat more civil than before, you’ll see the debate continues apace. Also active[7]On this very topic, no less. as of late February? Mark Bernstein. When your mission is to sort and present all the world’s information, you always are.

Provenance of GamerGate images unknown; attribution available upon clarification. Bradley / Chelsea Manning juxtaposition by Associated Press.

Notes   [ + ]

1. If you read any of the above and thought to yourself: Wait, isn’t a gamergate a reproductively viable female worker ant?, my hat’s off to you.
2. I will also accept “Gamergateghazi”.
3. The best I’ve seen, as usual, can be found in The Wikipedia Signpost.
4. Maybe hundreds? An accurate count is likely an impossibility.
5. I assume most or all do.
6. I think I’m going to refrain from making specific analogies, sorry.
7. On this very topic, no less.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 2)

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on January 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

On Tuesday, this blog published the first half of our annual roundup of the biggest Wikipedia events over the past 12 months. In that post, we covered the untimely passing of Aaron Swartz, the launch of Wikivoyage, the rise of Wikipediocracy, battles at Wikimedia Commons, and problems that have followed Wikipedia’s impressive fundraising. Today we finish the job:

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5. Basically ArbCom will never get its act together

Fair warning: I am not an ArbCom insider, I rarely follow its various dramas, and so I am not going to even going to attempt a satisfactory summary of everything that happened with ArbCom this past year. But let’s start with some background: ArbCom is short for Arbitration Committee, a group which I’ve just discovered has its own Wikipedia article. It’s an elected volunteer panel of (generally) respected Wikipedians who weigh in on tough issues and make binding decisions. The comparison to a national Supreme Court is glib but not entirely wrong, especially as they can (and often do) refuse to take certain cases, not to mention set precedents affecting future decisions.

The problem with ArbCom, if I can describe it generally, is that the organization has long been characterized by turnover and chaos. Nothing that happened this year was especially new, but that’s also part of the problem. Back when Wikipedia was just an experimental project, it was plausible enough that ArbCom’s dysfunction was something Wikipedia could grow out of. But the opposite has proved to be the case—as far as I can tell, no one thinks it’s ever getting better.

Two major incidents were big enough to merit rate a mention in episodes later in this post. Among others which didn’t, one more or less started off the tone for the year when, in March, an ArbCom veteran resigned his position while excoriating his fellow members for “stonewalling, filibustering, and downright ‘bullying’” when they weren’t “getting their way”. And then 2013 ended with another bang, as the top vote-getter in the latest ArbCom election, conducted just weeks ago, resigned his position after admitting to maintaining a secret account on—wait for it—Wikipediocracy.

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4. Wikipedia has more than a gender problem…

Bradley_ManningIt won’t take us too long to get back to ArbCom, but first let’s observe that Wikipedia is well known to have a “gender problem”; as The Wikipedian (and many more mainstream publications) have written extensively, Wikipedia’s editorship is overwhelmingly male, and it doesn’t cover certain topics (like women scientists, for example) very well. But this year an ugly row exposed what seems to be a more localized but still serious problem with transgender issues.

In August, Private Bradley Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act, and subsequently announced a public transition from male to female and the intention to be known as Chelsea Manning. (As I’ve written before, Manning’s transgender status was known, but until this point unconfirmed by Manning herself.) Wikipedia is generally considered a more progressive community than most, and references on Wikipedia were changed more quickly than at most news organizations. In fact, some of those same mainstream news publications praised Wikipedia for being quick to act. As it turned out, they should have been slower to praise.

Chelsea_ManningThe move was challenged, and the article was even changed back to Bradley, where it stayed as the debate heated up. Some objections were made in good faith and based on interpretations of guidelines, but some people were just being assholes. And then some of some of Chelsea Manning’s defenders crossed the line as well, and of course it ended up at ArbCom, which could seem to make no one happy in its various conclusions. First, ArbCom decided that yes, “Chelsea Manning” would indeed be the article’s name going forward. But among the punishments handed out, a pro-Chelsea editor was banned over an issue many considered a technicality—specifically for writing this blog post. During the fracas, the media was still watching, and some of the headings stung. Indeed, a newspaper may be slower to change, but when it makes a decision, it usually sticks with it.

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3. What happens when the COI guideline is contested in court?

Some of the problems involving the Wikipedia community have to do with the unusual compensation-based class system that has evolved around its community and “conflict of interest” rules. The more important Wikipedia has become, the more reputational impact it has shown to have, and the more it has been seen as both an opportunity and problem for celebrities, semi-public figures, professionals, companies, brands, bands, campaigns and non-profits. Since this first became an issue in 2006, Wikipedia has never quite figured out what to do about it. At the risk of oversimplifying things, mostly it has done nothing.

This year the worst nightmare of many came true when it turned out that a little-known but ever-expanding investigation into a network of secretly connected “sock puppet” user accounts traced back to an obscure but apparently quite successful startup called Wiki-PR. The name was familiar to some Wikipedians, but no definitive link had been established between the company and these accounts, owing something to the community’s (inconsistently applied) hang-ups about identifying editors’ public identities.

The revelation prompted the Wikimedia Foundation to issue a strongly-worded cease-and-desist letter to the company, although the impact was blunted when it emerged that someone from the Foundation’s own law firm had once anonymously edited the company’s article, violating the same rules it was supposedly defending. One can almost start to understand why the issue has been allowed to slide for so long.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s volunteer community banned the company’s known accounts, and then Arbcom angered some editors when it ordered one of the volunteer investigators to back off for reasons it said it couldn’t explain. Legal action from the Wikimedia Foundation is still possible, which could put the Foundation on an uncertain path just as its longtime leader is about to leave (see next).

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2. Sue Gardner’s departure and the uncertain new era

Sue_GardnerSue Gardner is not exactly the only leader Wikipedia has ever known. After all, Jimmy Wales is still its most widely-recognized figure, and there was that guy who called the FBI on them, once, too. But Sue Gardner is (with one interim exception) the only executive director the Wikimedia Foundation has ever known.

In 2007 she left a position running the CBC’s web operations in Toronto to join the Wikimedia Foundation. By the end of that year she was in charge of the whole thing, at a time of significant growth and staff turmoil (does anyone remember Danny Wool? Carolyn Doran? no?). In the years since, it has grown considerably more (150+ staffers now vs. a handful at the beginning), and she has led the Foundation about as well as anyone could be imagined to do. Now she’s announced that she is leaving on an as-yet-unspecified date to pursue as-yet-unspecified plans. An decision about her replacement is expected by March 2014, though a presumptive favorite hasn’t publicly emerged.

Whomever gets the job in the end has a very difficult task ahead. In fact, asking how much the leader of this San Francisco non-profit is really in control of Wikipedia is really asking the wrong question. The executive director leads the Foundation’s staff, but that’s entirely different than saying she leads the Wikipedia community. Which, as a matter of fact, brings us to the biggest Wikipedia story of 2013…

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1. The Visual Editor debacle is also a potent metaphor for Wikipedia’s chief organizational dilemma

To conclude the thought above: the Wikipedia community does not always agree with the Wikimedia Foundation. Some Foundation initiatives have been met with a indifference at best (see last year’s #9, which is arguably the real predecessor entry to this one). Others have been rejected like antibodies to a transplanted organ.

Into this latter category falls the Visual Editor, a long-in-development software initiative which was rolled out this summer to mixed reviews (hey, I thought it was fun) followed by a backlash that grew and grew until a volunteer editor’s uncontested edit of the source code summarily immobilized the whole expensive project.

Maybe I’m overdoing it to place this at number one. Maybe the underlying issue is less than the existential struggle between those two classes of community members than I think; perhaps the issue was simply one of a botched deployment and avoidable toe-stepping that only temporarily poisoned the well.

But I believe no single event in the past year encapsulated the biggest challenge facing Wikipedia today: it seems no better able to organize itself now than when it was a freewheeling experiment stumbling into greater and greater success in its first seven years of its life. Seven years further on, Wikipedia is a different kind of community, one struggling to cope with its fantastic success, but which hasn’t yet learned to adapt.

Whether the Visual Editor itself ever finds its way into everyday usage—and I think it will, after a long “eventually”—it spotlights Wikipedia’s most critical challenges more than any other story, and that’s why it’s the most important Wikipedia story of 2013.

Photo credits: U.S. Army, Chelsea Manning, Wikimedia Foundation.

Wikipedia on the Brink?

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on November 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

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.