William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace’

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 1)

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on December 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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10. Losing Aaron Swartz

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

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

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

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

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9. Wiki Trek Into Darkness

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

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

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

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

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8. Wikipediocracy rising

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

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

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

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7. The tragicomedy of Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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6. Where the money is

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Aaron Swartz

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on January 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm

In certain corners of the Internet, it’s nearly impossible at the moment to avoid discussion of the death on Friday of Aaron Swartz, the “American computer programmer, writer, archivist, political organizer, and Internet activist”—to quote the current iteration of his rapidly-expanding Wikipedia article. Really, make that many corners of the Internet: from technology blogs to online magazines to mainstream newspapers, Swartz’s apparent suicide has been felt widely. And there’s good reason: Swartz’s career would be incredible even if he had not accomplished it all by the age of 26. But there is one reason why I’m writing about him now, in this space, and that’s because he was a Wikipedian.

Aaron_Swartz_at_Boston_Wikipedia_Meetup,_2009-08-18Aaron Swartz (User:AaronSw) was not just any Wikipedian. He was one of the longest running contributors, first joining Wikipedia in August 2003 and making his last edit just the day before he died. Using a tool for the analysis of Wikipedia user accounts, I found the complete list of articles he created—a total of 199, including some fairly important ones. Among them: Civil liberties in the United States, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and
Arrested Development (TV series). He’s also the creator of dozens of articles about political and policy figures, writers, lawyers and government officials. Like most Wikipedia editors who are content creators, his Wikipedia interests matched his real-life ones. (He even edited his own biography at least once, although unlike most he left an exceedingly polite and deferential note about it.)

Speaking of content creators, in late 2006—around the time that I first began editing Wikipedia—Swartz published a widely-read and influential essay series, arguably titled “Wikimedia at the Crossroads”, after the first installment. However, it is best-known for its second, “Who Edits Wikipedia?”, in which Swartz analyzed the number of characters added by different editors, using code of his own writing, looking to answer his essay’s titular question. One of his most startling findings was that the contributors with the most edits across all of Wikipedia in fact added the least content to the analyzed page (Alan Alda, amusingly enough) while editors with fewer edits added more content:

Edit by edit, I watched the page evolve. The changes I saw largely fell into three groups. A tiny handful — probably around 5 out of nearly 400 — were “vandalism”: confused or malicious people adding things that simply didn’t fit, followed by someone undoing their change. The vast majority, by far, were small changes: people fixing typos, formatting, links, categories, and so on, making the article a little nicer but not adding much in the way of substance. Finally, a much smaller amount were genuine additions: a couple sentences or even paragraphs of new information added to the page.

…Almost every time I saw a substantive edit, I found the user who had contributed it was not an active user of the site. They generally had made less than 50 edits (typically around 10), usually on related pages. Most never even bothered to create an account.

Thus was born the observation that Wikipedia’s editorial community includes both highly active, long-serving facilitators and itinerant, subject matter-expert writers, and their interplay is crucial to Wikipedia’s continued development and its future. When we talk about the lack of new editors (or trouble retaining current editors) on Wikipedia, we’re still talking about this very subject—or at least we should be. The fact that Aaron Swartz was 19 or 20 at the time he wrote this nearly boggles the mind. What he might have contributed under different circumstances, and that we’ll never know what he might have done, boggles too.

As a brief aside, Swartz’s last sustained edits to Wikipedia in November were to Wikipedia’s bibliography of David Foster Wallace, a favorite author of Swartz’s and also mine. Swartz once even wrote a brilliant essay attempting to explain what happens after the end of Wallace’s 1,000-page novel Infinite Jest, which nearly everyone who reads it comes away persuaded and envious (and yes, I mean myself). Like Wallace, Swartz suffered from depression and wrote about it—more openly than DFW ever did—but couldn’t write his way out of it, and it eventually overtook him.

Aaron Swartz’s untimely passing is devastating for those who knew and loved him, and disconcerting for those who knew him only through his public career. You can read rememberences by many of them, including Wikimedia deputy director Erik Moeller (once the winner of a Wikimedia Foundation board election Swartz contested), Wikimedia board member Samuel Klein, and dozens of Wikipedia regulars commenting on the Talk page of Swartz’s Wikipedia account. And anyone who likes can add the following box to their own:

Aaron Swartz Wikipedia memorial

Many more remembrances can be found online, including comments from friends and acquaintances beyond Wikipedia, including Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, John Gruber, Matthew Yglesias, Matt Stoller, from his family, and a page for anyone who wants to contribute something. Sure, it’s not quite “anyone can edit” like the online encyclopedia he cared deeply about and strived to make better, but it will have to do. And Wikipedia will, too.

Related: Death of a Wikipedian; March 23, 2012

What I Did This Summer

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on September 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm

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

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

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

Infinite Map     

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

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

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

Edit Wikipedia on Facebook? Now You Can

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on April 22, 2010 at 10:19 am

This week Facebook is holding a developers’ conference, F8, in San Francisco, and they are using the occasion to announce some big changes. Now, Facebook is well known for being in a constant state of development, not just adding new features but also removing older ones that have become obsolete or undesirable. One of the big announcements is that Facebook is launching a feature called Community Pages — all of those TV shows, movies, books, bands and brands now have their own pages, kind of like the Fan Pages which have largely replaced Groups in recent years.*

This new feature has already been compared to Wikipedia, and with very good reason: Facebook has tried to answer the “empty room” problem by pre-populating the Community Pages with Wikipedia entries. Let’s turn to the 1996 David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest again for illustrative purposes — click the link following to visit the Facebook Community Page for Infinite Jest, or see below:

facebook-wikipedia-infinite-jest-75pct

That one can now read Wikipedia on Facebook is quite a big deal. Wikipedia is already one of the world’s top 10 websites (between fifth and eighth, depending) and now its content is being made available on the world’s single-most visited website. Needless to say, the Wikimedia Foundation is quite happy to dispel any reporters’ suspicions that they are unhappy with this development.

But that’s just part of the story. Look up to the right-hand corner for another potentially very significant aspect of this — here, let me zoom in and draw a little red box for you:

facebook-wikipedia-infinite-jest-detail

That’s right — as the headline on this blog post already gave away — you can now edit Wikipedia directly through Facebook. Or to be more accurate, one can easily access Wikipedia’s editing page through Facebook. Amidst all of the recent discussion of Wikipedia’s alleged participatory decline (very much disputed by Wikimedia) this could be a good thing: Facebook has just created a brand new channel for absolutely anyone who is a member of Facebook (that’s more than 400 million worldwide) to edit Wikipedia. At the very least, it is likely to have more impact on Wikipedia than just its increased visibility on Facebook. Most of these editors are likely to be unregistered “IP editors” — meaning they are identified by their IP address, because they have no user account — and the question of whether IP editors are beneficial to Wikipedia is open to debate. Perhaps the present number of unregistered editors is just fine now, but a new influx of amateur editors (some of whom are surely vandals) could tip the balance. Time will tell.

Time will also bring us a key aspect of the Community Page feature, announced but not yet available:

facebook-wikipedia-infinite-jest-community

That is the chance to edit / curate Community Pages themselves. In fact, right now each Community Page features Wikipedia in two tabs: Info and Wikipedia. While the Wikipedia tab appears set to mirror Wikipedia (and this is where the above-highlighted Edit button lives) the Info tab merely uses Wikipedia as a starting point. And this may end up mitigating the impact of Facebook’s direct line to Wikipedia edit pages: the option to edit Facebook will be more prominent, and one expects, less likely to be phased out in future development.

Facebook hasn’t offered many details, and I think they may be in for a nasty surprise. Wikipedia stays as clean as it does in part due to the tireless efforts of the volunteer Recent changes patrol (i.e. vandal patrol) but Facebook is unlikely to gather such a community of watchers. Instead they will have to rely upon individuals who are members of those Community Pages. Yeah, if anyone messes with Back to the Future (or Infinite Jest) I’ll kick their teeth in, but I’m not like most. I’m guessing Facebook hasn’t yet figured out how to make this work without it becoming anarchy — not only is the Wikipedia community a unique thing, the site’s policies and guidelines were not written overnight. Facebook should emulate Wikipedia where they can, and they should probably impose strict controls where they can’t, lest they become a repository for threats, libel and bitter acrimony. It may well become that in any case.

What Do David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Wikipedia Have in Common?

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on March 22, 2010 at 5:35 am

Here’s a fun passage from a forthcoming collection of essays, “Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays”, edited by David Hering and based on a conference for DFW scholars held in Liverpool last summer:

I want to suggest that modern conception of the encyclopedia, particularly Wikipedia, challenges earlier arboreal models. It is possible for the encyclopedia to no longer imply totalization and containment, but release and an enlargement of possibilities. Structurally, both Wikipedia and Infinite Jest are always threatening to overspill, to negate the purpose of their organizing principles, if indeed they ever really had any. At any moment, the encyclopedia may become the anti-encyclopedia, an infinite procession, similar, I would argue, to the “infinite”-ness of Infinite Jest. As always when one reaches the end of a novel of such magnitude, one asks, “Why did it stop exactly where it did?” and “Could it have continued for another thousand pages?”

infinite_jest_coverGranted, it’s just a tiny snippet sent to me by my friend and fellow DFW enthusiast Matt Bucher, who is also working on the book, but there are a few points worth considering here.

Although perhaps a bit superficial, I like the comparison between Wikipedia and Infinite Jest, a book whose description usually includes terms such as “sprawling” and “doorstop” and often contains references to its 1,079 pages and 388 endnotes. Not for nothing has Infinite Jest been considered an “encyclopedic novel“.

What’s more, the notion that “the encylopedia no longer impl[ies] totalization and containment” is mighty scary to those who grew up with (or work for) Britannica. It’s a paradigm shift which has already begat a philosophical divide frequently discussed here at The Wikipedian, although some nostalgists are changing their minds.

Infinite Jest surely could have kept on telling stories about the Incandenza family, the students at Enfield Tennis Academy, residents of the Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic] and geopolitical turmoil surrounding the Great Concavity for as long as Wallace liked. So too could many Wikipedia articles continue onward, except that their contributors decided they had said their piece. A casual connection to be sure, but a fun one to think about.

Infinite Jest dust jacket courtesy Wikipedia.