William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘David Rivera’

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2011

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on December 31, 2011 at 10:07 pm

A year ago, I wrote a blog post called “The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2010”. Perhaps, then, I should write a follow-up this year? For some reason, I’m having a harder time of it. Was 2011 less of a newsworthy year for Wikipedia? Not if this Google Insights for Search analysis of Wikipedia-related news stories is to be believed: if anything, Wikipedia was a more prominent news generator this year than last. Make what you will of the proprietary, nontransparent methodology of Google’s news judgment, but at least it seems Wikipedia has been plenty newsworthy.

It’s my personal judgment that Wikipedia was somehow less newsworthy than it was last year. Maybe that speaks to the absence of WikiLeaks / Wikipedia confusion in the public discussion, or maybe it speaks to the fact that I think some of the big topics simply repeat.

Whichever is the case, I say let’s do what we did last year, and count down through the most important and / or impactful news stories about the year in Wikipedia, using my own proprietary, nontransparent methodology, which is to say these are my personal judgments:

10. Superinjunctions — In May, Wikipedia was one of several websites (notably also Twitter) that came into conflict with UK court orders—”superinjunctions”—seeking to suppress scandalous gossip about sports and film celebrities (I know, right?). Wikipedia servers, like Twitter’s, are based in the U.S. and so are protected by the First Amendment. But that doesn’t mean some won’t try.

9. Wikipedia and education — This was on the list last year, and even though there was no singular event to point to, I’m going to include it again. Wikipedia remains a major subject of controversy at both the university and secondary levels, and while teacher attitudes are changing, and Wikipedia is making efforts to work with them, much confusion remains and resistance continues to exist. (But is probably futile.)

8. Wikipedia meddling — Politicians don’t fare well when they try to edit Wikipedia. Nor do some famous newspaper columnists. You know who seems to an even worse job of this? PR firms. As I’ve written about more than once, it’s not impossible to contribute to Wikipedia on a topic you are close to without getting burned, but those who are determined to subvert Wikipedia will keep getting burned.

7. Drawbacks of Wikipedia’s openness — It’s not just politicians who sometimes run afoul of Wikipedia… their supporters do, too. This summer, Sarah Palin said something about Paul Revere that was factually inaccurate, and anonymous someones presumed to be in her corner tried to change relevant Wikipedia articles… and then a few days later, Michele Bachmann said something about John Wayne’s hometown that was incorrect and John Quincy Adams’ status as a founding father that basically is too, and unhelpful Wikipedia edits commenced. Oh, and of course Stephen Colbert was there to fan the flames. To paraphrase a real founding father, if eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so too is it the price of an online encyclopedia anyone can edit.

6. But how open is it, really? — This will come up again later, but many Wikipedians have become concerned that Wikipedia is too difficult to use, both for reasons related to the community and the once-revolutionary but now-creaky collaborative tools (i.e. the MediaWiki software that powers Wikipedia and its sister sites) and the often-insular community that defines it. Over Thanksgiving weekend, search engine-focused blogger Danny Sullivan published a blog post blasting Wikipedia for being “closed” and “unfriendly” and, even though he wasn’t very friendly (read: a total jerk) in his brief on-site activity, his point that Wikipedia is difficult to use is not incorrect. Wikipedia volunteer developers have created multiple versions of an Article Feedback Tool, something called “WikiLove”, a rather condescending smiley face / frowny face tool still in testing, and there are more user interface (UI) changes in store. But if the community itself is the issue, that’s a much trickier question.

5. Integration with museums and archives — One of the most interesting things happening on Wikipedia these days is the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) project, in which researchers collaborate with the aforementioned institutions to make their material more easily accessed by Wikipedians for use on Wikipedia. Started by Liam Wyatt, who received considerable attention in 2010 for a stint as “Wikipedian in residence” at the British Museum, the project has grown far beyond him. In the U.S., the Smithsonian and National Archives are now participants, with attention paid by The Atlantic, among other news organizations. If Wikipedia’s reputation for accuracy and depth improves in the years ahead, the GLAM project will play a big part.

4. Wikipedia’s gender imbalance — As I asked in February: “Could it really be that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women?” Well, nobody knows for sure, but this is the percentage of women who participated in the Wikimedia Foundation’s most recent editors survey, and in 2011 the issue attracted renewed attention. A story in the New York Times by the publication’s lead wiki-watcher, Noam Cohen, led to new internal discussion over the site’s gender balance, a renewed outreach effort by Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardener, and and a Wikipedia “fork” of the Change the Ratio campaign spearheaded by my friend Amy Senger. Has it worked? Well… who’s to say just yet? It seems unlikely that Wikipedia participation will reflect the actual gender balance of the wider world—and I would say it needn’t actually do that—but all parties would probably be happy to see a measurable uptick when the next survey rolls around.

3. Wikipedia occupies itself — In early October, the Italian-language Wikipedia edition turned off the lights temporarily in protest against a proposed law that would require websites to issue corrections, or face penalties. The protest received worldwide coverage; the proposed law has not become law. According to Google Insights, this was in fact the most-searched Wikipedia-related news story of the year, but I’m exercising my own editorial discretion here. Meanwhile on the (much more widely read) English-language Wikipedia, similar measures have been considered in response to the U.S. Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) however nothing has come of it (yet).

2. Falling editor retention — I begin with the caveat that this should probably be number one; this might seem a bit esoteric to the outsider, but in fact this is a proxy for questions about the long-term survivability of Wikipedia as a project, and is such a huge topic that I can’t properly wrap my head around it.

In August, I wrote a response to a Gawker post titled “Wikipedia is Slowly Dying”, arguing that Wikipedia had lost its mojo, and the “cognitive surplus” that helped build it had now moved on to places like Facebook and Twitter. This is wrong for reasons I only partly articulated at the time, but there’s no question that Wikipedia has fewer editors than it did last year, and the year before, and the year before.

The Wikimedia Foundation’s own research shows that new editors face longer articles offering fewer clear opportunities to get involved (which shouldn’t be a surprise, given the site’s impressive growth) and have a harder time making their edits stick.

The above chart, also prepared by the Wikimedia Foundation, shows it is clearly in flux: the explosive growth of participation crested several years ago, has been in slow decline since. No one really knows what’s going on with the direction of Wikipedia’s participation rate—regardless of gender—but it has been a major topic of discussion and will continue to be.

1. Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary — My choice for the top story last year was also about Wikipedia—the controversy over its ubiquitous fundraising banners—and so it is again. As much as Wikipedia strives to avoid self-referentiality in its own encyclopedia pages, the one thing Wikipedians have in common (and they often do not have much) is a fascination with Wikipedia. And this year was a big milestone: the 10th anniversary since Jimmy Wales (and, oh yeah, Larry Sanger) started up a “wiki” encyclopedia, very much as an afterthought.

To celebrate the milestone, Wikipedia held events around the world, and it happened to be a good time to be a Wikipedia commentator: I was interviewed for Ukrainian TV, and I collaborated with the creative agency JESS3 to produce a web video called “The State of Wikipedia”, narrated by Jimbo himself. As of this writing, it has more than 135,000 views on YouTube, making it one of the bigger things I did this year. Here’s looking forward to an interesting 2012.

USA Congressional Staff Edits to Wikipedia: The Saga Continues

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on April 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Last week I was asked by Politico’s Marin Cogan to provide some commentary about a situation on Wikipedia whereby a congressional staffer had tampered with her boss’ entry. This became “Rep. David Rivera’s war with Wikipedia” in last Thursday’s paper.

As the article explained, David Rivera’s press secretary, Leslie Veiga, had created an account using her real initials and last name (otherwise, she would’ve gotten away with it) in order to delete a number of negative subjects from the entry and replace them with conspicuously favorable language. Both actions are officially discouraged by site policies, but no official action was needed: the changes were rolled back, the offending account was issued a warning, and the unhelpful editing activity ceased.

Now a new section about the incident has been added to Rivera’s article, although its inclusion has been disputed (Wikipedia dislikes self-referentiality unless unavoidable, and its relevance to Rivera’s overall career is unclear) so it’s not necessarily there “forever,” as Gawker suggested. Then again, as I told Cogan: “All Wikipedia aims to do is reflect what is public knowledge and has been widely reported.” And it seems to have been covered widely enough.

As hinted above, the cynical view is that Veiga’s biggest mistake was the one thing that was laudable about her actions: her transparency. The truth is that she could have been transparent and made helpful suggestions in accordance with Wikipedia’s conflict of interest guideline… but this requires much more knowledge about Wikipedia than most staffers have. (As Politico mentions, I deal with this subject professionally and written about how it can be done it properly.) And none of this is new: the fact of congressional staff editing Wikipedia was first widely reported in early 2006 and is now memorialized in the Wikipedia article “USA Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia”.

What most staffers seem to do instead is what most uninitiated contributors do, and that is edit without creating an account, thereby displaying their IP address. The U.S. House and U.S. Senate have dedicated IP addresses serving members’ offices on Capitol Hill (I used to think there was a single IP address for each, but now I’m not so sure; if anyone knows for sure, please speak up in the comments). As Cogan writes:

The House IP address … frequently shows up in the edit histories of members, committees and constitutional amendments. Wiki editors repeatedly blocked the House IP for limited periods of time until 2009, when they apparently gave up the effort.

By following these edit histories, you can make some guesses about which offices might be doing the same as Rivera’s staffer. To be clear: most of these edits are not so blatantly self-serving as were Veiga’s; most are only mildly self-serving, such as the staffer from Rep. Jimmy Duncan’s office, who apparently tried to add his Facebook page and YouTube channel (for which one could actually make a decent case, but few know to do) only to be reverted and warned.

The Talk page associated with the IP address is also enlightening (that’s how I found the Duncan edits) and sometimes amusing; this comment (under the header “Wow”) is my favorite:

Look at all those edits of mudslinging your opponents and painting yourselves in some golden light. I expected better from our government.

Uh huh… right. And of course there is the page listing all contributions made from the House IP address, where one can find all manner of subjects that Hill staffers are interested in, besides just their bosses. Among non-political recent edits:

As you can see by the repetition of collegiate topics, one may surmise that more than a few are largely concerned with themselves. One edit from late March was undoubtedly self-centered: Congressional staffer. But their bosses do seem to be among the greatest focus. And about the fact that, in late March, edits were made to the article titled Liar, perhaps the less said the better.

P.S. Just over two years ago, I covered this topic in a post titled “Did Rep. Hinojosa Get a Free Pass on Biased Wikipedia Edits?” (Yes, for awhile.)

P.P.S. Just over one year ago, I had an article published in Campaigns & Elections’ Politics Magazine about very nearly the same topic: edits made by political campaigns, how they are most often bad and some pointers about how to make them good.