William Beutler on Wikipedia

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Does WikiTribune Even Stand a Chance?

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on May 12, 2017 at 1:05 pm

Almost four years ago, Jimmy Wales stood before an audience of Wikipedians at the 2013 Wikimania conference in Hong Kong, delivering his annual keynote address. Mere weeks had passed since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had become famous (or infamous) for releasing sensitive U.S. government documents and escaping to a hotel room just blocks away from the site of the conference. Given Wales’ status as the spokesperson for a movement based on free information, and the coincidence of shared location[1]Snowden’s hotel was in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Wikimania conference next door in Hung Hom, media coverage at the time largely focused on his remarks about Snowden.

But Wales had another topic in mind, inspired in part by then-current events, which media outlets mostly mentioned only in passing. Here, too. This is what The Wikipedian had to say, based on having witnessed the speech at the time:

Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see. Some raised the question of what will contributors to the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikinews project think of it, but the question kind of answers itself: Wikinews has never been a success, and is kept alive only by a few die-hards. … So maybe this will become that. Or maybe we’ll never hear about it again.

Credit where it’s due: although Wales had said nothing more about it publicly in the years since, and “Jimmy’s hybrid model” had become at best the source of an occasional snicker among Wikipedians skeptical of Wales’ follow-through (about which more later) now there is no question he really meant it. On April 24, Wales announced the creation of an ambitious newsgathering and reporting project called Wikitribune with the debut of a placeholder website, promotional video, crowdfunding campaign, and launch coverage led by NiemanLab.

Jimmy Wales keynote address at Wikimania Hong Kong, 2013Most of what’s been written so far has been positive, thanks to goodwill surrounding the Wikipedia project, and by extension to Wales, its credited founder. Following the lead from his intro video, a fair bit of Wikitribune coverage is centered on its stated goal of fighting fake news. Despite the term’s dilution and partial co-optation by President Trump, it remains the media evil du jourWashington Post executive editor Marty Baron recently called it “the greatest challenge we face in the industry at the moment”. The notion that Wikipedia is the remedy is one everyone is happy to play along with, though it’s more hypothesis than established fact.

The most critical perspective so far comes from Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic, questioning the volunteer-professional hybrid collaborative concept, i.e. that one “who is paid for doing journalistic work cannot be considered ‘equals’ with someone who is unpaid” and that it devalues the work of professionals to assume it can be done by volunteers. It’s partly a critique of the model, and partly a critique of the morality; it’s an important criticism, and one that should be taken seriously.[2]I do think these questions also have good answers, and it matters very much how the roles of each party are defined. There is a similarly important distinction to be made in managing paid vs. volunteer contributors to Wikipedia, although I suspect the best arrangement in each case are roughly opposite. A topic for exploration another time. Another cautious note was sounded by Mathew Ingram at Fortune, listing failed previous attempts to launch crowdsourced news sites.[3]Spot.us, Beacon Reader, Contributoria, and Grasswire, none of which I had previously heard of.

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In Wikipedia circles, there is considerable skepticism, and for entirely different reasons.

320px-WikiNews-Logo-en.svgThe first is that Wikipedia has tried this before, as briefly noted in my excerpt above: Wikinews launched in 2004, when Wikipedia was growing rapidly and adding new sister projects. But it never reached critical consensus, and few contributors ever produced meaningful original content for the site. These days, Wikinews has only a handful of active users. And it’s not hard to see why: Wikipedia already compiles digests of news coverage, and Google points readers to Wikipedia, so Wikinews is at best an afterthought. But it’s worse than that. Compare the Wikipedia article “Dismissal of James Comey” to the Wikinews article “President Trump fires FBI Director James Comey, raising questions about Russia investigation” and the problem is apparent. The Wikipedia entry does something that no other website on the internet does: it serves as a one-stop aggregator of everything important in the ongoing political crisis, first with a high-level but substantial summary in the introduction, and then a deep dive into the particulars. The Wikinews article is a rehash of a few other previously published stories from traditional news outlets, offering no new reporting, ending at less than 700 words, and on a fixed date, like an Associated Press wire story might because of real constraints on the AP that Wikinews imposes on itself arbitrarily. Wikinews offers nothing new, is less good than what it imitates, and frankly has no reason to exist. Also, the Wikinews article has four sources; the Wikipedia article has 114. Case closed. And yet past attempts to close Wikinews have been resisted, both by a handful of dead-enders, and by Wikipedians who hold out hope for a future renaissance. Its biggest impact in 2017 is that its continued existence requires Wales to call his new thing “Wikitribune” rather than the more straightforward name on which it’s unproductively squatting.

TPO-logo-compact.svgThe second reason, and I don’t mean to dwell too much here, is that there are good reasons to think that Jimmy Wales is not the right person to lead such a project, save for his internet celebrity as the online collaboration guy. Wales struck gold with Wikipedia—although not actual money, as a cheekily titled NYT Magazine profile once reminded everyone—and he hasn’t repeated the trick since. His next most successful venture is Wikia, a collection of wikis on entertainment topics, the best known of them probably being Wookiepedia but also including communities for fans of music, TV, movies, video games, comics, and other geek subcultures. It does rank in the top 100 websites, and it’s more than 10 years old, so it’s a legitimate business—and it’s also monetized with advertising, the one thing Wikipedia can never ever do. Wikia is fun and useful to fans of pop culture, but it’s hardly a world-beater. Other Wales enterprises have fizzled or faded: Wikia Search was a bust, and a MVNO called The People’s Operator[4]It is worth noting that the aforelinked Wikipedia article about Wales’ MVNO is highly negative. is heading that direction. Yet almost no one outside of the Wikipedia world is familiar with any of this; Ben Thompson, one of the smartest analysts writing about technology and media, recently wrote: “I don’t know if Wikitribune will work — but Jimmy Wales is one of the last people I would want to bet against.”

♦     ♦     ♦

But let’s talk about Wikitribune and its actual prospects. This is not easy, as many specifics about its plans have yet to be clarified; at the time this is written, Wikitribune had announced but a single hire and, with no disrespect intended, it wasn’t someone with a high-profile name or big reputation. Although analysis of Wales’ actual plans may be premature, it’s not too soon to assess its stated direction and speculate about what might actually work for it.

I will switch gears here for a moment and agree that Wales has identified a real problem that needs to be solved: he is correct to say that the news industry is in big trouble—“broken”, even. The internet has dealt a nearly lethal blow by creating effectively free distribution, both upending its advertising-based business model and subjecting it to competition from low-quality but highly engaging clickbait infotainment.[5]Facebook, of course, figures prominently in both.

He’s wrong, though, to say as he does in the video that “we’ve figured out how to fix it”. As Ingram documents, others have tried and failed. And there’s no reason to think that, just because Jimmy Wales is the wiki guy, his association with the project is going to be sufficient for it to reach critical mass. No, if Wikitribune is going to have even a chance of success, it needs to figure out where its comparative advantage lies, and design its plans accordingly.

Jimmy Wales in Hong Kong, 2013The Wikipedian posits that Wikitribune must absolutely learn the lesson of Wikinews: that loosely organized, come-and-go-as-you-please, volunteer-based networks are no way to develop in-depth, sustained news reporting of the investigative or beat varieties that are the principal job of national and international news organizations. To the extent that it succeeds in these areas, it must develop tight-knit reporting teams, who will be professionals, and largely based in London[6]where Wales resides and Wiktribune will presumably be headquartered, New York, and Washington. The role that volunteers will play here would be very similar to the one already played by volunteers at traditional news outlets, where they go by a different name: sources.

But Wikitribune has no advantage over traditional news organizations in this kind of reporting. While the news industry overall is doing poorly, some major publications like The New York Times have seen subscriptions soar as their value has become clearer to readers following the U.S. presidential election, The Washington Post is buoyed by soon-to-be-world’s-richest-man Jeff Bezos, and financial publications like the Wall Street Journal and The Economist serve affluent audiences with need-to-know information.[7]Like so much else in the new new economy, it is the middle class that has been thinned out: mid-tier newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, and their undifferentiated news sites that look more and more like blogs every day. So the opportunity to have a positive impact here is not clear, either.

The Wikipedian will therefore posit that Wikitribune’s best chance to succeed is in fact in local news.

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As for opportunity, no one else has yet cracked the code: in news circles, the term for this is “hyperlocal”, and it hasn’t worked all that well, nor has it ever really ever been “news”—Patch Media, founded by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, is technically still around but has zero impact on anything; NextDoor sounded promising when I first signed up for it, but in practice is just another place to ask about lost cats and free furniture; Backfence was a similar site that, now that I search the web for information about it, apparently never got very far. Somewhat better are local subreddits, like /r/Portland, focused on what’s happening in a given city, but the content is usually centered on photos and gossip and links to local news stories.

Thompson, quoted above offering his shrugging support for Wales’ initiative, has written a lot about local news in recent months, and likes to quote from a Warren Buffet shareholder letter about how local newspapers once enjoyed unique business advantages: its customers couldn’t do without it, and couldn’t satisfactorily replace it.[8]As a reminder of just how prescient Buffet can be, this letter was written in 1991. The problem for local news publications is that the internet has kicked its advertising base out from under it, beginning with classified ads in print newspapers and later extending to the problems of infinite supply of web advertising devaluing the ad unit, not to mention the challenges of attracting audiences big enough or targeted enough to be worth selling ads to. Earlier this week, Thompson wrote a long piece assessing the prospects of local news, arguing that local news publications would need to be subscription-based, rather than advertising-based, to succeed.

He’s right about advertising, for sure. But why should it even be subscription-based? Wikipedia succeeds with donations, in some years generated by putting Jimmy Wales’ own face at the top of every page, and in 2017 Wikipedia has more money than it knows what to do with. This is one way Wales’ celebrity could have a positive impact. The subscriptions could be donations, which might have the added benefit of generating investment beyond cash—even creating passionate user-contributors.

wikitribuneWikipedia has succeeded at harnessing passions in a way few other sites have, building miniature newsgathering communities around subjects like major weather events, geography and places, physics and astronomy, transportation and infrastructure, major sports leagues, etc. All are limited spheres of interest that more readily map onto a city or region than matters of national politics and international diplomacy, trade policy, or ongoing military conflicts.

The primary difference is that Wikipedia’s content guidelines explicitly disallows editors from doing original reporting, which is just as well, because almost no likely editors have such access to federal government officials or multinational business leaders, nor is there any effective mechanism to vet them in a distributed volunteer system. However, with a professional editor at the center of the operation—as Wikitribune seems like it might—well, that could actually work.

Such a project would benefit at scale the same way Wikipedia does, not in developing one large ecosystem of researchers, writers and editors collaborating on a medium-sized number of topics, but multitudes of ecosystems working in parallel across many, many topics. And the benefit to readers is obvious: the experience reading of Wikipedia pages on familiar topics in the past prepares one to navigate Wikipedia pages on less-understood subjects in the future. Likewise, reading Wikitribune Peoria could prepare one to read Wiktribune Palermo. Consistency not just of branding but of style—a style native to Wikitribune, not to existing wire services as Wikinews does—could be useful to readers and a valuable differentiator for Wikitribune itself.

What’s more, Wikitribune has an opportunity to try new things that the entrenched Wikipedia community hasn’t been able to bring itself to do. For example: implement a discussion system that was designed less than fifteen years ago. The Flow project, which once sought to overhaul Wikipedia’s outdated and clunky talk page format, was eventually abandoned due to resistance from veteran editors averse to change. Flow wasn’t perfect, but there wasn’t even political will to work through the rough patches. Wikitribune would be wise to resurrect it, and perhaps show Wikipedia how it could actually benefit the original project.

Wikia_Logo.svgAnd there’s another thing: Wales certainly has proved successful at creating new structures based on the Wikipedia model but tweaking the rules in order to incentivize different activities for communities with different expectations. Wikipedians didn’t want advertising supporting their educational mission, but Wikians[9]if that’s a word? don’t mind advertising supporting their entertainment mission. It’s no accident that “Wikia” is Wikipedia without the “ped”[10]as in learning and knowledge. Revisiting Wales’ post-Wikipedia career again, it is when he has strayed too far from his Wikipedia roots that he’s got into trouble. Wikis turned out not to be the way to build a search engine, and some lofty rhetoric about transparency aside, Wales had no background in mobile telephony that would make him suited to lead an MVNO. So while there are reasons to be cautious, the more like Wikipedia his subsequent projects are, the better their outlook.

Wikipedia succeeds without a profit motive, and local news is unprofitable now. By following the same model, Wikitribune has an opportunity to benefit from Wikipedia’s non-business model, and adapt its methods from pure aggregation to a hybrid of reporting and aggregation. But it’s vital that Wikitribune not try to compete with the Times of London or New York. Its real, and possibly only, chance for success lies in reinvigorating a diminished local news industry. I hope Jimmy Wales takes it.

All images via Wikipedia, copyright of their respective holders.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Snowden’s hotel was in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Wikimania conference next door in Hung Hom
2. I do think these questions also have good answers, and it matters very much how the roles of each party are defined. There is a similarly important distinction to be made in managing paid vs. volunteer contributors to Wikipedia, although I suspect the best arrangement in each case are roughly opposite. A topic for exploration another time.
3. Spot.us, Beacon Reader, Contributoria, and Grasswire, none of which I had previously heard of.
4. It is worth noting that the aforelinked Wikipedia article about Wales’ MVNO is highly negative.
5. Facebook, of course, figures prominently in both.
6. where Wales resides and Wiktribune will presumably be headquartered
7. Like so much else in the new new economy, it is the middle class that has been thinned out: mid-tier newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, and their undifferentiated news sites that look more and more like blogs every day.
8. As a reminder of just how prescient Buffet can be, this letter was written in 1991.
9. if that’s a word?
10. as in learning and knowledge

All The Women Who Edit Wiki, Throw Your Hands Up At Me

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on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Editor’s note: The author of this post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette) who last wrote “Public Lives: Jim Hawkins and Wikipedia’s Privacy Dilemma” for The Wikipedian in April 2012.

It’s no secret that the majority of those editing Wikipedia on a regular basis are men. It’s one of the best-known facts about the Wikipedia community and a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing over time. In fact, from 2010 to 2011, the proportion of women editors actually dropped, from 13% to just 9%, according to an independent survey by Wikipedian Sarah Stierch. And it does seem, at least from the media coverage, that this contributes to some bias in content. This issue not taken lightly by the Wikimedia Foundation, which has set a goal of “doubling the percentage of female editors to 25 percent” by 2015, as part of its Strategic Plan.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing here about content bias and what women are actually editing on Wikipedia, and the issues involved in encouraging more women into such a male-dominated space. First, though, let’s round up recent efforts to get more women involved with Wikipedia.

  1. The Wikipedia gender gap mailing list: Founded back in January 2011, subscribers to the list offer up ideas, share experiences, discuss issues and help to develop events and programs. Among recent updates, the list shared news of the latest Wikipedia Editor Survey and the launch of the new WikiProject Women scientists. 295 people are subscribed to the list.
  2. WikiWomen Camp: The inaugural camp was held in Argentina in May 2012. While not focusing on the gender gap, the conference was for female Wikipedia editors to network and discuss projects. A total of twenty women from around the world attended.
  3. WikiWomen’s History Month: March 2012 was the first WikiWomen’s History Month, where editors were encouraged to improve articles related to women in history. During the month 119 new women’s history articles were created and 58 existing articles were expanded.
  4. Workshop for Women in Wikipedia: This project to create in-person workshops encouraging women to edit Wikipedia was started in 2011 and is ongoing. So far, workshops sharing technical tips and discussing women’s participation have been held as part of the WikiConferences in Mumbai (2011) and Washington, D.C. (2012), as well as individual workshops held in D.C., Pune and Mumbai.
  5. The WikiWomens Collaborative: Launched at the end of September 2012, the Collaborative is a Wikimedia community project with its own Facebook page and Twitter account, designed to create a collaborative (hence the name) and supportive working space for women. Participants share ideas for projects, knowledge about Wikipedia and particularly support efforts to improve content related to women. Projects promoted by the Collaborative include Ada Lovelace Day, when participants were encouraged to improve articles related to women in math and science, including via an edit-a-thon organized by Wikimedia UK and hosted by The Royal Society in London. So far, the Collaborative has over 500 Twitter followers and 414 Likes on Facebook.

With all this activity, it’ll be interesting to see the results of the 2012 Wikipedia Editor Survey to see whether there has been any positive shift in the numbers of female editors. Look for those results early next year. Meanwhile, stay tuned here for my next post discussing gendered patterns of editing and Wikipedia’s knowledge gaps.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part I

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on February 28, 2011 at 10:13 am

In the past few months, I’ve become increasingly interested in the hit startup website Quora. If you’re not familiar with it, the simplest explanation is that it’s a Q&A website that gets right what earlier incarnations got wrong.* A longer explanation would include a discussion of why it is much more ambitious.

To expand on the point: Answers.com is a wasteland of unanswered questions and no visible community, while Quora has real enthusiasts. ChaCha has more reliable respondents, but they are paid generalists who may not know much about a given topic. Yahoo! Answers seems to have a genuine community, albeit one full of know-nothings. Quora, on the other hand, has attracted the participation of experts (at least in tech) who volunteer their time to create new content on topics of their own interest.

Does this sound like any other websites you know?

Quora’s strengths as a social media platform and Q&A site are evident: it looks sharp and stylish, seems to be well thought out, and has followed the Facebook-Twitter model of starting with a core group of likeminded users before gradually expanding its user base. While it is very far from being a household word, it is often enough compared to those two social media juggernauts, and in fact has early Facebook employees on board. But more and more it is being compared to Wikipedia, which answers the question (so to speak) about why I’ve become so fascinated by it.

To wit: A recent post by Techcrunch editor Mike Arrington declared that Quora was about building “a better Wikipedia”. John Keehler at Random Culture recently called it “Wikipedia, Evolved”. In response to these, Teluq-UQAM professor Seb Paquet published an essay at The Quora Review titled “Why Quora is Not Wikipedia”.

But if Quora’s goal is to “beat” Wikipedia—and I have not heard its founders claim this as a goal—it is very far from doing so now. For virtually every topic Wikipedia addresses, the site is usually found at or near the top of relevant search engine results. Its ubiquity is so great that some have speculated Google purposefully elevates Wikipedia in search results (the more likely reason is that wiki software does many things Google bots look for, and many people link to it). Quora, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found in most searches.

Wikipedia contains 3.5 million separate articles (in its English edition alone), each of which may cover several related topics in detail. And with a few million more “redirects” also catching the eye of Google’s crawlers, the number of opportunities for Wikipedia to land a prominent position on a search results page may be in the neighborhood of ten million. The number of questions on Quora is, at present, not public information.

Any way you slice the numbers, Wikipedia is one of the top ten websites in the United States and the entire world. According to Alexa, Quora is at best the 1,269th website in the United States, and is so far limited to the English language. Wikipedia has been around for more than ten years; Quora, less than two. Whatever Quora might achieve in the future, it has not yet. Wikipedia certainly has.

Quora and Wikipedia are unique in many ways, but to focus on where they are different is to gloss over what they have in common. Meanwhile, Arrington’s flat statement that Quora is “better” greatly oversimplifies the matter. Instead, I’d like to examine what they do have in common, and how they may compete with or complement each other.

In my next post, that’s just what I’ll do.

P.S. If you’d like, you can follow me on Quora.

* On Twitter, Matt Bucher reminds me of Ask MetaFilter, which is different in several ways from the sites discussed above. He is right to identify it as a quality site; the MetaFilter community has been well-cultivated in its decade-plus existence, and is a fine and frequently thoughtful resource for its community. However, I think that’s all it ever plans to be: one section of a larger online community.

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.

How Did the New York Times Overestimate Wikipedia’s Popularity? [Corrected]

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on August 30, 2009 at 11:59 am

Update: Man, did I blow this one? Yeah, I think I did. David Gerard points out in the comments that updated gobal comScore figures — which are not easy to come by but which have been donated to Wikimedia and are available here — indeed show that the Foundation’s websites at #4 globally, with Wikipedia presumably the biggest traffic-driver by a long shot. So, hey, that’s great news. And that should be more widely-known. However, in the U.S. Wikipedia is still somewhere around #9 overall.

Which brings me to the mistake that got me here: I had misquoted ComScore and Quantcast numbers below as being global figures when in fact they were U.S. That’s just my mistake, and essentially the same mistake I had accused Cohen of making. So, there you have it. I will retreat now to the assertion that the New York Times should adopt Wikipedia’s inclusion of inline citations. Then maybe I wouldn’t make mistakes like this one.

New York Times tech correspondent Noam Cohen, reporting on the final day of the Wikimania conference in Buenos Aires for the NYT’s Bits blog, begins his most recent dispatch as such:

Considering that Wikipedia has reached Top Five world status among Web sites – with more than 330 million users – its annual Wikimania conference, which ended Friday night in BuenosAires, featured a lot of hand-wringing about all the problems the project faces.

What catches my attention is the assertion that Wikipedia has attained “Top Five” status worldwide. Cohen doesn’t provide a source (no small irony there) which makes his decision to uppercase the phrase “Top Five” all the more curious. According to what metric? There are several to choose from. And according to whose calculations? There are several competing firms who collect, analyze and determine such rankings, but none of them is necessarily authoritative.

The best-known but least-respected is Amazon-owned Alexa, which currently puts Wikipedia at #6 globally, according to a combination of users and pageviews counted by Alexa’s (somewhat murky) sources. That’s close, but it’s not in the top five.

Compete.com, a web metrics company which makes some public rankings available, lists Wikipedia at best #9 globally, according to Unique visitors. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t rank for their other metrics, such as Visits and Page views.

A similar company is Comscore (I mean, comScore) which releases such information on a press release basis. Their last report, in July, put Wikimedia Foundation Sites at #10 for Unique visitors — actually down one place from a few months earlier.

Another service is Quantcast, one of the newer entrants and also one of the most-praised. Quantcast currently puts Wikipedia at #8. Although I like that figure — it reflects figures I’ve seen in months past and have quoted numerous times — perhaps we can split the difference and say, right now, Wikipedia is #9 overall. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

But then where does Cohen’s “Top Five” claim derive? I tried Googling for the answer, and I think I might have it.

According to an August 8, 2009 entry published on the blog of a web design firm which may be called PJ Designs and Concepts, Wikipedia lands in the “top five Social Media websites in terms of Inbound Links, Google Page Rank, Alexa Rank, and U.S. traffic data from Compete and Quantcast.” In fact Wikipedia ranks second, behind only MySpace and ahead of YouTube, Facebook and Photobucket. I find this claim somewhat suspicious. For one thing, Facebook routinely ranks in the top three of rankings by Alexa, Compete and Quantcast (follow the above links). It also has an identical PageRank to MySpace: 9/10, which Wikipedia also enjoys. That the post is authored by “admin” does not especially inspire confidence, either. And of course, these are just “social media” sites and not all “Web sites.”

Granted, it’s possible that new scholarship was announced at Wikimania, but I think that would have been worth a headline itself. As much as I’d like to see Wikipedia at #5 (let alone #2) I think we’d know if this was the case. If there is another explanation for Cohen’s assertion than the one I propose above, I can’t find it. But I’ll let you know if I find out.

You’re With Me, ESPNDB

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on April 26, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Last week, ESPN unveiled a new website self-consciously intended to compete with Wikipedia: ESPNDB. The website has not made any kind of splash with sports blogs nor many other news websites. To my knowledge, the only in-depth coverage comes from MediaPost, which reported on April 16:

Curious where Shaquille O’Neal went to college? How many seasons Mickey Mantle played? ESPN wants to break the Google-to-Wikipedia flow chart that so many sports fans turn to for those kinds of answers.

espndb-logoSo, it’s set to launch ESPNDB.com (the DB stands for database) — a site it hopes will serve as a sports encyclopedia-archive- statistical compendium. On one level, the goal is simply an ESPN-opedia — although the content would be thoroughly fact-checked and would come from professionals. (Like Wikipedia, however, there will be some user-generated aspects.)

As I said, ESPN doesn’t even try to conceal that Wikipedia is a serious competitor for providing sports fans with information about teams, players, statistics and, quite literally, the footnotes of sports history. Here is what the front page of the website says right now:

ESPNDB will be your definitive source for sports and sports-related information. We are building a product that combines the far-reaching resources of ESPN with the unique output of our industry-best Stats and Information Group to give you an immersive experience that no other site can provide. In months ahead, we’ll also employ some great new technologies to harness the collective knowledge of the world’s sports fans.

This strikes me as a worthy endeavor, one capable of real success. While sites like Citizendium and Google’s Knol have espoused ambitions to compete with Wikipedia in creating a comprehensive online reference website, ESPN is wise to focus on just one area of knowledge, naturally the one topic it understands very, very well.

Wikipedia is just one of many websites who dominate a category, where network effects and other social phenomena have bestowed a de facto monopoly: Google, YouTube, Twitter, Craigslist and Amazon are just a few others. Barnes & Noble has not had an easy time going head-to-head with Amazon online, but rare and out-of-print bookseller Alibris has carved itself a small but viable niche.

Another site with a relative monopoly in its particular category is IMDb, another site ESPNDB must owe something to, even if not candidly acknowledged. The continued success of IMDb (an Amazon subsidiary for more than a decade) should also be cause for encouragement, both for ESPNDB as well as Wikipedia. After all, IMDb still rates as high or higher than Wikipedia on Google searches for most movie titles. To be sure, IMDb launched a decade before Wikipedia and in fact predates the Internet as we know it today, and so has merely held on to its prominence, whereas ESPNDB has ahead of it the task of building its authority. Meanwhile, it shows that there is room for both “wiki” and “database” at the top of Google’s rankings.

And ESPN seems committed for the long term, or at least is taking their time in building out the site. The ESPNDB front page continues:

We begin by giving you a ton of information about the NFL Draft – about 500 pages’ worth! As we evolve, we will be adding many more cool features, so continue to check back with us.

There are indeed some hints of cool features to come, but ESPN’s plans remain unclear. For instance, right now one can “friend” or follow the Facebook profiles of NFL draft prospects. What I’d like to see them do is tap into Facebook Connect, which would basically mean anyone with a Facebook account is already signed up to participate — though there is not much to participate in just yet.

Also interesting is that ESPNDB pulls Twitter feeds onto its pages, which is something I doubt Wikipedia will ever consider even trying. Right now it’s very simplistic, just updates from the NFL Draft, on its second and final day as I type this now. Imagine, though, if each article or entry — like this one about the Detroit Lions — pulled recent tweets specific to that team or its players. That would be something interesting.

But these potential “cool features” don’t address the strengths of Wikipedia which ESPN ostensibly means for this website to answer. So let’s look at the actual pages themselves. Here’s a screen cap of the article about Oregon (Go Ducks!) wide receiver Jaison Williams:

espndb-jaison-williams

Not much actual content so far, but the layout seems coherent and access to photos is a big strength ESPN has compared to Wikipedia. It has promise. Meanwhile, there is no Wikipedia entry for Williams, although that will probably change quickly once he is selected, which is expected sometime today. So the point goes to ESPNDB, at least in this narrow circumstance.

On the other hand, what’s the chance ESPNDB will ever allow users to write an article explaining the story behind “You’re with me, leather”?