William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘GamerGate’

The Top Ten Wikipedia Stories of 2016

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on January 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm

2016 was a hell of a year. In matters of war and peace, politics and governance, arts and celebrity culture—not to mention unexpected crossovers among them—it was a year that seemed to come off the swivel. Was this true on Wikipedia as well? In this post The Wikipedian will attempt, as it has done each year since 2010, to summarize the year in the Wikimedia movement by itemizing and ranking ten of the biggest trends and events.

The list this time may be noteworthy less for what is included than what is not: in 2016 there was no major sock puppet or COI scandal (hopefully that’s because there weren’t any, not just that they weren’t called out), no major milestone (Wikipedia turned 15 in 2016, but it felt less consequential than the 5 millionth article last year), no mention of perennial fears about a declining editor base (is it still actually declining?) and nothing about last year’s number one, the implementation of HTTPS (it’s a done deal, and China hasn’t changed its mind about unblocking Wikipedia on the mainland).

That said, in 2016 Wikipedia still had more than its share of turmoil, more ominous signs than one ever really wants to see, plus the occasional inspiring story that makes for much more pleasant anecdotes. In this post, we’ll attempt to do justice to them all, or at least the ten that made the biggest impressions on this blogger. Ready? Let’s go:

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10. Women Scientists Revolt

emily_temple-woodAmong Wikipedia’s more problematic systemic biases, the gender gap in participation and representation is one of the more frustrating. This year it was momentarily a bright spot, when Emily Temple-Wood, one of Wikipedia’s best known female editors, became a minor media sensation for a project with an irresistible hook: for every instance of online sexual harassment she experienced, she would create another Wikipedia article about a woman scientist. The story was picked up by the BBC, Washington Post, Guardian, New York, and Huffington Post, among many other outlets. The sudden micro-celebrity placed her in the unique category of Wikipedia editors with a Wikipedia biography earned as a result of their editing activities. Jimmy Wales also named her Wikipedian of the Year (along with Rosie Stephenson-Goodnight). And then she started med school.

9. Wikipedia Vandalism, Spectator Sport

lebron_jamesIf you’re the kind of person who searches Google News for “wikipedia” with any frequency, you have undoubtedly seen headlines like “Denver Broncos ‘own’ Carolina Panthers, according to Wikipedia edit”. Seriously, search “wikipedia sports owned” and you’ll find the same combination for Chase Utley and the Mets, LeBron James and the Bulls, Jürgen Klopp and Manchester City. And that’s just one gratingly common construction. Yes, sometimes it can actually be funny. Occasionally, even heartwarming. But no sport is safe, and the phenomenon is familiar enough for Fox Sports (a frequent offender) to have once created a list of “most entertaining” examples. In early 2016, former WSJ reporter and Wikimedia staffer Jeff Elder called out the trend, spotlighting the tedious extra work it creates for Wikipedia volunteers. VentureBeat followed up by making the argument it was time for sportswriters to move on. And so that put an end to it? Yeah, right. It’s not clear what will ever kill this “story”; there is almost certainly nothing within anyone’s actual control. While individual writers or readers may tire of it, the thing about sports is that every big win is a moment without precedent, that obliterates all reason, and naturally seeks a good, mean-spirited to laugh top it off. All things considered, better to vandalize Wikipedia than light a car on fire.

8. The Business of Wikipedia is Fundraising

wmf-fundraisingWikipedia is alone among the top 50 global websites (give or take) for the lack of advertising to be found on its pages. As a consequence, its funding model is the focus of fascination and frustration for both the editorial community and news media alike. And as you’re certainly well aware, every year the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) launches a fundraising drive featuring very prominent and slightly annoying banners—which look a lot like advertisements for Wikipedia itself—to raise money from its millions of readers. To be sure, Wikipedia also raises money via grants and gifts from wealthy donors, but the vast majority comes from the annual campaign.

Beginning in mid-November, the WMF stepped up its annual efforts with a persistent email campaign fronted by Wikipedia’s founder-mascot Jimmy Wales, using sophisticated techniques—variation, highlighting, boldfacing, talky subject lines, and more. WMF fundraising has been A/B tested for awhile, but this was undoubtedly the slickest incarnation yet. And what do you know, it worked: this year Wikipedia reached its annual goal faster than ever before. Such success cannot come sans scrutiny. An op-ed in The Wikipedia Signpost called for greater transparency, The Register needled Wikipedia about this as it does about pretty much everything, and philanthropic publications have second-guessed the WMF’s fundraising strategy writ large.[1]Update: This link previously went to an article on a different subject; this one is from late 2015 but illustrates the same point.

All of which is fair, and one should be so lucky as to have to answer for this kind of success. As The Wikipedian sees it, the question of how much money WMF raises should be secondary to how it is spent, a topic historically less-well reported.

7. ArbCom and the Alt-Right

feels_good_manWikipedia’s Arbitration Committees (ArbComs) are elected panels of dedicated volunteer Wikipedia editors who agree to take up the often unpleasant and always time-consuming task of reviewing disputes involving the behavior of fellow editors. About a dozen of the most-active Wikipedia language editions have one, and it is by its nature the locus of controversy, year in and year out (said fundamental dysfunction last made this list in 2013). Lucky us, now we get to merge that with the rise of an international right-wing movement represented on last year’s list by Gamergate, and which in 2016 we learned to call the “alt-right”.

This is based on two separate incidents on the two most prominent Wikipedias. Worse between them, the German ArbCom saw eight of its ten members resign in the last third of the year. The reasons are too complicated to recite here, but it concerns a single member who IRL is actively involved with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party but had previously hidden his offline political activities from fellow editors. The decimated German ArbCom now lacks a quorum to act, and seems likely to remain inactive at least until new elections are held in May. Second was the near-election to the English ArbCom of a Canadian editor with a troubling Reddit history that included activity on the Gamergate-affiliated WikiInAction subreddit, dedicated to promoting alt-right views on Wikipedia. This candidacy was not successful, but it was a nail-biter, and close ArbCom observers are not reassured about future elections.

Wikipedia has always had obnoxious contributors with noxious views, but their dispersal across the vast expanse of topics meant the problem areas were fairly isolated, and usually avoidable. But ArbCom is one of the few places on Wikipedia where actual power is concentrated. In a U.S. presidential election year (about which more later) in which anti-semitic tropes were promoted by the winning candidate, has there also been a concurrent rise in such views on Wikipedia? Some think so. And will ArbCom face an organized assault like the one the Hugo Awards has faced in recent years? It seems unlikely—but it’s definitely not impossible.

6. Wikipedia Needs Better Critics

Wikipediocracy_logoOur 2013 installment listed the rise of Wikipediocracy, a website devoted to criticism of the Wikimedia movement. This time we’re here not to praise it, but to bury it. The site’s multi-contributor blog has published exactly once in the second half of the year, while its once-lively (and sometimes disreputable) discussion forum has slowed to a crawl. What happened? The biggest factor was the departure of its most serious contributor, Andreas Kolbe, who took his talents to The Signpost. Second was an apparent falling out between mainstays Greg Kohs and Eric Barbour. The latter went on to create an alternative site named, hysterically, Wikipedia Sucks! (And So Do Its Critics.).

The decline of Wikipediocracy highlights the dearth of effective Wikipedia criticism. What have we got? There’s the UK IT news site The Register, which harps on a few recurring themes of narrow appeal. There’s WikiInAction, affiliated with Gamergate, focused even more narrowly. Wikipedia Sucks is a joke, itself barely registering a pulse. For what it’s worth, The Wikipedian does not consider itself to be among their ranks. This site offers Wikipedia criticism, but will admit to being pro-Wikipedia in most ways; The Wikipedian is an apologist, if also a realist. And to drop the pretense for a moment, I don’t post often enough for it to matter but a few times a year.

There is something about Wikipedia criticism that attracts people with fringe views, who are not always the most stable personalities, and whose obsessions tend toward the arcane. Of course this is generally true of the gadfly profession, but when you consider that Wikipedia owes its very existence to freaks and geeks, it shouldn’t be any wonder that participants who hold themselves apart from mainstream Wikipedia may be stranger still.

As of late, the best criticism happens at The Signpost, especially under former editor Kolbe, and now under Pete Forsyth. Given the competition, however, that isn’t necessarily saying much.

5. The Brief, Less Than Wondrous Board Membership of Arnnon Geshuri

Arnnon_GeshuriWe now arrive at the first of a few related topics which dominated the early months of the year, a series of interrelated controversies far greater than this annual list has previously contemplated. The least-related among them was the early January appointment of Arnnon Geshuri to the WMF board of trustees. Geshuri received no public vetting, as most appointed board members do not. However, other board appointees also had not played a public role in one of Silicon Valley’s biggest recent scandals.

To wit: Apple, Google, Intel and others secretly agreed (until, of course, it was found out) not to recruit each others’ employees, thereby holding back the careers, and holding down the salaries, of thousands of employees. As a Google executive, Geshuri had taken the initiative to fire a recruiter after then-CEO Eric Schmidt received an unhappy email from Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs. In his note back to Schmidt, Geshuri added: “Please extend my apologies as appropriate to Steve Jobs.” The U.S. Department of Justice eventually forced the firms to pay $415 million to settle class action claims.

Geshuri’s membership on the Wikimedia board proved to be short-lived. Facing public criticism by former board members, a debate over what to say about it on his own Wikipedia entry, a no-confidence petition signed by more than 200 editors, and probably his own realization that this just wasn’t worth all the trouble, Geshuri stepped aside only two weeks after accepting the position. In another year, this could have been a top story. But 2016 had only just begun.

4. Wikimedia’s New Leader

katherine_maherAnother contender for top story in a less eventful year: the Wikimedia Foundation got a new leader. Katherine Maher was named interim executive director (ED for short) in March, and was made permanent in June. She is the third person to hold the title—the third woman, in fact—and brings experience in global governance, international institutions, and even the Arabic language.[2]Yes, I’m looking at her Wikipedia entry as I write this. Maher also brings something her predecessor lacked: a great deal of experience with Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement.

I am burying the lede, of course: she was previously the WMF’s chief communications officer, a position she had held since 2014. Oh yeah, and about that predecessor… as Wikimedians have already realized, I’m leaving out a lot of back story, and it’s because there is more coming further down this list. All that said, the advent of a new ED is big news in any year, and that’s true this year as well. The fact that Maher’s ascendancy falls outside the top three stories of 2016 owes as much to the public drama leading to her promotion as the absence of drama characterizing the start of her tenure.

3. Fake News and the U.S. Presidential Election

donald_trumpThe U.S. presidential election was literally the biggest story on Wikipedia this year, if we mean the topic that received the most edits across multiple entries. The biographical entry for president-elect Donald Trump, plus articles about Hillary Clinton’s endorsements, the general election, and GOP primary occupy four of the top five slots on the list of most-edited articles.[3]Number one was Deaths in 2016, but that’s pretty much always the case. But there’s a lot more to be said about Wikipedia’s relationship to the craziest and most surprising U.S. election in living memory.

A chief attribute of Trumpism is, well, bullshit—in the Harry Frankfurt sense of the word—and anti-intellectualism as a virtue. As it became clear Trump’s victory was owed in part to falsehoods propagated on social media, the phrase “fake news” gained widespread currency among news commentators. With the mainstream[4]OK, fine, liberal media casting about for a better model, what better exemplar of valuing real facts over imagined realities than Wikipedia? Even before the election, Wikipedia’s model of requiring verification of information and allowing anyone to question received wisdom had garnered positive press attention. Afterward, Wikipedia’s commitment to veracity was held up as a kind of antidote to Facebook’s hands-off attitude toward the truth or falsity of claims shared by its users.[5]Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was initially dismissive of “fake news” concerns, only to do an abrupt about-face and announce plans for a fact-checking feature. The Wikimedia comms team took something of a victory lap in an early December post, declaring:

We are not in a post-fact world. Facts matter, and we are committed to this now more than ever.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that Wikipedia is free of falsehoods. It is only as good as its contributors and the reliability of the news sources they rely upon. Long-persisting hoaxes are not unheard of. Therein lie the biggest threats to Wikipedia: it must maintain an editorial community to uphold its own standards, and the media must keep up its end of the bargain with good reporting. Not unlike democracy, eternal vigilance is the price of an encyclopedia anyone can edit.

2. Lila Tretikov Resigns as Wikimedia ED

Right, so about Katherine Maher’s predecessor as executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation…

Lila_TretikovLast year, The Wikipedian included “Exodus from New Montgomery Street” at number nine in the top-stories list—i.e., the large number of staff departures from the organization since the appointment of Lila Tretikov in 2014. In retrospect, this should have been higher, but in my defense the whispers were rather quiet until the emergence of a matter that we’ll explain better in the next entry.[6]Yes, this year was largely dominated by one very big story at the beginning of the year which had enough distinct elements to be treated separately, making for a confusing narrative. Alas. Tretikov, whose tenure got off to a rocky start for reasons not entirely her own fault and not worth going into again here,[7]if you must, you can go here was eventually forced to resign after losing the confidence of Foundation staff. Morale fell to such depths, and management became so unresponsive that, once the dam burst, virtually the whole thing played out in public, online.

Low-level staffers came out of the woodwork to say what managers would or could not, and community observers filled in the gaps. Most persuasively, ArbCom member Molly White created a detailed timeline of Tretikov’s WMF leadership that presented the sequence of events without commentary—selectively perhaps, but damningly for sure. This very blog took the highly unusual step of actually calling for her ouster, a position this blogger never imagined when launching this site late last decade. Nobody wanted things to arrive at this dire situation, but once they had, Tretikov could no longer effectively lead the organization, and resign is what she did.

Anyway, we’re not quite done with this topic.

1. The Knowledge Engine and its Discontents

Dr._James_HeilmanThe biggest story of 2016 actually began unfolding in the waning days of 2015, when just-elected community board trustee James Heilman announced his resignation with a cryptic message on a community email list. Subsequent comments from other board members failed to resolve the ambiguity. Thus began the most tumultuous period in recent Wikimedia history, ultimately leading to Lila Tretikov’s jumped-before-she-could-be-pushed departure and the elevation of Katherine Maher to the executive director role.

Honestly, I’m kind of dreading the idea of recapping it all here. This blog expended 7,000 words[8]a conservative estimate on the topic earlier this year, and it’s a chore just to summarize. But let’s give it a try:

Heilman’s departure owed to a disagreement about how to handle sensitive information related to the secretive development (and eventual abandonment) of a misbegotten “Manhattan Project” to create a search engine intended to preserve Wikipedia’s prominence if Google ever stopped sending it traffic on its historically massive level. In its most ambitious form, it was called the Knowledge Engine, and Tretikov’s WMF sought a grant for it from the Knight Foundation, with which it previously had enjoyed a good relationship, without disclosing the precise nature of the project. When scaled back, it was called Discovery and was limited to Wikipedia’s on-site search, which isn’t a bad idea by itself but wasn’t clearly a top priority for the volunteer community at large, let alone the foundation staff. The lack of public discussion was echoed in the catastrophic appointment of Geshuri to the board, establishing a pattern that could no longer be overlooked.

knowledge-engine-rocketThe seriousness of the Knowledge Engine fiasco itself may have been overstated in terms of time and money allocated to it (and away from other projects) but it became emblematic of Tretikov’s ineffective leadership. More important probably was the botched Knight request, which contradicted good sense, and was seen to have damaged an important outside relationship. It wasn’t a crime, but it was covered up nonetheless, and Tretikov’s failure to communicate effectively—with external stakeholders, internal managers, staff throughout the organization—was what really did her in.

If you really must have the whole story, and you have a few hours to spare, I recommend the following links:

The regrettable history of the Knowledge Engine, the wasteful exit of Heilman from the board of trustees, the ill-advised appointment of Geshuri to same, the calamitous leadership of Lila Tretikov, the unfortunate departure of so many valuable foundation staffers, were separately and collectively the biggest story on Wikipedia this past year. Here’s hoping 2017 is just a bit less eventful.

All images via Wikipedia, and the copyrights held by their respective contributors.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Update: This link previously went to an article on a different subject; this one is from late 2015 but illustrates the same point.
2. Yes, I’m looking at her Wikipedia entry as I write this.
3. Number one was Deaths in 2016, but that’s pretty much always the case.
4. OK, fine, liberal
5. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was initially dismissive of “fake news” concerns, only to do an abrupt about-face and announce plans for a fact-checking feature.
6. Yes, this year was largely dominated by one very big story at the beginning of the year which had enough distinct elements to be treated separately, making for a confusing narrative. Alas.
7. if you must, you can go here
8. a conservative estimate

Twitter and Wikipedia: Parallel Challenges

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on February 8, 2016 at 12:44 pm

Twitter-Wikipedia

Twitter has had an almost unprecedented run of bad press lately. Its stock is down, its executives are out, and uncertainty reigns. In recent weeks, Twitter has announced (or had leaked) plans to change the platform’s famous 140-character limit, its reverse-chronological order of messages, and the site’s most vocal users are fearing, and saying, the worst.

The more I read of it, the more I think about the bad press Wikipedia has received over the past few years, and I see some striking parallels.

To be sure, they are very different entities. Most importantly, Twitter Inc. is a publicly traded company, while the Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organization. But both are important platforms in the online information ecosystem facing significant questions about not just its future but even its present. Both have much in common in their history and structure, and in the challenges they now face:

  • Wikipedia and Twitter both started out as side projects of other projects that weren’t going anywhere: Wikipedia of traditionally-edited online encyclopedia Nupedia, and Twitter of possibly-before-its-time podcast directory Odeo.
  • Both are basically monopolies in their particular corner of the information ecosystem: Wikipedia has no competitor in collating the “sum of all human knowledge” into readable text; Twitter is the only public, real-time conversation network (in perhaps this alone it has bested Facebook). Both have been described as a “utility” at one time or another.
  • Both are among the most-recognized, heavily-visited destinations on the web. Google pretty much points searchers to Wikipedia by default, and recently re-upped a deal to provide Twitter results in searches. Both are top 10 global websites: according to Alexa, Wikipedia is 7th and Twitter is 10th. In the U.S., Wikipedia is currently 6th and Twitter 8th.
  • Both are open publishing platforms, inviting its readers to be contributors. Even so, the vast majority of participants (broadly defined) choose only to consume. Wikipedia’s reader base has always vastly exceeded its editors, which isn’t a huge surprise. But Twitter has been trending this way for a number of years. (See also: the Pareto principle, the Internet’s 1% rule).
  • One possible reason why both have so few active contributors is that they are both notoriously difficult to use. This is rather obviously true for Wikipedia. It is, after all, an encyclopedia, and making beneficial contributions to it requires time, knowledge and inclination (not to mention persistence and thick skin). Twitter’s 140-character simplicity belies its true complexity, as Walt Mossberg has argued recently.
  • Both are organized as democratic, non-hierarchical platforms where everyone theoretically has an equal chance to be seen and heard. But of course invisible hierarchies emerge, as certain power users self-identify through the strength of social ties or canny dexterity with the platform. Twitter at least makes follower counts public, while Wikipedia is considerably more opaque.
  • For each, active users grew dramatically (even exponentially) until hitting a peak and then declining. This happened for Wikipedia in 2007, which happened to be the same year Twitter first started gaining traction. However, this growth ran out by 2009, making for a very similar looking user growth-and-decline charts:
  • Growth and decline: Wikipedia editors at left; Twitter audience at right.

    Growth and decline: Wikipedia editors at left; Twitter audience at right.

  • Both allow users anonymity—or, more accurately, pseudonymity—which arguably fosters a community culture suffering from a lack of responsibility and accountability. Relatedly, both have had significant trouble with the so-called Gamergate movement, and female users of both platforms have reported serious harassment issues.
  • Fallings out among top leadership have been the norm since the beginning. At Wikipedia, co-founder Larry Sanger became disillusioned with the project, leaving Jimmy Wales free to bask in the glory of being a “digital god” as the Evening Standard actually called him last week. As Nick Bilton described in his book, Hatching Twitter, Twitter’s most contentious co-founders, Jack Dorsey and Ev Williams, were at each other’s throats almost constantly. Multiple defenestrations later, Dorsey once again leads the company as CEO.
  • Besides the personal squabbles among its founders, both have experienced very recent and very concerning internal confusion at the company / parent organization, riven with conflicts about the future of the organization, and a revolving door of high-level executives. For Twitter, this has been in the tech press almost constantly. For Wikipedia, this has been covered most extensively by only The Wikipedia Signpost and a handful of blogs, including this one.
  • The direction of each has caused immense consternation in the community of power users who are conflicted about revisions to the platform, both rumored and launched. Impending changes to Twitter’s character limit and algorithmic order of tweets can be compared to community revolts over several recent software initiatives, especially the Visual Editor debacle, which sought to fundamentally change the nature of editors’ interaction with the site. At present, Wikipedians are anxious to know if this “Knowledge Engine” project is another.
  • For both, the silver lining is that their position is secure so long as arguments are being had there: that people care about what is being said on each website. No matter what ails each one, no competitor is likely to displace them, and their core function is likely to be relevant for the foreseeable future.

Are there lessons for one or the other? I’m not so sure. One conclusion that does occur to me as a longtime Wikipedia editor, observer and fan: how fortunate is Wikipedia to be a non-profit foundation right now! Whatever complaints one may have about Jimmy Wales, and there are many valid ones, his decision to forsake the chance to become “an Internet billionaire” on the back of Wikipedia, as The New York Times once put it, infelicitously, owes significantly to its central role on the Internet today. Had, for example, Wales insisted on monetizing Wikipedia with advertising (something Twitter once, long ago, promised it would never do, and only recently has begun turning off ads for power users) the rest of Wikipedia’s contributors might have walked out the door along with the 2002 “Spanish fork”.

Twitter, on the other hand, was founded by startup veterans who probably never seriously considered doing anything but become Internet billionaires. (For what it’s worth, Dorsey and Williams both achieved this goal.) I come here not to criticize the ambition, but to observe that it hasn’t worked out so well for the platform. In its attempts to generate revenue to match their brand recognition, Twitter has experimented with several different strategies and business models. Unfortunately, these often ran at cross-purposes to what Twitter was good at, as observers from Ben Thompson to Twitter investor Chris Sacca have both written. That it is now publicly traded is a worse headache, and places on it a burden of expectations that may ultimately spell its doom as an independent company.

Fortunately for Wikipedia, it has a clearer notion of what it should be. It is an encyclopedia. Its recent struggles may owe something to the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t always seem to recognize that. Twitter may have largely succeed at becoming “the pulse of the planet” but, for a company whose shareholders expect continuing growth, that isn’t enough.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2015

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on December 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm

Each year since 2010, The Wikipedian has looked back at the year on Wikipedia and taken a stab at determining which trends, milestones, and controversies most influenced the direction of Wikipedia in the twelve months preceding.

This is no easy task, considering the millions of articles, edits, and editors within the scope of Wikipedia and its sister projects, not to mention the off-wiki and even offline circumstances affecting them. The most important events may be overlooked, acknowledged major events can be misunderstood, and the significance of each can differ greatly depending on one’s viewpoint. No matter, The Wikipedian will make its best effort regardless.

This time around I’m pairing our retrospective with a post on the blog of my firm, Beutler Ink, called “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”. I recommend reading this one first: as we learn from the Bard, what’s past is prologue.

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10. Wikidata Rising

When Wikidata, the collaborative structured database project, first launched in 2012, it was difficult to summarize with any confidence. The Wikipedian covered it by carefully outlining its stated goals and quoting the speculative news and blog coverage. At the end of 2015, it’s not much easier to describe to a layperson, and many of its goals remain just that, but Wikidata’s growth is undeniable and the passion it inspires in the Wikipedia community is unmistakable. At this year’s Wikimania conference, Wikidata’s presence was felt like never before.

Screenshot 2015-12-22 10.39.33One big reason: Wikidata is unexplored territory in a way that Wikipedia no longer is. The encyclopedia project feels mature at 5 million articles (more about that below), but the database at only 15 million items has a long road ahead of it. For editors who joined the larger Wikimedia movement for the joy of discovery, Wikidata is where it’s at. The project still has some very real challenges, some of which unsurprisingly mirror those of Wikipedia, but it’s possible now to imagine that Wikidata, not Wikipedia, may prove to be the real “sum of all human knowledge”.

9. Exodus from New Montgomery Street

Has Wikipedia’s parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), seen a year with more comings and goings from its headquarters on San Francisco’s New Montgomery Street than 2015? It seems unlikely. The organization has seen admired veterans and high-level executives depart under different circumstances, and some touted recruits from Silicon Valley firms arrived to fanfare, only to exit quickly, and without comment. The only reason this exodus of talent isn’t higher on this list is because it’s one of 2015’s least-reported stories.

Approximately 18 months since Lila Tretikov became executive director, the WMF has experienced almost 100% turnover. For some longtime staff, it was probably time to move on anyway. And any incoming leader can be expected to make new hires and rearrange reports to their liking. But the very short tenures of some key hires, and mysterious circumstances surrounding some departures, can’t help but raise questions about whether Tretikov is in command of her personnel—and perhaps even if she’s the leader Wikipedia needs.

8. Community Tensions Felt in Trustee Elections

The Wikimedia Board of Trustees is the “ultimate corporate authority” of the Wikimedia Foundation, and its number includes three members elected from the volunteer community. The most recent election, held in May, was also the first since a major fight between the foundation and community over software implementation (Media Viewer) and platform control (Superprotect) in 2014. Against this backdrop, disagreements over Wikipedia’s next big software initiative, Flow, became increasingly increasingly pronounced—and a few months later, the project was shelved.

Perhaps it’s unfair to assume a direct cause-and-effect, but the result seemed to be a “throw the bums out” election. Ousted were Phoebe Ayers, Samuel Klein, and María Sefidari (in fairness, none were “bums”, nor particularly responsible for the problem). In are three respected veterans with the good fortune of non-incumbency: James Heilman, Dariusz Jemielniak, and Denny Vrandečić.

Oddly, the two women ousted received the first and third most votes in favor, but Wikimedia accounts for “oppose” votes, and they had too many of those. Today, just two Board members are women, the lowest representation in Wikipedia’s history.

7. “Wikipedia Hates Women”—or Maybe Just Lightbreather

Wikipedia’s alarmingly low female participation rate is decidedly not a new problem. The issue first came to attention in the late 2000s, as editor surveys confirmed suspicions that Wikipedia was a total brodown. Today, the gender gap remains a frequent topic of debate, including a much-discussed Cracked.com article whence this entry takes part of its name.

The other half of the title comes from what’s called the “Lightbreather” case, focusing on a female editor with this username, and her interactions with, among others, a (male) editor named Eric Corbett. A disinterested appraisal of the case would find plenty of fault with both, although there is not one person in the world who possesses the powers of concentration necessary to follow all of the rabbit holes leading from this single case. Notwithstanding the particulars, it became the subject of a provocative, error-ridden, five-times corrected but nevertheless widely read article in The Atlantic, held up as one example of Wikipedia’s “hostility” to women.

The myriad possible explanations for this problem only open doors to more complicated issues. How much of the gender balance can be attributed to Wikipedia’s rules? Its community? Where is the line between heated disagreements and harassment? How much can be explained by how the web influences behavior? How much is this reflective of the tech industry’s gender gap? Will understanding this question help to explain why other marginalized identities, from Latinos to Africans, contribute to Wikipedia in small numbers? The answers to these questions seem within the reach of comprehension, but beyond the grasp of consensus.

6. A Clockwork Orangemoody

OrangeMoody-BubbleGraphCombined-NolabelsAnother perennial topic on Wikipedia is conflict of interest (COI), usually playing out as someone inside Wikipedia or outside writing a self-serving autobiography, a low-rent marketing firm getting in trouble for editing clients’ pages, or sometimes more favorably, a group of PR firms coming together to try to make a good impression. This year, however, brought us something we never quite imagined: a massive extortion plot inverting the typical model of paid editing: rather than helping paying customers create Wikipedia entries, non-paying “customers” could simply be threatened with unflattering articles.

Orangemoody, as it was named for its “ringleader” account, was called the largest of its kind, but that merely counted the number of involved user accounts (nearly 400). The truth is, there has never been anything quite like it. Previous cases revolved around unscrupulous firms like Wiki-PR and WikiExperts who at least professed to be offering their clients a service. Orangemoody was a shakedown involving pages held for ransom, impersonation of Wikipedia administrators, and no real-world entity to absorb the blame. Orangemoody is so threatening because it suggests that Wikipedia’s open-editing model opens the door not just to unethical, if conceivable shenanigans, but also to transgressions that are much more horrifying.

5. The Luck of Grant Shapps

Next to Orangemoody, there’s something almost comforting about the familiar narrative of alleged self-interested editing of Wikipedia by Tory MP Grant Shapps and the plot twist that brought his accuser to (relative) ignominy and ruin.

Amid the UK parliamentary elections this spring, a report emerged in the left-leaning Guardian, prompted by an allegation by a Wikimedia UK administrator, that Shapps had used a pseudonymous account to massage his own Wikipedia profile while giving a drubbing to others. It seemed plausible: Shapps had admitted to editing his own biography years ago, and using assumed names in other circumstances, and his side career as an Internet executive aided the narrative.

But the tables soon turned: the right-leaning Telegraph revealed that there was no smoking gun connecting Shapps to the suspicious edits, that the Wikipedia administrator, Richard Symonds, was in fact a Lib Dem activist who had communicated with the Guardian prior to taking action, and Wikipedians soon became concerned that Symonds may have abused his administrative privileges in blocking the suspicious account.

In the end, Symonds lost his adminship, and Shapps exited a succession of positions within the Conservative Party and government. All that’s missing is Keyzer Soze shrugging off his limp and lighting a cigarette.

4. Wikipedia’s Big Picture Trends in Flux

editors-risingAfter a long period of sustained narratives about Wikipedia’s traffic and editing trends, this year things got a little interesting. Following unabated growth in global traffic to Wikipedia, given a boost in recent years by the proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices, overall traffic actually fell for the first time. Meanwhile, after almost a decade of resignation to Wikipedia’s ever-dwindling editor base—a decline perhaps also attributable to the adoption of mobile devices—the numbers ticked upward.

An August report from an SEO analysis firm showed that Wikipedia’s search referrals from Google fell by up to 20% since the beginning of the year. Most speculation focused on Google’s ever-advancing practice of answering search queries on the results page, obviating the need to click through to non-Google websites. This has bedeviled companies like Yelp, which compete with Google to serve up reviews while also depending upon it for traffic. For Wikipedia, the situation is more complicated, and perhaps less of an issue. After all, a significant portion of Google’s answers are powered by Wikimedia projects. In fact, beginning in late 2014, Google wound down its own open knowledge database, Freebase, in favor of Wikidata. And Google still recommends more Wikimedia sites than it recommends Google sites.

Also in August, the first hard data emerged to show that the long, slow decline of active (and “very active”) Wikipedia editors had been arrested—and is now trending the other way, if ever so slightly. As close Wikipedia observers know too well, Wikipedia attained its zenith participation rate in 2007, arguably the high point for the project’s activity and excitement overall, after which the lowering tide revealed consternation and even alarm, with nobody knowing where it would end. Well, maybe here? The number of very active editors—with at least 100 edits monthly—Wikipedia’s most valuable contributors, stabilized in 2014 and actually grew in 2015. The decline of administrators, coupled with the difficulty in admitting new ones in recent years, however, remains an issue.

In both cases, more data is surely needed before we can say what it really means.

3. English Wikipedia Hits 5 Million Articles

Wikipedia_5m_ArticlesAdmittedly, most of these top stories are unhappy ones, and the one just above is arguably mixed, but this one is unambiguously celebratory: on November 1, Wikipedia’s English language edition—by far its most popular, and synonymous with “Wikipedia” for most readers—notched its 5 millionth article.

Wikipedia has been the largest encyclopedia by any reasonable measure for a long while, so nothing has really changed. And it took seven years for Wikipedia to double in size, so if growth trends continue holding steady for now, we might not have a similar milestone to celebrate until sometime the next decade. Meanwhile, sheer heft is easier to measure than other important characteristics, like accuracy or completeness, so this benchmark will remain Wikipedia’s equivalent of McDonald’s “Billions Served” for the foreseeable future. It may be an arbitrary measurement, but it’s a damned impressive one.

Number 5,000,000 itself: Persoonia terminalis, a rare shrub native to eastern Australia. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the RfC debating which temporary logo Wikipedia should display on the joyous day, I very much recommend taking a look at the near misses. Perhaps it will instill some faith in Wikipedia’s community processes if you agree the best logo won (and you should).

2. It’s About Ethics in Gamergate Opposition

In late 2014 and into the start of this year, the loosely-affiliated right-wing counterpart to the left-ish Anonymous expanded its focus from video game journalists to include the Wikipedia entries where said journalists’ critical takes had accumulated. Organizing on Reddit and other forums, the ‘gaters created numerous throwaway Wikipedia accounts to first try swinging Wikipedia’s coverage of their movement and a few of their top targets around to their liking and, when that failed, they took on Wikipedia editors directly.

gamergatelogoWikipedians fought back hard—too hard, in some cases—and when Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee got around to handing out punishments, the only ones with anything to lose were the Wikipedia editors who cared. It also fed into the above-discussed ongoing trouble over Wikipedia’s treatment of gender issues, and was by far the year’s biggest blow-up along such lines, far greater than the argument over how to handle Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition, which still lay ahead.

It’s hard to say if Gamergate is a 100-year-flood (although on the Internet, the time frame may be more like 100 months) or a sign of things to come. Wikipedia has faced trolls before, but few have been as dedicated or as destructive as the ones beneath the Gamergate bridge. The best defense is a strong base of committed Wikipedians, and perhaps this year shows us they’ll probably still be around to carry the sand bags and shore up the levees.

1. China, Russia, and Completing the HTTPS Transition

One aspect of Wikipedia’s global prominence that the foundation and movement alike have struggled to fully grasp is the role it can, should, and does play on the international stage. This year, the Wikimedia Foundation joined forces with the ACLU to sue the National Security Agency over its mass surveillance practices, only for the case to be thrown out by a federal court. As important as that fight may be, it is but one jurisdiction of many where Wikipedia has become a proxy for privacy and free speech battles, not to mention authoritarian power grabs.

In 2015, Wikipedia’s multi-year plan to convert all traffic moving through Wikimedia servers to the HTTPS encryption protocol was finally completed. HTTPS was first enabled for WMF sites in 2011, then became the default for logged in users in 2013, and this year was finally made the default for all traffic, including readers without a Wikipedia account. This is a good thing for Internet users who wish to access Wikipedia without their governments knowing about it. But it’s complicated when governments decide to shut off access altogether.

Indeed, the full implementation of HTTPS prevents governments like China from blocking access to specific entries—such as Tiananmen Square protests of 1989—and instead they have to choose between allowing all traffic, or blocking the site entirely. China opted for the latter. To be sure, Wikipedia wasn’t the biggest collaborative online encyclopedia in the PRC—it wasn’t even the second—and China’s Communist Party seems to be perfectly TankMancontent promoting its homegrown versions of Google, Facebook and Twitter. In December, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, traveled to China to participate in an Internet conference, where his comments about the limitations of the state’s ability to control the Internet were intentionally lost in translation, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

A similar issue is ongoing in Russia, where the government’s media authority, Roskomnadzor, has weighed blocking access to the Russian-language Wikipedia based on its entries about illegal drugs, temporarily blocking reader access. In addition, it may also be attempting to co-opt Russian-language editors, presenting further challenges to the independence of the Wikimedia project among Russian language contributors.

It’s unclear what Russia will decide to do, but it seems safe to assume that China will hold the line for the foreseeable future. In both countries, and under still more repressive regimes—like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan—independent websites and even independent political parties and religious movements are allowed to operate only at these governments’ discretion. Why should Wikipedia be any different?

♦     ♦     ♦

And this seems like a perfectly good place to leave it. More often than not, Wikipedia’s issues reflect issues that animate and plague society and the Internet writ large. Open knowledge and digital discourse create incredible opportunities for research and innovation, but also bestow tremendous power to the platforms and communities that effectively control the gates. The problems on Wikipedia aren’t that different from those on Reddit or Twitter, they just feel more significant given the site’s mandate and perceived authority. To understand Wikipedia’s successes and failures, we have to look to ourselves for the answer.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to check out its companion piece at The Ink Tank: “Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016”.

All images via Wikimedia Commons except Gamergate logo, source unknown.

Some Thoughts on Gamergategate

Tagged as , , , , , , ,
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.