William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Google’

The Crisis at New Montgomery Street

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on January 11, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Wikipedia officially turns 15 years old at the end of the week.[1]Friday, January 15 to be specific. The tone of the TV news segments, newspaper op-eds, and other media spotlights will be celebratory. However, the mood among Wikipedia insiders is anything but: the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), its Board of Trustees, and close observers within the community are entering the third week of a crisis that’s arguably more public and pointed than similar issues in years past.

The major events and themes seem to be as follows:

  1. In late December the Board of Trustees dismissed a well-liked community-elected trustee, Dr. James Heilman, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious
  2. WMF staff complaints about the performance of executive director Lila Tretikov, long simmering but never on-record, have now boiled over into public discussion
  3. Revelations about newly-appointed Board trustee Arnnon Geshuri’s involvement in an illegal anti-poaching scheme while at Google has drawn community outcry
  4. Besides failing to vet Geshuri, the WMF’s increasing tilt toward the Silicon Valley and focus on (perhaps) the wrong technology projects has come into sharper relief

Woven into each strand is a theme that The Wikipedian has covered since 2012 at least, each time with a few more data points and a little more urgency: that the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community it supposedly exists to serve have become increasingly at odds with one another. A deep exploration of why is beyond the remit of this post—for now, we just need to put everything that’s going on in one place.

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The Sacking of Doc James

On December 28, well-respected community leader Heilman announced via email to the Wikimedia-l public mailing list[2]The Wikimedia-l mailing list is an often tedious, intermittently fascinating semi-public discussion group where self-selected Wikipedians may opine. They include current and former Wikipedia editors, current and former WMF employees, and occasionally Board trustees. The frequency with which Wikimedians post to Wikimedia-l seems to have an inverse relationship with their power inside the Wikimedia Foundation. that he had been “removed” from the board. Heilman gave no initial reason for the announcement, guaranteeing a flurry of speculation and general disarray, not to mention the revelation came during that weird “office dead zone” week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Within the hour, Board chair Patricio Lorente confirmed the news in a follow-up email, providing scarcely any more context, and WMF’s legal department posted the full text of the resolution “James Heilman Removal” on the web:

Resolved, James Heilman is removed from the Board of Trustees, fully ending his term in office and appointment as a member or liaison for any Board committees.

Eight trustees voted to approve; only two voted against: fellow community representative Dariusz Jemielniak and Heilman himself.

Dr._James_HeilmanInto the contextual void spilled hundreds of replies even before the turn of the calendar three days later. Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, the longest-serving trustee, was the first to add a smidge of information. In response to the growing concern of commenters on his user page, Wales simply stated that Heilman’s removal was “for cause”.

On January 1, while the community was still searching for answers, Heilman posted a somewhat cryptic statement giving his side of the story, suggesting that the Board had sacked him for “[r]eleasing private board information”—even though, according to Heilman, he had only “pushed for greater transparency”. This view was largely adopted by other Wikimedia-l participants, who were already predisposed to side with him.[3]In later comments on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page, Heilman added more details about what he wanted to see made public (see: the fourth segment of this blog post). In their view, Heilman’s mysterious dismissal looked like the canonical example of the Board’s troubling lack of transparency.

On January 5, the Board published a FAQ explaining their rationale, although it’s doubtful that it satisfied many. It seemed to agree that some form of this “confidence vs. transparency” question was at the core:

Over time, his fellow Trustees came to the opinion that they lacked sufficient confidence in his discretion, judgment, and ability to maintain confidential Board information about the Wikimedia Foundation governance activities.

Later still, community-elected trustee Denny Vrandečić posted his own take on the dismissal, reinforcing this consensus. Even so, the underlying disagreement remained a mystery. To solve it, the first clue may be found in Heilman’s January 1 post, making a point that went unremarked-upon by the Board. Heilman wrote he had been “accused”—though not publicly to this point—of:

Giving staff unrealistic expectations regarding potential board decisions. I have always stated to staff that I only represented 10% of the board and have never given assurances that I could convince other trustees.

Well, now what does that mean? Convince them of what, exactly? Careful observers on the list had some idea:

For whatever reason James ended being ground zero for complaints by WMF
employees. … James handled these complaints in a way that the WMF management felt was undermining their authority/ability to lead and complained to the board. The board sided with management and removed James.

As far as I have seen, no Board member has disputed this. Then again, none has yet commented upon it in any way. Perhaps frustrated by this fact, last Friday[4]January 7 Heilman made public his final pre-removal letter to the Board—in which he admitted acting “out of process” and asked for a second chance:

Our board made the decision to give Lila a second chance in the face of staff mistrust. In the long road ahead to improve our movement, I would like to have the same opportunity to continue working together with you as well.

Ten days later, his request was denied and the whole thing broke wide open.

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The Trouble With Tretikov

The tenure of Lila Tretikov, the second major leader of the Wikimedia Foundation, got off to a rocky start even before she assumed the title of Executive Director in mid-2014: as The Wikipedian reluctantly chronicled at the time, her (rather eccentric) significant other had inserted himself, unbidden, into the Wikimedia-l mailing list and other forums for Wikipedia discussion, depriving her of the chance to set the tone of her own arrival.

Lila_TretikovBut everyone wanted her to succeed, she made good impressions, seemed to have the resume for the job, and so was given time to prove herself. However, as I wrote in my year-in-review last month, that honeymoon period is long over: very high turnover in top management, questionable hires, and emerging details of a staff revolt at the Foundation’s New Montgomery Street office have brought her leadership under close scrutiny.

Although staff discontent has been mostly the stuff of rumors over the past six months (at least), if you knew what to look for, you could find it in certain corners of the web. There was that one Quora thread, although it didn’t say very much. Somewhat more voluble is the Foundation’s entry on Glassdoor[5]Like Yelp but for workplaces., where reviews by anonymous current and former staffers provide clearer evidence of dissatisfaction among WMF employees. Of note, Tretikov holds just a 15% approval, and reviews have grown steadily more negative in recent months:

Unfortunately, the foundation is going through management turmoil. There is no strategy — or worse, a new strategic plan is rolled out every couple of months with no follow-through or accountability. … Please hire better executives and directors.

And:

The Executive Director unveils a new strategy every three months or so. She completely abandons the previous strategy and then does nothing to actually follow through on the strategy. … We need a new Executive Director. Most C-Level executives have fled. We will not be able to attract top talent until there is new leadership at the very top.

Although Glassdoor may present a skewed sample, this doesn’t appear to be the case. As Wikipedia Signpost contributor Andreas Kolbe points out, comparable non-profit organizations[6]NPR, for instance have much, much better employee ratings. And last week the Signpost reported on the existence of a yet-unreleased internal WMF survey from 2015 that found approximately 90% employee dissatisfaction. Yet when the turnover issue came up on the mailing list, Boryana Dineva, WMF’s new HR director, replied that everything was well within normal limits for the industry. This seems hard to believe.

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Arnnon Geshuri Agonistes

Amidst all this, the Board announced on January 6 the naming of two new appointed trustees: Kelly Battles and Arnnon Geshuri. Following some initial confusion as to whether either was a replacement for Heilman—they were not, but replacements for Jan Bart de Vreede and Stu West, whose terms had ended in December 2015—there came the usual round of congratulatory notices.

Arnnon_GeshuriBut the following day a regular list contributor raised a new issue: Geshuri had, in a previous role as Google’s Senior Staffing Strategist, actively participated in a rather infamous episode of recent Silicon Valley history: an illegal, collusive agreement among several leading firms—Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, eBay and others—to avoid recruiting each others’ employees. The overall effect was to restrain the career advancement (and hold down salaries) of thousands of tech workers, and the participating firms eventually agreed to pay $415 million to settle the class action lawsuit.

Geshuri’s role in all this? According to email from the unsealed case, as reported by Pando Daily, Geshuri acted decisively to fire a Google recruiter who had been reaching out to Apple employees—which would be, you know, par for the course. Apple’s Steve Jobs complained to Google’s Eric Schmidt, who passed it along to Geshuri. His reply back:

Eric,
On this specific case, the sourcer who contacted this Apple employee should not have and will be terminated within the hour. We are scrubbing the sourcer’s records to ensure she did not contact anyone else. …
Please extend my apologies as appropriate to Steve Jobs. This was an isolated incident and we will be very careful to make sure this does not happen again.

For more details, see this detailed summary by Wikipedian Jim Heaphy, whose Wikipedia article-styled summary ends with a call for Geshuri’s removal from the Board.

On the mailing list, criticism of Geshuri’s appointment came from none other than two former Board chairs: Florence Devouard (in a short comment) and Kat Walsh (in a longer one). Considering how slow current and former Board members were to chime in regarding Heilman’s dismissal[7]And when former members, like SJ Klein, did so, it was in support of Heilman. the swift and strong rejection of Geshuri by Devouard and Walsh underlines how seriously the Board screwed up.

In fact, Dariusz Jemielniak, who had first posted news of the appointment to the list, indicated in a subsequent comment that the Board had not discussed this aspect of Geshuri’s career at all. Wales, for his part, confirmed that he was aware at least of the broad outlines, which of course can be easily found—where else?—in Geshuri’s Google search results.[8]Where another gossipy Quora thread appears. Curiously, as of this writing, the anti-poaching scandal exists on Geshuri’s entry only as a single, carefully-phrased sentence.

At the time of this writing, no announcement about Geshuri’s continued trusteeship has been made, but it seems his tenure will be very short. Considering the nature of the scandal, and the strident opposition, it’s very difficult to see how he can remain. And if Geshuri somehow survives where Heilman did not, the chasm between the Foundation and community will become considerably wider.

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The Silicon Wiki

Besides Geshuri, the Wikipedia Signpost observed last week that at least five Board trustees have significant relationships with Google.[9]Possibly unnecessary but probably advisable disclosure: Google is a client of my firm, Beutler Ink, although I have not personally been involved with these projects and none of our work for Google relates in any way to Wikipedia. Likewise the WMF has some Board connections to Tesla, and somewhat weaker ties to Facebook. What of it? A few big issues come to mind.

The first is simply the question of diversity and representation: Wikipedia may have been founded in and is still operating out of the United States, but its reach is global and its underlying ethic is inclusive. This is rather hard to do, and gets into extraordinarily thorny questions of identity politics which even those who raise them are unprepared to answer. But until such a time as there is consensus that the WMF is sufficiently representative of its global audience, it will at least be mentioned.

The second is the always-present question of conflicts of interest. Not just the perennial “COI” question about Wikipedia content and publicity-motivated editing, but the big picture version of same: whether this public good, this collaborative, free-in-all-senses online knowledge repository is being manipulated by powerful insiders for private gain—especially in a way that steers Wikipedia and its sister projects in a direction that deprives others from making the most of their Wikipedia experience.

Downtown_San_FranciscoThis specific harm hasn’t been shown to be the case, but if anyone is going to do that, well, it’s entirely plausible[10]if not exactly obvious this may come from the Silicon Valley firms who are close to Wikipedia both in physical proximity (WMF is based in downtown San Francisco) and focus area (WMF all but owns the tech side of Wikipedia). Indeed, there have been calls for Board members to disclose their own conflicts and recuse themselves when relevant interests intersect.

Then again, there are now fears that something like this might be happening with an embryonic project called Search and Discovery. Last week the Wikimedia Foundation and Knight Foundation jointly announced a new partnership examining the search habits of Wikipedia users with an eye toward a later project that may eventually replace Wikipedia’s current internal search.[11]Formerly described as a “knowledge engine” in a semi-official FAQ, the project has in fact been developing in something like stealth mode in WMF’s Discovery department for several months now. It might even incorporate other databases—not just Wikidata, but non-Wikimedia data resources as well. (Big Data is the future, lest we forget.) It sounds like a plausible direction for WMF, but as Signpost reports, the staff morale problem is at least in part tied to concerns about the resources allocated to the project. And this, too, intersects with Heilman’s dismissal from the board: in recent days he has made comments suggesting that the grant—which was actually decided in September 2015—should have been announced earlier.

Other criticisms have come from former staffer Pete Forsyth, who has questioned the process whereby WMF accepted the “restricted grant” from Knight—a practice once opposed by Sue Gardner, Tretikov’s predecessor. And a highly thought-provoking argument comes from longtime Wikipedia veteran Liam Wyatt, who made this compelling observation in his own blog post about the controversial last few weeks:

[A] portion of the Board of Trustees and the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation believe that it should be treated as a technology organisation in the style of a dot-com company, out of step with the staff and without the awareness of the community. By contrast, it’s always been my belief that the Wikimedia Foundation is an education charity that happens to exist primarily in a technology field. Of course software engineering is crucial to the work we do and should represent the major proportion of staff and budget, but that is the means, not the end.

The contrary view is that the Wikimedia Foundation has long been heavy on technology—under Gardner, the WMF identified itself as a “grant-making and technology” organization—as these are roles the foundation can undertake without overstepping its charter, and for which of course it has sufficient funds. That said, there has been little clamor for this particular project, especially as the community has made different technology recommendations to the Foundation, such as better integration with the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine and improved UI in editor tools, which are arguably clearer and more achievable.

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As I post this on Monday, January 11, it’s entirely possible that new information about any or all of the above related controversies could appear and change the picture dramatically. Given the fact, I’d better post this before anything else happens that would require a massive rewrite. I’ll aim to save those for a subsequent update, whether below this inadequate summary or in a separate blog post. Either way, stay tuned. And if I’ve missed anything important, please add them in the comments.

N.B. This post marks the introduction of a new post category at The Wikipedian, named for a term whose coinage appears to have occurred this past July, by the above-mentioned Wyatt, in a tweet directed to yours truly.

All images via Wikimedia Commons; image credits in order: Victor Grigas, Lane Hartnell, Myleen Hollero, Tim Adams.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Friday, January 15 to be specific.
2. The Wikimedia-l mailing list is an often tedious, intermittently fascinating semi-public discussion group where self-selected Wikipedians may opine. They include current and former Wikipedia editors, current and former WMF employees, and occasionally Board trustees. The frequency with which Wikimedians post to Wikimedia-l seems to have an inverse relationship with their power inside the Wikimedia Foundation.
3. In later comments on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page, Heilman added more details about what he wanted to see made public (see: the fourth segment of this blog post).
4. January 7
5. Like Yelp but for workplaces.
6. NPR, for instance
7. And when former members, like SJ Klein, did so, it was in support of Heilman.
8. Where another gossipy Quora thread appears.
9. Possibly unnecessary but probably advisable disclosure: Google is a client of my firm, Beutler Ink, although I have not personally been involved with these projects and none of our work for Google relates in any way to Wikipedia.
10. if not exactly obvious
11. Formerly described as a “knowledge engine” in a semi-official FAQ, the project has in fact been developing in something like stealth mode in WMF’s Discovery department for several months now.

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?

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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.

Wiki Fools!

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on April 1, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Like other prominent websites and organizations (notably Google) Wikipedia likes to play harmless pranks on its users each April 1, and has every year since 2004. The first year, the notoriously deletion-happy (well, arguably) Wikipedia community took votes on whether to delete the Wikipedia main page. And though the vote for deletion was overwhelming, of course no such action was taken.

These days, some pranks are user-facing: Wikipedia now writes a humorous summary of a real article for its Featured article of the day, and in a nod to last fall’s controversial banner ads (well, less arguably) featuring Jimmy Wales, today they took it a step further:

Wikipedia April Fool's joke, 2011

Although obviously worked out ahead of time, it still prompted a few long-ish discussions on the Talk page associated with Wikipedia’s Main Page. The descriptive title of one: ““Disgraceful. Keep the April Fools Day jokes off Wikipedia!” This particular not-unreasonable argument went like this:

We are supposed to be a website of information, not mis-information. Aprils Fool’s Day is not a cultural universal and it is confusing to international visitors. It’s hard enough reading in a second-plus language let alone deciphering humor and sarcasm. Leave silliness to less important websites. Call me old fashion [sic] and boring but Wikipedia is supposed to be above such triteness.

The best answer, at least regarding the joke Featured summary, came from editor JTalledo:

Eh. We get into this debate every April 1st. It used to be a lot worse, when actual misinformation was placed on the main page. I remember one year there was a faux announcement about Wikipedia being sold to Britannica, resulting in an admin edit war. The current compromise involves intentionally misleading prose explaining actual facts. … Serious events have happened and continue to happen on April 1 and they’re often slighted in the Main Page hijinks. Personally, I think it’s one of those things that goes against the previously stated aim of trying to achieve Britannica quality or better. But hey, it’s popular, so what are you gonna do?

Yep, that sounds right. April Fool’s Day may not be universal, but it certainly is international, especially in English-speaking countries. And because Wikipedia runs on Greenwich Mean Time, it’s gone already.

P.S. Wikipedia also maintains a list of well-known April Fool’s pranks, and it could use some assistance.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part IV: If Personnel is Policy, then Userbase is Destiny

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on March 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

In three posts last week, I considered how buzzy Q&A website Quora is more like Wikipedia than not. In this post, I’ll address how the different organizations behind them may affect the communities surrounding each.

For all of Quora’s upbeat talk about wanting to become “the best place” for answering questions on any conceivable topic, it is first and foremost a for-profit enterprise, and one allegedly worth somewhere between $300 million and $1 billion. It’s not hard to imagine how outside pressures (such as those from investors) might eventually force Quora to choose between the best thing for its community’s experience and the best thing for its financial well-being.

In fact, this probably has already discouraged one type of editor: the free culture / free software crowd, who helped build Wikipedia. One would think these folks might otherwise be interested in building a universal repository of information—but not if it’s a closed system. As we’ve seen in the unhapphiness of some Huffington Post bloggers following that site’s sale to AOL, one needn’t be a close follower of Richard Stallman to have questions about spending a lot of time helping to build a resource that may never produce a monetary return. Now, I am not saying those complaining about HuffPo are right, or discounting that participation on such platforms can be rewarding for non-monetary reasons. But it’s something Quora will have to look out for.

Wikipedia and Quora logosA good example involves an incident well-known at Wikipedia where, in the site’s early years, a significant number of editors on Wikipedia’s nascent Spanish-language edition decamped over such concerns. Among several reasons for the split, the most significant involved a suggestion (not even a real proposal) that Wikipedia would pay the bills by selling ads on the website. At the time, Wikipedia belonged to a private company owned by Jimmy Wales, and its url was www.wikipedia.com. So they left and started a competitor, Enciclopedia Libre Universal. The Spanish-language Wikipedia eventually recovered and outpaced its rival, but not for several years. (Wikipedians call this the “Spanish Fork”; for more information see this Jauary 2011 interview and Andrew Lih’s book, The Wikipedia Revolution.)

It probably doesn’t matter whether Quora might one day include advertising, because these types of editors would never have showed up in the first place. Let’s imagine, just for the moment, that they did open up advertising. One way or another, that would end up influencing content, which would be hard to reconcile with their stated goal that “each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.” Even if advertising didn’t influence content, it would inevitably interfere with it.

A handy comparison is Twitter: a few years back, one of it co-founders inadvisably pledged the site would “never” have advertising. They came up with a clever solution in Promoted Tweets, but there are still backlashes in store, like the one this past weekend over the “quickbar” added to Twitter’s iPhone app. And remember, the question here is not whether Quora will alienate participants so much they all leave—but whether enough disengage or never show up to keep it from competing with Wikipedia for mindshare in a serious way.

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Of course, it must be acknowledged that Wikipedia’s being a non-profit foundation (taking over for Wales’ dot com in 2003) comes with its own drawbacks. Late last year, many readers expressed displeasure with the months-long banner campaign featuring Wales and others “begging” for money. But they say this about NPR, too. And while its listeners put up with it (even as they sometimes put in for it) there is a huge audience of people who like neither the content nor the management, and stay away.

Apple vs. AndroidOne thing about being a hot new startup does help Quora: it has a dedicated design team actively working on the site design, and can make decisions more quickly. Wikipedia often struggles to make big changes, and with implementation of Flagged revisions or the debate over paid editing, disagreement can lead to paralysis and a default to the status quo.

At the moment, which is better remains a philosophical question: Wikipedia’s open and free nature vs. Quora’s closed and proprietary model. If you think that sounds like an easy question, consider the debate between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The two operating systems are currently very competitive, and it’s an open question which will pull ahead. Applications within Apple’s closely-regulated App Store are far more reliable and considered to be of higher quality than those within Google’s open app marketplace.

For any number of reasons, this may not be a great analogy for discussing Wikipedia and Quora. But consider how competitive the Android platform might be if it had debuted not one year after Apple’s iPhone but ten years. If Quora had launched at the beginning of the 2000s instead of its end, we might be talking about a very different competition. Right now, it is difficult to see how Quora can close the gap (more like a vast gulf) between itself and Wikipedia. At least, it won’t happen anytime soon.

But perhaps the Wikipedia comparison is setting the bar too high. Quora is an interesting platform, and I don’t see why it needs to achieve a Wikipedia-like ubiquity to become useful. It certainly needs to displace Yahoo! Answers, and it needs to start showing up in Google search results. If its community continues to grow and build out its content in areas that Wikipedia doesn’t want to cover, then it just might have a chance. The philosophical difference is resolvable only with data: as Quora develops in months and years to come, we’ll see how it stacks up. I’ll still be spending most of my time on Wikipedia, both as a reader and an editor. But if I can’t find it there, my next stop will definitely be Quora.

Follow me on Quora, if you are so inclined.

Ken Auletta on Wikipedia

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on October 30, 2009 at 11:46 am

On Sunday November 1, New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta will appear on C-SPAN‘s “Q&A” with host and network founder Brian Lamb. In the three-minute excerpt below, Auletta talks about Google’s algorithm, search engine optimization, and Wikipedia:

Auletta’s expertise stretches far beyond the media mogul interviews he writes for his magazine’s editors — in 2001 he wrote a book on Microsoft and its enemies — but wait for the part where Lamb stumps Auletta on Google search results.

The King of Wikipedia Traffic

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on June 27, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Michael Jackson‘s sudden and shocking death just about blew up the Internet this past week, and Wikipedia was no exception, even getting briefly knocked offline. And as the New York Times’ tech reporter Noam Cohen reported, the stunning news produced another milestone for Wikipedia:

The Michael Jackson entry in Wikipedia Thursday evening appeared to have set the record as having the highest traffic in the eight-year history of the online encyclopedia.

In the 7 p.m. hour alone Thursday, shortly after Mr. Jackson’s death was confirmed, there were nearly one million visitors to that article. (In fact, for that hour more than 250,000 visitors went to the misspelled entry “Micheal Jackson.” Even his brother Randy Jackson had 25,000 visits that hour.)

“We suspect this is most in a one-hour period of any article in Wikipedia history,” said Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco.

The article goes on to note that this represented about 1 percent of Wikipedia’s total traffic on the day — this may not sound like much, until you recall the English Wikipedia has more than 2.9 million articles. Writing midday Friday, Cohen predicted that the article could surpass 5 million visits on Friday. As it happens, Cohen set his target a little too low:

traffic-spike-wikipedia-jackson

1.4 million visits is pretty remarkable, but 5.9 million visits in unprecendented. However, there is one discrepancy: yesterday’s estimates from User:Henrik‘s Wikipedia article traffic statistics tool (and Cohen’s article) put the figure at 1.8 million visits, which means the numbers where somehow reconciled downward in the interim. I’ll be looking to find out why. And while Cohen names as a point of comparison President Barack Obama‘s Wikipedia article, which received 2.3 million visits on Election Day, I know of a page that received more traffic still and offers a better comparison:

traffic-spike-wikipedia-palin

That spike you are looking at occurred on the day that Senator John McCain announced Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in the final days of August, 2008 (as previously discussed on Blog P.I.). Between Jackson and Palin we have one well-known but mysterious and one little-known but suddenly very public figure, thrust into the middle of a breaking news story. By comparison, Obama was a highly visible public figure and Election Day was known far in advance. Perhaps that actually makes the 2.3 million that day even more impressive. But it’s hard to read much more into bar graphs such as this beyond acknowledging they represent a sudden and externally-driven interest in the subject.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that the article containing the information people presumably want most, Death of Michael Jackson, has not recorded anything like the traffic of the primary MJ article:

traffic-spike-wikipedia-jackson-death

Why is this the case? Part of the answer is the power of Google, which is the overwhelming driver of traffic to Wikipedia. On that note, I don’t know about you, but in the past 24 hours, Michael Jackson’s official site and his Wikipedia article have traded places on Google, with Wikipedia now ranked first overall. Second, the link to this article is found deep in the primary one, albeit of course at the top of the section concerning his death. Still, 527 is a rounding error compared to 5.9 million. Perhaps the Michael Jackson article itself satisfied their curiosity, before clicking over to iTunes and downloading a copy of Thriller.

And one last, somewhat morbid note: it is strange indeed that the King of Pop is no longer covered by Wikipedia’s Biography of living persons guideline.

Update: In the comments, one of the more knowledegable Wikipedia editors, Tvoz, suggests I’m wrong on the last point:

One thing: actually Michael Jackson’s article *is* still covered by the “biographies of living people” guidelines. Those guidelines protect the integrity of Wikipedia’s articles and intend to thwart defamation, and it is expected that editors will continue to follow the policy and remove poorly sourced defamatory material immediately, even after the death. His family members are alive, and causes of action as a result of such defamatory material could still be brought.

An interesting point, and I think a fair clarification. My inclination is to say this means that Jackson’s family members are still covered by BLP, and this means that any material on the Michael Jackson page must conform to the policy in order to protect them, rather than MJ himself. And of course, spurious information shouldn’t be added at any time — and Jackson’s continued celebrity probably means that this page will be scrutinized more than most.

The Wikipedia Haters Club

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on June 9, 2009 at 8:42 am

Count as one member Examiner.com personal finance columnist Steve Juetten, who writes in a review comparing Microsoft’s newly launched search engine, Bing, with old standby Google:

Before I started the search, I set two rules. First, I was looking for information from reliable sources. As a result, if a search placed information from Wikipedia high on the list, the search engine sank in my review. As with information from any source (human, web or book), trust but verify and Wikipedia is not trustworthy when it comes to your money.

Anyone who spends much time around Wikipedia is pretty familiar with complaints such as these, and to this end the Wikipedia community maintains a page called Replies to common objections. Juetten isn’t quite specific enough for me to highlight a particular section, but I’m pretty sure he will find some answers in the answers to “Wikipedia can never be high quality“.

Meanwhile, a few objections to his objection do occur to me. For one thing, who is to say that other sources will be more trustworthy? Juetten undoubtedly singles out Wikipedia for its high profile, but it’s difficult to see why it should be placed at a disadvantage to About.com, Answers.com or NNDB, all of which can rank well for certain terms.*

Are these other information resources likely to be more reliable? I know of no reason why they should be. And if About.com or NNDB does happen to be wrong, there’s not a thing you can do about it.

Lastly, I agree with Juetten that “trust but verify” is a good personal rule and a sound approach to research, but I don’t understand why he doesn’t extend it to Wikipedia when this is an area in which Wikipedia often shines. One of the site’s core content policies is in fact Verifiability, that articles need references. But Juetten’s objection becomes even more ironic when you consider that said references are required to meet another core policy: Reliable sources.

Juetten’s worldly cynicism is understandable but, in this case, selectively applied and ultimately misplaced. It is true that Wikipedia is not completely reliable, but it shouldn’t be penalized for being one of the few reference websites that actually admits the fact.

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*For example, try searching for Alan Greenspan on Google and Alan Greenspan on Bing. As of this morning, the top three results for each are: Wikipedia, Answers.com and NNDB.