William Beutler on Wikipedia

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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