William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Jimmy Wales’

The Federalist Pages: What Neil deGrasse Tyson and Conservative Bloggers Tell Us About Wikipedia and US Politics

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on September 30, 2014 at 11:33 am

You might be surprised to learn that Wikipedia has a formal policy called “Wikipedia is not a battleground”. Not that anyone seems to have got the memo: although Wikipedia’s rules kindly suggest that its editors not use articles to advance ideological or partisan interests, in practice there’s no reason to think that it can work like that. And should we really want it to be otherwise?

This brings us to the latest partisan battle to make its way from the political blogosphere (if we still call it that?) to the pages of Wikipedia: Tyson-gate (or: Tyson-ghazi?). Earlier this month, a new-ish right-of-center web magazine called The Federalist (whose contributors, I should say, include several friends) started publishing a series of articles pointing out inaccuracies—or possibly fabrications—by the celebrated scientist, media personality and Colbert Report regular Neil deGrasse Tyson.

640px-Bill_Nye,_Barack_Obama_and_Neil_deGrasse_Tyson_selfie_2014Federalist co-founder Sean Davis made a pretty strong case that a quote Tyson attributed to former President George W. Bush did not in fact exist; Tyson eventually acknowledged the error, though it wasn’t quickly forthcoming. While subsequent events have made it clear that Davis had the goods on Tyson, his rhetorical style leaves much to be desired: Davis insists on words like “fabricated” implying an insight into the nature of Tyson’s error that he really can’t know. Davis isn’t alone in this; on the left, Media Matters routinely uses the unforgiving phrase “falsely claims” to describe conservative opinions all the time. This puts me in mind of another Wikipedia policy inconsistently observed: “Comment on content, not the contributor” Remember this point, because I’m going to come back to it.

Anyway, of course the battle made its way to the front lines of the war of ideas, Wikipedia. What happened over the last week was simple enough: one person added a lengthy summary of Davis’ allegations to Tyson’s Wikipedia bio; someone else reverted it very quickly, claiming that it went too far; another editor tried a shorter version; yet another editor removed it again for being “original research”; around and around it went like this from September 16 to 21. When I started compiling links on Tuesday the 29th, a fairly short, but also short-on-context version of this passage read:

Tyson has claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[59] Tom Jackson of the Tampa Tribune called it “… a vicious, gratuitous slander.”[60]

But then a longer version which appeared later in the day seemed like too much:

Tyson had claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”.[58] Neil Tyson has confirmed that he was actually referring to President Bush’s February 2003 speech on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and that he “transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote.” [59] In that speech then-President George W. Bush quotes Isaiah when he said “He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name.”[60] Then George W. Bush said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.” [61]

As of this writing, all mention of the controversy has been removed, and the article has been temporarily locked to prevent further edit warring. Meanwhile, the debate on the Neil deGrasse Tyson discussion page has run to some 50,000 (!) words since mid-September, comprising at least one Request for Comment where the only real conclusion so far is: “This has become unproductive.”

Meanwhile, someone put The Federalist’s own Wikipedia article up for deletion, possibly out of spite, but also possibly because it seemed like a borderline eligibility case based on included sources at the time. Nevertheless, it seems likely that a very short version of the article will be kept once the arguing here is through. (And as more than one contributor has noted, the more attention this gets in the political media, the more “Notable” The Federalist likely becomes.)

Throughout this debate, Davis and The Federalist haven’t been doing themselves any favors. Sean Davis of course is as much reporting on his own fight with Tyson as he is reporting on Tyson, including multiple articles about the debate on Wikipedia.
This included an initial summary on September 18 that continued blithely pushing the “fabrication” claim and proudly quoted an unnamed Wikipedian saying “no version of this event will be allowed into the article” as if this unnamed editor spoke for all of Wikipedia. Worse still was a follow-up by Davis called “9 Absurd Edit Justifications By Wikipedia’s Neil Tyson Truthers” that pointed to fairly standard considerations for inclusion or exclusion of controversial material as if it was patent nonsense. For instance, these two comments:

It doesn’t matter if we can demonstrate it happened or not, many things happen in many people lives, we don’t write each of them into every persons biography. …

[T]his is being kept off because Wikipedia is deeply conservative in the non-political meaning of the word.

Davis may not like these answers, but they are anything but unreasonable points to make in a content dispute, especially about a living person whose reputation is (to some degree) at stake. Indeed, the same policy that points out Wikipedia is not a battleground also points out: “[N]ot all verifiable events are suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia.”

The problem is not that Davis is wrong; in fact, some of the objections to the topic’s inclusion were possibly mistaken, arrived at prematurely, or later invalidated by the emergence of new sources. The problem is not even that Davis is treating Wikipedia as a battleground—after all, Wikipedia is where we go to argue about such things. If Wikipedia is to be the “sum of human knowledge”, that very much includes contentious material related to political and ideological battles.

The problem is actually one of good faith—and here we come to a policy that is also frequently ignored on Wikipedia, but would it be followed better, we could have all been saved a few weeks and tens of thousands of words: “Assume good faith”. And as problems go, it is one that exists on both sides, although it tends to be the case that one side usually goes further—which either produces a decisive political victory or defeat. Davis has this territory pretty well staked out with this column that doesn’t accomplish anything but to “falsely claim” Wikipedia is a single entity entirely comprising lying liars of the left.

The political blogosphere was a source of fascination for me in the early part of my career, in particular writing about it in a sadly departed column called The Blogometer for National Journal’s Hotline. Starting in the late 2000s, I turned my focus more to Wikipedia, in particular writing about it on this blog. There are numerous parallels, but the least savory is the tendency of both to bog down in bitter recrimination. Witness also the fight over the Chelsea Manning Wikipedia entry from late last year.

Part of me thinks that Wikipedia shouldn’t worry about these fights, only about whether or not they continue to occur at Wikipedia; even an ugly debate is better than none at all, right? But considering the voluminous anecdotal evidence that Wikipedia’s eroding editor base and absurd gender gap owe something to its tolerance for incivility—despite the existence of a policy stating otherwise and a speech by Jimmy Wales at Wikimania this year calling for a renewed emphasis upon it—this is something the Wikipedia community had better take seriously.

Of course, this doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Sean Davis, The Federalist, left-leaning Wikipedia editors, and even Neil deGrasse Tyson with his bullshit political anecdotes (I am using Harry Frankfurt’s precise definition) aren’t quite the problem; they are merely avatars of it. Everything that’s wrong with US politics—where to start!—eventually finds its way to Wikipedia.

But there remains one important difference between the blogosphere and Wikipedia: rules. The blogosphere does not have them; Wikipedia does, and these rules shape the debate that occurs on its talk pages. Without these rules, it would just be endless edit wars of attrition. The problem with Wikipedia, then, is not its rules but how it enforces them. Wikipedia’s community should be asking itself: what kind of battleground do we want to be?

Photo via the White House / Flickr.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 2)

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on January 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

On Tuesday, this blog published the first half of our annual roundup of the biggest Wikipedia events over the past 12 months. In that post, we covered the untimely passing of Aaron Swartz, the launch of Wikivoyage, the rise of Wikipediocracy, battles at Wikimedia Commons, and problems that have followed Wikipedia’s impressive fundraising. Today we finish the job:

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5. Basically ArbCom will never get its act together

Fair warning: I am not an ArbCom insider, I rarely follow its various dramas, and so I am not going to even going to attempt a satisfactory summary of everything that happened with ArbCom this past year. But let’s start with some background: ArbCom is short for Arbitration Committee, a group which I’ve just discovered has its own Wikipedia article. It’s an elected volunteer panel of (generally) respected Wikipedians who weigh in on tough issues and make binding decisions. The comparison to a national Supreme Court is glib but not entirely wrong, especially as they can (and often do) refuse to take certain cases, not to mention set precedents affecting future decisions.

The problem with ArbCom, if I can describe it generally, is that the organization has long been characterized by turnover and chaos. Nothing that happened this year was especially new, but that’s also part of the problem. Back when Wikipedia was just an experimental project, it was plausible enough that ArbCom’s dysfunction was something Wikipedia could grow out of. But the opposite has proved to be the case—as far as I can tell, no one thinks it’s ever getting better.

Two major incidents were big enough to merit rate a mention in episodes later in this post. Among others which didn’t, one more or less started off the tone for the year when, in March, an ArbCom veteran resigned his position while excoriating his fellow members for “stonewalling, filibustering, and downright ‘bullying’” when they weren’t “getting their way”. And then 2013 ended with another bang, as the top vote-getter in the latest ArbCom election, conducted just weeks ago, resigned his position after admitting to maintaining a secret account on—wait for it—Wikipediocracy.

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4. Wikipedia has more than a gender problem…

Bradley_ManningIt won’t take us too long to get back to ArbCom, but first let’s observe that Wikipedia is well known to have a “gender problem”; as The Wikipedian (and many more mainstream publications) have written extensively, Wikipedia’s editorship is overwhelmingly male, and it doesn’t cover certain topics (like women scientists, for example) very well. But this year an ugly row exposed what seems to be a more localized but still serious problem with transgender issues.

In August, Private Bradley Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act, and subsequently announced a public transition from male to female and the intention to be known as Chelsea Manning. (As I’ve written before, Manning’s transgender status was known, but until this point unconfirmed by Manning herself.) Wikipedia is generally considered a more progressive community than most, and references on Wikipedia were changed more quickly than at most news organizations. In fact, some of those same mainstream news publications praised Wikipedia for being quick to act. As it turned out, they should have been slower to praise.

Chelsea_ManningThe move was challenged, and the article was even changed back to Bradley, where it stayed as the debate heated up. Some objections were made in good faith and based on interpretations of guidelines, but some people were just being assholes. And then some of some of Chelsea Manning’s defenders crossed the line as well, and of course it ended up at ArbCom, which could seem to make no one happy in its various conclusions. First, ArbCom decided that yes, “Chelsea Manning” would indeed be the article’s name going forward. But among the punishments handed out, a pro-Chelsea editor was banned over an issue many considered a technicality—specifically for writing this blog post. During the fracas, the media was still watching, and some of the headings stung. Indeed, a newspaper may be slower to change, but when it makes a decision, it usually sticks with it.

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3. What happens when the COI guideline is contested in court?

Some of the problems involving the Wikipedia community have to do with the unusual compensation-based class system that has evolved around its community and “conflict of interest” rules. The more important Wikipedia has become, the more reputational impact it has shown to have, and the more it has been seen as both an opportunity and problem for celebrities, semi-public figures, professionals, companies, brands, bands, campaigns and non-profits. Since this first became an issue in 2006, Wikipedia has never quite figured out what to do about it. At the risk of oversimplifying things, mostly it has done nothing.

This year the worst nightmare of many came true when it turned out that a little-known but ever-expanding investigation into a network of secretly connected “sock puppet” user accounts traced back to an obscure but apparently quite successful startup called Wiki-PR. The name was familiar to some Wikipedians, but no definitive link had been established between the company and these accounts, owing something to the community’s (inconsistently applied) hang-ups about identifying editors’ public identities.

The revelation prompted the Wikimedia Foundation to issue a strongly-worded cease-and-desist letter to the company, although the impact was blunted when it emerged that someone from the Foundation’s own law firm had once anonymously edited the company’s article, violating the same rules it was supposedly defending. One can almost start to understand why the issue has been allowed to slide for so long.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s volunteer community banned the company’s known accounts, and then Arbcom angered some editors when it ordered one of the volunteer investigators to back off for reasons it said it couldn’t explain. Legal action from the Wikimedia Foundation is still possible, which could put the Foundation on an uncertain path just as its longtime leader is about to leave (see next).

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2. Sue Gardner’s departure and the uncertain new era

Sue_GardnerSue Gardner is not exactly the only leader Wikipedia has ever known. After all, Jimmy Wales is still its most widely-recognized figure, and there was that guy who called the FBI on them, once, too. But Sue Gardner is (with one interim exception) the only executive director the Wikimedia Foundation has ever known.

In 2007 she left a position running the CBC’s web operations in Toronto to join the Wikimedia Foundation. By the end of that year she was in charge of the whole thing, at a time of significant growth and staff turmoil (does anyone remember Danny Wool? Carolyn Doran? no?). In the years since, it has grown considerably more (150+ staffers now vs. a handful at the beginning), and she has led the Foundation about as well as anyone could be imagined to do. Now she’s announced that she is leaving on an as-yet-unspecified date to pursue as-yet-unspecified plans. An decision about her replacement is expected by March 2014, though a presumptive favorite hasn’t publicly emerged.

Whomever gets the job in the end has a very difficult task ahead. In fact, asking how much the leader of this San Francisco non-profit is really in control of Wikipedia is really asking the wrong question. The executive director leads the Foundation’s staff, but that’s entirely different than saying she leads the Wikipedia community. Which, as a matter of fact, brings us to the biggest Wikipedia story of 2013…

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1. The Visual Editor debacle is also a potent metaphor for Wikipedia’s chief organizational dilemma

To conclude the thought above: the Wikipedia community does not always agree with the Wikimedia Foundation. Some Foundation initiatives have been met with a indifference at best (see last year’s #9, which is arguably the real predecessor entry to this one). Others have been rejected like antibodies to a transplanted organ.

Into this latter category falls the Visual Editor, a long-in-development software initiative which was rolled out this summer to mixed reviews (hey, I thought it was fun) followed by a backlash that grew and grew until a volunteer editor’s uncontested edit of the source code summarily immobilized the whole expensive project.

Maybe I’m overdoing it to place this at number one. Maybe the underlying issue is less than the existential struggle between those two classes of community members than I think; perhaps the issue was simply one of a botched deployment and avoidable toe-stepping that only temporarily poisoned the well.

But I believe no single event in the past year encapsulated the biggest challenge facing Wikipedia today: it seems no better able to organize itself now than when it was a freewheeling experiment stumbling into greater and greater success in its first seven years of its life. Seven years further on, Wikipedia is a different kind of community, one struggling to cope with its fantastic success, but which hasn’t yet learned to adapt.

Whether the Visual Editor itself ever finds its way into everyday usage—and I think it will, after a long “eventually”—it spotlights Wikipedia’s most critical challenges more than any other story, and that’s why it’s the most important Wikipedia story of 2013.

Photo credits: U.S. Army, Chelsea Manning, Wikimedia Foundation.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2013 (Part 1)

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on December 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

In late December for each of the past few years—2010, 2011, 2012A, 2012BThe Wikipedian has published a list of the most important, impactful, and memorable events concerning Wikipedia in the 12 months preceding, according to no one besides me.

Let’s make it four in a row, although like last year I failed to rein the list in, so I’ve again split it into two parts. The first is the post you are reading now; the second will go up on Thursday.

Compared to recent years, 2013 was arguably more eventful, which also sort of implies that that it was a more troubled year. Indeed, I think Wikipedia’s near term future is certain to include its greatest uncertainty yet. The list will show why.

For returning readers: Two stories which repeated in previous years are absent this time: Wikipedia’s role in education (where the situation seemed to get better) and Wikipedia’s gender imbalance (where it didn’t). In both cases, the exclusion simply reflects a lack of any singular newsworthy related event, especially compared with what did make the list. Other issues, relating to conflict of interest and community infighting, are more than represented in specific incidents, which you shall read (much) more about shortly.

Another important acknowledgment: Following the far-flung domains and disciplines Wikipedia contains, I’ve endeavored to research and provide useful information and links, but if I get anything wrong, just drop me a line; I’ll correct and annotate post haste.

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10. Losing Aaron Swartz

Aaron_Swartz-by-RagesossWe start with the year’s saddest event: Aaron Swartz, a widely-admired, long-contributing Wikipedian and a key member of many other important Internet communities from the early 2000s onward, took his own life at the age of 26 in January. I can’t do any better than his own Wikipedia article to give you an idea of how much he accomplished in his short time, but the big media profiles all mentioned his hand in developing RSS, Creative Commons, and even Reddit. Few will approach that over a significantly longer lifespan.

His prodigious intellect could put one in mind of David Foster Wallace with different interests and avocations. It may come as no surprise that Swartz was a DFW fan, and I actually consider Swartz’s early classic of Wikipedia commentary (written while running for the Wikimedia Board in 2006) to be arguably less important overall than his extraordinarily persuasive explanation of what happens at the end of Infinite Jest. Often, it can take a genius to understand one.

Meanwhile, Swartz’s strong belief in the free availability of information led him to a legally risky brand of non-violent direct action: downloading and releasing electronic archives for public consumption. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing prosecution, and potentially many years in prison, for “liberating” academic papers from the JSTOR archive via an MIT closet. Some close to Swartz even blamed his suicide on overzealous persecution. However, like his literary hero—who hanged himself in 2008—Swartz had earlier written of suffering from depression. The case itself was dropped, too late in any case.

What led Aaron Swartz to take his own life will always remain unknowable, but his legacy is secure.

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9. Wiki Trek Into Darkness

If, sometime in the last decade, you have visited a website called Wikitravel, you might’ve imagined it to be another Wikipedia sister project. After all, it has a similar name, it uses the same software, and anyone is invited to edit. This would be a fair assumption. It would also be wrong. Wikitravel is actually a commercial site with absolutely no connection to the Wikimedia Foundation; the most obvious tell is that it runs ads, which Wikimedia projects emphatically do not.

Some back story is in order: in 2006 Wikitravel was acquired by Internet Brands, a California-based web development company (think Barry Diller’s IAC, minus the websites you’ve heard of). Some community members were unhappy about it, and created a “fork” of the project under the name Wikivoyage. In 2012, the English-language Wikitravel community also said “enough” and decided to reconnect with Wikivoyage, which meanwhile decided to join forces with the WMF and make Wikivoyage the very thing you probably thought Wikitravel was all along. This is how, in January 2013, Wikivoyage was relaunched as the 12th official Wikimedia project.

The break was not a clean one. Internet Brands was already suing two Wikitravel contributors who supported the fork, a case the WMF settled in February 2013. Only then it turned out the new logo (which was pretty cool if you ask me) was too similar to the World Trade Organization’s logo (which was not nearly as cool if you ask me) and it was duly changed.

And yet, if Alexa is to be believed, Wikitravel remains the more popular website by far; Wikivoyage briefly enjoyed an impressive traffic spike upon relaunch, but it didn’t last. (Here is one rare occasion where a Wikimedia website has less SEO mojo than a rival site.) While Wikivoyage hasn’t become one of the community’s more successful projects, it still faces some of the same problems as its more popular siblings (see #7).

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8. Wikipediocracy rising

Wikipediocracy_logoWikipediocracy is a website dedicated to Wikipedia criticism, launched in early 2012 by a collection of current and former Wikipedia editors, some exiled and some in good standing. It’s not the first website of its kind; Wikipedia has attracted critics for years, and for most of that time an independent forum called Wikipedia Review played host to the cranks’ most fervent complaints. Wikipedia Review was all but persona non grata on Wikipedia, where it was considered the prototypical “WP:BADSITE”.

Yet Wikipediocracy has proved to be much more relevant. One reason may be structural: whereas its predecessor was merely a message board, Wikipediocracy puts its blog front and center, spotlighting its best arguments while making it easier for outsiders to follow. The net effect is a more insightful—if not always less hostile—critics’ forum, and perhaps this has led more who genuinely like Wikipedia to participate. Whether most Wikipediocracy members think they can make Wikipedia better is questionable, but it seems quite likely that Wikipedia has made Wikipediocracy better.

In just the past calendar year, Wikipediocracy’s distributed network of well-placed, often anonymous, usually pseudonymous observers have played an influential role moving several conflicts into mainstream view. Exposés from Salon about a fiction writer tormenting rivals with malicious edits (the Qworty case) and from Daily Dot about a clever hoax article (the Bicholim Conflict)—to say nothing of some controversies discussed elsewhere in this list—had their roots on Wikipediocracy.

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7. The tragicomedy of Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons is the archive where anyone can upload media files, the more-than-text counterpart to Wikipedia, and is the home to some 20 million images, moving pictures and sounds. As variously detailed by BuzzFeed and Daily Dot, the WikiCommons community’s tolerance of exhibitionists and avant-garde artists has tested Wikimedia’s dedication to freedom of expression. In 2010, this very list included estranged Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger’s call to the FBI about the site’s “lolicon” collection.

This year, an Australian editor who had tangled with Wikipedia’s remaining co-founder Jimmy Wales worked out a deal with an Australian artist calling himself “Pricasso” to paint a portrait of none other than Jimmy Wales using only his… yep, you guessed it. This was uploaded to Commons, along with: a video depicting Pricasso’s full frontal artistic process.

Wales called foul and begged for the deletion of both; after an exhaustive but not atypical debate in two parts, the video was eventually removed. The completely SFW—albeit still WTF—painting survived, and can still be found on Commons. In November, the Wikimedia board updated its strict guidance for biographies of living persons to include “media” and “images”. This was probably not a coincidence.

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6. Where the money is

Wikimedia_motivational_posterIn 2013 I’m still kind of surprised to meet people who don’t know that “anyone can edit” Wikipedia or that it’s operated by a non-profit called the Wikimedia Foundation. But I’m not at all surprised when I meet people who have no idea how much money the Foundation actually has. It’s a lot! According to its latest KPMG-audited financial report, the WMF will earn almost $51 million for the current period, spend $38.5 million, and have $37.8 million left over. Nearly all of the money comes from Wikipedia’s annual fundraising drive, probably the most effective in Internet history.

That’s incredible—everyone who is afraid Wikipedia will one day deploy banner ads, please take note—but it’s also a huge target for critics of the non-profit organization (you know, like those at Wikipediocracy). This year the Foundation has changed how it allocates those funds, allowing community members to join the Funds Dissemination Committee (FDC) for the first time, while discontinuing its centrally-chosen fellowship program in favor of an even more open process called Independent Engagement Grants (IEG).

Criticism also came from less expected quarters: outgoing Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner, who in October made waves for warning that the current FDC process “does not as currently constructed offer sufficient protection against log-rolling, self-dealing, and other corrupt practices.” Specifically, most FDC money goes to “chapters” representing countries or cities around the world, and FDC is heavily influenced by said chapters. Gardner did not call anyone out by name or group, and no one has leveled any kind of serious charges, but one can certainly entertain the possibility that her comment will have more than a slight ring of Ike’s “military-industrial complex” speech to it in years to come.

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The second half of this list followed on Thursday, January 2, 2014.

Photo credits: Aaron Swartz via User:Ragesoss; Wikipediocracy logo via Wikipediocracy; motivational poster via User:Hannibal.

Wikipedia on the Brink?

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on November 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a writer for a big magazine, asking for my take on the much-discussed MIT Technology Review article “The Decline of Wikipeda” by Tom Simonite. As far as I’ve seen, no article has yet appeared, so: I figured I would repurpose my comments for a blog post here, rewriting enough that my remarks remain exclusive, but my views are known. (If that article ever comes out, I’ll update this post.) Some of these topics I’ve previously discussed on Wikipedia Weekly, but a more comprehensive take is long overdue. So here it is.

mit_tech_review_logoFor those who haven’t read it, the Technology Review piece outlines a few reasons for concern about the long-term health of the Wikipedia community. The central points are not at all new: fewer new contributors are joining the site, many veterans are drifting away, the site’s culture and bureaucracy can be stifling, and a startlingly low percentage of contributors are women. All worthy topics, of course. Meanwhile, the piece does a good job of synthesizing these concerns, and explores some recent research that tries to make sense of them.

It also comes at a particularly apt time. In August, when I posted a summary of Wikimania Hong Kong, including Jimmy Wales’ keynote, the event projected something like satisfied aimlessness. Wikipedia was bigger and better than ever, such that the big question was: what would it do next? Wales had some vague ideas about saving journalism, but that’s been about all we’ve heard of it since.

Yet even at that time, and especially in the few months since, the community has experienced several controversies producing animosity and discord not seen since… OK, there is animosity and discord at Wikipedia every single day, especially if you follow the “drama boards”—but these incidents have been very high-profile, in some cases making news (like this Technology Review article), calling into question the community’s ability to reconcile its philosophical differences, spotlighting a rift between the Wikimedia Foundation and the community it serves, and raising doubts about the ability of Wikipedia’s highest judicial authority (the Arbitration Committee, or ArbCom) to make sound decisions. And while most participants would agree that these incidents represent legitimate issues, it’s also fair to say that there is disagreement about much else: how to prioritize issues, how to respond to each, and even what should be a desired outcome in each case. I owe you some details:

  • Visual Editor Debacle—in a post for this blog earlier in the summer, I offered early praise for the Visual Editor, a big initiative from the Foundation, a WYSIWYG version of the Wikipedia editing interface. The big idea was to make editing easier—the standard Wikipedia “markup” is more like computer programming than not—and that doing so might create a path for new people to get involved.

    Wikipedia_Visual_EditorBut this was an untested proposition, and anyway who was to say whether it would attract more helpful or unhelpful edits? Alas, my praise arrived too soon. Scratching a little deeper, the new software had bugs—lots of them. Besides which, existing contributors were unhappy to find that this new system was also the default, a huge change that hadn’t been clearly explained to them ahead of time. Following an extensive debate among the site’s core editors, and after a few strategic retreats by the Foundation’s developers, a single community member changed the code and disabled the Visual Editor for everyone. The Visual Editor is back in beta once again, and its near-term future is uncertain.

    While there were undeniable errors in the launch of this initiative, the Visual Editor’s misfire is less the disease and more the symptom of it. Of late, I’ve been telling anyone who cares to listen that major tensions between the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community pose serious doubts about Wikipedia’s ability to grow into the future. The former group comprises mostly paid professionals who may or may not have originated from the community, while the latter is composed of a vast, disparate, passionate, sometimes disagreeable group of not-quite-like-minded individuals. The formalized former has a greater ability to act in a concerted effort, yet its charter states that it must follow the lead of the leaderless community.

    While Wikipedia was still growing and expanding, rapid growth seemed to solve all problems. Now that the community is contracting and entrenching, it looks like a serious roadblock. How can Wikipedia and its community of editors take on big initiatives—such as revolutionizing journalism—when they can’t agree on something like this? Is consensus still working for Wikipedia at this point?

  • Chelsea / Bradley Manning—Following a high-profile conviction under the Espionage Act in a U.S. military court, the infamous Army Private Manning announced her transgender status (confirmed, really, for those paying close attention) and with it sought public acknowledgment for a name change from Bradley to Chelsea. Although transgender acceptance is rocky still in 2013, it wasn’t too long before most media outlets had adopted the feminine pronoun. Likewise, the Wikipedia entry for Pvt. Manning was updated to /Chelsea—and then it was rolled back to /Bradley—and then the fighting began.

    Manning_US_ArmyI’m not even going to get into the details, except to say that I’m still fairly stunned that the Wikipedia community had to argue about it at all, let alone that it got so ugly. After some debate, ArbCom stepped in. Eventually the entry was moved back to /Chelsea_Manning, and sanctions were imposed on some debate participants. Surprisingly, the heavier penalties were levied on pro-Chelsea editors over technical matters, while some more hostile pro-Bradley editors were let off more easily. A veteran editor named Phil Sandifer complained about this on his personal blog. Soon after, ArbCom returned to say Sandifer had revealed personal information about another participant in violation of Wikipedia’s policies, and he was subsequently banned from Wikipedia. This was a shocking outcome (and I hope I’m not risking my own standing on Wikipedia merely by linking to his post). Assuming ArbCom is correct in their reasoning, I see why they took the position they did—but the punishment seems much harsher than it should be.

    Given the above, it can be very easy to forget that one of Wikipedia’s “five pillars”—the most important organizing principles of the entire project—states: “Editors should treat each other with respect and civility”. Technology Review points out that acrimony among editors and complaints about the increasingly unpleasant and bureaucratic nature of Wikipedia is a reason editors are leaving. Given the above, it’s not difficult to see why.

  • Pets_com_sockPR Sock puppet scandal—This fall a long-running, low-profile, on-wiki investigation into a network of sock puppet Wikipedia accounts broke wide when several news outlets connected the anonymous accounts to a rogue PR company I’ll decline to give further publicity here (no, it’s not Pets.com, but wouldn’t that be great?). This company was not unknown to editors, but the specifics of their activity had been. All accounts known to be associated with the company were blocked, and while this one was not a tough call, much else in this topic area is. Wikipedia’s official guidelines say one thing, although Jimmy Wales has promoted stricter guidance.

    The terminology is a challenge, too: “conflict of interest editing”; “paid editing”; “paid advocacy” and “paid advocacy editing” are all similar terms often used to discuss this issue, although they are not identical and the widely different conclusions one may draw can be strongly influenced by unspoken assumptions related to each.

    A number of policy proposals were offered up, but at this time none has attained substantial support, and some are clearly dead in the water. The Wikipedia community has tried more than once in the past five years to draw up some rules to regulate this kind of activity, but nothing much has come of it. Meanwhile, individual editors have set up the occasional effort to assist PR representatives (and offer an alternative to direct edits), but these have always been understaffed. While not a new debate, it doesn’t seem like any new epiphanies will come of it this time.

    (Note: I have already written about this for the blog, and I have a greater involvement in this subject compared to the others.)

The above are all specific incidents with their own unique circumstances and complicated outcomes, but it’s not difficult to see how they point toward larger issues with the direction of Wikipedia. As it happens, the direction of Wikipedia is very much at issue right now. Sue Gardner, the first (and so far only*) executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, is leaving at the end of the year. She prepares to depart with significant respect and goodwill among a wide range of community members—and yet there’s also significant concern that Sue_Gardnerher successor is in for a really difficult time. Meanwhile, the Foundation is narrowing down its search, and a decision is expected soon. The name of this leader-to-be and his or her vision for Wikipedia is still a mystery.

One evening last week, I ran my views past another longtime member and leader (such as they are) of the Wikipedia community. While this person acknowledged the issues I raised, there was another aspect I had been overlooking. Is Wikipedia at a crisis moment? Not exactly—it’s been in crisis for awhile now. The problem is not that the disagreements are any worse than they were previously, but the difference is that these disagreements are now much higher profile than they were before.

Wikipedia was once able to grow its way out of its problems, but that hasn’t been an option for awhile: these issues have loomed larger ever since the growth of new editors slowed and turned into decline, and since Wikipedia found that it couldn’t avoid the public spotlight. Remember, the Technology Review article is literally called “The Decline of Wikipedia”. As I said at the beginning: there’s not much that’s new in the article. But it might just summarize the problem better than it realizes.

*It’s been pointed out to me that WMF had an interim executive director at one point, however this individual was basically a caretaker in the position. But the point stands: Sue Gardner is still—please forgive the forthcoming play on words—sue generis.

Images courtesy, respectively: MIT Technology Review, Wikimedia Foundation, U.S. Army, Jacob Bøtter, and Paula Wilson via Wikimedia Foundation.

Wiki-PR’s Case Study in Worst Practices and What Comes Next

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on October 23, 2013 at 4:13 pm

This entry is cross-posted from a similar blog post on the (new) blog of Beutler Ink, a content marketing firm owned and operated by yours truly. As dedicated readers are aware, I’ve long been an advocate and practitioner of “white hat” Wikipedia engagement for PR professionals, and this post represents my views on the matter.

This week so far has been a very interesting time for Wikipedia: mainstream press outlets, including the BBC, TimeThe Guardian, SlateCNET and more, have picked up on the story of “Wiki-PR”, first reported by The Daily Dot two weeks ago. For those readers not up to speed, Wiki-PR is a little-known company identified as the culprit behind several hundred deceptive Wikipedia accounts, whose purpose was surreptitiously creating and maintaining articles about the company’s clients. The Wikimedia Foundation, in a statement yesterday, described Wiki-PR’s alleged activities as a “Terms of Service” violation, and said it was “currently assessing all the options”.

This is an issue that matters a lot to me—both personally and professionally. If you’ve worked with Beutler Ink, you may know that I personally am a volunteer contributor to Wikipedia, someone who has been called to comment on the site in the media, and a provider of consulting services related to the website. At Beutler Ink, it is one of our more unusual service offerings—and it’s a fun one at that. Since I first learned of Wiki-PR, I’ve been certain that the company’s M.O. was to intentionally and systematically evade Wikipedia’s accepted rules. And how did I know this? Easy: I had always found it very curious that I’d never once crossed paths with the company’s representatives on Wikipedia.

As far as I can tell, Wiki-PR and Beutler Ink share exactly one thing in common: we both offer services focused on helping companies, organizations and individuals navigate Wikipedia. Literally everything else is different. Our approach to transparency, our methods of outreach, our attitudes toward the community, and the effects of our actions are night and day. At the present moment, Wiki-PR has shuttered its Twitter account, and is reduced to offering unpersuasive denials to major media outlets. Meanwhile, here I am writing in plain English about the tricky subject of public relations and Wikipedia. (Nor is it the first time I’ve written about it.)

The practice of helping outside organizations communicate with the Wikipedia community for the purpose of improving aspects of coverage is a legitimate enterprise, but it’s also a very complicated one. Few Wikipedians are really enthusiastic about companies and organizations having an influence over what Wikipedia articles say, but they also know that Wikipedia articles don’t always get things right, and the views of companies discussed in articles should be considered. Company representatives may have corrections to add, but these suggestions should be balanced with Wikipedia’s goals as an encyclopedia—and it’s always better to have these corrections made out in the open.

But Wikipedia is notoriously opaque—its rules are not easy for outsiders to find or follow—so it’s not at all surprising to learn that Wiki-PR (and other unethical firms like them) have been able to get away with telling their clients everything was on the up-and-up. By definition, these companies and individuals had hired Wiki-PR because they didn’t know anything about how Wikipedia worked. Unfortunately, Wiki-PR took advantage of the website’s obscure rules to deceive their clients.

As a matter of fact, a few times over the last few days, I’ve had friends and colleagues ask me: Hey, isn’t that what you do? I can’t respond fast enough with an emphatic No. There are several reasons we are different, but the two most important are ethics—especially with regard to transparency—and quality.

First and foremost, we are committed to following Wikipedia’s best practices for responsible Wikipedia engagement—such as the all-important “Conflict of interest” guideline, Jimmy Wales’ so-called “bright line” and the community information page “Plain and simple conflict of interest guide“—because it’s the best thing for the integrity of Wikipedia and the best way to protect our client partners from criticism. We take a hands-off approach to Wikipedia engagement: rather than making direct edits, we offer solutions that work for Wikipedia and our client partners both. Rather than hiding our affiliation, we make it crystal clear that we are paid consultants. We can’t promise that every Wikipedia editor will always be willing to work with us, but we aim to be “state of the art” and to respect the rules Wikipedia has adopted for itself. As these “best practices” will surely continue to evolve, so will we.

Second, a commitment to quality work serves everyone. Several of our articles have been listed as “Featured” or “Good” articles according to Wikipedia’s volunteer-based rating system—not an easy recognition to attain. We always make a point of saying that the reason we are so successful is because we place improvement of Wikipedia as a top goal. Where Wikipedia’s goals may differ from a client’s goals, we will not ask for that particular edit. And when this inevitably happens, we are confident that we can explain why. Since 2008, I’ve been doing some form of transparent Wikipedia public relations (I like to call it “wiki relations” although it hasn’t really caught on) so I know what works, and what doesn’t work. When I don’t know, I ask first. If you want to get away with something, you don’t come to us.

Ultimately, the big difference between Beutler Ink and companies like Wiki-PR is that we believe in Wikipedia’s mission and we want to help it become a better resource. That we can do this while also helping our client partners improve the information about them on the most important reference website in the world is something we’re very proud of.

It’s hard to predict what the Wiki-PR debacle will mean for the state of Wikipedia and public relations, although it seems we are closer to the beginning of this story than the end. But in my optimism, there are two things I would like to see happen next.

First, I’d love to see Wikipedia finally get serious about creating a unified request system for outside interests—a customer service desk, if you will—similar to the “Articles for Creation” process but for existing articles, and then stay serious about working through the inevitable backlog. Second, and just as importantly: when companies like Wiki-PR are caught trying to manipulate Wikipedia for their own benefits, they need to feel the pressure from not only the Wikipedia community, but also from PR professionals.

Yet so long as unethical practices like the ones in the news right continue to dominate the discussion, this only make it less likely that the Wikipedia community will take us seriously. As long as Wiki-PR and its ilk dominate the news, it’s hard to blame them if they don’t.

A Few Thoughts on Wikimania 2013

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on August 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Last year, I posted a recap of each day at Wikimania 2012. That’s far more output than you’ll usually see around here, and a big reason was that last year’s event occurred in the city where I live, Washington, DC. This year it’s more than two weeks since Wikimania 2013 closed, and I’m just going to share a few thoughts and photos and call it good. This is also partly a function of where the event was held.

This year, it was Hong Kong, a city I once lived in long ago, and had not visited since the 1990s, and I brought with me a friend who was there for Hong Kong, and not so much for the conference. So I mostly hit morning sessions on the first and final day, and tried to see as many people as I could (and didn’t always succeed in that).

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I attended the first morning session, where Jimmy Wales gave the most anticipated of the opening remarks. And the most interesting thing he said actually related not at all to Wikipedia, but to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor turned leaker of a great, great many government secrets, now on permanent vacation in Moscow. Anyone who follows Wales’ politics probably had an inkling that Wales was supportive—but he gave him a bigger endorsement than that:

“Love him or hate him—I think he’s awesome—he’s done something very important.”

He went on to say the same in a WSJ interview later that day. What did he say about Wikipedia? Well, it’s pretty good! Eight language editions now have more than a million articles, with Italian, Russian, Spanish and even Swedish joining the club. An asteroid was named for Wikipedia, too.

That’s nice, but nothing groundbreaking. Wikipedia will continue to extend its reach, improve its software, refine its processes, and find new ways to engage editors—but it doesn’t seem to excite him anymore, and after a decade-plus of involvement, who can blame him? The month before Wikimania, Wales took a one-month break from the Internet, asking Wikipedians to avoid asking him questions via his Wikipedia user account until he returned.

The biggest wiki-related news he made also had something to do with Snowden, or at least was inspired by it: Wales called for a new “hybrid model” of journalism, encouraging collaboration between professionals and amateurs. It sounds interesting, maybe, but he didn’t have an actual model in mind: he called on the Wikipedia and Wikimedia community to help him think it up. I guess we’ll see. Some raised the question of what will contributors to the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikinews project think of it, but the question kind of answers itself: Wikinews has never been a success, and is kept alive only by a few die-hards. An attempt was made to kill the project earlier this year, though it didn’t succeed. So maybe this will become that. Or maybe we’ll never hear about it again.

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Of the panel sessions I attended, there were two in a row, by a French Wikipedia editor, about a subject of great interest to me, personally and professionally. The first was about Wikipedia’s relationship to companies, and whether they can have a beneficial impact on Wikipedia. The second was whether there can be a framework for paid editors to contribute to Wikipedia. As I mention here from time to time, for several years now I’ve done this kind of work on a consulting basis. It can work out very well, but it’s not at all easy.

Although companies can successfully work with the community to improve articles of interest, it’s not widely discussed, except when someone gets caught trying to go about it the wrong way. These are sensitive topics in the Wikimedia community, which prizes its volunteer ethic, and commitment to neutrality, not to mention a suspicion of outside organizations, for-profit or non-profit, who might try to use Wikipedia to boost its own messaging.

I was a little surprised that the discussion didn’t arouse much emotion, or raised voices—maybe once toward the end of the end of the period—but the real reason, I think, is just because the presenter didn’t have a strong solution to propose—just a “framework”—and as someone who is very familiar with the arguments for and against different proposals around paid editing, I knew it wasn’t going anywhere.

The fact that Jimmy Wales’ so-called “bright line” rule (which advises “paid advocates” to stick to discussion areas of Wikipedia, is not a formal rule anyway) was not raised at all surprised me. I almost raised my hand and brought it up, and then decided against it. A wide range of views were shared, many of them more supportive of some cooperation with outside companies and organizations than I would have expected, but nothing here was going to be solved.

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For more photos and commentary, I tweeted the conference at my Twitter account associated with this address, @thewikipedian. Next year’s conference is in London. How will I cover that one? I am curious to find that out myself.

The Unbearable Lightness of Jimbo

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on June 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Is it time for another lengthy profile of Jimmy Wales already? The New York Times Magazine says yes, and so this Sunday’s edition will carry a story now already out on the web under the snarky headline “Jimmy Wales Is Not an Internet Billionaire”.

It’s mostly a catch-up with Wales—a.k.a. Jimbo—now that he’s moved to London, married (for the third time it is noted) to a former Tony Blair aide, and living the jetset life, even if he is not mega-rich. Some of it seems a bit unfair:

His income is a topic of constant fascination. Type “Jimmy Wales” into Google and “net worth” is the first pre-emptive search to pop up. “Everyone makes fun of Jimmy for leaving the money on the table,” says Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia.

I don’t know, I can’t say that I’ve thought that much about Jimmy Wales’ net worth. Wikipedia is unique among the top 10 global sites in that it’s a foundation-backed non-profit, and if you’re telling me the founder of such a website does not have Rockefeller money, I am not going to puzzle about why.

But some have wondered if Wales, who couldn’t figure out a way to become rich off his innovation, was cynically making a play to cash in on being a great humanitarian.

Are the two mutually exclusive? Is there anything less noble about stumbling into a calling that one never sought, but following it where it leads? (Which itself is a much better story, by the way.) Nor is any evidence presented that Wales’ efforts on behalf of Internet freedom is insincere. His libertarian leanings are well-known and pre-dated the establishment of Wikipedia, so why would his interest in this cause be a surprise?

Anyway, the story touches on a number of minor Wikipedia controversies, but gets the closest to saying something interesting about Wales’ actual role on the site when it addresses how Wales’ (not that new) proximity to the rich and famous has occasionally impacted his role at Wikipedia.

Several contributors protested that Wales had used a firsthand, unsourced experience to change Will.i.am’s entry. A user called Fram said Wales had violated Wikipedia protocol, which requires factual information be attributed to published materials. … The same rule applied when Wales tried to get his own birthday changed, from Aug. 8, 1966 (as his passport and driver’s license used to read) to his actual birthday, Aug. 7. “This is unverifiable information, I’m sorry to say,” he wrote on his entry’s talk page. “Maybe I’ll have to upload a signed note from my mom as documentary evidence.”

This scratches at the surface of one of Wikipedia’s thorniest philosophical questions—the Ouroboros nature of verifiability on Wikipedia—but going any further would probably be too much for the Times’ audience.

Meanwhile, the more localized question of Jimbo’s access to power—or maybe that’s power’s access to Jimbo—came up again this past week, when he posed a question on his own user page about whether evidence existed that former NSA contractor turned leaker turned fugitive Edward Snowden had edited Wikipedia under one of his known screen names. Although this was the extent of his asking, some editors (including Fram again) took the issue up as a possible violation of the site’s well-intentioned but oft-excepted policy against “outing” the identities of Wikipedia’s pseudonymous editors. None of this went anywhere, but editors could be forgiven for wondering: who was really asking?

The Wikimedia Foundation is Losing its Chief. What Happens Next?

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on March 28, 2013 at 9:35 am

Big news in the world of Wikipedia, yesterday: Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit behind Wikipedia and other wiki-based projects) announced she will be stepping down from the role, which she has held since June 2007. Gardner, in a post on the Wikimedia blog:

I feel that although [Wikipedia is] in good shape, with a promising future, the same is not true for the internet itself. (This is thing number two.) Increasingly, I’m finding myself uncomfortable about how the internet’s developing, who’s influencing its development, and who is not. Last year we at Wikimedia raised an alarm about SOPA/PIPA, and now CISPA is back. Wikipedia has experienced censorship at the hands of industry groups and governments, and we are –increasingly, I think– seeing important decisions made by unaccountable, non-transparent corporate players, a shift fromSue Gardner at Wikimania the open web to mobile walled gardens, and a shift from the production-based internet to one that’s consumption-based. There are many organizations and individuals advocating for the public interest online — what’s good for ordinary people — but other interests are more numerous and powerful than they are. I want that to change. And that’s what I want to do next.

In January 2012, you may remember that Wikipedia went into “blackout” mode for 24 hours in protest of legislation before the U.S. Congress (SOPA/PIPA), so this explains that much. The rest of the statement is a little harder to puzzle out; the “non-transparent corporate players” in those circumstances were opposed by other corporate players, and both were fighting over government regulations. The line about “mobile walled gardens” sounds like Facebook, and a “consumption-based” Internet sounds like a jab at tablets, of all things, but I suppose we’ll have to see. These are obviously broad statements, and Gardner hasn’t actually announced her next move.

The move won’t be happening too soon, yet: Gardner will be in the position for (at least) another six months, while she works with Wikipedia’s Board of Trustees to find a successor, she writes in the post.

Whether Wikipedia is really “in good shape” is a matter for debate, especially considering Gardner had made a personal cause of trying to fix Wikipedia’s absurd gender imbalance, not to mention the overall downward drift in editor retention and activity.

She also leaves with some organizational questions unresolved: just last October, the board approved her plan to shift and “narrow” the non-profit organization’s focus to primarily software development; whereas the foundation once had “fellows” focused on community-building, the Foundation has shifted to a grant-making process, which is still making a first go of it.

Speaking of development, the great white whale continues to be what’s called the VisualEditor, an editing interface intended to be much easier for users than the current system, which is fairly similar to coding HTML. (It’s not as difficult as real programming, but still too much effort for most.) It’s been nearly two years in the making, and has finally rolled out into testing just this year.

Speaking of whales, Sue was the first leader to follow the much better-known Jimmy Wales, who still sits on the Board of Trustees*. Gardner came from the CBC in Canada, and was not an original part of “the movement,” but she came to identify with it and become quite popular with the overall Wikimedia community. It’s not at all clear who should or will succeed her, but it is clear that a lot rides on the decision.

Photo licensed under Creative Commons by Ariel Kanterewicz, via Wikimedia Commons.

*This post originally stated that Wales rotates off the Board later this year; it’s since been pointed out to me that, while all members’ terms are limited, reappointments are allowed, which it is expected to do in Wales’ case again next time.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2012 (Part 1)

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on December 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm

In these waning days of 2012, let’s take this opportunity—for a third year in a row—to look back and come up with a list of the most important Wikipedia news and events in the last 12 months. Like our first installment in 2010 and our follow-up in 2011, the list will be arbitrary but hopefully also entertaining. There is no methodology to be found here, just my own opinion based on watching Wikipedia, its sister projects and parent organization, and also thumbing through the Wikipedia Signpost, Google News and other news sites this past week. So what are we waiting for?

Wait, wait, one more thing: this post ended up being much longer than I expected, and so I’ve decided to split this in two. Today we publish the first five items in the list, 10-6. On Monday 12/31 we’ll publish the final five. Enjoy!

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10. Wikipedia bans a prominent contributor — Let’s start with something that did not make the news outside of the Wikipedia / Wikimedia community at all, but which took up a great deal of oxygen within it. It’s the story of a prominent editor and administrator who goes by the handle Fæ. In April of this year, he was elected to lead a new organization within the community based on his leadership of the UK chapter. The move was not without controversy: Fæ’s actions both on Wikipedia and the sister site Wikimedia Commons (best known as a vast image repository) and interactions with editors became the subject of intense scrutiny, and even an ArbCom case (the Arbitration Committee is sort of like Wikipedia’s Supreme Court). Fæ ended up resigning his adminship—he basically jumped to avoid being pushed—and the end result had him banned from editing Wikipedia, which he still is. Not that he’s gone away—he’s still a contributor to Commons, and a very active one.

This might sound like a lot of insider nonsense, and I’m not about to dissuade you from this viewpoint. (Sayre’s law applies in spades.) But the key issue involved is about governance: is the Wikimedia community’s organizational structure and personnel capable of the kind of leadership necessary to maintain and build on this important project? The Fæ incident (along with other incidents in this list) suggests the answer may be no.

9. Confusing software development — Not all of Wikipedia’s contributors are focused on editing articles. Some are also developers, working on the open source software to keep Wikimedia sites running and, perhaps, improving. Some (but not all) are paid staff and contractors, and the hybrid part-volunteer, part-professional organizational structure can make it difficult to get projects off the ground.

One longtime project that has yet to see wide implementation is a “visual editor” for Wikipedia articles, to make editing much easier for users. Everyone knows that the editing interface for Wikipedia articles feels like software programming, and almost surely turns away some potential contributors (though it’s not the main reason people don’t contribute, as a 2011 Wikimedia survey showed). But the visual editor is a bigger technical challenge than one might think (as recently explained by The Next Web), and the outcome of a current trial run (also not the first) is anyone’s guess.

Another announced with a great deal of hype but which no one really seems to understand is Wikidata. It calls itself a “common data repository” which by itself sounds fairly reasonable, but no one really knows how it will work in practice, even those now developing it. Wikidata could be a terrifically innovative invention and the very future of Wikimedia… but first we need to find out what it does.

Other projects have been released, but have received thoughtful criticism for adding little value while diverting resources from more worthy projects. For example, a feature briefly existed asking you to choose whether a smiley face or frowny face best represented your Wikipedia experience. Uh, OK? Some projects have been better-received: the Wikipedia iPhone app, for example, is a definite improvement over the mobile site. But there are some odd decisions here, as well: does Wikipedia really need an app for the failed Blackberry Playbook?

8. Sum of human knowledge gets more human knowledge — If you’ve ever seen a [citation needed] tag on Wikipedia—and I know you have—then you know that, well, citations are needed. And while citations do actually kind of grow on trees (if by “trees” we mean “the Internet”) there is a lot of information out there which isn’t readily searchable on Google, and sometimes that information costs money. This year, some of those paid services cracked the door open just a bit.

The interesting story to the HighBeam Research partnership is that there really isn’t one. First of all, HighBeam is a news database which charges for reader access to its vast collection of articles. But in March, a volunteer Wikipedia editor who goes by the name Ocaasi reached out to HighBeam and asked if they would be willing to grant free access to Wikipedia editors. They said yes—and supplied one-year, renewable accounts to editors with at least one year’s experience and 1,000 edits. For Wikipedia, it meant greater access to information. For Highbeam, it meant a 600% increase in links to the site in the first few months of the project. Seems like a fair trade.

More recently, the Wikimedia Foundation announced an agreement with the academic paper storehouse JSTOR, making one-year accounts available to 100 of the most-active Wikipedia editors. With almost 240 editors petitioning for access, if you haven’t spoken up yet, chances are you’re a bit too late.

7. The first person to 1 million edits — OK, how about a fun one? In April, a Wikipedia editor named Justin Knapp, who uses the handle Koavf, became the first person to make 1 million edits to Wikipedia. To the surprise of everyone, perhaps none more than Knapp himself, this made him an overnight international celebrity of the Warhol variety. Jimmy Wales even declared April 20 “Justin Knapp Day” on Wikipedia.

It’s worth pointing out that most editors with many, many edits to their name typically are involved in janitorial-style editing activities, such as fighting vandals or re-organizing categories. And many very active editors spend a lot of time squabbling with others on the so-called “drama boards” such as Administrators’ noticeboard/Incidents. Not Knapp: his edits over time have overwhelmingly focused on creating new articles, plus researching and improving content in existing ones. In short: Wikipedia doesn’t need more editors—it needs more Justin Knapps.

Also, this is one I actually played a small role in, as verified by Knapp’s own timeline of events. I’d happened to see someone note the fact on Jimmy Wales’ Talk page that day, which I tweeted, and was then picked up by Gawker’s Adrian Chen, and the rest is history. Actually, then Knapp kept right on editing Wikipedia. As of this writing, he’s closing in on 1.25 million edits.

6. Philip Roth’s Complaint — Wikipedia has been extraordinarily sensitive to complaints by living people the subject of articles ever since a 2005 incident where a veteran newspaper editor found his article maliciously vandalized to implicate him in the murder of the brothers Kennedy.

In what was arguably the biggest row since then, in September 2007 the celebrated, prickly author of Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral and numerous other novels took to the pages of The New Yorker to issue “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” complaining that the site had the inspiration for his 2000 novel The Human Stain all wrong. And this wasn’t his first resort: Roth’s first attempt had been to authorize his biographer to change the article directly, which was rebuffed. His consternation here: not inexplicable.

But Roth’s complaint was not really with Wikipedia. Several book reviewers had speculated (apparently incorrectly) about the real-life basis for the novel’s central figure, and it was these speculations which had been introduced to Wikipedia. Roth’s publicity campaign brought the issue to much wider attention, which got his personal explanation of the novel’s inspiration into Wikipedia. However, in a twist on the Streisand effect, the controversy is now the subject of a longish and somewhat peevish section written by editors perhaps irked by Roth’s campaign. So he got what he wanted, plus more that he didn’t. Shall we call it the Roth effect?

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Look here on Monday for the thrilling conclusion to The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2012!

Linux distributions vs. wedding dresses: the gender gap impact

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on November 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Editor’s note: The author of this post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette) and is part of a series on female editors of Wikipedia. Her most recent post—the first in the series—was “All The Women Who Edit Wiki, Throw Your Hands Up At Me” on November 8, 2012.

Continuing this series on women and Wikipedia, this week I’d like to give a quick overview of the gender gap and its impact. Let’s start with what we already know: female Wikipedia editors are in the minority of those making edits to the site’s articles and Talk pages on a regular basis. Earlier this year, a research project by Santiago Ortiz found that on average there are 12.9 male editors to each female editor editing a given article. This is an issue that Wikipedians are very familiar with. For many, the real concern is not just that women aren’t participating, but that their relative absence may have led to gaps in Wikipedia’s collective knowledge.

In early 2011, Noam Cohen wrote an oft-cited article for the New York Times which made the point that Wikipedia’s coverage of topics more likely to be of interest to women tended to be much less well developed than for corresponding topics of interest to men. Indeed, anecdotal evidence exists for a gendered take on notability: in some cases, articles on female-oriented topics have been nominated for deletion, not considered “notable” by (mostly) male editors. In particular, Torie Bosch wrote on Slate.com about the deletion debate around the Wikipedia article Wedding dress of Kate Middleton, which survived after editors including Jimbo Wales fought for it to remain. Bosch also described how several new articles on female historical figures created during a Smithsonian archives “edit-a-thon” were later nominated for deletion—one more than once.

(As an aside: I personally find it offputting how this gender gap topic is often addressed. For instance, Cohen’s article specifically mentions the poor state of the articles on the TV series Sex and the City and fashion designer Jimmy Choo as indicators of missing female editors. Examples like these are more than a little patronizing and hard to take seriously. I’m not the only one who feels this way.)

The gender gap doesn’t just affect what articles get created (and don’t get deleted): the quality of certain articles may be affected by the dearth of female editors, too. In January 2011, Wikipedia’s newsletter, The Signpost, included a piece in which Wikipedia article quality was compared between the most famous male and female scientists from Science magazine’s Science Hall of Fame. The author of the Signpost article found that the top ten male scientists’ articles are mostly rated a “B” on Wikipedia’s article quality grading scheme, and include one Good Article and one Featured Article, while the top ten female scientists’ articles are all rated Stub or Start class (with the exception of Marie Curie). Worth noting: the author explained the conclusion isn’t a clear cut case of gender imbalance, since the female scientists were generally less well-known than the men, which could have an impact on both number of editors interested in the articles and availability of material to improve them.

An interesting question in light of all the above: what exactly are women editing on Wikipedia? If we look at one of Wikipedia’s most well-known female editors, SlimVirgin, who’s had a key role in 10 Featured Articles—no mean feat—we can get an idea of what a prolific female editor works on. Her Featured Articles span a range of topics, from the biographical article for Palestinian political leader Abu Nidal to the article on the Brown Dog Affair, an Edwardian-era political controversy about vivisection. No obvious gender bias here. Nor is there any big difference between male and female editors in terms of types of edit according to a 2011 study titled Gender Differences in Wikipedia Editing. The study’s authors found there was no evidence that men and women tend to make different sized edits or that one gender prefers fixing text to adding new text. In short, it seems the gender gap issue isn’t as simple as “get female editors, solve knowledge gaps”; it may have a lot to do with the types of article or information that people drawn to Wikipedia editing are most interested in. (Yes, I’m saying that Wikipedia editors are likely to be more interested in Linux than dresses, sorry Jimmy Wales!)

While writing this post I was intrigued to see if picking 10 editors at random from the Female Wikipedians category and looking at their most recent edits would provide any insight. Disappointingly, seven out of the ten hadn’t edited in over two years, and of the remaining three only one had made an edit in article space in the last year. This result is certainly indicative of Wikipedia’s broader problem of editor retention, but it also speaks to the particular issues Wikipedia has had retaining female editors. Which leads nicely to the topic of my next post… the issues involved in recruitment and retention of female editors. Look for that here soon, meanwhile (for U.S. readers) have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Two Wikipedia Co-Founders, Two Very Different Causes

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on June 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm

The Wikipedian has been occupied with other projects, and fairly quiet as of late. The good news is that, with the Wikimania global conference just around the corner, I’ll be writing more here in the near future. And I really do mean just around the corner: Wikimania 2012 will be held in the city I call home, Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, here’s something I’ve noticed that I don’t think other Wikipedia commentators have remarked upon: the divergent activism of its two co-founders, its still closely involved spiritual leader and unofficial mascot Jimmy Wales, and estranged, erstwhile rival Larry Sanger. Although both men might be broadly described as libertarian—as legend has it, they first met on an Internet discussion forum for Objectivists—and yet their causes today are all but diametrically opposed.

In the last week, Wales has publicly opposed U.S. Department of Justice plans to extradite a British student, Richard O’Dwyer, for (allegedly) knowingly enabling copyright violations by users of a website he once operated (since shuttered). Although based in the UK, O’Dwyer’s domain was registered in the U.S.—hence the federal government’s interest. Wales’ point, made in a Guardian op-ed:

One of the important moral principles that has made everything we relish about the Internet possible, from Wikipedia to YouTube, is that Internet service providers need to have a safe harbour from what their users do.

A fair point? Sure. Self-serving? Most certainly! Wikipedia is always making someone mad because anonymous individuals use the site to spread malicious, sometimes defamatory, occasionally offensive material, true or false. In fact, someones like… none other than Larry Sanger.

In recent months, Larry Sanger has has taken up a more conservative cause, focused on some of Wikipedia’s more controversial content. Sanger is critical of Wikipedia for allowing the inclusion of sexually explicit photos on articles about sexually explicit topics, and moreso Wikipedia’s sister site Wikimedia Commons, for allowing users to upload even more graphic photos, many of which serve no purpose except to titillate the uploader, and disgust most others. Here’s an exhaustive report by Internet buzz beacon BuzzFeed, on one such example (highly NSFW, even with blurring).

Wales remains squarely within the camp of Internet libertarians, lending support to those who do things we may not like, but whom we may defend on principles of freedom. It is also consistent with his previous activism against U.S.-based SOPA and PIPA legislation, which I wrote about in January.

From a Wikipedia perspective, the key difference is this: in this case, Wales is seeking to use only his celebrity (which is considerable, in Internet terms) to draw attention to his cause, rather than enlisting the power of Wikipedia’s community as a force multiplier. The matter has been the subject of much discussion on Wales’ Talk page (basically a water cooler for Wikipedians) this week, led by the following comment:

As someone who strenuously opposed the political advocacy pursued by the Wikimedia Foundation early this year … I commend your decision to take action on the O’Dwyer case as Wikipedia founder and respected opinion leader as opposed to (additionally) trying to light a fire under the editing community.

Sanger has far less celebrity to wield (even in Internet cricles). Earlier in June, Sanger was interviewed by TechCrunch to discuss these topics, and as he said in a tweet aimed partially at yours truly:

Wikipedia, choose two: (1) call yourself kid-friendly; (2) host lots of porn; (3) be filter-free.

Not a bad point there, either.

I don’t mean to wade into this controversy myself. I find myself largely in agreement with both men on some broad points, contradictory as that may seem, although I think the long-run implications of both issues are more difficult to assess.

As for reservations about Wales’ petition: are we to be ISP freedom absolutists? Is there no “fire in a crowded theater” moment? As for reservations about Sanger’s cause: how are we to determine what serves a genuine informational purpose, and how do we balance this against Wikipedia’s longstanding and admirable policy that it is “not censored”?

I don’t know the answer, but if you think you do, I welcome your response in the comments.

Public Lives: Jim Hawkins and Wikipedia’s Privacy Dilemma

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on April 6, 2012 at 9:15 am

Editor’s note: The author of this blog post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette), a friend and colleague, in what I hope is a continuing series. The Wikipedian published a previous guest blog post in December 2011.

Introduction to Jim Hawkins Wikipedia article.

As an occasional Wikipedian, I like to check out Jimmy Wales’ user Talk page every now and again; while user Talk pages are generally where editors leave messages for each other, notes of support, or even warnings, Jimbo Wales’ page is a hot-bed of intrigue, gossip and debate. It’s Wikipedia’s water cooler. And it’s the perfect place to go if you’re looking to find an example of the confusion that can result from the occasional collision of hot-headed editors, complex guidelines and individuals who are themselves the subjects of articles. Just today I came across a discussion that mentioned Jim Hawkins, a radio-presenter in the UK who has been struggling to deal with Wikipedia editors, and Jimmy himself, over privacy issues raised by his biographical article.

Contrary to what many people believe, the Wikipedia community and Wikimedia Foundation are very keen to protect individuals’ privacy. There’s a common misunderstanding that if you edit Wikipedia, anyone can find out who you are—an idea proliferated by media coverage of incidents where editors’ IP addresses were traced and companies outed for editing their own articles (or, worse, those of competitors). But there’s actually a simple solution: creating an account on the site hides your IP address when you edit. And as long as you only edit while logged into that account, there’s no way for anyone to find out who or where you are through your IP. There are also very strong rules against “outing” the real life identities of editors by posting their personal information on the site.

But what if you’re the subject of a Wikipedia article? Getting back to Jim Hawkins, here’s the real dilemma that people in the public eye are faced with: anyone can create an article about them, but how do they go about preventing their personal details from being included in it? Hawkins certainly wasn’t happy about the creation of an article about him, and he was even less impressed that it included details such as the county where he lives and his exact birthdate. He’s been trying to get the article deleted for five years now. Over time, his frustration in dealing with the Wikipedia community has led to increasing antagonism on both sides.

After a recent “edit war” where his birthdate was repeatedly added and removed, the date was removed once and for all after an official request was made on behalf of Hawkins. The edit was made in line with a privacy policy that allows subjects of biographical articles to request the removal of their date of birth from the site. But, the county remained and Hawkins continued to rail against the system on the article’s Talk page:

Why should the people who’ve been stalking, bullying and harassing me – and have been doing so again today! – have any say in what happens to the article?
Hooray for policies. Does common human decency come into this anywhere? Or am I going to get the same response I’ve had for five years, the borderline-fundamentalist ‘that’s not how Wikipedia works’?

In a lively discussion on Jimmy Wales’ User Talk page beginning on April 1, editors were divided over two issues:

  1. Should an individual who is on the cusp of notability (i.e. just about eligible for a Wikipedia article, according to guidelines) be allowed to choose whether or not they have an article?
  2. If personal information about a subject has been published in public sources, does it contravene Wikipedia’s privacy rules to include it in the article?

There’s no simple answer to either of these. The first one in particular is really rather tricky. It’s true that if an article about someone hasn’t been created, there’s nothing that says that it has to exist. If an article has been created, though, it isn’t clear whether there should be the option to delete if the subject isn’t very strongly notable. Wikipedians seem to fall into two roughly two camps on the issue: those with sympathy towards article subjects and those who are concerned with ensuring that information is available on Wikipedia, if sources exist to support it.

The main question that Hawkins raised was why there had to be an article about him, if he felt that it was unnecessary, inaccurate and infringed upon his privacy. At one point in discussion he asks:

Can I point out that the whole damn thing is an invasion of privacy?

And an experienced editor replies, summarising the crux of the issue here:

An invasion of privacy is, by definition, the release of private information. This information, however, is not private, but is stated by the subject in the very show he hosts.

So, the issue is: if information exists in the public sphere, why should it not be included in a Wikipedia article? The details are already out there, some editors argue, so adding it to a Wikipedia article can’t be infringing on the subject’s privacy as the information wasn’t private to begin with. The bright line that exists on Wikipedia is its governing principle of verifiability: information included in articles must always be verifiable, that is, they must be supported by reliable sources. So, if personal information about a subject isn’t supported by a reliable source—even if it’s true—it can’t be included. Unfortunately, as Hawkins has discovered, if the information does appear in a reliable source (in this case, in a local magazine and on the BBC website), whether it is included or not comes down largely to editors’ discretion.

In short, the lesson Jim Hawkins has learned the hard way is: if you don’t want something included in your Wikipedia article, make sure it isn’t published in the first place.

Regarding the Uncertain Future of Encyclopædia Britannica

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on March 14, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Yesterday, Encyclopædia Britannica made the startling announcement that they would discontinue their print edition after 244 years. Once the current edition has sold out, they’ll become a collector’s item. Which is essentially what they are now, if it’s not too uncharitable to point out. Britannica is not finished as an operation, however: it will continue to publish on the web. It’s a startling announcement, sure, but it makes more sense than if it went on as if nothing had changed. Britannica’s editors acknowledged as much in a post on their blog:

A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.

But Britannica’s grip on the evolution of human knowledge isn’t what it used to be—you can see where I’m going, right? As a well-known quote from Jimbo Wales goes:

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

Since its launch in 2001, and especially since a (much-debated) 2005 Nature article comparing the two, Wikipedia has been a thorn in Britannica’s side. And its influence has long since surpassed its much older rival. A Quantcast comparison suggests that Wikipedia’s traffic is 30x that of Britannica’s. And as I tweeted last night, news organizations have been quick to note the competition.

Under the title “Death By Wikipedia: Encyclopedia Britannica Stops Printing”, ReadWriteWeb observes:

The usefulness of such reference materials has been on the decline for years, especially since the advent of Wikipedia. Whatever flaws its open, crowd-sourced editorial model may invite, Wikipedia is generally regarded as a comprehensive and mostly-accurate source of information, which can be accessed for free.

And in a Venture Beat article titled “Encyclopaedia Britannica wiped out by Wikipedia, selling final print edition” we find:

The extremely thorough Wikipedia article on Encyclopaedia Britannica … serves as the perfect example of why Wikipedia is coming out on top.

It’s true—Wikipedia’s article about Encyclopædia Britannica is very thorough. Britannica’s article about Wikipedia is not bad, but it is far more limited than Wikipedia’s article about itself, and Britannica has those annoying pop-up advertisements that do nothing for readers.

Yet Britannica president Jorge Cauz tells the The Washington Post:

This has nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google. … This has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells its digital products to a large number of people.

This is a little bit like Microsoft saying Windows 8 has nothing to do with the the iPad, merely the shift in consumer purchasing habits toward the tablet and mobile markets. That’s not to say the statement isn’t necessarily untrue, just that it’s complete. I don’t know a great deal about Britannica’s current business model, but it’s safe to say that non-print revenues have become far more important, as Britannica’s print sales have fallen. Whether they will succeed is another question; PC World and doesn’t think so, pointing out the closure of—speak of the devil—Microsoft’s online encyclopedia Encarta in 2009 (which I wrote about at the time):

Microsoft shuttered its digital multimedia encyclopedia, Encarta, in 2009, and the last trace of it, the online dictionary, closed last year. Encarta, though a digital product, was also made obsolete by Wikipedia’s free availability, constantly updated content and thousands of editors, contributors and volunteers from around the world.

At The Atlantic, expert on evolution and Bloggingheads impresario Robert Wright offers this (small) consolation:

Maybe, long after even the electronic edition of Britannica is gone, the idea of Britannica can remain for us what it once was for me–a kind of Platonic ideal that we aspire to evolve toward even if we can never reach it, something that has a kind of reality even if we can never touch it.

As someone who devoured Britannica in my school library when growing up, not to mention someone who relied on Britannica as a college student in the late 1990s (before Britannica added a pay wall)—much the same way as students today (notoriously) rely on Wikipedia —I’m sorry to see it go. But we no longer live in a world where a 30,000 page, 15-volume encyclopedia can be printed on an annual basis for profit. In fact, even Britannica sees itself as a collector’s item now; as Cauz tells the News Observer:

This is going to be as rare as the first edition, because the last print run of our last copyright was one of the smallest print runs.”

I’d love to own one myself, but at $1,395.00 for the “Final Print Edition”, I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. And perhaps Cauz is wrong; maybe the death of Britannica will be more like the Death of Superman.

Wikipedia Gets on its SOPA Box

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on January 17, 2012 at 9:46 am

Wikipedia SOPA blackout announcement
The Wikimedia Foundation announced on Monday that the English-language Wikipedia will go offline for 24 hours, starting at midnight tonight on the East Coast, in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and a related bill, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). The move follows a similar protest by the Italian-language Wikipedia last year, protesting proposed anti-privacy laws in Italy.

Over the past week, volunteer Wikipedia editors debated the proposition and, ultimately decided to go forward. The decision was accepted by the Foundation, which will implement it late tonight. An official public explanation includes the following:

Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a “blackout” of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support.

The decision is not one that all are happy about. After all, Wikipedia’s core content guidelines emphasize a Neutral point of view in its approach to encyclopedia topics, so isn’t this a questionable decision?

Just this morning, a participant on a Wikipedia-related discussion group wrote:

Now that we have taken the necessary first step to regard the English Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects as high-profile platforms for political statements, we ought to consider what other critical humanitarian problems we could use our considerable visibility and reputation to address. We could draw attention to the crises in Sudan or Nigeria, drone attacks against civilians in Afghanistan, the permanent occupation of the Palestinian territories, the Iranian effort to develop nuclear capabilities, police misconduct in virtually any country, the treatment of women and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and the list could go on and on.

Well, considering that it was a matter of debate, it surely is questionable and does not reflect the views of all Wikipedians. But I think it’s also fair to say that it reflects the majority of participants.

Wikipedia has its philosophical roots in the free software movement, which is the very antithesis of what SOPA and PIPA are about, so this particular viewpoint should surprise no one. Meanwhile, Wikipedia is well aware that it has its own systemic biases and has organized a project to answer them. In this case, however, Wikipedia’s bias shows through and most participants find this to be a good thing.

I’ll have to put myself more in the skeptic’s camp—not because I support SOPA, which I’m pretty sure I don’t—but because I would prefer that Wikipedia not become a platform for political activism. That said, I don’t think it will lead to similar efforts in the near future and, considering it’s already received significant news coverage, I think there is no question it will be effective in raising awareness about the issue.

For Wikipedians who are uncomfortable with the effort, there’s not much else to do. The band they’re in is playing a different tune, and we’ll see you on the dark side of the Wikipedia blackout.

Rick Santorum’s Wikipedia Problem and its Discontents

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on August 10, 2011 at 9:16 am

When former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum started gearing up to launch his presidential campaign earlier this year, there was one question he could not avoid. It had to do with the matter of alt-weekly editor and advice columnist Dan Savage, who has for years positioned himself as Santorum’s most prominent critic. Many politicians have fierce opponents, but few did what Savage did in 2003, and that was hold a contest to give an alternate meaning to the word “santorum”. I hope you’ll forgive me for declining to quote the winning definition, but you can find it here, and suffice to say that it has stuck. So much so, in fact, that eight years later Savage’s term has come to dominate the web search results for Rick Santorum’s name.

In news stories this year it was mostly described—by ABC News, Roll Call, Slate, and Huffington Post, among others—as Santorum’s “Google problem”. Indeed, one of the top three results for Santorum’s name is Dan Savage’s website promoting the campaign. But Google and Wikipedia are often joined at the hip, and one of the top results has been a Wikipedia article, not about Rick Santorum per se, but in fact about the campaign against him… or about the word itself… it hasn’t always been clear. And by mid-summer 2011, the article—then called Santorum (neologism)—had grown to several thousand words, and had itself become the focus of controversy among Wikipedians.

This blog post traces the history of the article’s evolution in some detail—not exhaustive, but getting there—because it’s an interesting window into how Wikipedia deals with controversial topics. Wikipedians can’t always agree, and in fact the article in question still remains a matter of dispute. But after 200,000 words and numerous debates in various forums around Wikipedia, the community has arrived at something approaching a satisfactory conclusion. Below, I aim to show how things got out of control, and how the Wikipedia community worked it out.

·     ·     ·

August 2006—To start from the beginning, let’s start from the beginning. The first version of this article was created five years ago this week, simply as Santorum.

(I should take a moment here to point out that—spoiler alert—because the article today is called Campaign for “santorum” neologism that is what appears at the top of all historical versions of the article; generally speaking, for each version I’ll link here, I will boldface article’s name at the time upon each reference.)

At this point the article was just a few paragraphs, outlining the circumstances that led to Savage’s coinage and a few examples of the term’s usage in the U.S. media. Prior to becoming its own article, most of the relevant material had been contained in a sub-section of the article about Savage’s sex advice column: Savage Love#Santorum.

It didn’t take very long at all before editors questioned the article’s suitability for a standalone article—what Wikipedia calls “notability”. In fact, the same day the article was first created, it was nominated for deletion. The reason for the nomination is one that would be echoed many times over the next half-decade:

The neologism referred to, created by Savage Love, does not have any evidence of real currency as a neologism. It should be treated as a political act by Savage Love, and described under that article.

The nomination failed and the article remained, as it certainly had received some media attention, but it was decided a renaming was in order. The suggestion was made that it be called Santorum (neologism), or possibly Santorum (sexual slang). Recent followers of this controversy might assume that the former was selected, because that was the name of the article for a long while. However, it was the latter, with a large reason being that Wikipedia has an explicit policy against creating articles about neologisms.

But that hardly settled the matter; the next issue concerned which Wikipedia page readers should find when they search for the word “santorum”, which now was considered to have—and here you could say that Savage had already won—two legitimate meanings. So the question was taken to a “straw poll”. For now, the article was still called Santorum, but what would the average Internet user be looking for when they looked up that term? How should the ambiguity be handled—in Wikipedia terminology, “disambiguated”? And what exactly should they call the article about the coinage?

Related to the word “Santorum”, the options included, and I quote:

  • Santorum should be an article about Savage’s attempt to define the word “santorum”
  • Santorum should be a disambiguation page, with its “traditional” content
  • Santorum should be a disambiguation page, with some other content (explain)
  • Santorum should be a redirect to Rick Santorum, and Rick Santorum should have a dablink…
  • Santorum should be a redirect to Rick Santorum, with no reference to the Savage neologism in the Rick Santorum article

Related to the article about Savage’s coinage, the options included, and I quote:

  • The article on the Savage neologism should be titled Santorum (neologism)
  • The article on the Savage neologism should be titled Santorum (sexual slang)
  • The Savage neologism needs no article; sufficiently covered at Savage Love#Santorum

And the result was… inconclusive. Nevertheless, a proposal was made, and subsequently accepted, to keep Rick Santorum as it always was, to call the Savage Love-inspired article Santorum (neologism), and to make Santorum a disambiguation page with links to relevant pages, among other details. The best summary of the considerations involved was stated by User:Dpbsmith, a veteran and still-active editor, who wrote:

Frankly I’ll support anything meeting these criterion:
A user who types in “santorum” as the Go word intending to find information about the Senator can find it very easily.
A user who types in “santorum” as the Go word intending to find information about the neologism can find it easily.
A user who types in “santorum” as the Go word is not presented immediately with the details of the neologism, but must click on a link, and the link must have some kind of label that communicates that fact that they are about to read about a political attack on the the [sic] Senator.
There should be no implication that Wikipedia endorses the neologism as somehow being “the real meaning” of the word.

Oh, did I mention there was also then a page called Santorum controversy, which is now called Santorum controversy regarding homosexuality, that also came up in the discussion? Well, now I have. Just wanted to be clear about that.

·     ·     ·

Late 2006-Early 2007—Although the matter seemed to have been handled appropriately, that didn’t stop editors from raising objections—even the very same objections—in the months following. In fact, someone had changed the article’s title back to Santorum (sexual slang) by the time the article came up for a second deletion debate in December 2006. The nominator focused on the fact that the media hits for the article were trivial—sure, The Daily Show and The Economist had used it, but neither had focused on it as a topic—while several less well-known sources appeared to be joining Savage’s campaign to popularize the term. Meanwhile, the nominator’s first argument was that the primary information was already covered in the Santorum controversy article (now you see why I mentioned it). Following a week’s worth of debate involving approximately two dozen Wikipedians and several thousand words…

The result was hopeless, hopeless lack of consensus.

(Emphasis in the original.) Lack of consensus to delete an article always means that it stays, and so it did. Some editors had suggested moving the article’s content to Wiktionary, Wikipedia’s dictionary sister project, where in fact the term had registered its own entry (without controversy) several months ahead of Wikipedia.

Later in December, one of the editors involved in the previous debate suggested moving the article from Santorum (sexual slang) to the oddly-titled Santorum (sexual slang activism), though the article stayed put. In January, a suggestion was made to merge the article back into the Savage Love entry, but that didn’t happen either.

·     ·     ·

Late 2007—Debate continued. In September, someone renamed it to Santorum (fluid)—ugh—and it was returned to Santorum (neologism), as it was then called. By this point, the article had grown substantially, was attracting the efforts of serious Wikipedians, and was… well, it was actually getting pretty good. In September 2007, the article was nominated for “Good article” (GA) status, and it looked like this. Later that day, the reviewing editor failed the article for including unsourced and “poorly sourced” material—The Onion in particular was singled out, although it was really an interview with Savage in the sister publication, AV Club—and for being a “BLP liability”.

That is to say, the article skirted the line of Wikipedia’s Biographies of living persons (BLP) policy, which aims to keep out scurrilous and weakly-sourced material about living persons that could be damaging to a living person’s reputation. As you might imagine, that had long been an issue; one couldn’t write about this topic without it being an issue. One could argue that Savage’s campaign was all about damaging Santorum’s reputation—I presume Dan Savage would agree to that—and yet it was nonetheless notable. Many editors then, and to this day, wished it would simply go away. And yet some wanted to make it as “good” as possible.

·     ·     ·

2008-2010—We can skip ahead, because after October 2007, fewer than 160 edits occurred in the three years intervening, and it was not changed substantially in that time. Santorum had lost his re-election bid in late 2006, re-entered private life in January 2007, and ceased to make headlines. In December 2007, the article looked like this. In January 2011, it looked like this. It was the same old back-and-forth, and not much happened.

·     ·     ·

Early 2011—As Santorum started making moves to run for president, activity picked up. In mid-February, Roll Call was first to write about Santorum’s “Google problem”, and this was dutifully added. The article continued to draw attention (including from vandals) through the end of February, until it was put under temporary “semi-protection”. When Stephen Colbert mentioned the controversy on his show, a not-so-brief summary was added, then removed, with the point made that “not everything Colbert says needs to be repeated in Wikipedia”. (Imagine that!) March and April were months of relative calm before the proverbial storm: nearly 1,000 direct edits, from May to this writing, lay just ahead.

·     ·     ·

May 2011—In early May, a very active and respected editor-administrator, User:Cirt, began a series of more than 300 edits to the article, starting with a long-overdue link to Wiktionary. By this point, the article contained some 1,600 words, excluding links and references. Cirt announced his intention to add “some research in additional secondary sources”, and four days later he had expanded the article to some 4,300 words. On the discussion page, one editor objected:

Expanding an article about a vile attack on a living person – it’s twice the size now and refs have gone from 33 to 95 – has got to be against the spirit of least of our BLP policy. My proposal, and my intention, stated right now, is to return this article to the content it had on May 9th.

This kicked off the first sustained debate in years—one that has arguably not yet come to a close. A proposal was made to “stub” the article, meaning to reduce the article’s length to a mere stub of an entry; the argument went, because the arguably unfair subject obviously met Wikipedia’s previously-determined standards for inclusion, a possible solution was to reduce it to the shortest possible version. This proposal quickly failed, with Cirt himself citing an earlier comment by veteran Wikipedian (and current Wikimedia Foundation fellow) Steven Walling:

The BLP policy is not a blank check for deleting anything negative related to a living individual. Criticism, commentary, and even base mockery of a public figure like a Senator is protected free speech in the United States. While it would be ridiculous for anyone to try and make Wikipedia a platform for creating the kind of meme Savage did, it is perfectly prudent for Wikipedia to neutrally report on the overwhelming amount of coverage given to the topic.

Remember that part about using Wikipedia as a platform—it will come up later. Meanwhile, Cirt continued to add significant information about media usage and analysis of the term and events surrounding Savage’s campaign, all backed up with acceptable references. In particular, he focused on adding uses of “santorum”, in slang dictionaries and even erotica, to support the article’s focus as legitimately about the neologism, and not Savage’s campaign per se.

For those who did not wish for Wikipedia to contribute to the so-called problem of making Savage’s campaign seem more important than it arguably was, it must have been more frustrating still to observe that the article was quite well-written and scrupulously followed Wikipedia’s style and sourcing guidelines. Cirt was nothing if not sophisticated. Many had the impression that the article itself was now an attack on Santorum, although that conclusion was only in the eye of the beholder. Cirt knew what he was doing and, for lack of a better phrase, Cirt knew exactly what he was doing. One editor objected:

I realize you will defend this bloated attack piece with all your skills (that is actually what I find most disturbing) but you have to realize or at least have noticed that many experienced editors disagree with your massive expansion of it and at some point it will require wider input and a community RFC.

By the end of May, the article had grown to more than five times the length of the article Santorum controversy regarding homosexuality and more than two-thirds the length of the primary Rick Santorum biographical article. Discrepancies of this sort have been well observed, most significantly on the Internet forum Something Awful, but no Wikipedia policy exists to require proportionality among articles.

At its greatest length, on May 31, the article surpassed 5,500 words, including headers but excluding photo captions, links and references—a total of over 77,000 bytes of data.

·     ·     ·

June 2011-Present— Were I to adequately summarize the debates and discussions that occurred beginning in late May and continuing sustainedly—with most debate occurring in June—this blog post could be three times its already considerable length. Instead I will attempt to summarize, although “considerable length” is unavoidable still.

From early June, Cirt pretty much stopped editing the article. To a significant extent, he’d become part of the issue, not just regarding this article but others as well, as can be seen on the discussion page for Cirt’s user account.

Among the many solutions offered around this time, one focused not on the article content itself, but rather its visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs). The editor offered, even if just for the sake of argument:

While I don’t really like the precedent, there’s nothing to say that every article needs to be indexed by search engines. … The majority of the concerns here seem to be focused on how people are coming across this article (via Google bombing, etc.), not necessarily that the article exists. … Both sides have legitimate points in their favor, so a compromise might be best here.

Other editors agreed it would set a bad precedent, and the suggestion did not go any further.

By now the topic had come to involve some of Wikipedia’s most influential editors, and a lengthy debate opened on Jimmy Wales’ discussion page. Wales’ take was as follows:

My only thought about the whole thing is that WP:COATRACK applies in spades. There is zero reason for this page to exist. It is arguable whether this nonsense even belongs in his biography at all, but at a bare minimum, a merger to his main article seems appropriate.

The “Coatrack” argument—one of many analogies Wikipedians have created over the years to illustrate key concepts—is not a policy or a guideline, but an informal essay, yet one with much currency. It states:

A coatrack article is a Wikipedia article that ostensibly discusses the nominal subject, but in reality is a cover for a tangentially related biased subject. The nominal subject is used as an empty coat-rack, which ends up being mostly obscured by the “coats”. The existence of a “hook” in a given article is not a good reason to “hang” irrelevant and biased material there.

In retrospect, it’s a little surprising that the “Coatrack” issue hadn’t been raised in any significant way before—and Wales is neither considered infallible nor is he always that involved in day-to-day Wikipedia issues—but this may yet have been a turning point. The next day, the highly respected User:SlimVirgin opened an RfC (Request for Comment) called “Proposal to rename, redirect, and merge content”. This led to the article being renamed, for a time, Santorum Google problem. Later, it was pointed out that “Google is not the only search engine in the world”, and so the search (as it were) continued.

The argument that the “neologism” had not evolved organically, but was the result of an organized campaign by Savage and his allies, had begun to exert some influence. For one thing, it was now quite clear that the majority of sources focused on the political campaign to bring relevance to the term, as opposed to the term’s relevance itself. In this way, one might say that Savage’s campaign had become a little too successful. Yes, the term was notable, but the controversy itself had become even more so.

Prior to the renaming mentioned above, editors in an adjacent thread had discussed several alternative names for the article. These included:

  • Santorum neologism controversy
  • Dan Savage santorum neologism controversy
  • Dan Savage santorum neologism campaign
  • Santorum neologism campaign
  • Spreading santorum (the name of Savage’s website)

Here one can start to see where the article’s current title would eventually emerge. Meanwhile, the article faced two more AfD (Articles for deletion) nominations, the first under its old name and the second under its current one. These were the fourth and fifth nominations overall, and surely the most futile.

As part of the ongoing RfC discussion in June, it had been strongly suggested that the article needed to be condensed, especially as Cirt’s expansion had contributed so significantly to the controversy. Besides the article expansion, in mid-May Cirt had created a new “footer” template, Template:Sexual slang, which further linked Rick Santorum’s name to dozens of NSFW topics. That template still exists, but on June 11 the link to Santorum (neologism) was removed. Again, it’s hard to say if this was another turning point, but a discussion about this template on Wales’ discussion page supports the notion that a consensus was coming into view: the article in its present form had itself become part of the campaign—that Wikipedia was being used as a platform for the campaign in the manner Walling had suggested.

A day later, a request for arbitration (RfAr)—a petition to the Arbitration Committee, Wikipedia’s equivalent of the Supreme Court—was opened against Cirt on the basis that his concerted efforts on the subject constituted “political activism”. On June 18 the request was rejected, but not before several dozen editors had contributed more than 28,000 words of opinion. One committee member wrote:

Decline for now, I’m inclined to think that this is more of a content dispute, and the community is able to cope with it.

On June 17, the community finally hit on a name that stuck: Campaign for “santorum” neologism. Initially, this was only intended as an interim move while further discussion took place. Among the names considered at this time, not all were serious, but most were:

  • Dan Savage santorum campaign
  • Dan Savage campaign
  • Dan Savage’s verbal attack on Rick Santorum
  • Santorum (sexual slang)
  • Santorum neologism campaign
  • Santorum neologism campaign
  • Santorum neologism controversy
  • Rick Santorum and homosexuality
  • Rick Santorum homosexuality controversy
  • Savage Santorum campaign
  • Dan Savage santorum neologism controversy
  • Dan Savage santorum neologism campaign
  • Spreading Santorum
  • Rick Santorum’s Google problem
  • Rick Santorum’s “Google problem”
  • Santorum Google problem
  • Rick Santorum Google problem
  • ‘Spreading santorum’ campaign
  • Campaign for “santorum” neologism
  • Dan Savage campaign for “santorum” neologism
  • Savage–Santorum affair (a reply: “Oh Please God No.”)
  • Savage–Santorum controversy
  • santorum (neologism)
  • The problem Rick Santorum is facing because every search engine in the world’s top search results says santorum is an anal sex by-product
  • Santorum (googlebomb)
  • SEO Campaign for “santorum” neologism
  • Santorum (cyberattack)
  • Santorum (cyberbullying)
  • Santorm (SEO attack)
  • Dan Savage’s “spreading santorum” campaign against Rick Santorum’s anti-gay stance
  • Santorum Google ranking problem
  • Dan Savage Google-bomb Attack on Rick Santorum
  • Campaign to attack Santorum’s name
  • Campaign to create ‘santorum’ neologism
  • Campaign to associate Santorum to neologism

In the end, inertia and the current title’s inherent virtues won out. Of the eventual “winner”—Campaign for “santorum” neologism—a veteran Wikipedian commented:

This one is growing on me – neutral, correct, to-the-point, and succinctly informative to readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the subject as to what the article will be about.

All that was left was to whittle the article down from its extreme length to a shape that covered the topic adequately, balancing relevance with discretion. While many edits were to follow, the key edit was made on June 21, when SlimVirgin replaced a 4,800-word version of the article (minus links and references) with a 1,400-word version. This is substantially the version of the article that remains in place today.

·     ·     ·

Comparing the late May version of the article, at its longest point, to the trimmed-down and refocused current version, here’s what we find:

  • The earlier version focused on the term in and of itself, with the opening sentence including a definition and describing its use. The current version focuses on the events, explaining the aim of Savage’s campaign—though the definition remains.
  • Excluding the lead section, references and external links, there are only three sections in the current version, compared with seven in the earlier (not including “See also” and “Further reading”, which were also removed).
  • The content of the “Background” section was almost entirely removed, leaving just the key facts about Rick Santorum’s statements in the 2003 Associated Press interview.
  • The section about the website “Spreading Santorum” was removed, details added into the “Campaign by Dan Savage” section.
  • Almost all of the “Recognition and usage” section was removed.
  • “Media analysis” and “Political impact” were combined into one, shorter, summarized section, focusing on the reception of the campaign in the media and its political impact.
  • Santorum’s response to the controversy was kept in the current article, however condensed.

Up to the present day, in the Talk page discussions alone (including the RfC discussion), more than 200,000 words have been written about the article. That is probably well short of the true number.

Perhaps surprisingly, the impact on Rick Santorum’s Wikipedia article was not that great—the article had long summarized the events in a short final paragraph concluding a heading relating to his statements about homosexuality—83 words at this count.

Meanwhile, Santorum’s “Google” problem continues. Conduct a logged-out search today, and here are the top three results:

And let’s not imagine the argument is completely over on Campaign for “santorum” neologism. Visit today, and one will find at the very top:

Images courtesy Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons. Additional research and analysis provided by Rhiannon Ruff.

Is Wikipedia “Slowly Dying”?

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on August 5, 2011 at 11:27 am

Here’s a provocative blog post from Gawker’s Adrian Chen yesterday: “Is Wikipedia Slowly Dying?”. It’s based on a provocative comment by none other than Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales at Wikimania, the annual conference for Wikipedia and its sister wiki sites. Of course, that’s not quite what Wales said, but the Associated Press story Chen’s post is based on is not so far off:

“We are not replenishing our ranks,” said Wales. “It is not a crisis, but I consider it to be important.”

Administrators of the Internet’s fifth most visited website are working to simplify the way users can contribute and edit material. “A lot of it is convoluted,” Wales said. “A lot of editorial guidelines … are impenetrable to new users.”

It’s also not a new concern. In March the Wikimedia Foundation published its latest study of editor participation, showing a decline in editor participation compared with a couple years ago, although it certainly still has more contributors than a couple years before that. In my post on the subject, “Trendy Thinking: Contemplating Wikipedia Contributorship”, I included a Wikimedia-generated chart that shows what Wales is talking about:

From 2001 through 2006, participation grew exponentially, slowed at its peak in 2007, and has decreased at a steady rate in the years since. A number of theories have been floated to explain the decline. Via the AP, Wales offers a very common one: with almost 3.7 million articles in the English-language edition, the project of buiding Wikipedia has mostly already been done. But he also offers one that I hadn’t really considered before:

Wales said the typical profile of a contributor is “a 26-year-old geeky male” who moves on to other ventures, gets married and leaves the website.

There is some evidence for this in the survey results. Turn to page five of an earlier survey report (PDF) and you’ll see that more than 75% of editors (technically, survey respondents who called themselves editors) are younger than 30, and of the remaining quarter, half again are in their thirties. It may be that only 12.5% of Wikipedia editors are older than 40.

This situation points toward a perhaps unlikely but perhaps untapped editor group: retired persons. In fact, it was my expectation to find a higher percentage of older editors—something like a reverse bell curve—showing greater participation by the young and old, with those in the middle with careers and young children contributing less frequently. In my personal experience on the site, some dedicated editors—some of the best, in my estimation—are middle aged or older. Yet the survey plausibly explains why they are statistically less common:

The last group is characterised by the fact that its members started to use / contribute to Wikipedia at a comparably old age. However, since the age range of this group is very broad, it covers persons that grew up with the Internet as well as persons that had to learn to use new media past their school and university time.

Someone who was 39 when Wikipedia was created is now 49 or 50, and actuarial realities will continue to produce a general population that is ever-more Internet-savvy, and therefore ever-more inclined to edit Wikipedia. That is to say, those who were once young editors may return as old editors.

Back at Gawker, the comment section offers another complaint to which Wales only alludes. The pseudonymous SoCalMalaise writes:

I used to write and edit Wikipedia a lot. Some long articles are almost entirely written by me. It was a way to fine tune both my research and writing skills and enjoy the novelty of writing something that thousands (millions?) of people read. But soon I found that your work is frequently stifled by so-called “administrators” who are usually high school or college students with sub-par research and writing skills. These trolls have created a Kafka-esque labyrinth of self-contradictory “policies” and “guidelines” that they used to remove sentences, paragraphs, sections or even entire articles that skilled writers have volunteered to put down. They cherry-pick various parts of their rules as an excuse to act out their God complexes and strike out content. … And I’m not talking about a few bad apples. These people are everywhere! The whole writing-for-Wikipedia thing became very frustrating and just not worth my time.

It’s difficult to generalize from any one person’s experience, and who knows what common-but-non-obvious mistakes SoCalMalaise might have made, but the sentiment is certainly not unheard-of.

Thing is, for every complaint about overzealous editors and sticklers for arcane rules, there’s a complaint about uninformed editors who show little respect for common-sense rules. I have to admit, I’m more of the latter complaint—it is sticklers for policies and guidelines who enforce a minimum level of quality required for new additions, and therefore maintain a semblance of article quality. Myself, I spent a lot of time learning how Wikipedia works. It took several years before I was able to contribute at a high level, creating new entries or significantly improving existing ones. I am polite when I find someone is doing it wrong, although I know also that some are not.

Meanwhile, the organized core of the community has spent a lot of time, especially recently, trying to figure out how to retain those who give Wikipedia a try. There is the WikiLove campaign, which has received some media attention, but I’ll have to explain my skepticism another time. I’ve also heard that new account registrants are sometimes asked to identify areas of interest, which sounds like an interesting idea, but as far as I can tell it hasn’t been widely deployed.

Ultimately, whether Wikipedia’s declining user base represents a problem is not a question that exists in a vacuum. The question is really whether Wikipedia has enough editors to keep getting better or, at the very least, maintain its current level of quality. There are multiple answers here. As I’ve pointed out before, the Wikipedia community’s rapid response to breaking news is impressive: if you want a good primer on the United States debt ceiling crisis, Wikipedia has a very strong and evolving summary. But Wikipedia sometimes fares poorly with articles on many pre-Internet topics, especially in the social sciences: if you want to know about Money market funds, I’m not sure I can recommend Wikipedia.

It’s worth taking stock of the fact that Wikipedia’s decline among editors is a bit more than gradual, but does not now appear to be accelerating. The next two years will be telling, but I suspect that Wikipedia’s contributor base will find its floor, and my guess—though it is only that—is that we’re probably somewhere near it. Wikipedia is no longer the new hotness, and let’s face it, it’s an encyclopedia. To most it is far less thrilling and far more challenging than YouTube or Facebook, and we shouldn’t expect that Wikipedia’s participation will look anything like it. It’s no less popular as a destination for readers, and it would take a very significant drop in article quality for that to happen. (Like, say, if Wikipedia’s vandal patrol disappeared tomorrow… if anyone, send your WikiLove to them.)

I think the current situation also raises a question that many Wikipedians are loathe to consider, but that is the professionalization of some aspects of Wikipedia. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring editors, but it could mean working out partnerships to share in the responsibility of maintenance and development of software and perhaps even some content. It’s an article of faith that much of Wikipedia’s early growth and unique characteristics derive from its volunteer force, but as any business professor can tell you, the skill set that launches a viable company is not the same skill set that brings that company to maturity. There is precedent for this; Wikipedia needs the Wikimedia Foundation, which does have a paid staff, although they avoid organized involvement in matters of content, except as individuals. Ultimately, Wikipedia must remain in the hands of its volunteer editors—to change that would be too fundamental a shift. But as Wikipedia grows more complex, it’s not hard to think they could use greater support.

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 III: It’s the Little Differences

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on March 4, 2011 at 9:39 am

In two previous posts, I have explored a comparison between Wikipedia and the upstart platform Quora, the first setting the stage for discussion, and the second explaining the (acknowledged) debt one owes the other. In this post, I will discuss how they differ in ways you’ve surely noticed—and ways you might not.

Writing a detailed explanation of how Wikipedia and Quora differ is a foolhardy assignment (and an even more foolish self-assignment). Because one is descended from the paper encyclopedia and the other comes from the Q&A genre, it’s hard to know where to begin. But we can make some observations:

The most significant difference between Quora and Wikipedia is a philosophical one: they simply do not share the same definition of “knowledge”. As you might imagine, this matters quite a bit and, in fact, Jimmy Wales’ best-known quote is arguably the following:

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”

That is certainly what a Wikipedian might say he or she is doing. Your average Quoran (if that’s the preferred nomenclature) might not immediately find reason to disagree. But given further investigation they may find Wikipedia to be something less than that. Perhaps the best summary of these competing viewpoints comes from the Seb Paquet essay at The Quora Review linked in my first post. In it, he writes:

Wikipedia reflects consensus reality, or tries very hard to do so. In this respect, you could say that Wikipedia is past-bound: it offers knowledge of what has been known. However, there’s another segment of the world’s knowledge that is hazy and tentative. It is emphatically not validated. It is contentious. It is controversial. It’s messy. You could call it pre-knowledge.

On Wikipedia, the most concise definition of Wikipedia considers useful knowledge is encapsulated in the “General notability guideline”, which states:

If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to satisfy the inclusion criteria for a stand-alone article or stand-alone list.

Quora has yet to develop anything quite so pithy, although its About page contains numerous statements which altogether produce a clear vision. As “notability” is the primary basis for inclusion at Wikipedia, “reusability” seems to play the same role at Quora:

“Each question page on Quora is a reusable resource that should help everyone who has the question that the page is about. … There is only one version of each distinct question on the site, so everyone who is interested in or knows about that material is focused on that one place.”

We can leave aside a careful exploration of what consitutes “reusable”, in part because so has Quora: to date they have not placed too many limits on what readers can contribute, only in what format they may contribute it. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has already developed a lengthy list of things that it does not wish to do, helpfully titled “What Wikipedia is not”. Among these, Wikipedia is not a “publisher of original thought”, nor a “manual, guidebook” or “crystal ball”. Quora seems OK with all that.

One effect of Wikipedia’s “narrow” focus is that it serves as a handy guide for other websites (and their backers) to identify a niche that avoids competing directly with Wikipedia. While other electronic encyclopedias have fallen to Wikipedia, specialization has worked for other projects. A good example of how this works is Wikia, founded by none other than Jimbo Wales himself, which smartly capitalizes on “what Wikipedia is not” and finds opportunities on the other side; because Wikipedia policies imply a limited appetite and minimum standards for information about Star Wars, the Wikia-hosted Wookiepedia is there to take up the slack.

Wikipedia and Quora logosAn example from outside the family might be the Internet Movie Database. Although IMDb’s original incarnation predates Wikipedia by more than 20 years, the point is that it has survived, and even thrived. For all kinds of information about motion pictures, IMDb is better because it wants more of that kind of information than Wikipedia does.

Quora too wants more information than Wikipedia, except it wants more of everything. In some respects this has its advantages; as Paquet goes on to say, Wikipedia is “past-bound” whereas Quora is “future-oriented”. I think that may be a little too rosy an assessment; one cannot overlook the possibility that Quora won’t necessarily be good at either. If you want to be everything to everybody, pretty soon you’ll be nothing to nobody. But I do think Quora recognizes this, and is watching to see how things develop, and will probably introduce more restrictions as time goes on.

And that brings us to another key difference: the organizations behind the websites and their relationship to users. I’ll get to those in the fourth (and final?) installment of this series. Look for that next week.

Why not follow me on Quora? Indeed, why not.

The State of The State of Wikipedia

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on January 25, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Chances are good that if you follow Wikipedia closely, then you have probably seen the following video:

The State of Wikipedia from JESS3 on Vimeo.

Last week, it was featured on both TechCrunch and Mashable and, on YouTube alone, it’s climbing toward 100,000 views as of this writing. And you might have missed the following infographic that went along with it, although I hope you didn’t:


Right-click to view at full size in another tab.

Meanwhile, if you happened to see Jay Walsh’s post on the Wikimedia blog last week—or you watched carefully through to the very end—you may have noticed that among those involved was yours truly.

The story of this video’s development began early in 2010 with the launching of the “State of” video series by my friends at the DC-based creative agency JESS3. The first in the series was “The State of the Internet“; more recently, they produced “The State of Cloud Computing” in association with Salesforce.com.

Seeking new topics, JESS3 invited me to develop a story concept for the video you see above. I talked with some influential wiki-thinkers, some of whose names appear in “Special Thanks” at the video’s end, to write a script for the eventual narrator. Not unlike Dan Aykroyd’s first draft of “The Blues Brothers”—and like it in only this regard—it was much longer than what you see above. Left out were asides on the cause (and effects) of the Spanish Fork, the German-language Wikipedia’s different way of doing things, the development of chapters, the invention of bots, the most-visited Wikipedia articles, the most-visited-in-a-single day Wikipedia article, and more.

In the end, it was a good thing they asked me to scale it back, especially once Jimmy Wales agreed to provide the voice as narrator. And the shorter version perhaps better accomplishes the goal of giving viewers a bit of an answer to the questions of where Wikipedia came from, and why it works the way it does. At the very least, I hope it sparks a deeper curiosity among viewers and, perhaps, sufficient interest to get involved themselves.

Who knows if it will have that effect, but it was a great experience to be part of. The effort put into this by the JESS3 team—on art direction, animation and sound—was tremendous, and took it far beyond any concept I had of what it could become. And maybe we’ll do it again in ten years.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2010

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on December 30, 2010 at 6:50 pm

The year 2010 will be over and out in another day’s time, which means there is no time like the present to look back on the year that was at Wikipedia. Instead of some kind of highfalutin’ think piece on what the past year, like, meant, let’s make this an easy-to-write, easier-to-read listicle outlining the biggest stories of the year involving Wikipedia—at least from an English-speaking, North American perspective. (For it is this perspective from which I am most qualified to write.)

For better or worse, here are the stories that defined Wikipedia, on-site and off, in 2010:

10. Wikipedia backups discovered — This occurred just in the past few weeks, and has not received a great deal of attention outside of Wikipedia circles, but to Wikipedia enthusiasts, it’s a big one. In mid-December, Wikimedia Foundation developer Tim Starling found several files dating back to Wikipedia’s first three months of existence. These had long been presumed to be gone for good, but now Wikipedia’s earliest days are much easier to reconstruct. Joseph Reagle of Harvard’s Berkman Center extracted the first 10,000 edits and has placed them on his own website for viewing, and in the future a more accessible reconstruction may be created, similar to the one at nostalgia.wikipedia.org.

9. Cuba’s Wikipedia copycatEcuRed is the Castro regime’s attempt to emulate Wikipedia. At least, in terms of look and feel: EcuRed may well be built using wiki software, but content updates are strictly reserved for unknown pre-approved editors. The entry for Estados Unidos is amusing. Surprisingly, there is no entry for Capitalismo, only Imperialismo, fase superior del capitalismo. Translated from Spanish, the website’s front page proclaims it was “born from the desire to create and disseminate knowledge with everyone and for everyone from Cuba and the world.” It would probably more more correct to say that it was born of a desire to create and disseminate propaganda for Fidel and Raúl Castro and their cronies.

8. Mike Godwin vs. the FBIThis was just weird. During the summer, the FBI sent a cease-and-desist letter to Wikipedia demanding that they remove occurrences of the FBI seal from Wikipedia articles about the agency. According to the FBI, use of the logo conflicted with the law. According to Wikimedia Foundation general counsel Mike Godwin, the law cited was about preventing people from impersonating FBI officials. Godwin’s sardonic reply—”While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version”—amused many. Two months later, Godwin resigned his position at Wikimedia. Were the two incidents connected? That was the whisper, but neither Mike nor the Foundation have clarified the reasons for his departure. It’s entirely possible that the two are not connected, but the whispering hasn’t been refuted. The FBI seal’s presence on Wikipedia, and Mike Godwin’s famed wit elsewhere, live on.

7. Wikimedia expansion to India — Wikipedians are all too aware of the fact that most of their contributions come from the rich, Western nations in the Anglosphere and Western Europe, but they yearn for participation to grow much beyond. As in the global economy, much growth may be found in the BRICs. Among industrializing countries, interest in Wikipedia has been especially strong in India, which is being rewarded with the first non-U.S. office of the Wikimedia Foundation. (For what it’s worth, I myself attended a Wikipedia-oriented conference in Bangalore this past January.)

6. Wikipedia gets a new look — Bet you didn’t notice this until months after it happened, but in the first half of 2010, Wikipedia received its first major redesign in several years. Gone was the “Monobook” skin and in was the “Vector” look. Why change? Wikipedia is always looking for ways to make the site easier to read—and easier to edit—and there had been concern for some time that the site design was becoming outdated, even in some ways confusing. Perhaps the biggest change involved moving the search field from the lefthand sidebar to the top right corner, a placement more common among popular websites. And the result? The number of individuals contributing during the second half of 2010 has been mostly flat, and even down slightly. Whatever drives people to contribute to Wikipedia, or stay away, is a force more powerful than web design.

5. Flagged revisions, er, pending changes — For years, the German-language Wikipedia has maintained a unique system for improving the reliability of its pages: contributions by new and infrequent users are held for review by more trusted editors. The result has been an encyclopedia taken far more seriously by academics in that country, so Wikipedians on the larger (and looser) English Wikipedia decided to give it a try. First called “flagged revisions” and later changed to the arguably more intuitive “pending changes” (yes, there was a debate about this), a number of articles were protected in this manner. The result was inconclusive: while a clear majority of participants voted to continue employing some form of pending changes, there was no consensus on just how to do it. For now, the project lies dormant.

4. Wikipedia in education — This is not one story, and it’s not unique to the past calendar year: encyclopedias have been staples of term paper bibliographies for decades (at least) but the rise of Wikipedia has turned this on its head. Where teachers were once content to let students cite Britannica on any number of subjects, many (if not most) now ban students from using Wikipedia in assignments. But 2010 may be the year in which educators learned to stop worrying and accommodate (if not love) Wikipedia. Time and debate have allowed more professional educators to see that Wikipedia is a legitimate starting point for research, and Wikipedia’s own imperfections provide numerous teachable moments. ZDNet education writer Christopher Dawson’s well-argued “Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia” is a good example of the former, while classroom projects at UC Berkeley and the University of Rhode Island show there is great promise for the latter.

3. Larry Sanger reports Wikimedia to the FBI — The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Wikimedia Foundation sure got to know each other this year. In April, estranged Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger sent a missive to the FBI reporting the Wikimedia Foundation for hosting “child pornography” and other obscene images on Wikipedia sister site Wikimedia Commons. Among the contested images were nude artistic works depicting the underaged and sexually explicit images featuring adults. Wikipedia’s commitment to the free availability of information can be controversial; name a body part or disease and you are going to see a picture of it on that Wikipedia page. There is even a specific policy related to this question, called “Wikipedia is not censored“. But does this mean that anything goes? Even after Sanger clarified that he understood no actual prurient images photographs of child sexual molestation* were in the site’s collection, some images were deleted, and the FBI pursued no action in any case. Although resolved for now, you can bet the controversy over the line between “censorship” and “editorial policy” will come up again.

2. Wikileaks and Wikipedia confusion — You may protest that Wikileaks has nothing to do with Wikpedia. In fact, I wrote “Wikileaks: No Wiki, Just Leaks” over the summer, when the mysterious online outfit published its Afghan War Diary. But the mere presence of the word “wiki” in the the not-a-wiki site’s name has become a potential PR problem for Wikipedia. When Wikileaks re-entered the news with the publication of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables in the fall, Jimmy Wales openly criticized Wikileaks, telling Charlie Rose: “If I had some information, the last thing I would ever do with it is send it to Wiikileaks.” Even Larry Sanger published a critical commentary about Wikileaks on his own site; although Sanger only tangentially referenced Wikipedia in his comment, the press took up that angle regardless. As long as Wikileaks remains a well-known and much-criticized public entity, Wikipedia will have to keep repeating the message that the two organizations have nothing to do with one another. Which leads us to #1…

1. The face of Wikipedia fundraising — It was perhaps fortuitous that the latest round of Wikileaks debate occurred at the same time the Wikimedia Foundation was undertaking the most sustained and visible PR push in its history. Since late November, Wikimedia sites have featured large banners across the top, asking readers to donate money toward its goal of raising $16 million—the largest amount yet requested, though still not quite enough to cover 2011’s expected operating budget. Most banners featured Wales’ face prominently, asking readers to consider his “personal appeal” to contribute. While effective, they’ve also been a source of annoyance and subject of derision. The New York Observer headline, “Staring Contest with Jimmy Wales To Go On Indefinitely”, was among the politer expressions of this viewpoint. On the other hand, they are working: at the campaign’s outset, Wikimedia collected in one week what they took in over a month last year. As of this writing, the organization had just about a million dollars left to go. Not too shabby. And Henry Blodget will get a chance to recycle his call for Wikipedia to deploy advertising next year.

That was the year that was, at Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. Next year will be another. If you think I’ve missed or messed up anything important, please share in the comments. See you in 2011!

All images via Wikimedia Commons.

*Updated, per comments.

What’s With All Those Banners

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on November 20, 2010 at 5:36 pm

If you’ve visited Wikipedia during the second week of November 2010 (and I’ll wager you have) you’ve no doubt seen the bearded mug of one Jimmy Wales staring back at you from one of several banners placed across the top of the article you wanted to read.

Not everyone is happy to see them:

Do you feel violated but can’t quite figure out why? Perhaps it’s the gargantuan banner atop all Wikipedia articles these past few days that feature the mug of none other than Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales pleading for some money.

Yes, they are a little annoying and, if you really hate them, there is the little [X] box in the corner you can click to make them go away. But in this fourth year of fundraising by the Wikimedia Foundation (which oversees Wikipedia and its sister projects) this kind of reaction is nothing new. Even in 2008, Gawker covered that year’s campaign with a characteristically unfriendly tone. This year, some of the complaints are more amusing. Here are two of the family-friendlier screen shots of actual Wikipedia articles going around Facebook and other parts of the Internets:

wiki-fundraiser-scopophobia-600

wiki-fundraiser-begging-600

On the other hand, if you absolutely love seeing Jimmy Wales at the top of every Wikipedia page, well, now you can see him on every page on the entire Internet.

While the fundraiser formally launched on November 15, the banners started running on some pages since the 12th, and even before that, for reasons of testing. You might find being stared at by Jimmy Wales a little disconcerting, but there’s a reason Wikipedia is using them—they tested better than the other options.

Billed as “the fundraiser you can edit”, for this year’s campaign the Wikipedia community was invited to come up with banner ideas, and these were tested alongside the “Jimmy” banner. Volunteers were challenged to “Beat Jimmy” and produce a banner that would have a higher clickthrough rate. Almost 900 people got involved in the process.

In the banner message testing itself, four contenders rolled out onto Wikipedia for limited testing:

  • The Jimmy banner which had 1537 individual donations
  • Thanks for the brain massage which received just 19 donations
  • You depend on Wikipedia for information. Now it depends on you which received 99 donations
  • Admit it: without Wikipedia you never could have finished that report which had 140 donations

As you can see, it wasn’t much of a contest. That negative reaction some people have when they see Jimmy Wales? Well, at least it’s a reaction. For better or worse, Jimmy Wales is the unofficial mascot of Wikipedia, and that means he’s its biggest fundraising mascot.

For further details on how the banner featuring Wales stacked up against other tested options, check out the Banner testing project page. For a visual representation, see this David “Information is Beautiful” McCandless infographic (which seems to be better than his last one (update: per the comments, apparently not)).

This year the goal is to raise $16 million, the Foundation’s biggest target to date. That’s roughly the same amount of money the Foundation spent last year, of which $1 million alone went to web hosting. It’s also far less than the budget of the other top 10 global websites, as Wikipedians have pointed out. In the coming year, the Wikimedia Foundation plans to expand operations—including a new office in India—and hire 44 new staffers (there are 40 now). That’s a pretty incredible growth rate, one more like that of the other top 10 global websites. Whether that is a good idea at all has been the subject of debate on the blog of a Wikipedia contributor.

So, you should expect those fundraising banners to last through December, at least. But once the fundraising goal has been met, they won’t necessarily go away—they’ll just refocus. Once that happens, the banner space will start asking readers to contribute to Wikipedia with their knowledge, i.e. to start editing themselves. While the money is important, it’s the time and effort of volunteers that really makes Wikipedia work. Yes, you can click that [X] box anytime you want, and Jimmy will go away. But it’s probably worth leaving them up for now, to see what comes next.

Charted Territory: When Good Infographics Go Bad

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on August 12, 2010 at 8:32 pm

I will be blunt: the new infographic from David McCandless (Information is Beautiful), called “Articles of War: Wikipedia’s lamest edit wars“, is so lazy as to be misleading, glib as to be condescending, and generally unhelpful that I’m inclined to say that it sets back the public understanding of how Wikipedia works all by itself.

Up front: I respect McCandless and like what he does, which includes some interesting and thoughtful work, especially his print of Left vs. Right (U.S. and Rest of the World editions) that is better than most professional political analysts could produce. Separately, I am collaborating with friends on a Wikipedia visualization project of our own, so call me an interested observer, but note also that I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing lately.

I have reproduced only the top section of “Articles of War” below, for the purposes of commentary (click through to see the full thing on McCandless’ site):

Articles of War (excerpt)

The first thing to know about “Articles of War” is that it was based on an essay to be found in the recesses of Wikipedia called “Lamest edit wars” that is specifically kept in the site’s intra-wiki space because, as it states at the top: “This page contains material that is kept because it is considered humorous.” McCandless & Co. do give credit where it is due, but that Wikipedia page surely does not and never did intend to be definitive — it’s just a series of cheekily-written paragraphs about various arguments occurring over time, so there is nothing like meaningful numbers to be gleaned from it.

Instead, McCandless and his researchers decided to generate data to visualize these edit wars by counting the total number of edits over each article’s lifetime, counting not just the edits specifically related to that particular dispute (a difficult and time-consuming thing to research, it goes without saying) but every single edit, ever, thereby giving a grossly distorted view of each article’s history. I’ll give them the fact that if one looks to the legend in the top lefthand corner, it indicates that the number listed (and I presume the size of each box) relates to the “Total no. of edits” but even if readers do notice that, it is at best confusing.

Likewise, the articles’ relative position on the chart accords to their creation, not when the described dispute took place. If you think 2,000+ edits were expended on a photograph in the Cow-tipping article in the middle of 2001, that’s too bad, but you were reasonably misled. Nor would would you know that the article did not include a photograph until several years later.

What you are left with is a decent visualization of how frequently edited some randomly selected articles — some popular, some timely, some but not all controversial — happen to be. Why not simply show that? Focusing on this alone we can see that the following articles have attracted tens of thousands of edits over the years:

  • The Beatles
  • Jesus
  • Wikipedia
  • Christianity
  • Ann Coulter
  • Star Wars
  • Wii

That’s not linkbait enough for you? Then please do the research.

Meanwhile, the infographic is also a little too snarky for its own good, especially toward its chosen subject. Color-coding is used to categorize certain types of edit wars; one is labeled “American Cultural Superiority” and exists mainly to identify debates between U.S. and British spellings. Which I find a little… superior itself, but hey, I suppose it’s a misdemeanor violation. Worse is that edit wars involving Wikipedia and site co-founder Jimmy Wales are coded as “Religion.” Too cute. Or maybe just an oversight?

Another oversight concerns an on-wiki debate about whether the most famous Palin was, at the time of its occurrence, Monty Python’s Michael or Alaska’s former governor Sarah. (Since then, I believe the one with decades of contributions to comedy has been definitively usurped by the mavericky one’s more recent, er, contributions.) According to “Articles of War” this happened in 2003. But if you think about it, this makes no sense at all — of course this happened in 2008, when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. And the Lamest edit wars essay itself mentions that this happened in 2008. Pure oversight to be sure, but I have to wonder what other mistakes the research team made.

To their partial credit, they have opened their Google Spreadsheets for public inspection, so it’s clear they at least intended to impart real information. And there you can see that they are indeed using the total number of edits over time and that their “Palin” error was made early on. That seems to put the responsibility on the researchers, rather than McCandless himself, but of course it’s a total package.

I hold McCandless to a standard that I don’t the jokers at Cracked* or Something Awful because their job is to make you laugh, while McCandless’ job, according to his website’s own tagline, is to take “issues, ideas, knowledge, data” — and make it easier to understand by visualizing it. There are certainly issues and ideas to be found in “Articles of War” — but knowledge and data, not so much. And though I am getting a little more rant-y than usual about this, I do aim to be constructive, so I would very much like to see this infographic re-done with some extra research. This blog post may serve as a guide if they so choose. I hope they do.

P.S. The Gizmodo thread — where I found it — on this is hilarious, with many people re-fighting the same disputes that once arose on Wikipedia. However, only one that I saw came anywhere near noticing the fact that the methodology was suspect.

P.P.S. Am I being nitpicky to add that “Articles of War” appears to convey that Wikipedia’s articles about The Beatles and Jesus were created prior to 2001? That is to say before Wikipedia itself began? I don’t actually think so.

*Actually, about Cracked — a.k.a. Digg’s favorite website — as I have seen a prominent Wikipedian point out elsewhere, it often does a pretty good job using information from Wikipedia responsibly. Among their articles about Wikipedia, the title of “5 Terrifying Bastardizations of the Wikipedia Model” alone gives away that it’s implicitly pro-Wikipedia, as does “5 Celebrity Wikipedia Entries they Clearly Wrote Themselves“. Even “8 Most Needlessly Detailed Wikipedia Entries” knows what’s good about Wikipedia, even when it isn’t. Cracked writers clearly know their way down through a history page — like say, Corey Feldman’s — but it doesn’t appear that McCandless and his researchers looked as closely.

Remainders in Light

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on April 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Because updating The Wikipedian necessarily takes a back seat to my day job — the one that pays me money I need to buy things to stay alive so I am able to keep updating The Wikipedian — I don’t get to write about every Wikipedia story that I might like.

Until now, these have languished in a Google Docs file, waiting for me to develop them into full posts with original commentary. And because this sadly will never happen for some deserving stories, it is better to clear the field / room / palate and look toward the future. So here is the first of an occasional series of remaindered post ideas. Let’s open up the file…

  • In late February I noticed a new blog about Wikipedia had launched. Called On Wikipedia, it presents a thoughtful take on Wikipedia. Except in early March, one of its contributors decided to make a point about Wikipedia’s unreliability by… adding unreliable information. In fact, they created an outright hoax: inventing a person to create an article about, claiming they were suspected of murder and pushing it through to a fairly prominent spot on the front page (the Did you know? section). The blogger then impersonated the non-existent person and contacted Wikipedia, upset about the murder allegations. They described the whole process in one long post announcing what they had done. All this, though the blogger / editor surely knew about the Wikipedia’s guideline “Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point“. It didn’t take long for Jimmy Wales to get involved, and a lengthy discussion was initiated at the Administrator’s noticeboard. I can’t say I’ve dove deeply into this one, but On Wikipedia wrote about it twice more, here and here.
  • On March 21, the German-language Wikipedia’s Featured article of the day was “Vulva” — with a photograph. Jimmy Wales asked for it to be removed, a request that was duly ignored. Wikipedia Signpost covered the story.
  • So Larry Sanger, estranged co-founder of Wikipedia, reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI over allegations of child pornography. This is an unusual development to a long-running debate about certain images’ propriety — and even legality — for inclusion. Then Sanger decided / realized / found out the images did not depict real people, which apparently presents a different legal case that reminds me of a philosophical argument I had with some friends back in college. The sardonic wiki-trackers at The Register covered the story, and here is Sanger’s original letter to the FBI.
  • Which government entity / famous person is getting hostile news coverage for “meddling” with their Wikipedia article this time? It’s the Government Information Service and the Dutch Royal Family.
  • Dan Lewis, who has the enviable job of being the new media guy for Sesame Street, recently proposed an interesting concept — the Wikipedia Reading Club. He reads an entry on a topic he should know more about but does not, takes notes and offers thoughts for others to comment upon. His first two are John Adams and Jackie Robinson. Those are both quality articles; he’d do best to stick with top-quality “Featured” articles — now at 2,800+ — to which the Adams article (surprisingly to me) does not belong.
  • Teaching Wikipedia in the classroom? Great! Teaching Wikipedia in the sixth grade? Maybe overly optimistic.
  • I never did get around to writing about my trip to Bangalore this January for the WikiWars conference, co-sponsored by the Centre for Internet & Society and the Institute of Network Cultures, though my Keynote presentation is on SlideShare. A follow-up conference was held this past week in Amsterdam, and one of the speakers was Scott Kildall, with whom I attended WikiWars. Here is a blog post about that.
  • I wrote an article for Politics Magazine, the trade magazine for political consultants and campaign professsionals, titled It’s a Wiki World. Here’s how it begins:

    Few websites present as many potential opportunities and pitfalls to the campaign professional as Wikipedia. Whether a Wikipedia article is friendly or unfriendly toward a candidate, it is going to be highly ranked on Google. But Wikipedia is unique among other influential websites because its content is not under one person’s control: Anyone can—and will—try to change what a given article says.

    I tell a few stories, well-known to Wikipedians, about failed (or questionable) Wikipedia engagement and offer some guidance on a better way to approach Wikipedia.

That’s all for now. Much more to come, very soon.

John Patrick Bedell: Pentagon Shooter, Wikipedian

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on March 5, 2010 at 10:32 am

jpatrickbedell_wikipedia

Last evening, about two miles south of the office building where I work, a crazy guy named John Patrick Bedell opened fire at the Pentagon Metro station, wounding two officers before being killed by return fire. While police are still sorting through his motives, bloggers are combing through the trail of his Internet activity. One thing we know already: Bedell was a contributor to Wikipedia.

The website Media Elites was the first to locate his user account, which has since been suspended (reason given: “User is deceased”). The user page for Bedell’s account has been shielded from public viewing; no public explanation was given, but this is almost certainly to prevent Wikipedia from becoming a posthumous soapbox for Bedell’s views (Wikipedia tolerates unorthodox beliefs, but not when they become the impetus for attempted murder). However, Media Elites thought to copy and republish the full text before Wikipedia’s administrators stepped in. Here is an excerpt:

I apologize for the graphic content of some of my contributions, but detailed evidence is sometimes necessary to address important matters. I am very disturbed by the fact that Col. Sabow’s civilian superiors and their successors have been able to continue their narco-mercantilism. For historical comparison, I might resemble the odd German still complaining about the murders of the Night of the Long Knives in 1938(?). Of course, Wikipedia didn’t exist in 1938!

While his User page is gone, Bedell’s Talk page and Edit history remain. From these vestiges of his editing activity, we can learn much about his interests and some about his personality:

While political bloggers argue over whether Bedell was a member of the far-left or the far-right, such arguments are really less about Bedell and more about the participants. As Gawker put it, Bedell was “clearly intelligent” but “nonetheless a certifiable wackjob”.

Likewise, I can imagine some who would depict Bedell as a typically obsessive Wikipedian, although as Media Elites notes, his Internet activity included Facebook, YouTube and Amazon, although it seems not Twitter. Believe me, I have known obsessive Wikipedians, just as I have known people on the far-left and far-right, and they haven’t shot anybody. Bedell’s participation in Wikipedia was as incidental as his politics; the content of his madness and platform for its expression are less important than the fact of it.

Update: It should come as no surprise, now John Patrick Bedell is the subject of a Wikipedia article himself.

Google’s Gift to Wikipedia Probably Not Evil

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on March 3, 2010 at 11:29 pm

This is a few days old now, but if you haven’t already heard, Google gave Wikipedia $2 million dollars to help with its never-sated appetite for bandwidth and “increasing … multimedia needs.” Here are two of the Internet’s most important websites getting together, and I’d have thought it would’ve been worth more than a small roundup on Techmeme.

Reported the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 18:

Google Inc., the Internet’s most profitable company, is giving $2 million to support Wikipedia, a volunteer-driven reference tool that has emerged as one of the Web’s most-read sites.

Good.

Wikimedia Foundation, owner of Wikipedia, said Wednesday that Google has donated $2 million to further develop the popular encyclopedia and other projects.

Awesome. Right.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, broke the news on Twitter on Tuesday, followed by a formal announcement from the nonprofit organization.

Twitter, well played.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, in a statement, called Wikipedia “one of the greatest triumphs of the Internet…this vast repository of community-generated content is an invaluable resource to anyone who is online.”

You bet. Of course. But why now?

To some this raises the question of what Wikipedia might do for Google; after all, a sizable donation could be said to create the possibility of a Conflict of Interest. Previous donations, such as that from a conspicuous Silicon Valley VC and partner of Elevation Partners (not Bono), have raised eyebrows. And everyone knows about Jimmy Wales’ occasional willingness to cut special someones (and Google is) a break — at least until the community gets involved.

But this question is probably backward. Wikipedia already helps Google, and by helping Wikipedia, Google helps itself.

Google depends on Wikipedia to provide topical, authoritative results at the top of its search results pages (SERPs, in SEO-speak) on more subjects than any other website. One occasionally-discussed, conspiracy-tinged theory has Google purposefully privileging Wikipedia precisely because it “cleans up” their search results. That’s possible.

But that isn’t needed to explain Wikipedia’s prominence on Google. It guarantees, for a range of topics functionally as vast as Google searches are regularly performed, an end result that is usually informative, free (as in beer, but liberty too) and not-for-profit, “not evil” and reliably neutral in a Switzerland kind of way. From what we know about Google’s recommendations for webmasters, no website is so organized as well around the Google algorithm as Wikipedia, whether we’re talking about software, community or purpose. It’s basically Google’s perfect website.

Yeah, I would give Wikipedia $2 million, too. And even though it’s positively swimming in cash, I’d probably give it some more.