William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Noam Cohen’

Wikipedia’s Struggle with Self-Reference Amid the Passing of One of Its Own

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on April 22, 2014 at 11:54 am

Wikipedia intends to be a passive observer of world affairs and recorder of knowledge, so as a community and ruleset, it usually prefers to avoid referencing itself in its own articles. But Wikipedia too makes the news, so it’s unavoidable that sometimes Wikipedia has to write about Wikipedia—and you may not be surprised to find that Wikipedia has rules governing these circumstances. But sometimes this becomes a more sensitive issue, and more difficult to work through. This week is one of those times.

The current disagreement surrounds the recently-created article about Adrianne Wadewitz, a much admired Wikipedia veteran and Occidental College literature professor, who died in a rock climbing accident earlier this month. A non-famous person in life, Wadewitz was subsequently the focus of an article by Noam Cohen, who writes about Wikipedia for the New York Times. Other obits appeared as well, from BuzzFeed and Jezebel, among others.

Yet the article was nominated for deletion on the same day this article was created—in fact, within four edits and 30 minutes of its creation. The nominating editor cited a plausible argument: Wikipedia’s guidance not to include articles about “People notable for only one event”—in this case, tragically, her death. The next editor to comment also pointed to a guideline advising that “Wikipedia is not a merorial site”. And so the early “voting”—strictly speaking, Wikipedians weighing in are not voting (or “!vote” as they like to call it) but this is a tricky concept so I’ll leave it for another time—ran toward deleting it. Then a string of editors made the case for keeping it. Here is a selection of thoughtful arguments on either side:

  • Delete This is a difficult time to have this [Articles for Deletion debate], and a hard position to take. My reasoning for voting delete is based on the context and encyclopedic value of her biography – years from now. Those who cite NYT piece as the sole test for notability should consider that she was described and considered notable as a wikipedian – which leads back to Wikipedia being the original source for notability. I know this vote is soon after her passing, probably not a good time to go through this – even if it is kept now, it’s likely it would be voted against in an year, or two or five. It’s sad but the encyclopedic value of her article is not going to change. This has nothing to do with sexism, her activism, opinions or her prolific output – purely about notability. General activism and prolific output have little to no correlation with notability. Besides that, it’s sad to lose one of our own, and she seemed like a great contributor.
  • Strong keep — obituaries in multiple reliable sources, including the NYT, convey notability by themselves, and she’s been featured in other articles published by reliable sources during her life. The content of the obits are largely about her achievements on Wikipedia, which clearly the NYT and other [reliable sources] cited consider significant, even if the commenters above do not.
  • Delete. I believe that awadewit was an incredibly valuable Wikipedia editor, and I cried buckets when I learned of her death. However, her academic career was in its youth and was not that remarkable. Her primary claim to notability is as a Wikipedia editor and activist, and I believe it is an inherent [conflict of interest] for Wikipedia to put up articles recognizing its prolific contributors. The sources may quote her, but they are not really about her. The exception is the obituaries, which were driven from Wikimedia sources. Even if we consider Wikimedia a reliable source, this is incredibly circular – Wikimedia talks lots about a topic, a third-party source picks it up, and now it is all of a sudden notable? I don’t agree. I do not agree that Wikipedia editing is grounds for conferring notability, whether multiple sources confirm that one was an editor or not. I do not agree that Wikimedia activism is grounds for notability, whether multiple sources confirm that fact that one was an activist or not. With all due respect to awadewit’s memory, I do not believe she was notable….and I don’t think she would have considered her life to be worthy of an article here either.
  • Keep – Defective nomination in the first place: BLP-1E [the guideline related to people notable for one event] is for living people. Passes GNG through sources already showing in the piece.

Interestingly, it’s those arguing “Delete” who offer the more carefully argued, more detailed cases. Perhaps it’s because they are motivated more by interpretation of guidelines than conviction that Wadewitz is deserving of an entry. Perhaps it’s because they don’t wish to offend those who have this conviction. Meanwhile, editors who knew her in life have taken both sides of the issue. One thing is clear: there is no consensus among Wikipedia editors whether this article should remain or not. And this leads to an obvious conclusion: when no consensus is met, Wikipedia guidelines default to “keep”. That’s what I expect to happen once the standard week-long discussion period has elapsed, and then I expect it to be re-argued again at some point in the future.

Recently, a biographical entry about a former Wikimedia Foundation employee was successfully nominated for deletion, partly upon her request, after she was publicly fired and this came to represent a disproportionate part of the entry. As it turned out, her eligibility for an article was at best “on the bubble” and hadn’t previously been scrutinized—in part, one imagines, because she is a well-liked member of the community. But once the article turned sour, and the subject wanted it gone, Wikipedians finally thought about it and decided: yeah, she didn’t really deserve one in the first place.

This situation is not even that simple. As one editor says above, I’ve heard that Wadewitz would not have wanted an article about herself. Unfortunately, she isn’t here to comment. In her place, a consensus of Wikipedia editors as influenced by their own self-determined guidelines will settle the matter definitively. Eventually.

The Wikipedian Mystique: Do Women Participate Enough in Wikipedia?

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on February 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Could it really be that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women? That statistic comes from a survey of Wikipedia users (whether contributing or just reading) sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation, first previewed in fall 2009 and eventually published in full in March 2010. Last week, Wikimedia executive director Susan Gardner announced plans to try raising this number to 25% by 2015. Thanks to coverage by Noam Cohen in The New York Times, the topic has dominated Interweb discussion of Wikipedia since then.

This participatory imbalance is not a new phenomenon, and hardly unique to Wikipedia. Cohen points to op-ed pages, and the same is considered to be true in their virtual equivalent, the political blogosphere. While there are some very prominent female contributors to all of the above, most surveys tend to show that men nevertheless lead these sectors.

On the other hand, as a female colleague pointed out to me, if you were to look at online forums about health care, animals, or the environment, the gender balance is likely to flip. The same is true with regard to professions; some are predominantly male or female, and many fall somewhere in between. Some combination of biological programming and social reinforcement produces a society with masculine and feminine traits. However, just because many stereotypes have a basis in reality does not mean they should be taken for granted or used as an excuse. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it right.

Among the many words expended on the topic, probably the best is by veteran Wikipedia contributor Kat Walsh; the entirety of it is worth reading, but here is the conclusion:

The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally–trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change. How do you become more inclusive without breaking the qualities that make the project happen to begin with? (Any easy, obvious answer to this question is probably wrong.) That Wikipedia works at all is an improbable thing; that it works, for the most part, well, nearly miraculous. Wikipedia’s culture doesn’t have to be hostile or unfriendly to a group for it to be underrepresented–it merely has to be not one of the most attractive options.

It so happens that “unfriendliness” has been identified as one possible reason. And it’s not that Wikipedia doesn’t have policies designed to address this issue: Wikipedia:Civility and Wikipedia:No personal attacks are core, non-negotiable site policies, augmented by further guidelines such as Wikipedia:Please do not bite the newcomers. The message is simple: Be polite to other editors, or you can be blocked. However, any experienced editor also knows that enforcement is uneven. Wikipedia is a very big place, where many editors are used to working in isolation. If someone comes along and starts behaving abusively, it can often feel like there is nowhere to turn. Even if you do know where to go for help, one actually must petition for a resolution, and this can be an unpleasant process. It’s also probably worth pointing out that this is an already issue on the presumably male-dominated website, so it is far from just women who feel this way.

Another issue worth considering is that no one actually knows for sure how many women are on the site. Anonymity on Wikipedia is guaranteed; hence the survey. But it’s trickier than that still, as I found out personally.

An early draft of the script for The State of Wikipedia video included the same detail from the survey Cohen cites. To make sure I had the details right, I sought the input of Erik Zachte, a data analyst for the Wikimedia Foundation and curator of information at the great Infodisiac website.

What he pointed out is that the survey had a significant problem with self-selection bias; more than a quarter of survey respondents came from Russia, for example. Among survey respondents, it is true somewhat less than 13% were female contributors. Slice it another way, and among contributors to the website, slightly more than 16% were female. Meanwhile, just 25% of survey-takers identified themselves as female. Therefore, the information concerning women on WIkipedia is considerably less likely to be accurate compared with men, but it still seems probable the percentage of female contributors is somewhere south of the 25% Gardner would like it to be.

The question then is what exactly she plans to do about it, and that discussion is underway now. If you want to be part of it, the Wikimedia Foundation has set up a mailing list to address the topic that is open to the public, and the Wikipedians you will find there are likely to be among the most thoughtful and welcoming. I certainly have my doubts that much will come of it, or that we’ll be able to reliably measure it. Wikipedia is a challenge to most people, from all walks of life, and any effort to artificially boost participation from any one group over the other is likely bound to meet with failure. If any solutions do arise, my guess is that will not necessarily be gender-specific.

As a final note, I find some irony in the fact that one reason put forth to explain why women don’t participate in Wikipedia is that they may not feel confident in their contributions, because on this particular topic, I don’t feel confident in my observations. Just for the record, on one hand I find that I am writing something because it’s a big topic and I don’t want to let it pass me by entirely; on the other hand, I think there is far more to be said about the subject than even a lengthy blog post can address. So I publish this now, unsure whether I’ve actually said anything worthwhile. Or maybe I’m overthinking it.

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

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on August 30, 2009 at 11:59 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flagged Revisions Come to the English Wikipedia

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on August 26, 2009 at 6:39 am

Earlier this week, New York Times web reporter Noam Cohen, who does some of the best Wikipedia reporting this side of The Register, broke the news about a decision by Wikipedia’s parent organization to instate tighter controls on some articles. Wrote Cohen:

Officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit in San Francisco that governs Wikipedia, say that within weeks, the English-language Wikipedia will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people.

The new feature, called “flagged revisions,” will require that an experienced volunteer editor for Wikipedia sign off on any change made by the public before it can go live. Until the change is approved — or in Wikispeak, flagged — it will sit invisibly on Wikipedia’s servers, and visitors will be directed to the earlier version.

The change is part of a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia’s leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature and dependable.

It’s worth pointing out early on, as Cohen’s story unfortunately did not, that these changes will apply only to biographies of living persons. In Wikipedia, that is a proper noun: Biography of Living Persons (BLP) is one of Wikipedia’s most strenuously enforced policies; earlier this year, Wikipedia veteran Newyorkbrad explained this in a series of posts on Volokh Conspiracy, which The Wikipedian previously discussed.

Blogosphere reaction has been much more widespread than any Wikipedia story that comes to mind from this past year. I think this is because everybody who uses Wikipedia has some opinion about the website’s curious balance between openness and reliability — and now the balance has shifted. I’d say reaction is roughly divisible into four quadrants: those who mourn Wikipedia’s openness vs. those who will continue to question Wikipedia’s reliability, with those who are optimistic about the change vs. those who are not. Here is a walk-through:

Among those who feel that Wikipedia’s openness is key to the site’s success, count Judd Antin at TechnoTaste, who is studying Wikipedia as part of his PhD work:

As part of my dissertation research I’ve been interviewing less experienced Wikipedians about their perceptions of the site. One constant theme has been the perception of a class system in Wikipedia. Casual editors worry that their edits aren’t good enough, and that they’ll be rebuked by Wikipedia’s upper-classes. They perceive a mystical group of higher-order contributors who make Wikipedia work. … This latest move is troubling in that it seems to represent a lack of faith in crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds, in the model that made Wikipedia what it is today. This change will also remove another of the important social-psychological incentives that draw new people into the Wikipedia fold: the instant gratification that comes from seeing your work reflected on a Wikipedia page.

This is not always a good thing; Kate McMillan at Small Dead Animals is an example of someone who is the subject of a Wikipedia article, but is not exactly pleased about the fact. She also isn’t exactly optimistic that things will change:

My own Wiki page was instigated by an internet “stalker”, in fact, the same individual who once authored a blogspot site using my stolen identity. Requests to Wikipedia to delete the page went unheeded, and it’s remained a reliable source of misinformation, false attribution of quotes, and drive-by smears ever since. … It wasn’t until I threatened a Wiki editor personally with legal action for restoring defamatory material to the page, that they began to take tighter control of the content.

Another skeptic is Ann Bartow at Madisonian.net:

I have doubts about how effective this is going to be in improving the reliability of the content of Wikipedia entries, but it is a great PR move by Jimmy Wales, that’s for sure.

From the perspective of a frustrated editor, here is Andy Merrett at The Blog Herald:

As someone not in the Wikipedia “elite”, I’ve long since given up trying to edit entries on the site, having already wasted not insignificant time adding information only to have it reversed. I foresee that Wikipedia will increasingly become a place where only a minority of privileged and “trusted” editors have the keys to the kingdom.

That is a plus to others. Among the critics of Wikipedia’s reliability was Lisa Gold at Research Maven, who nonetheless is a skeptic herself:

I’m glad there is finally some acknowledgment among the powers that be at Wikipedia that accuracy is important. But that’s not enough. If accuracy is important, you have to make it a priority and do things on many different levels to try to achieve it. You have to apply your policies to the entire site, not just some articles. You have to bring in people with knowledge, experience, and qualifications to do real editing and fact-checking. (With all of the unemployed editors, fact-checkers, and journalists out there, why not hire a few and let them work their magic.) This new policy is not really about making Wikipedia more accurate, it’s just about trying to stop the embarrassing vandalism stories that hit the news with disturbing regularity.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Dr. Jim West, who appears to have some experience arguing with an intellectual opponent about Wikipedia content. His reaction to the change:

In a word, duh. Now if you’ll do the same for every entry then perhaps your resource might be worth visiting some day. Until then, I think I’ll continue to abstain. I’m not really interested in reading an article on the Dead Sea Scrolls that Raphael Golb has edited using one of his 200 fake names.

While I understand the concerns of both above, I also think they go too far. Striking a balance and offering a more optimistic view is Ben Parr at Mashable:

[W]e can’t help but feel a bit sad that this change had to happen. Wikipedia was egalitarian in the spread and use of information, and it treated everyone as equal contributors of knowledge. While that may not necessarily be true in the real world, it still was the driving force behind the creation of 3 million articles, more than any other encyclopedia could ever hope to boast.

The move was necessary, but it does mark a new chapter in the Wikipedia information age and the end of an old one.

And here’s another philosophical take from Joe Windish at The Moderate Voice:

There is little doubt the debate will be passionate, but that’s exactly as it should be. Eight years into the incredible success of Wikipedia, long one of the 10 most popular sites on the Web, many of us still don’t understand it. … The thousands of volunteer Wikipedian editors take their responsibility seriously. Flagged revisions may or may not work. What’s best about it is that the Wikipedia editorial community will watch and wonder about and debate it. And if it should not succeed, they will try and try again.

My own take on the situation? I don’t know yet. As Andrew Lih explains in his book, The Wikipedia Revolution, the German-language edition has had this feature for several years, and it seems to work there. On the other hand, the English Wikipedia is much larger, and the possibility certainly exists that some articles will be left unchecked and un-updated for extended periods of time. Will the site grow stagnant? Will the vast majority of people who read but do not edit even notice? These are just a few of the operative questions.

WikiProject Flagged Revisions, which will try to keep articles current, was only established on the 19th of August and as yet has just four listed participants. It’s also worth noting, once the details are hammered out — which they are not just yet — the plan will be implemented on a two-month trial basis. And after that? Well, I’m very interested to find out myself.

The King of Wikipedia Traffic

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on June 27, 2009 at 4:42 pm

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

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

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

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

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

traffic-spike-wikipedia-jackson

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

traffic-spike-wikipedia-palin

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

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

traffic-spike-wikipedia-jackson-death

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

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

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

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

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