William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘NPOV’

What Does Objectivism Have to Do With Wikipedia?

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on November 28, 2009 at 10:25 am

Writer Evgeny Morozov has a long essay about Wikipedia, organized as a review of Andrew Lih‘s “The Wikipedia Revolution“, in the latest issue of Boston Review. Morozov identifies his chosen takeaway in a post on his blog, but I’m interested in what he has to say, via Lih’s book, about how Wikipedia’s co-founders first met through their shared regard for the philosophy of Ayn Rand:

wikipedia_randTwo of Wikipedia’s co-founders found each other on philosophy-related mailing lists. Indeed Sanger has a philosophy PhD (his Ohio State doctoral thesis is titled “Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-Justification”), while Wales almost completed a PhD in finance. They came to the project with assumptions about human cooperation that appear to be rooted in philosophy, economics, and evolutionary psychology (among other disciplines), but those ideas are poorly articulated in the book.

Lih does point out that Sanger and Wales were heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (shades of Alan Greenspan), according to which, reality exists independent of consciousness and life’s great purpose is the rational pursuit of self-interest. Wales’s fascination with Rand was so deep that he even named his daughter after a protagonist in one of Rand’s books. But Lih does not explain the steps from Objectivism to an encyclopedia that “could detail what is true in the world without judgments.” After all, didn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for that matter) aim to check judgments at the door and detail only “what is true in the world”? And isn’t that the aim of the new computational search engine, WolframAlpha? How does Objectivism enter the picture?

Maybe it doesn’t.

I’ve puzzled over this fact, as well. One of the core tenets of Objectivism is that altruism is no virtue. From Wikipedia’s Objectivism (Ayn Rand) entry:

A corollary to Rand’s endorsement of self-interest is her rejection of the ethical doctrine of altruism—which she defined in the sense of Auguste Comte’s altruism (he coined the term), as a moral obligation to live for the sake of others.

Yet Wikipedia’s volunteer-driven non-commercial nature seems the very definition of altruism. As an amateur observer of Objectivism and Objectivists — I ran a libertarian-leaning magazine in college — my best reconciliation is that so long as one’s motives for editing (or creating) Wikipedia are defined in terms of one’s own self-interest then there is no contradiction. If one derives personal value from research and writing for its own sake, or from esteem among one’s peers (fellow Wikipedians) then it makes perfect sense. In that case, production of an online encyclopedia useful to the world is a happy byproduct. However, If Wales or Sanger have discussed Wikipedia vis-à-vis Rand, it would be news to me.

So if the question is, how does Objectivism enter the picture, I presume that it doesn’t necessarily explain anything and that it’s entirely possible Wales and Sanger could have met on a listserv for almost any intellectual pursuit.

But Morozov is not done with Rand yet; his criticism of Lih’s book is that it raises a few theories about what motivates Wikipedians without arriving at a conclusion. Since Lih’s book is primarily a lay history of Wikipedia it doesn’t seem fair to me that Lih should have had a unified theory ahead of writing the book, though he did devote space to the subject. Morozov asks:

wikipedia_kropotkinLih relies on the work of Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler to address the puzzle. Benkler’s studies of “peer production” draw on the thought of Russian anarchist Piotr Kropotkin, who believed that cooperation is as important in the evolution of species as competition and that “mutual aid” is essential to human survival. Lih does not mention that Rand and Kropotkin are not exactly intellectual soulmates. Lih also does not explain how these two diverging philosophies—one prizing egoism, the other altruism—could live happily together in one site.

Morozov has been doing original research, because while Benkler and Kropotkin both appear in the book, they do not come within 65 pages of each other. Anyway, here is what Lih says about Benkler’s proposed explanation for Wikipedian motivations on p. 108:

He asserts that motivation comes from two main things other than money: the “socio-psychological” reward of interacting with others, and the “hedonic” personal gratification of the task.

Which is essentially identical to the rational self-interest described above; just because Randians are strong advocates for a capitalist economy does not mean they love only money. And even if there was a contradiction here, all one must do is look to Wikipedia’s pillars to see how the ideas of Rand and Kropotkin may coexist on Wikipedia in NPOV as a principle and policy.

That said, Morozov’s essay is otherwise well worth reading, as it delves into worthwhile questions about Wikipedia’s structural biases, such as its heavy reliance upon online sources (nearly always found via Google) and resulting quandaries such as determining whether a person from the 1920s may be considered Notable. Questions such as these, rather than the influence of Ayn Rand, are what keep Wikipedians up at night.

Watch Out, Laszlo Panaflex!

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on June 22, 2009 at 10:42 pm

laszlo_panaflexIn a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, washed-up movie star Troy McClure — you may remember him from such self-help videos as “Smoke Yourself Thin!” and “Get Confident, Stupid!” — enters a sham marriage with Aunt Selma to squash rumors about his sordid personal life and regain his former screen glory. As he is “romancing” Selma along a Simpsonized version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, McClure declares:

One day, my lady Selma’s gonna have a star right next to mine, so watch out [camera pans right] Laszlo Panaflex!

Like most throwaway Simpsons lines, it has faded from mainstream recognition — the episode’s imagined musical version of “Planet of the Apes” is surely better known — but lives on in offhand references made by those of us who have been watching long enough to remember the controversy over Bart Simpson and those “Underachiever and Proud Of It” T-shirts.

I thought of it again while watching Ghostbusters on TV last night, noticing that the cinematographer was László Kovács. Was Kovács’ the name Simpsons writers were riffing on? Following a well-established routine, I plugged his name — Panaflex’s of course — into Google, hoping for but not really expecting a Wikipedia article to pop up.

It turns out Wikipedia did show up first — but it wasn’t an article. Instead, it was a user page for someone using the fictional lenser’s moniker as a handle. It reads in full:

Nice. But this also got me wondering: is this a loophole in Wikipedia policy? Isn’t this a way to get an encyclopedic page on the site even if it would be otherwise deleted by Wikipedia’s relentless arbiters of significance? After, all articles appearing on what Wikipedians call the “mainspace” of Wikipedia are expected to satisfy a handful of core guidelines lest they be removed or radically altered.

First there is the general notability guideline requiring the subject to meet a certain threshhold of importance (often determined by news coverage). Articles failing the requirement are deleted, and relevant content is sometimes relocated to existing articles about the same topic. Laszlo Panaflex, as one joke in one episode, would never pass Wikipedia’s notability requirement because it would obviously belong on the page about the episode (and as of this writing, it is not even there). An example of a Simpsons reference that does meet this requirement is Homer Simpson’s ubiquitous “D’oh!

Other guidelines it could elide and does in this case: Verifiability and Reliable sources. Sure, it helps to confirm my suspicion that Laszlo Panaflex is inspired by the real cinematographer with the accented name discouraging me from Ctrl-C/V-ing it again. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it was named for him, but certainly doesn’t offer a citation for the claim. I need more proof, and articles in the Wikipedia mainspace do, too.* User pages have no such requirement.

On the other hand, I think it passes NPOV with flying colors.

But is it a loophole to treat a user page like an article? After all, Laszlo Panaflex ranked right at the top of Google; other articles on semi-obscure subjects could as well. I don’t believe there is a policy, guideline or essay that specifically addresses this, though I fully acknowledge I may be wrong. In that case that I am not, the possibility exists for unworthy (or even “unworthy”) articles to be given a second home on user pages.

I can say for certain — alas, without being able to summon a link (I’ll look) — that there are a number of editors whose user pages are written to resemble a Wikipedia article. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. However, I do think it could make the Wikipedia community uncomfortable if it became a widespread practice, and was seen as a gray hat SEO technique.

In that unlikely event, the first suggestion that comes to me would be requiring a banner on user pages that specifies that it is not an “article”. It would be phrased like the banner I keep atop my own page, included as a disclaimer in case the page is swiped by an unscrupulous mirror site. After all, this non-accusatory template puts even a flawed but useful article about one Laszlo Panaflex in the proper context:

This is a Wikipedia user page.

This is not an encyclopedia article. If you find this page on any site other than Wikipedia, you are viewing a mirror site. Be aware that the page may be outdated and that the user this page belongs to may have no personal affiliation with any site other than Wikipedia itself. The original page is located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:WWB.

Wikimedia Foundation

*It may be out there. Many other Simpsons-related Wikipedia articles, including “A Fish Called Selma”, are buttressed by citations to the commentary tracks on the official DVD releases. If anybody knows for sure, I’d be happy to help add the citation.

Words and Deeds: Wikipedia and the Virginia Governor’s Race

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on June 14, 2009 at 8:03 am

The Democratic Party of Virginia settled on a nominee for governor this past week, choosing state senator Creigh Deeds over two better-known rivals, including former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe. (On the Republican side, Bob McDonnell was unopposed for the nomination.) Following the race, Virginia blogger and Wikipedia contributor Waldo Jaquith posted about “Wikipedia’s role in Sen. Deeds’ nomination“, featuring quotes from a live discussion WashingtonPost.com. Wrote one voter:

I voted for Deeds. The WaPo endorsement really helped. I started doing the research this weekend and was disappointed that the WaPo did not have a quick guide the issues. I searched for a half an hour and did not find a quick rundown of the candidates and the issues.

Also, Deeds had a wikipedia page about his past stances. That really helped. The other two did not have similar pages.

Interestingly, the specific page quoted — “Political positions of Creigh Deeds” — has been merged back into the main Deeds article, but the content appears intact. Jaquith writes:

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Wikipedia is going to play a large role in year’s Virginia elections. The campaigns that a) understand that, b) harness that and c) do so in a fair, unbiased way will reap the benefits. The campaigns that ignore Wikipedia or attempt to manipulate its information in a way that is anything less than fully truthful will be penalized accordingly.

In fact, that seems to have already occurred in the primary. As noted in an overexcited but basically correct diary at Daily Kos last week, ““You can’t handle the truth!” TMac’s dogs scrub Wikipedia of facts” supporters of McAuliffe did remove sourced information, none of which has been restored as of this writing.

In the first instance, material about a land deal and disgraced Democratic fundraiser John Huang because it “lacked NPOV” (i.e. not written from a neutral point of view), and in the second about business deals involving Telergy and inPhonic “for being unsourced.” Well. Lacking a neutral tone is cause to rewrite a section, but not a reason to delete — certainly not as a first resort. Second, the inPhonic material was properly sourced, and better than deleting the Telergy section would have been to find a citation. On the other hand, this goes both ways — the material was almost certainly added to cast doubt upon McAuliffe’s fitness for office, and according to the discussion page about McAuliffe’s article, much of this criticism popped up just days before the Tuesday primary vote. And so it goes.

So now the Commonwealth turns to the general election where, if Jaquith’s prediction is correct, the articles about Deeds and McDonnell will be both important resources as well as the locus of battles to establish narratives about each candidate. Indeed, both articles are the top non-official sites listed in Google searches for each candidate’s name. (Another important article will be Virginia gubernatorial election, 2009.)

As yet, Deeds’ article is the better one, in part because of the aforementioned section outlining Deeds’ political positions. His article is also somewhat more active, probably due to the active primary, and more experienced editors working on the page. Recent contributors to Deeds’ page include Virginia resident John Broughton, who literally wrote the book on editing Wikipedia, whereas most recent work on McDonnell’s page has been done from unregistered accounts represented only by the user’s IP address. Jaquith, for his part, has recently edited both.

It’s a good bet that, after the summer, editing on both articles will ramp up as November draws closer. It will be interesting to see how they develop.