William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Reliable sources’

Gene Weingarten Proves Wikipedia Still Needs a Better Way to Deal With Feedback

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on October 3, 2016 at 11:23 am

Wikipedia has two kinds of problems. The first category includes problems it recognizes and realizes how to fix, sometimes through a policy change but more often, in recent years especially, by administrative actions or PR activities led by the Wikimedia Foundation. For example, educators once warned students away from Wikipedia, but now editing Wikipedia is an increasingly common pedagogical tool, for which a great deal of credit is owed to the Wiki Education Foundation.

The second type of problem comprises those issues it cannot or will not fix, for reasons as diverse as the problems themselves. This past week brings us another example, highlighted by a September 29 column in the Washington Post Magazine by Gene Weingarten, titled “Dear Wikipedia: Please change my photo!” This comes more than four years after Philip Roth published “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” online at The New Yorker. In each case, both men found fault with their biographical entries on Wikipedia, and used their access to the mainstream media to call attention to the changes.


The problem we are highlighting is that anyone who is written about in a Wikipedia entry typically has no idea what they can or cannot do if they have a problem with said entry. There is some awareness that editing one’s own biography is fraught with peril—“(One is evidently not allowed to alter one’s own entry.)” Weingarten explains in an aside that is effectively true, technically false, and debatable as a matter of Wikipedia guidelines, so who can blame him—but there is little understanding of what one is supposed to do instead:

I tried asking Wikipedia to change or delete this picture. No answer. So I did what any user can do, and deleted it myself, on seven occasions — which, yes, was in blatant and shameful contravention of all Wikimedia Commons policies blah, blah, blah.

Absent a clear path to offering feedback, Weingarten and Roth did they only thing they could imagine: they tried editing the “encyclopedia anyone can edit”. Oddly enough, this didn’t work. Looking at Weingarten’s edits, it’s not hard to see why his attempts to remove the photo were overturned: more than once he simply deleted the entire infobox. He might have been successful if he’d just removed the actual image link (but then again maybe not) however it stands to reason a middle-aged newspaper humor columnist might not be the most adept with markup languages. In Roth’s case, he asked his biographer to make the changes for him, which were overturned because available news sources contravened Roth’s preferred version.

New photo for Gene Weingarten's photo, via Simona Combi on Flickr. Whether it's actually an improvement is a matter on which reasonable people can disagree.

New photo for Gene Weingarten’s photo, via Simona Combi on Flickr. Whether it’s actually an improvement is a matter on which reasonable people can disagree.

When editing Wikipedia didn’t work, each finally turned their media access to their benefit, and this time they got results. Within hours of Weingarten’s article becoming available, Wikipedia editors gathered on the discussion page of his biography to determine what could or should be done about his plight. Meanwhile on Twitter, longtime Wikipedia contributor (and DC-based journalism professor) Andrew Lih engaged Weingarten in a conversation, trying to get a better photo for him, and explaining why his Washington Post headshot could not be used. Soon, another photo satisfying Wikipedia’s arcane image use policies was identified and added to the article, although it doesn’t seem Weingarten isn’t especially happy with it, either. Lih had previously invited Weingarten out to lunch and a quick photo shoot, and it sounds like this may still happen.

In Roth’s case, it was a more complicated matter: several book reviews had identified a character in Roth’s The Human Stain as “allegedly inspired by” a writer whom Roth denies was the character’s inspiration. In the short term, Roth’s objection was noted, but sometime after the entire matter was relocated to a subsection of the novel’s Wikipedia entry as “Anatole Broyard controversy”, explaining the matter more fully. This seems like the right outcome.

So, everything worked itself out, right? That’s just how Wikipedia works? Mostly, and yes, and this is nevertheless somewhat regrettable. The fact is Weingarten and Roth are both able to command a major media audience via a “reliable source” platform that the vast majority of people (and bands, brands, teams, companies, nonprofits, &c.) do not. The method they used to get action not only doesn’t scale, it rarely happens at all due to most article subjects’ fear of a “Streisand effect” bringing undue attention to their article. As Weingarten writes in his piece:

[I]it is also possible that this column will serve as a clarion call to every smart aleck and wisenheimer and cyber-vandal out there. Anyone can make ephemeral changes to my Wikipedia page, any time.

Fortunately, that hasn’t happened, but it isn’t an unreasonable worry. Fortunately for Weingarten, as a white male whose writing doesn’t really take sides on controversial issues, he’s not much of a target for the Internet’s troll armies and political agitators.

The causes of this failure are many. We can assign some blame to Wikipedia’s strict policies regarding copyrights and reliance on crowdsourced images which has made its often-poor celebrity headshots both a source of angst and amusement. We can assign some to Wikipedia’s confusing discussion pages, which are forbidding; a project was once in development to overhaul them, only to be mothballed after facing community critcism. We can assign some as well to the contradictory message of Wikipedia as the encyclopedia anyone can edit—just not when the subject is the one you know about best, yourself. And we cannot let Wikipedia’s editing community escape blameless; even as they are not an organized (or organizable) thing, the culture is generally hostile to outsiders, unless of course said outsiders can get their criticism of Wikipedia into a periodical they’ve heard of before.

In the four years since the Roth episode, Wikipedia has had time to come up with a process for accepting, reviewing, and responding to feedback. I’ve argued previously for placing a button on each entry to solicit feedback, feeding into a public queue for editorial review. The reasons not to do this are obvious: most of it would be noise, and there wouldn’t be enough editor time to respond even to those requests which might be actionable.

I still think the feedback button is a good idea, but I recognize it is not sufficient: it would also needs an ombuds committee set up to triage this feedback. Perhaps this could be community-run, but this seems too important to be left up to volunteers. This work could be performed by WMF staff even if, for complicated reasons every Wikipedia editor understands but would need a lengthy paragraph to explain, they could not implement them outright. And it’s not just a matter of making sure Wikipedia is accurate—though you’d think that would be enough!—it’s also a matter of making sure Wikipedia is responsible and responsive to legitimate criticism.

Of course, Wikipedia already operates on this very model, in a way: it solicits edits from its readership, and then also spends a lot of time reverting unhelpful edits, and the difference between bad edits with good intentions and bad edits with bad intentions is often impossible to tell. Providing a clear option for expressing a specific concern rather than forcing the expression of that problem to be an edit rather than a request is something Wikipedians should think about again. When someone is unhappy with their Wikipedia entry, that they have no idea what can be done about it isn’t really their fault. Ultimately, it’s Wikipedia’s. And it’s not just an abstract information asymmetry problem—it’s a PR problem, too.

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.

The Wikipedia Haters Club

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on June 9, 2009 at 8:42 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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