William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘The Human Stain’

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.

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!