William Beutler on Wikipedia

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The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2014

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on January 5, 2015 at 1:54 pm

Every twelve months the Gregorian calendar resets itself, and I pull together a roundup of the most important events, happenings and newsworthy items that marked the previous year on Wikipedia. I’ve done this each year since 2010 and, the last two times, I went so long that I split the post into two. This time, I tried to keep it short. In the end, I just kept it to one post. Which I guess counts as short for The Wikipedian. So let’s get started!

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10. The Ballad of Wil Sinclair

Look, I don’t like it any more than you do that we’re beginning here, but we can’t pretend this didn’t happen. What happened? Soon after the Wikimedia Foundation picked its new executive director, Lila Tretikov, and before she actually took over from Sue Gardner, Tretikov’s spouse showed up on the foundation’s email list, and in other forums, and made his presence known. Wil came across as a decent fellow at first, then a bit obsessive, and then he made common cause with critics of the Wikimedia project at Wikipediocracy, and it threatened to overwhelm Tretikov’s tenure before it really got underway. By the summer, however, Wil Sinclair largely withdrew from online commentary about Wikipedia, and the controversy appears to have died with it.

9. Oh yeah, that Belfer Center thing…

320px-Belfer_CenterOne of Wikipedia’s eternal themes involves conflict of interest. As a public good, Wikipedia has significant potential to affect private fortunes, for good or ill, and this is not the last time you’ll hear about it in this list. One of the more unusual (and alarming) manifestations of the conundrum involved the Wikimedia Foundation working with the Stanton Foundation and Belfer Center at Harvard University to create a paid position, funded by mega-donor Stanton, coordinated by WMF, which had the effect of boosting the professional reputation of Belfer’s president. Oh, did you know the principals at Stanton and Belfer are husband and wife? Yeah, that kind of changes things. Blame seemed to follow Gardner out the door, but Wikipedia’s difficulty in forming partnerships with other non-profits continues.

8. Wikipedia gets a facelift

Nearly four years after Wikipedia updated its default look from the Monobook skin[1]Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me? to the current Vector, the site got another new look, albeit a more subtle one. Specifically, article titles and headings within pages were updated from a sans-serif typeface to a serif typeface. Goodbye Helvetica, hello Georgia! (At least in the headings.) You can never really underestimate Wikipedians’ resistance to change, and so a debate naturally ensued. Following the usual expected gripes, holdouts presumably switched their personal preferences to the old style, and the new look has become the accepted standard.

7. Jimbo’s UAE prize money

This is the most recent item on the list; in fact, I wrote about it just last week. In short, Wikipedia’s famous co-founder, Jimmy Wales, accepted a $500,000 cash prize from the government of the UAE, which has a dismal human rights record. Wales received criticism from members of the Wikipedia community and questions from at least one news outlet. Wales then announced he was going to give the money to charity, or maybe start a foundation, and claimed this was his plan all along, denying what seemed to everyone else like a simple matter of cause-and-effect. Even if Wales does start a new organization, there’s not much evidence to suggest it will go anywhere.

6. Wikipedia’s education program grows up

Wiki_Education_Foundation_logoIf there’s a happier balance to the unfortunate Belfer situation, let’s say it’s the maturation of the Wiki Education Foundation. Beginning as an in-house program in 2010, the organization spun off on its own in February 2014 under the leadership of WMF veteran Frank Schulenburg. In my 2010 list, “Wikipedia in education” was the fourth item, remarking that the two communities appeared to be at a turning point: back then, teachers’ attitude toward Wikipedia had until then been one of fear and loathing, but nowadays more and more universities are offering course credit for improving Wikipedia articles. While the WEF and its predecessor program can’t take all of the credit—and sure, student plagiarism is still an issue—it does go to show that the Wikipedia community can solve at least some of its problems, and well-considered partnerships can play an important role.

5. Who doesn’t love some CongressEdits?

It’s almost hard to believe it took until summer 2014 for someone to realize you could attach an RSS feed of changes to Wikipedia articles coming from IP addresses belonging to the U.S. Congress to a Twitter account, thereby publishing an obscure list in a very public way, but that’s exactly what happened. Actually, the UK-focused @ParliamentEdits account was first, and accounts focused on other countries’ legislatures soon followed, but @CongressEdits made the biggest splash. In each case, journalists latched on to amusing nonsense and legitimately concerning changes both, and the U.S. Congressional IP was blocked for a time. It wasn’t the first time this has happened; it wasn’t even a new revelation that congressional staffers edit Wikipedia for ill (and good!) but this was too much fun to ignore.

4. Can PR and Wikipedia just get along?

Full disclosure: I have a huge conflict of interest with this topic; as readers of this site are surely aware, this was a big project for me last year. Last February, I brought together an ad hoc group of digital PR executives, Wikipedia veterans, and interested academics (some folks fell into more than one category) for an all-day roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, to talk about the differences and commonalities between the Wikipedia community and communications industry. Out of that emerged a multi-agency statement spelling out a set of principles that participating firms would adopt, a sort of open letter to Wikipedia stating their intention to follow its rules and help their colleagues and clients do the same. We started with about 10 agencies signed, and the list more than tripled by late summer. It was a good start—but a significantly better situation is still a long way off.

3. New (and improved?) Terms of Use

240px-Wikimedia_Foundation_RGB_logo_with_textRelated to number 4, but developing separately, was the Wikimedia Foundation’s announcement—mere days after the multi-agency statement was published—that the non-profit was amending its Terms of Use for the first time since anyone could remember (give or take) in order to require anyone paid for their contributions to disclose their affiliations. The decision grew out of legal uncertainties revealed by the Wiki-PR controversy (covered in this list last year) and was not unanticipated. Like all other seemingly minor changes, it was challenged by community veterans who believed it would have negative consequences for non-marketers compensated for involvement in Wikipedia, among other complaints. But if that’s happened, it hasn’t been visible. Chilling effects are not to be discounted, but there’s no evidence yet that any worst case scenarios have come to pass. Instead, it merely codified best practices that have been around for years: it used to be, if you have a conflict of interest, you were best advised to disclose it. Now you must.

2. The Media Viewer controversy

It seems like every year now I have to reserve a prominent spot for a major argument between the Wikipedia community and the San Francisco-based software-development and outreach-focused non-profit created to support it (the WMF). Last year, my top story focused on the divisive internal battles over the Visual Editor—a big change that did not remain the default for long. The year before, it was a somewhat different argument over whether to take a stand on SOPA / PIPA legislation. This summer, the Visual Editor argument essentially repeated itself. This time the debate centered on the Media Viewer and whether it should be default for logged-in and non-logged-in users—that is, whether readers who clicked on an image should see it come up on a page with metadata readily visible, as it always had been, or whether they should see it in a lightbox, and if site editors and mere readers should see the same thing. No sense getting into the details, because I lack the six hours necessary to produce a worthwhile summary. However, let’s observe that consensus in July seemed to be that it should be turned off by default. But I just checked, and indeed it’s the default, logged-in or not. In other words: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

1. Lila Tretikov and Wikipedia’s uncertain future

It seems like you can’t so much as create a piped wikilink disambiguation redirect these days without running into another media think piece about the state of Wikipedia. MIT Technology Review was ahead of the curve with an October 2013 story on the “decline of Wikipeda”. In March, The Economist jumped in with the tortured coinage “WikiPeaks” (although they quoted me, so I nonetheless approve). Slate has gone in for this kind of coverage at least twice, first in June with a contribution by longtime Wikipedian Dariusz Jemielniak, and then from staff writer David Auerbach in December. In late 2014, former Reason editor Virginia Postrel turned it into a whodunnit: “Who Killed Wikipedia?

Lila_Tretikov_16_April_2014Am I missing any? Probably, but they mostly tell the same story: Wikipedia is too bureaucratic; its editors are rude to each other and more so to outsiders; that might have something to do with the fact that it’s pretty much all white guys; old editors are choosing to quit; new editors aren’t replacing them fast enough; the community and the foundation are at each others’ throats; Wikipedia has too much money and too little direction. Without further ado, let me say, welcome to your first year as Wikimedia Executive Director, Lila Tretikov!

Pretty much all of the questions that I asked upon Sue Gardner’s announced departure nearly two years ago are still in play, only more so. I summed up a lot of this in a post from November 2013, “Wikipedia on the Brink?” If there’s any good news, it’s that Wikipedia is still, well, on the brink. It hasn’t fallen off a cliff, certainly. In some ways it’s more successful than ever. But ask a longtime veteran of either the volunteer community or its San Francisco non-profit how things are going—catch them on their way out the door, if necessary—and you’ll find any number of concerns, including some I either haven’t heard or am simply forgetting.

It’s not entirely up to Lila Tretikov what Wikipedia’s future will be, however she has more power than anyone—including even Uncle Jimbo—to steer a new direction. Will the foundation keep making grants and developing software that its community doesn’t seem to like? Will she keep trying to grow the community as it currently exists, or seek to expand it in unexpected ways? Wikipedia is no longer a hot new (not-for-profit) startup, but a maturing organization stuck in comfortable old ways that may be holding it back. Here’s hoping some answers to these questions will start to emerge in 2015.

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Previous years’ top ten Wikipedia stories can be found here:

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Belfer Center image by Bostonian13; Wiki Education Foundation logo and Wikimedia Foundation logo courtesy the respective organization; Lila Tretikov photo by Lane Hartwell; all images via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Does anyone else find this term creepy, or is it just me?

Wikipedia Didn’t Kill Britannica—It Saved the Encyclopedia

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on December 11, 2012 at 11:40 am

Mary Meeker is a venture capitalist associated with the famous Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins who is—as Wikipedia describes her—“primarily associated with the Internet”. Indeed, her annual “Internet Trends” report is highly anticipated in the Valley. Her 2012 report is no different, and it includes a couple of slides focused on Wikipedia vs. Britannica (see also: “Regarding the Uncertain Future of Encyclopædia Britannica”, March 14, 2012). Here’s the important one:

My first reaction, as I tweeted last week, was to be fairly unimpressed:

But looking at it again, it’s quite obvious that for all the discussion of Wikipedia “killing” Britannica, this is not the case at all. First of all, as Wired’s Tim Carmody correctly observed earlier this year, Britannica’s sales began to falter with the introduction of Microsoft Encarta in 1993. If Meeker’s numbers are accurate, then the debut of Wikipedia in 2001 had no impact whatsoever on Britannica’s declining fortunes. Nor does Britannica’s downward slope appear to have accelerated with the rapid adoption of the Internet from the late 1990s onward.

The y-axis of Meeker’s chart, if anything, downplays Wikipedia’s ubiquity compared to Britannica’s sales. Being logarithmic scales charting different numbers, truth be told, I think it’s kind of a terrible chart, but it’s still readily apparent that Wikipedia is vastly more accessible to readers than Britannica ever was. Anecdotal evidence obviously supports this: I’ll bet anything you look at Wikipedia more now than you ever did Britannica, and there are millions who never had access to Britannica before, but can read Wikipedia now.

One thing I would have liked to see here is Britannica.com’s online traffic; writing as one who was in college during the late 1990s and used Britannica.com when it was a free resource, I’d imagine its true relevance nosedived when the site erected a paywall sometime around the year 2000, not that this would necessarily influence print sales.

The bottom line is clear: Britannica’s failure and Wikipedia’s triumph have nothing to do with one another, apart from the inexorable migration of information from analog to digital, and from physical to cloud-based storage. And here is the vastly more interesting trend question: what will eventually replace that?

For the full Meeker report, click here.

All The Women Who Edit Wiki, Throw Your Hands Up At Me

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on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Editor’s note: The author of this post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette) who last wrote “Public Lives: Jim Hawkins and Wikipedia’s Privacy Dilemma” for The Wikipedian in April 2012.

It’s no secret that the majority of those editing Wikipedia on a regular basis are men. It’s one of the best-known facts about the Wikipedia community and a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing over time. In fact, from 2010 to 2011, the proportion of women editors actually dropped, from 13% to just 9%, according to an independent survey by Wikipedian Sarah Stierch. And it does seem, at least from the media coverage, that this contributes to some bias in content. This issue not taken lightly by the Wikimedia Foundation, which has set a goal of “doubling the percentage of female editors to 25 percent” by 2015, as part of its Strategic Plan.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing here about content bias and what women are actually editing on Wikipedia, and the issues involved in encouraging more women into such a male-dominated space. First, though, let’s round up recent efforts to get more women involved with Wikipedia.

  1. The Wikipedia gender gap mailing list: Founded back in January 2011, subscribers to the list offer up ideas, share experiences, discuss issues and help to develop events and programs. Among recent updates, the list shared news of the latest Wikipedia Editor Survey and the launch of the new WikiProject Women scientists. 295 people are subscribed to the list.
  2. WikiWomen Camp: The inaugural camp was held in Argentina in May 2012. While not focusing on the gender gap, the conference was for female Wikipedia editors to network and discuss projects. A total of twenty women from around the world attended.
  3. WikiWomen’s History Month: March 2012 was the first WikiWomen’s History Month, where editors were encouraged to improve articles related to women in history. During the month 119 new women’s history articles were created and 58 existing articles were expanded.
  4. Workshop for Women in Wikipedia: This project to create in-person workshops encouraging women to edit Wikipedia was started in 2011 and is ongoing. So far, workshops sharing technical tips and discussing women’s participation have been held as part of the WikiConferences in Mumbai (2011) and Washington, D.C. (2012), as well as individual workshops held in D.C., Pune and Mumbai.
  5. The WikiWomens Collaborative: Launched at the end of September 2012, the Collaborative is a Wikimedia community project with its own Facebook page and Twitter account, designed to create a collaborative (hence the name) and supportive working space for women. Participants share ideas for projects, knowledge about Wikipedia and particularly support efforts to improve content related to women. Projects promoted by the Collaborative include Ada Lovelace Day, when participants were encouraged to improve articles related to women in math and science, including via an edit-a-thon organized by Wikimedia UK and hosted by The Royal Society in London. So far, the Collaborative has over 500 Twitter followers and 414 Likes on Facebook.

With all this activity, it’ll be interesting to see the results of the 2012 Wikipedia Editor Survey to see whether there has been any positive shift in the numbers of female editors. Look for those results early next year. Meanwhile, stay tuned here for my next post discussing gendered patterns of editing and Wikipedia’s knowledge gaps.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part IV: If Personnel is Policy, then Userbase is Destiny

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on March 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

In three posts last week, I considered how buzzy Q&A website Quora is more like Wikipedia than not. In this post, I’ll address how the different organizations behind them may affect the communities surrounding each.

For all of Quora’s upbeat talk about wanting to become “the best place” for answering questions on any conceivable topic, it is first and foremost a for-profit enterprise, and one allegedly worth somewhere between $300 million and $1 billion. It’s not hard to imagine how outside pressures (such as those from investors) might eventually force Quora to choose between the best thing for its community’s experience and the best thing for its financial well-being.

In fact, this probably has already discouraged one type of editor: the free culture / free software crowd, who helped build Wikipedia. One would think these folks might otherwise be interested in building a universal repository of information—but not if it’s a closed system. As we’ve seen in the unhapphiness of some Huffington Post bloggers following that site’s sale to AOL, one needn’t be a close follower of Richard Stallman to have questions about spending a lot of time helping to build a resource that may never produce a monetary return. Now, I am not saying those complaining about HuffPo are right, or discounting that participation on such platforms can be rewarding for non-monetary reasons. But it’s something Quora will have to look out for.

Wikipedia and Quora logosA good example involves an incident well-known at Wikipedia where, in the site’s early years, a significant number of editors on Wikipedia’s nascent Spanish-language edition decamped over such concerns. Among several reasons for the split, the most significant involved a suggestion (not even a real proposal) that Wikipedia would pay the bills by selling ads on the website. At the time, Wikipedia belonged to a private company owned by Jimmy Wales, and its url was www.wikipedia.com. So they left and started a competitor, Enciclopedia Libre Universal. The Spanish-language Wikipedia eventually recovered and outpaced its rival, but not for several years. (Wikipedians call this the “Spanish Fork”; for more information see this Jauary 2011 interview and Andrew Lih’s book, The Wikipedia Revolution.)

It probably doesn’t matter whether Quora might one day include advertising, because these types of editors would never have showed up in the first place. Let’s imagine, just for the moment, that they did open up advertising. One way or another, that would end up influencing content, which would be hard to reconcile with their stated goal that “each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.” Even if advertising didn’t influence content, it would inevitably interfere with it.

A handy comparison is Twitter: a few years back, one of it co-founders inadvisably pledged the site would “never” have advertising. They came up with a clever solution in Promoted Tweets, but there are still backlashes in store, like the one this past weekend over the “quickbar” added to Twitter’s iPhone app. And remember, the question here is not whether Quora will alienate participants so much they all leave—but whether enough disengage or never show up to keep it from competing with Wikipedia for mindshare in a serious way.

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Of course, it must be acknowledged that Wikipedia’s being a non-profit foundation (taking over for Wales’ dot com in 2003) comes with its own drawbacks. Late last year, many readers expressed displeasure with the months-long banner campaign featuring Wales and others “begging” for money. But they say this about NPR, too. And while its listeners put up with it (even as they sometimes put in for it) there is a huge audience of people who like neither the content nor the management, and stay away.

Apple vs. AndroidOne thing about being a hot new startup does help Quora: it has a dedicated design team actively working on the site design, and can make decisions more quickly. Wikipedia often struggles to make big changes, and with implementation of Flagged revisions or the debate over paid editing, disagreement can lead to paralysis and a default to the status quo.

At the moment, which is better remains a philosophical question: Wikipedia’s open and free nature vs. Quora’s closed and proprietary model. If you think that sounds like an easy question, consider the debate between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The two operating systems are currently very competitive, and it’s an open question which will pull ahead. Applications within Apple’s closely-regulated App Store are far more reliable and considered to be of higher quality than those within Google’s open app marketplace.

For any number of reasons, this may not be a great analogy for discussing Wikipedia and Quora. But consider how competitive the Android platform might be if it had debuted not one year after Apple’s iPhone but ten years. If Quora had launched at the beginning of the 2000s instead of its end, we might be talking about a very different competition. Right now, it is difficult to see how Quora can close the gap (more like a vast gulf) between itself and Wikipedia. At least, it won’t happen anytime soon.

But perhaps the Wikipedia comparison is setting the bar too high. Quora is an interesting platform, and I don’t see why it needs to achieve a Wikipedia-like ubiquity to become useful. It certainly needs to displace Yahoo! Answers, and it needs to start showing up in Google search results. If its community continues to grow and build out its content in areas that Wikipedia doesn’t want to cover, then it just might have a chance. The philosophical difference is resolvable only with data: as Quora develops in months and years to come, we’ll see how it stacks up. I’ll still be spending most of my time on Wikipedia, both as a reader and an editor. But if I can’t find it there, my next stop will definitely be Quora.

Follow me on Quora, if you are so inclined.

You’re With Me, ESPNDB

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on April 26, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Last week, ESPN unveiled a new website self-consciously intended to compete with Wikipedia: ESPNDB. The website has not made any kind of splash with sports blogs nor many other news websites. To my knowledge, the only in-depth coverage comes from MediaPost, which reported on April 16:

Curious where Shaquille O’Neal went to college? How many seasons Mickey Mantle played? ESPN wants to break the Google-to-Wikipedia flow chart that so many sports fans turn to for those kinds of answers.

espndb-logoSo, it’s set to launch ESPNDB.com (the DB stands for database) — a site it hopes will serve as a sports encyclopedia-archive- statistical compendium. On one level, the goal is simply an ESPN-opedia — although the content would be thoroughly fact-checked and would come from professionals. (Like Wikipedia, however, there will be some user-generated aspects.)

As I said, ESPN doesn’t even try to conceal that Wikipedia is a serious competitor for providing sports fans with information about teams, players, statistics and, quite literally, the footnotes of sports history. Here is what the front page of the website says right now:

ESPNDB will be your definitive source for sports and sports-related information. We are building a product that combines the far-reaching resources of ESPN with the unique output of our industry-best Stats and Information Group to give you an immersive experience that no other site can provide. In months ahead, we’ll also employ some great new technologies to harness the collective knowledge of the world’s sports fans.

This strikes me as a worthy endeavor, one capable of real success. While sites like Citizendium and Google’s Knol have espoused ambitions to compete with Wikipedia in creating a comprehensive online reference website, ESPN is wise to focus on just one area of knowledge, naturally the one topic it understands very, very well.

Wikipedia is just one of many websites who dominate a category, where network effects and other social phenomena have bestowed a de facto monopoly: Google, YouTube, Twitter, Craigslist and Amazon are just a few others. Barnes & Noble has not had an easy time going head-to-head with Amazon online, but rare and out-of-print bookseller Alibris has carved itself a small but viable niche.

Another site with a relative monopoly in its particular category is IMDb, another site ESPNDB must owe something to, even if not candidly acknowledged. The continued success of IMDb (an Amazon subsidiary for more than a decade) should also be cause for encouragement, both for ESPNDB as well as Wikipedia. After all, IMDb still rates as high or higher than Wikipedia on Google searches for most movie titles. To be sure, IMDb launched a decade before Wikipedia and in fact predates the Internet as we know it today, and so has merely held on to its prominence, whereas ESPNDB has ahead of it the task of building its authority. Meanwhile, it shows that there is room for both “wiki” and “database” at the top of Google’s rankings.

And ESPN seems committed for the long term, or at least is taking their time in building out the site. The ESPNDB front page continues:

We begin by giving you a ton of information about the NFL Draft – about 500 pages’ worth! As we evolve, we will be adding many more cool features, so continue to check back with us.

There are indeed some hints of cool features to come, but ESPN’s plans remain unclear. For instance, right now one can “friend” or follow the Facebook profiles of NFL draft prospects. What I’d like to see them do is tap into Facebook Connect, which would basically mean anyone with a Facebook account is already signed up to participate — though there is not much to participate in just yet.

Also interesting is that ESPNDB pulls Twitter feeds onto its pages, which is something I doubt Wikipedia will ever consider even trying. Right now it’s very simplistic, just updates from the NFL Draft, on its second and final day as I type this now. Imagine, though, if each article or entry — like this one about the Detroit Lions — pulled recent tweets specific to that team or its players. That would be something interesting.

But these potential “cool features” don’t address the strengths of Wikipedia which ESPN ostensibly means for this website to answer. So let’s look at the actual pages themselves. Here’s a screen cap of the article about Oregon (Go Ducks!) wide receiver Jaison Williams:

espndb-jaison-williams

Not much actual content so far, but the layout seems coherent and access to photos is a big strength ESPN has compared to Wikipedia. It has promise. Meanwhile, there is no Wikipedia entry for Williams, although that will probably change quickly once he is selected, which is expected sometime today. So the point goes to ESPNDB, at least in this narrow circumstance.

On the other hand, what’s the chance ESPNDB will ever allow users to write an article explaining the story behind “You’re with me, leather”?

Mr. Wales’ Neighborhood

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on April 12, 2009 at 10:13 am

For the fourth year in a row, a company named Information Architects has released what it calls a “Web Trend Map” — based loosely on the Tokyo subway map — that is nothing if not prime link bait, and The Wikipedian is unashamed to chomp down. Here is a crop from the much larger original showing Wikipedia’s “neighborhood”:

wikipedia-webtrendmap

For the record, the four websites situated closest to Wikipedia are HowStuffWorks, the non-Bill O’Reilly, Twitter and Huffington Post. To which I can only say: sure, okay.

Wikipedia is on the “Knowledge Line” which explains its proximity to O’Reilly and HowStuffWorks, where its connection to Twitter and Wikipedia is based on their relative popularity on each “Line.” The size of the name and height of the station both correspond to Wikipedia’s influence as a function of the creators’ estimation. Wikipedia is in fact listed fifth overall, behind only Google, Yahoo, MSN and Apple. It’s a little arbitrary, but these things always are.

As for the tiny figures saying the names of “Trendsetters,” well, I wonder how either Jimmy Wales or Larry Sanger feel about the latter’s inclusion at this late date. But that’s a subject for another post.

Did Rep. Hinojosa Get a Free Pass on Biased Wikipedia Edits?

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on March 30, 2009 at 9:21 am

This weekend, former Tacitus and RedState blogger Josh Treviño asked over Twitter:

Do you think Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX-15) had his staff edit his own Wikipedia entry? So blatant: http://bit.ly/TSbMm

The answer is yes, and yes it is and I see what could be regarded as something of a double-standard here. First of all, Hinojosa’s congressional staff was quite up front about editing the page in the first place, when they contributed from a House-registered IP address in early 2008:

I am a staffer for Congressman Hinojosa in his Washington office and have found some mistakes. We have edited them and added the official biography from our website. If there are questions, please [sic]

Not unlike Twitter, you only get so many characters to explain your edit in the edit summary. This was not a bad way to go about it, although another editor left this note on the Talk page associated with the IP address for the Hinojosa staffer:

ATTN: Staffer for Congressman Rubén Hinojosa

The edit was constructive in the sense that it did not delete unfavorable information from the page. At least, not all that unfavorable. For example, they changed

Finally in 2002 he was elected once again after running unopposed.

to

Finally in 2002 he was elected once again.

which it’s debatable whether this is even the right phrasing, but there is no question they removed (what may or may not be relevant) context.

However, I am not sure why adding material from his official bio is “constructive” when Wikipedia explicitly forbids plagiarism. Using information from the bio would be one thing, if there was at least a citation. Instead, are a few examples from what they added:

In Congress, Rubén Hinojosa is regarded as a champion for the disadvantaged and has distinguished himself as a strong advocate for education, housing and economic development. His primary goal in Congress has been to reduce the chronic unemployment rate in regions of the district.

And:

As chairman of the Education Task Force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressman Hinojosa ensures that federal education policy never loses sight of the youngest and fastest growing population in the country – Hispanic Americans.

And:

On the House Financial Services Committee, Congressman Hinojosa is widely recognized as a leader on issues affecting the underserved, from banking to housing.

Favorable impressions of a subject can be attributed to independent observers, but it should never presented as a true-because-Wikipedia-said-so fact. Yet as Treviño noticed, it has largely remained intact in the year-and-change since. In fact, one editor did stop by a few days later to clean it up, but only slightly.

A partisan job? Probably not — that editor was a retired aviation engineer from Bristol, England. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking whether a Republican congressional staffer making these kind of mistakes would have received the same benefit of the doubt? If one takes into account the case of former Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.), whose staff was caught in mid-2006 making similar changes to his Wikipedia bio, this seems unlikely. Then again, the staff of former Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) was called out for doing something similar earlier that year, so the answer is not so simple.

The bottom line here is that Rep. Hinojosa’s page needs some major work to bring it back in line with Wikipedia standards. If nobody gets to it soon — and in fact the page has remained unedited for two months now — I may just have to get in there and fix it myself.

Twitter + Wikipedia = How Can I Not Write About This?

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on March 3, 2009 at 6:57 am

I hadn’t realized that Sen. John McCain was on Twitter as @SenJohnMcCain, but with 127,000+ followers I am going to assume that it’s the real one and @JohnMcCain at ~6,700 followers is just a supporter. Given McCain’s war injuries it’s unlikely he’s typing these up himself (all updates are “from web”) but it’s nevertheless official, and the following tweet was just featured on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal a few moments ago:

mccain-twitter-wikipedia

I wasn’t familiar with the project, but a quick Google search reveals that he is obviously talking about the Online Nevada Encyclopedia.

Although I tend to share McCain’s skepticism that an encyclopedia of state history is something the federal government should be funding, my Wikipedia-specific thought was: Wikipedia guidelines may well not allow many of the articles the Nevada Humanities organization might want to create. In fact, Wikipedia suggests to frustrated newcomers that if Wikipedia doesn’t fit their goals, then perhaps starting another wiki is the way to go (where Jimmy Wales’ for-profit Wikia is theoretically poised to benefit).

Upon closer inspection, this putative New Mexico “encyclopedia” is not itself presented as a wiki, the writing style is far different and the so are the citation styles. The site runs to perhaps a few hundred articles at most so it’s highly conceivable that many or most could be rewritten and included in Wikipedia. But somehow I doubt Nevada would get a federal grant to do that.