William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Wikimania’

All I Really Needed to Know I Learned Editing Wikipedia

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on July 12, 2016 at 3:33 pm

10th-wikibirthday

Ten years ago today, I created a Wikipedia account for the very first time, and made a few small edits that I probably would not make exactly the same way in 2016. For those who know about my Wikipedia participation over the past decade, you may not be surprised to learn that my initial series of edits was made at the request of my boss. As it happens, my very first edit was in fact to a discussion page, explaining my rationale. In retrospect, this instinct served me well later on, in ways I couldn’t have known at the time.

But anyway, I came back the day after, and a few days after that, and started making edits based on my own interests. At the time these included: Michael Mann, The Crow (1994 film), Mike Bellotti, The Postal Service, Truthiness, and Ratfucking. So: action movies, college football, indie rock, and amusing political jargon. I have more interests today than I did when I started editing in my mid-20s—relatively late, compared to some editors I know—but I’m still interested in all of the above, even if some of the specific topics aren’t quite as relevant. I continued making small edits over the next two years, learning more as I went, until finally building up the confidence to create my very first article, about legendary Portland, Oregon retailer and TV pitchman Tom Peterson.

Looking back on these ten years, my contributions are rather modest compared with many, many other editors whom I’ve come to know. But here is a short recounting, both on-wiki and off: I’ve attended four Wikimania conferences and two WikiConference USAs; appeared as a speaker at four combined; made several thousand edits across primary and secondary accounts; created dozens and improved hundreds of articles; launched a business initially predicated on helping companies and organizations with COI compliance; and helped put the world’s largest PR companies on the record about following Wikipedia’s rules. Oh, and I started this blog, now more than seven years old.

To say that Wikipedia has changed me far more than I have changed it would be an understatement. I owe a great deal of this decade to Wikipedia and everyone there, and this put me in mind of what, specifically, I have learned from it. Dare I say, to finally invoke the title of this piece, all I really needed to know I learned editing Wikipedia.

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The following is an entirely non-comprehensive list of life principles as elucidated by the principles of Wikipedia as I’ve come to understand them. I’d love to hear feedback, whether you agree or disagree, and especially if you can think of any others:

  • Let’s first dispense with the obvious: there are many lifetimes worth of knowledge to be found in the 5.2 million entries on the English Wikipedia. In a very literal and obvious sense, of course it contains everything you need to know, especially if you need to know about footballers.
  • More to the point, Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, and the lessons one can learn from interactions with Wikipedia’s editors, are extremely useful if you’re willing to think about them and apply them to your own life. I can think of several… (WP:POLICYLIST)
  • Finding a balance between giving others benefit of the doubt while also being judicious in whom you trust is one of the most challenging tasks facing everyone, and making the right call can have a profound influence on what we believe and how we act upon these beliefs. (WP:AGF, WP:RELIABLE)
  • Building on the last one: be prepared to investigate your own opinions and beliefs. Just because you think something is true, there’s a decent chance you may be wrong, and the best way to handle any challenges is to soberly consider the evidence and determine if your conclusions hold up. (WP:VERIFY)
  • Sometimes the best way to understand what a thing is is to observe what it is not. By process of exclusion, one can arrive at more a objective assessment about the practical nature of a thing by determining first what it isn’t, than by trying to understand it solely for itself. (WP:NOT)
  • Not all principles should be accorded the same weight, and forming a coherent and defensible hierarchy for which values supersede others is necessary to conduct oneself morally. Rules should in general be followed, but well-intentioned rules can lead to bad outcomes if you don’t pay attention to the totality of their implications. (WP:GUIDES, WP:IGNORE)
  • Respect others’ intellectual contributions as you would their physical property. If you got a good idea from someone, give them fair credit. You’d want the same, and if you don’t there’s a very good chance it will catch up with you, especially on the Internet where everything is searchable. (WP:COPYVIO, WP:IUP)
  • Don’t be a jerk, don’t violate others’ space, and don’t cause anyone grief to make a point, even if you have one. It’s possible to disagree reasonably and with appropriate emphasis while upholding your dignity and allowing others’ theirs. Just be cool, OK? (WP:CIVIL, WP:PERSONAL, WP:BADGER)
  • If you want to get along with others and coexist in a world where there are many differences of opinion and belief, it’s important to have a good sense of how others came to those conclusions, be able to assess other opinions neutrally, and know not only when to give them their due but also how far is too far in polite society. (WP:NPOV, WP:UNDUE)
  • You can’t make rules for everything, and some degree of flexibility based on your surroundings will be necessary to thrive in surroundings you cannot control. Not every community will have the same standards, so it’s in your best interest to be alert for these differences and conduct oneself accordingly. (WP:CONSENSUS)
  • Finally, no matter how worthy the principles you decide to live by, it’s simply a fact that not everyone you’ll come across will agree to them, or act the same even if they voice agreement with them. When you’re dealing with human beings who have their own objectives, passions, prejudices and prerogatives, a certain comfortability with uncertainty and disagreement is as necessary as any of the rules preceding this one.

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So, does all this mean Wikipedia is perfect? Heck, no! What I mean is that it’s an excellent place not just to soak up the sum of all human knowledge, but also to learn how to conduct oneself in a society riven with conflict and ambiguity, where might sometimes seems to make right and in the end all one can really be certain about having the power to safeguard is one’s own integrity. Maybe that’s a dim view of the world, but when you consider all the bad things that happen every day, you know, getting into (and out of) an edit war on Wikipedia is a relatively safe and surprisingly practical way to learn some key lessons about life. In another ten years’ time, I’m sure I’ll have learned some more.

Wikipedia is Not Therapy, but it Has its Benefits

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on May 20, 2016 at 4:20 pm

That Wikipedia can be a toxic environment is not lost on many editors who’ve stuck around awhile, and likely even fewer who decide to walk away from the project. Wikipedia has rules—mandatory policies, even—requiring civility and prohibiting harassment, but in a community that prizes free speech and values second chances, these admonitions to good behavior are rarely taken seriously.

The impact this can have on the mental health of key contributors became a heated topic this week, so in the spirit of contributing to a better environment, The Wikipedian is running this guest post—not our first, but it’s been awhile!—from friend of the blog and The Wikipedia Library founder Jake Orlowitz, in this memoir-commentary about the other half of the equation, Wikipedia’s ability to uplift:

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Journey of a Wikipedian

There’s no one moment when you go insane;

not when

you find yourself crying into a phone behind a closet door

or tapping your foot to neutralize thoughts you can’t handle

or sleeping on a bed of worn clothes on a hard floor

or when the police officer pulls you over again for driving

up and back the same stretch of highway, six times

and not when you physically crack the monitor in a dark room for no reason even though it was the only light left in a night’s center as you tap away at keys throughout the silence

But you occasionally get a glimpse of someone else realizing that, “you’ve lost it”.

It was probably fall 2010. My dad turned the knob on the attic bathroom door in the house where I had grown up, and the reaction on his face was devastated. He didn’t know that no other room in the house, or the country, felt safe to me, that the warm water soothed and wetted the dry, frigid air, that my laptop was balanced purposefully so that it would fall backwards onto the tile rather than into the hip-high water, and that I had chosen the back wall of the tub for its ergonomic watchlist-monitoring suitability.

He didn’t know that. He just saw his 27-year old son, feverishly tinkering with electronics on the edge of a full bath, completely nude, oblivious to anything else, or anything wrong. He also didn’t know that I was helping lead the Egyptian revolution.

That too sounds insane, but as the calendar flipped into January 2011, the new year brought millions to Egypt’s streets. A boy had gone missing, turned up in a morgue clearly beaten beyond breath by police. Facebook pages organized gatherings that filled immense public squares. Protests turned into uprising turned into revolution.

And I, alongside 4 exceptionally dedicated editors from 3 different continents, monitored the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Wikipedia article 24-hours-a-day with equipoise and fervor. We yearned for Mubarak to fall, but in the newsroom which the article’s talkpage had become, we were vigilantly checking multiple independent reports before inputting any new words onto the growing page, scouring the article for flourishes of revolutionary support. The world would come here to find the facts; those that would dispassionately drive understanding without embellishment or motivation, for the hundreds of thousands of people reading that page each day. And I would make sure of it. From my bathtub.

There’s also no one time when sanity returns, if there is such a defined state. But suffice to say that it builds upon moments.

Like the moment when you start chatting off-channel to a Wikipedian on irc-help, just to talk to someone again. Or when you put on a suit for the first time in 6 years, to give a talk on conflict-of-interest to a gathering of pr folks at a posh downtown bar. Or when you step into the hostel at Wikimania in 2012 in D.C. and meet Stu Geiger, your coincidental bunkmate, and instantly recognize his familiar, Wikipedian-ite, eclectic genius.

The moments gather momentum though. Soon you are calling up major media companies to ask for donations. Not as Jake, or that guy who lost a decade in his 20’s, or the model teenager who lapsed into dysfunction and veered ‘off course’. But calling rather, as a piece-of-Wikipedia… Do you know what doors that opens?

The drama of recovery shouldn’t be overly simplified into highlights. It was just as much my psychiatrist’s expert balancing — seeking of psychic neutrality — with a fine and formidable mix of anxiolytics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and sleep aids. Not too high, not too low. Not too moody, not too flat. Every pill presented a trade-off, but we found a consensus pharmacology that worked.

My parents made sure that my rock bottom was somewhere safe.

My friends’ surprise visits reminded me that there was fun yet to be had.

The diagnoses I received were varied and all increasingly off-the mark. I was bipolar, but generally calm through even the grittiest edit wars. I was agoraphobic and socially anxious, but traveling to Hong Kong and Quebec and Berlin for meetups with strangers from myriad countries. I was depressed, but could not control an urge to improve a bit of Wikipedia, every day, most of the day.

They say that Wikipedia is NotTherapy. It’s a serious place to write an encyclopedia, not to iron out one’s mental kinks or cracks. But I think that’s wrong. No one knew me on Wikipedia, except for my words, the wisdom of my input, and the value of my contributions. They couldn’t care less if I was manic, phobic, delusional, or hysterical. It just didn’t matter. They didn’t see that part of me.

So I got to build my identity, my confidence, my vocation — with longwinded eloquent analyses, meticulous bibliographies, and copious rewrites of difficult subjects.

They also say that Wikipedia is Not a social network, but that’s wrong too. In the 8 years since I started editing, first in my car outside a Starbucks, and then throughout the dull shifts of a mountain-town Staples store where I squatted for wifi, and then still more through 3 years back at home under blankets between dusk and dawn, I met hundreds of people with whom I shared the same passion. I received, quite marvelously, 49 barnstars from peers, friends, and fans. There wasn’t a bigger or better sense of validation.

Jake OrlowitzI received two incomparable partners, to build a Wikipedia Library that I created and had become the head of. I received a job offer, with wellness benefits. I also received, in the grand sense of things, an irrepressible, stunning and brilliant girlfriend and her exuberant 5-year old daughter into my life.

You see, Wikipedia brings people together. It brought me together. It just takes some time for everyone to get their heads on straight, before they can see that their lives too have a mission, and an [edit] button.

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A few thoughts to remember, for online collaborators, or any collaborator, really:

  1. We are a community of very real people with deep emotions and human complexities.
  2. We are deeply invested in our project, so much so it hurts us at times even if it is also a passion or refuge for many.
  3. You never know what someone has been through, or is going through.
  4. We all need help at some point. There is no shame in needing help, asking for help, or receiving help.
  5. If you are ever feeling completely hopeless: Wait. Things really can get better. Talk to someone about it.
  6. Mental health carries a powerful stigma. The more we are open about it, the less that weighs all of us down.
  7. If we listen, we can learn from each other.
  8. We need to be kind. This is a higher calling than civility, and entirely compatible with achieving our goals.
  9. Our movement depends on its people. We are our most valuable resource.
  10. We are not finished products. With time, space, support, and practice — people can, and do, grow and change.

If you ever see someone in need of help, or are seeking it yourself, please contact one of many available 24-hour emergency hotlines, or just dial the local emergency number for your area.

— Jake Orlowitz, User:Ocaasi, @JakeOrlowitz

This text is licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0. It can be shared or reposted without permission under the terms of the Creative Commons license, which requires only attribution and that reusers keep the same license.

Orlowitz post originally published in a slightly different form on Medium.

Image by Christopher Schwarzkopf via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimania 2014: We Needed to Talk About Paid Editing, So We Did

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on August 12, 2014 at 9:23 am

This past weekend I attended Wikimania, the annual worldwide conference for Wikipedia and related wiki-sites, this time held in London and the third I’ve attended. And for the first time, this year, I was a speaker. The presentation was called “We Need to Talk About Paid Editing: Sorting Out Wikipedia’s Most Enduring Argument” and its subject matter is fairly self-evident: Wikipedia has struggled for years with the fact that its volunteer-first community attracts outside interests seeking (or offering) monetary recompense for changes to articles.

On the English Wikipedia, the operating consensus is that paid contributors should refrain from editing directly, and instead seek help from volunteers. The most important factor in this is the opinion of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and unofficial community leader—an unwritten rule often referred to as the “Bright Line”. Interestingly enough, this is not the case on other language editions: the French, German, and Swedish Wikipedias tend to be much more accommodating of companies and organizations that seek to change (sometimes even directly edit) the Wikipedia article about themselves.

The goal of myself and my co-presenters was to put all of this together for the first time in a public meeting of Wikipedians, to hold an open discussion about what it means, and to consider whether it is possible to agree on a unifying standard. And the result? Well, it was a very successful presentation, with a packed room (even though we were in the last block of time on the last day) and a lively conversation that could have gone much longer than the 90 minutes allotted. Below, our slides, and an explanation of what we discussed:

I had two co-presenters for the panel, and two guest presenters joined us as well. My main collaborators were longtime English Wikipedia contributor / chronicler Andrew Lih (User:Fuzheado), and French Wikipedia contributor / marketing executive Christophe Henner (Utilisateur:Schiste). The two others were former Wikimedia Italia VP Cristian Consonni (Utente:CristianCantoro), and Telecom Italia executive Federico Ascari.

The deck above is short on explanatory text—it was meant to support our speaking on the subject, of course—but it went a little something like this:

  • Slides 1–12 — Leading the way, Andrew delivered a whirlwind history of “paid editing” and other “conflict of interest” edits on Wikipedia, including several of the better known controversies. Most interesting, Andrew created a four quadrant chart showing how paid (and unpaid) editing differs based on whether it is perceived as “conflicted” or “unconflicted”.
  • Slides 13–23 — Here’s where I told a bit of my own story as a consultant on Wikipedia projects for clients, explained how we fit into the so-called Bright Line (short version: I follow it, but it doesn’t work as well as it should), and the Donovan House meeting of Wikipedians and PR thought leaders I convened in February, plus the multi-agency statement which came out of it. As of August 2014, following my lead, 35 companies including the very largest global firms, have pledged to follow Wikipedia’s rules and encourage clients and colleagues to do the same.
  • Slides 24-27 — Christophe described his past work with French telecom Orange to improve its Wikipedia presence, a debate among Wikipedians about whether this was handled correctly, and frustrations by his former client, Yamaha, which was less successful working with Wikipedia but instead created its own wiki.
  • Slides 28–34 — Cristian and Federico took turns explaining the project they undertook. In short, Telecom Italia partnered with a university class, recruiting 6 students completing their undergraduate work, to research and write improved versions of several articles about the company, with input from Cristian and the Italian chapter of Wikimedia.
  • Slides 35–40 — I previewed the next step in the process started with the Donovan House group: an ebook called “Wikipedia and the Communications Professional”, to be released in September 2014. After this, I moderated a free-flowing discussion of these issues among attendees.

And a very interesting discussion it was. I probably shouldn’t try to summarize the discussion, in part because I’ll forget things, in part because I wouldn’t want to characterize a discussion that is still evolving, and in part because this post is already plenty long enough. There will be much more to say in just a few weeks’ time.

Wikipedia on the Brink?

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on November 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a writer for a big magazine, asking for my take on the much-discussed MIT Technology Review article “The Decline of Wikipeda” by Tom Simonite. As far as I’ve seen, no article has yet appeared, so: I figured I would repurpose my comments for a blog post here, rewriting enough that my remarks remain exclusive, but my views are known. (If that article ever comes out, I’ll update this post.) Some of these topics I’ve previously discussed on Wikipedia Weekly, but a more comprehensive take is long overdue. So here it is.

mit_tech_review_logoFor those who haven’t read it, the Technology Review piece outlines a few reasons for concern about the long-term health of the Wikipedia community. The central points are not at all new: fewer new contributors are joining the site, many veterans are drifting away, the site’s culture and bureaucracy can be stifling, and a startlingly low percentage of contributors are women. All worthy topics, of course. Meanwhile, the piece does a good job of synthesizing these concerns, and explores some recent research that tries to make sense of them.

It also comes at a particularly apt time. In August, when I posted a summary of Wikimania Hong Kong, including Jimmy Wales’ keynote, the event projected something like satisfied aimlessness. Wikipedia was bigger and better than ever, such that the big question was: what would it do next? Wales had some vague ideas about saving journalism, but that’s been about all we’ve heard of it since.

Yet even at that time, and especially in the few months since, the community has experienced several controversies producing animosity and discord not seen since… OK, there is animosity and discord at Wikipedia every single day, especially if you follow the “drama boards”—but these incidents have been very high-profile, in some cases making news (like this Technology Review article), calling into question the community’s ability to reconcile its philosophical differences, spotlighting a rift between the Wikimedia Foundation and the community it serves, and raising doubts about the ability of Wikipedia’s highest judicial authority (the Arbitration Committee, or ArbCom) to make sound decisions. And while most participants would agree that these incidents represent legitimate issues, it’s also fair to say that there is disagreement about much else: how to prioritize issues, how to respond to each, and even what should be a desired outcome in each case. I owe you some details:

  • Visual Editor Debacle—in a post for this blog earlier in the summer, I offered early praise for the Visual Editor, a big initiative from the Foundation, a WYSIWYG version of the Wikipedia editing interface. The big idea was to make editing easier—the standard Wikipedia “markup” is more like computer programming than not—and that doing so might create a path for new people to get involved.

    Wikipedia_Visual_EditorBut this was an untested proposition, and anyway who was to say whether it would attract more helpful or unhelpful edits? Alas, my praise arrived too soon. Scratching a little deeper, the new software had bugs—lots of them. Besides which, existing contributors were unhappy to find that this new system was also the default, a huge change that hadn’t been clearly explained to them ahead of time. Following an extensive debate among the site’s core editors, and after a few strategic retreats by the Foundation’s developers, a single community member changed the code and disabled the Visual Editor for everyone. The Visual Editor is back in beta once again, and its near-term future is uncertain.

    While there were undeniable errors in the launch of this initiative, the Visual Editor’s misfire is less the disease and more the symptom of it. Of late, I’ve been telling anyone who cares to listen that major tensions between the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community pose serious doubts about Wikipedia’s ability to grow into the future. The former group comprises mostly paid professionals who may or may not have originated from the community, while the latter is composed of a vast, disparate, passionate, sometimes disagreeable group of not-quite-like-minded individuals. The formalized former has a greater ability to act in a concerted effort, yet its charter states that it must follow the lead of the leaderless community.

    While Wikipedia was still growing and expanding, rapid growth seemed to solve all problems. Now that the community is contracting and entrenching, it looks like a serious roadblock. How can Wikipedia and its community of editors take on big initiatives—such as revolutionizing journalism—when they can’t agree on something like this? Is consensus still working for Wikipedia at this point?

  • Chelsea / Bradley Manning—Following a high-profile conviction under the Espionage Act in a U.S. military court, the infamous Army Private Manning announced her transgender status (confirmed, really, for those paying close attention) and with it sought public acknowledgment for a name change from Bradley to Chelsea. Although transgender acceptance is rocky still in 2013, it wasn’t too long before most media outlets had adopted the feminine pronoun. Likewise, the Wikipedia entry for Pvt. Manning was updated to /Chelsea—and then it was rolled back to /Bradley—and then the fighting began.

    Manning_US_ArmyI’m not even going to get into the details, except to say that I’m still fairly stunned that the Wikipedia community had to argue about it at all, let alone that it got so ugly. After some debate, ArbCom stepped in. Eventually the entry was moved back to /Chelsea_Manning, and sanctions were imposed on some debate participants. Surprisingly, the heavier penalties were levied on pro-Chelsea editors over technical matters, while some more hostile pro-Bradley editors were let off more easily. A veteran editor named Phil Sandifer complained about this on his personal blog. Soon after, ArbCom returned to say Sandifer had revealed personal information about another participant in violation of Wikipedia’s policies, and he was subsequently banned from Wikipedia. This was a shocking outcome (and I hope I’m not risking my own standing on Wikipedia merely by linking to his post). Assuming ArbCom is correct in their reasoning, I see why they took the position they did—but the punishment seems much harsher than it should be.

    Given the above, it can be very easy to forget that one of Wikipedia’s “five pillars”—the most important organizing principles of the entire project—states: “Editors should treat each other with respect and civility”. Technology Review points out that acrimony among editors and complaints about the increasingly unpleasant and bureaucratic nature of Wikipedia is a reason editors are leaving. Given the above, it’s not difficult to see why.

  • Pets_com_sockPR Sock puppet scandal—This fall a long-running, low-profile, on-wiki investigation into a network of sock puppet Wikipedia accounts broke wide when several news outlets connected the anonymous accounts to a rogue PR company I’ll decline to give further publicity here (no, it’s not Pets.com, but wouldn’t that be great?). This company was not unknown to editors, but the specifics of their activity had been. All accounts known to be associated with the company were blocked, and while this one was not a tough call, much else in this topic area is. Wikipedia’s official guidelines say one thing, although Jimmy Wales has promoted stricter guidance.

    The terminology is a challenge, too: “conflict of interest editing”; “paid editing”; “paid advocacy” and “paid advocacy editing” are all similar terms often used to discuss this issue, although they are not identical and the widely different conclusions one may draw can be strongly influenced by unspoken assumptions related to each.

    A number of policy proposals were offered up, but at this time none has attained substantial support, and some are clearly dead in the water. The Wikipedia community has tried more than once in the past five years to draw up some rules to regulate this kind of activity, but nothing much has come of it. Meanwhile, individual editors have set up the occasional effort to assist PR representatives (and offer an alternative to direct edits), but these have always been understaffed. While not a new debate, it doesn’t seem like any new epiphanies will come of it this time.

    (Note: I have already written about this for the blog, and I have a greater involvement in this subject compared to the others.)

The above are all specific incidents with their own unique circumstances and complicated outcomes, but it’s not difficult to see how they point toward larger issues with the direction of Wikipedia. As it happens, the direction of Wikipedia is very much at issue right now. Sue Gardner, the first (and so far only*) executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, is leaving at the end of the year. She prepares to depart with significant respect and goodwill among a wide range of community members—and yet there’s also significant concern that Sue_Gardnerher successor is in for a really difficult time. Meanwhile, the Foundation is narrowing down its search, and a decision is expected soon. The name of this leader-to-be and his or her vision for Wikipedia is still a mystery.

One evening last week, I ran my views past another longtime member and leader (such as they are) of the Wikipedia community. While this person acknowledged the issues I raised, there was another aspect I had been overlooking. Is Wikipedia at a crisis moment? Not exactly—it’s been in crisis for awhile now. The problem is not that the disagreements are any worse than they were previously, but the difference is that these disagreements are now much higher profile than they were before.

Wikipedia was once able to grow its way out of its problems, but that hasn’t been an option for awhile: these issues have loomed larger ever since the growth of new editors slowed and turned into decline, and since Wikipedia found that it couldn’t avoid the public spotlight. Remember, the Technology Review article is literally called “The Decline of Wikipedia”. As I said at the beginning: there’s not much that’s new in the article. But it might just summarize the problem better than it realizes.

*It’s been pointed out to me that WMF had an interim executive director at one point, however this individual was basically a caretaker in the position. But the point stands: Sue Gardner is still—please forgive the forthcoming play on words—sue generis.

Images courtesy, respectively: MIT Technology Review, Wikimedia Foundation, U.S. Army, Jacob Bøtter, and Paula Wilson via Wikimedia Foundation.

Death of a Wikipedian

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on March 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Public memorials are a phenomenon found in every society and subset: from war memorials to police memorials and semi-permanent ghost bikes to impromptu, impermanent flower displays, mourning and remembrance are universal. Wikipedia is no exception.

Since early 2006, Wikipedia has maintained a public memorial page called Deceased Wikipedians. While public in the sense that it is accessible by anyone, it is perhaps useful to think of it as semi-public in that it’s not part of the actual encyclopedia. You won’t pass by it on your way to work, or to reading about (let’s say) the Syrian uprising. To date, 39 late Wikipedians have been added to the English version of this page. 14 other language editions have their own versions, including the German, French and even Esperanto editions.

The first added to the English-language Wikipedian memorial was Caroline Thompson, an Australian physics enthusiast who worked on articles about quantum mechanics. Afterward, other names were filled in. The earliest current listed was a French editor using the handle Treanna, who died in late summer 2005. Considering Wikipedia began in early 2001, surely some others passed before him, but we may never know who they were.

On a website where anonymity is granted to anyone who desires it, determining that an absent editor is deceased and not just one who has drifted away is a matter of luck, and sometimes detective work. The inclusion of an editor named Xulin depended on the synthesis of available information on external websites. As a contributor primarily to the French-language Wikipedia, a candlelight vigil of sorts remains in his userspace there.

Criteria for inclusion isn’t crystal clear, but the top of the page does give this advice:

People in this list are remembered as part of the Wikipedia community: they have made at least several hundred edits or are otherwise known for substantial contributions to Wikipedia.

The names included do not not appear to have been controversial to this point, although one stands out as different from the others: John Patrick Bedell, known less for his contributions as JPatrickBedell and more for his disturbing role in the 2010 Pentagon shooting (which I wrote about at the time: “John Patrick Bedell: Pentagon Shooter, Wikipedian”).

Two other deceased editors are the subjects of Wikipedia articles based on contributions to their fields outside of Wikipedia: Tron Øgrim, a Norwegian journalist and activist, and Steven Rubenstein, an American anthropologist.

The most recent addition is a young man named Ben Yates, better known around the site as Tlogmer, who passed away earlier this month. An active contributor from October 2003 to October 2008, he was known for several remarkable contributions to the community. This included the original design for the logo of Wikipedia’s annual gathering, Wikimania, still in use to this day. He was also a co-author on the book, How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It, published in 2008 (free web version here). On a humorous note, he was the originator of the Wikipedia article “Metrosexual”. He also created some hilarious (to a Wikipedian) bumper stickers, which seem to be still available.

Of particular interest to me, he was also at one point the author of a blog about Wikipedia, simply called Wikipedia Blog. Yates’ self-selected favorite posts were three: “The Future of Open Source”, about Wikipedia and Linux; “Wikipedia helps show the economic value of social interaction”, about just what it sounds like; and “Wikipedia and COMMUNISM!”, ruminating on Wikipedia’s comparison to various “isms”. In the last one, he wrote:

Wikipedia will never fade away … its memories will not die with its members. As an open source project, it can always be forked, tweaked, sifted through various filters, read and written anew.

Very well said, and correct he was. So it goes.

Is Wikipedia “Slowly Dying”?

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on August 5, 2011 at 11:27 am

Here’s a provocative blog post from Gawker’s Adrian Chen yesterday: “Is Wikipedia Slowly Dying?”. It’s based on a provocative comment by none other than Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales at Wikimania, the annual conference for Wikipedia and its sister wiki sites. Of course, that’s not quite what Wales said, but the Associated Press story Chen’s post is based on is not so far off:

“We are not replenishing our ranks,” said Wales. “It is not a crisis, but I consider it to be important.”

Administrators of the Internet’s fifth most visited website are working to simplify the way users can contribute and edit material. “A lot of it is convoluted,” Wales said. “A lot of editorial guidelines … are impenetrable to new users.”

It’s also not a new concern. In March the Wikimedia Foundation published its latest study of editor participation, showing a decline in editor participation compared with a couple years ago, although it certainly still has more contributors than a couple years before that. In my post on the subject, “Trendy Thinking: Contemplating Wikipedia Contributorship”, I included a Wikimedia-generated chart that shows what Wales is talking about:

From 2001 through 2006, participation grew exponentially, slowed at its peak in 2007, and has decreased at a steady rate in the years since. A number of theories have been floated to explain the decline. Via the AP, Wales offers a very common one: with almost 3.7 million articles in the English-language edition, the project of buiding Wikipedia has mostly already been done. But he also offers one that I hadn’t really considered before:

Wales said the typical profile of a contributor is “a 26-year-old geeky male” who moves on to other ventures, gets married and leaves the website.

There is some evidence for this in the survey results. Turn to page five of an earlier survey report (PDF) and you’ll see that more than 75% of editors (technically, survey respondents who called themselves editors) are younger than 30, and of the remaining quarter, half again are in their thirties. It may be that only 12.5% of Wikipedia editors are older than 40.

This situation points toward a perhaps unlikely but perhaps untapped editor group: retired persons. In fact, it was my expectation to find a higher percentage of older editors—something like a reverse bell curve—showing greater participation by the young and old, with those in the middle with careers and young children contributing less frequently. In my personal experience on the site, some dedicated editors—some of the best, in my estimation—are middle aged or older. Yet the survey plausibly explains why they are statistically less common:

The last group is characterised by the fact that its members started to use / contribute to Wikipedia at a comparably old age. However, since the age range of this group is very broad, it covers persons that grew up with the Internet as well as persons that had to learn to use new media past their school and university time.

Someone who was 39 when Wikipedia was created is now 49 or 50, and actuarial realities will continue to produce a general population that is ever-more Internet-savvy, and therefore ever-more inclined to edit Wikipedia. That is to say, those who were once young editors may return as old editors.

Back at Gawker, the comment section offers another complaint to which Wales only alludes. The pseudonymous SoCalMalaise writes:

I used to write and edit Wikipedia a lot. Some long articles are almost entirely written by me. It was a way to fine tune both my research and writing skills and enjoy the novelty of writing something that thousands (millions?) of people read. But soon I found that your work is frequently stifled by so-called “administrators” who are usually high school or college students with sub-par research and writing skills. These trolls have created a Kafka-esque labyrinth of self-contradictory “policies” and “guidelines” that they used to remove sentences, paragraphs, sections or even entire articles that skilled writers have volunteered to put down. They cherry-pick various parts of their rules as an excuse to act out their God complexes and strike out content. … And I’m not talking about a few bad apples. These people are everywhere! The whole writing-for-Wikipedia thing became very frustrating and just not worth my time.

It’s difficult to generalize from any one person’s experience, and who knows what common-but-non-obvious mistakes SoCalMalaise might have made, but the sentiment is certainly not unheard-of.

Thing is, for every complaint about overzealous editors and sticklers for arcane rules, there’s a complaint about uninformed editors who show little respect for common-sense rules. I have to admit, I’m more of the latter complaint—it is sticklers for policies and guidelines who enforce a minimum level of quality required for new additions, and therefore maintain a semblance of article quality. Myself, I spent a lot of time learning how Wikipedia works. It took several years before I was able to contribute at a high level, creating new entries or significantly improving existing ones. I am polite when I find someone is doing it wrong, although I know also that some are not.

Meanwhile, the organized core of the community has spent a lot of time, especially recently, trying to figure out how to retain those who give Wikipedia a try. There is the WikiLove campaign, which has received some media attention, but I’ll have to explain my skepticism another time. I’ve also heard that new account registrants are sometimes asked to identify areas of interest, which sounds like an interesting idea, but as far as I can tell it hasn’t been widely deployed.

Ultimately, whether Wikipedia’s declining user base represents a problem is not a question that exists in a vacuum. The question is really whether Wikipedia has enough editors to keep getting better or, at the very least, maintain its current level of quality. There are multiple answers here. As I’ve pointed out before, the Wikipedia community’s rapid response to breaking news is impressive: if you want a good primer on the United States debt ceiling crisis, Wikipedia has a very strong and evolving summary. But Wikipedia sometimes fares poorly with articles on many pre-Internet topics, especially in the social sciences: if you want to know about Money market funds, I’m not sure I can recommend Wikipedia.

It’s worth taking stock of the fact that Wikipedia’s decline among editors is a bit more than gradual, but does not now appear to be accelerating. The next two years will be telling, but I suspect that Wikipedia’s contributor base will find its floor, and my guess—though it is only that—is that we’re probably somewhere near it. Wikipedia is no longer the new hotness, and let’s face it, it’s an encyclopedia. To most it is far less thrilling and far more challenging than YouTube or Facebook, and we shouldn’t expect that Wikipedia’s participation will look anything like it. It’s no less popular as a destination for readers, and it would take a very significant drop in article quality for that to happen. (Like, say, if Wikipedia’s vandal patrol disappeared tomorrow… if anyone, send your WikiLove to them.)

I think the current situation also raises a question that many Wikipedians are loathe to consider, but that is the professionalization of some aspects of Wikipedia. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring editors, but it could mean working out partnerships to share in the responsibility of maintenance and development of software and perhaps even some content. It’s an article of faith that much of Wikipedia’s early growth and unique characteristics derive from its volunteer force, but as any business professor can tell you, the skill set that launches a viable company is not the same skill set that brings that company to maturity. There is precedent for this; Wikipedia needs the Wikimedia Foundation, which does have a paid staff, although they avoid organized involvement in matters of content, except as individuals. Ultimately, Wikipedia must remain in the hands of its volunteer editors—to change that would be too fundamental a shift. But as Wikipedia grows more complex, it’s not hard to think they could use greater support.

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.

The Wikipedia Story on Dead Tree

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on April 13, 2009 at 8:21 am

Just in the mail this past week: The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia by Andrew Lih.

wikipedia-revolution-front

Lih appears on the Wikipedia Weekly podcast and has been on Wikipedia since 2003 as the user Fuzheado, so he’s in a good position to be writing the first (to my knowledge) book-length history of Wikipedia. I’m only a couple chapters in as of yet, but I’ve already learned a few things I hadn’t known before, like the Spanish Fork and WP co-founder Larry Sanger’s Oregon connection. It also provides a useful overview of the encyclopedia market in the late 1990s around the time Jimmy Wales was running something called Bomis.com — which I distinctly remember having visited and not quite understood what was it was all about, a circumstance Lih more than explains to my satisfaction.

On the other hand, it does seem at times a bit self-congratulatory, especially the opening chapter, covering the Wikimania 2005 conference, and including narration of the Wikipedians present giving themselves a round of applause. This may not be the most inviting introduction for the Wikipedia newcomer, but it’s not a major distraction.

When I finish I’ll probably have something closer to a real book review, but for right now let me approvingly point out the very clever back cover:

wikipedia-revolution-back